TMO: Does the ambiguity that surrounds the Fosse Ardeatine massacre point to a weakness in the way we teach history. As with Holocaust denial, some would argue that we need laws to protect the facts of history – what do you think?
Look, we had a law, it was one of the clauses in the 1948 constitution, that made it a crime not only to recreate the fascist party, but also to speak favourably of fascism. That law was never enforced. One of the reasons that it was never applied was that it was the same magistrates who had earned their living under fascism that were called upon to enforce it.
You do not defeat an ideology by repression, though. You fight it politically. I’m not so sure that making it a crime to deny the Shoa works, on the other hand though these people are despicable. In the case of the shoah it’s easier, perhaps. In the case of the resistance it’s not a case of whether it happened or not, but who did what and whether it was right or wrong, a lot of the time you just can’t see the forest for the trees. Some partisans for example did things that were morally and politically wrong, and you can forget that – but basically you had people fighting for freedom, and others who were allied to the nazis, and you can’t lose sight of that. That’s a basic distinction.
One of the problems with the ‘official’ history of the resistance in Italy is, surely, that it has effectively been colonised by the left, reducing the complexities of the various social actors that made up the movement
One of the reasons that the memory of the resistance was colonised by the left was that the centre, the christian democrats and the church, were in total denial. We have now been rediscovering acts of resistance by the military but the military institutions in this country have never spoken about it. The only forces that talked about it were the left, and of course the left focussed on its own role, but for many others it was in their interests to forget about it.
Gianfranco Fini, currently speaker of the lower house of parliament [and one of the figures interviewed in Portelli’s book], spoke on the 25th of April (liberation day) about a ‘national festival, shared by all’ – remarks that have been taken by many as a signal for reconciliation between the right and the left in Italy. What’s your view?
Portelli: There has been a false reconciliation, prompted by the church, in which the divide between fascism and anti-fascism was blurred, and it has been blurred by the most powerful and important institution in this country – the church – and by the party that was in power in this country for fifty years, the Christian Democrats. So the constitution, which is possibly the most wonderful constitution in the west, never became deeply rooted. We’ve been ruled for more than sixty years by political forces that simply did not believe in that constitution.
Anti-fascism was quickly superceded by the cold war, which was one of the reasons why, for example, Italian war criminals were never brought to trial and German war criminals were quickly released from jail and rehabilitated. The cold war has an obvious and important role in all of this.
Ironically, Gianfranco Fini just made a speech where he praises the 25th of April as the day of freedom and so on. What we have is an attempt, which is also supported by people on the left, of reconcilliation without truth. In the United States, I guess, North and South became reconciled, but nobody said the South was right in fighting for slavery. Here the so-called reconcilliation is based on the idea that both sides were equally right or equally wrong, that those who fought for the fascists or the Nazis, and those that fought for the allies were on the same level. Both equally respectable, and both causes were equally respectable, and that isn’t true. That undermines the whole basis of what this democracy is.
TMO: Let’s talk a little bit about oral history, and the difference between it and historical research based solely on written sources.
Portelli: In oral history you’re dealing with a set of relationships, a relationship between the present and the past, and a relationship between interviewee and interviewer, so that it’s a very flexible source, as opposed to a staple document. I don’t believe that archival sources or newspapers are more reliable than oral narratives. Cross checking is always necessary. What you get with oral history is the meaning which people attach to the events of the past. What people think the actual event means to them today, and basically the book is about the history of memory, not just a book of memories. The question becomes, what does it all mean to us now?
TMO: One of the questions that the resistance poses regards the legitimacy of armed struggle. The image of armed struggle has changed dramatically since 9/11. Do you think that the events of 9/11, and the ongoing war in Iraq change the context in which we place the Italian resistance?
Portelli: I’m not sure. One of the points that all the partisans made, in the book, was that the need to fight, to take up arms, was foisted upon them, because there was a war going on, there was an occupation, and they had no other means. They made no moral claim for the use of violence as something more progressive or liberating, as opposed to the red brigades in Italy in the seventies, or even Malcom X in the States when he talks about the armed struggle as a way of retrieving your own dignity. There’s very little warrior rhetoric in the Italian resistance.
With the electoral victory of Berlusconi’s PdL party, and in particular with the election of a right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno in Rome, many people have publicly spoken out of a fear that the memory of the resistance is about to be swept away. Is that a realistic fear?
Yes. It’s not just that the [the government] act against it or whatever, but it’s also that you can no longer argue in terms of facism and anti-fascism because people just don’t react to it anymore. I have to go to a school next week, to talk about the resistance, and I’m not sure what to say anymore. I’ll try to give them information, but what I think we need to focus on now is what kind of values, what kind of world did the partisans dream of. How were those visions embodied in the constitution. Rather than talking about how evil the fascists were, lets talk about equality, let’s talk about participatory democracy – which incidentally the centre-left, led by Veltroni and Rutelli, don’t seem to be interested in. Let’s talk about the kind of political democracy that the resistance created in the constitution. Maybe the ‘anti’ in the anti-fascist struggle is over, and we need to concentrate on talking about what the resistance fought for, not what it fought against.
The Order Has Been Carried Out by Alessandro Portelli is published by Palgrave MacMillan