In Gabriele Salvatores’ Oscar-winning film Mediterraneo (1991), the good-natured and harmless Italian soldiers deployed to a small Greek island are disinterested in fighting against the partisans. Instead, they happily play soccer with the locals and fall in love with Greek women. The movie’s international success contributed to cementing the image of Italians as brava gente (good people) inherently incapable of brutal acts against civilians.
The portrayal of the Italian soldiers as “innocent victims” of Mussolini’s war lies at the center of the so-called myth of the “Good Italian,” a historical narrative created to minimize the Fascist regime’s crimes in Greece, the Balkans, and North Africa. In postwar Italy, the image of the “Good Italian” shaped the country’s national and cultural identity. However, the erasure of and lack of responsibility for a problematic past resulted in the perpetuation of a fascist mentality.
Origins of Postwar Italy’s Self-Acquitting Narrative: The “Good Italian” vs. the “Wicked German”
After the 1943 Armistice of Cassibile between Italy and the Allied forces, the new Italian government constructed a self-exonerating narrative of Italy’s fascist past to prevent a punitive peace treaty. In particular, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the War Ministry sought to establish a clear contrast between Italian and German soldiers. While the “bad German” was described as a brutal fighter capable of heinous crimes, the “good Italian” was portrayed as a “defender of the oppressed” who had protected the peoples of the occupied countries against the cruelty of the Nazis.
The press widely propagated the image of the “good Italian.” Journalists painted an idyllic picture of the Italian occupation of Greece and the Balkans by describing the good-hearted Italians as peaceful and harmless. Italian newspapers also reported stories of soldiers who, disgusted by the brutality of their former allies, helped Jewish people or joined the resistance movements. At the same time, the crimes committed by the Italian occupying army against civilians and partisans were largely ignored or glossed over.
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Most historians backed up the edifying portrayal of the Italian soldiers as fundamentally good people. In 1934, Gaetano Salvemini juxtaposed the “barbaric and uncivilized Teutonic robot” to the innate humanity of the Italian soldier. The self-exonerating narrative of the “good Italian” also aimed to assign responsibility for all war crimes solely to Mussolini and his Blackshirts. “It could never have been the Italian infantrymen, alpinists, or bersagliers,” wrote Italian politician Luigi Longo in his 1947 Un popolo alla macchia (A Hidden People), “to obey the orders to burn a village or shoot women and children: these were the actions that only the Germans and fascists could have carried out.”
Fascism as a “Dark Parenthesis” in Italian History
The contrasting images of the “good Italian” and the brutal German rested on the juxtaposition of the Fascist regime and the totalitarian Nazi state. According to Benedetto Croce, Nazism was the inevitable outcome of centuries of German history. On the contrary, the twenty years of Fascism were a mere “dark parenthesis” in the otherwise illustrious and “liberal” Italian tradition. Croce further likened Mussolini’s regime to an “external virus” that had temporarily infected the country. In postwar Italy, Croce’s interpretation became the basis for the official memorialization of Fascism.
The self-exculpatory narrative served a double purpose. On the one hand, it sustained the claim that the Italians had never really been fascist; if anything, they had been the victims of Mussolini’s regime and its senseless wars. The Duce’s endeavor to achieve an ideological and anthropological revolution failed because his post-liberal and hyper-virile New Man was inherently alien to the human solidarity of the Italian people. On the other hand, the “dark parenthesis” image purged Fascism of its more violent and oppressive traits. This resulted in the trivialization and virtual erasure of the regime’s crimes, such as the invasion of Ethiopia, Greece, the Balkans, and the introduction of the 1938 anti-Semitic laws.
The Lack of an “Italian Nuremberg”
In July 1945, a British court carried out the death sentence of General Nicola Bellomo after he was found guilty of the murder of a British prisoner of war. Several Italian newspapers condemned what they described as an unfair execution. At the beginning of the same year, the Italian press opposed Yugoslavia’s request to extradite 40 military officials whose names appeared in the list of war criminals compiled by the United Nations War Crimes Commission. Most newspapers claimed the new anti-fascist government had the right to try the alleged war criminals in Italy.
After the fall of the Fascist regime in 1943, the clandestine anti-fascist press reported episodes of criminal behavior committed by the Italian army in the occupied countries. The Badoglio government vowed to prosecute Italian war criminals. The anti-fascist left initially attempted to purge the army and public administration of fascist officials. However, it quickly became clear to all political forces that investigating alleged war crimes would have simultaneously undermined the “good Italian” narrative and weakened the country’s already fragile unity and international position. In particular, the postwar government feared that a draconian peace treaty would have unleashed a wave of social upheaval.
While the High Commissariat for Sanctions against Fascism arrested some officials and Blackshirts, all suspects were eventually released. Ultimately, no war criminal was ever handed over to Yugoslavia and Ethiopia to face trial. As a result, the so-called lack of an “Italian Nuremberg” led to a minimal turnover in the bureaucratic, judicial, and police apparatuses.
In July 1946, Palmiro Togliatti, Minister of Justice and leader of the Communist Party, in the name of national pacification, issued a general amnesty for all crimes committed by fascists and collaborators. It was the first step in establishing a “collective amnesia” of the Fascist regime.
The Anti-fascist Paradigm & the Resistance
In the general chaos following the 1943 armistice, many Italian soldiers were arrested by their former allies. Others joined the resistance movement in northern Italy. They fought the occupying German army and the Republic of Salò, the fascist state Mussolini set up after the Germans rescued him. In postwar Italy, the resistance became the founding myth of the newly established republican state. The annual festa della liberazione (Liberation Day) was the only institutionalized commemoration of the war years in the following decades.
After the war, the resistance movement served as proof that the Italian people had always been anti-fascist. Unlike other European countries, Italy had managed to liberate itself from Fascism. Historians depicted the resistance as the fulfillment of the 19th-century movement for Italian unification. The memorialization of the resistance as “Second Risorgimento” was founded on the rejection of the fascist rhetorical trope aiming to glorify Mussolini’s regime as the historical culmination of the national unification process.
The so-called anti-fascist paradigm revolved around the equation of the armed resistance movement with the supposed anti-Fascism of the whole Italian population. As a result, the majority of Italians who had either endured or silently supported the Salò Republic identified with the founding myth of the republic. In this sense, the glorification of the resistance created a temporary consensus over the recent past by removing the “gray zone” from public memorization.
How Postwar Italy’s Narrative Resulted in the Resurgence of Fascist Discourse
At the beginning of the 1990s, the collapse of the political system born during the resistance led to the erosion of the anti-fascist paradigm. While the “Second Risorgimento” narrative imposed itself in the public discourse, neo-fascist memories and alternative mnemonic communities developed in silence. As the Italian party system underwent a structural crisis, the so-called anti-anti-fascist (or post-antifascist) narrative started to challenge the image of the resistance as a movement of national liberation.
In 1991, Claudio Pavone’s seminal book A Civil War broke a well-established taboo by describing the resistance as a civil war between the partisans and the soldiers of the fascist Salò Republic. In the politically charged debate that followed, the revisionist historiographical school led by Renzo De Felice challenged the moral and historical legitimacy of the anti-fascist paradigm.
The advocates of the revisionist approach simultaneously called for national reconciliation in the name of a moral equation between the fighters on both sides of the civil war. In particular, journalist Giampaolo Pansa laid the basis for the resurgence of a (neo)-fascist memory. In Il sangue dei vinti (The Blood of the Vanquished), Pansa collected stories of good-natured fascists murdered by partisans during the resa dei conti (reckoning) that followed the civil war. The trivialization and sanitization of the Fascist regime achieved by the “good Italian” myth legitimized Pansa’s image of “fascist victimhood.”
While the end of the Cold War caused the erosion of the anti-fascist paradigm, postwar Italy’s myth of the “good Italian” was never questioned. In 1989, the BBC aired Ken Kirby’s documentary Fascist Legacy detailing the war crimes committed by the Italian army in Ethiopia and the Balkans. Italy’s ambassador in London complained to the British government. The Italian national broadcasting company (RAI) bought the program but never aired it.
The first attempts to deconstruct the myth of the “good Italian” date back to the 2000s. In particular, historian Filippo Focardi was the first to study the creation of the self-acquitting narrative in his seminal 2013 work Il cattivo tedesco e il bravo italiano (The Bad German and the Good Italian). In 2005, Angelo del Boca’s Italiani, brava gente? (Italians, Good Folks?) shed light on the Italian war crimes committed in Ethiopia, such as the use of toxic gas. He was one of the first Italian historians to question the notion of peaceful and non-racist Italian colonization.