For 1995 Graduates, an Important History Lesson

On this 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, today's new Columbia graduates might well remember one more lesson of history. Luciano Rebay, the Ungaretti Professor in Italian Literature, delivered the following commentary at a symposium titled "Rethinking Italian and European Resistance on the 50th Anniversary of the Liberation of Europe" held by the department of Italian on April 24, at which Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel and novelist Umberto Eco also spoke.

There is a poem by Eugenio Montale, one of the most compelling poems of our age, "La primavera hitleriana," in which the Nobel Laureate addresses the question of the responsibility of his countrymen for Fascism.

Montale noted that at the time of "Hitler's spring" in May 1938 no one in Italy could have claimed "innocence" with regard to Fascism, for by then everyone was "guilty." The historical frame of the poem is the meeting of Hitler and Mussolini in Florence to seal their "pact of steel."

In July, barely two months afterwards, the "Manifesto of the Aryan Race" as well as the "Special Laws" legalizing discrimination against the Jews were issued in Rome.

Today, as we "rethink" the Resistance, it is appropriate to remember that in Italy it was engineered and sustained by a relatively small number of individuals, and that Fascism was able to rule the country unopposed as it did for over two decades because the vast majority of ordinary and otherwise decent Italians allowed it to do so by failing to organize meaningful dissent, and, worse, by often showering the Duce with tumultous applause.

No matter what opinions people may have held in private, it is a fact that public compliance with the regime's decrees was virtually universal--a submissive attitude motivated by a variety of causes, chief among them the fear of jeopardizing one's material well-being by losing one's job, since in practice it was compulsory that every working person, as well as every student, from kindergarten to the university level, be a registered member of the National Fascist Party.

In 1931, nine years after assuming power, emboldened by the Concordat with the Vatican that had bestowed upon Fascism a sort of divine legitimacy, Mussolini demanded that the 1,200 professors in the University system swear allegiance to his government.

Only 11 of them, some say 13, refused to take the oath. All the others obeyed, and whether they intended it or not became Fascism's accomplices.

Nor can one forget, on a different level, the practitioners of the "double game," those who, especially towards the end of the conflict, switched sides according to which way the wind was blowing.

There is an essay by Franco Monicelli on this subject in the December 1944 issue of Mercurio, a remarkable journal published in Rome right after the city's liberation in June.

There were people in Rome, Monicelli grimly reports at one point, who continued their collaboration with the German occupation forces even while hedging their bets by hiding Allied soldiers in their cellars.

Ultimately the Resistance saved the honor of Italy in World War II. In particular it taught a number of young men and women, brainwashed by years of regimented education in the schools, the importance of starting to think with their own heads and of summoning the courage to stand up and be counted.

But Fascism, defeated in 1945, is on the rise once more, in Italy, in the United States and elsewhere, lurking behind the scenes under different guises and changed political labels.

Throughout the world new generations of leaders for the most part have no first-hand knowledge or experience of its horrors and of the long, bloody struggle against it.

Carlo Scognamiglio, who as President of the Italian Senate is honoring this commemoration with his presence and the prestige of his office, was born, luckily for him, on November 27, 1944.

Yet it is to these leaders that the older generations commit the future, hoping that what was learned at such a heavy cost during the first half of the century will not be lost now, 50 years later, or in the years to come.


Columbia University Record -- May 17, 1995 -- Vol. 20, No. 29