Morality and the Italian Civil War:
An Interview with Stanislao Pugliese

Franco Baldasso

After more than 20 years, Claudio Pavone’s A Civil War: A History of the Italian Resistance, recognized as a masterpiece of Italian historiography, has been translated into English. Stanislao Pugliese, professor of history at Hofstra University, edited this 700-page magnum opus and added a detailed introduction, making available for the first time to the American reading public the historical and moral complexity of this fascinating research.

When first published in Italy in 1991, Una guerra civile. Saggio sulla moralità della Resistenza was a groundbreaking cultural event. The book challenged the shared memory of WWII, and set out new directions for historical research on this troublesome past. Born in Rome in 1920, Pavone had been a partisan fighting against Fascist occupation in the last years of the war, and subsequently participated in Italian politics with anti-Fascist forces. Well known among historians for his work with the Italian state archives and national commissions for the history of the Resistance, Pavone assembled in his work an outstanding array of diverse sources, from unpublished memoirs to military reports. In his research, he critically analyzed individual and collective sources from the anti-Fascist side, but, for the first time, he also excavated from the forgotten past voices of the vast majority of Italians, who had accepted and collaborated with Mussolini’s regime. He focused on those who followed Mussolini until the very end, even after the inevitability of the regime’s end became clear. Pavone’s book argued that the last two years of WWII in Italy were characterized by a civil war, the factions, divisions, and profound wounds of which are still not healed today. Through such a broad spectrum of testimonies, A Civil War elicits questions that anticipate many crucial tenets of more recent scholarship. The historian addresses the core problem of any civil war—not only the traumas of war and national defeat, but also the moral accountability of political violence. In his own formulation: “How and why is violence justified when it must be carried out without a clear, institutional legitimacy?” Pavone’s reappraisal of the 1943-45 civil war carefully differentiates, and starkly refuses any equation, between Resistance and Fascist violence. His thorough examination still constitutes the best counter-argument to any political falsification of WWII history in Italy today.

I recently met with Pugliese, and asked him about the book, its long journey into English, and about his own research on history and ethics.

Franco Baldasso (FB): Why translate Una guerra civile after 20 years? Why is it so relevant today?

Stanislao Pugliese (SP):
As you know, the book came out in 1991. At that point I was a graduate student in Italian history, and it was almost immediately recognized as a landmark, a new way of doing Italian history. It was in a certain sense a more objective, maybe a more Anglo-Saxon, way. The problem was that while it had made a great impression on Italian culture and Italian society, the book was not available in English. And so about 10 years ago I embarked on this odyssey to get the book published in an English translation, which for whatever reason had not been done. I thought it was important for English-language readers to have access to this work, because it displayed the sophistication and complexity of a certain Italian historiography that is otherwise not accessible for people who cannot read Italian. And so why is it relevant today, even though it’s more than 20 years since its publication? I think precisely for that reason. In America, especially in graduate schools, Italian history and Italian historiography have been relegated to second-class citizenship, and a lot of American scholars and intellectuals think that cutting-edge work is done only in France, or only in Germany. The translation of Pavone’s study was an attempt to show that really sophisticated work is being done in Italy as well.

Yes, in Italy this landmark publication engendered a number of discussions, and some controversy … in your introduction you mentioned the convoluted story of its translation. Can you say something about that?

 I had been trying to get it published here in New York in an English translation. It didn’t work. At one point the University of California had commissioned a translation by Peter Levy, who did a fine translation, but then at some point California decided not to publish it, for whatever reason. I was never told. But they very kindly and very generously gave me the English text, even though the translator had died in the meantime, and they signed over the rights. And so eventually I found a publisher in New York and in London, Verso, a highly regarded academic press, but with impeccable left-wing credentials. They wanted to do it, and I said I would do whatever was necessary to get it published, including writing an introduction for an American audience. And they very kindly allowed me to do that.

Peter Levy had also translated Few Returned: Twenty-Eight Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1942–43, a memoir of an Italian soldier, Eugenio Corti. Unfortunately, by the time I got involved in this project, Levy had already died. There was no way to collaborate with him anymore, but he left a very good English translation. The problem was that, at one point, when the book was just about ready to be published, 200 pages of endnotes disappeared into cyberspace. So Verso had to pay someone to translate 200 pages of endnotes, which they did. And that set the project back one whole year. I did a little bit of editing of the English translation, and I did the introduction. And I think it’s a very, very impressive piece of work.


FB: Also, it looks like a collective work …


SP: A lot of people were involved: publishers, translators—living and dead. So yeah, it was really a monumental project from the beginning to the end.


FB: And how about the author, Claudio Pavone, within this process?


SP: I met Pavone about 10 years ago when we were both in Pescina, a small town in South Italy which is birthplace of the antifascist writer and politician Ignazio Silone. Both of us were there because we received the Silone Prize at the same time—I received it because of my translation of Silone’s Memoir from a Swiss Prison, Pavone for Lifetime Achievement. When we met, I told him I was trying to get the translation done. He was very grateful and very gracious, and I am happy we were able to complete it while he is still alive. He’s more than 91 years old now, and he’s working on his memoirs.


FB: Was he happy about this English translation?


SP: I’m hoping that he was happy. The book was only translated into French. It has not been translated into German or any other languages as far as I know. And you can understand why. It’s 600 pages of text, 200 pages of notes. The writing, while it is clear, is not easy to translate. And I think for whatever language it’s translated into, it will need a substantial introduction because a lot of people are not so familiar with the subject.


FB: You have already partly answered my next question, but can you also say something about its reception in Italy and abroad?


SP: In Italy, there was this big debate about the title, Una guerra civile. Saggio sulla moralità della Resistenza. Previous to Pavone, the phrase “una guerra civile” had been used, or appropriated if you will, only by the right. And there was a certain resistance, to make a pun, to thinking about the Resistance as a civil war. And it was only someone with Pavone’s impeccable left-wing credentials—he was a member of the anti-Fascist resistance movement Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Freedom) and then the liberal socialist political party Partito d’Azione (Action Party)—who was able to allow us to look at the Resistance again in a different way, as a civil war, and as a patriotic war and as a class war.


FB: In your introduction you sketch the context, the prewar histories that informed the Italian Resistance and its effects on the life of the country in the postwar period. Can you expand on these prewar histories?


SP: In Italy—as in France, as in many other European countries after WWII—there was a necessity to create a sort of historical and cultural mythology. In France it was the idea that everybody participated in the Maquis, that we all resisted the Nazis, when we know that wasn’t true. In Italy it was a similar dynamic, in the sense that Italians wanted to recuperate their history as active agents. The Resistance developed as a myth, not in the sense that it wasn’t true, but in a sort of Sorelian sense: it was a narrative that Italians told themselves of the kind of people, culture and society that they wanted to be, even if they didn’t always manage to live up to those high standards. However, it’s important to understand that the left and the members of the Resistance, the protagonists of the Resistance themselves, always understood that there was a kind of mythology around their armed fight for liberating the country. With great honesty, many of them were willing to talk and write about the ambiguities, the moral ambiguities of the Resistance, like Italo Calvino, maybe even Primo Levi and others who were not so directly associated with the Resistance per se. I think it was something similar to the mythology of De Gaulle and the Free French, the Italians had a sort of necessary mythology. But I also believe there was a subterranean corner where historians, scholars, and participants discussed and understood the Resistance not simply as a question of good vs. evil. For participants in the armed struggle, everyday life was much more morally ambiguous, what Primo Levi called “the gray zone” in the context of the Holocaust. One of the great achievements of Pavone’s book is to make us understand that even with the best of intentions, placed in this kind of ambiguous moral context, there are difficult choices to be made. An extraordinary example is his chapter on violence during the Resistance. I think oftentimes this chapter is overlooked because of the book’s main focus on the idea and polemic of “una guerra civile”—not understanding that all of this boils down to moral choices, actions, and violence. Whether to carry out violence or to refrain from it is an exceptional moral decision that individuals have to take, and people working collectively together have to undertake for themselves.


FB: In your introduction, you describe this section of Pavone’s book as “a sophisticated and ambitious chapter on the moral and political nature of violence.” In fact, the legacy of violence of the Ventennio—the 20 years of Fascism—and of WWII, was strong in Italy, at least up through the so-called Anni di piombo (Years of Lead). Roughly spanning from the end of 1960s to 1980, this period was marked by sociopolitical turmoil and widespread act of violence affecting the everyday life of Italians. In those years, extra-parliamentary groups—both from the far-left and the far-right—attempted to subvert the democratic state with systematic kidnapping and terroristic bombings of highly crowded sites in main Italian cities, such as banks, squares and railway stations—ultimately causing hundreds of civilian casualties.


SP: Exactly. And this is where that chapter is really fascinating. Pavone does not explicitly make the connection between the Resistance and the political violence during the Anni di piombo. Still, his careful analysis of the conditions and the moral reasons behind different kinds of violence, his considerations about the morality of violence, help us today to understand better this other difficult page of Italian history. Consider the 1960s and 1970s in Italy, for example, the Red Brigades and the neo-Fascist bombings of Piazza Fontana in Milan, and of the Bologna train station. I find a very disturbing tendency, at least in America, to group together left-wing violence and right-wing violence, whereas they were completely different. Not that I’m justifying left-wing violence, but the left wing had targeted violence, such as assassinations against industrialists or political leaders, whereas right-wing violence was indiscriminate terrorism, bombings that they would then blame on anarchists. Again, I’m not defending left-wing violence, but the argument has to be a bit more morally sophisticated, and I think Pavone’s chapter on violence gives us the tools to think about the Anni di piombo in a different way.


FB: So he’s not just reasoning about the civil war, but also offering a broader perspective for today.


SP: Very much so. And even though Italy today, thankfully, is not racked by the violence of the 1970s, or the strikes, or the kidnapping and murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro, the Red Brigades, or right-wing terrorism. Arguably, there are ideas in Pavone’s book that allow us to understand contemporary Italy, and perhaps also this strange trajectory of Italian history over the last generation or two that is obsessed with consumerism, that is consumed with conformism. And this combination of consumerism and conformism is a terrible, terrible tragedy, I think, for Italian society. Primo Levi in 1972 once said that every age has its own Fascism, that you don’t need Blackshirts in the streets with the manganello (bludgeon) and the castor oil to have Fascism. You don’t need the swastika and the salute to have Fascism. There are other kinds of Fascism, perhaps a little bit more benign, if you will, but they still exist. And there is a moral responsibility to speak out, to be conscious of it, and to act against those kinds of Fascism.


FB: A Civil War also addresses another momentous question related to the Resistance, one that today is too often overlooked—patriotism. Pavone’s groundbreaking thesis is that the Italian Resistance merged three different wars: the civil war, the class war, and the war of the patriots. What is the meaning of this word, patriotism, today?


SP: When the book was published, the question of patriotism caused another polemic in Italy, summarized by the controversy about i ragazzi di Salò (the boys of Salò). After the demise of his regime in 1943, Mussolini established in Northern Italy the “Italian Social Republic.” The Repubblica di Salò—as it was informally known from the small town near Brescia where it was centered—was a Nazi puppet state and eventually defeated in 1945. A number of young men, together with older Fascists, decided to follow Mussolini to Salò and to defend la patria (the fatherland) till death. This whole idea of the ragazzi di Salò offering their lives for the fatherland, together with the controversial interpretation introduced in the early 1990s by historian Ernesto Galli della Loggia, who read the fall of Mussolini on September 8, 1943 as la morte della patria (the death of the fatherland), are absolutely critical. The historical, moral, and political crises that these two questions highlight are like a red thread that runs through Italian recent history. In fact, the question becomes: were these so-called ragazzi di Salò actually patriots in the sense that they argued later on? As they claimed, they were defending la patria from the Allies, but why didn’t they think it was necessary to defend la patria from the Germans? I think it has to be taken with a bit of a grain of salt—moral choices are in fact different. If your choice is to follow Mussolini and to fight with the Germans, you make a morally different choice from that of abandoning your family, your country and your city to go into the countryside and fight against the Germans and the Fascists. I think we would have to be a little suspicious of those people’s arguments, who claim 50, 60 years later that they were acting with the best of intentions.


FB: We are approaching the fundamental question of Pavone’s study. The original title speaks of the “moralità” of the Italian Resistance. What is the meaning of this term, and do you think it’s untranslatable?


SP: I think it is an untranslatable term. The problem is that “morality” in English has a kind of Victorian connotation. It has even a kind of sexual Puritanism. In the simplest sense, however, it’s very clearly a question of choosing—as Pavone maintained in many occasions. It’s similar to what Sartre said during the occupation of France by the Germans, that he was never so free as when he was forced to choose what to do. Let’s not forget that in Italy a minority chose to follow the Nazis and the Fascists, but another minority chose to go with the anti-Fascists and the partisans. The majority probably decided to be attendisti, to wait and see which way the wind was going to blow. And I see that as a kind of moral failure, a moral abdication. One of the great defects of modern society, a tremendous political tragedy is that the citizen is perfectly willing to give up his or her moral prerogatives and let other people decide for him or her. But the period between 1943 to 1945, if you want to use this strange language, afforded a kind of luxury: given a specific context, people could make a decision and choose, what I at least think was the right choice. I’m also willing to acknowledge that these choices oftentimes were morally ambiguous. There’s the famous story that people who joined the Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party) and wore the lapel pin used to point to “PNF” and say, “Per necessità familiare” (out of familial necessity), in the sense that they joined the Fascist party for practical reasons. They wanted to keep their job or what they had. They needed to feed their family. It’s completely understandable. Still, in certain points in history people are forced to make a decision.


FB: It could be one of the reasons why the civil war was in some ways the epic of modern Italy. To this day there are films and books coming out with detailed narratives about the meaning of these two years, much more than about the 20 previous years when Fascism was in Rome.


SP: Yes, the civil war in Italy in 1943–1945, I argue in my introduction, in some ways functions as the Civil War in American history, 150 years ago. In the sense that—this is my theory, though I am not a specialist in American history, just from what I see being an American citizen living in the American culture—we are still fighting the American Civil War. We are still arguing about what is the role of the individual, what is the role of the state, what is the role of patriotism. I don’t want to be facetious but if the South, the Confederacy, lost the war, they still won the battle for American culture. In a certain way the South has a sort of revenge for the loss of the Civil War, politically speaking. A hundred and fifty years later, we are all in some sense molded by the attitudes, by the prejudices, and even by the racism of the South, of the Confederacy. In the same way I think that the civil war in Italy, the Resistance, is going to be like a caesura in Italian history. In some ways it has surpassed the debate about the Risorgimento, as, let’s say, the original sin, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden of Italian history and Italian nationhood. And whether the Risorgimento was a failure, whether the Resistenza was the second Risorgimento, I think we have to move beyond that, and think of the Resistance in a different way. To me as an American of Italian descent, I think it’s interesting to think about it as a kind of comparable anomaly to the American Civil War, and how 150 years from now the Italians are still going to be debating the Resistance and debating Pavone’s book.


FB: Last question. I found it very interesting the way Pavone concludes his preface, claiming that “my research has also been of an autobiographical nature.” What is the relationship between autobiography and history, or between autobiography and historiography?


SP: I was intrigued by this comment in the preface by Pavone, because although I knew Pavone fought as a partisan and had been member of the Partito d’Azione, he does not inject himself into the story. His book is autobiographical in the sense that Pavone was the first one to use, let’s say, daily battle reports, or letters, or similar sources. It’s almost what Clifford Geertz called “thick description,” of the Resistenza, of the partigiani (partisans) in the mountains, or in the fields. And he’s too modest to use the first-person pronoun, I did this or I did that, or even we did this or we did that. It’s very clear that he’s writing from an intense personal experience. Still, he’s able to translate that individual personal experience into something universal. And I think that unlike writers such as Roberto Battaglia, who have written about their role in the Resistance, Pavone manages an extraordinary balancing act between what’s intensely personal and what’s the larger context of this history. By the time you get to 1991, which is about 50 years after the end of WWII, it’s precisely that particular kind of writing that was necessary in order to take a look at this subject with a whole different set of eyes.


FB: The person looking back is also another person, different than the one who was living during the conflict. What do you think Claudio Pavone, the man, is in this book?


SP: For many years Pavone was not an academic historian or in the university. He worked for decades in the archives, so he brings a certain perspective to the Resistance. It’s one deeply immersed in primary sources, and by using those primary sources I think he has created a Weltanschauung, a world view of the kind of composite partigiano. And I think that’s an extraordinary feat. It’s also one of the reasons why it was very difficult to translate his book into English.