Italy has always had difficulty coming to terms with its past but with the passage of time, instead of the past becoming clearer, it becomes dirtier and dirtier.
It was bad enough when a street was named after a corrupt politician like Bettino Craxi. But it gets worse, much worse. (The new mausoleum - left, Graziani - below)
Yesterday the town of Affile in southern Latium opened a Commemoration Park and Mausoleum in honour of a convicted war criminal, Rodolfo Graziani. The mayor, complete with mayoral tricolour sash, representing the Republic of Italy inaugurated the monument accompanied by members of the Latium Regional government and a senator. He declared that he hoped Affile would become "the Predappio [Mussolini's birthplace and fascist cult turism destination] of Latium". After the ceremony, there was a conference given by a priest from the Roman curia entitled “The memory of the General”.
The general in question, or rather, Field Marshal, was sentenced to 19 years for war crimes by an Italian court in 1948.
His political and moral responsibilities were much greater.
Twenty years before he had commanded Italian forces in Libya where he earned a reputation for unmatched brutality and the title “the butcher of Fezzan”. He set up concentration camps for civilians where thousands died of disease and starvation as well as executing large number of insurgents. The war ended when Graziani captured and hanged the Senussi leader Omar al Mukhtar after a summary trial. Qaddafi made good propaganda use of the story but I doubt that anyone in today’s new Libya can be very pleased at Graziani’s new honour.
When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Graziani was given command of the southern front with Badoglio in overall command leading the invasion from the north. Italian forces used gas extensively despite having signed the conventions banning poison gas.
He was made viceroy of the new colony and in 1937 there was an assassination attempt which seriously injured Graziani. Thousands died in the reprisals (corpses on left) and in particular, Graziani ordered an attack on the monastery of Debra Libanos because he suspected that the Ethiopian Church had had a hand in the assassination plan. More than 400 monks were killed as a result (although some studies put the figure much higher).
In 1938, he added his voice to the support of the Manifesto della Razza, the declaration which served as a basis for the Racial Laws depriving Italian Jews of their political and civil rights.
After the September 1943 armistice, Graziani opted for Mussolini and the Germans rather than the king, Badoglio and the Allies. He was made Minister of War in the Italian Social Republic, the RSI or Repubblica di Salò, Mussolini’s neo-fascist puppet republic. As such he organised the anti-partisan war complete with torture and reprisal. His best known decree threatened any young man who did not answer the draft with execution and many were actually shot (poster, left). It was for these crimes that he was tried by an Italian court in 1948 and sentenced to 19 years. The British had worked very hard to prevent Italian war crimes suspects (in Libya, Greece, Yugoslavia and Ethiopia) from being prosecuted as it would have upset the new Cold War balance. So Graziani was never prosecuted for what he did in Libya or Ethiopia.
He is not a Goering or a Goebbels, not quite, but that is hardly a good reason to honour him today. (Can you imagine what would happen if a small German town honoured even a minor German war criminal?) This is a man who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Libyan, Ethiopian and Italian civilians and as a soldier ignored the Geneva protocols. He never recognised that there had been anything wrong with fascism and the year before he died, he reaffirmed fascist values. By honouring Graziani, the mayor of Affile and the Regional Government honoured what he stood for.
In Europe in 2012, this is a terrifying prospect, not because a village of 1,500 people has a not-so-crypto fascist mayor but that there is no indignation from political and civil society leaders.
To add two insults to the injury, the park cost €130,000 of public money, paid for by the Latium Regional Government. Regions are responsible for the health service in Italy and Latium like most others has been closing hospitals, cutting back on services and increasing the price of others. Honouring Graziani would have been an obscenity even if it had been paid for by a fascist benefactor and even if the benefactor had added a donation; but this use of taxpayers’ money is particularly dishonest.
The second insult is that today is the 68th anniversary of the Stazzema Massacre where German SS soldiers killed 560 Italians including old men, women and children in a reprisal. Graziani’s RSI troops worked closely with both the Wehrmacht and the SS. President Napolitano reckoned the anniversary was significant enough to send a message and Martin Schulz, German Social Democrat and President of the European Parliament, was present at the commemoration saying “I am German and the language I speak is the same as those who committed these crimes and I will not forget that.” Schulz, by the way, was the European Socialist leader who Berlusconi offered a movie part as an SS, so is particularly sensitive to issues of Italy’s fascist past.
Harry Shindler of the British Army’s Italian campaign veterans’ “Italy Star” association was shocked at the news and reminded me of the Stazzema anniversary asking “what did they all die for?”
There are millions of Italians that are profoundly shocked as well (if and when they know about the episode) but while the rift persists (and grows) Italy’s ethical identity becomes even more uncertain.