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Valentina Pisanty: “The more Memory Culture grew and the more institutionalized it became, the more the deniers gained visibility”


Valentina Pisanty teaches Semiotics at the University of Bergamo. She has published articles and essays on Holocaust denial, racism, political discourse analysis, narratology, humour, interpretive semiotics, the rhetoric of memory-making and the semiotics of testimony.

Her books include:

Guardiani della memoria e il ritorno delle destre xenofobe (Bompiani, 2020; English translation The Guardians of Memory and the Return of the Xenophobic Right, Primo Levi Editions, 2021);

Abusi di memoria: negare, banalizzare, sacralizzare la Shoah (Bruno Mondadori, 2012);

La Difesa della Razza: antologia 1938-1942 (Bompiani, 2006);

L'irritante questione delle camere a gas: logica del negazionismo (Bompiani 1998, new edition 2014).


Dear Prof. Pisanty, the first question is traditional because the specialization of our journal is memory studies. Jan Assmann points out that family memory of modern people extends up to three generations or 80 to 100 years. It fits well to the Soviet Union where people were afraid to talk about their nobility, priesthood, bourgeoisie ancestry and about relatives, who were repressed during the decades of Stalin’s terror. From the Soviet mnemonic perspective Italy looks like another planet of unbroken succession, where a lot of people still live in old houses rooted in medieval entourage. Is Assmann’s hypothesis applicable to Italy? How deep is your family memory?

It might be that your vision of Italy as a planet of unbroken succession needs to be reconsidered in more realistic terms: Italy, too, has had its fair share of discontinuities along the lines of genealogy. There has been a great deal of outward migration since the Nineteenth century, not to speak of the constant movement (mostly from South to North) between different parts of a country that was only unified in 1861. Having said this, I find Jan Assmann’s hypothesis particularly convincing, regardless of the geographic, cultural and historical setting it is applied to. If by family memory we mean the repertoire of stories, anecdotes, foundation myths, etc. that are handed over from one generation to the next, it is reasonable to suppose that such narratives only survive the living memory of those who have informed us of them. We have a vague recollection of some of the stories that our grandparents told us about their childhood, and possibly their parents’ lives, but I doubt that our grandchildren would remember enough of our second-hand accounts of such stories to be able to hand them down to their own offspring, and so on. It is possible that we only hang on to the recounted memories of the people we have interacted with, while most of what came before them tends to fade into oblivion, or is deposited in what Jurij Lotman would have called the “semiosphere”, in the form of old photographs, video and audio footage, letters, diaries, and so on. Unless, of course, one belongs to a prestigious (or notorious) family whose deeds have left important marks in history. If my surname were Borgia or Garibaldi my family memory would probably cover a lengthier arch of time: but then it would have turned into a cultural (as opposed to communicative, in Jan Assmann’s terms) memory, potentially accessible to all members of the global community.

The Soviet propaganda informed us about the huge Italian Communist Resistance during the Second World War. We loved the partisan's song Bella Ciao. Therefore, I was surprised during my visit to Verona that I found only one monument dedicated to antifascist partisans, one modest memorial to victims of Holocaust and about ten monuments glorifying “our” tank-men, pilots, seamen, military cars drivers and so on with indirect but obvious references to the Mussolini era. Two of them are very outspoken: 1) There is an inscription on the 1971 monument to sappers (IX Battaglione Pontieri) enumerating among their glorious deeds crossing the Dnieper and Don

2) On the medieval wall of Verona is installed a memorial plaque in honor of the city “multiple children immolated in the desert war, the fallen at the epic battle of El-Alamein (23/X – 6/XI 1942) provide to new generations an example of heroic dedication and fidelity to the duty.” Is that hidden glorification of the fascist past specific to Verona or is it a common Italian lieu de mémoire? Could you tell how the Second World War is reflected in your family memory?

Verona is a city that leans towards the right: the ideological epicenter of the Repubblica di Salò (whose guidelines were written and announced by the Republican Fascist Party in Verona in November 1943) and a haven of today’s Lega Nord, just to mention the most obvious symptoms of its dominant political inclinations. I am therefore not surprised about its dearth of monuments dedicated to left-wing antifascist partisans, though – even in the examples you bring – it is not so much a question of openly singing the praises of Fascism, as of diluting Fascist memory in a more generic nationalistic (and colonialist) sentiment. Other Italian cities and regions – such as Piemonte, Liguria, Emilia-Romagna and Toscana, for example – are more predisposed towards the celebration of their partisan memory. A memory which, by the way, is not exclusively linked to the Italian Communist party (though most partisans were indeed Communists, there were other political components in the Resistance movement) and, as a historical phenomenon, was possibly less huge than it was depicted both in Soviet propaganda and in Italian public discourse from the 1960s onwards, until it was sidelined by Holocaust memory culture around the 1980s and 1990s.

Albeit marginal in terms of numeric participation (most Italian’s didn’t join the Resistance), the heroic deeds of the partigiani are undoubtedly a fundamental chapter of Italy’s contemporary history. Of course, the Resistance alone couldn’t have defeated Nazi-fascism, but it did keep several German divisions busy during the last part of the war, while in the aftermath it provided an honourable counter-narrative to the moral and political bankruptcy in which Italy had sunk under the Fascist regime. After the war, the Resistance became the cornerstone of Italian democracy: the Constitution itself is overtly anti-Fascist. But not all Italians identified full-heartedly with those values. Apart from Fascist nostalgics who resented the Resistance in the name of political beliefs they had never relinquished, the silent majority preferred to forget about their previous compliance with the regime. For them, it was not so much a matter of glorifying the country’s Fascist past. Rather, it was a question of not coming to terms with that past. The common expression “Italiani brava gente” (Italians, good folk) sums up the self-absolutory stereotype that Italians applied for decades to shrug off their historical responsibilities, thus denying all implication in Fascist colonial and anti-Semitic crimes.

Until the 1990s there was very little knowledge, outside the field of historical studies, about the role of fascism in paving the way for the Nazi deportations in 1943. In fact, very little was known about the Race Laws of 1938, or about the role of fascist propaganda (and, before that, of Catholic propaganda) in the dissemination of violently antisemitic rhetoric that persisted – albeit in more latent forms – in the Italian cultural landscape after the war. No studies had been published on the Difesa della razza, the fascist journal issued between 1938 and 1943 with the specific purpose of elaborating and disseminating a “scientific” doctrine of the race that justified colonial policies and state anti-Semitism. The first Italian exhibition dedicated to fascist racism dates back to 1994, and though it contained a harrowing gallery of home-made anti-Semitic and viciously racist stereotypes, it did not significantly alter the general perception most Italians had of themselves as a fundamentally benevolent community that had never harbored hostile feelings towards its minorities.

The 1990s were also the years in which a drift towards a bland form of historical revisionism was part and parcel of mainstream liberal culture, as Ernst Nolte’s popularity on the Corriere della Sera (long after the end of the Historikerstreit) amply demonstrates. The idea was to adopt an allegedly post-ideological stance (after the fall of the Soviet empire) and, by (almost) equating Nazism and Communism, proclaim the advent the Golden Age of Liberal Democracies. An age in which all totalitarianisms were equally condemned and left behind as the monstruous legacy of the Twentieth Century.

In this context I remember taking part in a TV debate on the third national channel (in 1998) in which the hostess tried (unsuccessfully) to end the show with a public embrace between the daughter of an SS guard (Helga Schneider) and a former deportee (Liliana Segre), as if to say that all wounds were healed and that, now that the matter was symbolically settled, we could all move forwards together towards a better future free of racism and discrimination. This was precisely the superficial attitude that parliamentary deputy Furio Colombo tried to challenge when he began his crusade in the mid 1990s to introduce a national Remembrance Day that was meant to promote an attitude of critical self-awareness about the active role of Fascism during the persecution of Italian and European Jews. Far from conceiving this as an opportunity to heal the wounds, the bill pursued the opposite objective of sinking a finger deep in the wound itself, and keeping it there at least until the Italian culture had begun to deal seriously with its own racist and anti-Semitic past. “What, in our house?” is the question that for the first time was formulated in an official way. The Shoah was not, as Italians had long told themselves, an unfortunate historical accident, the result of unconscious carelessness rather than of a real and widespread murderous intention – as if there were no intermediate nuances – but a specifically Italian crime that Italians had swept under the carpet for decades.

The date that was initially proposed was not January 27. Colombo suggested the 16th of October, to commemorate the roundup of the ghetto of Rome in 1943, thus underlying the Italian complicity in the Nazi deportations. But Tullia Zevi (eminent figure in the Jewish Community) convinced him to opt for the 27th January, in a view to insert Italian remembrance of the Shoah in a more general European frame (cfr. the 1995 European Parliament Resolution). This decision was to generate many grave misunderstandings about the sense of that law. By turning the liberation of Auschwitz into the symbol of the whole history of the Shoah, some of the most deeply rooted Italian misconceptions were actually reinforced. Namely:

1) The idea that the Shoah was not a specifically Italian crime, and that since the extermination took place elsewhere, it meant that Italians were not really responsible for it.

2) The idea that the day of remembrance was a day of celebration (celebration of the end of a nightmare, of the identity of post-war Europe built on the ruins of the XX century, or perhaps of Jewish identity), rather than an opportunity to critically come to terms with the darkest chapters of our national history.

Apart from that, the law strengthened some right-wing claims of ultra-nationalistic parties longing to rehabilitate the “good side” of Italian fascism. The first polemics concerned the alleged need to extend the category of the Victims, to encompass “all victims” of the second war, including those (mostly fascists or fascist supporters) massacred by Yugoslav partisans in Istria and Dalmatia. I won’t go into the details of the very thorny historical issue of the Istrian Foibe, but will limit myself to underlying how it has become a pièce de resistance of extreme-right rhetoric, as if to counterbalance one crime against the other.

Another way in which right-wing parties exploited the memory rhetoric and politics that was catalyzed by the Italian law on Remembrance was (and is) far subtler. The possibility of paying homage to memory (by complying with the standardized rituals of Holocaust commemoration) allowed a vast range of unsavory political subjects to undergo a sort of purificatory cleansing, indispensable if they were to attain positions of political responsibility. Finally, over the years xenophobic right-wing parties learned to empty dominant forms of Holocaust commemoration of their historical content to surreptitiously take them over and, by so doing, play the part of the persecuted victims. This is not just an Italian phenomenon, but is – in my opinion – the most disturbing side-effect of three decades of Cosmopolitan Memory Culture throughout the Global North.

The last part of your question is about my family memory of World War II.

My father was a non-observant Jew born in Milan from a Bulgarian family, and during the war, as a seven-year-old, he and his parents managed to escape to Switzerland by a whiff (other members of the extended family were not so lucky). I met and was very fond of my paternal grandfather who was not willing to talk about his experience of the first (as a soldier) and second world war. Strangely enough, my father had wonderful memories of his time in Switzerland, especially when he and his parents were reunited after months in different refugee camps, and he liked to reminisce about his childhood in Neuchatel. My mother on the other hand is Catholic-born and, like many Italians during Mussolini’s years, her father was a fascist (though apparently not an anti-Semite: I never met him, so I have to rely on family sources), while her mother was apolitical and mainly concerned about feeding, sheltering and educating her children in times of trouble. During the war they went through the usual hardships, including close escapes from Allied bombings during the liberation of Milan, but such anecdotes always steered clear from any political analysis.

As a result of this graft of mismatched family memories, my brother and I were relatively unaware of the history of the Second World War until our parents decided we were old enough to be informed, mainly through official cultural channels, such as the famous Holocaust miniseries (1978), and a visit to Dachau that I still remember in nightmarish terms. On the evening of our visit to Dachau – I must have been nine or ten – we dined at the Munich Hofbräuhaus, where I learned the details of the 1923 Putsch and, to boot, we were approached by a weepy Bavarian drunk to whom I lent the identity of an old guilt-ridden Nazi. That night I had a fever that presumably was already on its way but that I attributed to the impressions of the previous day. According to the categories formulated by today’s Trauma Studies, I had become a secondary witness, a witness of witnesses, through whom the trauma could propagate and pass on to future generations.

Some specialists are involved in memory studies under the impact of their family memory. Why were you involved in that field of research?

There is no direct link though, in hindsight, perhaps the lack of an explicit family memory regarding the Holocaust (where there could have been one) fuelled my interest in this field of study. I started studying these topics back in the mid-1990s, during my PhD years at the University of Bologna. My dissertation was in Semiotics and my supervisor was Umberto Eco. As an undergraduate student, I was specifically interested in the interpretation of narrative texts. How a same story may be read in totally different ways, according to the interpreters’ purposes and different styles of thinking. I was especially attracted towards paranoid styles of sense-making (my degree thesis was about the esoteric interpretations of Little Red Riding Hood!). It was Umberto Eco who suggested to apply the same methods to the analysis of Holocaust Denial (he didn’t even know I was half-Jewish). His main instruction was not to bother arguing that Holocaust Deniers are disgusting liars. We already know that. It was a matter of understanding how they think. The question had to be: Is there method in their madness? So I tried to understand how it was possible for negationists to read the same documents from which historians draw their information about the Jewish genocide (the diaries of Anne Frank, the written testimonies of Rudolf Höss, Kurt Gerstein etc.), and yet use them as evidence about the fact that – according to them – the Holocaust never took place, that it was a hoax invented by Zionist propaganda, etc. How did they make sense of those documents? How did they connect the dots? What kind of inferences did they make? How did they deal with their own contradictions? What counter-narratives did they suggest, to justify the fact that so many independent sources all confirm that the genocide did indeed occur? The method I used was text-centred: I drew my conclusions from a close-reading of the deniers’ texts to understand the mechanisms of their paranoid logic, which I cross-examined with the historians’ interpretations of those same texts (while I avoided direct contact with the deniers: no interviews or participant observation).

My dissertation was published in 1998 and since then I got personally involved in the rituals and practices of Memory culture, especially around Holocaust Remembrance Days. Those were the years in which the politics memory were beginning to peak, through Yad Vashem, a proliferation of Holocaust movies, Spielberg and Benigni, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the European project of building a post-1989 inclusive European identity on the narrative of victim-centered Holocaust memory… This got me thinking about a paradox. The more Memory Culture grew, and the more institutionalized it became, the more the deniers (and other anti-Semites and right-wing racists) gained visibility. This was indeed their primary purpose: not so much convince people that the Holocaust never happened, but make them think that there was an ongoing debate between two different schools of thought about its existence (or non-existence). In those years, the European deniers sought for cultural recognition. Holocaust deniers had existed since the 1940s, but nobody paid attention to them at least until 1978, when the Faurisson affair exploded in France, and then Europe and the United States. What had changed in 1978? 1978 is when the mini-series Holocaust was launched in the States (and then Europe). Its impact was huge, but so were the controversies that it triggered (see Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life). In the midst of all the commotion, French newspapers decided it was time to publish Faurisson’s provocative letters (where he suggested that Nazi gas chambers had never existed), which in turn triggered a huge dispute regarding the limits of freedom of expression (whether it was more scandalous to say that the Holocaust never happened or to prevent someone from expressing this view, no matter how false and repulsive), which in turn triggered a growing interest in Holocaust debates, which in turn triggered a heart-felt discussion about who had the right to tell the story (and speak on behalf of the victims), which in turn triggered etc… In 2012 I wrote a book (Abusi di memoria, Abuses of Memory) in which I focused on the ways in which denial, trivialization and sacralization of Holocaust memory (and possibly of all traumatic memories) work as cogs of the same complex machinery. Each rhetorical device sparks off the other two, albeit involuntarily. Deniers and trivializers prompt the defensive reactions of those who call themselves the Guardians of Memory, and who sometimes claim a monopoly over the legitimate uses of memory. The deniers accuse the Guardians of sacralised memory of twisting it to their own purposes (which is sometimes the case), and they exploit the simplifications of the trivializers to question the truth of the events that are being remembered in simplistic forms. The trivializers in turn benefit from such controversies, whose visibility allows them to produce and sell their mass memory products. And so on.

Your provocative and seminal recent book The Guardians of Memory and the Return of the Xenophobic Right raises a sensitive question of the memory of Holocaust. In the Preface to your book Michael Rothberg formulates your subject as follows: “Has a much-vaunted cosmopolitan Holocaust memory — with its linked slogans of ‘Never forget!’ and ‘Never again!’ — simply failed to prevent the rise of the right or, more darkly, might it even be implicated in that political turn?” (p. 7). I believe could be three speculative reasons why the “guardians of memory” of Holocaust were not able to establish it as a base of cosmopolitan (global) memory and identity: 1) The concept of global memory and identity is a pure utopia, because the nation-state is forever the largest form of a well-functioning community; 2) Not the Holocaust but another historical event (events) should be the starting point of construction of global memory and identity; 3) The managers of Holocaust memory made unforgivable mistakes during the process of promoting it on the global scale. Which one of three speculative reasons do you think is real or maybe the fourth one exists?

The first one, though the other two follow. I don’t know whether the nation-state is the largest form of a well-functioning community. But I do think that the 1990s top-down project of “breaking the container” of national memories to devise and gather Europe around a sole antitotalitarian, victim-centred memory was, in the best of cases, highly unrealistic.

First because Memory (as opposed to History) is by definition subjective, unilateral and biased. Those who bring representations of the past exclusively onto the level of memory disavow to some extent the public nature of history. Whether they are aware of this or not, they reintroduce a proprietorial principle to the management of rememorative conflicts. The problem is not so much a question of establishing how things really went, nor even of determining in how many different ways the same events lend themselves to being recounted, as of claiming the rights, the priority of one’s own point of view, in relation to those events. One perspective automatically overrides the others. The heritage to be conserved is the inalienable memory of an experience that no historical reconstruction can ever empty of its subjective content. Thus, the inheritance to be transmitted is the unilateral narration of that experience, acceptance of which confers the right to self-designate as “we”: co-owners of the memory and members of the group delegated to manage it. And this, as can be guessed, raises some important questions, all linked to the vagueness of the pronoun “we.” Who has the right to establish the “right” commemorative formats, to the detriment of other possible representations? What happens to memories that cannot be translated into the terms of the dominant paradigm (such as the memories of the supporters of the Republic of Salò in the years in which the memory of the Resistance became hegemonic), and how do they re-emerge in periods of political instability, when power relations between dominant memories, the adversaries’ counter-memories, and the silent majorities are being reorganized? As Maurice Halbwachs explained, memory serves the interests, sensibilities, and projects of those who manage it, while the cultural filters that select the episodes held to be memorable depend on the dominant concerns and thoughts of the society they refer to.

Precisely because it is based on a proprietary concept of history, memory can only generate conflicts among diverse appropriations of the past, as is demonstrated by the frequent diatribes that, for decades, have flared up around the management of commemorative resources (not only in reference to the Shoah): disputes so frequent as to make one think that the struggle for control of memory is not an aberrant phenomenon, but the power source of its own mechanism.

Add to this the fact that narratives of Victimhood, of which Holocaust Memory is the undisputable paradigm, tend to enhance the passive role of its protagonists, which makes such narratives particularly unsuitable to serve any progressive political agenda (see Daniele Giglioli’s eye-opening Critica della vittima, 2014). Let’s not forget that the stated purpose of Memory Culture is the advancement of ethical thinking. If Never Again means anything at all, it implies the empowerment to produce change. Whenever faced with the early signs of discrimination of any minority (not necessarily one’s own), people who embrace the solemn pledge ought to feel compelled to boost their agency: to analyze the systemic causes of the conflicts that lead to those injustices, to understand their underlying mechanisms, to recognize a range of alternative scenarios, and to implement the collective actions through which such scenarios could be made real. Yet victims are those who, by definition, are deprived of the power to choose anything at all. How can total identification with the victims of the greatest historic traumas promote a collective assumption of responsibility towards past and present violence? So, to answer your question (point 2), the promotion of a responsible citizenship – whether local, national or global – cannot be entirely based on the Holocaust narrative. Unless we are prepared to engage seriously with the mechanisms of implication (in Michael Rothberg’s sense of the word), including the whole range of macro- and micro-decisions, made for a host of different reasons, that led to that and other historical catastrophes, there is no point in proclaiming “Never Again!”. But this would mean giving up the perspective of the victims (who are blameless by definition) and identifying with what Primo Levi defined as “the grey zone”, which is where most of us operate most of the time.

Finally (point 3), the mistakes made by the Guardians of Holocaust memory were many, though it is perhaps far too easy to point them out with the benefit of hindsight. In general, I think that the biggest mistake was to turn memory into a value in itself, and not as a means of orienting ourselves in the present to focus on future objectives.

In my opinion you made a real discovery pointing out a contradiction between the global frame and attempts to establish in the public opinion the concept of “uniquely unique” (A. Roy Eckhardt) nature of the Holocaust “qualitatively different than all the other massacres in history” (p. 97). Supporting that concept, The US Holocaust Memorial Museum released in 2019 a Statement Regarding the Museum’s Position on Holocaust Analogies, which “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary” ( I believe that the narrow nationalistic concept of “incomparability” is the main reason why the project of global identity based on the memory of the Holocaust has failed. What is your opinion?

Rejecting efforts to create analogies is tantamount to rejecting efforts to think. To understand the complex dynamics of any event, you have to compare it with other events, and recognize their similarities and differences; which obviously does not mean equating those events, as if they were perfectly identical or equally condemnable.

By stressing the “uniquely unique” argument, the advocates of the incomparability of the Holocaust show that they are not really interested in analyzing the historical facts further, or understanding them better so as to prevent something similar from happening again, as they relentlessly repeat in the standardized language of contemporary Holocaust rhetoric. They seem to be more interested in claiming a monopoly over the legitimate interpretations of the Jewish genocide. By sacralizing the Holocaust, they curtail further research and public debate, while accusing whoever questions those historical facts from different points of view (for example by considering the possible continuities between anti-Semitic and colonial crimes) of playing into the hands of anti-Semites. This has nothing to do with the understanding of the Shoah, and the conditions that made it possible, but rather with the legitimate political uses that may be made of its memory.

All the more so if you consider that the judgment of incomparability coexists with the emergence of the memory of the Holocaust as a paradigm for all other collective memories. In contemporary public discourse, the Holocaust is both the exception and the rule, a paradoxical prototype that allows no other occurrences but itself. But how can the Holocaust be both a universal paradigm and a “uniquely unique” event? This is the crux of the problem. All the aporias of “cosmopolitan memory” lurk in the contrast between the presumed universality of the core narrative and the inevitable specificity of the uses made of it. Suited to a vast range of historical contexts, the “universalized” Holocaust narrative has shaped the political imagination of the last thirty years, reducing every conflict to the frame persecuted versus persecutor. Hence, the competition between the victims and accusations of offences against memory hurled at rival groups. The Guardians of Memory – including the spokespeople of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum – manage these disputes to establish who, among the litigants, has more right to express their claims in the vocabulary of the Holocaust. Whenever they find a particular comparison unsavory, they bring forth the argument of incomparability. If, on the other hand, they endorse a certain comparison, then the universalistic claim regains legitimacy.

You write that tremendous popularity of the series The Sopranos, Dexter, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Peaky Blinders and so on reflects “a tendency to social Darwinism” (p. 217), an egoistic turn of public opinion. I believe this profound insight shows that in the situation of current global challenges people inadequately react using as patterns of their behaviour the archaic narratives of fairy tales, where characters pursue the aim to get booty not for entire humankind, not for their nation, but exclusively for the sake of their families or gangs. Could you elaborate about that dangerous ethic turn of our epoch?

While working on The Guardians of Memory between 2015-2020, I spent an exorbitant number of hours watching TV series produced in the 2010s. With all their differences, they all put on stage hypercompetitive environments in which the social contract is suspended and the surest way to succumb is by following conventional moral norms. In these dystopian worlds marked by Social Darwinism, which could be defined as metaphors for neoliberalism, there are no good and evil, but only winners and losers. The characters we are invited to identify with are ruthless and amoral (anti)heroes, high-functioning sociopaths gifted with exceptional survival skills, opportunism, single-mindedness, and the ability to lie and manipulate others: incidentally, all important values in the business world. Judging from the success these series garnered among viewers of very different ideological orientation, one can infer that the way in which they recodify reality mirrors to some extent the way in which many people perceive their own real lives.

From there, I started reflecting on the figure of the Survivor as hero of our times. Perhaps due to the Americanisation of memory, in Europe, too the figure of the witness has changed dramatically in the last few decades, with the “Victim” being superseded by the “Survivor”. How did this shift happen? In the immediate post-war period, camp survivors had to deal with the shame of having been victims and the prejudice of those who suspected them of having committed deplorable deeds to survive. From the 1960s onwards, with the reappraisal of the figure of the victim, the question survivors were asked was “what did they do to you?”, the message being that it was everyone’s responsibility to reintegrate traumatised survivors within society. More recently, my impression is that the key question has moved from “what did they do to you?” to “how did you do it?” How did you manage to survive? How did you find the resilience and the strength to escape the hell of the camps? Hence the inclination to see survival itself as a merit rather than an accident of fate, and to look at former deportees as models to imitate to better cope with today’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

Consider the succession of watchwords in American and European public discourse in the last few decades, from empathy (in the 1990s) to meritocracy (in the years 2000) to resilience (2010s). You can almost link them together to form a continuous narrative arch that reflects the claims – and failures – of Liberal-Democratic policies. From de-politicization (empathy as the negation of social and economic conflict) to the legitimization of cuts in public spending and welfare (in the name of meritocracy) to outright Social Darwinism (resilience), i.e. the idea that each individual, family or clan may only count on its own strength and resourcefulness to survive at the expense of others, “whatever it takes”. Sometimes these words merge to justify dubious political amalgams, such as George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” (empathy + meritocracy), or the more recent invocations of Chinese-style emergency politics (meritocracy + resilience) to justify the suspension of democratic procedures in the name of a never-ending global crisis.

What are your academic plans for the future?

In the last year or so I have been working on various related topics, including the analysis of Fascist humour. Who were its Victims and who were its Accomplices? And, above all, what were the specific traits of that kind of vicious and (for our standards) extremely gratuitous laughter? What are the continuities (if any) between the way Fascists laughed in the twenties and thirties, and some forms of contemporary right-wing humour? Fascist laughter is usually identified with the guffaw that inspired punitive expeditions against the socialist enemies at the time of Mussolini’s seizure of power. Or with the unequivocally racist cartoons that were already present in mainstream Italian journalism of the twenties and thirties, and were made even more outrageous after the promulgation of the 1938 racial laws. But these are only the most evident manifestations of a more widespread complicity which, for the entire twenty years of Mussolini’s regime, and perhaps well beyond that date, forged a national identity in need of enemies to build, punish and tear down without the interference of uncomfortable qualms or concerns. The exact opposite of the subversive impulse with which the most advanced forms of humor make fun of social rules to upset their logic, disrupt alliances and produce laughter that is both inclusive and exclusive. None of this in fascist laughter: the comic explosion was supposed to close ranks, restore order, confirm stereotypes, produce certainties, and advise against any deviation from the socially accepted standard. My aim is to understand what that intimate complicity was based on, what sentiments it fed upon, what contradictions inspired it, in a bid to analyze the various (not only repressive) shades of Fascist consensus. Perhaps this line of research could turn into my next long-term project. But who knows. “Plans for the future” are usually the name we give in retrospect to the things we have already done.


Assmann, Jan, “Collective Memory and Cultural Memory,” New German Critique, 65, Cultural History / Cultural Studies, 1995.

Focardi, Filippo, Il cattivo tedesco e il bravo italiano. La rimozione delle colpe della seconda guerra mondiale, Laterza, 2013.

Giglioli, Daniele, Critica della vittima, Nottetempo, 2014.

Halbwachs, Maurice, Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire, Félix Alcan, 1925.

Halbwachs, Maurice,   La mémoire collective, PUF, 1950.

Levi, Primo, I sommersi e i salvati, Einaudi, 1986 (English translation by Raymond Rosenthal, The Drowned and the Saved, Simon & Schuster, 1988).

Novick, Peter, The Holocaust in American Life, Houghton-Mifflin, 1999.

Rothberg, Michael, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators, Stanford University Press, 2019.

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