(Swans - March 11, 2013) Sant'Anna di Stazzema, a little town about fifty miles northwest of Florence, Italy, is a small place that has known huge misfortune. In 1944, on August 12, Nazi units, retreating to Germany in the company of Italian Fascist collaborators, slaughtered without reason some five hundred and sixty local people, mainly women and children.
Spike Lee, in his film Miracle at St. Anna (2008), based on a novel by James McBride, tells the story according to the strict norms of narrative: The Nazi carnage was supposedly revenge for an earlier attack against them. Reality, however, seldom complies with the rules of storytelling and often reminds us of Macbeth's words as he sums up life in his final soliloquy: "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (Macbeth, V, 5, 26-28).
There was no poetic justice of any kind that August day in Sant'Anna. The Nazis were leaving a country that until September 8, 1943, had been an ally and only afterwards become an enemy. Italian partisans had grown in number and in arms provided by British and American troops. Germany was well on its way to losing the war. In this atmosphere of nihilistic despair, the soldiers of a battalion of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Reichsführer-SS arrived in Sant'Anna and executed the order of their officers to kill all the inhabitants, no matter how young or old they might be. Period.
Fifty-one years later, in 1995, a discovery was made in Cesi-Gaddi Palace, a building in the center of Rome that housed offices of the Italian Military Judiciary. Documents came to light concerning Nazi crimes perpetrated in Italy during WWII. They had been forgotten in a cabinet whose doors had for some reason been turned towards the wall. Were the papers intentionally overlooked till the events of 1989 changed the political climate? In any case, the time had come to reopen investigations that had been allowed to go cold. What historians, politicians, and artists had been trying to make sense of for decades had at last become a matter for military judges.
For ten years thereafter the La Spezia military tribunal enquired into the Santa'Anna massacre. In the end German private soldiers were not held responsible for the crime. The judges inculpated only the officers who gave the order to shoot. In 2005, La Spezia military court gave life sentences to ten Nazi officers who were still alive in Germany, all in their eighties. The following year the Court of Appeals confirmed the sentences. In 2007, the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation gave its validation. It was now Germany's turn. The sentenced octogenarians had to be extradited to Italy. The Germans didn't hand them over. A few months ago, on October 1, 2012, a court in Stuttgart (Baden-Württemberg, Germany) declared Italy's request unacceptable, pointing out that individual responsibility of the surviving Nazi officers could not be proven by the documents available.
That result shouldn't be seen as discredit to Germany, a country whose governments, since WWII, openly recognized the German crimes that peaked in the genocide of six million European Jews, not to mention Roma, homosexuals, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Yet again on the eve of the Day of Remembrance, January 27, 2013, and three days before the 80th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's rise to power (January 30, 1933), Angela Merkel reconfirmed that Germany had "an everlasting responsibility for the crimes of Nazism" (immer währende Verantwortung für die Verbrechen des National-Sozialismus).
Italy, however, had not followed the German example of admitting guilt. Instead it represented itself as a country of brava gente (nice people) without responsibility for what went on during Fascism, 1922-1945. This included heinous massacres in Libya and in the Horn of Africa along with all that followed from the Nazi-Fascist Alliance: the Race Laws against Italian Jews of September 1938 and the participation in WWII as a member of the Tripartite Pact (1940) involving Germany, Italy, and Japan.
After the war, Italians have generally considered the Fascist dictatorship as something not so bad as Nazism. Mussolini, if not a good man, was, they felt, a kind of a trickster outmaneuvered by his one-time disciple. Hitler was the true villain, and as leader of the alliance the one and only responsible for all the evil done. Surprisingly, this belief is not dead. We read in the Sun of London, January 28, 2013:
Fomer Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi has sparked outrage by praising the country's wartime fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. At a ceremony in Milan to commemorate the Holocaust, Berlusconi said Mussolini -- who led Italy from 1922 to 1943 -- "did good." He also defended the dictator's alliance with Hitler, saying he probably thought it better to be on the winning side.
Now, in the twenty-first century, it's time to fully open our eyes on the past. Justice in court is important, but history isn't written by shrewd lawyers and judges who uphold the law. History is the stuff a citizen is made of. It is indispensable, not only for historians, but for politicians, for voters, for students, parents, and poets.
Italy still has remedial work to do. Despite being one of the cradles of Mediterranean civilization, history -- even recent history -- is not something Italians have a grasp of. August 12th, 2012, in Affile, a town near Rome, a monument was inaugurated to a notorious Fascist leader, Rodolfo Graziani (Filettino, Frosinone 1882 -- Affile, Rome, 1955). The towns of the belt surrounding Rome have always inclined to right-wing politics. However, a monument dedicated to Field Marshall Rodolfo Graziani, charged with crimes against humanity during the Fascist colonial wars in Libya and Ethiopia, is something that goes beyond political identity. It is a blindness to history.
When will Italy be able to look back at its past, own up to its faults, and in the end, be proud of its achievements? In 2011, the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of national unity, there prevailed, along with official celebrations, a mixed sense of discontent, resentment, and self-pity. It was perfectly summarized in the title of a long historical film by Mario Martone set in nineteenth century Italy: We Believed (Noi credevamo, 2010). After disgruntlement, rage and egoism may well set in.
There is not much time left. Europe is experiencing difficult times. Jobs are scarce, money is lacking, political vision has vanished. At such moments, finding scapegoats can be the readiest solution to complex problems. Will the Jews be targeted again? Or will the immigrants, the billionaires, the Socialists, the intellectuals be the new whipping boys? In Hungary, the old recipe still looks fashionable: Fidesz, a right-wing party is in power, and far-right parties and movements (eg., Jobbik, Magyar Gárda) are tempted to play on national pride while the economy is weak, pointing fingers at foreigners and Jews.
In Greece, on the brink of poverty, a neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn (Chrysi Avgi), has success offering a similar solution, even if the far-left party Syriza tops the list in polls. On January 24 in Naples, ten young neo-Fascists were arrested on the strength of wiretapped phone conversations planning anti-Semitic actions. One of the Italian far-right organizations is Casa Pound, named after the great American poet who preferred Mussolini's Italy to the United States and railed against the nefarious power of the bankers.
The century's destiny is being shaped now. The 9/11 attack polarized the confrontation along a West-East axis. The banking crisis of 2008 has brought back the global situation of 1929. Every corner of the planet is concerned.
Santa'Anna di Stazzema and Affile are only two little towns in a small though not insignificant country. Their stories warn us not to ignore twentieth century history, and to heal its terrible wounds instead of covering them over with shoddy mythologies that can only lead to new tragedies. To make the present gloomier, Iranians, and Mediterranean and North African jihadists are not far from anti-Semitism and denial of the Shoah. A better and more balanced economy all over the world would go far toward warding off an eternal return of the past. No supermen or prevaricators, this time. Please.
The author thanks Peter Byrne for his help with this article.
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About the Author
Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio. (back)