The editors of the CEIWJ invite to submit abstracts by February 10, 2021
The universe of emotions has always represented a major challenge for research in every field of knowledge, from Philosophy to Physics, from Psychology to the Arts. Although everyone knows what emotions are insofar as almost everyone can “feel”, as it comes to provide a clear or systematic explanation of emotions, words fail. Today, interdisciplinary studies see cognitivists working side by side with psychologists, linguists, anthropologists, biologists, historians, and philosophers to elaborate insightful theories of emotions. One breakthrough that has oriented the new research agenda since the 1990s consists in the claim that the human mind is – despite the rationalist tradition rooted in Descartes’s philosophy and the following theories of Enlightenment and Positivism – emotional (see, for example, pivotal studies by Antonio Damasio and Joseph Ledoux in the 1990s).
During the preparation of Issue n. 3, devoted to post-traumatic stress disorder, we have grown even more aware that war and emotions are deeply entwined. We may even dare to say that if humans go to war, it is mostly due to emotions, although the rational urge to organise and explain war in term of science is equally powerful (as historian Bernd Hüppauf and ethologists such as Irenäus Eibl-Eibelsfeld have demonstrated). For sure, the individual caught in a war, from its preparation to the very experience of battle, is exposed to a great number of emotional stimuli that affect their reactions and decision-making. Propaganda, the feeling of “belonging”, affective bonds, ethical inclinations, and cultural notions such as racism, nationalism, patriotism, cosmopolitanism, as only some of the numerous and varied contributing factors that may lead people to make war or to avoid it. We believe that the “close encounter” makes this list as well as a fundamental emotional experience in war.
Issue n. 4 of CEIWJ will aim to investigate the theme of close encounters in connection to the emotions by exploring its facets both on a micro-scale, by studying individual testimonies and experiences, and on a theoretical and critical basis throughout history. CEIWJ encourages inter/multidisciplinary approaches and dialogue among different scientific fields. We therefore welcome articles that frame the topic within the context of close encounters in war from the perspective of Aesthetics, Anthropology, Arts, Classics, Cognitive Science, Ethics, History, Linguistics, Politics, Psychology, Sociology, and other disciplines relevant for the investigation of the topic. Case studies may include different historical periods as well as over different geographic areas.
We invite articles which analyse the connection between war and emotions from ancient to modern and contemporary periods, from the perspective of the encounter, reaching beyond the study of military tactics and strategy and focusing on the emotional dimension of how human beings “encounter” each other – or themselves – in war. Contributions are invited to promote discussion and scholarly research from established scholars, early-career researchers, and from practitioners who have dealt with the emotional response to war in the course of their activities.
Topics and research fields that can be investigated include but are not limited to:
Theoretical inter/multidisciplinary approaches to the study of emotions and war;
The emotional impact of war on culture and social behaviour;
The emotional and ethical impact of language in the context of war (propaganda, pacifism, anti-war literature, etc.);
The emotional aspects of oral history, memory studies, therapy, and PTSD-counselling in theory and practice;
Expressing and representing emotions and war in music, figurative arts, literature, testimonies and personal narratives;
War and the emotional elaboration of death, mourning, trauma, and loss;
The emotional impact of colonial and civil wars, captivity and deportation;
Emotional response to war crimes and military justice;
Emotional implications of otherness, race, and gender in war-contexts.
The editors of Close Encounters in War Journal invite the submission of abstracts of 250 words in English by 10 February 2021 to email@example.com. The authors invited to submit their works will be required to send articles of 6000-8000 words (endnotes included, bibliographical references not included in word-count: please see submission guidelines at https://closeencountersinwar.org/instruction-for-authors-submissions/) in English by 30 June 2021 to firstname.lastname@example.org. All articles will undergo a process of double-blind peer-review. We will notify the results of the peer-reviewing in September 2021. Final versions of revised articles will be submitted by November of 2021.
Primo Levi’s work presents an extraordinarily rich and articulated case of intertextuality. Being a curious, omnivorous, and asystematic reader, Levi explored multiple fields of knowledge – literary, scientific, historical, etc. – browsing between specialized and popular books and magazines, for reasons of research or pure entertainment, often approaching foreign cultures in the original language, driven by his eclectic curiosity and an intense desire to know and understand. Already fathomed in part by Levi himself in his anthology The Search for Roots (1981), his library remains however to be discovered. This volume intends to trace the features of a critical map of the grafts, intertexts and transplants that link Levi’s work to the books of others, by comparing it with twenty-one authors, in a “polyglot and multipurpose” gallery that includes classics such as Dante, Shakespeare, Leopardi, Baudelaire, and Carroll; authors of modern literature such as Kafka, Mann, and Calvino; and scientists such as Galileo, Darwin, Heisenberg, and Lorenz.
Table of contents
Domenico Scarpa: Prefazione xi Gianluca Cinelli e Robert S. C. Gordon: Introduzione 1
Parte I – Gli strumenti umani Antonio Di Meo: Primo Levi e William Henry Bragg 19 Mario Porro: Primo Levi e Galileo Galilei 37 Patrizia Piredda: Primo Levi e Werner Heisenberg 55 Alberto Cavaglion: Primo Levi e Giuseppe Gioachino Belli 73 Enzo Ferrara: Primo Levi e Stanislaw Lem 87 Stefano Bartezzaghi: Primo Levi e Lewis Carroll 107
Parte II – La condizione umana Vittorio Montemaggi: Primo Levi e Dante 127 Valentina Geri: Primo Levi e William Shakespeare 143 Simone Ghelli: Primo Levi e Pierre Bayle 161 Martina Piperno: Primo Levi e Giacomo Leopardi 179 Damiano Benvegnù: Primo Levi e Konrad Lorenz 197 Pierpaolo Antonello: Primo Levi e Charles Darwin 215
Parte III – Comprendere e narrare il Lager Charles L. Leavitt IV: Primo Levi e Elio Vittorini 237 Uri S. Cohen: Primo Levi e Vercors 255 Sibilla Destefani: Primo Levi e Charles Baudelaire 273 Stefano Bellin: Primo Levi e Franz Kafka 287 Davide Crosara: Primo Levi e Samuel Beckett 305
Parte IV – La ricerca di sé Martina Mengoni: Primo Levi e Thomas Mann 327 Gianluca Cinelli: Primo Levi e Herman Melville 345 Mattia Cravero: Primo Levi e Ovidio 361 Marco Belpoliti: Primo Levi e Italo Calvino 381
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.
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.
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
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
Nuto Revelli’s Il disperso di Marburg after 25 years. Marburg, July 18, 2019
(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
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
Ancient Romans used to say “si vis pacem, para bellum”,
which one could rephrase as “if you want peace, prepare for war”. War
has always been much more than mere fighting. It affects society as a
whole even in peacetime, for example in terms of training, preparation
and strategy. Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war is the “continuation of
politics by other means”, meaning that war implies some transformation
of mentality and the awareness that sometimes dialogue and compromise
are not enough to compose litigation between two countries o two
communities. However, war is no necessity. The Latin motto cited above
must be read ironically, especially because it sounds very useful for
any imperialistic ideology aiming to preserve its power and privileges
by threatening other countries by stockpiling weapons and training big
armies. War is not desirable, and as the French WWI veteran Jean Giono
said, war does not uphold peace. All the opposite: war produces war,
while peace is just another path. But one could say that it takes a long
way to understand this, or better, it takes experience.
War is a brutal affair, but it has been and continues to be a key
aspect of human history and social change. The Humanities and the Social
Sciences can help us make sense of that, because they talk about who we
are and they help us define our experience. They can also help us make
sense of the disturbing aspects of the human character which become so
evident in war. The violent nature of wars and conflicts and their
effects on societies around the world and throughout history raise
complex moral and ethical questions the answer to which is generally
very controversial. For example is war always wrong? How can we explain
our behaviour in war? Why do we wage war?
We believe that the best way to address these complex questions
(again, ambitious project!) is to look at the cultural aspects of war
and conflict, really focusing on the human experience of those who were
(or are) there. We want to talk about ‘what it is like’ to be there, and
for us the best way to do it is with the help of the Humanities.
‘Cultural aspects’ means that any kind of narrative about war and
conflict is interesting for us, as well as any kind of representation,
from literary, journalistic and artistic portrayals to exhibits and
Combatants are not the only witnesses of war. Civilians, journalists,
NGOs-operators, and other groups can equally tell stories about war
insofar as they have seen it. The strength of such stories rests on
their ability to convince others that war is, or is not, a worthwhile
experience. They have come across war and gone through it, for better or
worse. All those who have seen war have experienced violence and its
corruption. Story-telling, together with other things (such as
monuments, museums, celebrations, and others) embodies atonement,
purification and return to civil society. Witnesses can share their
opinions about war, can use words as a new and not lethal weapons to
support the cause of fighting or that of peace. Story-telling is a
particular encounter with war for those who have no clear idea of what
war is. A narrated conflict is a cultural object. It is made of images
and words; its very fabric is the rhetoric of story-telling, and later
on of history. From facts to stories, war transforms itself into an
experience of suffering and violence which can be made without the risk
of getting overwhelmed and harmed.
All representation is interpretation. It has its own reality but it
also contributes to create new reality. Representation-interpretation
transfigures war into an indirect experience, an intellectual one. One
could say that a discourse on war is true because it has been produced
by an eye-witness or by an objectively detached and well-informed
historian. But how can one tell the difference? Where is the limit
between war as reality and war as a vision? The Humanities and the
Social Sciences set the tools, critical and intellectual, to face this
methodological and epistemological questions. What’s more, they also
help understand those questions ethically.
War as an encounter with the unknown, the unexpected, the undesirable
implies an understanding of what encountering ‘the enemy’, ‘the other’,
or merely ‘the different’ means. Disciplines such as history,
philosophy, literature, sociology, anthropology, psychology and others
can help us discern and comprehend. So let us begin our discussion with
two articles on the very actual issue of violence in captivity.
kidnapping relief workers and journalists, terrorists publishing videos
of horrible executions by decapitation and even burning, terrorists
wiping out principles such as the freedom of the press and satire in the
heart of the West in Paris, while stories of westerners joining the
fight on the IS side are profusely present in the news. The ‘war on
terror’, far from over, is raging, and it continues to be depicted by
Western media and political authorities as a ‘just war’ fought against a
seeing the US Senate report on the CIA published at the end of 2014, I
was wondering to what extent can human beings go to fight what they
perceive to be atrocity and evil. I would like to share some ideas
gathered during my research on WWII, another conflict which took the
shape of a ‘just war’ against an overwhelmingly evil foe, to see if
there are some lessons we can learn from that past.
and questioning of POWs is one of those settings in which lines are
often allowed to blur and mistreatment and breaches of the Geneva
Conventions take place, frequently in the name of so-called
‘ticking-bomb scenarios’. This is the official argument in defence of
the use of harsh methods (let’s call things with their own name:
torture), portraying a very artificial situation in which a bomb is
ticking its way towards a devastating attack and only by torturing the
terrorists who placed it will the intelligence officers be able to save
hundreds of lives. However, so far I have not yet come across any
historical case in which this actually happened.
psychological abuse and torture committed by representatives of liberal
states such as Britain and the US are an astonishing reality, not only
in war on terror, but also in and after WWII. Given the shared memory of
WWII, with narratives of a war (‘just war’?) fought against a brutal
enemy, it appears hard to believe, but the stories of at least a couple
of British interrogation centres where lines were actually allowed to
blur are worth telling.
(in)famous London District Cage was headed by Lt. Col. Alexander
Scotland. Its prisoners included war crimes suspects from the SS and the
Gestapo, ‘the worst of the worst’, and the many reports of
ill-treatment and torture included one by Fritz Knoechlein, who wrote a
long letter complaining of the treatment he received at the Cage, where
he was deprived of sleep, starved, beaten and humiliated constantly.
Knoechlein was a high ranking officer in the SS, and he had been
responsible of the Le Paradis massacre of May 1940, when 99 British POWs
who had surrendered to his unit were machine-gunned en masse;
the order was given by Knoechlein, who was later tried for war crimes
and executed in Hamburg in 1949. Lt. Col. Scotland wrote a memoir in
which he talks at length about the London Cage, admitting to have
breached the Geneva Conventions. The book had to be submitted to
censorship and was only published in 1957, after having caused a lot of
distress in the Foreign Office and the MI5. More recently this story hit
the headlines in the Guardian where an article appeared in November
2005 denounced it as a ‘torture centre’.
the end of the hostilities a CSDIC centre was established in Bad
Nenndorf, in the British Zone of occupation of Germany and Lt. Col.
Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens became its commandant. The camp and those who
ran it were the protagonists of a huge scandal with allegations of abuse
and ill-treatment of prisoners, followed by investigation carried out
by inspector Tom Hayward. Following his reports, the centre was closed
in July 1947 and some of the camp’s officers were brought to court
martial in 1948. Among them, there were Lt. Col. Stephens, who was
acquitted in July 1948, the Medical Officer Capt. J.S. Smith who was
sentenced to be dismissed the service, and a German born interrogator, a
former refugee who had joined the British war effort, Oliver Langham.
In fact ‘Tin Eye’ struggled to run the camp because of funding
reductions and insufficient resources. Prisoners often ended up in
nearby hospitals severely harmed and malnourished, and in January 1947
two of them died shortly after admission. Inspector Hayward found in his
investigation that interrogators and the camp’s guards were not likely
to be totally impartial, either because they were ex German or Austrian
refugees or because they were young soldiers who had experienced harsh
combat in various war theatres, and arriving in Germany some of them had
to face even more war horrors liberating Bergen-Belsen. The
investigation proved that that conditions in the CSDIC centre were very
harsh: prisoners were kept in cells with no heating and no mattresses,
were denied a proper rest, and some of them were found wearing dirty
clothes because they could not dry them. Prisoners could be punished
with ‘solitary confinement’ sometimes even for longer than 40 days.
Solitary confinement was used as a form of ‘mental pressure’ for
prisoners considered to be with-holding the truth. Threats to execute,
arrest, torture the prisoners’ relatives, such as wives or husbands and
children, were also part of the ‘mental pressure’ and they were allowed
because they were never carried out. It should be stressed that the
commander was against violence and Gestapo-like measures only because he
thought that those were counterproductive, and not certainly for
humanitarian concerns. He was convinced that physical violence produced
London Cage and CSDIC’s stories challenge the myth of British wartime
interrogation systems, traditionally thought to be “legal, well-tried
and highly successful”. The British system of interrogation was of
course successful in wartime, but it was despite and not because of
techniques such as those employed by CSDIC. An extremely complex system
of intelligence networks, well trained professional intelligence
officers, including various centres, eavesdropping facilities, a
cross-check technique, and the legendary British double-cross system,
made the collection of human intelligence successful in WWII. Violence
was most likely employed by the least experienced and more resentful
interrogators and it was never fruitful, as Hayward’s report shows very
was by no means an attempt of writing an exhaustive history of
interrogation in WWII in a blog post (I believe it deserves an entire
book, which is the object of my current research), but I think there are
a few lessons that we can learn today. It is easy to conclude that
harsh methods seem to become acceptable even in a conflict narrated as a
‘just war’ if the enemy is heinous enough, but it is also interesting
to note what actually works in the collection of human intelligence, and
to work how the reasons why violence sometimes happens (in the – naïve,
I know – hope to be able to reduce it in the future).
Andrew, Christopher and Tobia, Simona, Interrogation in war and conflict. A comparative and interdisciplinary analysis (London, Routledge, 2014)
Cobain, Ian, Cruel Britannia. A secret history of torture (London, Portobello Books, 2012)
Hoare, Oliver, Camp 020. MI5 and the Nazi spies (Richmond, Public Record Office, 2000)
Jackson, Sophie, British interrogation techniques in the Second World War (Stroud, The History Press, 2012)
all ages of human history, torture has represented a fear and a reality
for prisoners of war. Soldiers captured in war can be the victims of
the victor’s retaliation immediately after battle as well as far behind
the front line, through interrogations for intelligence, forced-labour,
brain-washing. In fact, torture is not only physical. George Orwell
describes the perversion of psychological torture in his novel 1984 (1948)
by means of the symbol of Room 101. Primo Levi, the well-known
Auschwitz-witness, once wrote that “useless violence” in Nazi Lagers
consisted in inflicting apparently aimless physical and psychological
suffering in order to demolish the human dignity and resilience of
mass-scale case of ideological torture was the political re-education
of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps during WWII. In 1941 Walter
Ulbricht (1893-1973, he was President of the Democratic Republic of
Germany from 1960 up to his death), in exile in Moscow, thought that
German POWs could represent a useful instrument of propaganda, if they
could be won to the cause of Communism. Ulbricht believed that the Red
Army would eventually win the war, and he therefore saw the necessity to
create a group of German Soviet agents who would trigger a socialist
revolution in Germany after the end of the war. Ulbricht submitted his
project to the Soviets, who recognized the potential of the proposal and
decided to install the first School of Antifascism in the concentration
camp of Jelabuga, where the German Captain Ernst Hadermann began to
cooperate with Ulbricht and the Soviets to win the German POWs to the
cause of antifascism. The breakthrough came in winter 1943, after the
German debacle in Stalingrad, where the entire 6th Army was
destroyed. Although only 90.000 Germans were taken prisoners, among them
Feldmarschall Freidrich Paulus and his staff were also captured. For
the first time hundreds of thousands of POWs were in the hands of the
Red Army (over 100.000 Germans, about 74.000 Italians, and many
thousands of Rumanians and Hungarians).
July 1943 in the Lager of Krasnogorsk the National Committee “Free
Germany” was founded with the purpose to create the first group of
military resistance against Hitler’s regime. Soon after, in September
1943, a number of officers who had refused to join “Free Germany”
because it seemed too compromised with Communism, founded the Union of
German Officers, which was apparently independent but actually under the
thumb of Communist political activists. By the end of 1944 some tens of
officers and a few hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers had joined the
antifascist movement, small figures in comparison with the 3.500.000
German POWs in Soviet hands at the end of the war.
November 1945 “Free Germany” and the Union of German Officers were
disbanded. The former members were sent back to the Soviet Zone of
Occupation in Germany between 1946 and 1948 in order to build the new
socialist German fatherland. Nonetheless, although political
re-education of POWs was no longer in agenda, POWs remained exposed to
arbitrary Soviet policies concerning intelligence and forced-labour. In
1949 a wave of political trials stormed over the thousands of
concentration camps in the USSR: thousands of German POWs were accused
with war crimes and sentenced to death, life imprisonment or 25 years of
forced-labour. POWs were to be used to rebuild the Russian cities and
infrastructures destroyed by war as well as hostages to put pressure on
West Germany, which in 1950 was to be re-armed within the NATO.
Political trials against POWs took place in an atmosphere of terror and
menace, which can be acknowledged from the literary memoirs of
must distinguish between memoirs written in the Democratic Republic of
Germany and those published in West Germany because they reflect
different political perspectives: in fact, all Eastern authors (e.g.
Paulus, Adam, Müller, Steidle and Rühle) occupied relevant roles in
politics, culture and education and their memoirs depict the political
re-education in Soviet concentration camps as a rejuvenating experience
of self-affirmation. Political re-education, or Antifascism, certainly
was not for them torture or suffering. They consider themselves as
patriots who embraced the cause of a free and democratic Germany shaped
on the Marxist view of history and society. They interpret Germany’s
catastrophe as the necessary outcome of imperialism and militarism, to
which they oppose socialism and its vocation to internationalism and
the other side of the Iron Curtain, things were different. A small
group of witnesses came from the ranks of former antifascists, such as
Heinrich Einsiedel (vice-president of the National Committee “Free
Germany”), novelist Heinrich Gerlach, and theologian Helmut Gollwitzer.
These authors had first joined Communist antifascism because they had
believed in the historical necessity to take a stand against Hitler and
his war. They had later gown critical toward Communism and they had been
persecuted and punished for that, in concentration camps before and
once they had come back to Germany after 1948. They represent the
political re-education as a two-fold experience: on the one hand it was a
noble and heroic assumption of responsibility that they faced as
officers and human beings; on the other that experience was also a
dangerous compromise with power and corruption insofar as being
antifascists in Soviet concentration camps meant claiming privilege and
prominence over other fellow POWs. These authors remember in their
memoirs how they had to act as spies for the Communist authorities, how
they had to lie and deceive in order to keep their privileges, and how
they had to go through a never-ending psychological war against other
prisoners in order to conquer power. These authors recall the motto of
Soviet antifascism: “whoever is not with us is against us”, or “whoever
does not work does not eat”, which did not sound much different than
under the Nazi yoke.
political re-education in the memoirs of lower officers and ranks, who
depict it as sheer torture, appears even worse, as a school of
double-thought and as a struggle for surviving, because the periodical
interrogations carried out by Communist activists made the difference
between being admitted to the school of antifascism (which meant more
food, warm bedrooms and no hard-labour) and being sent out to Siberia
for hard-labour in the woods, in mines or on cotton fields.
Interrogations were subtle and dangerous, aimed at forcing prisoners
into self-contradiction. When this happened, the prisoner had to choose
between becoming a spy and collaborating, and ending up in punishment
camps. These witnesses recall the wave of political trials of 1949 as
the most fearful experience after starvation and typhus epidemics of
1943-1944: threatened to be held for years in hard-labour camps, many a
prisoner chose to denounce even close friends as war-criminals, in order
to be sent back to Germany, and many even mutilated themselves in order
to be spared from work and sent home.
West Germany some authors, such as former pilot and POW Assi Hahn,
caught the occasion to raise a vehement polemic against Communism, which
in many cases turned out to be a shameful apology of the old Nazi
regime, militarism and imperialism. What is striking is that the Soviet
project of conquering a huge mass of POWs, marked as a “bunch of
fascists”, to the political cause of Communism eventually ended up into a
large-scale failure. In fact, the strategy of attracting POWs to
antifascism in exchange of privilege and power over fellow comrades in
concentration camps did not produce the model of a virtuous democratic
society, but rather a “grey zone” where compromise, deceit and egoism
prevailed over social virtues such as solidarity, friendship and
this sense, Soviet concentration camps of POWs also represented a sort
of laboratory for social experimentation. The separateness of POWs from
their homeland permitted to create the condition for an artificial
acceptance of the new political and social doctrine in abstract, not as a
real means to manage the life of a community. Better said, there was a
community, but a fragile and weak one, of starving and frightened POWs
under the thumb of a powerful and intricate structure capable of
inflicting suffering and death or to grant favour and privilege. Such
political re-education can be seen as torture, especially if one
considers that many German POWs remained in Soviet camps up to 1956.
is an evil and useless instrument. Its secrecy and separateness testify
to its unlawfulness as well as to the bad will of those who use it. In
the past, criminals were tormented and executed in public, as Foucault
pointed out, in the course of violent ceremonies aimed at restoring the
authority of the State challenged by serious offences. But torture is
different. It is a closed-door activity, because it is brutal and
illegal, because it is aimed at overwhelming the victim’s will, in order
to force out a confession beyond evidence of crime and guilt. Torture
can make up evidence as magic: in order to stop suffering and fear the
victim is ready to confess what the torturer wants to hear. The case of
political re-education shows that torture can also be a means to force
ideologies into the mind of people. Nonetheless, experience teaches that
such achievements almost always remain unattained, or that they are
reached at the cost of moral degradation, illegality and inhumanity.
For further reading
Bungert, Heike, Das Nationalkomitee und der Westen. Die Reaktion der Westalliierten auf das NKFD und die Freien Deutschen Bewegungen 1943-1948, Stuttgart, Steiner, 1997
Scheurig, Bodo, Freies Deutschland. Das Nationalkomitee und der Bund Deutscher Offiziere in der Sowjetunion 1943-1945, München, Nymphenburger, 1960
Schoenhals, Kai, The Free Germany Movement. A Case of Patriotism or Treason?, New York, Greenwood Press, 1989
Smith, Arthur, The War for the German Mind. Re-Educating Hitler’s Soldiers, Oxford, Berghan, 1996