The Victory Monument And The Italian Social Movement

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In 1946, Italy rose from the ashes after twenty years of Mussolini’s rule and five years of war, but the legacy of Fascism did not fade away. Instead of confronting its problematic past and the crimes committed under the regime, the newly-born democracy moved on, and the fascist legacy remained a controversial topic (Steinacher, 2017). Meanwhile, the geopolitical situation in Europe had changed, and Italy now stood at the frontline of the battle against Communism. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, if the country engaged in a process of “selective remembering and willful forgetting”, avoiding facing the Ventennio Fascista and its abuses and instead mythicizing some aspects of the regime (Ventresca, as cited by Hökerberg, 2017, p. 769). This mythicization was also what made possible, despite its unconstitutionality, the foundation of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), which reassembled the remnants of the Fascist Party and openly praised the Duce’s rule (Steinacher, 2017). </p><p>In South Tyrol, too, the specter of Fascism lingered on. Despite the promise of granting minority rights to the German-speaking population, the program of Italianization was partially renewed, causing inter-ethnic conflict to spark again (Steinacher, 2017). While in many other Italian cities most fascist symbols had been destroyed, Bolzano’s Victory Monument remained intact, except for the removal of the inscription honoring Mussolini. On the contrary, it was even restored for the propagation of Italian identity which, among other things, allowed for the continuation of the celebrations for the 4th of November (Hökerberg, 2017). Italians now accused the German-speaking population of collusion and collaboration with the Nazis, as most South Tyroleans, hoping for liberation from Italy, had supported National Socialism during the German occupation of the region (Steinacher, 2017). Thus, as Steinacher (2017) underlines, a paradoxical mechanism of victimization was put into place, with the historical memory of both groups centered on their own suffering. Therefore, the South Tyroleans claimed to be the victims of Fascism, but not the perpetrators of Nazi crimes, while the Italian population claimed to be the victim of Nazism, and that the German speakers should acknowledge Mussolini’s supposedly beneficial policies in the region.

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Considering the premises, the escalation of the situation was foreseeable. The main German political party, the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP), radicalized, autonomist or independentist parties strengthened their support, and violent demonstrations and bombings, most notably of the Victory Monument, took place (Hökerberg, 2017). In the 1960s the protests gave rise to terrorism, and in 1972, pressured by Austria and the international community, the Italian government finally granted South Tyrol far-reaching autonomy and made the region officially bilingual. Steinacher (2017) notices that this political settlement, coupled with the decline of the Italian-speaking population, resulted in a reassertion of the South Tyrolean identity. Consequently, the remaining Italian speakers increasingly clinched on the few symbols of their identity, and their festivities came to be dominated by right-wing and neo-fascist parties.

In addition to these regional developments, also the political events at the national level contributed greatly to a new wave of relativism and revisionism in relation to the memory of Fascism (Steinacher, 2017). In 1994, Berlusconi’s newly-founded center-right party won the general elections and formed a coalition government with the National Alliance, the successor of the MSI, thus leaving the door open to extremist, possibly unconstitutional political positions. In 2001, in an attempt to lower the tensions deriving from both the national and local level, the center-left municipality government changed the name of Victory Square, where the monument is located, to Peace Square (Hökerberg, 2017). This act, however, provoked a negative response among Bolzano’s Italian population, forcing the municipality to hold a nonbinding referendum on the issue. As more than 60% of voters did not favor the name change, the square retained its old appellation (Steinacher, 2017). Later, the last massive protest surrounding the Victory Monument happened in 2008, when local elections saw a rise in the share of votes for ethnic right-wing parties and the SVP lost its absolute majority in the province’s government. Consequently, in occasion of the 90th anniversary of Italy’s victory in WWI, German conservative and right-wing voters organized one of the largest demonstrations to date against the site (Steinacher, 2017).

Going Forward: The Permanent Exhibition

The decennial debate around the Victory Monument that has just been described is far from unique. Any interaction with a monument born to celebrate totalitarianism raises complex questions. In an interesting analysis on the importance of monuments for memory studies, Carlà and Mitterhofer (2017) state that heritage sites are usually contested worldwide, being them the legacy of a totalitarian regime, colonialism or ethno-religious conflicts. After all, they are lieux de memoire, embodiments of collective memory, history, and identity. Because of this, they have the potential to foster division and conflict, as those who are excluded or marginalized from the collective memory might begin to challenge the dominant narrative. However, the authors go on saying, it is never easy to deal with controversial heritage sites. Their removal, or alternatively the erasure of any particularly controversial aspects, are often cited as possible solutions, but both strategies might prove ineffective or even worsen the situation. The destruction or modification of monuments may destabilize identities and provoke social disorder, while, as Habermas underscores, their conservation may lead to reconciliation through the recognition of diverging memories and their improved understanding by opposing groups in society (Carlà & Mitterhofer, 2017).

In Bolzano, no shared attempt of dealing with the past had been advanced until 2011 (Angelucci & Kerschbamer, 2017). The Victory Monument was the symbol of a past that did not pass away, with Italian right-wing parties calling for its preservation as part of the Italian cultural heritage, and German-speaking right-wing parties favoring its demolition (Hökerberg, 2017). Moderate proposals, instead, went from the removal of all fascist symbols from the arch, a name change from Victory Monument to Peace Monument, and the addition of information panels for the monument’s historical contextualization (Carlà & Mitterhofer, 2017). In 2011, finally, an agreement between the Italian, provincial, and municipality governments favored the third moderate approach and assigned a commission of historians and art historians the task to elaborate a project in that regard (Angelucci & Kerschbamer, 2017). Importantly, this commission included both Italian and German historians, which allowed for the widest consensus possible in the analysis and presentation of the two groups’ shared memories of the city’s history (Hökerberg, 2017).

Despite the public debate that this political decision generated, the work of the commission was transformed into reality in 2014 with the opening of the permanent exhibition BZ ’18-’45: One Monument. One Town. Two Dictatorships (Angelucci & Kerschbamer, 2017). The commission members agreed that, in order for the monument to lose its polemic nature and its divisive potential, a desacralizing process was needed. This idea implied allowing the public to explore and study the site and providing the visitors with information about the site’s history (Angelucci & Kerschbamer, 2017). Therefore, the exhibition does not focus exclusively on the process of Italianization of South Tyrol and the wrongdoings of the fascist regime, but also on the benefits of the public infrastructure constructed during the Ventennio. In addition, it also investigates the region’s Nazi period, thus presenting history in all its multifaceted faces and allowing for critical reflection (Carlà & Mitterhofer, 2017). In this way, a reinterpretation of the monument has been possible. Since the arch is a product of past political and ideological circumstances, its message is nowadays no longer valid: once this simple yet revolutionary concept is recognized, the possibility for ethnic reconciliation is not a fantasy anymore (Hökerberg, 2017).

During the exhibition, which is located in the underground spaces of the monument, visitors can learn about the role and meaning of heritage sites and reflect critically on their past and future. In the monument’s crypt, the walls are filled with quotations from renewed historians, such as Hannah Arendt, all warning of the dangers of totalitarianism and the importance of democracy (Carlà & Mitterhofer, 2017). English is the main exhibition language, a choice that reflects the intent of avoiding the primacy of one local language over the other in a context where language remains a contested issue despite decades of peaceful Italo-German cohabitation and official bilingualism (Carlà & Mitterhofer, 2017). On the outside, the arch was left untouched, apart from the addition of a LED ring on one of the columns. By breaking the monumental nature of the façade, this small but immediately visible intervention wants to neutralize the monument’s otherwise indelible fascist ideological mark (Carlà & Mitterhofer, 2017).

In sum, the exhibition has transformed the monument from a construction linked to a violent and problematic history into a learning space that allows for critical reflection. Carlà and Mitterhofer (2017) highlight how it does not negate or obliterate the fascist nature of the Victory Monument, but rather tries to use this difficult memory as a resource to investigate the Nazi-fascist totalitarian ideologies of 20th century and the divisive power of heritage sites. Where Fascism wanted to celebrate its rule over the local population stands now an exhibition which emphasizes South Tyrol’s heterogeneity by exploring pluralistic and divergent interpretations of the region’s history and cultural heritage. Considering political statements, media discourses, intellectuals’ opinions, and the reaction of South Tyrol’s public opinion, this process has been successful, so much so that in 2016 the 39th European Museum of the Year Award even gave a special commendation to the exhibition (Carlà & Mitterhofer, 2017). Finally, 90 years after its construction, the monument has ceased to be a breeding ground for tensions among the region’s ethno-linguistic communities.

Conclusion

Coming to terms with troubled pasts, especially in relatively young democratic nations that have to cope with ethnic tensions, such as the case of Italy, remains an enduring test for any society. It is not enough to recognize and protect minority rights and create an institutional framework that allows for the sharing of power among different groups in society. When the legacy of history stands in the way of reconciliation, countries and regions must also deal with their cultural heritage, which more often than not means take important decisions regarding the management of controversial, divisive monuments and other sites. The case of the Victory Monument, which this essay has casted the light upon, perfectly exemplifies this challenge. The arch carries the mark of the Fascist regime which built it and thus embodies deeply troubled memories. Its very existence has been a decennial source of contestation and conflict between the Italian- and German-speaking minorities of South Tyrol, which saw in the monument a symbol of national identity and an emblem of fascist oppression. Until 2011, no historiographical, memory-based solution had been taken into consideration. The opening of the permanent exhibition, finally, changed this attitude and proved to be effective in transforming the Victory Monument from a source of enmities to an icon of peace and reconciliation. Showing that it is possible and highly beneficial, for a society as a whole, to directly confront the legacy of totalitarian ideologies and regimes. This is an approach that still remains unusual in Italy, but it might someday open the path to similar projects in other areas of the country where fascist remnants are still visible and tolerated. This is why the permanent exhibition should be kept in place: the past cannot be obliterated, no matter how problematic it is.

31 October 2020

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