Australian Biography

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis - full interview transcript

Tape of 10

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

What were the most significant experiences that you had while you were actually on active service as a soldier that shaped you and affected your personality?

Well, especially the episode in that brief period of war, compelling sequence of event, even for a short period because that was June 1941, sorry, November [then January 1942, so it was a very short period and certainly the actual battle only concentrated in a few days. I mean, the kind of mobility of forces and the dimension of the tiers of operation is such that you lose the sense of realities. Certainly, one of the episodes where we had the first people blown up by landmines, that was the first contact with the actual event ... was still quiet on the front, and we had the general coming to make a speech for the funeral — that was the period when I had to decide who was going to prime the mine, it was quite a delicate operation, and I then decided that only officers had to be in charge of this very critical operation. That was my first encounter with the tragedy of the war.

How did you feel about that, seeing your men blown up ... how did your feel about it?

Well, even the episode itself, you didn't see much of the men themselves, because they all were dismembered in a little ... you didn't see very much detail but this was my first contacts with the drama of the war. It was subsequently, when there was the actual battles in the Sidi Omar or the Sidi Barani, when all these tanks came on the perimeter of the stronghold and I could see people dead here and there and blood all over the place, and that was still part of, almost as, a drama for which I was an actor, but didn't give much importance, but subsequently when I saw heaps of corpses, and these heaps of corpses had to be showered with the petrol and eventually to put fire on these kinds of corpses, that I could realise the gravity of the situation, but that part of the drama during the war, was part of the war, very brief episodes.

You'd been enthusiastic about going to war as a young military officer. Did this dampen your enthusiasm?

Well, quite strangely, I felt that all this was part of the war. It didn't really stop me to think about the war as part of the essential act of drama of mankind, this assertion of virility. I felt that it was just a part of the war altogether, even the study in the theoretical study of wars during the four years at the military academy and this kind of losses — not that we talked about losses — without going into much importance, the way the losses, the how the losses, who were the losses, to me this was a little episode of that kind of thing, of the theoretical that we had already learned, so it didn't really change dramatically what I had already in mind.

Now at this stage of your life, do you still see war as an expression of virility?

Well, I can't change dramatically, the fact remains that history cannot change, there could be changes in a matter of a few years or a few thousand of years. I mean, the history of mankind still remains the same. We are certainly in a period of relative stability in the relationship between nations, even if there are here and there, you could hear battles, for which we don't know much details, but still the drama is there. I think we should be foolish to think that now we are in a period of eternal peace and stability. I think that the people should realise that they have to be prepared.

What about your own experience of damage and wounding in the war. What happened to you personally?

Well, personally, even during the actual battles on the perimeter ... I was lucky not to be hit, was only subsequently in the second stage that I was hit, most likely by a machine-gun, and I still have a bullet in my body. I was very lucky, no doubt about that, probably I have a few episodes of good luck in my life and that was certainly one of those.

Where's the bullet?

It's still in my left part of my shoulder blade.

As you sit there now?

As I am sitting here.

Why didn't they get it out?

Well, that should have been done even then but of course in the complexity of the military operation after the first, fourth, night or so when I was with the German auto ambulance, after a while the bodies started getting on operation again, and the actual wound on the right part of the body was more or less, say, recovering, there was no urgency; the thing had been left there ever since.

Is it an English bullet?

Most likely, yes.

How did you think about the enemy. Did you actually ... were you conscious of killing anybody?

Well, whatever you could consider the enemy, or friend, we talk about the question of the impact of people, that you have to remove certain obstacles to go somewhere else, so the question of enemy, I think is an artificial definition. It is only something that is preventing you to go somewhere else. Once you get that particular kind of objective, that kind of obstacle doesn't exist, so the enemy doesn't exist anymore.

So is this dehumanising objectification of the enemy absolutely essential if you are going to be a soldier?

Well, certainly the concept of creating hate is a necessary ammunition, I'm pretty sure about that. I mean, you cannot make war against a friend, so there must be a sort of persuasion or brainwashing of the system, and I still remember at that time Mussolini was talking about Dio stramaledica l'inglesi, that God should punish, whatever, the British but automatically the chiefs must create that atmosphere of hate, otherwise I don't think he could be sure of the results.

So did you think of the British as sort of brutish people?

Well, as a matter of fact, now that I have been living with them for more than half of my life, I think that they are certainly the most civilised crowd — unfortunately I think they are too much civilised ...

Too much civilised? How's that. What can be wrong with being civilised?

Because I consider that civilisation at long range is a self-destructive element ... I mean, the more civilised you are, you ... more lean to be destroyed by somebody else and you could see that great civilisations of the past eventually ... eventually leave room for somebody else less civilised and more aggressive. This is the reality.

So you think civilisation will always fall prey to savagery.

No doubt. I mean civilisation, you see the kind of ups and downs, what the great Italian historian Vico talked about cycle of success and failure, and you could just watch the civilisation go for a thousand years, just that. Great civilisations collapse to most aggressive, uncivilised ... savages ... [interruption] ...

So if you think that civilisation must always fall to savagery, how do you translate that into your personal life, into your personal actions, how do you work out how you're going to live in relation to these principles?

Well, I am just an episode in a type of civilisation, I belong to a small little episode of a system. There is no question that certainly my chapter is soon to come to an end and the second chapter will be by somebody else. I cannot guarantee the result of other people, so I think that [it’s] the sequence of cycle that I've been talking before that eventually will become the kind of, let's call it, rule of the system.

But as an individual, have you tried to avoid being too civilised?

Well, I don't think that I could have changed, even with a different kind of faces in my person, but I think that the basic elements, once they have been moulded, remains the same and I have been trying to maintain a certain kind of continuity or bit of continuity and activity in that continuity. I still consider the first day still, almost half-sick or dead, so it is an artificial feeling that I have to move to prove to myself that I am still alive, you follow.

So in the balance between what you might call being civilised, which I suppose you mean being very considerate of other people, and of the needs of society around you as opposed to acting as a ruthless individual, in that balance of ruthlessness and civil behaviour, how do you work that out for yourself?

Well, there are elements of contradictions, in all these aspect of the same life. There are certain type of period of constructive stability for which you are civilised ...

How do you find the balance between what is civilised and what is ruthless?

This is a constant contradiction for which you are yourself different, different aspects, you discover yourself you are ruthless; in different areas, certain different periods, you are extremely civilised. That is the good about mankind and person, I think, that I am both one and the other.

But when you went off with the civilised British to their concentration camp, I suppose you were rather grateful that they were a little civilised? It would have been perhaps different in the concentration camp if they hadn't been so civilised? What did you find from that period in the concentration camp that you learned from that time, what did that period give you in your life?

Well you don't learn enough of your enemy when you are in a concentration camp, you are still under the kind of total atmosphere of compression, of uncompleted battle, if I might say so. You don't know about these people because they are still part of mankind outside the barbed wire. If they come they count you, just as animals, because in reality every day you had to be counted if you are in or out. But gradually that feeling of civility grew up as part of the treatment, the general treatment, at least in India, they were good masters. As a matter of fact they did their best to improve, so far as was possible, because toward the end of the period, eventually even themselves had a very difficult period. I'm talking about the disturbances in India around '43, '44, '45, and certainly I learned through the press, particularly on radio and reading, and direct contact with them, that gradually I got to know them before I could make any judgement.

As an influence in your own life, what did the concentration camp give you?

Well, concentration camp is a melting pot of humanity and you see these people that are really unrest, you could study your ... your friend or your enemy much closer than you could study anywhere else. I think that these are naked in a concentration camp, you see really the mentality of people there, to me it was a fantastic experience that I valued very much.

What did you learn about human nature?

Well first, I would say the selfishness, I mean the question of surviving of the fittest, even in this period was just so the selfishness is typical of mankind — that normally in the kind of community we are in is very well camouflaged. You could study also the character, the ability and seriousness of people that you can't study otherwise, and I didn't have many friends there but certainly I think, I mentioned to you, that I had this Pucelli [sp?], this very much involved in the kind of philosophy. He was not a personnel on the military side but certainly a very strong type of personality that had great influence in that period for me and it was with him that I tried to escape from concentration camp. If you remember, that was an experience that I did together because I was very close to him and we built a great kind of friendship together. He was the one that we could open completely his own, our own, type of experiences and trust and tell each other; that was quite a good chapter of my presence in India.

Well first, I would say the selfishness, I mean the question of surviving of the fittest, even in this period was just so the selfishness is typical of mankind — that normally in the kind of community we are in is very well camouflaged. You could study also the character, the ability and seriousness of people that you can't study otherwise, and I didn't have many friends there but certainly I think, I mentioned to you, that I had this Pucelli [sp?], this very much involved in the kind of philosophy. He was not a personnel on the military side but certainly a very strong type of personality that had great influence in that period for me and it was with him that I tried to escape from concentration camp. If you remember, that was an experience that I did together because I was very close to him and we built a great kind of friendship together. He was the one that we could open completely his own, our own, type of experiences and trust and tell each other; that was quite a good chapter of my presence in India.

Well certainly, the limitation is there, no doubt about that, but that fact it was a period of rest, if I might say, also of relative freedom, at least within that kind of perimeter, where I could more or less utilise at my will, the time that was available. So that period was a quite important formative chapter of my existence. I think that was an important period that I value just as any other period of my life.

How did you emerge ... what kind of character did you display and what role did you take on in the concentration camp society?

Well certainly, I was not a leader, because there were internal movement built up in the system — political movement, a religious movement, social movement and activity. I was mainly in the area of studies, particularly in engineering. There was a built up university and I could certainly learn and also lecture in certain area. But I was also part of my normal instinctive display of my craftsman ability —part painting, part juggling with tools, building models and play, play social, of tennis, or chess for instance. I learned to become a good card player that normally I don't waste time in this kind of activity. As I said, I could utilise entirely my 24 hours every day. I felt I was a very busy body even in the kind of dormant kind of life that you could imagine in a concentration camp.

You were saying though that it was a kind of microcosm of society. Did that, was that, reflective in the relative wealth of the different people in the camp? In other words did you find a way to put yourself among the wealthy in the camp?

Well certainly, to me that was an exercise of becoming a little businessman, because the kind of activity gradually I was involved, I finished to become a wealthy man, relatively, in relatively to the system. It was a certain experience in building a little kind of business, no doubt about that.

What kind of a business and how did you manage it?

Well business, let me say, watchmaking for instance was one of those, making models for different kinds of university outside the concentration camp, making cages for rabbits or poultry or making, say, artificial liqueurs, grappa, or whatever, eh, I can't stop to think how many. For instance, making machine to make spaghetti ... and all sorts of activities that was coming in my mind. I could fill entirely 24 hours in doing with tools that you could build, making skis for instance or repairing shoes or whatever, is always a tremendous amount of — almost a microcosm of world that you could find. Acting also in certain plays and conduct in the concentration camp in itself is a great chapter where mankind could reorganise themselves in a different kind of world that is worthwhile visiting. It is quite surprising, I mean, aspects of interesting life you could make in a concentration camp.

So what did your wealth consist of — what did you get for all these activities?

Well certainly, first of all money, money was in real rupees, you could get, therefore through that kind of money you could buy new tools, new equipment, oil colour, paints, brushes or whatever, you could even buy whatever was possible — for instance you could buy all sorts ... of course you can't, cannot send anything overseas or vice versa, you can't receive very much, but still it was quite an interesting creation of little wealth that to me was just adequate for the system.

So you learnt to be an entrepreneur there?

So the order, that I think characterise the person, a personality, would just become evident in a group of people and I still believe that if you have a good character, in a sort of group of people, that character will eventually prevail in a certain way, and I think that, to me, that was a quite a good experience to prove that I could become a little active element of the group, what I was doing. So that was a good experience that eventually proved to me subsequently that I had to utilise my ingenuity to make a start in any direction — this happened eventually subsequently in a few years.

Now after the war was over, most soldiers found going back to civilian life quite a difficult adjustment; that was even true for those who were coming back on the winning side. What was it like to go back to Italy, your side having lost the war? What was it like, going back, and having to settle back down into civilian life? Were you greeted as a hero, or were you made to feel bad? What was it like in Italy when you returned home?

Well certainly, it has been to my memory, pretty sad to go back and found that you are practically unknown, there's no fanfare arriving to your little town, no-one will greet you, or thank you for what you have done. In '46, I came back in '46 when everything was resettled and the few jobs that were available had already been taken by somebody else, therefore there was very little left to you, you had to start from scratch all over again. So that was certainly very sad kind of a picture you have in front of you when you arrive and that was one of the reasons that I had to get determined to change again a page in my diary. I had to start all over again something else, that was just the type of feeling that I had on my return to Italy in '46.

So you dealt with this difficulty of feeling in a way unwanted and with no place by saying ‘well, I have got to make something for myself’?

Well ...

Did you feel bitter?

No, I didn't feel bitter, I felt that it was just almost ominous that that kind of thing would happen to me or anybody else in the same circumstances. Italy was in a period of reconstruction, no doubt about that, but I had to start again, to complete my studies. I was lucky to go to Torino, a delightful town in north Italy where eventually many things were part of my subsequent life, including meeting eventually and marrying my wife. And I was very fond of Torino therefore at the completion of the studies, engineering, and the short period I did in the military service because — remember I was still part of the permanent career of Italian officers, so automatically that gave me a certain feeling of stability, not very healthy stability, but it was the beginning of a new chapter and at that point I had to decide what to do next. It was very essential for me to complete my studies just to prepare myself to what could be a further jump somewhere else.

How did you finance your study?

Well, the studies that I had already done, most of the studies in the military academy before and eventually studying in concentration camp, I had to do an extra probably 25 examinations and I had to do it in a matter of possibly 18 months, so I had already wages. I still had wages — remember I had utilise the scrap of time that I had — so money was not a problem. To me what was important was the time issue. I was getting already 35, 36, years of age. I was robbed of my youth in one [way] or the other, so I had to start over again and the time ... you didn't have much time available. [At] 36 you are already too old, I had to make up my mind what to do next.

So what did you decide you had to do next, what was going to be the next chapter for you?

You can't really say what would be the next chapter, it is very difficult. I mean, the question of making plans for the future never happened to me, because you do properly what you are doing now as I have been saying before, so I had to complete my studies and I change and do some other job where I could possibly open a new type of opening. To me it was all just a new chapter, what was the secrets of the chapter, what was the conclusion, I never knew. I never know, even now, I never know. So it was important I was doing something else.

Were you ambitious in what you were imagining you might do? Did you see yourself then as somebody who, though starting late, was going to go far with what you did?

No, I don't think I really knew that I was going too far, or a new great chapter. In reality I could see that every little episode is only the sequence of the previous one. You don't see a discontinuity immediate, the thing just happens. You could be surprised of the result of that particular period, but certainly you cannot plan to the point of, say, 'I want to do that and I finish to do that.’ I think that the question of planning that as much as we like, is not always possible.

Now you were at this advanced age of 35, 36, and you didn't have a wife or family? What did you do about that?

Well, I had to make up my mind even at that point, because 36, already 36 — '51, yes, 36, that's right — I found that one of my greatest friends got married and he warned me that getting married is the worst could happen [but] is just normal statistical behaviour of mankind and 78 percent of males get married, that means it cannot be too bad altogether, and so I decided. Since that time I was working already in Milano, of course I knew people, but particularly in Torino, I met this old lady, very charming, that eventually I discovered was the mother of these three girls, that I went to a sort of secret meeting. They didn't know that I was there, but that was coordinated by the mother. And of the three sisters I felt that Amina was the great, good, choice for me. I flirted with my wife for about three or four months and eventually she made up her mind and when she decided, she advised me as a matter of fact, when I going to go overseas that between the different choices, South America at the time that was in the balance or Australia, was much better Australia. So I choose Australia because she had made this thesis at university on Mark Twain, therefore and was much better therefore to go to Australia. So the choice of Australia or South America was just influenced very much by at that time my girlfriend.

Now your mother-in-law in fact decided that you were going to be a desirable son-in-law, she decided she wanted you for one of her daughters. What was it about you that appealed to her?

Well she was a very aristocratic kind of woman. At that time she must have been around 50 or 60, I think around 50s ...

You mean she came from a family that was literally Italian aristocracy?

Well certainly, from my father-in-law point of view, she was part of the aristocracy because the name is part of a great family involved in the industry of wool but she, the mother, she was certainly a part of another generation. She come I think from Venice or Venezia, because typical different kind of a character, and I think that some sort of relationship between the two families but they gravitated eventually toward Torino.

I suppose that I am interested because you were someone from a poor family, or relatively poor family from the south and yet she thought that you would be a suitable person for one of her daughters to marry.

Well, what certainly influenced her very much, my mother-in-law, was the fact that I was an engineer and they had this activity of the engineering industry, therefore I was a potential supporter for the family, eventually marrying the daughter, to enter that kind of industry. So the fact that I was an engineer, I was certainly well thought about as such. I think that she fell in love with me before the daughter, no doubt about that.

So this sounds all very rational. Was the experience very rational. It sounds like it was sort of carefully thought through but did you, in fact ... was there any room in all of this for romance?

I beg your pardon?

Was there any room in this rather rational approach to getting married for romance?

Well certainly, that to me it was a great romance with Amina because I fell deeply in love with her because I felt here's a girl, attractive, had intelligence, particularly because she was reluctant in the beginning, that probably created a kind of instinctive romance, and I was working in Milano and she was in Torino and that was probably the most very important romance in my life, because eventually, whatever I had [earlier] was only very superficial and transitory in all aspects. I think that what was to me a very important romance, the only romance that I had in my life.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 9