- Interview by
- Stefanie Prezioso
In 2004, Silvio Berlusconi’s government introduced the “Memorial Day” in honor of “Italian Exiles and the Victims of the Foibe.” The commemorations are devoted to Italian refugees who left Yugoslav territory between 1945 and 1960, as well as those killed in the wave of violence following the armistice —known as the foibe, after the sinkholes where many bodies were buried. This “Memorial Day” continues to be marked each February 10, two weeks after International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
For almost two decades, the official pageantry around Memorial Day has served a far-right bid to present a parallel genocide of Italians, supposedly ignored by historians during the Cold War era. Revisionist historians and right-wing ideologues speak of the 4,500 dead and 250,000 refugees as victims of “savage Communist violence.” Each mention of Fascist crimes is sure to prompt right-wingers to mention this forgotten genocide, as if to balance out the Mussolini regime’s own record of mass murder.
Historian Eric Gobetti’s book E allora le foibe? (But what about the foibe?), published earlier this year, seeks to push back against this now pervasive narrative. Investigating the actual mechanisms of the postwar violence, it puts what happened in its proper context. The Yugoslav partisans did not fight a “genocidal” war against Italians as Italians; their violence was directed against members of a fascist regime and ruling class that had invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 in alliance with Nazi Germany.
Gobetti’s work has been attacked by right-wing politicians and media for bringing “ideology” into their preferred narrative of victimhood — with the attacks including threats against his family. His crime is to put the violence at the end of the war in the context of the Italian army’s own colonial occupation of Yugoslav territories — twenty-nine months in which Italian troops killed tens if not hundreds of thousands of civilians.
That such context is today all but unmentionable gives a sense of the current state of historical discussion in Italy — and also reflects the rise of Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia party. Faced with the lies and the attacks against Gobetti, earlier this month over 140 historians and representatives of civil-society groups published an open letter in Turin’s La Stampa newspaper, on the eightieth anniversary of the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia, calling for official recognition of the fascist crimes in that country.
Historian Stefanie Prezioso spoke to Gobetti about Italy’s crimes in Yugoslavia, the foibe killings, and the far right’s success in rewriting history.
I’d like to start from the title of your book, which we could translate as “But what about the foibe?” What audience are you trying to reach?
The title refers to the way these events have been instrumentalized by the neofascist right. I wanted this to be a book with a popular tone, giving a clear overview of things. The aim is to reach a general public that perhaps doesn’t know these events very well, but every year is subjected to this neofascist propaganda and doesn’t know what to think or how to respond. So the book is meant as an aid to understanding the essential points of what really happened, and so push back against this dangerous false narrative.
These events are often called the foibe (literally, “sinkholes”), perhaps a strange word to encapsulate a rather complex phenomenon. What does this term refer to — and why don’t you think it’s a fitting description of what happened?
The foibe are underground cavities typical of the Upper Adriatic region, vertical caves that have always been used in wartime to bury bodies. They were used in this way also during these two waves of violence, in September 1943 [upon the Italian armistice with the Allies, prompting the German invasion of Italy] and to a lesser extent in 1945.
This wasn’t about inflicting a barbaric death on people [as suggested by the notion that they were dropped into the holes alive], but a way of burying the dead compatible with the terrain. Using this term to describe the entire phenomenon serves to create an image of Yugoslavs committing primitive acts of violence, an essentially racist depiction. It basically serves to harden a propagandist description of a peaceful, civilized Italy — Fascist Italy, that is — counterposed to barbaric, bloodthirsty Communist Slavs.
You write that “to understand history, we need to know the geography, too.” Can you explain how this approach helps us understand these events?
For any scholar, putting history in its proper context is their first duty. That starts with the geographical area in which a given phenomenon happened.
In this case [in the region close to the Italian-Yugoslav border], we are talking about a multicultural area where different national and linguistic identities coexisted for centuries, also with a lot of integration between them. But this world disappeared after forty years of violence, starting with the Italian annexation of this territory [from Austria-Hungary] at the end of World War I, bringing it into an Italian nation-state that would soon be taken over by a totalitarian regime.
In this complicated context there were overlapping forms of violence, driven by national conflict but also social, economic, political, and ideological factors. This area is just one of many multicultural European territories devastated by nationalism and war, which resulted in a radical “ethnic simplification” when the greater part of the Italian population left it over the course of the 1940s and 1950s.
The various nationalist forces from the Risorgimento [national unification] onward established a strong connection between this area and Italian nationhood. Can you explain how they did so?
From the moment of national unification in the 1860s, these territories were a target of Italian expansionist projects. In the fascist era, the area to the east of Italy was considered a sort of Lebensraum from which the inferior Slavic populations ought to be either expelled or Italianized by force.
This racist, anti-Slavic imaginary is an old one. But it still exists today in the media description of the foibe, where the partisans are represented in the most grotesque form as primitive, barbaric, bloodthirsty animals. Films in recent years like Red Land and The Heart in the Well show that this racist stereotype is still very much with us.
How would you characterize the Italian occupation regime in Yugoslavia?
In the public narrative about the foibe, everything starts in 1943 [the moment Italy surrendered to the Allies]. But the war wasn’t brought to this region by Yugoslav partisans, but by the Italian army, which invaded Yugoslavia together with Germany on April 6, 1941. The foibe and the exodus of the Italian population wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the unjust war and the bloody occupation that followed. At the end of the war, Yugoslavia had a million dead, making it one of the hardest hit countries.
The Italian army’s violent repression of the Yugoslav resistance was similar to its German equivalent in Italy after September 1943. This meant mass roundups, the destruction of homes, hostage taking, mass shootings as reprisals [for partisan actions], the execution of prisoners, and concentration camps. Italy interned around one hundred thousand Yugoslavs, mainly civilians, and around five thousand died of starvation and hard labor in the Italian camps.
This is the dark history that some want to forget — the colossal suffering hidden behind the claims about “our” victims in the foibe. Of course, there were such victims. But their deaths were part of a cycle of violence that Fascist Italy had itself brought to this part of Europe.
Your book also seeks to dismantles some of the claims about the war . . .
I am not trying to dismantle the hypotheses advanced by others or to propose a different truth. I simply summarize the results achieved by a community of historians who have been working on these themes for many years. Whatever their different interpretations, all scholars agree on some basic elements: numbers, dates, the sequence of events, the motivations for action.
These facts, verified by historians, alone suffice to contradict the commonly told version of events — for instance, the version told when people talk about a territory that has always been fully Italian, ignoring all the other inhabitants, who were in many areas the majority. Or when they describe a “sudden” Italian attack against the peaceful Italian population, neglecting to mention that it was actually Italy that invaded Yugoslavia. Or when they try to set up a radical opposition between Slavs and Italians rather than reckon with the political and military relationship between them (and there were forty thousand Italians in the Yugoslav Resistance!).
Even more absurd is the determination to define these events as a “genocide” (with 4,500 victims, out of hundreds of thousands) or ethnic cleansing, ignoring the mainly military and political factors behind the violence. Lastly, the exodus of Italians is painted as a forcible expulsion, even though those who left legally opted to do so in accordance with the terms of the postwar peace treaty. And then there is the canard of the “conspiracy of silence” over these events, as if Communists (rather than anti-Communists) had ruled Italy for all these decades.
Your book seems to have met with some success, but you have also been threatened by neofascist groups, and even insulted in the press by Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni. You responded by saying that “Doing an honest historian’s work is bound to spark protests among neofascists, actually it could be considered something of a badge of honor.” Can you tell us something about the political and propagandist use of history in recent decades?
It’s obvious that we are confronted with the political and cultural hegemony of the Right, dating back at least as far as Berlusconi’s first rise to power almost thirty years ago. Two of the main political parties in Italy (the Lega and Fratelli d’Italia) draw their inspiration from neo-nationalist and neofascist models.
For years now, these same parties have dominated the political stage and influenced cultural policies, especially those associated with public memory (and we need only think of the films on this theme on public broadcaster RAI). The foibe is an issue central to their political strategy, because it rekindles nationalism and recasts fascism as a victim of supposed aggression. So the tale they have imposed as fact has to be beyond question.
These parties pursue this agenda in various ways, from intimidation (attempts at defamation and discrediting people — for instance, accusing scholars and whoever gives them a platform as “deniers”), threats (verbal and physical violence, a value long extolled by this side of the political spectrum), and even outright censorship. In the Veneto and Friuli regions there is already a legal ban on speech regarding the foibe that does not obey certain criteria, for example the “twelve thousand victims” — an official body count triple the real number. The Lega have a bill that seeks to impose the same thing across the whole country.
The Berlusconi government introduced the memorial day back in 2004. Why do you think this is still such a heated political issue?
I think I can boast of something of a record for the highest number of “reviews” before my book was actually available: there were at least four by right-wing papers, offering takedowns of my book based on the title alone! As the insults against me were already at their height, I read a comment on a neofascist social media page saying, “Don’t worry, we’ve already won the battle over the foibe.” Indeed, the February 10 Memorial Day isn’t challenged by any political party: They all agree, with some different nuances. They have all adopted the nationalist perspective which, like it or not, means a decriminalization of fascism.
The only tension is between the political and media worlds — which commemorate these events in various partial and incorrect ways — and the (ever rarer) honest and courageous historians who try and challenge the tale that is being spun. Today, it’s easier to give in to the falsified narrative and marginalize the few voices who don’t join in the chorus.
But this is a serious political error — because our democracy is at stake here. It is bad enough to outlaw historians who tell the truth, but it is also dangerous to criminalize the resistance and present the Fascists as heroes and martyrs. This is something the entire political class is doing, for each year the solemn tributes to the “martyrs of the foibe” — many of them Fascist militiamen — are paid by state authorities and not just private associations of fascist nostalgics.
With this effective political agreement regarding the February 10 Memorial Day, if anything, April 25 — the anniversary of liberation from German occupation and Fascist rule — is the real subject of political contention. It is often defined as divisive by the same politicians who are obsessed with the false retelling of the foibe and refuse to recognize anti-fascist values.
This is entirely consistent — the tale they tell about the foibe is in open contradiction with one that celebrates the resistance. That is simply because it is the product of the memory of one side, the fascist side, that has, however, conquered a dominant position in our country’s public memory policies. In short, if all politicians agree that the (Yugoslav) resistance was criminal and Fascism entirely innocent, then obviously April 25 itself becomes a date for “just one side” celebrated by those nostalgists for anti-fascism (equated with communism) which the state condemns on February 10.
This all demonstrates an attempt to overthrow the fundamental values of our postwar constitution: the values of freedom, of democracy, of anti-fascism. And no political party seems to have any real interest in defending them.