Italy must face up to its fascist past – no amount of revisionism will erase its legacy of suffering

When migrants, refugees and asylum seekers die in the Mediterranean or suffer in Italy, this toxic heritage can not be dismissed as a distant memory

Angelo Boccato
Sunday 17 February 2019 18:24 GMT
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Italy's far-right government calls for a 'mass cleansing' of the country

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The return of Christian Masset, the French Ambassador in Italy on Friday 15 February has not been the end of Italian diplomatic crises.

European Parliament president Antonio Tajani and Italy’s deputy prime minister and minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini were accused by Slovenia of “historical revisionism” following last Sunday’s celebration in Basovizza, near the Slovenian border, during National Memorial Day of the Exiles and Foibe. Croatia also protested following the two Italian politicians’ speeches.

Tajani ended his by saying “Long live Italian Istria, long live Italian Dalmatia”, regions that are part of Slovenia and Croatia, while Salvini established a shocking comparison between the children who died in Auschwitz and the ones who died in Basovizza.

Foibe are deep natural sinkholes where, between 1943-1945, thousands of Italians living in Trieste, Gorizia and the Istrian peninsula were pushed to their deaths directly or after having been tortured and shot by Josip Broz Tito’s communist partisans.

These killings and the Istrian-Dalmatian exodus were exploited by the neo fascist Italian Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Italiano, MSI in Italian) led by Giorgio Almirante, former prominent member of the German puppet state, the Italian Social Republic in post-war Italy.

The MSI criticised and attacked the Italian Communist Party for its role In keeping these killings in the dark, due to their affiliation and political vicinity with Tito.

This political exploitation led to the institution of the Memorial Day in 2004, pushed by National Alliance (Alleanza Nazionale), the political party heir of the MSI. Alleanza Nazionale’s heir in turn is the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’ Italia), the far-right party led by Giorgia Meloni, which has also joined Steve Bannon’s The Movement.

Salvini’s remarks are outrageous and unfounded, as the majority of the victims were in fact soldiers, fascists leaders, officials of the occupying administration and Nazi collaborators.

Tajani’s comments instead are at odds with his role and part of the European People Party’s attempt to reach out to the far-right in the European Elections

The problem at hand isn’t just that these are tone-deaf or factual inaccuracies. It’s a lot darker and deeper than that. This is, essentially, the historical removal of the crimes of Fascist, and pre-Fascist Italy.

While German and Japanese war criminals were respectively prosecuted in the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, Italian war criminals were never prosecuted after the war, largely thanks to the Togliatti amnesty in 1946, a compromise between the Italian Communist Party and the Christian Democratic Party.

With his amnesty, Palmiro Togliatti, the then-Italian Minister of Justice and head of the Italian Communist Party, pardoned and reduced sentences for Italian fascists and partisans alike; however the former profited far more from the amnesty than the latter.

The question is: what did Fascist Italy do in the Balkans and elsewhere both before and during the Second World War?

In Ljubljana, Italians carried out raids in 1942 in order to crush the Partisan resistance, and deported civilians from the current day’s Slovenian capital to the concentration camp of Arb (“Arbe” in Italian) that held 10,000-15,000 people from July 1942 to September 1943, when the camp was disbanded.

As the European Observatory on Memories reports, a percentage of 12-22 per cent of Ljubljana inhabitants were interned and about up to 4,000 died just in the Rab concentration camp alone.

Italians also instituted segregation in Asmara as well as the rest of Eritrea, and there were divided bathrooms, buses and neighborhoods for Italian colonies and native Eritreans.

During the fascist invasion of Ethiopia between 1935-1936, an invasion fuelled by the desire of avenging Adua’s defeat in 1896 at the hands of King Menelik II, Italian forces used chemical gas.

The viceroy of Italian East Africa, Rodolfo Graziani, a fascist war criminal who was never prosecuted by the United Nations War Commission (also thanks to the intervention of the British Foreign Office) was the first one to ask for the use of all deadly ways to crush the Ethiopian resistance to the invasion.

Graziani, one of Mussolini’s most trusted generals, became infamous for his role in the Addis Ababa massacre; 20,000 to 30,000 Ethiopians were killed by the Italian occupying forces on 19 February 1937.

During the Spanish Civil War, Fascist Italy joined the side of Franco’s fascist troops in the Spanish Civil Wars with volunteers on the ground, but also with bombardments, like the one in Barcelona in 1938, which caused the death of 670 people.

In Libya, Omar Al Mukhtar, the leader of the resistance against the Italian colonisation of the country, was hanged before his followers in the prisoners of war camp in Suluq at the age of 73.

And let’s not forget that it was thanks to the Italian racial laws of 1938 that German troops could “legally” capture and deport Italian Jews to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

The list is very long and Italy has never faced its fascist history, as the 1989 BBC documentary Fascist Legacy pointed out.

Journalists have also played a role in this, like Indro Montanelli, the founder of the Italian right-wing newspaper Il Giornale, who denied Italy’s use of toxic gas and boasted in a TV programme in the 60s on his “purchase” of and wedding to a 12-year-old while he was serving in the Italian army in the Horn of Africa.

The gardens that bear Montanelli name in Milan should definitely be decolonised.

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Montanelli criticised the efforts of Italian historian Angelo Del Boca, whose book Italiani brava gente ( Italians, good people) summarises the fake narrative about Fascist Italy and Italian colonialism.

Fortunately, there are many who’ve debunked these narratives, such as Italian-Somali journalist and writer Igiaba Scego with her books and articles; the Wu Ming, a Bologna-based writers collective which frequently debunks apologetic narratives on fascism on Twitter as well as through books; the Italian writer Francesca Melandri with her novel Sangue Giusto (Right Blood); the Italian journalist and founder of the online magazine Equal Times, Vittorio Longhi; the directors Medhin Paolos and Alan Maglio with their documentary Asmarina, as well as the director Valerio Ciriaci with his documentary If Only I were that Warrior.

However, the work to challenge revisionism should not be left to a select few. It is time to rise up to the challenge and face Italy’s fascist legacy. When migrants, refugees and asylum seekers die in the Mediterranean or suffer in Italy, this toxic heritage can not be dismissed as a painful memory of the past; it’s current news.

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