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Kinder, Gentler Fascism

This summer the president of the Italian state broadcasting system, RAI, addressed the national congress of the National Alliance, the right-wing party led principally by what are known as ”post-Fascists.” The official, Antonio Baldassarre, announced that it was time to ”rewrite history” — that is, as it is presented on Italian television.

”The old RAI represented only one culture and not others,” he said. ”Often, they didn’t tell real history, but told fables, offered one-sided interpretations.” This exhortation before a party whose older leaders were youthful Fascists had a very clear meaning: no more black-and-white representations of anti-Fascists and partisan fighters as noble patriots and Fascists as evil criminals.

History, cynics say, is written by the winners. At the end of World War II, the anti-Fascists — who had been kept out of public life for 20 years — got to tell their story and name streets and piazzas after their heroes. But with the return of a center-right coalition last year, whose second-largest party is the National Alliance, many on the right feel that it is their turn now.

Domenico Fisichella, a professor of political science at the University of Rome and a senator representing the National Alliance, believes that the political changes have opened up new possibilities. ”The right has given up Fascism as a model,” he said. ”And at the same time, the historiographical debate on the Fascist period has grown more serene, more balanced.” Mr. Fisichella first proposed forming the National Alliance in 1994 out of what had, up to that time, been a neo-Fascist party known as the Italian Social Movement. He is one of several scholars who have offered a more mixed judgment of the Fascist era.

”It was clearly an authoritarian government but not a totalitarian one,” he said in a telephone interview. ”Fascism committed serious errors that led to the tragedy we all know,” he added, referring to the alliance with Hitler and World War II. ”But it also passed a great deal of social and economic legislation that was quite valid, that was innovative for its time and even copied in part by the New Deal in ending the Depression. The gospel of left-wing historiography failed to make these distinctions and simply bunched Fascism with Nazism.”

An end to the demonization of Fascism by scholars created an opportunity for Italy’s old neo-Fascist party to move from the political fringe toward the center. The leadership of the National Alliance has seized it and gone out of its way to distance itself from Fascism. The party leader, Gianfranco Fini, has criticized Fascism’s racial laws and has traveled to both Auschwitz and Israel. Earlier this year, he publicly retracted a statement he had made 10 years ago calling Benito Mussolini ”the greatest statesman of the 20th century.”

Moreover, Mr. Fini proclaimed April 25 — the date in 1945 when World War II ended in Italy — a day for all Italians to celebrate the return of liberty and democracy. This was a major concession: most of the leaders of the old Italian Social Movement and many in the newer National Alliance had been repubblichini, young volunteers in the Republic of Salo, the government of die-hard Fascists who fought alongside Mussolini and Hitler after the official Italian government had switched sides and thrown in its lot with the Anglo-American allies.

The two movements may seem contradictory — the post-Fascists being more critical of Fascism and the historians treating it more kindly — but they are intimately related. The rehabilitation of the National Alliance would probably not have been possible without a gradual softening of the portrayal of Fascism both in the scholarly literature and the popular media. If the older leaders of the National Alliance were regarded as war criminals like the Nazis, it would have been impossible for them to occupy positions in the government. But now one former repubblichino, Mirko Tremaglia, is even a minister of the current government.

A less unfavorable view of the Mussolini era is prevailing, partly because of the political necessity of integrating the former neo-Fascists into the mainstream. For example, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia (Go, Italy) party leads the government, justifies his partnership with the National Alliance by saying that the good in Fascism must be remembered as well as the bad. A few years ago, Francesco Rutelli, a center-left politician who was then the mayor of Rome, proposed naming a street after Giuseppe Bottai, minister of education under Mussolini. The idea was dropped when many protested that Bottai had enthusiastically carried out the racial laws that forced Jewish professors and students out of the Italian public school system.

This trend is a marked change. For much of the postwar period, Fascism was portrayed as a criminal regime imposed by Mussolini and his squads of Black Shirts — a 20-year ”parenthesis” in the history of a democratic Italy that began with independence in 1861. This view was challenged during the 1970’s by scholars like Mr. Fisichella but, most important, by Renzo De Felice, a historian who devoted more than 30 years to a multivolume biography of Mussolini and whose work dominated the Italian historiography of Fascism until his death a few years ago.

”De Felice offered a broader and less moralistic picture of Fascism,” said Roberto Vivarelli, a professor of history at the University of Florence. ”I think he showed that Fascism was not extraneous to the history of Italy, not a parenthesis.”

De Felice insisted that the demonization of Fascism failed to explain adequately its rise and hold on one of the principal countries of Europe. Mussolini, he argued, enjoyed popularity and the ”consensus” of most of the country up until World War II. De Felice stressed the differences between Italian Fascism and German National Socialism. Fascism, despite its claim to being a ”totalitarian” regime, was, he argued, a softer dictatorship that retained much of the liberal bureaucracy, made peace with the Roman Catholic Church and did not share Hitler’s obsession with racism and the Jews. (Mussolini, he observed, adopted racial laws only on the eve of the war, largely to cement his alliance with Germany.)

Even some historians with impeccable anti-Fascist credentials feel that the re-examination of Fascism has led to a more rounded, less doctrinaire history. Claudio Pavone, a former resistance fighter and historian, for example, annoyed some anti-Fascists when he portrayed the struggle between partisans and repubblichini at the end of World War II as a civil war instead of a war of liberation. It was a war that pitted Italians against other Italians, and tens of thousands of repubblichini, he argued, volunteered out of genuine patriotic fervor, however unpleasant or misguided.

Yet many others feel that De Felice went too far in rehabilitating Fascism. In a recent collection of essays debating the merits of De Felice’s work, Denis Mack Smith, an Oxford historian, denounces De Felice for minimizing the uglier side of Fascism, like Mussolini’s personal responsibility for killing political opponents and leading Italy to ruin in World War II.

Nicola Tranfaglia, a professor of history at the University of Turin, argues that De Felice overstated Il Duce’s popular support. ”I think it’s wrong to speak of ‘consensus’ in a dictatorship,” he said. Mussolini enjoyed a measure of popularity, even adulation, Mr. Tranfaglia said, but never dared put it to the test of free elections.

During the 1980’s, cruder and more simplified versions of the De Felice thesis began to circulate. Contrary to Mr. Baldassarre’s assertion that RAI has told only one side of the story of Fascism, the state broadcasting system used De Felice as a consultant on many broadcasts and hired a number of his less refined acolytes to make documentaries. Some of them offered admiring portraits of Fascist leaders that included little historical context.

Indeed, in response to Mr. Baldassarre’s remarks about the one-sided, left-wing history of the state broadcasting system, James Walston, a professor of history at the American University of Rome, pointed out that RAI had run films that focused on the courageous efforts of Italian Army officials to rescue Jews during World War II, while glossing over the effects of Mussolini’s racial laws and the Republic of Salo’s collaboration with the Nazis in deporting Jews.

To Victoria de Grazia, a professor of history at Columbia University, De Felice exercised undue influence in determining the way history was written. ”By declaring that Mussolini was not Hitler, he closed the door on good, comparative research between Germany and Italy,” she said. De Felice was in the unusual position of being the first to receive the documents of the Italian state as they were declassified. He kept much important material at his home, and controlled access to it carefully. (Since De Felice’s death, she added, important new work has been done on the darker sides of Fascism, like the killing of political opponents and the massacres during the invasions of Ethiopia and Yugoslavia.)

But far more publicity has gone to books pushing an increasingly revisionist point of view. In 1996 in his book ”La Morte della Patria” (”The Death of the Fatherland”), Ernesto Galli della Loggia, a professor of history at the University of Perugia and a prominent conservative political commentator, even blamed those who fought alongside the Anglo-American allies for the death of national feeling in Italy.

A strange confirmation of the reversal of the usual opposition between ”good partisans” and ”evil Fascists” came in 1997 when a Rome magistrate opened a war-crimes investigation of the partisans who had blown up a convoy of German soldiers during World War II. The judge, Maurizio Pacioni, maintained that the partisans were responsible for the death of an 11-year-old boy accidentally killed by the partisans’ bomb, but shelved the case because of an amnesty for crimes from the Fascist period. (Members of the National Alliance had encouraged the boy’s family to pursue the case.) Nonetheless, what had always been regarded as a heroic episode had now, in the eyes of some, been criminalized.

A romantic version of the Republic of Salo — as noble loyalists to a lost cause — and a new critical view of the partisan struggle have already seeped into the popular media, said Massimo Salvadori, a historian at the University of Turin.

”There was one RAI broadcast that portrayed the repubblichini as more morally coherent, patriots who refused to change sides even when defeat was imminent, while the partisans were seen to be opportunistic turncoats who were jumping on the winning bandwagon,” he said. The need to recognize former repubblichini in the government as people of good faith, Mr. Salvadori says, has distorted the historical discussion: ”What matters to me as a historian is not good faith, but the objective consequences of people’s actions. Many Nazi storm troopers were no doubt also in good faith, believing they were serving their country, but what were the consequences of their actions? The Republic of Salo fought alongside Hitler, and had they won, it would have meant dictatorship in Italy and the rest of Europe. The consequence of the partisan struggle was to restore democracy and civil liberties to Italy. So, objectively, I think it’s possible to say one was right and the other wrong.”

Curiously, in a period in which so many are bending over backward to be fair to Fascism, it is now left to a former neo-Fascist, Mr. Fini, the leader of the National Alliance, to state that the anti-Fascist victory ending World War II was a victory for all Italians.

– September 28, 2002

Published at The New York Times

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