On 17 March 1943, at half past five in the morning, Nuto Revelli's troop train pulls into the station in Tarvisio, Italy. Behind him are six months of fighting in the Soviet Union, the catastrophic winter retreat from the Don. In a cafe in Udine, Revelli, in bad shape after the long ordeal, catches sight of himself and laments that only his boots say that he is perhaps an officer.
But Revelli is one of the lucky ones. The Cuneense, the Alpini division that recruits from his home province of Cuneo, has been annihilated, its men killed in combat, frozen to death, or taken prisoner and sent to PoW camps from which few will ever return. The local Fascists have the division parade through the streets of the city of Cuneo. Revelli and his parents, who live in an apartment overlooking the parade route, close their shutters, unable to bear the farce: shirkers from the rear, from the baggage train, officials from the home front, green recruits, some with their mules, posing as members of the annihilated division.
As an officer, Revelli, as the local Fascist officials are quick to let him know, has not yet discharged his duty to the Nation:
Third reminder from the Fascist federation. Until today I have held out to avoid scenes. But my father insists and I promise to do as he wishes.
I know what to expect. The high-ranking shirkers have by now instructed the few survivors of the Russian front. I'm the last one. To me, too, they'll say a good Italian shouldn't talk with enthusiasm about the Russian people and with hatred about the Germans...
At the local Fascist headquarters, Sclocchini, a poor little fellow "unfit for service" talked to me about patriotism, about slandering the German armed forces, about the sympathy of the home front.
I asked the Fascist official, the Fascist shirkers, not to bother me. I paid my share in this damned war, I more than paid for my Fascist youth camps. The lies, the patriotic rhetoric: they nauseate me. Let the Fascists from the home front go see the Germans up close. Let them get to know the Germans the way we got to know them on the Russian front. There's still time. Today, the Fascists should be at least at Belgorod, on the front line, to stop the "red hordes." Instead, they're in Cuneo, holed up like marmots.
My voice quavered a little as I spoke. Then I slammed the door behind me.