When you ban a song against Nazis on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Bruno Fantera was 21 years old when he and his mother Esifile took into their home a Jewish family of four, the Moscatis. It was the night after the raids in the ghetto of the Portico d’Ottavia, in Rome. For the following nine months, until the liberation, Bruno and Esifile introduced their guests to anyone who asked as relatives who had fled to the capital to escape the Allied bombings (for Rome by now had been declared ‘open city’, and would therefore be spared), while Bruno worked enough jobs to feed everyone. Had the truth been uncovered, both families would have been sent to the Camps.

The story wasn’t told until 2006, when the eldest of the two Moscati brothers, Mino, convinced Fantera to make his recollections public. This resulted in the recognition of the son and his late mother as Rigtheous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem. Then, after Bruno’s death last year at the age of 96, came the decision to unveil a plaque in his name on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the primary school he attended as a child. The pupils, naturally, would sing a few songs.

Fantera plaque

This is when the story takes an unforeseen turn.

‘Bella Ciao’ is both the most popular and the least political of all partisan anthems. It has a jaunty, upbeat tune and a very simple plot: the first-person singer wakes up one morning to discover that the country has been invaded. He wishes to join the partisans, for he doesn’t fear death. Should he in fact die, he only asks that he be buried by the shadow of a nice flower. This flower, he declares, will be remembered by future passers-by as the flower of the partisan who died in the name of freedom.

So generic and uncontroversial are these lyrics that at the marches of 1968 an extra verse was sometimes tacked on, to claim it exclusively for the left: ‘his blood was red like the flag he waved’. But this is nowhere to be found in the original anthem, which united Italians of all but one political stripe, and featured over the decades in countless ceremonies and public celebrations.

Until this week, that is. Having discovered that ‘Bella Ciao’ was included in the program of the unveiling, some parents complained that it gave ‘a one-sided view of the war’, and successfully lobbied for its omission. Greeting the news, Il Secolo d’Italia – for decades the official newspaper of the post-war Movimento Sociale, heir to the Fascist Party – editorialised that evidently those parents ‘regarded the partisan anthem as inappropriate for a celebration of the victims of the Holocaust, which must be a ceremony free of all ideology.’

It has come to this: a group of parents worried that their children might be exposed to a one-sided view of Nazism, and a fascist newspaper giving lessons on how the Holocaust should be commemorated. Meanwhile, Il Tempo – a self-styled ‘independent newspaper’ that began its life at the tail end of the war as a clandestine publication, and whose first ‘legal’ issue saluted the liberation of Rome in June of 1945 – chose to name Benito Mussolini as its Man of the Year for 2017.

Mussolini Man of the Year

The editorial helpfully explains that, 72 years into his death, Mussolini is ‘more lively’ than any current Italian politician, and still gets to routinely dictate the political agenda. Were he not so repulsively obsequious to the old dictator, the author might have hit on a half-truth: namely, that the extraordinary revival of the symbols of fascism and of fascist ideas and strategies is due in part to the inability of the Italian political class to persuasively describe a progressive future. But that’s only a partial explanation and does nothing to negate the urgency of pushing against the tide of violent, reactionary nostalgia.

It is a past that resurfaces with increasing self-assurance, whether in order to break into the meeting of a pro-migrant association, demand that the honour of the once exiled Royal family be fully restored, or prevent primary school children from disrespecting Nazis through song. Writing about all these discrete events can begin to feel ritualistic, perfunctory. But they are all expressions of the same political project, which has to be understood in order to be re-defeated.

In less than five weeks, Italians will vote. While the parties of the heterogenous far-right may not seem numerically ascendant, they are nonetheless cemented inside the largest of the three likely blocs – led by the resurrected corpse of Silvio Berlusconi. This is another past never dying, always returning. But it’s important to acknowledge that in his heyday Berlusconi spent significant energies and capital in order to ‘clear fascism through customs’ (the Italian word for this is sdoganare), that is to say re-legitimise it as a mainstream political and historical force. And while he could not completely deny its crimes, he could at least attempt to present the two years that preceded the Italian liberation as a civil war in which both sides are equally deserving of commemoration and respect.

On the evidence of this week’s seemingly minor event – the exclusion of a song from a short civil ceremony – he was successful. There are now two sides to the Nazi occupation of Italy. And, as Berlusconi understood from the outset, the implications of this fact are not confined to past historical questions, but directly invest our political present.


 Image: Still from ‘Bella Ciao’ internet video

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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