Interview: What are the politics of memory and identity?

Interview: What are the politics of memory and identity? picture

The article was created within the H2020 EDUC-SHARE project framework (Working Package 8 "Dissemination and communication”, Task 8.2 “Internships for student journalists in a genuinely scientific environment”).


The politics of memory is not just about what is remembered but also about what is forgotten and left out, says Marco Siddi


What are the politics of memory and identity? How do Italians deal with this particular phenomenon? And what is the myth of a good Italian? Montalcini Assistant Professor Marco Siddi from the University of Cagliari answered these and other questions.

What is the politics of memory and identity, and how would you describe it?


The basic definition of memory of politics is that it's a discursive construction of the past with goals located in the present. Let me explain it in more detail.


The Politics of memory is something different from what we call history in the sense that it's not an attempt to provide an academic or scientific account of the past. It's more of a political use of the past for purposes that are located in the present. For example, justify military intervention abroad today by claiming that this corresponds to the lessons learned from the past. Also, the main actors in the politics of memory are different from history. It's usually politicians who construct the politics of memory. In history, it's historians who do that job.


The politics of memory is an important part of the politics of identity. I see identity politics as a bigger, more diverse type of politics, including politics of memory, the construction of history, but also cultural constructions. All these elements are closely interrogated in the case of the politics of identity. The goal is to form an attachment to a community which is usually the nation.


How much does memory or identity change politics?


These are strong mobilizing factors. Let's take the most common example. The politics of memory or politics of identity is about building a national memory and national identity. It is very influential in political terms because of the attachment to the nation. It transcends divisions of class, religion, and gender. That is why these are often used by national leaders who want to create support at home. Typically, on the right of the political spectrum, but sometimes also on the left. If you think about historical examples in East-Central Europe, the so-called people's republics in the Cold War also have strong nationalist components. At least many of them. The case of Czechoslovakia was a bit different because it was a multinational state.


Nonetheless, in other cases, there was quite a lot of continuity with the previous state's nationalist opposition to another nation. For example, Germany played a big role in the construction. And even there, the politics of memory was functional in creating that sense of community.


How can different memories of the same political event influence public opinion and understanding of that event?


It's quite common that there are different narratives about a historical event within the same country. What we see in the public debate is a struggle between narratives to become dominant, to become the official narrative. Now, it depends a lot on who is in power, who has the voice, and who can choose a particular narrative. I will make a couple of examples to illustrate it a little bit better.


The Italian Republic has anti-fascist resistance as its founding narrative, and this narrative was and still is shared by a majority of parties in the Italian Parliament. And that's important, after the Second World War, but still today. However, there was always a minority group, represented in parliaments as well, which contested this narrative and provided a different one. Now I am simplifying it a little, but the contesting narrative argued that all Italians, also those who fought on the side of fascism and collaborationists, were fighting for the fatherland and that all of these were puppets of Nazi Germany. This is an argument advocated by right-wing parties, especially far-right parties, and it is particularly prominent today because the government features the far-right party as the main coalition party, led by Georgia Meloni. So there are two contesting views of the foundational narrative of Italy.


Another example is a Central-Eastern European state. During the Cold War, the alliance with the Soviet Union and the joint fights against the Nazis with the red army was a founding myth of most countries that were part of the Soviet block. After 1989, especially in Poland and in the Baltic states, an opposite narrative became dominant. It argued that the war was the result of the cooperation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and Eastern European countries were victims caught in between.


What role does the media portrayal of political events or figures play in shaping public memory and understanding those events or figures?


The media is extremely important, especially television still plays a dominant role by enabling political actors to have discursive power. That means that if you have access to the media, then your voice and your ideas get broadcasted and disseminated all over the country or region. So the media are essential for communicating identity and memory narratives. Of course, social media are also very important today. All of these discursive wars are also played in there.


Would you say that people might somehow ensure that different perspectives and memories are represented in public discourse and decision-making processes?


That is very difficult to achieve. In a pluralist context, there should be more room for different memories. Of course, there are individual memories, and those are personal and very difficult to disseminate. But if we come back to talk about collective memories, memories of certain groups, in a pluralist democratic context, it is more likely that different voices are heard. But even that is not easy.


There will always be someone who feels not heard enough.


Exactly. If you take the example of East-Central European countries again, there is still quite a big constituency of people who lived well and believed in the political regimes and the systems that existed until 1989. From that perspective, a lot of what they relate to is true. And this kind of narrative does not usually find space in the official narratives today. In countries like Poland and Hungary, it's even more difficult for these competing memories to find room in a media space that is tightly controlled by the government.


As a researcher, you contributed to the book Historical Memory and Foreign Policy with your article called Silencing History: forgetting Italy's past during the refugee crisis in Europe. Could you introduce the topic briefly?


The politics of memory is not just about what is remembered or about the narratives that mean a certain image of the past. It's also about what is forgotten and left out. Often willingly. In the case of Italy, after defeating the Second World War and the loss of the colonial empire, the memory of Italy's colonial experience, the colonial crimes especially, was repressed.


In said article, I argue that this forgetting influences the way Italians, Italian government politicians, and civil society view current issues, like migration or Italy's role in the international system. They also influenced the construction of Italian national identity. According to the dominant view, an Italian is someone white, catholic, or who at least pretends to be Catholic.


And then there is the myth of a good Italian.


Exactly, on top of that, there is this myth that falsely claims that Italians were never responsible for war crimes. It's something that negates the colonial experience. According to the current definitions, what happened, for example, in Libya (1929-1934), could be classified as genocide. Forgetting such historical events has enabled some politicians to claim that Italy doesn't have skeletons in its closet.


And would you say regular Italians are aware of this silencing of the past and the myth of the good Italian in the narrative of the politicians?


So the myth of the good Italian states, apart from the colonial crimes, that in the war, Italy had an alliance with Nazi Germany, but basically, the Italians were never the bad ones. The Nazis were the bad ones, and eventually, the Italians fought against the Nazis. This narrative has been propagated not just by political actors but also in the cinema. Many movies portray Italians as victims, and I mean some of them are excellent movies, for example, Life is Beautiful with Roberto Benigni. But there is always this element that portrays Italians not as perpetrators; there may be some fascists that are portrayed as evil or so, but the Nazis are always the nasty guys, the main antiheroes.


In a way, the wider public opinion has received this message and knows very little about Italy's colonial past because that was silenced. But there is also another mechanism at play. Many are just indifferent to the whole debate. Others have this so-called secret complicity. They just don't want to know about crimes, they don't want to believe that their fathers or grandfathers were involved in a criminal colonial war or war crimes during the Second World War. Partly, it's kind of like a passive mechanism that thrice in a context where there is very little critical self-reflection.


If there had been critical self-reflection, then it wouldn't have been possible for the pro-fascist party to be in government today. It would be like in Germany, where being in power is impossible for them at the moment. That's because there is cordon sanitaire, which is a policy that excludes those political figures from the government. Italy had something similar until the 1990s, more or less. The far-right parties were never in government until the political system fell apart, basically following the disappearance of the two main parties – the Christian democracy, which was involved in a massive corruption scandal, and the Communist party, which didn't disappear, but it changed its name, and it lost a lot of its political support for the various reasons.



Author: Eliška Pavlíková


“The project EDUC-SHARE has received funding from the European Union´s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No 101017526.”