Christoph Cornelißen, © Eutopia Magazine
If discussion turns today to cultures of memory, these are mostly thought to involve the variety of national forms that they take: days of remembrance and the way in which different countries marks such days, together with national monuments and places of remembrance, all of which also have their own symbols, myths or icons.
Viewed historically, these national cultures of memory often turn on a heroic version of the history of a nation, whose roots are usually located far in the distant past. But they also function to demarcate a nation in terms of an ‘other’; in particular, marking one nation off from other nations. National cultures of memory are often therefore interwoven, in both a positive and a negative sense.
This has been apparent in the relationship between German and Italian cultures of memory since the last three decades of the nineteenth century, when both countries first appeared on the stage of international politics as newly-united nations.
German and Italian national movements were very conscious of each other at this time, engaging in mutual support – this was for example how Giuseppe Garibaldi became a ‘hero’ for the Germans. However, the gradual development of German pre-eminence after 1870 meant that the political elites of both nations gradually drifted apart.
The tensions to which this gave rise came to a violent head in 1915, when Italy entered the First World War on the side of the Entente and in opposition to its former allies in the Triple Alliance. This created a constellation of forces that would eventually overshadow the cultures of memory in both countries through the twentieth century.
Of course, Germany and Italy became very close during the Fascist era; and then, after the war, both countries were dominated by Christian-Democrat parliamentary majorities which co-operated closely with each other. The relation of respective cultures of memory remained however somewhat negative.
On the German side, the public memory of Italy was marked by the ‘betrayal’ of 1915. This was then intensified by events during the Second World War: for on 8 September 1943 Italy declared a ceasefire and joined the Western powers in fighting their former Fascist ally. The idea that the Italians had yet again betrayed their ally remained a fixed feature of German memories long after 1945.
However, the Italian and Mediterranean theatres had been quite secondary for the Germans during the war, and correspondingly played a limited part in German memory.
By contrast, the German occupation of Northern and Central Italy after the autumn of 1943 became a focus for Italian memory. Many Italians bitterly remembered the destruction caused by the fighting as the German army slowly retreated north up the peninsula; far more important however was the memory of the systematic war crimes committed by German troops and police in their struggle with the Italian resistance.
Added to that was the fate of hundreds of thousands of Italian prisoners of war who were shipped into the Reich where they were used as forced labour, contrary to all convention and practice.
In the longer run, however, there were many and significant blind spots in the Italian culture of memory. Both official and unofficial efforts to cleanse the impact of twenty years of Fascism from Italy’s political culture had clear limits, since these efforts were directed primarily to “the local pain of fascism” (Hans Woller), tending to overlook the wider impact of Fascist rule.
It was some time before the crimes of Fascism beyond the Italian peninsula gained any recognition, and there is still room for considerable doubt about the degree to which large sections of the Italian public are at all aware of this.
Moreover, Italian public memory has always cared less for the victims of German war crimes, and more for the ‘heroes’ of the resistance movement, the ‘good Italians’ who stood up to the ‘evil Germans’.
While in both countries after 1945 a collective desire for exoneration prevailed, we should not lose sight here of the wider constellation of international politics.
The outcome was that, during the 1950s, the Germans and Italians chiefly responsible for the devastation of their nations maintained a pact of silence regarding the politics of the past; legal proceedings against those Germans who had committed war crimes in Italy were simply ruled out.
Self-interest on the Italian side also played a role here, since the Italian state was anxious to avoid having to respond to demands from other countries (mainly Yugoslavia) that Italian war criminals be extradited to face trial.
It took a long time before Italians and Germans were prepared to face up to the “unpleasant parts” (Nicola Tranfaglia) of their own pasts, and so recognise how close the alliance had once been between the Fascist Axis powers. And it took even longer for this recognition to enter into national cultures of memory.
There were several stages in this process, beginning in the later 1960s with the emergence of a more self-critical approach to the past of one’s nation. In this, one should not lose sight of the fact that Italian affairs did not enjoy any great prominence in Germany; no great progress was made either in putting German war criminals on trial, nor in providing compensation for Italian prisoners of war.
Alongside these developments the Italian resistenza was endowed with an even greater degree of idealisation, such that resistance to the German occupying forces came to be treated as a mass movement.
Hundreds of monuments, tens of thousands of plaques and street re-namings, together with the dedication of schools and other institutions – all of this supported this central political message. For large sections of the population the resistenza took on mythic properties.
The collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and in the German Democratic Republic marked yet another decisive shift for cultures of memory throughout Europe. Besides Germany, Italy experienced perhaps the greatest disruption among Western European countries from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of a bipolar political system.
There was a basic shift of perspective which can be described, in both countries, as an accelerating process of “victimisation”, or an increasing tendency to view history from the perspective of a victim.
In a united Germany there was renewed debate about the victims of the Holocaust, of forced labour, but also about the mass expulsions of Germans following the end of the Second World War.
This was paralleled in Italy, where the ritual presentation of the memory of Resistance had grown stale for large sections of society. There was also an emphatic desire to see those German war criminals who were still alive put on trial.
The judicial events that have followed have sparked historical debate in which the experience of Italians and Germans during the Second World War is allowed more scope than hitherto permitted.
Even if many of these studies are not yet complete, it is already clear that the older, autonomous and solipsistic metanarratives of national memory have in both countries lost their force and justification.
Translated by Keith Tribe
Aleida Assmann, Cultural memory and western civilization: Functions, media, archives, New York, Cambridge University Press 2011.
Filippo Focardi, Il cattivo tedesco e il bravo italiano: la rimozione delle colpe della seconda guerra mondiale, Roma-Bari, Laterza 2013.
Richard Ned Lebow (ed.), The politics of memory in postwar Europe, Durham, Duke Univ. Press 2007.