Italy’s history blind spot, in black and white

David Winner in Rome

By David Winner, April 29, 2009
The drawing was based on a school book about the Second World War. The speech bubble reads “F*** the war”

The drawing was based on a school book about the Second World War. The speech bubble reads “F*** the war”

Few neighbourhoods in Europe burnish their self-image as bastions of anti-fascism and anti-racism as proudly as Rome’s San Lorenzo. The old working-class district south-east of Termini Station is full of students, artists, anarchists and leftist radicals.

As Italy marked Liberation Day on Saturday, San Lorenzo’s scruffily vibrant streets were vivid with graffiti and posters recalling Italy’s anti-Nazi resistance.

But no-one seemed to turn a hair at the Nazi-style caricature of a Jew dominating a corner of the main shopping street, Via Tiburtina. Underneath is another poster advertising an event commemorating Italy’s liberation from Nazism with the words “Rome Does Not Forget”.

The manager of the branch of the Banca di Credito Cooperativa di Roma, unwillingly hosting the image, preferred not to express a personal opinion or give his name. He said he could not remove the poster because the bank rented the premises and did not own the wall. Moreover, he did not want to “get involved in politics ... especially in San Lorenzo”. No-one had complained, though, not even his handful of Orthodox Jewish customers.

In San Lorenzo, fascist graffiti is usually removed immediately. But in a district generally pro-Palestinian, the poster and its verbal message (‘f*** the war’) are seen merely as a protest against the Gaza War. One street artist called it “a powerful pacifist image”, though others thought it “confused”.

For another opinion, I sent a photograph of the poster to David Cesarani, visiting professor at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington.

He said: “This disgusting caricature deliberately, or perhaps inadvertently, draws on the most grotesque imagery from Nazi times and before. It’s doubly shocking to see this in a city from which over 1,000 Jews were deported to death camps.”

He thought tolerance of the image in San Lorenzo reflected “the belated coming to terms with the past” in Italy. Until the late 1990s, the Italian consensus was that antisemitism was a German import and Italian fascism had not been intrinsically antisemitic except during the Salo republic.

But recent research proves that antisemitism pervaded Italian fascism “from the word go”.

Mussolini was prone to making antisemitic comments from the time of the First World War, and when his regime passed anti-Jewish laws and began expropriating Jewish property, Italians were as eager to steal Jewish businesses as anyone.

“It’s a myth that Italians boycotted antisemitism. They did not. We have reports from foreign embassies and from the Vatican in 1938, 1939 and 1940 remarking on the degree to which the population was buying into antisemitism,” said Professor Cesarani.

“What they read in their history is that the struggle against fascism is a struggle against monopoly capitalism, against imperialism. They don’t read about antisemitism or the fate of Italian Jews — except in the context of German atrocities. And after the war the Left simply expunged antisemitism. It wasn’t deliberate blindness. It was just that the Marxism-Leninism of the time had no time for religion, the Jews and so on. It included the Jews as victims of fascism — not as Jews but as citizens. So there is no tradition of acknowledging the specific fate of Jews.”

The young man who created the Via Tiburtina poster seems blithely unaware of almost any of this.

He is a 25-year-old street artist from Ascoli who calls himself “Urka”. “He is very cynical and against everything,” said one of his colleagues, “but he’s not antisemitic.”

On his MySpace page, Urka describes himself as single, atheist and “immoral”. His ethnicity is “other”. In a telephone interview, Urka explained that his image was of a rabbi and was designed to speak for Jews opposed to the Israeli government. The drawing was based on “vignettes” and “satires” remembered from a school history book about the Second World War.

On another website, a young Israeli told him: “We don’t really look like this.” Urka wrote: “Are you Jewish? Trust me, I really have nothing against you… it is just a game of contradictions and stereotypes, and I have to use some icons to launch the message…nothing about Jewish… nothing about Islam… only f*** the war! So… love and peace for you, I hope you will understand.”

Last updated: 4:35pm, September 23 2009