By Simona Tobia
In 1991 Italian publisher Bollati Boringhieri issued a monograph titled Una Guerra civile. Saggio storico sulla moralità nella Resistenza. It would change points of view on history and stimulate debates for years to come. Its author, Claudio Pavone, one of the finest Italian historians, died last week, aged 95. Una Guerra civile appeared in English only three years ago, as A Civil War. A History of the Italian Resistance. A true ‘watershed’ title, this book provides a new stance on the Italian Resistance in the Second World War. In this gripping synthesis, Pavone defines the years between the armistice, on 8 September 1943, and the end of the war, which culminated with the Liberation on 25 April 1945, as a war of liberation, a class war, and more importantly, a civil war. The war of liberation was the war fought throughout Italy against the German occupiers, whereas the class war refers to the ideological conflict and the several strikes which took place in that period. What caused widespread debates amongst historians, former partisans, politicians and the public, was the idea of civil war. The though of a fratricidal conflict was not new in itself, but it had been used in the war years mostly by those who had remained loyal to Mussolini, to stress the idea of betrayal by the partisans and the institutions fighting with the Allies. Pavone used this term with a very different purpose, though. He wanted to resurface this aspect of the conflict, Italians killing other Italians, to make it once again part of the collective memory of the war. In Italy the memory of the Second World War is very much divided, as many works have demonstrated (for example Alessandro Portelli’s The Order Has Been Carried Out, a monograph about the divided memories of the Ardeatine Caves massacre), and this is mostly a political division. This is why Pavone’s book caused such a turmoil when it came out in 1991, at a time when political debates on the left and on communism had been revived after the fall of the Berlin wall. In addition, despite being lost in translation, the reflection on ‘morality’ that appears in the original title, remains one of the key issues in the essay, which the author explains as “the territory on which politics and ethics meet and clash”.
Perhaps it is worth stressing that Pavone’s agenda was certainly not the same as that of neo-fascist groups who still exist in Italy, or of a certain type of historical revisionism. Despite growing up under fascist dictatorship, Pavone was able to develop his own political conscience and after 8 September he got in touch with the socialist partisan brigades and started cooperating with them. As a member of the Resistance, he was imprisoned at Regina Coeli in Rome, but was able to survive the experience.
For many years after the war, he worked as an archivist, with key functions in the re-arrangement of the Italian national archives (Archivio Centrale dello Stato). From the 70s he worked at the Università di Pisa as a professor, and among his other prominent works there is La continuità dello stato: istituzioni e uomini, in which he reflected on the idea of the continuity between the fascist regime and the democracy that followed the war. His work on the role of public history is also worth remembering.
Claudio Pavone’s work has given scholars of our generation the chance of having a critical view not only of events, but also on the place of history in the wider society.