Explaining “Auschwitz” After the End of History: The Case of Italy

R J B Bosworth. History & Theory. Volume 38, Issue 1. February 1999.

Everywhere the 1990s have been characterized by an odd mixture of ideological triumphalism—Fukuyama’s “end of history” being only the crassest example—and of ideological uncertainty—can there be, should there be, a “third way”? For all its pretensions to universality, the “New World Order” has never lost a fragility in appearance. Students of historiography can scarcely be surprised to learn that an uneasiness over the present and future has in turn frequently entailed uncertainty about the past and particularly about those parts of the past which had seemed most able to give clear and significant “lessons.”

One evident example is the history of what in my Explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima (1993) I called the “long” Second World War, that is, that crisis in confidence in the relationship between political and economic liberalism and the nation-state which, by the end of 1938, had left only Britain, France, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia as in any sense preserving those “liberal” freedoms which had spread across Europe since 1789. In this article, I briefly review the most recent difficulties World War II combatant societies have had in locating a usable past in the history of those times. However, my major focus is on the specific ease of Italy, very much a border state in the Cold War system, and today the political home of an “Olive Tree” and a “Liberty Pole” whose historical antecedents and whose philosophical base for the future are less than limpid. 1990s Italian historians thus give very mixed messages about the Fascist past; these are the messages I describe and decode.

Five years ago, I published a book somewhat abrasively entitled Explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima. A more modest subtitle—History Writing and the Second World War, 1945-1990—perhaps explained my intentions better, for I had endeavored to write a comparative account of the way in which the meaning of the “long” Second World War had been historicized in the major combatant countries. I examined the historical literature produced in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, the USSR, and Japan (but not the USA, on the grounds that the Americans had to wait for Vietnam to experience something like a visceral war), looking for commonalities and differences. There were many of the former and quite a number of the latter, but my key point was that, after “Auschwitz,” that is, after the most troubling and murderous expression of the negative aspects of the nation-state, the explanation of “Auschwitz,” and its explaining away, were, to a very considerable degree, the nub of all historical writing. A “civilized” world, in which civilization seemed, through the Nazi barbarization of warfare on the eastern front, to have been utterly betrayed, could only cauterize its physical and spiritual wounds through the balm of history. In turn, this pressing need meant that any pretensions which the discipline of history might have once possessed to be “objective” and “truthful,” to “read the past on its own terms” and to “let the documents speak for themselves” could now only be false (and probably such “scientific” “Rankean” aspirations had always amounted more to patriotic propaganda than to fact). Though I was never converted to the absolute relativism of some postmodemists, I did endorse Pieter Geyl’s view (sprung from his personal, Anglo-Dutch, “long” Second World War, his “Auschwitz”) that, from 1945 on, and in a society aspiring to democracy, history could only be a debate.

Although my comparative ambitions may have been the rashest and my writing style the most arch, I was not the only historian to argue this case. Six years before my own work was published, Henry Rousso had written Le syndrome de Vichy, an expansive study of the trauma of French remembering and forgetting of their (shortish) Second World War. In the other countries, historiographical controversies had regularly flared over issues associated with the war, the Historikerstreit in 1980s West Germany being only the most obvious example. Even in societies which seemed relatively closed, disputes about the war would still surface; its meaning, it seemed, was everywhere a genie that could not be altogether contained. In Japan, the radical historian Saburo Ienaga stubbornly demanded that national high school texts recognize the horror of the Imperial regime’s policies in China and towards “comfort women,” in its practice of germ warfare, and in its treatment of Korean forced laborers. The silence of the authorities was at least as stubborn. It is true that in 1997 Saburo won yet another small court victory in his endless court struggles of prosecution and defense but, despite this victory, Japan today has still not quite worked out how to cope with its “long” Second World War.

Most hermetic of all ex-combatant states was, of course, the USSR with its single-book, official, history. However, the “Gorbachev revolution” penetrated this past, too, and as a last resort the Soviet authorities finally made concessions even on the history of the “Great Patriotic War.” Once the official line on that event, along with the “Great Revolution of 1917,” was challenged, the Soviet regime’s last claims to moral legitimacy withered away and it became certain that the USSR, having surrendered what was left of a viable past, had no future.

Indeed, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of “actually existing socialism” and its delineation of the track from past through present to future in many ways signaled the conclusion of the postwar era (and thus of its historiography), as Francis Fukuyama for one understood, or seemed to understand, when he proclaimed “the end of history.” Once upon a time there had been three great competing twentieth-century ideologies: liberalism, communism, and Nazi-fascism. The last had been defeated and overthrown in 1945; the second had now been liquidated, too. Only liberalism survived to cheer the present and illuminate the path to the future. Fukuyama is not a historian, but the implication of his work was that, from hereon, the discipline of history could exist only in a curtailed form, since, from hereon, the past, like the present and the future, would have to be read with liberal eyes (though some postmodernists preferred the alternative of making the past a place of play, an option which liberalism could tolerate readily enough).

For a time an accident of chronology disguised the starkness of this paradigm shift. Could the “long” Second World War really be dead when, in 1994-95, there was such obsessive remembrance of the conflict’s fiftieth anniversaries? The “sellebrations” of that time have only sporadically been the object of scholarly analysis, although it is no accident that “memory” and “representation,” some years later, remain probably the catchiest terms in the historiographical vocabulary, words to be flaunted in research applications and book titles. Indeed, the most superficial glance rapidly reveals that a debate over the meaning of the “long” Second World Wax continues unabated almost a decade after the end of history. Ex-combatant societies remain touchy about the nature and morality of events at that time. In the US, Washington museums cannot display the Pacific War and simultaneously preserve a tolerable level of public consensus; in the UK, the visit of Emperor Akihito in May 1998 readily summoned back into existence the ghosts of injustices perpetrated by the Japanese and totally excluded memories of British misdeeds; in France, the trials of “collaborators” seem infinite and Vichy still lacks a settled place in the discourse of national history.

But rather than disperse this article into another general study of these worldranging processes of historiographical disputation, let me focus on the somewhat unaccustomed case of Italy, all the more because in so many ways Italian history, and the historiography which elucidates it, are “peculiar.” Of the western European states that joined in the various segments of the Second World War, Italy was the country that emerged in the position of greatest ambiguity. It is a cliche that Italy (and “the Italics”) rejoice in a very idiosyncratic history, in which both the international and the local frequently carry as much or more weight as the national. But its Second World War gave Italy, no longer a serious Great Power, the role of a border territory of the “West,” to a degree replicating in the sphere dominated by the USA the position held by Yugoslavia—now so notoriously ex-Yugoslavia (and an area so fearsomely riddled with histories from the war)—in the Soviet zone. In particular, the political, social, and cultural power of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), an influence which one political scientist called the “K factor,” marked Italy as a very special place, the only “Western” society in which by the 1970s a communist victory in a liberal democratic election remained imaginable. How has this Italy, in the 1990s, assessed the meaning of the “long” Second World WarS. And how has this assessment been influenced by, and influenced, Italian society at large?

If a weakness for communism seemed to characterize Italy during the 1970s, this particular problem is now overcome. Headlines about Italy in more recent times either concern the success or sleight of hand which seems likely to give Italians the euro in the first round, or they moralize about “corruption,” Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”). During the 1990s Italy has been making a somewhat troubled transition from the “First Republic,” dominated, it is said, by the “parties,” to a “Second Republic,” in which, we are told according to political taste, virtue will triumph, in the nation, in the people, or just in “Europe.” Italy, in other words, has been engaged since the fall of the Berlin Wall in a work of political (and ideological) reconstruction just as surely as Slovenia, Poland, and Russia have been. It is thus fitting that not a single one of the parties which indulged in the complex political dance after 1945 still survives, or, to be more accurate, has preserved the name by which it was marketed after the fall of Fascism. The Christian Democrats (DC), indispensable base for all postwar governing coalitions, have split into Popolari and CCD. The PCI are now called the “Democratic Left,” though a minority of true believers subsist as Rifondazione comunista (Refounded communists). The Socialists, for a time the great capitalist and “Western” hope of the 1980s, have utterly disappeared, mourned by few given the revelation of their utter cynicism and corruption. The neo-fascist MSI, except for a tiny rump, now compose the “post-fascist” National Alliance whose ambitious leader Gianfranco Fini, in a historical comprehension which will be discussed further below, admits that Mussolinian Fascism was, with the greater evil of communism, part of an undesirable past in which a deleterious “totalitarianism” held sway. Republicans, Liberals, Social Democrats—once the regular running mates of the DC—have similarly vanished. Though much about its system is still partly formed, Italy in 1998 was governed by an “Olive Tree” coalition, which is opposed by a Polo della liberta e buon governo, while somewhere in the wings Umberto Bossi and the Lega nord talk as though they would prefer that the whole nation be dismantled. The Italian political system, it seems, is destined to enter the new millennium with its appearance cut free from any connection with the recent past and with the need to persuade voters to recognize, distinguish, and prefer a whole new set of brand names.

In these circumstances, students of historiography should not be surprised to learn that history has, in contemporary Italy, also had its meaning muddied. At the center of this shift in historical understanding is, predictably, the comprehension of Italy’s “long” Second World War. The First Republic, especially during the 1970s, made much reference to history. Its institutions, it was then said, were framed in the aftermath of a Fascist dictatorship and were designed to ensure that Mussolini and his world remained dead and buried. Italy, politicians and intellectuals from a variety of ideological stances then maintained, constituted a fundamentally anti-Fascist country. Christian Democrats and communists, industry and workers, professors and students, sheltering beneath a “constitutional arch,” were united in their rejection of Fascism. Embodying this situation with greatest presence was President Sandro Pertini (1978-1985), an independent and incorruptible socialist who had opposed Mussolini without hesitation or equivocation, given up his youth to a Fascist prison, and personally approved the imposition of the death penalty against the fallen dictator in 1945.

This Italy in mm possessed a historiographical base, and one that was at the time easy enough for non-Italians to fit into their own most common historical understanding of the first half of the century. In both Italy and the world at large, the crimes of “Auschwitz” had fostered two great explanatory devices. One was the model of totalitarianism, initiated in the interwar period but given its fullest definition in the Cold War USA of the 1950s. Totalitarianist theory was manichean in its division of the world. Nazi-fascists and communists may have spoken of each other as enemies and indeed fought out a horrendous war on the eastern front, but they were moral allies all the same. The evil which each inflicted on those unlucky enough to fall under totalitarian sway was infinite and allembracing. Totalitarians killed and killed again, murdering both soul and body. They were opposed and resisted, however, by the good, by liberals and their various fellow-travelers, and thus by all who rejected the idea of a state too committed to interference and control. As has already been noted, and as everybody knows, this is the model of our recent history, which in 1999 is again triumphant and which nowadays still more firmly sutures the relationship between what some call our new world order and the rest of the history of the twentieth century.

But, it becomes ever more necessary to remark, the totalitarian is not the only model which purports to explain our “age of violence.” The model of fascism (with a small f), the model of “generic fascism,” was, at least until the fall of the Wall, the most obvious alternative way to read the recent past. This model employed much the same dramatis personae as its competitor, but arranged their alliances and appraised their moral worth differently. The most profound evil now was assigned to the Nazi-fascists, those defeated in the Second World War but not before they had perpetrated “Auschwitz” where they visited genocide on Jews (and gypsies), as well as being obsessively and murderously anti-communist. Defining the side of good was a more complex matter. The alliance in the war had been composed of liberals, socialists, communists, and even some conservatives, although quite a few and perhaps all of these had engaged in questionable dealings with the Nazi-fascists at some time in their story. Liberals and conservatives were particularly unable to claim untrammeled virtue, since their own anti-communism had time and again meant collaboration between themselves and the Nazi-fascists. Nazi-fascism had certainly been driven by a racial fixation, but it had also begun and flourished with a clear class purpose. It had brought undeniable benefit to all those afflicted by or fearful of the rise of the working class. As Horkheimer classically averred, it was quite impossible to think about Nazi-fascism without some reference to liberal capitalism.

By the 1970s the historical understanding expressed in this model of fascism was of more immediate relevance and of more overt political significance in Italy than in any of the other ex-combatant states. The “K factor,” the presence of a half-legitimated communist party within the political order (it was fully legitimated in many segments of the cultural order as well as in local government in the center-north of the country), meant that so-called anti-Fascism was, in public at least, the ruling order of the day. (In private there were quite a few sectors of national life, especially rich and powerful ones, which, in their not always secret hearts, cleaved to anti-communism and thus preferred some version of the totalitarian model.) In 1978, as Christian Democrat party secretary Aldo Moro went to his death at the hands of left terrorists who were the most literal of believers in the model of fascism and thought that if they stripped the mask from their hapless captive they would disclose the fascist beast, the Italian Republic seemed largely united in its commitment to anti-Fascism. All Italians knew, or publicly proclaimed, that Mussolini had presided over an evil dictatorship, which had repressed the workers, been hell-bent on war, and inexorably drawn to racist alliance with Hitlerian Nazism. Italian Fascism, too, had traced a path that ended at “Auschwitz.” The “Italian people,” by contrast, had always in their hearts opposed this regime and made manifest their virtuous Resistance in heroic partisanship during the period of armed action from 1943 to 1945.

Twenty years later this is a history which has lost most of its following. How has this paradigm shift occurred in Italian historiography and for what reasons? What, too, are the chief theses of the new “anti-anti-Fascist” school and how convincing are its findings? How successful and attractive is this new reading of the recent past in indicating a way to the future? And to what extent does it entail an Italian accommodation to the verities of the market-driven “New World Order”?

One way to answer these questions is by indulging in a Great Man, or, rather, Great Historian approach and by examining the career of Renzo De Felice (1929-1996), undoubtedly the most expert, the most archivally informed, the most published of scholars who have studied or study the Fascist regime. In his lengthy biography of Mussolini (a posthumous volume published in 1997 stopped short its account in early 1944 but brought the biography’s total length to more than 6000 pages), in his editorship of the important journal Storia contemporanea, in his other editing work on a host of Fascist memoirs, in his increasing international recognition, De Felice, never abandoning a naive neoRankean claim that in his scholarship he was the vehicle of science, objectivity, and truth, equipped anti-anti-Fascists both with academic prestige and with a huge factual armature. Moreover, commencing in 1975 with a published interview with Michael Ledeen, De Felice, whether by design or through the friendly embrace of American and other anti-communists, became a media figure. (In the year before his death he gave another major and much publicized interview, this time to the journalist Pasquale Chessa, employed by Panorama, a weekly owned by Silvio Berlusconi, founder and head of the Polo della liberta e buon governo and for a while Prime Minister.)

In these and in his briefer public statements, De Felice summed up the conclusions of his historical scholarship, every one of which struck at what he derisively called the “anti-Fascist vulgate.” Did Fascism repress the workers? Perhaps to a degree, but, sprung from the “emerging middle classes,” it had a genuine popular base, aimed at a real revolution of a kind, and won very considerable consent from large sections of the populace—even, in the mid-1930s, for example, appealing through its dynamism and its determined engagement with the masses to youthful members of the communist party. Did Fascism mean war? Perhaps, but Mussolini’s own personality was significant here and so were the at best mistaken and at worst aggressive policies pursued by the so-called democratic states and especially by Great Britain towards the emerging Italian empire. In any case, Fascism was never the natural ally of Nazism. The two ideologies were radically distinct, with Italian Fascism being forward-looking and optimistic, committed to modernization in a way that the German regime utterly rejected. Though it did pass racial legislation in 1938, Fascism bore no guilt for Auschwitz, which occurred during a Second World War in which the German ally failed to recognize the wisdom of Mussolini’s understanding that the proper epicenter of the great conflict lay not in the East but in the Mediterranean. In 1943-45, too, no battle between good and evil was fought out in Italian hills. Rather, the Mussolini of Salo may, Petain-style, have been offering his body as a shield for the Italian people and, in any case, the great majority of the Italian population was attentiste, hoping only to sit out the “civil war” and avoid the perilous and bloody fight between equally murderous partisans and Salo Fascists. The worst event of the war occurred on 8 September with the craven surrender by the royal government. Its abdication amounted to a body blow against the nation. The many sins of the partitocrazia of the “First Republic” were spawned by this moment of renunciation. The Second Republic would only be righted when the old divisions were healed and when national history replaced factional history. In small matters and large De Felice assaulted a series of what had seemed agreed-upon interpretations; by the late 1990s his conclusions about many an aspect of Italy’s “long” Second World War seemed to have achieved hegemony and to have been accepted in many circles as a commonsense and “anti-anti-Fascist orthodoxy.”

It is of course an exaggeration to ascribe too overwhelming a victory to the pertinacious historian. Indeed, De Felice’s death was followed by a public falling out among prominent Italian members of his “school” and by the collapse of the journal Storia contemporanea (in 1997, the more avowedly nationalist of his heirs, headed by Francesco Perfetti, began publishing Nuova storia contemporanea, a journal open in its friendship with the political Right). And yet the influence of the De Feliceans was most enhanced, especially internationally, by the work of Emilio Gentile, a younger professor at the University of Rome who was also fond of arguing that the first purpose of the historical profession is to record, and of asserting that abstraction, generalization, and methodological and philosophical lucubration could only be engaged in at the peril of “scholarship.” For Gentile, Fascism, like all historical moments, deserves to be treated on its own terms and to be granted its own historical specificity and autonomy. In this regard, he reiterated, De Felice was to be admired for helping to pull Italian historiography free from “the stagnating waters of ideological conformism,” notably those of “Marxism” and “professional Anti-Fascism,” that is, the ideas which, allegedly, had been triumphant in the 1970s.

As time wore on, Gentile had become rather more obviously the pupil of George Mosse than of De Felice (though in his obituary for De Felice in the Journal of Contemporary History on whose editorial board they both served, Gentile claimed that De Felice, too, had become more and more impressed by Mosse’s ideas). By 1998 Gentile’s international reputation was confirmed as a member of the wide-ranging Mossean culturalist school which also includes a very considerable number of American historians of Italian Fascism, ranging from Jeffrey Schnapp to Walter Adamson. In this story of the rise of a “culturalist” history of Fascism can be located a second, structuralist, explanation of the change in history writing about this part of the past over the last twenty years, in which the influence of the Great Man is set against the more general processes occurring in the moyenne duree.

In the history of Fascism, as in the history of many other things, and again in Italy as elsewhere, a scholarly passage has occurred away from a political and diplomatic history, strong in the 1950s. This variety of history writing was initially prompted by the apparently urgent need to explain the terrible crises of the 1930s to ensure that they did not recur. However, amid the shifting paradigms through which the past is always examined and changed, diplomatic and political history soon lost ground. From the 1960s, and embodied in “1968” in its full meaning or pretense, social history won many victories against its rival and occupied the cutting edge of history. Insofar as the history of Fascism was concerned, this change in historiographical fashion meant that the emphasis switched from the biography of leaders and the study of policy-making to accounts of Fascism in the regions, and eventually to efforts to explore the histories of peasants, women, and children, and any who might be defined as belonging to the “subaltern” classes under the regime.

By the mid-1980s, however, social history itself fell under challenge, as fashion moved on. Had the social historians really given voice to the “other”? Or were they so contaminated by Marxism and by an allegiance to class politics that they failed to read the full plurality of the human condition? If identity politics was the way of the future (and class was becoming something of an unmentionable), should not history also seek out the voiceless and humbly encourage every “culture” to speak? Should not social history give way to cultural history?

If E. E Thompson had been the seer of “new social history” (appropriately for historians of Fascism, he had himself helped to liberate Perugia and thereafter endorsed the genuine popular base of the Resistance struggle which he thought he then saw), now he was replaced by Clifford Geertz, a Princeton anthropologist with historical interests (though a pinch of Foucaultian discourse theory is also frequently evident in culturalist accounts). Geertz urged that “thick description” was the best way to depict “webs of significance” and thus, so the self-consciously radical proponents of culturalist “identity history” proclaimed, allow the other to be represented on its own terms. Even if, in some eyes, Geertzism amounted to a naive return to an advocacy of the sort of empathy and objectivity once endorsed by Rankeans, culturalist history now became the most applauded part of the discipline, the new guard of the cutting edge. By the late 1990s, all over the globe, acolytes of culturalism, pleased to serve the most modish of methodologies, triumphantly patrol the present historiographical path to the future.

Insofar as Italy was concerned, the political ambiguities of this culturalist line were well embodied by the confessedly “apolitical” Gentile who took to citing Geertz as he embarked on his reading of an alleged Fascist “new religion,” of an allegedly genuine Fascist totalitarianism, and of the allegedly successful Fascist “sacralization” of Italian political life. But perhaps Stanford’s Jeffrey T Schnapp expressed the most drastic statement of the culturalist position on Fascism. In Schnapp’s view, the Italian dictatorship had entailed “the wholesale theatricalization of Italian life.” All in all, “Fascism’s interpellative success in post-World War I Italy,” he added, pointed “less to the efficacy of certain violent tactics and policy initiatives or to the crisis of the liberal state than to the fact, well understood by Georges Bataille, that Fascism elaborated a myth far more powerful and psychologically astute than that provided by its liberal or socialist rivals.” If Schnapp were to be believed, in the beginning was the word and it had godly powers. Liberal politicians and socialist Case del Lavoro, it seemed, had surrendered their careers, their property, or their lives, because they had not been spoken aright.

For all their contemporary dressage and for all their universal triumph, the theses of culturalist history and the political implications of its work were by no means new. Indeed, the very first postwar liberal reaction to the “era of fascism,” as expressed in the work of such great figures as Croce and Meinecke, had also treated fascism (whether the Italian or German variety)on its own terms, while simultaneously writing off its significance and urging that fascist history be sepgated from natural human progress at both ends by “parentheses.” De Felice, Gentile, and the rest also approach Mussolinian Fascism as though it were bracketed from past and future, but they condescend to study it rather than just dismiss it as anomalous; at least some of their colleagues regard it as “fascinating” rather than a matter to give fastidio, as Croce had once loftily advised. Similarly, in the years following 1945, there were numerous historical accounts that tried to avoid both the model of totalitarianism and that of generic fascism, and to urge historical specificity. To give but one example, Gilbert Allardyce’s witty demolition (1979) of theoreticians of fascism concluded that “the word fascismo had no meaning beyond Italy” and that the Nazi regime was incomparable, a “thing apart.” At the same time, of course, Allardyce was determinedly arguing that liberalism was exempt from any special involvement with historic fascism. In so doing, Allardyce, one of those historiographical physicians who need to recall Aesop’s advice about first healing themselves, also explained that “changing interpretations of fascism reflect the illusions of the periods that produce them,” without seeing that the same dictum could be applied to himself. In his anti-Marxism and his general distrust of all ideologies except liberalism, Allardyce was heralding the new conservatism of the 1980s and paving the way to the end of history.

Perhaps the presence of a rich humus of past accounts of Fascism rejecting the view that class issues mattered most in this dictatorship bas further assisted the anti-anti-Fascist orthodoxy to solidify its place in contemporary Italian culture. Certainly, not all those who are arrayed against the alleged falsity of the antiFascist vulgate and who urge a new history are sophisticated Geertzian culturalists. Indeed, in the case of such pundits as Ernesto Galli della Loggia, some who demand a historiographical paradigm shift might well deny that methodology amounts to anything more than a personal preference about the mode of writing. Apart from the familiar conclusions of De Felice as listed above, what, then, are the main theses of the successful revisionists? How does their historical account differ from that of their predecessors and their ideological enemies?

First and foremost, the revisionists, rather than concentrating on the Fascist regime itself, batter away at any residual virtue which might be thought to reside in the Resistance. De Felice’s own two volumes on the history of Mussolini in the war (published in 1990 and 1997 respectively) were accompanied by what might be described as search and destroy missions against a positive history of anti-Fascism. Agreeing that Italy experienced a civil war from 1943 to 1945, the new historians are sure that the fighting partisans composed a tiny minority of the population. Moreover, the motivation of those men and women who joined the Resistance was fanatical or cynical or both, and, worse, their propensity to murder did not end in April 1945, but continued for months afterwards, for example in the “triangle of death” in the Emilia Romagna (precisely that region of Italy which after 1945 would become the heartland of communist faith, “good administration,” and anti-Fascist history). The wickedness of the Resistance in those months exposed a more profound sin, which tied any who espoused its myth irredeemably to all the sins of the Russian revolution after 1917. During the 1970s, the PCI had liked to emphasize its pursuit of an “Italian road to socialism” and guaranteed its virtue and independence by reference to the Resistance, that earlier moment, party faithful maintained, of a “historic compromise” between all Italians of goodwill. Now the revisionists declared that, even in 1943-45, the communists and their friends had not benefited the Italian people.

If the PCI’s domestic policy was bad, its foreign policy was worse, the revisionists proclaimed. Indeed, anti-Fascists not infrequently were de facto mercenaries, hirelings of the USSR and Stalin, and willing to betray the national interests of Italy to their real masters. Especially on the northeastern border where the Garibaldi brigades of the PCI met Tito’s Yugoslav communists, the nation was in peril. The foibe (or pits) of the Carso became the cruel killing fields of Italian citizens slaughtered because they were guilty only of wanting to save Trieste for the patria or of otherwise opposing “Slav” ambition. At Porzus, where the Brigata Osoppo met its end (an event which was the topic of a film exhibited in 1997 at the Venice festival), and at other similar places, communist resisters and any who worked with them (and that often meant the followers of Ferruccio Parri and of the democratic organization Giustizia e Liberta) had been the common enemies of any who saw merit in the Italian state and nation. They bore a generalized guilt for the collapse of Italian patriotism after 1943. in revisionist literature, it sometimes seemed, any ethical discussion of Fascism had been set aside in order to satisfy the urgent perceived need to expose the evil of anti-Fascism.

This sort of re-dimensioning of the past no doubt has, on occasion, some justification the anti-Fascist historian Claudio Pavone, in his Una guerra civile 1943-1945: saggio storica sulla moralita della Resistenza, had already favored a more articulated reading of the Resistance than in some of its more naively politically-freighted histories; and it is plain enough that not every male or female resister was a gentil, parfait paladin of human good. However, anti-antiFascist historiography is also frequently problematic, and has entailed a tendentious and sometimes remarkably “unhistorical” revision of the Italian past, which often goes ludicrously or menacingly far in blaming the victims. In so doing it doubtless reflects the spirit of the times in the 1990s, in Italy as elsewhere, and the current greater awareness of the sins of the Left rather than of those of the Right.

How can my usage of that often tendentious word “unhistorical” be justified? As a microcosm within a microcosm, let us briefly return to the Porzus incident and its recent historical re/presentation. In the Friulian village of that name, a score of patriots who sought both to be anti-communist and anti-Nazi-fascist were surrounded and killed by communist partisans. So much may be admitted and condemned. However, the incident should not be read out of context, both of the general horror of the Second World War and of the more specific bitter ethnic war which had raged on Italy’s northeastern border since at least 1942 (that year some 70,000 Fascist soldiers were stationed in the region to try to preserve “order”). Actually, the conflict had roots which went back to the origins of Fascism and its incorporation of those border nationalists who, even before 1922, favored a variety of ethnic cleansing as the only certain method to defend the frontier which Italy had gained during the First World War and from the subsequent peace settlement. It is telling that, of the not very large number of civilians executed for political crimes in Fascist Italy, about half were Slovenes. Blaming communist perpetrators is all very well, but those who killed at Porzus were not the only perpetrators of violence in that part of the world.

What, it should be asked in conclusion, are the more general implications of the new accounts of Fascism? What is their relationship both with the contemporary Italian scene and with what is currently occurring in other states in which the reflexes of the “long” Second World War either grow fainter or are otherwise adapting themselves to current politics?

One way to explore these questions is to return to the rising career of Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the “post-fascist” National Alliance. To the occasional dismay of more simpleminded nostalgics of Fascism, including naturally enough, Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra, Fini has re-made a history for the Italian right. Its lineaments deserve more general contemplation.

In post-fascist eyes the history of italy from 1922 to 1945 is split into two phases. One ran to about 1938 and was the period of an essentially “good” Fascism. Until then, Mussolini presided over a helpfully “modernizing” national regime, even if it was one whose policies were corrupted by the general evil of the age of totalitarianism. Only after 1938 did the dictatorship become “bad” with its adoption of anti-Semitic policies, and even then some defense is possible, for example in regard to the “civil war,” when the proponents of the Salo Republic were more likely to be pure patriots than were their enemies from the Left. In sum, Fascism erred when it imitated communism by wanting too powerful a state and when it persecuted the Jews; these are the only crimes or follies which its heirs might want to regret.

Most remarkable and questionable about this interpretation is not so much its inclusions as its omissions. What of the anti-socialism, anti-parliamentary liberalism, and anti-communism of Mussolini’s movement? What of its murders of Matteotti, Minzoni, Amendola, and the rest? What of its vicious policies in Libya and Ethiopia, including the deployment of chemical weapons? What of its racism there (actually in the empire the perpetrators were most usually members of the Royal Italian Army and not fanaticized Fascists—here were the Italian equivalent of “ordinary men”)? What of its warmongering in Europe? What of its retrograde policies towards women or the working class? What of its responsibility for Italy’s participation in World War II in alliance with Nazi Germany and for the failure of the Fascist war effort? If post-fascist history becomes the ruling version of the past, all of these familiar negative features of Fascism seem destined either to be forgotten or to dwindle into becoming no more than unremarkable fragments in the rich mosaic of human history.

These processes of forgetting and obscuring may be particularly evident in Italy but they are not confined to that country alone, Take the most celebrated study of the Holocaust in recent years, political scientist Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Goldhagen has had plenty of critics, but his views deserve for a moment to be linked to the Italian context. His argument is nothing if not simple—Germans willed the Holocaust; every German was its perpetrator. The “long” Second World War has one and only one meaning; it was a German “war against the Jews.”

Of course there are many reasons to argue that this variety of “terrible simplification” will not do as a survey of the lessons of Europe’s crisis in the first half of this century. In the killing of the Jews, it is unreasonable to blame all on a German original sin, impossible to deny a Lithuanian, Romanian, Croatian, French, Italian (especially from 1943 to 1945), and many another participation. Similarly, though the issue is contested, it remains unconvincing to many to affirm that anti-Semitism is the only racism that really matters. Indeed, the negative implications of such a reading of the past on the present are soon obvious when, it sometimes seems, members of Alleanza Nazionale can be as racist as they wish towards third world immigrants or towards Italy’s Slovenian and other “Slav” neighbors, so long as they acknowledge the “error” of 1938 (and “post-fascists” and others who flaunt their racial politics are an important political presence in France, Austria, and many other countries apart from Italy).

In sum, the new historiography of the “long” Second World war is obscuring, as, on occasion, did the old, the history of those years and enfeebling what might remain crucial lessons for the present and future. Part of the problem is the too overwhelming triumph of the model of totalitarianism which, despite its sometimes convincing exposure of the evils of communism, repeatedly hides the facts that communists were victims, too, that Stalin’s regime (or the Soviet peoples) contributed massively to victory in 1945, and that the conflict between Nazi-fascism and communism was as visceral and horrifying a feature of the barbarization of warfare on the eastern front as was anti-Semitism. The other issue is more longstanding, though its negative side is being enhanced by contemporary historiographicai developments. Critical history and national history have not worked easily together. Rather, in their readings of the past, many European societies have failed to face up to their perpetrations during the war or in regard to other aspects of their recent history. In their preference for a cozy national story in which they were almost always brava gente (nice people), Italians are scarcely unique. The French have been notoriously slow to examine the deep roots of Vichyism in their history before 1940 and after 1945. The British have been ludicrously sure that they had the best moral, military, and technological part in World War II. The Japanese, victims perhaps at Nagasaki, have regularly claimed to be victims in toto. Indeed, in a way that makes Goldhagen’s arguments aH the more distorted, on most counts only the Germans have gone an appreciable distance towards accepting a critical history for themselves (and even they have been better at acknowledging Nazi anti-Semitism than at admitting the other violent negatives of German thought and practice during the Nazi regime),

De Felicean historians are fond of suggesting that moralizing about history constitutes an unworthy and unprofessional backsliding from objectivity and scholarship. Reviewing Italians’ comprehensions of the “long” Second World War in 1998, some points might be made to the contrary. First, those revisionists who have drawn succor from the anti-anti-Fascist crusade have frequently fostered a silence and forgetting about the most serious and regrettable aspects of Fascism. Furthermore, although it may be true that anti-Fascist history had its faults, perhaps its worst failure was not to moralize enough, or with enough rigor, about the not infrequent perpetrations which exist in the Italian past. It is worth remembering that, in their papering over of “the horror, the horror” of the twentieth century’s determination to place each nation in a Darwinian struggle of the fittest and to deploy history as the discipline best equipped to justify each nation’s cause, revisionist Italians are today scarcely alone. In 1998, critical history continues to need all the friends can get.