Writing About Atrocity

In wartime, many of the most significant events are battles and atrocities. So how do you write about these incredibly painful moments in historical fiction? William Christie, author of the recently released novel The Double Agent, joins us to discuss.

Is it disrespectful and inappropriate to use a real historical atrocity in a work of fiction? Or is it worse to make one up? A problem I was confronted with when placing spy Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov in 1944 Rome for my novel The Double Agent. History, and novels, are made from significant events, and in wartime, the most significant events are battles and atrocities.

A true story. One day in wartime Rome, a company of the SS Police Regiment Bozen was marching through the streets. The regiment was made up of German-speaking former Italian citizens of South Tyrol, a region that had been annexed by Hitler. With delicious irony, irresistible to a historical novelist, they had chosen to join the SS to persecute their former countrymen rather than be drafted to fight Russians with the German Army on the much more lethal Eastern Front.

At the end of each day’s training, the company would march through Rome back to their barracks, loudly singing their marching songs to intimidate the population. Unwisely taking the same route every single day. On the 23rd of March, 1944, as they were marching down the narrow Via Rasella 40 pounds of TNT hidden in a rubbish cart exploded among them. Twenty-eight were killed instantly, and more of the wounded would die over the next few days.

German and Italian troops rounding up Italian civilians in front of Palazzo Barberini, 23 March 1944.

Upon hearing the news Hitler himself demanded a reprisal, to be accomplished within 24 hours. The usual German formula after partisan attacks was 10 of the population to be executed for each German killed. Because of Hitler’s deadline, 335 Italian civilians were taken to the caves of a former quarry in the Via Adreatina south of Rome. They were individually shot in the back of the head, in groups of five, the operation planned and supervised by the SS Chief of Police in Rome, Herbert Kappler.

So how do you write about real events in a novel? Terrible events, to be sure. Without being salacious.

The answer is: exactly as they happened. Because truth, as always, is stranger than fiction. Or, as a critic once observed: most police blotters are more interesting than most novels.

You have only to consider the facts. After the explosion the startled residents of the Via Rasella peering out their windows to see what had happened, only to be shot at like paper targets by hysterical German troops in the street below. The German military commandant of Rome spilling out of his staff car blind drunk, roaring for his troops to blow up the entire neighborhood as an example to all of Rome. SS Colonel Kappler scrambling to round up enough victims within Hitler’s deadline, frantic because he had already tortured and shot most of the partisans he had captured, and already deported the Jews of Rome to Auschwitz. Totally unconcerned about mass murder but panicked about his career.

Herbert Kappler after his capture by the British.

Kappler bringing cases of cognac to the Ardeatine Caves because there wasn’t enough time for firing squads and he was concerned that his SS men might not be capable of face-to-face massacre sober. Then the executioners being almost too drunk to carry out their orders. The Italian fascist police failing to deliver their quota of victims, so the confiscated meat trucks driving back and forth to Regina Coeli prison and SS officers tossing in any Italian prisoner they could lay their hands on. Some of these unfortunates were lined up waiting to be released after serving their sentences for minor crimes.

Incredibly dramatic events, impossible to make up. Tailor-made to place a fictional character in the middle of. Particularly a spy, posing as a German soldier. Who will not only be forced to make moral choices, but life and death ones.



About The Double Agent by William Christie:

Alexsi Smirnoff—a Russian orphan—was trained as an agent by the Russian Secret Service and inserted into Nazi Germany, where he rose to a position in German intelligence services. As the war grinds on, trapped between two brutal dictatorships, Alexsi betrays both sides in a desperate ploy that succeeds…and fails. His false identities burned, his life at risk, Alexsi attempts to disappear in the hills—but is caught by the British.

Recruited by the SIS, and by “C” himself, Alexsi is once again a double agent. Initially betrayed by a Soviet agent inside the SIS (Kim Philby), Alexsi is sent beyond the reach of the Soviets, into Italy with a new identity as a sergeant in the German army. Settled into the headquarters of Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, Alexsi finds himself at the nexus at a critical point in World War II, balancing between the various forces vying for control in the Vatican, the Italian resistance, and the brutal German Army determined to maintain control of Northern Italy. And Alexsi, finally forced to choose sides over his own survival.

Sequel to the well-regarded A Single Spy, The Double Agent is a fast-paced, compelling novel of espionage in the most momentous and dangerous of times.

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