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.

Claudio Pavone: 30 November 1920 – 29 November 2016

By Simona Tobia

In 1991 Italian publisher Bollati Boringhieri issued a monograph titled Una Guerra civile. Saggio storico sulla moralità nella Resistenza. It would change points of view on history and stimulate debates for years to come. Its author, Claudio Pavone, one of the finest Italian historians, died last week, aged 95.  Una Guerra civile appeared in English only three years ago, as A Civil War. A History of the Italian Resistance. A true ‘watershed’ title, this book provides a new stance on the Italian Resistance in the Second World War. In this gripping synthesis, Pavone defines the years between the armistice, on 8 September 1943, and the end of the war, which culminated with the Liberation on 25 April 1945, as a war of liberation, a class war, and more importantly, a civil war. The war of liberation was the war fought throughout Italy against the German occupiers, whereas the class war refers to the ideological conflict and the several strikes which took place in that period. What caused widespread debates amongst historians, former partisans, politicians and the public, was the idea of civil war. The though of a fratricidal conflict was not new in itself, but it had been used in the war years mostly by those who had remained loyal to Mussolini, to stress the idea of betrayal by the partisans and the institutions fighting with the Allies. Pavone used this term with a very different purpose, though. He wanted to resurface this aspect of the conflict, Italians killing other Italians, to make it once again part of the collective memory of the war. In Italy the memory of the Second World War is very much divided, as many works have demonstrated (for example Alessandro Portelli’s The Order Has Been Carried Out, a monograph about the divided memories of the Ardeatine Caves massacre), and this is mostly a political division. This is why Pavone’s book caused such a turmoil when it came out in 1991, at a time when political debates on the left and on communism had been revived after the fall of the Berlin wall. In addition, despite being lost in translation, the reflection on ‘morality’ that appears in the original title, remains one of the key issues in the essay, which the author explains as “the territory on which politics and ethics meet and clash”.

Perhaps it is worth stressing that Pavone’s agenda was certainly not the same as that of neo-fascist groups who still exist in Italy, or of a certain type of historical revisionism. Despite growing up under fascist dictatorship, Pavone was able to develop his own political conscience and after 8 September he got in touch with the socialist partisan brigades and started cooperating with them. As a member of the Resistance, he was imprisoned at Regina Coeli in Rome, but was able to survive the experience.

For many years after the war, he worked as an archivist, with key functions in the re-arrangement of the Italian national archives (Archivio Centrale dello Stato). From the 70s he worked at the Università di Pisa as a professor, and among his other prominent works there is La continuità dello stato: istituzioni e uomini, in which he reflected on the idea of the continuity between the fascist regime and the democracy that followed the war. His work on the role of public history is also worth remembering.

Claudio Pavone’s work has given scholars of our generation the chance of having a critical view not only of events, but also on the place of history in the wider society.