Italy Must Confront Its Past to Stave Off the Far-Right

This year’s seasonal springtime rise in temperatures is expected to deepen Europe’s refugee crisis by bringing about a significant rise in the number of harried migrants approaching its shores. Italy, with its long and porous coastline, remains among the most severely affected countries; 15,000 people have sought refuge in the country in the past three months— a year-upon-year increase of 43%.

As is the case throughout Europe, increased migration has spurred a resurgence of anti-migrant and racist sentiment. In northern Italy, militant right-wingers have torched Muslim prayer rooms in refugee camps and frequently agitate against foreigners.

More worryingly, such extremism is going mainstream. The ultra-nationalist Northern League political party, considered moribund as recently as 2013 when it hovered around 3-4% in the polls, has jolted back to life by riding the coattails of its popular leader— Matteo Salvini— and his almost daily dose of vituperative anti-migrant rhetoric. The party now stands at 15% in the polls and fluctuates between third and fourth place nationally.

A lot of support for the far-right stems from Italians’ frustration with the seemingly unstoppable influx of migrants, but it also emanates from exalted views of the history of Italy’s far-right. Many Italians romanticize Fascist Italy’s record, in particular, its exploits abroad, which makes support for parties on the far-right palatable not only to extremists, but to ordinary level-headed voters as well.

A commonly held view (and not only among Italians) is that Italian colonialism was of a milder and more benevolent hue than that practiced by other Europeans. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of Fascist Italy’s abominable record.

Ensuring that Italians become better acquainted, and less romantic, about Fascism’s domestic and international record is important. The better informed they become, the less likely it is that Italians will fall prey to the fallacies propagated by rightist parties about the past and present, and the more likely that a greater number of Italians will reject the anti-migrant polices advocated by the far-right.

Italy in Africa: a Gruesome Past

In volume I of his magisterial 4-volume work chronicling Italo-East Africa relations from the mid-19th century to the 1970s, historian Angelo Del Boca opens with a prologue entitled “warning” in all caps. In it, Del Boca writes that his book encapsulates the “history of a poor [Italian] people pushed by an irresponsible minority to pursue an insane concept of national prestige which included aggression against peoples who were even poorer than they.”

He adds that his work seeks to debunk the myth that Italian colonialism was “‘different,’ that is to say, more humane, more enlightened, more tolerant” than the colonialism of Italy’s European counterparts.
By the mid-1930s, though a junior player in colonial geopolitics, Italian possessions in Africa encompassed Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia. Mussolini sought to expand his country’s nascent empire by forcefully incorporating Ethiopia; doing so, would avenge Italy’s defeat by Ethiopia in 1896 and allow, following an eventual hoped-for conquest of the Sudan, control over a stretch of land running from Libya’s Mediterranean coast to Somalia’s shores along the Red Sea.

Fascist Italy’s war efforts in Ethiopia were tainted from the start. In order to defeat the enemy, Italians employed overwhelming numbers, indiscriminately bombed villages and Red Cross camps and ambulances; most ignominiously, they deployed poison gas, despite being a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning its use. Little wonder, then, that Marshal Graziani, commander of Italian forces on the southern front, pledged that he would deliver Ethiopia to Il Duce “with the Ethiopians or without them, just as he pleases.”

The perpetration of atrocities continued unabated post-conquest. The Italian occupation of Ethiopia lasted from 1936 to 1941, with Italian control principally limited to urban areas, since the countryside fell mostly under the domain of patriots engaged in guerrilla warfare. Here too, as reflected in a missive sent to Graziani, Mussolini directed that wanton aerial bombardments and poison gas be used to demolish any resistance.

Brazen acts of public resistance sparked the most savage reprisals. In 1937, after an attempt in Addis Ababa on the life of Graziani (who had been appointed Viceroy) by two Eritreans (with the support, it now appears, of a broad underground network of Ethiopians and Eritreans working in concert), the Fascist regime unleashed a mob of militant fascists upon the city. For three days, thousands of fascists went on a rampage across the Ethiopian capital, plundering at will, shooting indiscriminately, and using flamethrowers, shovels, daggers, axes, and hammers to randomly hack civilians.

When all was said and done, in the course of a few days, anywhere between 30,000 (Ethiopian figures) and 3,000 (Italian figures) Ethiopians had been killed. Whether the body count lay on either end of the spectrum, or somewhere in between, the gruesome behavior of the occupying administration put fascism’s barbarity on full display.

Characterizing the massacre in a telegram, the American Consul-General at the time wrote, “I have seen no such display of unbridled brutality and cowardice since the Armenian massacres.” In a report to London, the British representative remarked that, “[I]f the facts were known abroad in every disgusting detail…the name of Italy [would] stink in the nostrils of the civilized world.”

Places of worship did not go unspared. In the most infamous extension of the violence perpetrated in Addis, fascists attacked the important monastery of Debre Libanos, whose monks had temporarily sheltered the two Eritreans and were then accused by Graziani to have been complicit in the assassination attempt. The Italian forces ransacked the monastery and murdered 449 monks.
Fascism’s abhorrent acts were not limited to the war or subsequent pacification campaigns. One need not go any further than Fascism’s reprehensible racial laws to glean the true nature of the regime. In the 1930s, the fascist state promulgated a series of laws which decreed separate lodgings for locals and whites, and banned the shared use of most public spaces.

The separation of races was taken so seriously that, at one time, the Italians even envisioned moving all Ethiopians outside the capital, where they were to live with their entry into Addis to occur only via a series of checkpoints established for security and hygiene purposes. There, they would be cleansed of any “bodily parasites” and their clothing “disinfected.” By 1940, steady progress had been made towards the realization of this vision, with 35,000 Italians residing in Addis and 20,000 Ethiopians having been moved outside it.

Again, Del Boca’s trenchant observation is instructive. He writes, “Not even the South Africans who took apartheid to its extreme, were ever able to put in place such a merciless and degrading barrier for hygienic and military purposes.”

This body of racial laws was “perfected” in 1939 with the passage of legislation banning acts deemed “damaging to the prestige of the Italian race.” No infraction was considered more injurious to such prestige than the sexual intermingling of the races. The Italians even sent prostitutes from the motherland in an attempt to preempt any illicit liaisons and banned interracial marriages. Violation of the laws carried with it penalties as severe as incarceration for five years.

These laws enjoyed the support of Fascist leaders and thinkers, some of whom dismissively derided the attempts at limited integration by other colonial powers, such as the French who sought to assimilate a limited number of Africans as citoyens of the Republic. The Fascists warned that these were misguided actions and that they did nothing but promote racial decay.

Despite their best efforts, amorous liaisons between Ethiopians and Italians did not cease. By some estimates, between 1936 and 1940, 10,000 mixed children were born in Italian East Africa. This befuddled Fascist lawmakers who were unclear about how to treat such “illegitimate” offspring— were they to be considered locals or Italians? The solution to the legal limbo in which mixed race children found themselves was found towards the end of the Italian occupation. A law passed in 1940 definitively categorized mixed race children as “black.”

To be sure, the Fascists left concrete contributions that were put to use long after they left. Most important among these were the construction of thousands of kilometers of roads and new neighborhoods in towns and the capital, as well as the provision to Addis of its first regular supply of electricity. Other relics of the Italian presence include the integration of certain Italian words into the Amharic lexicon (say, those for automobiles and their parts), and the widespread consumption of pasta, second only to the national cuisine. However, these contributions were irremediably outweighed by Fascism’s atrocities.

Post-War Italy’s Non-Reckoning with Fascism

Very little of Fascism’s atrocious record in Ethiopia, and throughout Libya and the rest of East Africa, is known to Italians. The exigencies of building a post-war Italian state were thought to be best-served by avoiding critical examination of fascism. Italy’s ruling class, embodied by the Christian Democratic Party that dominated politics for the next fifty years, believed that widespread trials of fascist leaders could lead to social unrest and risked tearing the fragile new republic asunder. Intriguingly, efforts to sweep Fascist crimes under the rug were abetted by Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of Italy’s Communist Party who served as Italy’s post-war Justice Minister (one theory is that he was wary that trials of Fascist war criminals would bring demands for similar trials of leftist partisans who fought against Fascism in Italy).

The end result of this reluctance was that no Fascist was ever tried for war crimes committed in Africa. At the end of the war, Graziani was sentenced to 19 years in prison (but released after serving only 4 months) for his collaboration with the Nazis towards the end of World War II.
As such, a proper reckoning with history was sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

Another equally relevant reason to avoid confronting the past was straightforward: pride. As recently as 1981, Italian state censors prohibited release in theaters of the movie entitled Lion of the Desert, featuring Anthony Quinn, which chronicles the tribal leader Omar Mukhtar’s uprising against Italian colonization, as well as its brutal suppression by the Italians in ways which paralleled those later used in Ethiopia. Italy’s pre-eminent post-war politician and three-time Prime Minister Andreotti commented that the film was “damaging to the honor of the army.”

As a result, post-war Italy never underwent any soul-searching about Fascism’s dark colonial past. Most Italians remain unaware of fascism’s foreign brutalities and history textbooks make nary a mention of them, just like Japanese textbooks gloss over that country’s war crimes.

The only Africa-related Fascist war crime eliciting public discussion was a recurring debate about poison gas. Some of those who took the position that Italy had refrained from using poison gas were prominent personalities. Indro Montanelli, the country’s venerated conservative journalist and an avid participant in such debates, maintained, for most of his life that poison gas was never used or, if it was, that it was used sparingly. The beguiling basis for his argument? As a young 26-year old war correspondent, he had not witnessed fascist troops wear gas masks.

The absence of any honest sustained debate about fascism’s bloodstained foreign record, and its erasure from the collective memory of Italians, meant that the country’s reputation remained relatively unsullied in the eyes of foreigners and Italians alike.

To this day, it is not rare for Italians, upon knowing that one is Ethiopian, Somali, or Eritrean, to ask, “That [country] was ours, right?” This question is then inevitably followed by inquiries about whether Italians are well-liked in East Africa. The answer, almost always provided by Ethiopians, is “yes;” but that “yes” is not an expression of nostalgia for the occupation, which such line of questioning seeks not-so-slyly to ascertain. Ethiopians draw a distinction between Italians— for whose history, culture and affability they retain that same fondness shared by others— and the horrors perpetrated by Fascists.

So enduring was the imprint of Fascist atrocities on the Ethiopian consciousness that, to this day, regimes accused of cruelty and wanton killings, irrespective of their ideological leanings, are labeled “fascist.” A prime example being the military cum-communist dictatorship which ruled Ethiopia in the seventies and eighties, which is referred to as “Fascist.”

The Rise in Support for Neo-Fascist and Anti-Immigrant Parties

In a decisive break with its past, Italy’s political class has tried to engage more vigorously with Africa, including with countries with which it has a tortured past. Italian President Mattarella visited Ethiopia last month and, in a sign of respect and contrition, left a wreath of flowers at the monument dedicated to victims of the Occupation. He also shook hands afterwards with ninety year old Ethiopian veterans who had fought the Italians, including a woman, in attendance.

In a rare example of self-criticism in its coverage of the President’s visit, the Italian daily, La Stampa, wrote that in Ethiopia, “Italians had not proven themselves to be ‘brava gente’ [good people] as we like to hear being said by others.”

Italy’s youthful Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in his first two years in office, has been to Africa three times, including Ethiopia. He is the first sitting Italian Prime Minister to have ever visited sub-Saharan Africa.

In both cases, several motivations may have undergirded the trips— in Mattarella’s case, promoting Italy’s bid for a non-permanent Security Council seat, for Renzi, business deal making—but the desire to forge a new partnership with Africa is unmistakable. This commitment is underscored by a ministerial-level conference on Africa to be hosted by Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs this May.

The willingness to chart a new course with the continent requires, as a point of departure, acknowledgment and understanding of the brutalities of the past, yet such awareness has yet to percolate to the general public.

Despite its wretched history, some Italians continue to idolize fascist war criminals as vividly manifested by the recent erection of a mausoleum in Graziani’s honor. And still too many Italians remain unaware of Fascism’s record in Africa.

An exception to the norm is a young Italian filmmaker by the name of Valerio Ciriaci. Ciriaco has directed a documentary (If only I were that Warrior) that seeks to chronicle the Italian occupation of Ethiopia and unresolved issues between the two countries, though the film is not without its flaws. Ciriaco says that most Italians who have watched the documentary have never heard of atrocities like the massacre of Debre Libanos and are left perturbed by the film.

Pro-Fascist tendencies are more visible not only in remembrances of the Italian experience in Africa, but more broadly in politics with the marked rise in support for far right parties and their anti-migrant rhetoric. These parties have, no doubt, been helped by the fact that unlike in Germany, there is no broad moratorium on Fascist political organizations. Indeed, Mussolini’s granddaughter, who regularly trumpets her grandfather’s political record, has previously been elected to the Italian Parliament and is now a European MP.

Pro-Fascist anti-foreigner sentiments are not limited to those at the margins of politics. One need look no further than the growing support for the anti-migrant, increasingly Fascist, Northern League. Initially a party advocating more autonomy— and at times secession— for the more prosperous Italian north, the Northern League has morphed into a bigoted far-right party with national political aspirations.

The party’s members have harassed immigrants and refugees, and insulted Italy’s former (and first) black cabinet member. The Northern League governor of the northeastern Veneto region, one of Italy’s most important, has urged that immigrants be prevented from working in hotel receptions or in other areas where they would interface with tourists, claiming that their mere sight might deter tourism.

The romanticisation of Fascism and the embrace of the far right is more widespread than would appear at first blush. Embrace of ultra-rightist thinking goes beyond the 15% of Italians who are presently thought to support the Northern League, but is also reflected in the Casa Pound party (named after avowed American Fascist writer, Ezra Pound) that has sealed an alliance with the Northern League. Neo-Fascists are also members of the Brothers of Italy—National Alliance party, as well as within the rightwing of Silvio Berlusconi’s mainstream Go Italy party.

Italians’ growing support for neo-Fascism, and the ill-advised hankering for an inglorious part of a glorious past, should be resisted and reversed. One way to do this is to better convey the fundamental decency of the refugees arriving on Italy’s shores. However, equally important is better informing Italians of Fascism’s appalling record, of which too many know too little.

Better acquaintance with Fascism’s past is an important first step in persuading Italians to move away from the far right and towards refugee policies that are characterized by humaneness, rather than xenophobia. Otherwise, to borrow from Del Boca, a large number of Italians risk, yet again, being led astray by an irresponsible minority.

Photo Caption: Venice, Italy – May 24, 2015: Supporters of Lega Nord party, the Northern League, canvassing local voters in Lido, Venice ahead of local, regional and Mayoral elections.

by Fasil Amdetsion @FasilAGM


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