All hail the royal soldier

16 Mins read

Amid the traditions that build on the concept of ‘Italian culture’, are surely those big, obligatory family lunches, gathering all the degrees of relatives in one room for an extended amount of hours.

Generally, those convivial reunions will consist of too many dishes, result of an atavistic need for abundance, and of people speaking one over another, until one voice will stand out, prompting the chitchat to hush.

The grandmother is telling a story.

Grandmothers are, for sure, both the most feared and loved figures in Italian society. Their conviction of not deeming a meal such if it does not include every single canonical course, will lead to a forced consumption experience going from the aperitif to starters, to pasta— that they rigorously handmade early in the morning— to more pasta, to many insistent “did you not like it?” when, saturated, you spear the last forkful and keep dragging it around the plate, afraid of what will happen both if you eat it and if you do not.

Then on to a main, to a side — not salad, salad is just there and gets all the unimpressed looks — to dessert, to chocolates in a wicker basket passed around in silent resignation as their eagle eyes follow its journey, making sure everybody takes from it, to coffee, to a reprimand.

You didn’t eat a thing.

My grandmother, despite mostly lying outside the stereotype of an Italian over-affectionate nonna, abides by it in her favoured family meals of the kind as set for her monologues full of past recollections.

Occasion to catch up with relatives you have not seen since the last imposed festivity, the never-ending luncheons will often see my grandmother take the stage, for how, albeit always content to listen to your accomplishments, smiling and in silence, she severely loathes the attention shifting from her for too long.

Whenever this happens, and she has already exhausted her informational news-telling, she will hit the ground running with stories from her youth, conveniently forgetting how we already know them by heart.

My grandmother does not love to cook. The compulsory multiple courses for her are, just as the pre-emptive excuses about the mismatched chairs gathered from the kitchen and the living room and brought to the dining area to sit this degenerate overabundance of family, more than anything a result of the worry of having people around and having to fulfil the duty of being the best host there is. All with the purpose, of course, to ward off criticism that nobody would ever dare move anyway.

My grandmother, born in 1925, probably one of the strongest and most intelligent people I know, undoubtedly the person who could solve advanced level crosswords — if you are Italian: the Battezzaghis on the weekly puzzle magazine — more quickly than anyone else even when writing with her left hand, finds, in the chance to be able to share moments from her younger days, a personal anchor in the tempestuous sea that is the world in present times.

Her revisiting of acquaintances and situations from different times, not remotely relevant to the discourse at hand or the people present and listening, often seems to me a sort of displacement activity for when she realises in this contemporary reality she is not as in control, not in the known.

Not as at the forefront, slightly bent by life events, slightly crumpled — but not too much, all things considered — she recounts without respite, and like that she relives a younger body, younger lineaments, which had started to acquire authority rather than losing it amid the wrinkles. And like that she finds her personal balance, after being caught unprepared by superstructures — in a Marxist sense — of modern conception.

Lady in the streets of Italy

Lady in the streets of Italy [Flickr:Nicola Romagna]

My grandmother lived her youth with the war in her eyes. You will happily find her reminiscing about that period of time, about how she lived on her own in a foreign town, studying to become a teacher in periods where school education was not an obligatory passage.

About how she would use the money the family sent her, destined to buy clothes to survive the school terms, to instead buy books with fancy covers in leather that could be disguised as stylish purses.

About how she would dress up to go to military parades, in the coquettish hope to catch some soldier’s eye. Only, every anecdote feels incredibly detached from the context it was happening in, from the raging war that meanwhile was mauling a country.

And whenever she does recount about the war, about the bombings, and deportation, and the liberation by the Allies, and soldiers in military attire bringing candies to children consumed to the bones by ration books, dreadful instrument of autarky to portion food and existence, she does it in such small doses that feel like little Freudian slips and not at all like real situations she suffered through, harbingers of awkward impassivity as they are.

I do know about her having to knock on strangers’ doors to find refuge when the bomb alarm went off and she found herself in the streets. About her losing friends in a bomb attack as they were attending a party of the former Gioventù Italiana del Littorio — Italian youth association akin to those of the Hitler’s Youth — in our small town, target in November 1943 of military obstruction raids.

About her being caught sitting on the balcony of her house by a German soldier, outside during curfew hours, shotgun between shoulder blades, and being miraculously spared, probably for her young age. And yet I struggle to tie it all with her mundane stories, and even more with the war I read and drew up for myself from history books.

In my listening mind, probably in a very simplistic way, two separate worlds paint themselves. I imagine a world during the Second World War, with streets devastated by the bombs, invaded by the military and people in misery, and that one is both faded and bold; faded like a photograph with a sepia tint of sadness and bold of the dates they have you know by heart in school.

Then I imagine another world where my grandmother, with no worries if not those customary for a young adult, ordinarily walked down those same streets now intact, lively, populated by men in bowler hats and women in Prada-esque mid-heels. And I often fail to remember it was all happening at the same time.

Having had a grandfather on the other side of the family fighting as a partisan on the Karst Plateau— a grandfather I have never met but whose war stories, of deeds and then of wretched, cruel duties were preserved in the family, my grandmother’s memories, from which she de-inserts herself, always feel, in stark contrast, most irregular. Whenever the war is mentioned, she results rather thrifty, speaking little on the matter. Very little, for such a loquacious person.

But as I realise these memories could have annihilated her or made her disappear, every time I am there, egoistically grasping for more.

Vittorio Emanuele III d'Italia portrait

Vittorio Emanuele III d’Italia [Flickr:The Lost Gallery]

A few weeks ago, Italy brought back on its soil the remains of one of the leading players of that war. Vittorio Emanuele III of Savoy, King of Italy from 1900 to 1946, deceased in Egypt where he had been exiled after the end of the Second World War, was brought back to the country on a flight of the National Air Force to be buried in a sanctuary in Piemonte — the former Savoy — together with his wife, Queen Elena. Coming as an important historical moment, to tie the loose ends of a troubled period for the country, this event has had on Italians the same effect my grandmother’s stories have on me: we do not know exactly what to do with it.

Italy as a unified country is an extremely young entity. Nevertheless, we have an overexcited sense of duty and love for the nation. The Reign of Italy was proclaimed only in 1861, and Vittorio Emanuele III was its king for 46 years, until he abdicated in favour of his son Umberto II after Italy lost the war.

He has deep roots in the history of the country: celebrated as the ‘royal soldier’, he fought in both World Wars, succeeding in the First and crushed in the Second, into which an underprepared Italy was dragged beside Hitler by interventionist Duce Mussolini, founder and leader of fascism.

Vittorio Emanuele III was just a man. A man with incredible privilege and power, surely, but just a man, nonetheless. And since he was a man, then there must be a way to avoid Manichaeism and find a middle-ground between celebrating his figure and holding him accountable for everything evil happened in Italy during wartime.

It was Voltaire — before Spider-Man — who said that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power: with his inability to honour his duty to protect and firmly guide his country, Vittorio Emanuele III paved indissolubly the way to fascism as a regime.

It took Mussolini to forcedly ask for the control of the government to obtain it. In 1922, after the ‘March over Rome’, an armed manifestation where the National Fascist Party, using violence, attempted to gain the country’s control, Vittorio Emanuele III did not proclaim the state of siege.

Weakly, cowardly, subdued to Mussolini’s refusal to compromise and to the support the fascist leader and his party had among Italian society and politics, he did not fight the violent ascent.

Later, he facilitated it, signing the Leggi Fascistissime, laws which allowed Mussolini to transform the Italian Reign into an authoritarian State with nationalist, imperialist traits.

In Italy, we are acutely cognizant of the Second World War. Or, at least, we think we are. Cognizant of one of the worst periods in the history of united Italy, that left a population on its knees. Cognizant of fascism, this plague to our country that, however, we apparently leave behind with Mussolini’s execution and the liberation of deportation camps. Cognizant of the war only as a terrible thing happened in the past, with no correlation or collusion to present contingencies.

Vittorio Emanuele III is brought back, celebrated as a former royal. Around the event, there is such a baffling silence and lack of critical questioning that is almost deafening. Like my grandmother’s stories possess a feeling of detachment, so does the war, its perpetrators and its ideologies in the Italians’ perception.

We have brought Vittorio Emanuele III back, out of the blue, for “humanitarian reasons”. The dean of the sanctuary where the king was buried said, on the main Italian TV channel, that “It is a page of history for the country, and for the two characters [the King and the Queen, a/n] also somewhat a post-mortem reunion after 51 years of marriage,” justifying, as you do, the ecclesiastic forgiveness in celebration of a sacrament.

We have brought him back incredibly close to the Memorial Day for the victims of the Holocaust, to the anniversary of the signing of the Racial Laws, of his signing and approving of the Racial Laws in discrimination of the Jews, which first preposition was “human races do exist” and second “there are better and worse races”.

Incredibly close to the day memory of the victims of the Fosse Ardeatine, the mass killing massacre happened in Rome by the hand of German troops in 1944, where 335 between civilians, men, women, soldiers, Jews and prisoners were executed and left in the Ardeatine Caves. Too close to the day in memorial of the victims of the foibe, the caves where Italian victims of attacks by members of the Yugoslavian popular committee of liberation were thrown throughout the war.

And thus, amid some distressed left-wing statements and besides the obvious indignation of the Italian Jew community, where is the uproar? There is a strain of thoughts this happening could have generated, not necessarily in contestation but at least in awareness and reflection, yet the popular reaction was minimum. For how we are a country that supposedly loves its history and culture, what do we exactly do as a nation and then as individuals with the memory we have built, even indirectly, from events in the past? And what do we build our historical memory for, if we do not do anything with it?

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany

Mussolini and Hitler in Munich [Flickr:Marion Doss]

Vittorio Emanuele III gave up the throne in May 1946, passing the crown on to his son Umberto II. The popular consensus, however, was long lost. After the military situation turned extremely negative for Italy, in 1943, he had Mussolini arrested, seeking support from anti-fascist organisations, in a last — and failed — attempt at saving the monarchy. He ultimately left after signing the armistice with the Allies in September of the same year. It was when Italian troops were left without guidance, without orders, at a loss, and Italy was bombed both by the Germans and the Allies fighting each other, and transformed into a battlefield for 20 painful, long months.

Betrayed by its king, in June 1946 Italy chooses with a referendum — in what is considered the most pivotal moment in Italian history — the Republic. The Savoy leave Italy, Vittorio Emanuele dies in Egypt, where he was exiled, the day after the signing of the Italian Constitution. He was, probably, the only Italian who did not fall in love with it.

As this piece of history was brought back to the surface, I tried to imagine myself attending the ceremonial mass and the burial, and couldn’t. I decided to ask a couple of people who took part in it why they did so, their answers varying from “He is Italian,” to “He is part of our history,” and “70 years have by now passed.”

Aldo Alessandro Mola, president of the board of the Senators of the Reign, denying accuses of secrecy in the operation and in answer to the Jew community asking for erasure of the king’s figure, claimed that “the hope is for this comeback to Italy to bring [us] to share the historical memory and vision,” without exactly specifying what vision we are supposed to share. Because if it is one of condemnation and awareness, it has not really worked.

Right now, the political situation in Italy is the most delicate it has been in years, and it serves the purpose to show how we do not fully know and understand hateful ideologies, and so let them repeat themselves until it is too late.

We stay silent, while in the rest of Italy organisations sympathising — or openly tied —with fascism gain more and more associates, the same violent, hateful tendencies of the past are perpetuated, and a party like the North League, with a programme of intolerance towards specific groups of people like the immigrants, runs for the government.

Then we have an occasion to spark discourse, but we fail to be critical. We systematically assemble composed and moving ceremonies in commemoration on the imposed date of the Holocaust Memorial Day, but when given a chance to act and transcend the formalities, we stay put.

Because “70 years have passed,” and so only a few people, those who were there to witness a brutal tragedy, are left outraged at this historical memento forced upon us. Vittorio Emanuele III: brought back for this undefined concept of historical memory when he should have been brought back for a collective assumption of responsibility, in a world, at large, that loves justification.

Instead, bringing him back now, with these modalities, is a form of justification. Bringing him back now, in the Catholic boot, with the burial in an assumption of sins, is a form of justification. Letting the Savoy family— a family that could have used its influence to redeem the name of an exiled dynasty and instead got involved in major scandals long after the end of the war — ask for a burial in the Pantheon, is a form of justification.

The Pantheon, Roman church, close to places soaked with the history of Italian Jews, is where royals were destined to be buried. But it is also where many influential people in various fields of culture are commemorated.

It is where Victor Hugo, and Marie Curie, and Braille, and Voltaire are buried. After all, how to deny how both Voltaire and Vittorio Emanuele III offered a disillusioned vision of the world. Only, Voltaire’s was philosophical, Vittorio Emanuele’s practical: he gave the keys of Italy to fascism, that brought the worst world conflict to the country he was the leader of. And that finally brought the Republic.

As a country that cherishes the Republic as if it was the most successful completion of a national collective wish, the little interest in the whole business is stupefying. It made me realise we evidently do not remember the last effective Italian king enough in history to know his shortcomings, which in turn made me realise I never knew how my grandmother voted in the referendum, which made me call and ask her.

I only had to ask to feel her hesitate and finally break a little, while she tried to keep her voice rigorous, and I imagined her face of inscrutable professor drawing from old memories, mind a quiet tremble, making me regret doing it on the phone, doing it in general. Bringing back times and people long gone, gone forever from this earth, recounted in glimpses of hurt amid control, a meld of sufferance and sense of preservation.

She voted for the monarchy. As I first tried to make peace with and excuses for the fact my grandmother, one very liberal person, did not vote for the Republic, I finally came to the full core and resolution of the whole question: I do not have full cognition of the events of the time, and can only try and understand.

I do not know what it was like to live in a monarchist family, like she did, if they truly still had faith in the royals or if, among the other things that were in need to be rebuilt after the war, they did not want to add the political identity.

What it was like to have to think of starting a family – my grandmother had her first child in 1945 — mourn the losses, being allowed to think of the future but left scarred of doing so, in residual fear to have hopes destroyed in an explosion.

However, I am willing to try and understand.

As she told me she voted for the monarchy, amid a tired tirade of obvious disdain on the cowardly acts of the King and an angered reprimand — of motherly instincts — for leaving his responsibilities behind and his son in charge of his mess, I suddenly knew that this comeback brought back to my grandmother memories that sometimes I feel like she prefers not to remember at all.

The Pantheon in Rome, Italy.

The Pantheon Church in Rome [Flickr:Alex Ranaldi]

But we do need to remember. And I needed that tirade, to help forming thoughts, to have a chance to make up my mind, sensibly. We have roads and schools named after the king; we are not critical enough of characters and events because they are buried back in the past together with the victims whose blood their hands are, even if indirectly, dirty of.

And once again we waste a chance to condemn and understand. President of the Senate — one of the two chambers in the Italian Parliament — Piero Grasso has said that “no one is trying to do revisionism; it is an act of compassion with no public honour”. I am, however, not entirely sure how can we talk of revisionism when there is an issue that runs deeper, deep in our national conscience, in the way we see our country. We do not know our history. We do not care anymore.

In Once There Was a War, finding he has forgotten all about a war he lived through, John Steinbeck wondered whether it was better to forget, since wars, those accidents our society is so prone to, cannot even teach us anything.

I have asked people what do they think of the whole Vittorio Emanuele III ordeal, and apart from a few rhetorical “we need memory to learn from our mistakes,” somebody told me that “there are more important questions,” and that “it is useless discussing fascism 80 years later.”

But if “there are more important questions,” it means we fail to learn from anything. We say it is not useful to discuss fascism in these days and age, but there has been an act of fascist terrorism in Italy that is only days old. Issues evolve and matters of power evolve and transform: it does not mean they dissolve.

We approach everything with the gloves of morality, often mitigating terror and implications in actions and decisions, but moral and ethics are two different concepts: as Socrates said, humanity will do naturally good if it knows what is bad. And we do not know. We do not know anything.

We disregard knowledge, unable to make something of it, and we do not find ourselves anymore. We lose ourselves. And we do not know how to justify what happens. Some man shot at immigrants in the streets of an Italian town a few days ago, then did the fascist salute wrapped in an Italian flag. Where did that come from? Where does the fascist ideology come from? We don’t care. It happened 80 years ago.

Vittorio Emanuele III came back. We don’t care. He died 70 years ago. He signed the fascist laws, the racial laws, moulded on those laws decided by Eichmann and the heads of the SS and the handsomely paid lawyers, all sitting around a table, surrounded by precious pottery, silver and crystal. We do not care.

A few weeks ago, Attilio Fontana, a centre-right candidate running for the presidency of the Lombardy region, said that “we can’t accept everyone,” referring to the immigrants arriving in Italy. Apparently, it is because “if we accept everyone we wouldn’t exist anymore as a social reality, as ethnic reality,” and then to conclude, “we need to decide whether our ethnicity, our white race, our society, must continue to exist.”

And to avoid the similarity to a certain manifesto and the gravity of the claims being lost in matters of language and translation, it needs to be clarified that in Italy if you say the world “race” it is hard not to come off as, well, a racist.

We do not care.

History, witness of existence, is the human finish line. But the truth is we do not always know our history, we do not understand fully how it moulded the present. We like to think we do, because we have learned our lesson, because we are less stupid than we were.

Yet the world we live in, that we like to paint as progressive, seems only doing one step forward for every two backwards. After all, ‘there is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance’.

Theoretical chronology lets history float in front of your eyes, without giving you a chance to internalise, while depictions of war in reports and in the letters from the time, in biographies and essays, in when in school they make you read Primo Levi, watch Life is Beautiful or Liam Neeson in the guise of Oskar Schindler crumbling to the ground, holding a golden pin in mourning of “one more person”, give a romanticist, historical tragicisation that hits you in the guts in realisation of the most significant humanity failures. A product of trauma, pain and fear, left for us in inheritance, but still a product of creative wit.

It is not enough.

Anti-semitism happened 80 years ago, true. But it was in Europe, in a society that brandished its civilisation after the cultural developments of the assembly in Weimar, yet in a society that sung the hosannas to men who grabbed the power easily with violence, that violence was an instrument good enough — to quote Hannah Arendt — in the sad banality of evil.

And 80 years later we still fall, always caught in the hands of those violent occurrences. And in every one of these occurrences, there is a disarming universality touching on the same tragedy: it is dehumanisation, nullifying of men, purpose in annihilating a specific group of people. And we are faulty of acceptation.


Then we think, then we realise, and then, sometimes, we grow up. But only sometimes.






Featured image by Nick Kenrick on Flickr.

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