One of the most infamous attacks against civilians, during the brief and bloody end-phase of the second world war in Italy, took place on March 24th 1944. The victims of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre were three-hundred-and-thirty-five Italian men, a fact recognised by all. Less clear, at least in popular memory, have been those ultimately responsible for the deaths. A fierce debate has raged, from mere days after the massacre up to the present day, about who was to blame for the executions.
On March 23 a small group of the G.A.P, the Gruppo di Azione Patriottica, carried out an attack, using a roadside bomb, against a column of policemen of the German occupying forces, in a small street called Via Rasella, not far from the centre of Rome. The attack killed 32 policemen, and caused panic and fury on the part of the Nazi commanders in the city. Within less than 24 hours 335 men had been selected, on arbitrary grounds (some were already being held prisoner, some were jews, others were rounded up in the Via Rasella area), and executed – a savage reprisal, with more than ten men being executed for each German fatality.
It’s clear that the victims were shot by the German occupying forces, under the orders of the Gestapo commander Herbert Kappler, and yet many Italians remain ambivalent about blaming either Kappler (who escaped with ease from an Italian prison hospital in 1976, fleeing to West Germany where, despite extradition requests from the Italian authorities, he died in his bed in 1978), or indeed Erich Priebke, who by his own confession personally killed two men at the Fosse Ardeatine and was responsible for administering the list of executions, and was thus, in a sense,personally responsible for the five men killed over-and-above the savage 10-1 ratio ordered by Hitler and Kappler.
In the days following the massacre a narrative became rooted, that suggested that the Partisan group responsible for the attack in Via Rasella could have averted the massacre by handing themselves in to the Nazi forces. On a similar line many, including some of the victims’ families, blamed the partisans for the massacre suggesting that a reprisal was inevitable for such an attack. Both narratives are easily countered by the facts. The Germans issued no threat or appeal in order for the partisans to hand themselves in, and within 24 hours had rounded up and executed 335 men without any concern for finding their actual attackers. Prior to the Via Rasella attacks the Partisans had carried out various other attacks on occupation forces (in line with the requests from Allied troops beached at Anzio) without any reprisals being ordered. And yet the belief remains in the public sphere.
The gap between the official historical record and the popular narrative of the event is fascinating, and is nowhere better explained than in Alessandro Portelli’s The Order Has Been Carried Out. It presents a wealth of interviews with people directly involved with both the Via Rasella attack and the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, including members of the partisan unit and members of the families of those massacred in the Fosse Ardeatine, all presented against the backdrop of post-war Italian history and politics. It’s an extremely important book, not just for students of Italian history, but also for students and the general reader interested in how folk memory and meaning establishes itself in the face of traumatic events – parallels with the reaction to the 9/11 attacks in America, for example, come to mind regarding apportioning blame, attempting to rationalise the irrational, and the generation of urban myths.
Portelli, an oral historian and teacher of American literature and culture at Rome’s Sapienza University, was kind enough to discuss the book, and the various socio-political themes it brings up, with Three Monkeys by telephone.
TMO: A basic question to start: Why write about the Fosse Ardeatine now?
The fosse ardeatine is still a very vivid and controversial memory. It’s been the focus of the anti-partisan discourse ever since the end of the war, because of the blame put on the partisans, who supposedly should have turned themselves in, according to these black legends or urban myths. If you want to tackle the historical revisionism, the anti-anti-fascism discourse, this is really the pivot on which everything stands. On the other hand, because of the composition of the victims, they’re a cross-section of the population of Rome, it became a standpoint from which to really write an oral-history of Rome, going back to the origins of these people, their families, and then to what happened afterwards. The way it’s been remembered, the way it’s been celebrated or desecrated, and what has happened to the survivors. One day in the Fosse Ardeatine is the hinge for 130 years of the history of the city.
I was sort of drawn to it, on the one hand the 90s were very much like today, a time when ex-fascists (and I always put a question mark up to the ‘ex’) had become part of the Italian government again, and the whole history of the liberation movement, of the resistence, was being somehow undermined. Finally, though, it was just meeting some of these people – meeting Mario Fiorentini [Member of the central committee of the G.A.P. and one of the organizers of the Via Rasella attack], and listening to their stories made me want to learn more. It sort of grew on me. I didn’t really sit down and decide ‘I’m going to write a book on the Fosse Ardeatine’, it just happened.
TMO: Bravely, for a historian, you remark in the introduction to The Order Has Been Carried Out, that the book “contains no new factual revelations or discoveries”.
Portelli: Historians haven’t really written about it. That’s one of the ironies. One of the reasons they haven’t written about it is that there was nothing to discover, everything was out there in sources, so historians sort of ignored the whole thing, which allowed the gossip, the legends, the mythologies to fester in the popular press.
Historians were not interested in the memory, they were interested in reconstructing the events. It was only in the 1990s that historians, here at least, discovered the importance of memory as a political factor and therefore they legitimised oral history, but what I say is that on the one hand the attack on Via Rasella was not, as many narratives have put it, the first or the only action of the resistance in Rome. There were at least forty occasions previous to that in which the partisans had attacked the nazis and fascists in Rome, so you have to put it in the context of a guerilla war that had been going on since September, and this happened in march.
On the other hand, what I argue is that the relationship between the attack and the reprisal is not automatic. People talk about the Fosse Ardeatine and Via Rasella as if it were one event, when it’s actually two related events. One part is an attack, one part a german massacre, but between these two events there’s a political decision by the Germans. They might not have done it. They took that political and military decision, in cold blood, so there’s no automatic relationship between the Fosse Ardeatine and Via Rasella – there’s a political relationship.
TMO: And yet, as your book clearly outlines, there’s a resistance in popular culture to accepting these straight-forward facts. Why do you think that is?
Well, there was clearly a propoganda machine that was set in motion immediately afterwards. Fascist officials, the monarchy, and the right wing immediately created the story of the Partisans’ refusal to deliver themselves, but the reason why, I think, it has taken root in popular imagination is that, in a way, it’s a perfect narrative. You imagine silence, an explosion, a response, a silence. This is not the way it happened, but it’s a perfect narrative.
It happened during the war, and the germans were hardly interested in looking for the partisans. The Germans wanted to terrorise the city, and tell the city ‘look, we cannot be touched, the price is too high’. They didn’t even bother to look for the partisans. They perpetrated the massacre within less than twenty-four hours. However, if you look at the Osservatore Romano [Vatican published Newpsaper] editorial, and even the imagination of the people, somebody commits an action against authority, in this case the Nazi occupation force, the logic is that the authority will punish the perpetrator, and only resort to the threat of reprisal as a pressure on the perpetrators or the community to turn them in.
What was a military decision by the Germans in wartime is imagined and remembered as a judicial process in peacetime. It would make sense to look for the perpetrators in that case. The other thing is that the very fact that so many false narratives exist is in itself a hint to the absurdity of the whole thing. What happened is so unbelievable that people have to make up stories to make sense out of it.
TMO: American director Spike Lee will shortly unveil his film set against the backdrop of the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre during the partisan war. Given the problems you’ve discussed relating to the narrative of the Fosse Ardeatine, how do you, as someone with a keen interest in American culture and cinema, feel about Lee’s entrance into this highly charged arena?
Portelli: The problem here is, what will Spike Lee understand of this story? Again, it’s not just something that happened out of the blue, there’s a whole world behind it. What I’m hoping is that he’s done his homework, that he has read up, and been able to understand what was the world in which this happened, what was the context, what was the history, and we’ll wait to see what he does.
Sant’Anna is very different to the Fosse Ardeatine, because at Sant’Anna they literally went berserk. They killed women, children, old men, they burned everything. It was really savage. The Fosse Ardeatine, in a sense, was highly civilised. They had to have logistics, it was very organised. Sant’Anna was a savage massacre, the Fosse Ardeatine could not have been carried out without technology, logistics, without the modern Western State. That’s one of the reasons why I became fascinated by the story because it’s an example of what Western Modernity can do.