Monday, April 26, 2004

Italian Liberation Day, 2004 (by Steve)

SIENA (#52)

Yesterday was the 25th of April, the 59th anniversary of the Liberation of Italy from German control in 1945. Liberation was one of the two central events in the formation of the modern state of Italy, along with the subsequent creation of the 2nd Republic abolishing the Monarchy. It used to provoke passionate debates about what exactly happened in 1945 and in the war’s aftermath and why. But with the passage of time perhaps and dramatic political and economic developments which transformed the world, these historical events seem to have lost some of their power. And so have the intense political debates they used to provoke. Yesterday the crowds were tiny and most of the leaders spoke and wrote about the European Union and the need to remember something, as if the danger of forgetting altogether had somehow become more frightening and important than agreeing on what was remembered. I suppose that is how a national myth is made.

On this anniversary, there were a few commemorative stories in newspapers, flags and some small parades. For example, we were there when town and regional officials paid a visit to the synagogue in Siena to present a wreath to recognize and remember the Jews deported to Germany. We also witnessed some speeches at the University of Siena. There was one article in the Corriere Della Sera on the subject. It's strange therefore that even though the events this holiday celebrates were relatively recent, when compared to current events such as the Palio, a basketball game or a soccer match, for example, the celebration itself seemed ritualized, isolated from everyday life, and even irrelevant.

The History of Liberation Used to Provoke Intense Debate

Twenty-five years ago when I first came to Italy, it was different: it seemed that every Italian had an intense, personal and unique perspective on what happened in the War and why. Take the patriarch of one of my host families in Siena, Antonio Ducci. For years he has been telling me about the Resistance and the liberation of Siena, although the "lack of resistance" might be a better way of describing Antonio's perspective. He would tell me that as few as 50 German troops were left behind to guard Siena. With no resistance at all, they moved about as they pleased, mining roads and bridges so they could be destroyed as they left, impeding the advance of the Allies. Antonio's point is this one: on the day of liberation there were 10,000 Partigiani in the streets to welcome the Americans with red flags. Where were they on the day before? Antonio would also get furious when people would complain about undue influence of America on post-war Italy and now with the global economy. He would wonder where Italy would be today without such “influence.”

Twenty-five years ago Liberation day was an opportunity to celebrate these kinds of partisan as well as personal views of the War and its aftermath. Then Italy was no different than the rest of the world: Italians – individually and in large partisan groups – lined up behind one of the two superpowers, each with its own ideology, each with its own perspective on world affairs and each with its own view of History. Of course Antonio’s story is political and, when he used to tell it, he meant to ridicule the Communist Party's exaggerated claim to the Resistance and also to the Liberation of Italy.

The View of the Left

But History is more complex than this anecdote and of course there is another point of view. To be fair, in other parts of Italy, particularly in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, the impact of the resistance was real, much more significant than in Siena, and most of the underlying political organization there was indeed Communist. In the 70’s and 80’s, these groups tended to emphasize that, because of their ideology, cooperation with the Allies during the war, and certainly after the war, had been less than ideal, even antagonistic. Most on the Italian Left agreed that the Marshall plan was unprecedented success in the history of warfare; however, many were uncomfortable with the degree of the post-war political and economic influence exercised by the US Government and American firms over which they had no control. For them, Liberation day was another opportunity to align with the Soviet Union, to assert their interpretation of History and to oppose US policies throughout the world.

An American Perspective

On the surface, this argument might sound silly to a majority of ordinary Americans and it probably did then too. Was anyone here actually saying that they would have preferred German or Russian occupation to American occupation? Would anyone really have exchanged Italian post-war development – the “Miracle” as it is called here – along with his or her current and unprecedented standard of living with that of, say Poland? Or Yugoslavia? Not any more. Perhaps the collapse of the Soviet Union has something to do with the disappearance of this political point of view.

Although it seems hard to believe today, twenty-five yeas ago partisans on the extreme Left of the political spectrum actually did take this position. (I always thought their arguments were more than a little disingenuous: they did so secure in the knowledge that they were solidly bound to Western Europe economically, politically, and culturally). However, with the end of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the European Union and global markets, such extreme positions sound silly here too. Even in the North of Italy which is still dominated by the political Left, revisionist historians are increasingly able to admit that the Allies played a significant role in liberation and have recently even begun to identify groups within the Resistance that were both anti-Fascist and anti-Communist.

So was Italy liberated from one occupying force only to be occupied and dominated by another? Or did Italy free itself, becoming a modern Republic? Whom can we credit (or blame) for Italy’s freedom (or lack thereof)? And what exactly do Italians celebrate on this anniversary of Liberation? The reality is, like the American 4th of July, it seems like it has become more of an opportunity to escape to the countryside for a picnic than it is a chance to reflect. I feel like Rip Van Winkle who woke up to find himself in a new Republic: it’s as if the partisan debate about History simply vanished.

After the Soviet Union in a Globalized Economy

But it’s not completely gone. Echoes of this old argument can still be heard in popular political speech. In fact, Liberation can still inspire debate, not for its own sake, but as a basis for current policies, political alliances, and future actions. Take Iraq, for example. Should Italians view Americans there as an imperialist, occupying force and side instead with "Arab Nationalism" or should they recognize and support Americans as liberators, having destroyed the fascist state of Saddam? Having invaded, should the US remain until civil order can be restored and a stable, popular government can be established? Or should the Yankees go home? Does liberation from the Nazi’s in 1945 still affect one’s views on Italian foreign policy in Iraq? Or perhaps it is one’s views on what needs to be done in Iraq that affect one’s perception of Liberation?

Now this debate sounds like the Italy I remember: incompatible views of History (even though they agree on the events themselves), lots of passion and brutal tactics. Just think for a minute about opposing the “pro-peace” position. How can you be against peace? Who does not hope for peace in the Middle East? But what if you recognize that there was no peace before the invasion, that things may have gotten considerably worse in the region had the US not intervened, and that if the US withdrew tomorrow, there would not be peace in the region for decades? Confronted with this reality, what does it mean to be for peace?

How can History Help Us Today?

Thinking carefully in this way about these simplistic labels exposes the fallacy upon which they are based: no matter how much you want peace, it cannot make real conflict in the real world disappear. It makes me wonder how you could be for peace while trying to defend yourself from Hitler and Mussolini. Unwillingness to fight then might have been labeled “appeasement” and eventually proponents of such a policy were called “Nazis” and “Fascists” as well. Now, to consider intervention you would be labeled as “pro-war” and perhaps even be called a “Fascist.” Ironic, isn’t it.

In competition for scarce attention we resort to the worst kind of labels and name-calling as if it were a substitute for analysis, communication or exchange. Even a common History can be divisive. What is the matter with this picture?

In fact, it’s a trap. These labels obfuscate rather than elucidate. Like polarizing filters, they remove half the picture, dividing us, disrupting consensus and political compromise, preventing progress. We should take these superficial, exaggerated and stereotypical arguments for what they are and dig deeper. The problem is in the labels themselves.

Upon closer examination there is actually plenty of common ground, more than enough to build understanding and alliances. I have discussed this with a moderate spectrum of Italians and most Italians recognize that without a timely US invasion and occupation of Iraq, like the Allied invasion of Europe in 1943-4, an even more costly and risky intervention might have been required at a later date. The question rapidly ceases to be a religious question on a theoretical principle – are you for or against war – and it immediately becomes something much more practical. Is this war absolutely necessary? Is it necessary now? Did this specific invasion make sense at that particular time with this specific coalition? The key questions are:
  • Was our intervention really timely? Was it premature? Or was it late?
  • How much will it cost really? And what is it likely to achieve?
  • How much more would it have cost at a later date weighted of course by the possibility that diplomacy and international pressure might have been adequate?
Of course, this analogy only goes so far:  although there was an invasion in each case, it's impossible to seriously argue that Saddam represented an existential threat comparable to that of Hitler.

Careful Analysis of History is not Political Posturing

Comparing Iraq to WWII on this anniversary of Italian Liberation can be useful, although there are many differences as well. But understanding these similarities and differences is much better than name-calling or arguing about who is for war or peace. Instead, when I discuss Iraq in these terms here where WWII was actually fought, I am sympathetic to their point of view. I tend to share Europeans’ fears that the Bush administrations’ estimates of cost are off by orders of magnitude. Here, where democratic institutions are new and memories of totalitarian regimes and terror are still living, the risks and cost of nation building are also better understood. Perhaps Europeans would rather accept the risk of a possible necessity of a future intervention – even if it were more costly and risky – than the real risk of a certain intervention, especially if as a consequence of that intervention, American political and economic interests are advanced at the expense of European interests.

That’s odd. It seems to me that this central position in European politics seems very compatible with the political center in America. Suddenly instead of a world split into two camps, for and against intervention in Iraq, we discover a large majority in the middle who admit that some intervention at some time may have been necessary but whom also have grave doubts about how this particular intervention will finish. And even many of those who were firmly opposed to the invasion initially are prepared to consider the problems with an immediate American withdrawal from Iraq. Collapse, more terror and instability in the Middle East are bad for everyone. Europeans, even those on the Left, recognize that their economy and standard of living are based on affordable petroleum from the region. They would agree that an immediate US withdrawal is as likely to make peace in Iraq as was George Bush’s speech declaring an end to hostilities.

Maybe if there were some way to include the rest of the world in reconstruction, we could even build on such a common understanding. Even if the US taxpayer were going to pay for the mess that we (and Saddam) have created, would we get more for our money if we opened the bidding to French and German firms as well, even though their governments opposed the initial invasion? With a broader coalition would we be more or less likely to achieve stability if not democracy in Iraq? Can we call on our friends who rebuilt Europe after the last war once again? Some real diplomacy would be required to pull that one off.

Where Does that Leave the National Holiday?

So it seems that a passionate and partisan view of History is alive and well here and that private conversations with informed people from every party, although spirited, present plenty of opportunities to exchange and even to share views. But perhaps like our own 4th of July, the ritual of celebrating Italian unity has gradually eclipsed that of celebrating Italian History, which included intense differences of opinion. And celebrating unity (instead of differences) gets pretty boring year after year.

So, anyone for a picnic? We have Chianti, pecorino and bacilli, olives, focaccia, a fritatta or two...

COMMENTS from the original blog

2004-05-12 13:08:2752 Marcovaldo
Re: Italian Liberation Day, 2004 (by Steve)

I have read your views on Italian liberation.  You have presented “a passionate and partisan view of history” – one I think that interweaves experimental novelty with E-Learning connections - independent research and study.  Teaching principles associated with touring and trade (i.e. food and fashion) can thus be savored in their intimate relation to family business and travel writing.    In this respect, I can think of no better medium than PHP-Nuke in which to prepare students for work in the 21st century.   Learning to publish on the web can also add to the quality of an educational experience.  It  provides a medium for exchange - one that links perspective-taking with geographical arrangement and critical reflection on address spaces.   What better medium in which to think about art and topographical features of a region  (e.g.  and What better place to reflect on "passion and partisan views of history" - "il lessico familiare"(Natalia Ginzburg) and "the rise and rise of corporate universities"  (e.g. and

2004-05-12 21:24:53 Barbara
Re: Italian Liberation Day, 2004 (by Steve)
What a fascinating article that incorporates past history and careful reflections on the current situation.  Should you want to know more about the very personal aspect of how the war affected the Italians in your area, I would recomment reading Iris Origo's War in the Val D'Orcia.  Iris was a British woman married to an Italian.  They opened their vast villa and farmhouses to children and others displaced by the war in the 1940's.   We are meant to study history in order to learn lessons from the past, but you wisely point out that not every current situation is identical to one that occurred in the past.  Will you be in Rome on June 5, 1944, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome?

2004-05-12 22:01:5152 stefano
Re: Italian Liberation Day, 2004 (by Steve)
We might be in Rome then.  We'll have to see.  At any rate, you definitely got my point that comparisons are dangerous because the situations are never the same.  Not only that, but also, we often don't even agree about the past even when we observed exactly the same events.  As limited as they are, though, comparisons are still useful analytical tools and they are good for communicating, teaching and building consensus about what to do in the present as well.

2004-05-13 00:36:0952 marv
Re: Italian Liberation Day, 2004 (by Steve)
Wouldn't people be more passionate if 1989 hadn't happened - fall of the Berlin Wall leading to the fall of the Christian Democrats (DC) and unified communist party (PCI)?

Italy has troops in Iraq (or just civilians? - one defied his captors before he died, right?) - but I get the feeling that people talk about these matters from a spectators perspective; i.e. the risks of earlier or later *US* intervention.  It's a given the Europe or Italy would never(?) do something like that itself.

2004-05-14 19:24:05 marv
Re: Italian Liberation Day, 2004 (by Steve)
An additional perspective:  in the 1950s an American professor and his family went to live in southern France (L. Wylie, Village in the Vaucluse).  When the peasants discussed the possibility of planting plants like olive trees that would take years to return the investment they said things like - 'I'm not such a fool, spend money for the benefit of the Americans or Russians'.  What a contrast with agrotourism Italian or French style.

2004-05-16 15:47:5152 Marcovaldo
I enjoyed your commentary and look forward to reading Iris Origo's "War in the Val D'Orcia".

In addition,  you write,
"We are meant to study history in order to learn lessons from the past, but you wisely point out that not every current situation is identical to one that occurred in the past. Will you be in Rome on June 5, 1944, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome?"

Some thoughts ...

Your writing inspires historical reflection  on the subject of "children and others displaced by war in the 1940's".  In addition to Iris Origo's writings,  I would suggest adding an "other" work your list - that of French sociologist Ferdinand Braudel who was displaced by the Nazis in WW II.

Braudel, who was one of the world's foremost historians,  has made us confront the problem of time - individual time, historical time,  relative time and 'real' time  - more than any other historian.  He has wrestled with man's conception of time over time ...  Braudel calls on the historian to penetrate beneath the surface of political events to uncover and measure the forces shaping collective existence.  Cycles of production, wages, and prices, grids of communication and trade, fluctuations of climate, demographic trends, popular beliefs - all of which are the proper subjects of an historians investigation.

"All historical work is concerned with breaking down time past, choosing among its chronological realities according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions.  Traditional history, with its concern for the short time span, for the individual and the event, has long accustomed us to the headlong, dramatic, breathless rush of its narrative" (Braudel,  "On History").

I think that we must find the 'right' balance between taking a short-term view of the (individual) subject and cyclical trends that engender (symbolic) movement with (teaching) principle and (technology) practice ...

2004-05-16 16:01:16 Marcovaldo
On Being in Rome ...
Your points are well taken.

Yes, it is true that situations are never the same, but that does not mean that we cannot or 'should not' make meaningful distinctions (i.e. comparisons).    

For example,  why not reflect critically on the subject of writing history,  psychological perception and friendship.  Dogma, historicism and practical trust can thus be analyzed in its moral and intellectual relation to relativism and return; attention and consciousness; movement and memory; as well as emotion and language . . .
. . .   social study, brain and behavior . . .
. . .  as well as ""time travel""  (e.g. June 5, 1944) . . .

2004-05-24 14:21:1652 Marcovaldo
"America is in danger!"
...  the second part of your commentary triggered a thought that parallels recent remarks made by Yale historian Donald Kagan in his book "While America Sleeps".  Kagan asserts that “America is in danger” . . .

Kagan's views symbolize a position taken by other neo-conservatives - e.g. chiefly that liberal democracy, if taken to its logical extreme, will undermine political order and the basis of humility upon which the notion of social responsibility and individual freedom rests.

Kagan asserts that we take so much for granted that people don’t know what it means anymore to preserve peace.  We have forgotten what it takes to uphold the peace.  According to Kagan,  liberal democracy "requires the holding up of a reasonable and decent world order, which, in turn, depends chiefly on America’s military strength to sustain it. We are allowing our military strength to run down."

I think that I understand Kagan's perspective on history.  Our capacity to deter aggression has diminished significantly over the past 50 years.  The threat of assaults from overseas is serious especially in a world where there are intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can carry nuclear weapons, biological weapons, or even conventional weapons of enormous power.

I am deeply concerned about nature of Kagan's prognosis.  Nonetheless, I am also troubled by character developments that have led to political decline in the west - e.g. prison scandals like the one in Abu Ghraib.   Authority structures in western industrialized societies are breaking down owing to a morbid intensification of first principles.  So, how do we make sense of this tragedy?  How do we make sense of recurring historical patterns that reify energy and matter with torture and humiliation - psychology and education - e.g. "the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists" and the breakdown of "American intelligence"?  (Hersh, 2004)

For more on the annals of higher education and the psychology of national security (i.e.  the breakdown of authority and lack of transparency),  see Seymour M. Hersh's recent contribution to   "The Gray Zone:  How a secret Pentagon program came to Abu Ghraib".

Where does one draw the line between "Moby Dick" (Grann, 2004) and "Family Values" (Lemann, 2004) . . .
. . . "the spirit of Greatness" and "the humility of us"  (See also Niccolo Machiavelli, "Discourses on Livy") ...



2004-05-26 01:03:39 Marcovaldo
Hegel discerned a disturbing historical pattern

2004-05-26 01:04:38 Marcovaldo
the crack and fall of civilization

2004-05-26 01:05:44 Marcovaldo
owing to a morbid intensification of its own first principles

2006-10-21 17:35:07 stefano
Origo's War

I read it and enjoyed it very much.  I particularly appreciated the tone which was very honest and straight-forward.  It really felt like reading a diary.


1 comment:

stefanoq said...

In retrospect, I am kind of shocked that I was so conciliatory towards those who favored US intervention. I'm also surprised I did not mention that Italy was actually among those nations participating in the so-called "Coalition of the Willing".

I also think I missed an important point: the center emerges when we argue about real things over ideas. Before the invasion we may have disagreed about the philosophy of a just war or the trade-offs between early intervention versus intervention on a more deliberate timetable, for example. But given REAL INFORMATION, we might have agreed on the nature of the threat. Similarly, by 2004 when intervention was a FACT, the center emerged around the REAL problem of withdrawal.

Conversely, the center disappears when we revert to the debate of ideas which is easier somehow, pure, clean and distinct from uncertain details and messy compromise.

Political idealists frame the facts in terms of the ideas. Practical collaborators frame the ideas in terms of the facts.