Sunday, February 12, 2012

Painful Memory, Healing Memory.

Last week a remarkable man was in Italy; he was here to tell his own story and mission on the Day of Memory, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. His name is Michael Lapsley (pictured during his talk at the American University of Rome); he is an Anglican priest who went to South Africa in 1973 from New Zealand and very soon took an active role in the anti-apartheid movement, so much so that he was exiled first to Lesotho and then to Zimbabwe. In 1990, after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, he was the victim of a letterbomb which destroyed both hands, an eye and the hearing in an ear. Since then, he has worked to use memory to heal past wounds: “knowledge and acknowledge” is the key phrase of his mission. First of all there must be the knowledge of what happened in the past and then for any form of healing, there has to be acknowledgement of the tort committed by the perpetrator. This is true for nations and communities as it is for individuals.

He took part in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and later founded the Institute for Healing Memories “We believe that when personal stories are heard and acknowledged, individuals feel healed and empowered”.

After listening to Fr. Michael, the following day, I witnessed a ceremony in which a tragic episode in World War II became part of a memory which was being healed; the story was being told and the suffering acknowledged. On 28 January 1944, US Airforce planes bombed a train and a bridge just north of Orvieto in Umbria. There were more than a thousand allied POWs on the train and between two and three hundred died. In the general picture of the war, it was a minor incident and was not even part of a battle where death can be justified by heroism or the overall aims. It was a case of friendly fire and so certainly not to be emphasised and glorified by the Allies. So the efforts to create the monument were very much part of establishing knowledge of the event and acknowledging responsibilities and the sufferings of survivors or relations.

The ceremony was the result of hard work by local historians in Orvieto and a British veteran of the Italian campaign, Harry Shindler (pictured in the centre during the ceremony) who has spent the last decade uncovering some of the minutiƦ. Shindler spends a lot of time looking for single victims of the war but never loses sight of the reasons why he and millions of other allied soldiers were fighting more than 60 years ago.

As for the Day of Memory itself, it has become very much part of the Italian calendar with speeches by the President to schoolchildren invited to his palace, the Quirinale, as well as thousands of other initiatives. My local cinema showed “Sarah’s Key” for schoolkids in the afternoon. At first they were loud and giggly but soon shut up and followed the film enthralled.

A few days before the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini announced a university network “to know and not to forget” saying “without memory, dangerous passages open up”.

Fini is the most striking example in Italy of the principle of “knowledge and acknowledge”. He is a man of the right with his political roots in the neo-Fascist MSI who precisely because of that has done more than anyone else to force the right to acknowledge the crimes of Mussolini and Fascism.

He is correct too, to urge us not to lower our guard. On 27 January, there was a Holocaust negationist conference in Como. More insidious in a way was the case of Mario Vattani, the Italian consul in Osaka who has a long history of extreme right wing militancy. He was recalled after a video was posted with him singing in a fascist rock band with lyrics “in five years I’ll hoist the black flag”. Vattani is facing disciplinary proceedings within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Foreign Minister, Giulio Terzi has said that fascism is incompatible with the state – fair enough but Vattani has been a diplomat for 20 years and has never made a secret of his activities. The place where he was filmed is Casa Pound, a very popular extreme right wing organisation, seen by some as “Fascism lite” but in practice a semi respectable front for genuine extremists. Memory here seems to be more a forgettery.

Another recent case of domestic fascism (and forgetting) was the Turinese schoolteacher, Renato Pallavidini, who told the world on his Facebook page that “I could carry out a massacre in a synagogue” repeated on YouTube.

With all of us, unfortunately, there is a tendency to remember the torts commited against us and forget the ones that we have committed. There was a an uproar in Italy recently when the International Court of Justice at the Hague declared that today’s German state was not liable for civil damages awarded by an Italian court for Nazi massacres. Italians, not surprisingly, were angry that somehow Nazi were being declared not responsible for the reprisal killing of civilians (not quite what the court found). Today’s German government has indeed accepted responsibility for the massacres (and for example, made special efforts for the reconstruction of Onna near L’Aquila after the 2009 earthquake because of a Nazi reprisal there in 1944).

No one denies the Nazi massacres but “acknowledgement” is not only about civil liability, and there are many torts to be remembered and forgotten.

In Italy (and only Italy), this week also sees the “Day of Memory” for the victims of the foibe (those Italians and Yugoslav sympathisers killed by Yugoslav troops in 1943 and 1945) and the Istrian refugees insituted in 2004. The number of victims is still disputed. The commemoration brings together left and right wing Italians but makes no mention of the Yugoslavs killed or interned before and during the war.

We are right enough to remember both the Nazi horrors and apartheid but that is not enough; to really heal, we have to open our minds to everything that happened and put ourselves collectively and nationally on the psychoanalyst’s couch… and that is not easy.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Changing international geometry. Monti in the US.

The invitation to the top table has always been a measure of prestige for leaders of Italian governments. Yesterday, Mario Monti met President Obama, less than three months after becoming prime minister, showing his weight in Washington. It was a guaranteed success; before he left the US ambassador explicitly endorsed Monti. In an interview in Corriere della Sera, David Thorne left no doubts “I think Italy has become the USA’s most trustworthy ally in Europe”.

The following day the president himself gave Monti fulsome support and praise in an interview with Maurizio Molinari in La Stampa “Under Monti’s leadership, Italy is taking impressive steps to modernise its economy and reduce its deficit”. He repeated that praise in person when they finally met and even upset his schedule by extending the meeting. The Monti triumph was crowned by a Time (international edition) cover story entitled “Can this man save Europe?” implicitly answering the question with an article inside entitled “Why Mario Monti is the most important man in Europe”.

Monti’s American trip is very visible evidence of Italy’s changed status. Over the last two months, it has become very clear that there are three leaders in the euro zone, not two. Monti is able to talk with authority to the EU and government leaders, (in English, French and German which is always an advantage), an authority which comes from his personal reputation and his skills as an economist. As prime minister and economics minister, he is a powerful presence in both the Council of Ministers and ECOFIN. He is not Merkel’s poodle (or dachshund or whatever canine metaphor is appropriate). He is very much his own man. This is why Obama was so welcoming. The United States fear an European meltdown almost as much as the Europeans.

On one score, at least, Monti has already shown his mettle – the markets act on that intangible variable confidence, almost as much as they act on hard numbers and Monti has re-established enough of it for the moment.

In the international geopolitical arena, Monti’s Italy is indeed a useful ally for the United States – there is little change from before in that a close alliance with the US has been one of the fundamental pillars of Italian foreign policy since World War II. In Syria, Italy has a definitely minor supporting role; Italy’s dependence on Russian gas hardly gives it leverage on Russia but Berlusconi’s close personal ties with Putin would not have changed the Russian stance or its support for Assad.

In Libya, Italy is back to playing a serious role, gas supplies have begun again which is a relief given this week’s cold snap and reduced Russian supplies. Last month Monti was in Tripoli mending fences. Renewed close commercial and political relations with Libya are also in the broader interests of both the US and EU.

The American success and the re-establishment of an authoritative Italian presence in Brussels obviously give Monti a bounce back home. As it is, he has to navigate between a European (mainly German) Scylla and a domestic Charibdis. He has already shown that he is part of the European directoire, able to talk on equal terms with Merkel, Sarkozy and Cameron. He now has American support. Together, they mean that he can face the Italian parliament and convince them that he is the right man to successfully defend Italian interests abroad.

His mere presence in the European summit changed the geometry of power – instead of having a two way tension between France and Germany, there is now a triangle for the euro and a quadrilateral with Britain for the wider issues. The new power dynamics mean that the chances of reaching some sort of closer fiscal union to protect the euro and the EU itself are much higher now than they were a couple of months ago whatever happens in Greece this coming week.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Snow and Strawberries

Giordano Bruno’s cowl is covered in snow and yesterday there were only two stalls open on the market in Campo de’ Fiori. All the nearby newsagents were closed and naturally, my Saturday treat of a paper copy of the Economist and IHT did not happen.

Rome is covered in snow and along with the white stuff, there is a heavy covering of polemics; the streets are silent but there is the strident sound of bucks being passed. For those of us lucky enough to be at home, warm and with a full fridge and storecupboard and with nothing pressing to force us outside we can enjoy the once in a generation view of ancient and ecclesiastic monuments in alpine garb.

We had had a week’s warning that snow and cold weather were coming and on Friday morning I thought I would be very clever and do some chores in the country, buy fruit and vegetables, wine and supermarket shopping. And be back home before the snow arrived in late afternoon… the rain began at about midday but all was fine until we reached a short but steep hill. The rain turned to sleet and then snow and after a climb of 50 metres it was clear that a car with summer tyres was not going to make it. We retreated and did the shopping. One of the stops was at a newish greengrocer, a Moroccan (I think) who sells fruit which is as good as or better than the supermarket, most of it for either €1.00 or €0.50 per kilo, whatever it is, and at times when most other shops are closed. He is one tiny example of the effects of immigrant enterprise.

He offered me some strawberries on top the usual; I turned up my nose at the idea of strawberries in February “They taste of nothing”. “Try one” he said, offering me a succulent berry which even in the cold gave off a delicious perfume. The taste matched the smell and I bought half a dozen punnets.

The journey home was fraught; 50 km in four hours, much of it stopped while those in front tried to negotiate gentle inclines inappropriately shod. And then trying to do it myself, sliding everywhere and hoping not to careen into a similarly out of control neighbour. We were very lucky – many were not. Some spent 8 or 12 hours in trains or traffic jams. One train was stopped for a full 24 hours. Heavy lorries have been stopped on many motorways (a Bulgarian driver interviewed explained that in his country the roads worked perfectly down to -30° C. and ended with a dismissive “Italiya katastrof!”).

Not quite fair – it would be absurd to equip Rome for crises which happen every 27 years (the last serious snow was in 1987) and any city administration would be rightly accused of corruption if they kept snowploughs and chains for this type of emergency. We don’t live in Bulgaria… or St. Petersburg or Toronto.

But the level of lack of preparation was staggering. There was no salt or sand, or rather there was but no one knew where it was or how to apply it and when to apply it. So far it has not been very cold in town, only a little below freezing at night, so a little salt would have gone a long way.

Instead the mayor blamed the weather forecast. Like me he thought it would come later in the afternoon and that there would be less of it. But I was risking my car and my comfort for myself, he was risking the whole city. Classes were cancelled at all schools… but the schools were left open, increasing traffic and the difficulties when the snow did come.

It was a pathetic performance made worse by sniping between the mayor and the civil protection authority each blaming the other for not being prepared. No one said that it was “the wrong kind of snow” like British Rail in 1991 but they did blame the messenger. “The forecast was for 10-15 mm or rain” said the mayor. Apparently no one in the Campidoglio knew that a millimetre of water becomes a centimetre of snow if the temperature drops a few degrees. For a week, the whole country had been told that we would have a cold weekend. Once again, a little bit of thought would have made a lot of difference.

It was all very Roman (but not only) and for my part as one of the lucky ones, I have had strawberries and snow, a very un-Roman combination but all the more enjoyable for that.