In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

History & Memory 16.1 (2004) 37-85

[Access article in PDF]

Monuments, Public Space, and the Memory of Empire

Monuments, Public Space, and the Memory of Empire in Modern Italy

Ora che è morto la patria si gloria
d'un altro eroe alla memoria
Fabrizio De André, "La ballata dell'eroe"

How are wars defined and described, and for whose benefit? What constitutes a war worth remembering? Among European historians, a great deal of innovative scholarship has been devoted to rethinking the causes and legacies of World War I and World War II. The first and only wars to secure these august titles, they are still seen by most Europeans as the defining and constitutive experiences of the modern era. The very intensity of disagreement over this period has made it fertile ground for public forms of civic, though not always democratic, debate and regeneration. Yet not all conflicts are created equal. Nor are all wars remembered with the same gravity or revisionist vigor. This is true, regardless of their length, intensity and the number of their victims. In this article, I address one type of war that many Europeans have found difficult to openly debate. Focusing on twentieth-century Italy, I address the history and memory of empire, with a special emphasis on Italy's colonial wars in Africa. In particular, I consider how and why Italian political leaders and ordinary citizens have included—but also excluded—colonial conquest as a central chapter of their modern national military, political and civic history. To do so, I examine a number of official, public markers to Italy's colonial wars, including monuments, squares, street names, and military and civilian [End Page 37] cemeteries and mausoleums. My goal here is to trace the shifting role these markers of memory have played in forging official and public attitudes toward the imperial past, and how they have both fit, and resisted, Italian conventions of national and military commemoration.

Why Italy? Throughout Europe, leaders and citizens have struggled to recast their imperial histories under the combined pressures of war, defeat, revolution and immigration. Yet Italy offers an unusually profound and long-standing case of official reticence in dealing with the history of overseas conquest. 1 This reticence was especially evident in the aftermath of World War II. Italy's peculiar status in the late 1940s, as a nation emerging from both imperialism and fascism, produced a peculiarly fraught and incomplete effort to scrutinize the nation's several colonial wars, especially those waged under fascist leadership in Libya and Ethiopia. Italy's postwar leaders struggled to downplay the violent aspects of their imperial and fascist history, thereby smoothing reintegration into a moderate and democratic West. In the hopes of maintaining control over at least some of their colonies, officials sought to dissociate imperialism (which began in the late nineteenth century) from fascism (1922-43) by advertising Italians' role as builders of roads, hospitals and schools.

The same vision of Italy as a benevolent modernizer was also supported by postwar constructions of national character. The idea that most Italians had been largely unwilling or passive accomplices in fascist imperial violence became a comforting and largely unchallenged touchstone of postwar Italian identity. In both official discourse and popular culture, many Italians remembered themselves as brava gente, innately good and humane people. This commonsense insistence on "Italian niceness," to cite revisionist historian R. J. B. Bosworth, offered many Italians who participated in or supported the fascist colonial venture a soft and apolitical way to turn away from the some of the more brutal and troubling chapters of the past, submerging what was still a barely clarified history. 2

The particular fate of Italy's colonies also played a crucial role in forging this vision of the Italian past. Despite official pleas, after the war Italy was stripped of most of her colonies by multilateral fiat. Ethiopia, Libya and Italy's possessions in what is now the Greek Aegean were removed from Italian tutelage by the leading victors of World War II. Italy thus faced no protracted civil...