Primo Levi’s hundredth birthday

31st July 1919 – 31st July 2019

By Gianluca Cinelli

Primo Levi (Turin, 1919-1987) was a writer known to the world for his works of testimony on deportation to Auschwitz. He was born from a Jewish family and he graduated in chemistry in 1941, despite the restrictions imposed by racial laws to Jewish students. He received from chemistry a first fundamental lesson of life: that in the struggle with matter, humans get a hint of what their own limits and strengths are. Levi realised that imperfection and asymmetry are fundamental aspects of reality, which is not dominated by the Spirit (as the fascist school, marked by distinction between humanistic culture and technical culture, taught). At the same time, chemistry was for Levi a school of rigor and precision, of patience, and of rejection of approximation. It was an apprenticeship that consolidated a background of culture acquired by young Primo not only through his broad literary readings (Rabelais, Melville, Conrad and many others) but also scientific and philosophical knowledge, attained thanks to the books that his father collected. In an age of cultural provincialism, such a complex, rich and pragmatic formation moulded the mind of young Primo, opening it to curiosity and above all to the belief that there are no separate cultures (humanism vs science), but only one single culture, for knowledge is made of the blending of its diverse parts. And since the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, such a culture promised to be far more fruitful than the stagnating idealism that dominated Italian cultural environment in the 1930s. The idea of a unitary culture went back to Aristotle, Dante Alighieri, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. For these thinkers, science, technology, philosophy, art, ethics, mathematics, physics, biology made one single and uninterrupted horizon of knowledge.

Primo Levi in the late 1930s

Then, on 8th September 1943, everything changed. Fascism had already been overthrown on 25th July of the same year. Italy had lost the war and now the Germans, who had been allies until the day before, became enemies and occupiers. For Italian Jews the situation quickly collapsed because while the military and political alliance between Italy and Hitler’s Germany had protected them (albeit in segregation), now the SS could deport them along with the other Jews of Europe. Primo left Turin and, urged by a generous albeit vague will to fighting, reached the partisans in the mountains. He was captured almost immediately and to save himself from a death sentence, he declared not to be a partisan but rather a Jew.

In February, after a period of internment in a concentration camp near Fossoli, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he worked as a forced labourer in the synthetic rubber factory (run by the large industrial group IG-Farben), annexed to camp 11 Buna-Monowitz. He remained there until the liberation on 27th January 1945. After his youthful and adventurous apprenticeship under the sign of chemistry, this new experience completed his education and human training to the point that Levi declared in the 1970s that Auschwitz had been his university. Surviving in an extermination Lager was no minor feat that prompted the young man to recount his adventures as soon as he returned to Italy in 1945. However, it was not a question of narrating facts in the fashion of romantic adventures, because the matter was too serious and incredible. Levi told his story through an original lens of lucid and almost detached, scientific observation, as if Auschwitz had been a huge laboratory in which the Nazis had conducted a horrible social and biological experiment. Described as a primordial struggle for survival, captivity is told in Se questo è un uomo (1947) as a journey to self-discovery by fathoming the human capacity to reach unexpected depths of abjection. Hence the question, at the end of the journey, whether the survivor is still a human creature.

Primo Levi after WW2

But Primo Levi was not only an Auschwitz-witness, although he dedicated to this theme numerous books after Se questo è un uomo (La tregua, Lilìt e altri racconti, and I sommersi e i salvati, as well as a number of essays and articles). In the 1960s his multifaceted interest in science and technology prompted him to reflect on the problems of modernity through a form that was underdeveloped in Italian literature of those years, i.e. science fiction. He published two volumes of short stories, Storie naturali in 1966 (under the pseudonym of Damiano Malabaila) and Vizio di forma in 1971, exploring many an aspect of modernity and translating into “fantabiological” contexts (the expression was forged by Italo Calvino) the discourse about the Lager. With these stories, he reflected on the risks of electing technique to absolute paradigm of organization of life and human progress, and incorporating in his writing non-literary models borrowed from science.

And above all there was chemistry that since the end of the war had constituted the main job of Primo Levi. Not theoretical chemistry but rather industrial chemistry that is made with the five senses, with hands, by struggling to tame matter, yet without forgetting the immeasurable force of nature that never yields to human will. In 1975 Levi published Il Sistema periodico, a kind of autobiography in which he retraced the stages of his own human and cultural development by choosing chemistry as a criterion (and metaphor) to organise the book. After the mortifying experience of the Lager, where work was designed to murder the forced-labourers, Levi now recounted the uplifting experience of vocational work that makes life worthwhile and makes individuals aware of their own strengths and limits.

This book was followed in 1978 by La chiave a stella, anther work devoted to the theme of work that ironically bridged between the “chemical” and “literary” aspects of professional achievement. The result is a reflection on work as a fundamental experience for human happiness, coupled with a new kind of reflection that would occupy Levi more and more in the following years: the awareness of being now a full-time writer (Levi retired from his chemist job at the end of the decade). The “two souls” – the chemist and the writer – coexisted (Levi called himself a “centaur”) as the two faces of one single, complex personality capable of creating and manipulating reality with chemical and verbal processes. No matter if he combined molecules or words, the effect remained the same: life is an endless exploration of reality with the tools that we possess, the senses, the body, the mind and knowledge that over thousands of years of cultural evolution has permitted us to undertake the daily struggle for life.

The 1980s marked a return to the past. As Levi increasingly wrote in newspapers about literature and reviewed books of other writers, he was invited by his publisher to edit an anthology of readings of special importance for his intellectual education, a kind of autobiography through readings (La ricerca delle radici 1981). Nonetheless, his focus remained fixed on the Lager experience. Revisionism spread over Europe, Faurisson’s thesis received consensus and a growing number of people were inclined to deny that Lagers, crematoriums, and even the great Nazi massacre had ever occurred. The memory of the “unhealable offence” faltered, partly under the blows of the negationists, and partly because of its own physiological decadence. Years passed by, memories changed or faded, witnesses disappeared. In the same year Levi published Lilìt e altri racconti, a collection of stories about the Lager combined with science-fiction tales. Then, in 1983, he translated Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess, a demanding endeavour that brought Levi back to struggle with the nightmare of deportation and senseless persecution. It was the beginning of the depression, against which Levi fought over the last years of his life. In 1982 he published his only novel, Se non ora, quando?, a story inspired by real facts and centred on the adventures of a group of Russian Jewish partisans: as if to say that not all Jews passively succumbed to the massacre, that there was also those who, although in absolute minority, fought back.

But the most important work that fermented in those years was I sommersi e i salvati, the last essay that Levi published in 1986, one year before committing suicide. The title had already appeared in a chapter of Se questo è un uomo, but this work was new and rather different. This book largely consisted of memory and therefore must be defended from memory itself, because recollections change over the years and end up replacing the original “raw” ones. In the end – Levi claimed – the survivors of the Nazi extermination, both the perpetrators and the victims (yet on opposite principles and with different aims), produce “prosthetic memories” by which they can rework their past experiences in a way that makes them bearable. The true integral witnesses of the Lager, Levi says in one of the most controversial passages of the work, are those who died there, for they “saw the bottom”. One year later, like other survivors such as Paul Celan or Jean Amery, Levi committed suicide without providing any explanation.

Primo Levi was one of the most “multifaceted” Italian intellectuals of the twentieth century. Able to explore the literary field ranging from ancient classics to foreign literature, including distant genres and little-known authors, Levi was able to interpret his role as an intellectual without forgetting his work as a scientist and technician. His scientific culture was comparable to that of Renaissance intellectuals, for whom it was natural to integrate poetry, mathematics, music, physics, metaphysics, etc. into one single, broad cultural horizon. Twentieth-century Italian culture experienced rare moments of similar integration of the humanistic and technical cultures, thanks to such intellectuals as Carlo Emilio Gadda, Italo Calvino, Mario Rigoni Stern and a few others, who were able to cross disciplinary boundaries and to understand the world as complexity.

What impresses Levi’s readers is the expressive clarity, the lucidity with which he tackles serious themes without indulging in psychologism or morbid aestheticization of graphic details. With the scientist’s detached gaze, Levi struggled to understand what happens when a sophisticated and deeply articulated form of life like the human being is placed in conditions of extreme danger, suffering, or severe stress. Under the dire circumstance of rationally programmed extermination – as that carried out in Nazi Lagers – the magnificent and progressive fortunes of humanity invoked by the Enlightenment are shaken to the foundations and what remains is the Pascalian image of a hybrid creature, half angel and half beast, unable to turn itself into the former or the latter, but dangerously tending downwards, towards its dark side, from which it must keep away through a constant moral and rational effort.

Levi teaches a profound lesson in critical thinking because he, as a technician, knew the advantages and dangers of technology. As an instrument it facilitates the life and progress of the species, but as an ideology it produces a cruel and mechanical world, where the ends prevaricate the means and where the human is only one of the many tools that can be exploited to death. As to such consideration, Levi bridged between classical and contemporary paradigms. His ideology was deeply rooted in nineteenth-century positivist thought and his humanism traced perhaps even further back to the great moralistic masters of the seventeenth century, to the scientist-poets of the Renaissance. The challenges of modernity took place for Levi on the border between humans and world, where the two terms meet and collide: for humans too often fail to conceive themselves as part of the world, while the world does not yield to their will of power.

Levi’s moral lesson is invaluable because human history shows a certain tendency to repeat itself. Levi’s analyses and diagnoses, exposed with the seriousness of the doctor who has well considered the symptoms of his patient, remain exemplary and enlightening to understand and recognise dangerous human behaviours: the marginalization of minorities, manipulation, the construction of artificial myths and truths on which opinions are based, the twisting of experience into forms of false knowledge. All these aspects concern us as well because these are cognitive, evolutionary and psychological mechanisms of human life, both individual and collective.

Levi’s confidence in reason, in humanity’s ability to dwell in the light (according to a traditional metaphor dear to the writer), which is to prefer to darkness just as clarity is preferable to incomprehensibility, made of him the writer who, since his youthful and romantic struggle with Matter to his deadly fight with the Gorgon, never lost his faith in the human. And because of that – or in spite of it all –, it never ceases to surprise how deeply Levi could grasp the humorous side of life, even in the most horrible circumstances.

One hundred years after his birth there is still much to understand and learn from this multifaceted writer.

An unusual close encounter with the enemy

Nuto Revelli’s Il disperso di Marburg after 25 years. Marburg, July 18, 2019

Nuto Revelli.

Nuto Revelli (Cuneo 1919-2004) was an officer of the Italian Royal Army and fought in Russia in 1942-1943. Following the armistice of September 8, 1943 between Italy and the Allies, Revelli joined the anti-fascist partisan groups and fought as commander of the 4th GL Band (later renamed “Carlo Rosselli” Brigade) until the liberation of Italy in April 1945. The experience of war engendered deep hatred against the Germans, which Revelli had met on the Russian front as allies and then as enemies in the mountains of his region (Piedmont). For decades this hatred remained unchanged and the intensity of such feeling was captured in the first books that Revelli published in the post-war period, Mai tardi (1946 and then republished in 1967) and La guerra dei poveri (1962). In these books the Germans are represented as cruel beasts, enemies to hate and despise.

In the 1980s, while collecting oral accounts from peasants in the Alpine valleys of Piedmont, Revelli heard from a former partisan a strange war story, the legend of a German officer who rode off in the countryside and who was kind to the local inhabitants and children, a peaceful and apparently “good” man. One day of 1944 this man disappeared, possibly killed in an ambush of partisans, and since then no one knew anymore about him. This legend disturbed Revelli because it challenged his memories of war and seemed too lenient to be true. Nevertheless, it was the story of a missing-in-action soldier. The memory of soldiers missing in Russia during the retreat from the Don River had tormented Revelli since the end of the war. A missing soldier, the writer said, is the cruellest legacy of any war.

Thus, he decided to engage in the search for the identity of this missing man, and after ten years of work, oral interviews with witnesses and research in German military archives, he succeeded. He discovered that the missing man was a 23-year-old German officer, a student who had not joined the National Socialist Party, who was not enthusiastic about the war and had already lost his older brother in Russia. A young man like so many others, who had been involved into the enormity of the war and had been overwhelmed by a cruel fate.

Fifty years after the war, Revelli thus found the way to reconcile with the hated enemy through a historical quest that in the end also turned out to be an experience of friendship, as far as he befriended the German historian Christoph Schminck-Gustavus, who remained close to Revelli. And, above all, this was a story of reconciliation with the human side of the so-called enemy. The book that tells this story, Il disperso di Marburg, was published in 1994 and for the occasion Revelli visited the German town of Marburg where Rudolf Knaut, the missing officer, was born. This year, on July 18, Marburg hosted an event dedicated to Revelli and to Il disperso di Marburg to celebrate the centenary of the writer’s birth (July 21). Gianluca Cinelli gave two lectures at the Institut für romanische Philologie at Philipps-Universität Marburg and at the Technologie- und Tagungszentrum in the presence of a large audience.

Announcement: Research project “Upgrading history”

The Research project Upgrading History. Diaries from the War Front by Dr Saverio Vita is about to be presented officially at the University of Bologna

Photo credits: https://www.europeana.eu/portal/it/record/2020601/contributions_17136_attachments_179895

Upgrading History. Diaries from the War Front is one of the three new projects funded by Europeana Foundation in 2018. The project is hold by Saverio Vita, fellow researcher at the University of Bologna, and hosted by DH.ARC (Digital Humanities Advanced Center).

The aim of the project is to share research that focuses on the diaries of European soldiers who fought the First World War with a larger audience. Europeana Collections includes a good amount of soldiers’ writings (especially in Italian, French and English) and paintings, as well as a collection of letters from the trenches by Isaac Rosenberg. By now, Rosenberg’s letters and eight diaries in Italian and French were processed.

The materials are arranged on the StoryMaps platform, highlighting the different itineraries travelled by a single soldier. Each journey track is enriched by the text itself and other media, such as photographs, selected newspaper pages, and videos from the Collections. Having the chance to follow the soldier’s itinerary is the best way to read a war diary. This project aims to preserve historical memory and to reactivate old personal stories, to renew them.

For the skilled user who wants to deepen knowledge of the diaries and to read a technical analysis of the text, the project offers digital editions based on EVT, with full transcriptions, historical and linguistic comments.

The project represents a sort of pilot, open to further updates. The Map becomes the promotional container of other research on similar topics, from FICLIT and other departments in Italy and other countries. The goal is to create a great open map, available to the largest possible number of users, detailing one of the most important periods in European History. The dissemination of this kind of project is especially valuable today, as Europe and its Institutions are living in a critical time. A project about WWI is a project about our shared past and History.

Announcement: Experiencing War at the Library of Congress

For the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Library of Congress published a webpage titled Experiencing War. Researchers and anyone who is interested can access 12 collections with diaries, photos and oral histories of men and women who experienced that event.

The page can be accessed at this link: https://www.loc.gov/vets/stories/ex-war-dday75.html

The materials are part of one of the Library of Congress’ special projects: the Veterans History Project (VHP), part of the American Folklife Center, which collects personal accounts of American war veterans with the aim to preserve the memories of war and conflicts in which the United States took part, from the First World War up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VHP’s materials provide a wealth of sources for researchers who work on experiences of war, and many of those can be accessed remotely through their website: https://www.loc.gov/vets/

Announcement: Shadow Agents of War Workshop

A fascinating event is taking place next week on 4th June at the University of Edinburgh: a one day workshop titled “Shadow Agents of War”, which will focus on the role in war of certain players who are largely overlooked by scholars of war and conflict, such as refugees, convicts, commoners and even animals. The workshop also promises to tackle methodological issues and point to relevant sources. The workshop is co-organised by Stephen Bowd, who is currently working on a project on gender and early modern warfare, Sarah Cockram, who focuses on the early modern period, too, and is interested in historical animal studies, and John Gagné whose current book project is on transcultural war in the early sixteenth century.

The workshop will have three sessions: The Unwilling Agents of War; The Organisers of War; The Suppliers of War.

The full programme can be accessed by following this link: https://research.shca.ed.ac.uk/shadow-agents-of-war/

New article: “Das Bild des italienischen Soldaten im deutschsprachigen Diskurs über die Vergangenheitsverwaltung”

Das Bild des italienischen Soldaten im deutschsprachigen Diskurs über die Vergangenheitsverwaltung, in Aufgeschlossene Beziehungen. Deutschland und Italien im transkulturellen Dialog. Literatur, Film, Medien, ed. by Tabea Meineke, Anne-Rose Meyer-Eisenhut, Stephanie Neu-Wendel and Eugenio Spedicato, Würzburg, Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, 2019, 67-80

Among the contributions appeared in the book Aufgeschlossene Beziehungen (Open-minded Relationships), devoted to the exploration of the way in which the Italian and German cultures have built their transcultural dialogue since WW2, one chapter by Gianluca Cinelli investigates how German post-war narratives, both literary and historical, represented the Italian soldiers in a very negative way, thus paving the way to the consolidation of an old anti-Italian prejudice spread all over Germany. The German combatants came across the Italians during WW2 as allies between 1940 and September 8, 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies. What emerges from this contribution is that little attention has been paid in Germany to this topic. Nonetheless, Italian soldiers were represented as lazy and unfit for war, unworthy in battle and unreliable as allies, cowardly and too soft to endure the hardship of modern warfare. And even worse, they were depicted as traitors following Italy’s withdrawal from the conflict in 1943, after which a remarkable number of Italians began to fight against the Germans as partisans.

The chapter builds on historical and literary sources, by combining the testimonies of former German cambatants (from privates of the Afrikakorp to memoirs of such Whermacht higher officers as Rommel or Kesselring) with historic evidence collected by mainly German scholars (from Hammerman to Klinkhammer and Schlemmer). The main thesis of the chapter consists in claiming that the anti-Italian prejudice largely depended on the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda and on the circulation of a number of testimonies that depicted the Italians as inferiors not only as for their military virtues but also on a racial basis. In the end, only the massive integration of Italian immigrants starting from the 1950s began to challenge the dominant stereotype and to rehabilitate the memory of the former allies-and-enemies as human beings and fellow citizens.

Conference announcement: “Giellismo e Azionismo. Cantieri aperti”

15th edition, Turin, Istoreto, 17-18 May 2019

The Istituto Piemontese per la Storia della Resistenza e della Società Contemporanea “Giorgio Agosti” will host the 15th edition of the research seminar “Giellismo e azionismo – cantieri aperti” on the 17th and 18th of May 2019.

The complete program of the seminar can be downloaded at:

http://www.istoreto.it/ricerca/giellismo-e-azionismo-cantieri-aperti/#

New open-access book

Lo sguardo lontano. L’Italia della Seconda guerra mondiale nella memoria dei prigionieri di guerra

For those who are interested in Italian history and the memories of prisoners of war (and for those who can read the Italian language), we are pleased to announce the publication of a new open-access book:Lo sguardo lontano. L’Italia della Seconda guerra mondiale nella memoria dei prigionieri di guerra, by Erika Lorenzon (Edizioni Ca’ Foscari Digital Publishing).

The book can be downloaded at http://edizionicafoscari.unive.it/it/edizioni/libri/978-88-6969-268-0/

Issue n. 1 of the Close Encounters in War Journal is online

Issue n. 1: “Close Encounters in Irregular and Asymmetric War” (2018)

We are delighted to announce that the first issue of the Close Encounters in War Journal has been published online. This issue marks the real start of our project and is devoted to a topic that seemed relevant to us both for its historical meaning and its topicality. In fact, the issue hosts five contributions by authors who consider the theme of close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war from a great variety of angles and in different disciplines.

The Issue and individual articles can be downloaded at:

Issue n. 1 (2018): Close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war

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What today is referred to as “irregular warfare” is one of the most ancient types of conflict, as opposed to “conventional warfare”, which is a relatively more recent development. The combat strategies and tactics used by tribal warriors, modern guerrillas, resistance fighters and terrorists have been attracting the attention of military historians, strategists and intelligence experts, focusing on resistance, insurgency, counter-insurgency and more recently terrorism. Beside its practical efficacy on the battlefield, irregular war has always stirred popular imagination. But how do human beings experience this particular type of warfare? Does it seem more threatening and scary because it can involve civilians more deeply? Does it blur the traditional idea of war as open confrontation with a recognisable enemy?

The multidisciplinary collection of articles presented in this issue invites a reflection on irregular and asymmetric warfare that goes beyond military strategy and tactical effectiveness, and aims to examine this subject through the lens of “close encounters” in order to explore its impact on human experience. In this perspective, a few recurring elements emerge in all the seven articles: irregular warfare involves an unequal fight between unequal enemies. There is no balance of power and this asymmetry between adversaries means that lines get blurred, for example between combatants and non combatants, or between regular and irregular forces. Irregular and asymmetric warfare blurs the lines and rules of conflict, but it also resurfaces the agency of those who are invisible in war.

The first three articles in the collection are more factual and they explore the blurred identities and often divided loyalties of those involved in irregular conflicts. According to their authors, those who fight “from below”, often the less powerful, find agency.

Brad St. Croix explores asymmetric warfare within the context of a wide conflict, focusing on the Pacific theatre of the Second World War. In Hong Kong, the British had to fight an irregular force as they faced a Japanese-inspired fifth column. The author sees this as having a deeply destabilizing power for the British, even if blurring the lines between regular and irregular forces was a tactic often used by the Japanese. However, the interesting point that emerges from this analysis is that blurred lines and changing loyalties in this context were due to the multiethnic makeup of the colony. In the Battle of Hong Kong invisibility was key for the fifth columnists, who used hiding and disguise as well as tactics such as sniping to conceal their identities and destabilize the enemy. Their invisibility still represents a challenge for historians who want determine their numbers and identity.

María Gómez-Amich offers a study based on interviews with five former conflict zone interpreters who were locally recruited by the Spanish troops deployed in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2014 as part of the NATO ISAF mission. By looking at the narratives of these interviewees in the effort to analyse their agency, his study emphasizes many lines getting blurred, such as the line between east and west, foreign and local, military and civilian, but also those, perhaps less obvious, between trust and mistrust, loyalty and neutrality, which are the key ones for professional interpreters. In this context, locally recruited interpreters are given the role of gatekeepers thanks to their cultural capital and they experience blurred loyalties because they are often seen as traitors by their own group and as outsiders by their employers. Another important point in this analysis is that irregular warfare blurs the fundamental ethical principles of interpreting, as it accentuates the tension between neutrality and agency.

In his article Gian Marco Longoni looks at another contemporary example of irregular warfare: the Houthi insurgency begun in 2004 that ousted the Yemeni government in 2015. In his effort to examine the three reasons for the outcome of this insurgency, Longoni emphasizes once again the asymmetry of the conflict and the agency of the insurgents. They find agency through the use of violence and capitalize on the weakness of the Yemeni regime. But there are also other, more cultural reasons that can explain the outcome of the revolt: the Zaydi insurgents experienced a shared identity and shared narratives which can be dubbed as their cultural identity, which were keys in the context of this conflict. It seems that when cultural identity is not conflictual in itself, but clearly defined as in this instance, loyalty does not represent an issue. Asymmetry has a double impact here because while it is true that the fight is between unequal enemies, it is the insurgents who find strength in their cultural identity, whereas the regular forces are weak, dysfunctional and incapable of adequate counterinsurgency despite being the representatives of the institutions.

The second set of articles is more focused on meaning and representation. The concept of irregular and asymmetric warfare is interpreted in different ways, but both articles agree on one point: asymmetric conflict has the power to transform the individual, affecting the spheres of imagination, self-perception, and cultural reception. What these articles suggest is that asymmetric war almost always implies disequilibrium of forces and a polarisation of conflict as a struggle between “stronger” and “weaker” opponents, in particular women and children. By no accident, in fact, these articles explore the issue of close encounters in asymmetric war from the standpoint of its cultural interpretation and representation.

In her analysis of the rape scene in Elsa Morante’s novel La storia, Stefania Porcelli talks about a literary encounter with war. The author interprets the concept of asymmetry as lack of balance between the adversaries, who are fragile actors who never win against stronger enemies. In this analysis the lines between victim and oppressor, innocence and evil, become blurred, as the author stresses how Morante insists on the concept of power, and of how the powerful (represented by Gunther, stronger but doomed to succumb to history), become themselves victims. Fear, sometimes terror, is at the core of this particular asymmetric conflict, in which the victim is stripped of agency because rape “is an act of violence against a woman wholly bereft of agency” (Porcelli, p. 89). But here it also represents the loss of innocence that bears a transformative power.

Benjamin Nickl sees asymmetric conflict through the eyes of child warriors in popular fiction. In his analysis of the representation of children in arms Nickl wonders whether they are a way to represent and give meaning to the trauma of war. Child characters invite a shift in the point of view on war, which can lead to a more genuine approach, as “audiences seem willing to suspend their disbelief readily” (Nickl, p. 104) when the narrator is a child. Nickl interprets the concept of irregular and asymmetric warfare very widely, including fictional conflicts against terrible monsters or evil warlords, but what these all have in common is that they all involve a shift in the point of view and the transformational loss of innocence as consequences of the trauma caused by war.

The selected articles range over a number of wars, different from one another in time, space, scale, and context; and their authors consider the topic of “close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war” from the standpoints of different disciplines and methodological approaches, among which, for example, cultural and military history, literary studies, gender studies, oral history, translation studies, and postcolonial studies. This variety reflects the multidisciplinary project of Close Encounters in War journal and will hopefully fuel further interest in the cultural and collateral aspects of war as a fundamental aspect of human evolution and cultural specificity. Irregular and asymmetric warfare blurs the lines and rules of conflict, but it also resurfaces the agency of those who are invisible in war.

A fatal encounter in war. A case of impact of PTSD on civilians in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”

by Gianluca Cinelli

Dunkirk (2017) as a war movie seems to direct itself toward a new way of representing war on the screen. No gore, no mangled bodies are to be seen. It seems as though the director meant to say that horror in war does not only depend on the amount of terrifying visions of slaughter, but rather on the psychological perception of fear as an overwhelming emotion that constantly drives the combatant to choose between two basic actions: fighting or fleeing.

Dunkirk tells a story of flight rather than fight. Between the end of May and the early days of June 1940 about 400.000 encircled British and French soldiers were evacuated in a few days from the beaches of Dunkerque, in northern France. Every available ship was employed for the rescue, including a number of private yachts and fishing boats. In the movie the crew of one of these private yachts play a major role, and their story suggests these few lines of reflection about a case of lethal encounter between combatants and civilians.

The small boat rescues a British soldier who has remained stranded at sea for some time, his boat having been sunken. This young soldier is affected by a serious form of PTSD. Fear has taken hold of his mind and he categorically refuses to be taken back to the coast of Dunkirk, insofar as this is the route and task of the small boat. He struggles with the captain and eventually with one of the two young boys who are sailing on the yacht from England to Dunkirk to rescue the stranded troops. In the fight the young boy, a captain’s family friend, falls and is concussed. It is an ugly accident from which he will eventually die.

The British soldier will never grow conscious of the tragic aftermath of his revolt. He acted out of utter fear and his strong desire to escape the madness of being encircled, trapped between the German troops and the sea, bombed and chased like a sitting-duck. He meant no harm, but his action was violent enough to easily overcome the young boy. He does not acknowledge the death of the boy and will eventually leave the boat, after they reach the English shore, without being fully aware of the gruesome effect that war has been having on him.

In fact, in order to save himself he involuntarily kills one of those fellow citizens, to defend whom he had gone to war: a young brave man who put his own life at stake to save him and his comrades from peril and death. How does it come to be? How does war change the mind and even the personality of those who are involved in it? Does war make people more courageous, morally stronger or ethically wiser? Such questions the movie raises that are worth answering.

And finally, how should we judge such a character as this young soldier? Is he vile? Is he a felon? Is he to blame?

In the end, the captain’s son does not reveal to the soldier that his young unlucky friend died. He just says to comfort the traumatised soldier that his friend will be all right, and then he lets the castaway go to join his comrades. It seems a profoundly human action, full of piety and understanding. One could wonder whether some disguised rhetorical claim is embedded here. I do not believe it. Dunkirk is more than just a war movie, rather a work that chooses war to represent the wonder of human ethical response (in its broad variety) to a basically moral quest: what should one do, when the moment demands that everyone be involved into great and dangerous events, which the vast majority is not ready or willing to take part into? Although someone else is supposed to go abroad to fight and die, we could be called up to back those who are over there, because their failure could mean our doom as well. Being brave is not necessarily a matter of exquisite heroism. It could just have to do with taking up one’s own responsibility, to the very end no matter what.