As we drove over the Sorrento peninsula and caught sight of the city for the first time it appeared that nothing had changed. The black cone of Vesuvius smoking gracefully on the right. The island of Capri serenely floating beyond the mouth of the bay. The crenellated city spilled along the shore, and that same mesmerizing blueness in the water. Sunshine and orange groves. Brilliant creepers on the tumbling walls. The enervating atmosphere of a long lazy summer’s afternoon.
Driving through Castellamare and Pompeii the crowd thickened steadily along the road. On the outskirts of Naples itself it was one tumultuous mob of screaming, hysterical people, and this continued all the way into the centre of the city. They had been cruelly bombed. There had been spasmodic street fighting for a week. And now they stood on the pavement and leaned out of their balcony windows screaming at the Allied soldiers and the passing trucks.
They screamed in relief and in pure hysteria. In tens of thousands the dirty ragged children kept crying for biscuits and sweets. When we stopped the jeep we were immediately surrounded and overwhelmed. Thrusting hands plucked at our clothing. Pane. Biscotti. Sigarette. In every direction there was a wall of emaciated, hungry, dirty faces.
I had had the notion that the people would be hostile, or resentful, or perhaps reserved. I had expected that they would indicate in some way the feelings they had had as enemies in the past three years.
But there was no question of war or enmity here. Hunger governed all. There were some who in their need fawned and grovelled. They thrust their dribbling children forward to whine and plead. VVhen a soldier threw out a handful of sweets there was a mad rush to the pavement, and women and men and children beat at each other as they scrabbled on the cobblestones.
It had not needed the Allied invasion to throw the social economy of the country out of gear; it was steadily decaying of its own accord. And yet this was an Axis partner, not a country beaten and occupied by the Germans. For three years Mussolini had been on the winning side. He was lord of the Balkans. He even occupied part of France.
Italy had every reason to fare better than any country in Europe save Germany. Its government had been in office for two decades. And now here was Naples broken and half-starving. In addition, something more precious than buildings and bridges was gone; the spirit of the people themselves. They had no will any more. They were reduced to the final humiliation of begging from the people they had tried to kill.
For anyone who loved Italy it was a bitter experience to come to Naples. The traditional talents of the people, their charm and generosity, seemed for a little to have vanished in the savage and abject struggle for existence. I met quite a number of distinguished and honourable Italians in Naples, good haters of Fascism for many years, and the thing that they saw clearly at last was this: ‘We failed to revolt. Everything had derived from that. Nothing we could have suffered in a revolt against Fascism would have been as bad as this.’