A Restless Memory

by Claudio Silingardi

The Italian Resistance has never been granted a sincere institutional legitimacy, nor has it been fully recognised as one of the founding ‘legends’ of the Italian republic. Its memory has and still does fuel numerous identity crises, attempts to regain a sense of history, as well as future-building projects. Some of the reasons behind this ‘restless memory’ can be traced back to the Resistance itself: a movement founded after the fall of the fascist regime and only in one part of the country, and thus unable to fully make its mark on a nation which had spent 20 years under a dictatorship. It was a movement with strong ties to the antifascist struggle, and which allowed for an extraordinarily broad-scaled and democratic interchange between various parties, but which, once the war was over, proved incapable of putting into practice its notions of eliminating and transforming the state framework.
Be this as it may, in the early years after the Liberation, the unitary spirit of the Resistance still played its role. From 1948 and for the most part of the 1950s, however, given the political tensions and social conflicts as seen against the national and international background of the Cold War, the memory of the Resistance became a fundamental part of the conflict, being taken on as an identifying element by one of the two sides, both on a political and social level. Anti-fascism was readily substituted by anti-communism, opening up a campaign of anti-partisan repression.
Only at the end of the ‘50s (in a climate of – on one hand – unwinding political tensions and ideological loggerheads and at the start of the social and economic transformation processes which were to bear heavily on the customs and living conditions of the Italians, and – on the other hand – new conflicts and social outcry against a shift to the right in the government) were the necessary conditions created to allow for a general surge in interest towards the memory of the Resistance, particularly by the up-and-coming generation who were going through their rites of passage into antifascism.
With the advent of its 20th anniversary, the Resistance was finally embraced on an institutional level as part of the national heritage. This was the moment of the “Republic founded on the Resistance”, of the strengthening of ties between the First and Second Risorgimento. But this unitary spirit was soon to whither in the midst of too many rhetorical and self-congratulatory outbursts. The Resistance was no longer hidden away: it was on show but ‘embalmed’.
This Resistance rhetoric was set aside by the generation who broke into the political scene after 1968. On one hand, they challenged the image of the Resistance picked clean of all its conflictual connotations; on the other, they identified this historical experience to a moment of raging social conflicts and political battles, which was shortly to witness firstly the fascist massacres and then the birth of ‘red’ terrorism. Thus, throughout the 1970s, the memory of the Resistance took on two different roles: one was that of a set of values widely shared by many citizens (a sentiment which came to a head with the election of the Partisan Pertini as President of the Republic), while the other was that of the cultural baggage of a generation which was all set to radically transform the society they lived in and which they largely shunned.
In the 1980s, these images and memories started to be washed away: it was time to face up to the damage caused by the wave of ‘red’ terrorism; furthermore, in 1980, FIAT paved the way towards a new political season which was to see the left and the labour forces on the defensive. Against this background, more and more people started to voice their concern that the importance of the Resistance in the building of the identity of the republic should be played down as much as possible. This process was further fuelled at the end of the decade and at the beginning of the ‘90s by the legitimacy crisis in Italian democracy, followed by the fall of the communist regimes, the crisis of the political party system, and the growth of a number of separatist parties in several regions of North Italy.
And so a new phase began, in which on one hand, the Berlusconi-Fini-Bossi model is blamed for the crisis of the Italian political system, and on the other, the memory of the partisan struggle is further marginalised, and furthermore, wistful memories of fascism start to be taken down off the shelf. Once again, the memories of the Resistance and antifascism are to be found at the heart of a generation’s identity. The rise to government of the ex-fascist party is countered by the reappraisal of the 25th April celebrations as a form of protest. This is a commitment which is to be reflected clearly in musical field: dozens of groups and singers from the world of rock have picked up on the songs and values of the Resistance, offering their own modern arrangements – an emblematic example of this is Bella Ciao as sung by the “Modena City Ramblers” on stage in Piazza San Giovanni in Rome on the occasion of the Mayday concerts.
The above notes should be sufficient to show the unfoundedness of the representation of the Resistance over the last 60 years as a ‘resistential vulgata’, or rather as an on-going presence throughout the decades of a single method of recounting this part of history, as a matter of an indisputable political/cultural authority. In fact, the elaboration of this memory has taken place in an extremely non-linear fashion – the clearest demonstration of this being the problems we still have today in declaring the importance of this event in the construction of the Italian republic. The problem is that the Resistance is not easy to pin down: though it was one of the founding stones of the Constitution and the Republic, as well as a source of legitimisation of a number of democratic political movements, it has also been used as an ideological basis of the various groups of political and social opposition that have crossed our country. As the historian Nicola Gallerano wrote several years ago, the Resistance in our country has been both in power and on the opposition.