Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A tale of two memories

Italian and German history intertwine, not always happily and this week present perceptions and past memories were brought into sharp relief in the two countries in strikingly contrasting ways. And putting the Vatican's present policies into the limelight as well.
The German side is well known worldwide; on 24 January, Pope Benedict XVI removed the excommunication placed by his predecessor on members of the Community of St. Pius X, followers of Cardinal Marcel Lefebvre who had refused to accept most of the changes in the Catholic Church introduced by the Second Vatican Council. There was little controversy around the gesture or around any of the individuals apart from Bishop Richard Williamson.
Williamson had given an interview to a Swedish television channel in which he affirmed that “I believe there were no gas chambers”. Even though Williamson’s remarks had been recorded in November and only broadcast after the revocation of his excommunication, it turned out that he had made his views on the Shoah very clear long before.
Not surprisingly there were strong reactions from Jewish and Isreali quarters. Williamson’s denial of the Holocaust insult to the injury of re-admitting the Levebrians to the Church even though they continue to use the prayer in the Latin mass calling for the conversion of the “perfidis Jud├Žis”.
The German reaction was also predictable but its strength was unexpected; it came from both political and religious quarters.
Chancellor Merkel made her own and her government’s position clear “If a decision of the Vatican give rise to the impression that the Holocaust may be denied, this cannot be left to stand”. It is surprising that the pope had not understood the implications by himself or that none of his advisors in the Curia had told him. But the remonstrances were not only secular. Two of the highest and most respected German catholics, cardinals Walter Casper and Karl Lehmann made public statements condemning Williamson and demanding that someone in the Vatican should take responsibility for the mistake. Casper spoke on Vatican Radio admitting “there were misunderstandings and management errors in the Curia”; Lehmann said there should be a clear apology “from a high position”.
The conclusion to be drawn so far is that, one, Pope Benedict’s lack of political acumen and lack of reliable advisors are confirmed; and two, that Germany is still acutely conscious of its Nazi past and wants no hint of revisionism to creep into any official image of the country including the Holy See’s projection of the country.
On the Italian side, the drama is far more low key and only reached the front pages indirectly.
Since 2005, Italy has marked a “day of memory” a week after the Day of Memory for the liberation of Auschwitz. It comemorates the murder of fascists and non-fascists by Yugoslav partisans at the end of World War II and the expulsion of some 350,000 Italian speakers from Istria at the same time; the murder victims were thrown into natural crevasses known locally as foibe. The murderers were communist partisans; of the victims many but not all were fascists or fascist sympathisers, most but not all were Italian.
To commemorate tragedies and remember the dead is human but there is something profoundly distasteful when the murdered are being used by the living to score political points as is happening here. To commemorate the foibe murders a week after Auschwitz and the Shoah and with the same name smacks of victim piggyback riding. To commemorate the Italian victims without remembering the others killed is a minor form of selective memory; to commemorate them without mentioning the hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavs who were forced to learn Italian and had their names changed over more than 20 years of occupation and the tens of thousands imprisoned and killed during the war is terrible and major selective memory.
Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, last week called for a museum and “house of memory” dedicated to the foibe in Rome “on the Shoah model”. His party colleague, Maurizio Gasparri claimed some years ago that the foibe victims were “a million” (the real figure is between 5,000 and 15,000, gruesome enough but of a different order). More recently other members of the far right National Alliance have called the foibe murders and the expulsion of the Italian Istrians as “genocide”. Despite denials that post-fascist National Alliance is making an equation between the Shoah and the foibe, it looks very much as if this is what is happening.
It would be as if the German authorities had concentrated their efforts on the hundreds of thousands of Volkdeutsch expelled from Czechoslovakia and Poland at the end of the war without mentioning what Hitler’s Germany had done to those two countries.
Instead, when the Pope indirectly condoned the Holocaust by welcoming a Holocaust denier back into the Church, the highest secular and religious authorities unequivocally condemned the action painfully remembering the silence of their predecessors. Here in Italy, there is no such clarity.

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