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Scarlet and black

Scarlet and black
The Italian revisionist controversy
Tobias Abse


he consequences of the gradual loss of a collective historical memory in those
parts of the European continent most closely integrated into the circuits of
global capital and most subject to cultural Americanization grow increasingly
threatening. As those of us opposed to postmodernism have reiterated to the few who
would still extend us the courtesy of actually listening to historical-materialist
arguments, in a relativist world of free-floating discourses Holocaust denial is as
suasive a historical narrative as any other, as was confirmed by the elevation of Franjo
Tudjman to the status of world statesman in 1995.

The end of the Cold War has brought the measure of anti-fascist consensus created
by the Allied victory in 1945 to an end. The false equation of the tottering Eastern
European regimes of the 1980s with the Third Reich at the height of its power, so
prevalent amongst the Western intelligentsia, is making rational historical – and hence
political and moral – discussion increasingly difficult. It is bitterly ironic that 1995, the
fiftieth anniversary of the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, was marked by a sustained
intellectual onslaught on the legacy of the European resistance movements and antifascism in general, the continental spread of which proved much wider than the
German Historikerstreit which developed around the fortieth anniversary in the wake
of Ronald Reagan’s nauseating celebration of the SS dead at Bitburg. Whilst Ernst
Nolte has hardly retreated into academic seclusion, this time the leading protagonists
came from France and Italy, where resurgent fascist movements have made greater
headway than the German Republikaner. Although it would be dangerously simplistic
to conflate the work of historians in the three major Western European countries, in
some ways it is now difficult to regard Nolte, Fran90is Furet and Renzo De Felice as
anything other than ‘The Three Faces of Revisionism’.

De Felice in context
The Italian debate is of particular interest in the light of what Lucio Magri is still
rather optimistically calling ‘The Resistible Rise of the Italian Right’ , a Right in which
Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale (AN) has clearly achieved hegemony over
Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. The considerable success of Renzo De Felice’s Rosse
e Nero (‘Red and Black’) – a text which has gone through three editions in a matter of
months – is both a product of Italy’s changing political climate and a significant
cultural event. For it is likely further to undermine the Republic born of the
Resistance, the burial of which Fini is plotting with the wholehearted backing of
Massimo D’ Alema, an ex-Communist desperate to form a coalition with a barely
disguised fascist party for the sole purpose of replacing Italy’s parliamentary
democracy – already gravely wounded by the regressive electoral reform of 1993 that
virtually eliminated proportional representation – with a French-style presidentialism


Radical Philosophy 77 (May/June1996)

spectacularly ill-suited to a country lacking France’s democratic traditions.

Rosso e Nero is not really a new departure in terms of De Felice’ s previous
scholarly or popular output. The author of what is bound to be the longest biography
of Mussolini ever written – a veritable ‘Monument to the Duce’ (Denis Mack Smith) is no stranger to vigorous public controversy. Rosso e Nero is only the latest in a long
series of attempts on De Felice’s part to denigrate the Italian Resistance and diminish
the significance of anti-fascism, in order partially to rehabilitate the Fascist regimenot overtly, of course, but by implication; not by anything so risky as an open and
unambiguous apologia, but by stealth, employing the entire rhetorical armoury of
every devious Christian Democratic politician of the First Republic. The first of his
interventions that was accessible to a lay audience outside the Italian historical
profession was his Intervista sulfascismo (1975). This book-length interview, the
format of which prefigures Rosso e Nero, had a considerable impact on the 1976
general election campaign, and it is probable that Rosso e Nero will play a similar role
as a focus of intellectual discussion in the campaign opened by President Scalfaro’ s
dissolution of the Italian Parliament on 16 February 1996.

Disingenuously disavowing Fini
Rosso e Nero is all the more dangerous for De Felice’s apparent distancing of himself
from Fini and the AN. De Felice has always masqueraded as an anti-Communist, antiCatholic, Cold War liberal democrat of a surprisingly Anglo-American and thoroughly
un-Italian type. This political posture is closely connected to his claim to be an
empiricist who courageously follows the documents wherever they lead, without any
preconceived ideas or ideological bias. Occasional journalistic pronouncements made
long before Fini’s much-vaunted transformation of the unashamedly neo-fascist MSI
into the allegedly post-fascist AN cast some doubt on the credibility of De Felice’s
overt politics; he announced in the Corriere della Sera as early as 27 December 1987
that ‘It is plain that the great alternative of Fascism and anti-Fascism now falls. It does
not make sense any more either in public consciousness or in the reality of the daily
political struggle.’

However, in Rosso e Nero, De Felice equates AN’s changed attitude towards antifascism with the changed attitude to anti-Communism on the part of the PDS (Party of
the Democratic Left), only to mock at both transmutations. He affects to criticize AN
for using the discussion of the 1943-45 period solely as a means of rehabilitating the
RSI, and distances himself from Fini’ s astonishing thesis that Mussolini was the
greatest statesman of the twentieth
century, believing, according to
his interviewer, that Churchill
should bear this palm instead.

Moreover, in sharp contrast to
both the French revisionist Furet
and Britain’s foremost right-wing
historian, Norman Stone, De
Felice is at great pains to keep his
distance from Nolte. His defence
of his own variety of revisionism
stresses that it cannot be equated
with Holocaust denial, relativism
and justificationism; the notorious
German is never named, but his
lurking presence would be evident
to any informed Italian reader,


because Nolte’s most controversial text, on The European Civil War, was rapidly
translated into Italian, doubtless finding a ready market amongst AN’s more hard-line

Not all the controversial statements in Rosso e Nero are untrue. A vigorous defence
of the Resistance legacy against resurgent fascism and its intellectual fellow-travellers
does not entail upholding every piety ever advanced by historians sympathetic to the
old Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI). For example, De Felice’s demonstration that
Togliatti’s new line of March 1944 was dictated by Stalin in February, and that
Togliatti lied about the date of his departure from Moscow in order to obfuscate this,
came as no surprise to those of us who always saw the PCI leader as a Stalinist, albeit a
shrewd and flexible one. Likewise, De Felice’s uncharacteristically sane and nuanced
discussion of Mussolini’s alleged anti-Semitism, whilst it may annoy some Italian
leftists along with Jewish scholars like Carpi and Steinberg, is an admirable summary
of the current state of knowledge on a vexed question. The fact that this discussion is
prominently situated at the very end of the text for clearly instrumental reasons, and is
implicitly designed to amplify the distance between Mussolini and Hitler, should not
lead us to reject its substance.

An apologia for 5alo
Nevertheless, there is plenty in Rosso e Nero with which to take issue. Perhaps the most
outrageous assertion – namely, that Mussolini’s assassination was ordered by an
English secret agent because of his possession of compromising letters from Churchill is surreptitiously slipped into the text and is unsupported by any evidence. Inserted, as it
is, in a rambling anecdotal discussion about the nature and fate of Mussolini’s diaries,
the charge bears an uncanny resemblance to the tactics of subliminal advertising. Whilst
the exact details of who shot Mussolini, and precisely where and when the deed was
done, may remain a little blurred, as Giorgio Bocca and others have pointed out, the
essence of the matter is that the partisans shot him out of a desire for vengeance upon a
tyrant and from a longing to redeem Italian national honour from the taint of twenty
years of submissiveness, and not on the instructions of a foreign power. De Felice is
helping to create for future generations of fascists a legend of a national hero murdered
by foreign spies, and knows full well the resonances that this blatant, if totally
unacknowledged, reworking of the myth of Che Guevara would have amongst
adherents to the Third Position variant of fascism.

Another, almost equally absurd, contention is that Mussolini returned to Italy from
Germany to head the Salo Republic out of pure patriotism, to stop Hitler turning Italy
into another Poland. Whilst the motivation adduced by De Felice may have played
some role, to deny that Mussolini had any desire for revenge against the monarchy, the
Church and the aristocracy responsible for his overthrow on 25 July 1943, or that he
had any remaining belief in fascist ideology, is grotesque, especially in view of the very
last interview he gave, on 20 April 1945. Whilst the restored Mussolini was
intermittently deeply depressed and arguably in some senses a rather tragic figure, to
present the ageing dictator as a selfless Italian patriot would be risible, were it not so
politically dangerous in an era in which Fini’s support is growing by the week. De
Felice adopts a typically shifty and ambiguous position in answer to the question he
poses, of whether Mussolini’s alleged choice – returning home to help the Italian
people – was the right one for him to have made, stressing that Mussolini obtained
some of his objectives but paid too high a price.

Overall, De Felice argues that Salo had its good side, attacking the ‘historiographical
myopia’ of those who contest this. Two conspicuous examples of this good side,
apparently, were the philosopher Giovanni Gentile and the ‘black prince’ Junio Valerio
Borghese. De Felice asserts that he is not engaged in rehabilitating Gentile, before


proceeding to do precisely that. Gentile allegedly believed in ‘national reconciliation’

and only gave his allegiance to the RSI because of his long-standing personal links
with the Duce. In De Felice’s hagiographical version, Gentile was supposedly killed to
thwart his noble efforts at conciliation, and not because of his status as the official
philosopher of the regime. Like Mussolini, he was apparently the victim of a plot
organized by British intelligence.

Whilst one has long since grown weary of contemporary Italian intellectuals being
more preoccupied with the killing of a Fascist ideologue like Gentile than with the
mass murder of innocent civilians by Germans and RSI forces, De Felice’s enthusiasm
for Prince Borghese strikes a rather more original note. Borghese, we are informed,
was a patriotic soldier first and foremost. A concern for national honour, not Fascist
ideology, led him to choose the RSI rather than the monarchy. De Felice predictably
stresses his role in fighting Tito and tries, somewhat unconvincingly, to argue that he
was in serious conflict with both the Germans and the ideological Fascists. Needless to
say, his decades of continuing participation in conspiratorial anti-democratic politics,
culminating in his leadership of a failed coup d’etat in 1970, are omitted from the

De Felice’s offensive against the Resistance is conducted with a little more subtlety
than are his eulogies of the selfless patriot Mussolini and the martyred Gentil~. One
familiar prong of attack is the numbers game: he minimizes the number of partisans
and argues that the combined strength of Resistance fighters and Salo supporters left
active participants in the Civil War very much in the minority, with the bulk of the
Italian people being politically apathetic. A second tactic is unconditionally to support
the Anglo-American military hierarchy’s case against the Italian Resistance as
harming the war effort through their political demands; whilst a third is to eulogize
Pizzoni as a banker, patriot and war hero in order to attack all the left-wing Resistance
politicians who marginalized him before 25 April 1945. De Felice’s virulent hostility
to the Azionista Resistance leader Ferruccio Parri, whom he portrays as a Communist
dupe, indicates the spurious nature of the historian’s attempt to link himself with a
non-Communist, non-Catholic, Third Force tradition in Italian politics rather than with
AN, to which he is objectively so much closer.

In the present political context, it is important to underline Rosso e Nero’ s attempt
to ascribe a positive value to patriotism and the idea of the Nation, concepts at the very
heart of Fini’s world-view. De Felice argues that the Second World War weakened the
Italians’ sense of patriotism and that this was a negative development. De Felice is
extraordinarily ambivalent about the notion of a constitutional patriotism, as distinct
from the traditional patriotism totally compromised by Fascism. Whilst he claims that
he is not blaming the democratic constitution born of the Resistance for Tangentopoli
(Bribesville), or the ills of the First Republic, he makes no secret of his support for
presidentialism. It is worth stressing that when this interview was given, support for
presidentialism was far less widespread outside the ranks of the AN than it is now, and
that De Felice, as well as D’ Alema, might well have played a key role in shifting the
intellectual consensus towards authoritarianism.

Friday-Sunday 12-14 July 1996
University of Northumbria at Newcastle

For further details contact: Lorna Kennedy – CSE 96
School of Social, Political and Economic Sciences, University of Northumbria at Newcastle,
Northumberland Building, Sandyford Road, Newcastle Upon Tyne NE1 8ST
Tel: 0191 2274937 Fax: 0191 2273189 E-mail:


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