The Legacy of the Italian Resistance

July 28, 2011

Italy presently boasts three separate and rival days to commemorate its Second World War. 25 April hails the Resistance; January mourns the Shoah (although without admission of Italians' own history of racism and anti-Semitism); and 10 February recalls the killings on the north-eastern frontier at the end of the war and in its aftermath, many perpetrated in the foibe, natural caverns in the hills around Trieste. 10 February is also the anniversary of the date in 1947 that Italy signed the Treaty of Paris that formally concluded its war and, with the acceptance of the loss of empire, signalled the blighting of Italian hopes, alive since the Risorgimento, of being acknowledged as a Great Power.

The different days carry distinct resonances: 25 April is associated with the Left, however defined, and 10 February with the resurgent "Berlusconian" Right. Yet they have much in common. All three assume that Italy, the country that from 1922 to 1945 was governed by Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, and that from 1940 fought the Second World War as the first ally of Nazi Germany, is to be comprehended in public memory as a victim and not as a perpetrator. Here is history patriotically manipulated to hide the fact that, in its 20th-century wars, Italy was responsible for a million premature deaths.

So, 25 April, from the beginning, was always as much about forgetting as it was about truth. Members of the seemingly victorious anti-Fascist Resistance chose that day, linked to popular uprisings in Milan and elsewhere, and ignored 28 April (the date in 1945 when Mussolini died) and 29 April (when the Germans surrendered to Allied forces), dates that might have better underlined Italy's perpetration of war and tyranny.

Philip Cooke's history of the changing comprehensions of Fascist war glosses over this particular context, preferring to fix on 25 April and measure the process of memorialisation against what he argues began as, and remained, the Resistance's virtuous commitment to democracy. But although he treasures the partisans' opposition to dictatorship, he casts his definitions widely to great effect.

The book begins with an account of events in immediate post-war Italy, where facts rather than memory are Cooke's concern, where the rash of political murders are rationalised with some conviction and where the defeat of the Left and the onset of the Cold War are described. He also considers the creation of an Italian communist historiography which, with greater or lesser credibility, tended thereafter to use anti-Fascism as proof of the party's commitment to "democracy" and the nation (the Resistance was emphatically labelled the "Second Risorgimento"), distinguishing it from what, at least after 1956, were grudgingly admitted to have been the cruelties of Stalinism. In time, Cooke switches his analysis from events to texts - memoirs, novels and films. His method is established and continues through successive chapters to the present, with a mixture of political narrative and textual commentary. By the 1990s, what Cooke respectfully calls the "iconic date" of 25 April was challenged by the rise of Silvio Berlusconi and his cynical but saleable manipulation of memory in his own cause, in which the curious Italian version of neoliberalism constructed a free market out of the past.

As an onlooker, Cooke remains optimistic about Italy's willingness to face the resulting falsehoods, urging its historians to revive knowledge of the Resistance. Contemplating today's Italy, however, readers may retain their pessimism of the intellect. Honest memory is as distant in 2011 as it was in 1943.

The Legacy of the Italian Resistance

By Philip Cooke. Palgrave Macmillan, 6pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780230114104. Published 28 April 2011

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