During World War II, which Italian town was saved from devastation by a German commander?
The German occupying forces in Italy, had placed Werhmacht commander, Colonel Valentin Müller, a devout Catholic and trained medical doctor, in charge of the town of St. Francis as of 1944.
The offices of the German military were in the Hotel Subasio (then, Pension Hotel Subasio) – almost adjacent to the Basilica di San Francesco – but Muller had chosen the Hotel Windsor Savoia for his own personal lodgings.
When he walked out the door each morning on his way to daily Mass in the Basilica, he’d see that glorious 13th-c church in front of him, the Franciscan monastery flanking it, along the base of the belltower – and up to the right, the Pension Hotel Subasio:(Thanks to the Hotel Windsor Savoia for this photo of the past).
As he entered the Lower Basilica of St. Francis, Colonel Müller would leave his gun, picking it up as he left…
Colonel Valentin Müller was most certainly well aware of the dangers threatening that Basilica built over the Tomb of St. Francis, the Tomb of St. Clare in her Basilica, the Church of San Damino…and not only. In southern Italy, Allied bombers were devastating towns – and artistic treasures such as Montecassino.
Assisi’s Bishop Placido Nicolini
…as well as Padre Custode (Father General) of the Assisi Franciscans, Fr. Bede Hess, O.F.M., – the first native-born American Father General – had repeatedly pleaded with the Holy See to intervene for Assisi with the Allies, while Assisi’s mayor, Arnaldo Fortini, had appealed to the Fascist Italian government.
Assisi’s security could be ensured IF the town were declared “citta ospedaliera” (“hospital city”), that is, the only Germans present could be their wounded and/or medical personnel. The German troops as well as military police present would be banned.
Colonel Müller was passionately reminded of this by Bishop Nicolini whenever the two met
Realizing the importance of the place where he was, and given his medical background, Colonel Müller sought and obtained permission from General Albert Kesselring to turn Assisi into a field hospital city to treat German war casualties.
Memorial for colonel Valentin Müller in Assisi. Photo: Gunnar Bach Pedersen, via Wikimedia.
He kept his troops under severe control and it will never be known if he was aware of the clandestine activity surrounding him: the hiding of about 300 Jewish refugees in Assisi in 1943- 1944 – thanks to Bishop Nicolini with whom he often chatted – and the Bishop’s collaborators.
Müller went also to Foligno for a meeting with Marshall Kesselring and expressed his concern that the retreating German troops might occupy the city. Kesselring then informed him that he would issue a special order forbidding German military troops from entering Assisi.
In late 1944 when evacuation of the defeated Germans was ordered, the Colonel ordered – and oversaw with severity – a peaceful retreat.
Before his departure, he left all his remaining medical supplies with Bishop Nicolini.
A street in Assisi is named after him, Via Valentin Müller which – befittingly- winds downhill to the Assisi hospital.
And as you come up the hill from the valley, about to enter the town of Assisi and heading towards the Basilica di San Francesco, a plaque dedicated to him is on the wall to your right, near a roundabout:
The inscription reads,”Dottore Mueller, colonel and German medical doctor, protector of Assisi and all of the persons entrusted to him (for protection from) the horrors of the War, 1943/1944.”
Most befitting that this plaque greets you just as you arrive in Assisi and not far from that Basilica he so loved.
Colonel Müller returned to Assisi in 1950 for the Holy Year and he was given a hero’s welcome. A year later he died of lung cancer.
In 1982, the year that marked the 800th anniversary of St. Francis’ birth, a delegation from Assisi went to the small town of Eichstätt, burial place of Muller, to pay tribute at his grave, bringing with them olive branches, symbol of peace.
There in the cemetery they discovered that, carved on the Colonel’s tombstone, was the outline of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.
Graziella Viterbi – Jewish refugee hidden here in Assisi with her family – was once asked her opinion of Colonel Valentin Müller. “We always had a favorable impression of him. We would see him out walking but of course we had no contact with him.”
Graziella and her husband had joined the Assisi delegation to Müller’s tomb – where they met and formed a friendship with the Colonel’s daughter, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Those grandchildren later often visited Graziella and her family in Rome.
I once asked Graziella if she felt that Müllerknew about the presence of the Jewish refugees in Assisi. She told me the Colonel’s relatives had never clarified this but “they asked us what we thought. I personally am convinced that he knew. Müllerwas a very positive figure and irreproachable.”
Don Aldo Brunacci – who assisted Bishop Nicolini in hiding the Jewish refugees – states: “We must conclude that the two people most responsible for saving Assisi were Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini, and Colonel Valentin Müller. … With the Bishop’s help, he realized that the only way to save the city would be to increase the number of hospitals in it so that it could be proclaimed a ‘hospital city.’ The Bishop worked closely with him in this matter. ..”
The assisani will also be grateful to Valentin Müller, expressed during wartime years ago in a local saying: “Abbiamo tre protettori: Dio, San Francesco e il Colonnello Müller.”
“We have three protectors: God, St. Francis and Colonel Müller.”