Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2021-058
29 July 2021
Review by Kevin S. Malmquist, US Military Academy
Rome—City in Terror: The Nazi Occupation 1943–1944
By Victor Failmezger
New York: Osprey, 2020. Pp. 496. ISBN 978–1–4728–4128–5.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, Italian Theater, Rome Print Version

The vast scholarly literature on World War II contains comparatively little on the conflict's Italian Theater, let alone the city of Rome specifically, leaving much work to be done. Retired US Naval Officer and onetime resident of Rome, Victor Failmezger, dedicates his new book[1] to correcting this deficiency. He concentrates on the period between the Italians' defection from the Axis in 1943 and the Allies' liberation of the city from the Nazis in 1944. The story includes an extensive cast of characters, from Vatican clergy and diplomats, to the OSS, ex-POWs and the Rome Escape Line, Italian partisans, and the Gestapo. Readers will find helpful the author's provision early on of an 85-name dramatis personae as an aid to memory and a signal of what to expect in the pages to come.


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The book is a popular history with a more or less traditional chronological narrative. The author does include thematic excurses on key actors and events, but these sometimes violate the stipulated time frame. The book lacks a thesis and the rationale for chapter topics is not entirely clear. Chapter titles provide little guidance, topic sentences are scarce, and only a handful of the volume's twenty-one chapters strictly adhere to the subjects indicated in their titles. The same is true for chapter sections, which are discontinuous and often barely relevant to the Nazi occupation of Rome.

His dramatis personae notwithstanding, the author gives the lion's share of his attention to a handful of characters: Maj. Sam Derry, Maj. Peter Tompkins, Lt. John Furman, Lt. William Simpson, Msgr. Hugh O'Flaherty, Pope Pius XII, Sir D'Arcy Osborne, Harold Tittmann Jr., the violent Italian extremist Pietro Koch, and three SS-Obersturmbannführer—Herbert Kappler, Eric Priebke, and Eugen Dollmann. They all play significant roles throughout the book and help to provide some consistency from start to finish.

The epilogue's last fifteen pages describe the fates of only several of the eighty-nine main actors. A few that are included are missing from the dramatis personae. Worse yet, some individuals highlighted in the epilogue do not appear in the index. These oversights speak to the difficulties of painting a complete picture of the Nazi occupation of Rome.

The strength of the book lies, naturally, in the stories it tells. Its characters come from different backgrounds and have various motives. Their stories and those of everyday Roman civilians evoke a sense of humanity and horror that brings the struggle for Rome into context.

Even allowing for the fact that Failmezger has aimed to synthesize a large body of material for popular consumption, rather than offering new information or novel interpretations, his book nonetheless falls short of expectations. This is owing, in part, to his heavy reliance on published primary sources, including many memoirs by the book's characters. Where unpublished archival sources are used, a lack of citations makes it hard to ascertain how they were incorporated or interpreted. Scholars and serious students interested in Rome's occupation should read or consult directly the memoirs used to compile this book. Casual historians should read Robert Katz's The Battle for Rome,[2] which Failmezger cites frequently.

Victor Failmezger deserves praise for his herculean attempt to provide a comprehensive picture of life in Rome during a turbulent nine-month period of the Second World War. But Rome—City in Terror is flawed by a disjointed narrative that ill-suits it for its intended readership.

[1] He is also the author of American Knights: The Untold Story of the Men of the Legendary 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion (NY: Osprey, 2015).

[2] Subtitle The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943–June 1944 (NY: S&S, 2003).

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