John Foot – Italians and the divided memory of the war

Event Date: Sunday 26 September 2010

Imperial War Museum, London

Racism, war, atrocity, and its aftermath in Italy, 1938-2010

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John Foot (University College London)
Italians and the divided memory of the war

This talk examines the the Italian war experience between 1939 and 1945 through two stories relating to individuals, groups, commemorations and monuments. Through these stories I aim to draw out the wide variety of the experiences of war amongst Italians, and examine some of the ways in these experiences were remembered, forgotten or silenced.
I argue that the wide range of Italian experiences of war were not reflected fully in public or official memory, and that there was a dislocation between the war as it was experienced and the ways in which the conflict was explained and understood from above.
This dislocation began to break down in the 1990s, at first through the work of historians and then through new forms of public memory and commemoration. A historiographical revolution has taken place in Italy relating to a wide range of themes linked to memory and ‘other’ histories of the war over the last twenty years. This revolution has also led to the widespread acceptance of alternative historical methods, such as oral history and micro-history. The two stories examined in this talk relate to Italian public and private memories of deportation to the camp of Mauthausen-Gusen and the tale of a resistance monument in Venice.
In general, and in conclusion, I will argue that contemporary Italy has been marked by a tendency towards divided memory. Events have been interpreted in contrasting ways, and the facts themselves often contested. It has proved extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any group to create a consensus around the past, or around ways of remembering that past. Individual events as well as history itself have been understood in a bewildering variety of ways. The state and other public bodies have rarely been able to build durable and commonly agreed practices of commemoration. There has been no closure, no ‘truth’, little reconciliation. Clearly, World War Two was the peak of this division, with its contradictions and civil wars which naturally produced divisive and disturbing narratives and memories.

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