Elena Bellina

Elena Bellina (University of Rochester)

Elena Bellina is an Assistant Professor of Italian at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Her research and publications focus on war and captivity studies, autobiographical writing, music, and gender studies. She is currently working on Creativity on Stage behind Barbed Wire: Italian Prisoners of War in Africa, a book manuscript investigating how WWII Italian prisoners in Kenya escaped the trauma of captivity through the performing arts and the sciences. She is also completing African Adventures: Palmiro Forzini in East Africa (1936–1946), a critical edition and English translation of a two-volume unpublished POW memoir. In 2019, she was a Lauro De Bosis Fellow in the History of Modern Italy at Harvard University.


Captivus Vulgaris Kenyensis: Italian War Captivity in East Africa (1940-1947)

During WWII, the experience of military incarceration was as common as combat for most Italian servicemen. As the war progressed, the Italian POWs captured by the Allies became an indispensable cheap labor force, especially for the British Empire. When dictator Benito Mussolini was deposed and Italy switched sides with the armistice of September 8, 1943, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill managed to bypass the Geneva Convention and negotiated a verbal agreement with Italian Interim Prime Minister Marshall Pietro Badoglio, thus obtaining to hold onto the Italian prisoners – now ambiguously regarded as ‘war cooperators’ – well beyond WWII (1946-1947).

The captivity experience of the Italian POWs in Allied hands poses unresolved judicial and ethical problems, since the 1929 Geneva Convention made no legal provision for the sudden Italian surrender, which left millions of Italians stranded. Indeed, the Allied countries did not consider Italian soldiers to be on their side but merely classified them through the openly interpretable labels of ‘cooperators’ and ‘non-cooperators of war.’

In this paper, I will discuss and describe, through the analysis of archival records, memoirs, and diaries written by internees and, especially, those detained in Kenya, the different forms of captivity experienced by Italian servicemen in East Africa during WWII.