A Young Woman Goes Undercover in 1942 Italy
Spies, military secrets, and a personal crusade for freedom…
Cordelia Olivieri is a young, determined hotel owner desperate to escape Mussolini’s racial persecution. But as Fascist leaders gather in Rome, Cordelia is suddenly surrounded by the world’s most ruthless and powerful commanders.
In an effort to keep her Jewish heritage a secret and secure safe passage out of Italy, Cordelia forms a dangerous alliance with the British army who want to push the Axis out of North Africa once and for all.
Going undercover, Cordelia begins obtaining and leaking military intelligence to a British agent, hoping the intel will secure her freedom. But the more Cordelia uncovers, the greater the risks – especially for one handsome German Afrika Korps officer.
How far must Cordelia go to protect her identity and secure passage out of Rome?
My paternal grandfather, Guido: he served in the Italian army during the Second World War and told me stories about the conflict. Like my maternal grandfather, Renzo. Stories that happened to them and to people around them. Some of these stories were quite dramatic –both of them came face-to-face with the Germans, one ending up in a concentration camp in Berlin from where he escaped, and the other arrested and thrown in jail for buying goods on the black market. Even my father, 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. These and many stories like them are now part of our history.
My passion for the Second World War stemmed from there, from hearing tales from direct witnesses, who, beyond the mere facts, could authentically transmit their emotions, thus evoking the true atmosphere of the time. Over the years I further enriched my knowledge through history books on this terrible conflict. Stories that have been a source of inspiration for my debut spy thriller ‘Lucifer’s Game’, set in Fascist Rome, in 1942.
Because women, as well as men, played at times a critical role during the war, for a change I chose a woman as the protagonist of my novel, knowing all too well I’m trying to climb a mountain in a male-dominated genre, that almost exclusively sees men as the main character. In addition, crucially, Italy hasn’t been portrayed as often as other places as a location of fictional novels for this specific historical period. Yet lots of very dramatic events happened there. The simple fact that Churchill famously described it as the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ during the Second World War is indeed quite significant.
And to me it proved to be, once again, even more so when I came across a very interesting account that mentioned that British spies operated in Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Documents showed that one of these spies, at some point in 1942, got a message from London congratulating him for his successful mission in stopping the formidable German Field Marshal Erwin Rommell in North Africa. The Desert Fox, as he came to be known for his daring maneuvers with the mighty Afrika Korps, almost defeated the Allies in that theatre of war. An absolute catastrophe had it happened: by conquering Egypt, the Third Reich would have reached the strategically important oil fields of the Middle East. War, in those days, was fueled, quite literally, by troops on tanks and trucks.
That account truly intrigued me! How did that spy managed to do it? Did he do it by himself or was he helped by others? And who might those be? I imagined the Church, for one! It’s worth remembering that the Holy See and the Republic of Italy had agreed to the incorporation of Vatican City as an independent state under the religious and political sovereignty of the Pope with the Lateran Pacts in 1929. Since then, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Pius IX, with the agreement of Mussolini, had declared the city completely neutral in the matter of all international relations. But in fact, a lot of elements of the clergy and the religious orders were not that neutral, and some actively worked against the Fascist regime.
An example were certainly those who helped Francis D’Arcy Godolphin Osborne, 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. For this task he needed all the help he could get, especially from those above suspicion. And who better than priests or nuns, friars or monks to do that? My mother told me that Don Amilcare Garbaccio, the Catholic vicar in her village, Cavaglia’, in norther Italy, hid a Jewish family on the run, towards the end of the war.
Others that certainly had a strong motivation were the Italian Jews in fact, a community that had lived in Italy for over two thousand years. In a speech, The Duce explicitly named the Jews as an incontestable enemy of Fascism, declaring that ‘A clear and strict racial conscience will establish not only the difference, but also the decisive superiority of the Aryan race.’ Since 1933, the persecution of Jews had become an active Nazi policy.
Mussolini bowed to German pressure by declaring the Racial Laws in Italy, in deference to the Nuremberg Laws voted by the Reichstad in 1935. As in Germany, measures were put in place to marginalise Jews from public life, creating de facto a clear separation between them and the rest of the population. This new anti-Semitic act stated the obligation of citizens belonging to the Hebraic race to declare themselves as such, and that meant their automatic inclusion in a register called the ‘Special List of Professionals’.
It gathered names of all Jews while sanctioning strict limits in which they could practice those professions. In addition, some jobs were forbidden altogether: Jews couldn’t be notaries for instance, or journalists. Breaking the law meant incarceration, heavy fines, cancellation from the register – a legal obligation if you wanted to work – up to the loss of citizenship. Because Jews had been fully integrated into Italian culture and society for millennia, this came as a massive blow. Incredulity?
I can’t help thinking most felt that: until then, they could even join the Fascist party. Margherita Sarfatti, a Jewish journalist, one of Mussolini’s mistresses, was a prominent propaganda advisor to the Duce, for instance. Despite that atrocious legislation, there was relatively little overt antisemitism among Italians, except for a few Party fanatics. Nevertheless the quality of life of Jews was eroded to the point that many decided to emigrate between ’38 and ’42, 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 simply disappeared one day, she told me, never to be seen again.
All of these true events became the true inspiration and the building blocks of ‘Lucifer’s Game’: even in a fictional imitation of life, they deserved to be told.
For people to know.
For people to remember.
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, advising major multinational corporations on communications campaigns.
Cristina read English Literature and Foreign Languages at the Catholic University of Milan, Italy.
Writing and reading have always been her greatest passion. ‘Lucifer’s Game’ is her first fiction novel.
Cristina is a member of The Society of Authors, The Crime Writers Association and The Historical Writers Association
She currently lives with her husband in Berkshire, United Kingdom.