“Where Did They Go?”

This post grew out of recent thoughts on Fascism and ethics, and how I might connect my past research with current events.

Look at the above image. We see Italians packed against the Palazzo Venezia in Rome on June 10th, 1940, clamoring to hear Benito Mussolini declare war on France and England. Each of those individual spectators was deeply entrenched in a Fascism that misconstrued, much like the image depicts above, the Italian people as a collective whole made of undifferentiated citizens. This was the Fascist endeavor, and it collapsed the individual–with her own thoughts, feelings, and desires–into a shapeless mass that cohered to the national project. This was not always a unity of willingness, but of coercion and violence.

These Fascists in Italy, whether by fear or fervor, showed up on that Thursday at the foot of Mussolini’s balcony. When the war came to a close, however, where did they go?

The short answer is that some left, others didn’t. Some died, and others moved on as they lived into the postwar era. But they were there. Many former-and-possibly-still-Fascists simply denied their role in history or ducked out of the spotlight. Famously, Italian historian Benedetto Croce characterized the Fascist period as a “parentesi” (parenthesis) in the long history of Italy. Seen by some as a protective gesture which redirected attention to an admirable, pre-Fascism political climate, Croce’s comment continues to sit heavy precisely because of its eagerness to dismiss uncomfortable history. In doing so, he reaches into the realm of nostalgia. Nostalgia is the return to a more favorable moment in history. Svetlana Boym, in her book The Future of Nostalgia (2001), characterizes two forms:

“Restorative nostalgia manifests itself in total reconstructions of monuments of the past, while reflective nostalgia lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time.”

The Fascist preoccupation with the past was an inherently restorative one––an obligation to revive and succeed the glory of Italian cultural ancestry. Croce’s attempt at assuaging postwar tensions dipped dangerously back into the realm of restorative nostalgia, one that ignored the present in an attempt to resurrect the past.

Postwar Italy developed various coping mechanisms for dealing with its past, chief of which was the idea of the “brava gente” (good people). To the Italians was prescribed an essential goodness that overwrote their individual moral culpability. They shouldn’t be held accountable; their actions simply weren’t who they really were (which was good).

But good people can do bad things.

Hannah Arendt explained this as the “banality of evil” in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Being subjected to, or agents of, horrific abuse and violence can lead to their eventual acceptance as a kind of new “normal.” This is one way that Arendt explains the atrocities committed by high-ranking Nazi officials. For the Fascists, their complicity was explained away as beguilement or a temporary moral illness (to recall Croce). That kind of complacency is a dangerous game in history, and Italy can tell us why.