The following story, “Due tedeschi,” was originally published in the Milanese newspaper Corriere d’informazione, on August 18, 1945.
From the beginning of his long career to his death, Moravia regularly published stories in periodicals. Every few years he would then make a selection, which was issued as a volume. A short time ago two young scholars, Simone Casini and Francesca Serra, having unearthed many of Moravia’s exclusions, produced an anthology, Racconti dispersi 1928–1951 (Bompiani, Milan, 2000), in which this story was reprinted.
In September 1943, threatened with arrest by the German forces occupying Rome, Moravia—with his wife, Elsa Morante—fled the city, taking the train for Naples. The train had to stop at the town of Fondi because the tracks had been destroyed. The writers found refuge in a primitive mountain hut. The Allied troops were expected to arrive within days, but instead they appeared only after Moravia and Morante had spent nine months in their unpaved, unheated lodging. Morante drew on this experience for a part of her novel History; Moravia used their retreat as the setting for his novel La ciociara (Two Women). It is likely that he excluded this brief story from subsequent collections because he had depicted the area and its people in that novel.
They stopped and looked at me. I looked back at them. The sergeant could have been thirty. He was tall, thin, robust, with narrow hips, a slim waist, legs that—thanks to the tight trousers stuffed into his boots—seemed longer than they were. His short tunic left his skinny buttocks exposed. He was blonde, but an ugly, dull blonde, washed out. His white face was battered but symmetrical, like a piece of fruit that had fallen and rolled on the ground: the brow crowned by a tuft of hair, the temples shaven, the cheeks swollen, the chin slightly crooked beneath the full lips. His eyes were blue, but—like his hair—they were ugly and dull; the dark hollows around his eyes lent his gaze, unprotected by eyelashes, a grim, somehow furious air. Between his cheekbone and nose the skin made a fold and on his cheeks there were two long marks, like slashes: wounds from the war or from dueling. Hanging at his thigh was a heavy pistol in its leather sheath.
The private was surely over forty. He was of medium height, but his broad shoulders made him look short. The shoulders were heavy and thick as well as broad; it looked as if below his neck he was as hairy as an animal. He had a flat, wide face, brown and greasy, to which the small, deep-set eyes, sly, gave a brutally crafty look. His uniform made you think he slept in it and had never removed it throughout the whole war, the tunic and the trousers were so faithfully wedded to the shape of that big body. Hunched, relaxed, untidy, almost kindly, he emanated a sense of professional ferocity, like a man who by now killed and destroyed as if performing a job, thinking of the war as a thing ancient, normal, accepted. He carried his gun over his shoulder and in his fist had a handful of almonds that he cracked, one by one, between his teeth, shutting his eyes and tilting his head.
There were about ten of us Italians, dressed in rags, with ruined shoes, suffering the cold air of the winter afternoon. This was the first time the Germans had ventured up here on this mountain where I had sought safety with some other refugees. Since I knew a little German, the frightened Italians pressed me to speak to the two and find out what they wanted.
I mustered a smile and asked if they needed anything. The sergeant asked me, “Where did you learn German?”
“Have you been to Berlin?”
“I’m from Berlin,” he said, but without pride. And he added, “Berlin kaputt,” making an expressive gesture with his hand. I didn’t say anything. He went on. “We Germans fight war ... why you Italians don’t fight war?”
I tried to change the subject, asking him if he had been in Russia. All those other poor wretches were actually holding their breath, hearing me handle the German words as if they were dangerous weapons. The sergeant looked at them and pointed. “People like that,” he said, “in Germany are in the army.” He seemed furious and in his blue eyes a red, feral light had been kindled.
“What did he say? What’s he saying?” the others asked, seeing him point to them.
“He said you should fight the war,” I answered. One of them said in a low voice, “Asshole.”
The sergeant continued. “In Germany all men fight ... millions have died already ... Millions,” he repeated, in an exasperated voice, “are buried in Russia.”
I didn’t say anything, I simply shook my head, in a deprecatory manner. But I was thinking it wasn’t such a bad thing that all those Germans were safely underground. He seemed to sense my thought and, shaking a finger under my nose, he shouted, “The Italians are all traitors.”
“What’s he say? What’s he say?” the others repeated.
“According to him, we’re all traitors,” I said as I translated resentfully. The German observed the effect produced by his words and confirmed them, nodding his head. Then he announced, “But we’ll soon start an offensive and we’ll drive the English into the sea.”
He looked up to consult the cloudy sky and answered gravely, “As soon as the weather improves.” He studied me for a moment, as if reflecting, then added, “We’ll take the offensive and all you Italians will die of hunger.”
“Because the trains will be used to transport munitions and supplies, and we’ll have to find the food for our soldiers on the spot ... then we’ll come into your houses”—he pointed to the humble huts and scattered shacks on that height—”and we’ll confiscate everything you have.”
This declaration alarmed me; I felt it wasn’t an empty threat. The refugees saw the dismay on my face, and they started up again: “What’s he say? What’s he say?”
“He says we’ll die of hunger.”
Behind me someone murmured, “He’s right.”
To avenge myself, but assuming a respectful and apprehensive manner, I said, “It’s rumored that in Russia things aren’t going so well for us.”
He didn’t allow that “us” to deceive him; he gave me an angry look and muttered contemptuously, “Some repositioning of the front.” Then, strangely calm all of a sudden, he explained, “We have a line of bunkers ... we’ll stop at that line.”
I remembered that all Germans were obsessed by the idea of secret weapons. “Anyway,” I added, “you have nothing to worry about ... you have your secret weapons.”
“Yes,” he replied, not catching the sarcasm, “our secret weapons will make us win the war ... the Führer said so.” He looked at me for a moment and added, “When the war’s over, traitors will be punished.”
“What do you men do in civilian life?” I asked, to deflect the conversation.
“I had cardboard-box factory,” he said. And, waving his hand, he added with strange, scrupulous precision, “Nothing big, however ... a hundred, hundred fifty workers.”
“What about him?” I asked, pointing to the private.
“He was a construction worker.”
“Well,” I said, “when the war’s over, after you’ve punished the traitors, you can go back to your factory and he to his construction site.”
At these words, that red, furious light blazed again in his eyes. “My factory’s destroyed,” he shouted, “and him ... he’s lost his house ... his wife is dead, his two children are dead ... We go on fighting the war. Isn’t that so?” he said, addressing the private, who had been following the conversation. “We’ll go on making war?”
Then the private spoke for the first time. He said, giving me a sidelong glance, without bitterness, with dismal calm, “We’ll go on making war ... here.” He waved toward the distant plain. “Everything will be destroyed: houses, trees, roads, bridges, vineyards, crops ... and if we retreat, everything will still be destroyed, so nothing will be left to the enemy ... and if we advance, everything will be destroyed to make way for us. You still haven’t seen anything ... just wait.” He sketched a smile, and stuck an almond between his teeth.”
“How long will the war last?” I asked.
The sergeant reflected for a moment, then answered with a shrug, “Two years, three years, four years—what does it matter?”
Again dismay was obvious on my face, again the listeners asked me: “What’s he say? What’s he say?”
“That the war will last four years.”
The sergeant signaled to the private and, without a word to us, they went off, up the mule track. A drizzle was falling from the low, dark sky. The refugees went off in the rain, repeating “four years.” I was thinking that the air of Germany had come up here with those two soldiers and there was no telling how many more days we would breathe it.