Sunday, January 27, 2013

Day of amnesia and wilful distortion

The Day of Memory is a moment when the world looks back on the Shoah. Most of the time the speeches are predictable; “never again” is the refrain even when Srebenica and Ruanda belie the exhortation. But in any case, of the world, Europe should be more conscious of what happened here during World War II and of the Europeans, the heirs of the perpetrators should be even more conscious.

Chancellor Merkel was very clear; she said this morning that Germany’s responsibility is “everlasting”.

Silvio Berlusconi has very different ideas. He made a surprise visit to the commemorations in Milan. A museum is being set up in the Central Station on the platform where the deportees left from and a very tired Berlusconi arrived for the photo opportunity. Instead of playing safe with some platitudes, he made a very unpleasant grab for the far right vote.

He tried to justify Mussolini’s 1938 Racial Laws arguing that antisemitism was better than being conquered by Germany. He obviously does not know that all the research on the Racial Laws(and there has been a huge amount over the last 30 years from Renzo De Felice to Jonathan Steinberg) shows very clearly that there was absolutely no pressure from Hitler for Italy them. It is true that Mussolini himself was lukewarm about them (he had had a long and important affair with Margherita Sarfatti, a Jew and some of his early friends had been Jewish) but the pressure for the laws came from within the Fascist Party.

But even Berlusconi knows that in 1938, a year before the war began, the French and the British were trying very hard to keep Italy neutral. In Munich in September 1938 more or less at the same time as the Racial Laws were promulgated, Mussolini acted as the peacemaker, the last time he could wear the mantle of “statesman”, brokering the deal that British prime minister Neville Chamberlain dubbed “peace in our time”. The “Pact of Steel” binding Germany and Italy together in a military alliance was not signed until May the next year and even then was not respected by Mussolini when war began in September.

Mussolini had every opportunity to get out of Hitler’s embrace.

But for Berlusconi the Racial Laws were the “worst thing that Mussolini did and he did a lot of good things” and then he and the other Italians “did not fully know what was going on”. There is a document in the Italian archives in which a carabiniere general asks whether he should hand over Jews to the Germans when he knew they were being gassed. Mussolini scribbled “nulla osta” and put his initials to it, explicitly telling the general to hand over the Jews.

Twenty years ago we showed this document to Gianfranco Fini (he had called Mussolini “the greatest statesman of the 20th century”). Later he began to change his position.

Berlusconi still has not learnt and tries to distort history and that is bad but on the Day of Memory, it is an obscenity.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.

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