Italy: Responsibilities and lessons from the Holocaust

For many decades Italy has avoided taking full responsibility for what happened during the war, seeking refuge in the myth of Italiani brava gente (“Italian good people”).

April 15, 2015 22:50
4 minute read.

Italian Chamber of Deputies. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Wandering around the Italian Constitutional Court, a visitor can find something unexpected. In the halls of the majestic 18th-century palace there is a bust that is dedicated to Gaetano Azzariti. Azzariti was appointed president of the court in 1957, notwithstanding the fact that he had also been one of the most prominent jurists in Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Not only had he signed the infamous Manifesto of Race, which paved the way of anti-Jewish laws, but he had also been chosen as the head of the special court dedicated to implement them.

After the war, as did many other Fascist figures Azzariti managed to continue his illustrious career in the newly established Italian Republic (in his case, also thanks to the help of the head of the Italian Communist Party Palmiro Togliatti).

His dark past was never really brought to the attention of the public.

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Therefore, decades later, the bust is still there. And, as recently revealed by journalist Gian Antonio Stella in the Italian daily Corriere Della Sera, it does not look like it will be removed any time soon (in 2012, a formal request by one of the sitting judges, Paolo Maria Napolitano, was denied with no explanation).

In 2000, Italy passed a law establishing Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27. Since then, the memorial events and various initiatives related to the Day have grown, both in terms of number and official and public notice. Italian TV broadcasts shows and movies on the subject of the Holocaust, while a formal celebration is hosted at the Quirinale Palace, where the president of Italy himself awards the prizes for the “The young remember the Shoah” contest promoted by the Education Ministry and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. Moreover, every year, ministers, mayors and many important public figures escort dozens of Italian students from all over the country to visit the death camps.

A 2015 survey carried out by the research firm SWG in cooperation with the Italian Jewish paper Pagine Ebraiche shows that the vast majority of Italians seem to appreciate the Holocaust Memorial Day as an essential educational tool.

And yet Azzariti’s bust remains, as do over a dozen streets all over Italy dedicated to notorious Fascists.

How to explain this apparent contradiction? The simple answer is that Italy is willing to remember, but only up to a point.

“In the past few years, too often the focus has only been on the saviors, with the risk that only the victims and the righteous get attention, while the guilts of persecutors remains unknown,” notes the historian Simon Levis Sullam in the preface of his new book, I carnefici italiani (“The Italian persecutors”), published in January 2015.

For many decades Italy has avoided taking full responsibility for what happened during the war, seeking refuge in the myth of Italiani brava gente (“Italian good people”). The general tendency is to blame the German Nazis for what happened in Italy during the war, especially regarding the persecution of Jews, and on the contrary to emphasize that many Italian citizens helped Jews. This thesis is very common within Italian society. For instance, on January 27, 2013, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said that Italy was forced to persecute Jews by Germany, while he was attending the inauguration of the Holocaust Memorial in Milan.

The idea that Italians are somehow not responsible for the crimes committed during the Holocaust is strongly rejected by historians, as well as by Holocaust survivors.

“They asked me what I think about the Fascists. The ‘good Italians’ were the servants of the Nazis. They were the ones who pushed us in the trains, kicking us and beating us, us who were only guilty of being born,” Liliana Segre, an Italian survivor, always points out when she delivers her testimony regarding the horrors she witnessed as a 13-year-old sent to Auschwitz. Even before the last and most dramatic part of the persecution, she recalls how the ones who expelled her from school were Italians, as were as the former friends who didn’t show any sympathy toward her or her family, and the ones who arrested her.

2015 year marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II.

Outside the revolting circle of Holocaust deniers, who at least in the Western world represent a tiny number of people, more or less everyone is willing to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened and that Jews were persecuted and exterminated. However, the pressing question, and not only for Italy or Italians, is what lesson the world is willing to learn from the Holocaust.

With the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, and the dramatic increase of atrocities against humanity all over the world, maybe it is time to say that remembering is important but not sufficient, that accepting responsibility for what happened then is a necessary step for accepting responsibility for what happens today and what will happen in the future. A necessary step to doing something about it.

The author is an Italian journalist.


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