A lesser Evil? Italian Fascism in/and the Totalitarian Equation

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A Lesser Evil? Italian Fascism in/and the Totalitarian Equation

Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Di prossima pubblicazione in: The Lesser Evil: Moral Approaches to Genocide Practices in a Comparative Perspective, a cura di Helmut Dubiel and Gabriel Motzkin (London: Frank Cass, 2003-2004), con saggi di Todorov, Herf, Margolin, Ascheim, Lang, Malia, ed altri.

This essay will address the moral implications and historiographical consequences of one narrative of a long history of regime comparison: that of Italian fascism as a “lesser evil” with respect to National Socialism. While the Italian dictatorship has not always been included in the pantheon of totalitarian regimes, it ranks high on the scale of twentieth-century European evil -- except when compared to Nazism and Communism. Whether the index is body counts or the dissolution of traditional state institutions, Italian fascism comes up a distinct third, classifiable at most as an “imperfect totalitarianism,” to use an old slogan that still circulates.1 My intent in investigating this comparison is not to ascertain its truth-value, but rather to explore its histories and symbolic value and the ways it influenced the evaluation of Italian fascism among both Italians and foreigners. For although a wealth of studies testifies to an effort to assess Mussolini’s regime on its own terms, this international historiography has also been shaped directly and obliquely by a sense of “what [Italian] fascism was not”: a regime of genocide and mass murder in which “ordinary men” implemented policies designed to produce a racialist utopia.2

“Only comparison allows an understanding of uniqueness,” Moshe Lewin and Ian Kershaw have written.3 This is certainly true, but it can also be argued that this particular comparison, which has found expression in both the historiography and in popular perception, has hindered a full understanding of the particular policies and practices of the Italian regime. Specifically, it has until very recently fostered a witting or unwitting underestimation of fascist violence committed both within and outside of Italy, and has perpetuated historiographical traditions and popular credos that minimize Italians’ agency and their responsibility for such violence (such as the idea of Italians as brava gente, or good people).4 These “blind spots,” which also reflect the obstructionist practices of the Italian state archives, are the legacies of a wider repression of those parts of the historical record that might blur distinctions of morality, national character, etc., which are generated and renewed by the “lesser evil” formulation. Each of these important issues merits a much fuller discussion than is possible here.5 My aim in the present essay is mainly to map out the political, cultural, and ideological factors that facilitated the circulation of this comparison, and to present some concrete examples of Italian policies and behaviors that have been slow to find acknowledgement in Italian discussions of Mussolini’s regime and which remain too little known among scholars of Nazism and Communism. As I will detail later in the essay, death marches, mass population transfers, genocide, and concentration camps with forced labor and starvation rations not only characterized Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, but Italian fascism as well. Comparison can illuminate the individual things compared, but it must commence from the kind of empirical knowledge that, in the case of Italian fascism, has been difficult to gather, especially with regard to those topics that are the common currency of totalitarian regimes.6

With many accounts of European totalitarianism now centered around the development of and dance between Nazism and Communism, it is worth recalling that for many years after World War One it was Mussolini’s rather than Hitler’s regime that stood out as communism’s “enemy twin.” The term “totalitarian” had been coined as a slur against fascism by Italy’s liberal opposition, but by the mid-1920s Mussolini and his followers had appropriated the term as a means of advertising the distinctiveness and originality of their approach to governance.7 For observers of various political leanings in the 1920s and early 1930s, the fascist and Soviet states seemed to be engaged in in a race to bury democratic and bourgeois Europe, and similar strategies of mass mobilization, political identity formation, and persecution marked their quests to perfect revolutionary one-party systems of rule. In fact, even as the blackshirts denounced communist internationalism, they devoted considerable resources to the establishment of their own networks of international influence that would lay the foundations for a “universal fascist” civilization. Mussolini bankrolled fascist organizations abroad, encouraged an array of rightist movements inspired by him that stretched from Portugal to India, and, once Stalin took power, stepped up his promotion of corporativism and other “revolutionary” aspects of fascist ideology.8 This comment by a young fascist, which was written six months after Hitler took power, captures the diffused sense that the Italian and Soviet regimes were the main competitors for control of the ideological and political spaces left open by the crisis of the bourgeois order:

The decline of nineteen-century civilization has left only two roads to follow:ours and theirs. And we can be sure that in time these two roads will meet. But will we end up on their path, or they on ours? The serious person must ask himself: will it be Rome or Moscow?9

This early chapter of the history of totalitarianism, in which Italy and Russia were the primary referents of organized terror and state projects of human refashioning, came to an end with the start of National Socialist government in 1933. Although Mussolini initially welcomed the Nazi takeover as evidence of fascism’s forward impetus within Europe, the speed with which the foreign press anointed the National Socialists as the standard-bearers of rightist totalitarianism proved unsettling. Less than one year after Hitler took power, the head of Mussolini’s Press Office warned the Duce that the Germans might usurp Italian fascism’s leadership position and claim to originality “by presenting the characteristics of Mussolinian thought and action under the Nazi name.”10 The complex relationship between the Italian fascists and the National Socialists over the next decade is beyond the scope of this article.11 A few points do bear on the Italian contribution to the construction of the “lesser evil” thesis in this period. The first regards the consistency of Italian perceptions of Germans as heartless materialists from the Weimar Republic through the Nazi years, and the equal consistency with which Italians saw themselves as possessed of a greater common sense and humanity. Italian anxieties about this aspect of German national character found expression in the 1920s in complaints about the triumph of “die Sachlichkeit uber alles,” and in the early 1930s in denunciations of the Nazis’ “fanatic” racist credos that privileged biology over family and community.12 Such depictions of Germany as a land of extremists, and of Italy as “a school for liberty, harmony, and wisdom about life”13 continued after the declaration of the Axis alliance and the promulgation of Italy’s own anti-Semitic legislation. If anything, the Italians increased their rhetoric about fascism as a regime that nurtured spirituality and personhood. Far from being an example of the imitation of Germany, the adoption of racial ideology gave Italians another opportunity to articulate their differences from the Nazis. They did so by eschewing the Germans’ biological racism in favor of a peculiarly Italian brand of “spiritual racism,” a distinction that was recognized by Church officials as well.14

Such images and self-images did not stop fascist policymakers and intellectuals from charting a joint course of history with the Nazis, and the years 1936 through 1943 saw a flood of Italian-German collaborations in fields as disparate as biology and art restoration, as well as the creation of new labor markets for Italians within the territories of the Reich.15 This syntony of aims and ideals continued for some Italians through the period of the Salo Republic, which was seen as a chance to realize the revolutionary promise of fascism on an international scale.16 For the majority of the populace, though, and for the men and women who would serve as public arbiters and custodians of Italian national memory in the postwar period, wartime experiences of invasion, occupation, and deportation by Germans proved the most salient indicators of the correctness of what the historian Filippo Focardi has analyzed as the “bad German-good Italian” trope.17 Indeed, by the end of the war, the Italian press and Italian purge bodies used the terms collaborator and resister to refer to the positions Italians took during the two and a half -year span of the Salo Republic, rather than to their actions during the preceding twenty-one years of Mussolini’s rule. Such distinctions, which originally reflected a culture and jurisprudence of transition, have become accepted in the scholarship on Italian fascism. As Claudio Pavone has noted, this has comported a “normalization” of the Italian dictatorship and a concomitant blackboxing of genuine evil as proper to the exceptional and foreign-tinged “Nazifascism” of Salo.18

The symptoms and effects of such exculpatory legal and ideological operations were wide-ranging in the immediate postwar period, and I will mention just a few of the most relevant consequences here. First, the desires of many leftists, liberals, and even progressive Christian Democrats to defascistize Italy through widespread purges and sanctions remained unfulfilled, at least in part. The need of the new political parties to gain grass-roots followings, a shared feeling of victimization at the hands of the Germans and the Allies, and a sort of collective complicity among intellectuals and civil servants who had been entangled for two decades with the fascist state all conspired to ensure a large degree of institutional continuity between the regime and the new republic.19 Second, Italy did not cooperate with requests by Greece, Yugoslavia, Libya, and other countries to extradite the more than 1600 Italian civilians and military men accused of attempted genocide and other war crimes, in part to avoid public debates that would further tarnish the image of Italians during the drafting of the 1947 Peace Treaty. As recent research by Focardi and Lutz Klinkhammer has revealed, in 1946 the Christian Democrat (DC) government privately pursued a policy of stalling and dissemblance to avoid compliance with such requests. Official public discourses emphasized the relative quality of Italian guilt with respect to Germany and the victimization of Italians in Nazi concentration camps and during the German occupation of Italy.20 Third, this public silence also extended to Italy’s complicity in Holocaust operations, encouraging narratives that minimized Italian agency in Jewish persecution and reduced even the prewar Italian racial laws to an imitation of German policy.21 In the aftermath of so many Nazi atrocities committed on Italian soil, the consistent referencing of Germany as the symbol of evil was inevitable and a result of historical fact. Yet the consistent externalization of fascist aggression onto the Germans, coupled with an equally consistent emphasis on the “greater good” of Italians, discouraged any sustained moral debate about Italian totalitarianism and the place of violence in the ideologies and practices of Mussolini’s regime. Within a few years of the defeat of Italian fascism, official and popular narratives had merged to create what Focardi has called “a reassuring and self-absolving self-portrait” that has depended on an ongoing comparison with the German dictatorship for its renewal and reaffirmation.22

Naturally, Italian policymakers and intellectuals did not operate in a vacuum. Cold War politics were a contributing and sometimes determinant factor in the shaping of the policies and assumptions described above. The popularity of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) - the largest such party in Western Europe – and Italy’s geopolitical importance as a bridge between Europe and the Mediterranean were foremost in the minds of the Allied officials who were in charge of the wartime occupation and, later, the postwar reconstruction of the country. The goal of avoiding social revolution and ensuring goodwill toward the democratic liberators took precedence over large-scale punishment of fascist wrongdoing. Comparing the Italian populace to a “good boy who was led astray by a band of criminals” both American and British authorities eschewed notions of collective guilt and concentrated on Italians’ greater redeemability (compared to Germans) for democratic life.23 For the same ideological and geopolitical reasons, the Allies turned a blind eye to Italian obstructionism with regard to extradition of their accused war criminals who were active in the Italy’s occupied territories and in the colonies.24

Among Italians, the very polarized climate of the late 1940s led Communists and Christian Democrats to accuse one another of being “totalitarian” and emphasize their own repugnance at the discredited Italian regime. DC leaders pointed to the PCI’s links with Stalin and advanced arguments for the equivalency of fascism and Communism, while PCI head Palmiro Togliatti stressed the continuities in membership and spirit (religious and otherwise) between fascism and the DC.25 For different reasons, both parties used the conduct of Nazi soldiers as a foil for their own constructions of the “good Italian.” For the PCI, which needed to highlight the contribution of Resistance partisans to the war at a time of American-backed political crackdowns against the Italian left, this involved the repression of information about excessive partisan violence and the diffusion of a view of the fascist period that minimized popular support for Mussolini’s regime.26 For the ruling DC, on the other hand, damage control was crucial to rehabilitate Italy and gain a better bargaining position with the Allies. This mandated doing everything possible to prevent Italian war atrocities from coming to international attention, downplaying the past association of Italians and Germans, and diffusing a counter-narrative that emphasized the anti-fascist feelings of Italians and the humanity many individual Italian soldiers and officials had shown toward foreign Jews and others during the war. By 1948, an image of the Italian soldier had emerged in national films and public discourse that turned totalitarian propaganda on its head, presenting an individual who was “intimately averse to war and reluctant to commit acts of violence and oppression.”27

In presenting themselves as “less evil” than the Germans before and after 1945, Italians could find support in the opinions of a host of foreign commentators whose works removed Mussolini’s regime from the totalitarian equation. Among the most prominent and widely read of these analysts were a number of German émigrés for whom, as Abbott Gleason has written, “Italy was something secondary or tertiary in their attempts to analyze what had happened in Europe.”28 In fact, Italian Fascism figures only marginally in the explorations of totalitarianism published by Franz Neumann, Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, Paul Tillich, and others. Typical is this statement by Tillich in his essay on the conflicts between religion and the totalitarian state, a subject of great relevance for Italy. Writing in 1934, when the Nazis had been in power just over a year and the Italian fascists for twelve years, he asserts that “the development of totalitarianism has progressed farthest in Germany, where the totalitarian state was conceived and to a great extent realized.”29 Such attitudes reflected these emigres’ obviously superior interest in and knowledge base about the German case. But they also attest to a tendency to see the Italian dictatorship as an aside or footnote to a history of totalitarianism that was emplotted from the very start around mutual reactions and rivalries between Nazism and Communism. They also convey perceptions of cultural differences between Northern and Southern Europe. Arendt, for one, groups Italy together with Spain and Portugal as nations in which the presence of “Latin-European” values mitigated against the spread of the kind of extremist and antihumanist mentalities that had prevailed in Germany and in Russia.30 Such beliefs also inform the observations and recollections of Germans who emigrated to or passed through fascist Italy. Among these was the Jewish philosopher Karl Lowith, a student of Martin Heidegger who took up residence in Rome after he was expelled from the German university system in 1934. “The Italians are humane even in a black shirt,” Lowith confided in his diary in 1936 as he lauded their relative indifference to racial matters. He changed his mind a few years later, when new anti-Semitic legislation forced he and all other foreign Jews in Italy to choose between expulsion and internment in an Italian concentration camp.31

Arendt, the most famous of totalitarianism’s émigré analysts, wrote as a philosopher attempting to chart a genealogy of state-sponsored terror and as a German Jew who struggled to understand the psychological and historical roots of the racist credos that had proved so appealing to her compatriots. Writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust, she contended that the absence of state anti-Semitism and the relatively mild way that the Italian fascists dealt with their internal opposition justified the classification of Mussolini’s regime as “nontotalitarian, or, at the most, semi-totalitarian” state. Indeed, until the onset of the racial laws, Italy was “just an ordinary nationalist dictatorship [that] developed logically from a multi-party democracy.” 32 Interestingly, Arendt reproduces scornful German views of the Italian regime’s “shortcomings” to bolster her argument. Claiming that the Nazis possessed an “unfailing instinct” for recognizing the differences between totalitarian and non-totalitarian regimes, Arendt fills footnotes with quotes from Heinrich Himmler, Josef Goebbels and others attesting to Italian fascism’s “superficiality” and the accordingly truer affinities between Nazism and Communism. Stalin, not Mussolini, was Hitler’s true partner in the awful totalitarian enterprise, Arendt concludes.33

Steven Ascheim’s astute observation that the degree of civilization attributed to a culture often structures the reception of the violent acts carried out by that culture is relevant here.34 The sense of betrayal these German émigré commentators manifest at the barbarization of their countrymen and women was proportionate to their view of the superior cultivation that marked their native land. Likewise, Mussolini’s regime as they depicted it seemed to reflect essential “Italian” qualities, both positive (a greater humanity) and negative ones (cowardice, untrustworthiness, attention to form over substance). In this, they follow a tradition of foreign-authored travel and historical narratives on Italy which argued that the Italian temperament, which seemed so conducive to the expression of artistic genius, lacked the regimentation, cruelty, and drive necessary for martial valor. This legacy of perceptions accompanied observers who dismissed the possiblity of “ordinary Italians” becoming perpetrators in the service of the state. It is in this sense, too, that we might read Arendt’s judgment that fascist Italy was an “ordinary” dictatorship that committed “ordinary” crimes which lay within the boundaries of Western tradition, rather than a totalitarian state that fostered a culture of evil of a type and on a scale without precedent.

Such perceptions of Italian mentality and culture also inform many English-language commentaries on dictatorship published in the decades following World War Two. This large body of work has been well analyzed and does not bear reiteration here.35 I will discuss only the British historian A.J.P. Taylor, who did not explicitly treat totalitarianism in his writings but was nonetheless arguably the most influential non-German purveyer of the “lesser evil” thesis. His controversial 1964 work The Origins of the Second World War aimed to refute the attribution of all war guilt to Germany by challenging intentionalist views that Nazi expansionism was the product of a well-designed Faustian plan. Hitler, in this view, was less infallible engineer than shrewd opportunist; yet Taylor credits him with ideological consistency and an iron will to achieve a profound transformation of Germany and the Germans. This was more than could be said of Mussolini and Italian fascism, for whom Taylor reserved some of his harshest criticism:

Fascism never possessed the ruthless drive, let alone the material strength of National Socialism. Morally it was just as corrupting – or perhaps more so for its very dishonesty. Everything about Fascism was a fraud. The social peril from which it saved Italy was a fraud; the revolution by which it seized power was a fraud; the ability and policy of Mussolini were fraudulent. Fascist rule was corrupt, incompetent, empty; Mussolini himself a vain, blundering boaster without ideals or aims.36

Such prose reflects several traditions of commentary on Italian fascism: Nazi and, more broadly, German condescension toward Italian “weakness” and “superficiality”; a particularly British contempt for Italian histrionics and infantility; and a broader Anglo-American tradition of caricature of Mussolini as a “sawdust Caesar,” petulant infant, or irresponsible buffoon that found expression in popular histories and journalism and in cartoons in the interwar and wartime press. These stereotypes and attitudes persisted into the postwar period, so that in his 1956 study of Italian fascism the Italian-American scholar Dante Germino felt obliged to emphasize that the Italian regime was “neither comic opera nor a South American palace revolution” but a totalitarian state that oppressed millions for twenty years.37

If Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War renewed such views of Italian fascism among historians and the educated reader, his contemporaneously made documentary film Mussolini brought them to the larger public and the schools. The hour-long movie, which Taylor wrote and narrated, hews closely to the text of The Origins of the Second World War in its presentation of the Duce and his regime. Indeed, the film’s purported protagonist, Mussolini, is seen mainly in relation to Hitler, and Taylor uses the force-and-muscle German regime as a foil for his denunciations of Italian fascism’s cult of appearances. The movie’s central image and trope is Mussolini as an actor performing from his balcony; the blackshirts are ineffectual posturers who more closely resembled characters from opera buffa than the perpetrators of terror; and fascism is reduced to a spectacle. Reality enters into this charade only with the appearance of Hitler in Mussolini’s life. Taylor’s depictions of the Fuhrer as a positive anchor for Mussolini, --at one point he calls him the Duce’s “only friend”-- lends the movie a strange air of Germanophilia. Throughout much of the narration, Taylor’s voice fairly drips with scorn for the fascists, especially when he refers to their military aspirations. When the Italians adopt the goosestep, they parade before Hitler but “did it badly”; when Mussolini visits Germany and addresses a Nazi rally in German, his atrocious accent ensured that “no one could understand him.” The Duce gets credit for originating fascism, but totalitarianism as practiced by the Italians was “all a sham”: Hitler is the one who gets it right.

The way that cultural stereotypes as well as historical fact have contributed to the dictum of Italian fascism as a “lesser evil” comes through clearly in Taylor’s selection of the visual materials and in his editing choices. The centerpiece of the film consists of a long segment that shows Mussolini orating from his balcony at different periods of the regime. By providing no English translations of the Duce’s words, Taylor places the emphasis on Mussolini’s body language, which reads to Anglo-American and Northern European viewers as a catalogue of exaggerated Italian gesturality. Detached from their verbal referents, behaviors meant to be menacing come off as faintly ridiculous: the effect of this “hyper-Italianness” is to disarm the aggression announced in the verbal text. Two segments within this gallery of oratorical performances stand out as particularly indicative of Taylor’s caricaturial intentions. In the first, as Mussolini protests against foreign perceptions of Italy as flowery and picturesque, he goes into gestural overdrive, moving his hands and mouth in ways that make him an emblem of that which he denounces; in the second, which dates from just after the Nazis’ 1934 murder of the Austrian chancellor Englebert Dollfuss, the Duce puffs up with nationalistic pride while he denounces the Germans as a people who barely knew how to read and write “when Rome had Caesar and Augustus.” With no translation of the Italian dialogue, the attack on the Nazis is lost on the intended English-language audience. Attention is directed to the sights of the Duce’s jutting chin, swollen chest, and self-congratulatory strutting about the balcony. (FILM CLIP HERE) Even today, when shown this footage, many non-Italian viewers smirk rather than become indignant, including when, as in the case of a speech proclaiming victory in Ethiopia, they hear what they know is an announcement of the success of mass murder through gassing.38 By rendering Italian fascism as something essentially risible, Taylor not only confirms it as “less evil” than Nazism, but removes it from the purview of moral judgment altogether.
Such international perceptions of Italian fascism, coupled with an Italian tendency to repress a national history of repression, have led to a severe underestimation of fascist violence, which in turn has influenced theorizations about Italy’s place as a totalitarian state. Indeed, if Stalinist Russian and Nazi Germany are “the two great slaughterhouses of the twentieth-century,” as Michael Geyer has termed them,39 Italian fascism is the neighborhood butcher: its domestic and foreign campaigns of repression evoke neither images of Gulags operating at Stakanovist rhythyms nor the “order of terror” imposed by German killing machines. Consider the doxa about how the Italian regime dealt with its internal dissenters. Neither the municipal prisons where Antonio Gramsci languished, nor the confinement colonies in southern Italian villages, where Cesare Pavese and Carlo Levi briefly lived, nor certainly islands such as Ponza, where many antifascist political leaders were interned, carry the resonance of the German Lager and the Soviet Gulag. Indeed, such comparisons, like the more complex one of the conduct of Italian, German, and Russian troops in wartime, would seem to merely confirm the incommensurability of Italian fascism with these other dictatorships, not just because of the smaller scale of Italian violence and the much smaller numbers of deaths it caused, but because of some qualitative difference in the nature, contexts, and impulses of that violence that prevent its perpetrators from being classified as dehumanized executioners, either willing or reluctant ones.

As Kershaw and Lewin have observed, however, comparison presupposes a fairly even historiographical base, and scholarship on Nazism is more advanced in its scope and depth than that on any other totalitarian or authoritarian regime. In his introduction to a groundbreaking book on Italian concentration camps published in 2001, Enzo Collotti, a distinguished historian of Mussolini’s regime and its relations with the Nazis, lamented the resistance in the past showed to doing research that would clarify the specific characteristics of Italian totalitarianism. For all that has been written on the Duce and the dictatorship, Collotti observes, there are still no detailed studies on “the concrete institutions through which fascism oppressed and repressed national minorities, racial minorities [and] political adversaries….”40 The use of secret police and informers and the workings of racial and other persecutory bureacracies - subjects that have been in the purview of researchers of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for years- are only now coming to scholarly and public attention in Italy. Italian concentration camps in the Balkans and in the colonies, which constitute fascism’s contributions to the map of European totalitarianism’s “extreme situations” also remain little known, in part due to the active denials, obfuscations, and manipulations that have marked official Italian responses since World War Two to revelations about the national past that might disturb the “good Italian/badGerman” trope.41

The issue of historiographical silences on aspects of Italian fascism that risk muddying the moral primacy that is assumed by the trope of the “lesser evil,” has two dimensions which correspond to two interrelated vectors of memory. The first can be termed institutional or statist and comes to center on the archive, an entity which has the power to promote certain understandings of national collective memory over others by the decisions it makes in compiling and regulating access to documentary collections. The many lacunae within the historical record on Italian fascism and its wars are in part a direct product of persistent practices of obstructionism that range from the removal by archivists of sensitive single documents from public domain files to the inaccessibility of entire civilian and military documentary collections. This situation is the fruit of protectionist impulses -- a desire to keep information “in house,” thus forestalling the writing of histories that challenge official or convenient views of the past --, and chronic (one might also say strategic) underfunding that has prevented many collections from ever being catalogued.42 To cite just one example, we still are not in the situation to obtain a full picture of Italian actions and policies during World War Two: the Italian Navy archives are open for the years 1940 to 1943 only to Italian Navy historians; materials on Italian colonialism were for decades open only to members of a state-appointed historical commission and still are not fully available; and research on Italian war crimes has been hindered by the continuing closure to researchers of virtually every relevant document collection. As Jacques Derrida has written, the archive is a place of both protection and concealment, in that to archive something is to classify and control it, keeping it safe but also under a sort of “house arrest.”43 This dual function is certainly evident within Italian state institutions, which have contributed not a little to a collective rimozione (the term in Italian means, tellingly, both repression and removal) of parts of the historical record that might facilitate a comparison between German and Italian totalitarianisms.

These “black holes” in the document and historiographical base correspond in interesting ways to gaps in Italian popular memory, as several fine oral history projects reveal.44 Italian atrocities committed in their Balkan and colonial territories, the more than fifty concentration camps throughout Italy that held Jews and foreigners during World War Two, the forced labor of Italian Jews in the cities and countryside – none of these events have much resonance at the level of individual recollection, even among those who witnessed or executed such policies and/or had quotidian engagements with those who were affected by them. Such local patterns of (non)recollection, which often remain unchallenged due to the continued inaccessibility of many communal and provincial archives, flow into national narratives that perpetuate the idea that the Nazis “were the only ones responsible for massacres, deportations, and violent behaviors.” They sustain what the historian Ernesto Galli della Loggia has termed the “singular schizophrenia of [an] Italian public opinion” which remembers German atrocities on Italian soil and represses Italian atrocities against other peoples with equal tenacity.

The case of Italian fascism, I contend, offers an opportunity to think about the connections between agency, violence, and public and private memory in ways that might not emerge as clearly from critical conversations that include only what Italians term il caso limite, limite here meaning an extreme case that is perforce also a limited one. While Italian fascism offers plenty of food for reflection on human evil, Mussolini’s regime remains less “fascinating” (in the sense evoked by Susan Sontag)45 than Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s Communism. Enveloped in a faint halo of imitation and ineffectuality, fascism offers neither the spectacle of radical evil realized on an international scale (Nazism) nor that of epic suffering, paranoia and persecution at home (Stalinism). Even though we know that the Italians committed genocide in Libya and certainly engaged in what we now call “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans, Italian fascist crimes in the service of the Axis lack magnitude and “critical mass” when compared to those of the Nazis. Yet this post-Holocaust reasoning merely brings us back to notions of the Germans as standard-bearers of evil that are embodied in the “lesser evil” trope.

If we are to understand the phenomenon of totalitarianism, we must guard against the temptation of assigning gradations of evil to regimes according to the body counts they produced and look instead at larger transational questions relating to the collective densensitization to violence among European populations from 1914 to 1945. One need only think of the international range of collusion in and execution of violence during this period: after all, Nazi violence was not the work of Germans alone, but of individuals of many other nationalities who collaborated, cooperated with them or committed racial crimes on their own. The actions of the Italian fascists, from the well-publicized squadrist violence and political assassinations to the equally well-publicized mass use of gas in Ethiopia, were essential to a process of desensitization that occurred through second-as well as first-hand exposure to violent acts.46 Seeing the history of totalitarianism as a chain of mutual influences with regard to strategies of rule and persecution also makes it harder to sustain Cold War and neo-conservative ideological operations (which had their most recent reiteration in the Historikerstreit debates) that configure Nazism and Communism as a diabolical dyad – with one existing to provoke and/or justify evil in the other. As the historian Mariuccia Salvati has observed, ‘telling the history of totalitarianism means reflecting on the political and moral dimensions of the history of totalitarianism.”47 The fortunes the “lesser evil” trope has had as a means of summarizing the putative differences between Italian fascism and Nazism shows the necessity of a critical revisitation of comparative judgments about such regimes. It stands as a case study of the way that collective memory and historiography can converge in national contexts to sustain formulations that allow the moral and political legacies of totalitarianism to remain too little explored.


1 For the articulations of this concept within Italy alone, see Emilio Gentile, “Fascism in Italian Historiography,” Journal of Contemporary History 21 (1986), esp. 200-203. The question of an Italian variant of totalitarianism is addressed explicitly in Renzo De Felice, Il fascismo. Un totalitarianismo all’italiano? (Turin: Einaudi, 1981); and in Emilio Gentile, La via italiana al totalitarianismo. Il partito e lo Stato nel regime fascista (Rome: La Nuova Italia, 1995). The most comprehensive collection of historiographical views on Italian fascism is Renzo De Felice, Il fascismo. Le interpretazioni dei contemporanei e degli storici (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1998), but see Fascismo e antifascismo: Rimozioni, revisioni, negazioni ed. Enzo Collotti (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2000), on how the historiography of fascism and resistance to it has been affected by entrenched configurations of popular and official memory..

2 Here I am referencing Gilbert Allardyce, “What fascism is not: thought on the deflation of a concept,” American Historical Review 84 (1979). For a sense of the range of this international bibliography regarding Italian fascism alone see Renzo De Felice, Bibliografia orientativa del fascismo italiano (Rome: Bonacci, 1991).

3 Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin, Stalinism and Nazism. Dictatorships in Comparison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1. See also the reflections of Henry Rousso and Marcello Flores on historical comparison, in, respectively, “La légitimité d’une comparaison empirique,” in Stalinisme et nazisme. Histoire e mémoire comparées, ed. Rousso (Paris: Éditions Complexe, 1999), 11-38; and “Introduzione,” in Nazismo, fascismo, communismo, ed. Flores (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 1998), 7-14.

4 On this see David Bidussa, Il mito del bravo italiano (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 1993).

5 Important critical reviews of the historiography of Italian fascism that question such perceptions are Paul Corner, “Italian Fascism: Whatever Happened to Dictatorship?” Journal of Modern History (June 2002): 325-351; and Richard Bosworth, The Italian Dictatorship. Problems and Perpsectives in the Interpretation of Mussolini and Fascism (London: Arnold, 1998). Fundamental work on the construction and postwar utilization of the Italian-German comparison has been done by Filippo Focardi, “L’ombra del passato. I tedeschi e il nazismo del giudizio italiano dal 1945 a oggi,” Novecento (July-December 2000): 67-81; Focardi, “’Bravo italiano’ e ‘cattivo tedesco’: riflessioni sulla genesi di due immagini incrociate,” Storia e memoria 1 (1996): 55-83.

6 Among the few studies that explicitly compare the two regimes are Alexander De Grand, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (New York: Routledge, 1995); Aristotle A. Kallis, Fascist Ideology. Territory and Expansionism in Italy and Germany, 1922-1945 (London and New York: Routledge, 2000); Carl Levy, “Fascism, National Socialism, and Conservatives in Europe, 1914-1945: Issues for Comparativists,” Contemporary European History, 8, 1 (1999): 97-126. See also MacGregor Knox, Common Destiny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); and Richard Bessel, ed., Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Comparisons and Contrasts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

7 On anti-fascist and fascist uses of the term “totalitarian” in 1920s Italy, see Jens Petersen, “Die Entstehung des Totalitarismusbegriffs in Italien,” in Totalitarismus ed. Manfred Funke (Dusseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1978), 105-128; Abbott Gleason, Totalitarianism. The Inner History of the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 14-20.

8 I have written about these initiatives more fully in Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-45 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, trad it. La cultura fascista (Bologna: Mulino, 2000), but see also Michael Ledeen, L’internazionale fascista (Bari: Laterza, 1973).

9 Giulio Santangelo, “La Russia: Questione di civilita,” L’Occidente (July-September 1933). On public attitudes towards the Soviets, see Pier Giorgio Zunino, L’ideologia del fascismo (Bologna: Mulino, 1985), 332-44; Luciano Zani, “L’immagine dell’URSS nell’Italia degli anni trenta,” Storia contemporanea (December 1990): 1197-1224; and Rosaria Quartararo, “Roma e Mosca: l’immagine dell’Urss nella stampa fascista (1925-1939),” Storia contemporanea 27 (1996): 447-72.

10 Gaetano Polverelli to Mussolini, 1933 letter in Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Rome, Ministero della Cultura Popolare, b.155, f.10.

11 For the Nazi-fascist military alliance, see Frederick Deakin, The Brutal Friendship. Mussolini, Hitler, and the Fall of Fascism (London: Penguin, 1966); Enzo Collotti, “L’alleanza italo-tedesca 1941-43,” in Gli italiani sul fronte russo (Bari: De Donati, 1982), 3-61; Renzo De Felice, Mussolini l’alleato (Turin: Einaudi, 1990); Davide Rodogno, Il nuovo ordine mediterraneo. Le politiche di occupazione dell’Italia fascista in Europa (1940-1943) (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2003), and Macgregor Knox, Mussolini Unleashed. Politics and Strategy in Italy’s Last War 1939-1941 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). For the role of stereotype and perception, see Jens Petersen, “Italia e Germania: percezioni, stereotipi, pregiudizi, immagini d’inimicizia,” Storia contemporanea 6 (1992): 1087-1124. A valuable catalog of images of the relationship is Carlo Gentile, Lutz Klinkhammer, and Steffen Prauser, I nazisti. I rapporti fra Italia e Germania nelle fotografie dell’Istituto Luce (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 2003). For power relations within the relationship as seen through the lens of cultural policy, see Ruth Ben-Ghiat “Italian Fascists and National Socialists: The Dynamics of a Difficult Relationship,” in Art, Culture and the Media under the Nazis, ed. Richard Etlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp.257-286; and Andrea Hoffend, Zwischen Kultur-Asche und Kulturkampf. Die Beziehungen zwischen “Dritten Reich” und fascistischen Italien in den Bereichen. Mediem, Kunst, Wissenschaft und Rassenfragen (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1998).

12 First quotation from Gino Chiesa, “Notiziario,” L’Architettura (November-December 1927); second quotation from Partito Nazionale Fascista, Il cittadino soldato (Rome: PNF, 1935), 24. For relations between the two regimes in the early thirties and the question of racism, see H. James Burgwyn, Italian Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period, 1918-1940 (Westport, CT: 1997), 70-100; Jens Petersen, Hitler-Mussolini. Die Entstehung der Asche Berlin-Rome 1933-1936 (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1973), and Meir Michaelis, Mussolini and the Jews. German-Italian Relations and the Jewish Question in Italy, 1922-45 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).

13 Enrico Rocca, “Dove va la nuova Germania letteraria?” Italia letteraria (October 9, 1930).

14 On the differences between German and Italian ideas and policies of race, see Aaron Gillette, The Defense of the Race. Racial Theories in Fascist Italy (New York: Routledge, 2002); Michaelis, Mussolini and the Jews; Pommerin, “Rassenpolitische Differenzen im Verhältnis der Asche Berlin-Rom, 1938-1943,” Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 27 (1979): 646-660; on the Vatican’s acceptance of these differences, see Ben-Ghiat, Fascist Modernities, esp. 152-53

15 See Mino Argentieri, L’Asso cinematografo Roma-Berlino (Naples: Liguori, 1986); and Jens Petersen, "Vorspiel zu `Stahlpakt' und Kriegsallianz: Das deutsch italianische-Kulturabkommen von 23. November 1938," Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte 36 (1989): 41-77; Hoffend, Zwischen Kultur-Asche und Kulturkampt; Ben-Ghiat, “Italian Fascists and National Socialists”; and Bruno Mantelli, Cesare Bermani, and Sergio Bologna, Proletarier der ‘Asche’: Sozialgeschichte der italienischen Fremdarbeit in NS-Deutschland 1937 bis 1943 (Berlin: 1997).

16 On the Salo republic see Lutz Klinkhammer, L’Occupazione tedesca in Italia, 1943-45 (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1993).

17 See the excellent studies by Filippo Focardi: “La memoria della guerra e il mito del ‘bravo italiano’. Origine a affermazione di un autoritratto collettivo,” Italia contemporanea (September-December 2000): 393-399, and “’Bravo italiano’ e ‘cattivo tedesco’.”

18 Pavone, “Fascismo e dittature,” 68.

19 On the purges, see the fine studies of Hans Woller, Die Abrechnung mit dem Fascismus in Italien 1943 bis 1948 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1996), and Roy Domenico, Italian Fascists on Trial 1943-1948 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). On the continuity of the state, see Claudio Pavone, Lalle origini della Repubblica. Scritti su fascismo, antifascismo, e la continuita dello stato (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1995), 70-159.

20 Such was the fear of exposing Italian war crimes that the government decided not to bring charges against Germans for their massacres in Italy and against Italians on the island of Cefalonia. See the findings about this double obfuscation in Lutz Klinkhammer and Filippo Focardi, “La questione dei ‘criminali di guerra’ italiani e una Commissione di inchiesta dimenticata,” Contemporanea (July 2001): 497-528; Focardi, “ La questione dei criminali di Guerra in Italia dopo la fine della seconda Guerra mondiale,” Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken, 80(2000): 543-624, and Michele Battini, Peccati di memoria. La Mancata Norimberga Italiana (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2003).

21 This historiographical operation is discussed in Bidussa, Il mito del bravo italiano. Only in the mid-1990s did a critical mass of works about Italian racism begin to appear. See on this Alberto Burgio, “Una ipotesi di lavoro per la storia del razzismo italiano,” in Studi sul razzismo italiano eds. Burgio and Luciano Casali (Bologna: Clueb, 1996), pp. 19-28.

22 Focardi, “La memoria della guerra e il mito del ‘bravo italiano’,” 393.

23 Quote from Gregory Dale Black, The United States and Italy (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1974), 13. Ron Robin, The Barbed-Wire College (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 6-8, makes a similar point regarding the different attitudes Americans held toward German and Italian prisoners of war in America.

24 Focardi and Klinkammer, “La questione dei ‘criminali di guerra italiani’.”

25 Palmiro Togliatti, “Totalitarianismo?” Rinascita (November-December 1946);. See Gleason, Totalitarianism, 143-146, on the PCI and DC uses of such rhetoric.

26 On the histories and silences about partisan violence, see Luca Alessandrini, “The Option of Violence – Partisan Activity in the Bologna Area, 1945-48,” in After the War. Violence, Justice, Continuity, and Renewal in Italian Society ed. Jonathan Dunning (London: Troubador, 1997).59-74; and Paolo Pezzino, Anatomia di un massacro (Bologna: Mulino, 1997). On the complexity of processes of remembering see the brief essay by Luisa Passerini, one of the first scholars to focus critically on contemporary memories of difficult periods of the Italian past: “Memories of Resistance, Resistances of Memory,” in European Memories of the Second World War eds. Helmut Peitsch et al. (New York: Berghahn, 1999), 288-296.

27 Quotation is from Focardi, “La memoria della guerra,” 393. This image was carried forth in films such as Carlo Borghesio’s Come persi la guerra (1946).

28 Gleason, Totalitarianism , 32.

29 Paul Tillich, “The Totalitarian State and the Claims of the Church,” Social Research (November 1934), 433; also Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1946); Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1941), esp. 232.. Franz Neumann is the exception here, since he engages in sometimes detailed excurses on Italian history. Yet his references to Italian fascism are designed to illuminate the radical difference and newness of National Socialism with respect to existing governments and political philosophies. See his Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1944), 75-77, 462-63. Gleason, Totalitarianism, 33-38, and Bosworth, The Italian Dictatorship, 210-212, offer more detailed discussions of German émigré views of Italian fascism.

30 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1973), 258.

31 See for example Karl Lowith, My Life in Germany Before and After 1933 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 86-88; also the memories of George Mosse, Nazism: a historical and comparative analysis of National Socialism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1978), 104-105.

32 Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 257.

33 Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism), 308. For a critique of Arendt’s views on Italy and a discussion of their reception within Italy, see Meir Michaelis, “Anmerkungen zun italienischen Totalitarismusbegriff: Zur Kritik des Thesen Hannah Arendts und Renzo de Felices,” Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken 62 (1982):270-302.

34 See Steven Ascheim, Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises (New York: NYU Press, 1996), 9-10, and his In Times of Crisis: Essays on European Culture, Germans and Jews (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 54-56.

On English perceptions of Italy and Italians through the modern era, see Maura O’Connor, The Romance of Italy and the English Political Imagination (New York: St.Martins, 1998). The ways such views intersected with national notions of Italianness is investigated in Giuliano Bollati, L’Italiano. Il carattere nazionale come storia e come invenzione (Turin: Einaudi, 1984).

35 See, for example, Gleason, Totalitarianism; Bosworth, The Italian Dictatorship.

36 A.J.P.Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (New York: Fawcett Premier, 1961), 59.

37 Dante Germino, The Italian Fascist Party in Power (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1959), 56. See Bosworth, The Italian Dictatorship, 69-70 on the tradition of British superiority; George Seldes, Sawdust Caesar. The Untold Story of Mussolini and Fascism (London and New York: Harper and Co., 1935), for an example of popular historical/journalistic writing; and Niccolo Zapponi, Il fascismo nella caricature (Bari: Laterza, 1981) for cartoon depictions of Mussolini and fascism in the international press. Luisa Passerini, Mussolini immaginario, 1919-1939, tracks the Duce’s image up to World War Two.

38 My observation here is based on ten years of showing the film in university lectures, public talks, and at conferences such as the one that gave rise to the present volume.

39 Michael Geyer, quoted in Moshe Lewin and Ian Kershaw, “Introduction,” in Lewin and Kershaw, Nazism and Stalinism, 8.

40 Enzo Collotti, “Introduzione,” in I campi di concentramento in Italia ed. Costantino Di Sante (Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2001), 9-10.

41Davide Rodogno, Il nuovo ordine mediterraneo. Le politiche di occupazione dell’Italia fascista in Europa (1940-43) (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2003), is an corrective to many of these perceptions and essential reading on all aspects of the Italian occupation of the Balkans. See also Enzo Collotti, “Sulla politica di repressione italiana nei Balcani,” in La memoria del nazismo nell’Europa di oggi ed. Leonardo Paggi (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1997), 182-208; and Brunello Mantelli, “ Die Italiener auf dem Balkan, 1941-43,” in C.Dipper et al, eds., Europaische Sozialgeschichte. Festschrift fur Wolfgang Schieder zum 65. Geburtstag (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2000), 57-74. On Italian concentration camps at home and in the colonies and occupied territories, see Di Sante, ed., I campi di concentramento in Italia; Gustavo Ottolenghi, Gli italiani e il colonialismo. I campi di detenzione italiani in Africa (Milan: SugarCo, 1997); Nicola Labanca, ‘Italian Colonial Internment,” in Italian Colonialism eds. Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Mia Fuller (New York: Palgrave, forthcoming); Fabio Galluccio, I lager in Italia (Civezzano (TN): Nonluoghi Libere Edizioni, 2002); James Walston, “History and Memory of the Italian Concentration Camps,” The Historical Journal vol.40, no.1 (1997): 169-183. These and other historiographical silences have meant that the Italian case is often excluded from comparative examinations of police states. An example is Sheila Fitzpatrick and Robert Gellately’s otherwise valuable edited volume on informing and denunciation contained essays on Stalinism, Nazism, and the French Revolution but none on Fascism. See Accusatory Practices (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). By comparison, the first books on Italian informers and denunciation appeared only in 1999-2001: see Mimmo Franzinelli, I tentacoli dell’Ovra: agenti, collaboratori e vittime della polizia politica fascista (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1999), and his Delatori, spie e confidenti anomini: l’arme segreti del regime fascista (Milan: Mondadori, 2001). Naturally such exclusions are far less frequent in volumes on regime comparison that originate in Italy: see above all the works edited by Marcello Flores, Storia, verità, giustizia: I crimini del XX secolo (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2001); and Nazismo, fascismo, communismo.

These denials and obfuscations by Italian government institutions include the creation of a phantom commission for the investigation of Italian war criminals whose purpose was to stall their extradition; the jailing of the filmmakers Guido Aristarco and Renzo Renzi on charges of treason in the early 1950s for having made a film on the Italian occupation of Greece; official denials that gas was used during the conquest and rule of the Italian colony of Ethiopia, which were reversed only in 1995; and an allied refusal which continued to this day to comply with international weapons treaties by revealing the locations of stockpiles of chemcial weapons from the Ethiopian war.

42An informative rather than critical publication edited by Carlo Spagnolo, Segreti personali e segreti di Stato. Privacy, archive e ricerca storica (Florence: European Press Academic Publishing, 2001), compares current Italian and other European archival norms and regulations. The scandal that ensued in 1999 when “new” archival documents brought to light the leftist writer Ignazio Silone’s double life as a fascist spy was one of several recent historical “cases” that revealed the practices of Italian archival officials (acting on their own or on orders from higher state authorities) of removing sensitive material from public domain files. In this case a Central State Archives functionary had removed the compromising documents from the files and kept them from public access for over ten years; surprisingly, debates focused less on the ethics and politics of his actions than his decision to make the documents public at that time.

43 See Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression trans.Eric Prenowitz (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1996), 2 ; also Sonia Combes, Archives interdites: Les peurs francaises face a l’histoire contemporaine (Paris: A. Michel, 1994).

44 The phrase “black holes” is taken from Carlo Spartaco Capogreco, “Internamento e deportazione dei civili jugoslavi,” in I campi di concentamento in Italia, ed. Di Sante, 135.

See the oral histories conducted by Costantino Di Sante, “I campi di concentramento in Abruzzo,” in I campi di concentramento in Italia, ed. Di Sante, 205, and Angelo Bendotti, “’Ho fatto la Grecia, l’Albania, la Jugoslavia...’. Il disagio della memoria,” in Italia in guerra ed. Bruno Micheletti (Brescia: La Scuola, 1992), 964-979. Quotation is from Ernesto Galli della Loggia, “Criminali di guerra nostrani,”Corriere della Sera, “Sette” Magazine, June 28, 2001.

45 See Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,” (1974), in A Susan Sontag Reader, introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982), 305-328.

46 On this issue see Omer Bartov, Murder in Our Midst. The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), esp. 40.

47 Mariuccia Salvati, “Hannah Arendt e la storia del Novecento” in Nazismo, fascismo, communismo, 241.

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