In 1922, Mussolini rose to power and began his quest to create a new empire. When Germany invaded Poland in late 1939, Italy was ill-prepared for war, and remained on the sidelines. It wasn’t until a year later that Italy entered the war on the side of the German forces. In July 1943, the Allied forces invaded Sicily; and thereafter, Mussolini was dismissed as prime minister and imprisoned. By September 1943, the Italian government had surrendered and entered into a treaty with the Allies against the Germany.
In September 1943, the King fled Rome while the Germans occupied the city. Although declared an “Open City,” the Nazi forces brutalized and murdered Roman citizens. Over 1,000 Roman Jews were sent to concentration camps, and over 300 people were massacred at the Ardeatine Caves. On June 4, in 1944, Allied forces rolled in and, by the next day, the Eternal City was liberated.
A free and fascinating guide to WWII sights in Rome is A Loyola Rome Student’s Guide to World War II in Rome and Italy (we’ve got a copy in the apartment if you want to read it where you are there). For those of you wishing to see what is left of WWII history in Rome, here’s a list of a few interesting sights.
On the side of Palazzo Venezia facing the ever-busy piazza is the small balcony where Mussolini gave speeches to the crowds below, including his declaration of the creation of the new Italian “empire” in May 1936. The Sala del Mappamondo, Mussolini’s office, is not normally open to the public.
Villa Torlonia, surrounded by gardens, was “rented” by Mussolini from the Torlonia family for one lira a year to use as his residence from the 1920s onwards.
The Allied High Command occupied the villa from June 1944 until 1947. Mussolini created a bunker underneath Villa Torlonia, which was opened to the public in late 2014. The villa is now an art museum.
Formerly known as the Foro Mussolini, the Foro Italico sports complex to the north of the historic center is another example of Mussolini’s creations.
A huge marble obelisk reading “Mussolini Dux” stands at the entrance, and there are black-and-white pavement mosaics reading “Duce, Duce, Duce.” The Stadio dei Marmi stadium features 60 marble statues of giant, nude male athletes (even the athlete depicting skiing is naked!), each standing for an Italian province. You can see them in the background of the picture. The site was later used for the 1960 Olympics.
Mussolini planned a new city for the Universal Exposition of Rome in 1942 — it’s now referred to just as EUR. The exposition never happened due to the outbreak of WWII. The area is dominated by enormous, intimidating public buildings that were designed to showcase Mussolini’s “new Rome,” such as the Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro, also known as the “Square Colosseum.” The area is well worth a visit not only for the fascist era architecture, but also for several museums that are located here. Fans of Zoolander may recognize it too.
The Pyramid of Cestius and St. Paul’s Gate
On September 10, 1943, near the Pyramid of Cestius and St. Paul’s Gate (Porta San Paolo), Italian men, women, and children valiantly attempted to stop the German forces from entering Rome. Italian military, police, and military cadets fought alongside the civilians, some of whom were armed with nothing but clubs or knives. You’ll find a number of memorial plaques to the 597 people who lost their lives here defending Rome.
The Liberation Museum in Via Tasso
Via Tasso 145 was the headquarters of Nazi SS and Gestapo during the occupation of Rome, and is now home to the Liberation Museum. This is a small, but powerful, museum. The building contained a prison in which approximately 2,000 people — Jews and political prisoners — were incarcerated and tortured. Many were sent to concentration or POW camps, and some were executed. The museum preserves some of the holding cells, and presents exhibits (in Italian) on the prison, the Roman Resistance movement, the Ardeatine Massacre, and the history of Jews in Rome.
On March 23,1944, a column of Nazi SS troops was ambushed by Italian partisans on Via Rasella. A bomb planted in a trash can exploded, instantly killing 28 SS policemen. The next day, Nazi forces retaliated by killing 335 Italians at the Ardeatine caves. The hardware store I frequent is a few steps from Via Rasella. When you stand there, you can see a few things… why it was chosen for an ambush, as well as pock marks on some of the buildings that perhaps are remnants of that bloody day.
Fosse Ardeatine Memorial
The Fosse Ardeatine massacre was a mass killing of Roman citizens, political prisoners, and Jews, carried out in Rome on March 24, 1944 by German troops in reprisal for the partisan attack on Via Rasella. The cave where the massacre took place is now a memorial. The massacre, was ordered by Hitler. In total, 335 people, some as young as 15, were executed — ten Italians for every Nazi killed in the Via Rasella attack.
A memorial service is held every year on the anniversary of the massacre. Our visit to this place, with our friend Massimo, was incredibly moving.
The San Lorenzo Neighborhood
The San Lorenzo district suffered significant damage –- and loss of life –- due to American bombing on July 19, 1943, which targeted a freight yard and steel factory in the area. The basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura was hit. The area was bombed again on August 13, 1943. The basilica was painstakingly rebuilt after the war.
The Rome War Cemetery
Located near the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, the Rome War Cemetery contains the graves of 426 Commonwealth soldiers from WWII. The cemetery houses the remains of soldiers who died in Rome and the surrounding area, as well as some soldiers who died as prisoners of war in Rome. This is free to enter and remarkably well kept.
The Old Jewish Ghetto
On October 16, 1942, Nazis raided the old Jewish Ghetto. Trucks pulled up before the ancient Portico d’Ottavia, and Nazis rounded up approximately 1,000 Roman Jews and deported them to concentration camps. Only 16 survived. A plaque on one of the buildings near the Portico d’Ottavia reads, “On October 16, 1943, here began the merciless rout of the Jews. The few who escaped murder and many others, in solidarity, pray for love and peace from mankind and pardon and hope from God.”
The Jewish Museum
This fascinating museum details the history of Roman Jews… both the good, and the bad. Admission includes a guided visit to the Great Synagogue, which is just next door.
Museum of Allied Forces in Rome
A tiny, private museum of WWII artifacts in a boutique hotel, not far from Villa Torlonia, mentioned above. Make sure to set up an appointment. The lovely owner delights in sharing his collection with anyone who appreciates Rome’s WWII history.
The Stumbling Stones (Pietre d’Inciampo)
Perhaps the most heartbreaking mementos of WWII are the smallest. Known as Stumbling Stones, they are paving stone-sized sanpietrini memorials laid in the streets. There are now more than 200 of these little markers, which indicate where some poor soul was taken from their homes by Nazi forces… never to return. Most were Jewish, some were members of the political resistance, and some were Italian army members being deported to Germany as forced labor. In some cases, you look down at your feet and see that an entire family was taken from this place and deported to Auschwitz. Even if you can’t read any Italian, it’s easy to understand what these little markers say… but impossible to ever forget.