Can a novel based on family memories be more that a fictional imitation of life? Cristina Loggia’s debut, Lucifer’s Game, based on true events in Italy during the Second World War, aims to remind us of a past that should never be forgotten.
Tripoli, Peloponnese, Greece, September 1943: my paternal grandfather Guido, who was stationed there with the Italian army following the invasion of that country in late 1940, was, with all of his fellow soldiers, arrested by the Germans and deported to Stalag III, a concentration camp in Berlin.
The surrender of the Axis forces in North Africa in May of that year, which pushed the Kingdom of Italy to sign an armistice with the Allies after their landing in Sicily in July, meant the automatic implosion of the Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime and de facto provoked the inevitable domino effect of making the Italian army an enemy of the Third Reich.
After lunch, usually on Sundays, my grandfather, still sitting at the table, told us children the story of his escape from that camp and his three-month long adventurous return home through Poland and other eastern European countries. I still recall as if it was today the stupefaction I felt at hearing him talk.
My maternal grandfather Renzo chronicled similarly dramatic accounts that happened to him and others he knew during the Second World War, including how he was thrown in jail for buying goods on the black market. Even my dad, despite being a small child at the time, still vividly remembers a Wehrmacht contingent stopping at his farm for a few days on its retreat home to Germany in 1945. These and many stories like them are now part of our history.
It was the experience of hearing tales from direct witnesses that could authentically transmit emotions and evoke the true atmosphere of the time that triggered my passion for the Second World War. Over the years my knowledge was enriched by reading a number of history books on this terrible conflict. These stories have been a source of inspiration for my debut thriller, Lucifer’s Game, set in Fascist Rome in 1942.
I chose Italy as a location of my novel because it had been a geopolitically pivotal country during the Second World War, and the simple fact that Churchill famously described it as the ‘soft underbelly of the Axis’ was indeed quite significant.
Crucially, I came across documents that showed how a British spy operating in Mussolini’s Fascist regime, at some point in 1942, received a message: his HQ in London sent him congratulations for accomplishing his mission of heavily damaging the advance of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his formidable Afrika Korps in North Africa.
It’s worth remembering that if the Desert Fox, as he came to be known for his daring manoeuvres, defeated the Allies in that theatre of war, it would have been an absolute catastrophe: by conquering Egypt, the Third Reich would have reached the strategically important oil fields of the Middle East.
War, in those days, was fuelled, quite literally, by troops on tanks and trucks. I couldn’t stop thinking about how that spy managed to achieve that. Did he do it alone or did he receive the help from others? And who could those be?
I imagined the Church, for one. Despite the fact that at the outbreak of war the Vatican declared itself religiously and politically neutral in the matter of all international relations, in deference of the 1929 Lateran Pacts signed with Mussolini, in reality a few priests, nuns and friars were not that neutral at all, with some working against the Fascist regime.
There’s evidence of a collaboration of the clergy with Francis D’Arcy Godolphin Osborne, later 12th Duke of Leeds, British Ambassador to the Holy See from 1936 until 1947; a member of the British aristocracy actively involved in organizing the escape of people who needed to hide or flee the Fascists, the Nazis, or both.
An example of that was a true story about Don Amilcare Garbaccio my mother narrates: this vicar, in her village, Cavaglia, in norther Italy, hid a Jewish family on the run towards the end of the war, organizing their passage to Brazil.
And who else other than the Jews could have had a strong motivation to help an Allied spy? They were equally good candidates. One of the oldest communities in Europe, Jews had lived peacefully in Italy for over 2,000 years. Nevertheless, under pressure from Hitler to align with the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws voted by the German Reichstag in 1935, Mussolini bowed to his powerful ally in 1938 and declared the Racial Laws, thus establishing an irremediable divide between Jews and Italians, and stating “not only the difference, but also the decisive superiority of the Aryan race.”
For Italian Jews, who had been fully integrated into the country’s culture and society for millennia, this came as a massive blow; especially since, just a few months before, incredibly, they could even join the Fascist party.
Not any more: that legislation promulgated that all those classified of Semitic origin were to be listed in a register called the ‘Special List of Professionals’, heavily restricted the practice of many professions, while some jobs were forbidden altogether – they couldn’t be notaries for instance, or journalists. Breaking the law meant prison, heavy fines, cancellation from being on the register (a legal obligation if you wanted to work), and up to the loss of citizenship.
Now second class citizens, although there was relatively little overt antisemitism among Italians, the quality of life of Jews was eroded to the point that between 1938 and 1942 many decided to emigrate, primarily to the Americas. A Jewish family of spice traders, who had a shop just in front of my mother’s house in the village one day simply vanished, never to be seen again.
Lucifer’s Game has the personal history of my family as well as true events as its building blocks, and even if it is just a fictional imitation of life, I hope it helps to remind us all of a past that should never be forgotten.
Cristina started her career as a newspaper reporter for L’Eco di Biella and La Provincia di Biella, in Piedmont, Italy. After a spell running the press office of an MP, she moved to London, where she worked for several years as a public affairs and media relations professional. Cristina read English Literature and Foreign Languages at the Catholic University of Milan, Italy. Lucifer’s Game is her first novel.
- Mussolini and Hitler in a car, Munich, 1938: Deutsches Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1969-065-24 (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE) via Wikimedia
- Italian soldiers (prisoners of war?) marching on a country road, Corfu, September, 1943: Propagandakompanien der Wehrmacht – Heer und Luftwaffe, Deutsches Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-177-1459-32 (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE) via Wikimedia
- Colonel-General Erwin Rommel and General Fritz Bayerlein in command vehicle, light armoured personnel carrier (Sd.Kfz. 250/3 Greif), North Africa, June, 1942 by Ernst A Zwilling: Deutsches Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-443-1589-07 (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE) via Wikimedia
- Cardinal Gaspari and Premier Mussolini in the centre of a group of Vatican and Italian government notables posing at the Lateran Palace before the signing of the treaty, 20 February, 1929: Wikimedia (public domain)
- Front page of Corriere della Sera the day Italian racial laws were enacted by the Fascist regime, 11 November, 1938: Wikimedia (public domain)