Most scholarly analyses of memory politics investigate how historical events are remembered selectively in order to justify political choices. Recent research has shown that ‘silencing the past’, notably the omission of relevant historical events, is also an important aspect of memory politics. This article examines how Italian leaders silenced significant periods of Italy’s history during the refugee and migrant crisis in 2014–2018. Drawing on memory politics and postcolonial literature, the article argues that Italian foreign policy discourses are based on both historical oblivion and the long-standing myth of the ‘good Italian’. The myth negates the controversial aspects of Italy’s colonial experience and permeates the country’s self-perception as an international actor. Italian foreign policy narratives also silenced the highly relevant precedent of Italian migration abroad. The focus is on the public speeches of Italy’s main political actors, notably national ministers and the leaders of the largest parties in parliament.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Answering criticism to his statement cited above, Di Stefano argued that a distinction should be made between a ‘colonial tradition’, such as that of France and the UK, and ‘episodes’ such as those concerning Italy (see his personal Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/ManlioDiStefano/). His assumption is that approximately 60 years of Italian colonialism can be bracketed as an episode.
By crimes, I intend acts that contravened laws and norms to which Italy had subscribed at the time (Labanca 2004: 303–304).
Moreover, scholarly research has refuted apologetic claims according to which Italian colonisers violated race laws for humanitarian reasons. As Barrera’s work (2003) has shown, settlers were in agreement with their government regarding the subordination of the colonised and sought contact with the locals mostly to take advantage of them.
Fascist Italy invaded Greece in October 1940 without prior consultation with Nazi Germany.
The central role of Italian energy company ENI in the Libyan oil sector, as well as Italy’s large oil imports from Libya, is evidence of such interests.
Most notably, Jean Asselborn—Luxembourg’s Minister of Foreign, European Affairs and Immigration—reminded Salvini that ‘In Luxembourg we had thousands of Italian immigrants. They came as migrants, who worked in Luxembourg so that you in Italy could have money to pay your children’ (cited in Sandford and Miner 2018).
This is corroborated by Urso’s (2018) finding that, when in government, left-wing parties tend to use fewer humanitarian arguments and endorse securitized narratives.
Moreover, between 2011 and 2017, almost 300,000 foreign citizens chose to shift their official residence from Italy to another country.
For instance, Libyan general Khalifa Haftar—one of the most influential actors in Libya at the moment—has repeatedly accused Italy of neocolonialism in its policies towards Libya (cf. Il Post 2017).
Amnesty International. 2019. Italy: Refugee and migrants’ rights under attack. London. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR3002372019ENGLISH.pdf. Accessed 8 Jan 2020.
Appadurai, A. 2006. Fear of small numbers: An essay on the geography of anger. Durham: Duke University Press.
Barrera, G. 2003. Mussolini’s colonial race laws and state-settler relations in Africa Orientale Italiana (1935–1941). Journal of Modern Italian Studies 8(3): 425–443.
Ben-Ghiat, R. 2006. Modernity is just over there. Interventions 8(3): 380–393.
Bressanelli, E., and D. Natali. 2019. Introduction. Contemporary Italian Politics. https://doi.org/10.1080/23248823.2019.1644834.
Calchi Novati, G. 2008. Italy and Africa: How to forget colonialism. Journal of Modern Italian Studies 13(1): 41–57.
Chambers, I. 2008. Mediterranean crossings: The politics of an interrupted modernity. Durham: Duke University Press.
Choate, M.I. 2008. Emigrant nation: The making of Italy abroad. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Colucci, M. 2019. Foreign immigration to Italy: Crisis and the transformation of flows. Journal of Modern Italian Studies 24(3): 427–440.
Dal Lago, A. 2010. La porta stretta. L’Italia e l’ “altra riva” tra colonialismo e politiche migratorie. California Italian Studies 1(1): 1–11.
De Donno, F. 2006. La Razza Ario-Mediterranea. Interventions 8(3): 394–412.
De Donno, F., and N. Srivastava. 2006. Colonial and postcolonial Italy. Interventions 8(3): 371–379.
Del Boca, A. 2003. The myths, suppressions, denials and defaults of Italian colonialism. In A place in the sun: Africa in Italian colonial culture from post-unification, ed. P. Palumbo. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Deplano, V. 2018. Within and outside the nation: Former colonial subjects in post-war Italy. Modern Italy 23(4): 395–410.
Di Santo, G. 2019. Migranti, Salvini sta con Di Maio: ‘Francia colonialista’. Italia Oggi, 22 January. https://www.italiaoggi.it/news/migranti-salvini-sta-con-di-maio-francia-colonialista-201901211006175667. Accessed 12 Sept 2019.
Dines, N., and E. Rigo. 2016. Postcolonial citizenships and the ‘refugeeization’ of the workforce: Migrant agricultural labor in the Italian Mezzogiorno. In Postcolonial transitions in Europe, ed. S. Ponzanesi and G. Colpani, 151–172. London and New York: Rowman and Littlefield.
Fogu, C. 2006. Italiani brava gente: The legacy of fascist historical cultural on Italian politics of memory. In The politics of memory in postwar Europe, ed. R.N. Lebow, W. Kansteiner, and C. Fogu, 147–176. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Gramsci, A. 2005. The southern question. Toronto: Guernica.
Il Fatto Quotidiano. 2017. Migranti, Renzi segue la linea-Salvini: ‘Basta buonismo, non possiamo accogliere tutti. Aiutiamoli a casa loro’, 7 July. https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2017/07/07/migranti-renzi-segue-la-linea-salvini-basta-buonismo-non-possiamo-accogliere-tutti-aiutiamoli-a-casa-loro/3714508/. Accessed 11 Sept 2019.
Il Post. 2017. L’accordo fra Italia e Libia sui migranti, 3 February. https://www.ilpost.it/2017/02/03/laccordo-fra-italia-e-libia-sui-migranti/. Accessed 11 Sept 2019.
Iyob, R. 2000. Madamismo and beyond: The construction of Eritrean women. Nineteenth Century Contexts 22(2): 217–238.
Klymenko, L. 2019. Forging Ukrainian national identity through remembrance of World War II. National Identities. https://doi.org/10.1080/14608944.2019.1590810.
La Repubblica. 2019. Di Maio e Di Battista: ‘La Francia sfrutta l’Africa, va sanzionata’. Parigi convoca l’ambasciatrice italiana, 21 January. https://www.repubblica.it/politica/2019/01/21/news/di_maio_e_di_battista_all_attacco_della_francia_sfrutta_l_africa_va_sanzionata_-217090366/. Accessed 11 Sept 2019.
Labanca, N. 2004. Colonial rule, colonial repression and war crimes in the Italian colonies. Journal of Modern Italian Studies 9(3): 300–313.
Labanca, N. 2007. Oltremare: Storia dell’espansione coloniale italiana. Bologna: Il Mulino.
Labanca, N. 2010a. The embarrassment of Libya. History, memory, and politics in contemporary Italy. California Italian Studies 1(1): 1–18.
Labanca, N. 2010b. Racconti d’Oltremare. L’immagine della società nativa nella letteratura ‘postcoloniale’ italiana. Zapruder. Rivista di storia della conflittualità sociale 23: 168–175.
Lebow, R.N. 2006. The memory of politics in postwar Europe. In The politics of memory in postwar Europe, ed. R.N. Lebow, W. Kansteiner, and C. Fogu, 1–39. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Lebow, R.N., W. Kansteiner, and C. Fogu (eds.). 2006. The politics of memory in postwar Europe. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
L’Espresso. 2019. L’ignoranza di Di Stefano e la noia di Di Battista: tutto il peggio del Palazzo, 10 July. http://espresso.repubblica.it/palazzo/2019/07/10/news/l-ignoranza-di-di-stefano-e-la-noia-di-di-battista-tutto-il-peggio-del-palazzo-1.336761. Accessed 11 Sept 2019.
Lombardi-Diop, C. 2012. Postracial/postcolonial Italy. In Postcolonial Italy: Challenging national homogeneity, ed. C. Lombardi-Diop and C. Romeo, 175–190. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lombardi-Diop, C., and C. Romeo. 2012. Postcolonial Italy: Challenging national homogeneity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lombardi-Diop, C., and C. Romeo. 2015. Italy’s postcolonial question: Views from the southern frontier of Europe. Postcolonial Studies 18(4): 367–383.
Ministero dell’Interno. 2019. Sbarchi e Accoglienza dei migranti: Tutti i dati. http://www.interno.gov.it/sites/default/files/cruscotto_giornaliero_21-08-2019.pdf. Accessed 11 Sept 2019.
Minniti, M. 2018. L’immigrazione senza like. Il Foglio, 2 July. https://www.ilfoglio.it/politica/2018/07/02/news/limmigrazione-senza-like-203293/. Accessed 11 Sept 2019.
Moeller, R.G. 2002. War stories: The search for a usable past in the Federal Republic of Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Morone, M. 2010. I custodi della memoria. Il Comitato per la documentazione dell’opera dell’Italia in Africa. Zapruder. Rivista di storia della conflittualità sociale 23: 24–38.
Newell, James L. 2019. Italian politics: The ‘yellow-green’ government one year on. Contemporary Italian Politics. https://doi.org/10.1080/23248823.2019.1646003.
Patriarca, S., and V. Deplano. 2018. Introduction: Nation, ‘race’ and racisms in twentieth-century Italy. Modern Italy 23(4): 349–353.
Ponzanesi, S. 2016. Edges of empire: Italy’s postcolonial entanglements and the gender legacy. Cultural Studies? Critical Methodologies 16(4): 373–386.
Re, L. 2010. Italians and the invention of race: The poetics and politics of difference in the struggle over Libya, 1890–1913. California Italian Studies 1(1): 1–58.
Ricoeur, P. 2004. Memory, history, forgetting. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Rodogno, D. 2005. Italiani brava gente? Fascist Italy’s policy toward the jews in the Balkans, April 1941–July 1943. European History Quarterly 35(2): 213–240.
Sandford, A., and L. Miner. 2018. What’s behind the Salvini-Asselborn migration row? Euronews, 17 Sept. https://www.euronews.com/2018/09/17/what-s-behind-the-salvini-asselborn-migration-row-euronews-answers. Accessed 8 Jan 2020.
Siddi, M. 2017. The Ukraine crisis and European memory politics of the Second World War. European Politics and Society 18(4): 465–479.
Stefani, G. 2010. Stefani, Eroi e antieroi coloniali. Uomini italiani in Africa da Flaiano a Lucarelli. Zapruder. Rivista di storia della conflittualità sociale 23: 41–56.
Triulzi, A. 2006. Displacing the colonial event. Interventions 8(3): 430–443.
Urso, O. 2018. The politicization of immigration in Italy. Who frames the issue, when and how. Italian Political Science Review 48(3): 365–381.
The author would like to thank Dr. Lina Klymenko and Dr. Elisa Pascucci for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.
Conflict of interest
The author states that there is no conflict of interest.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Siddi, M. Silencing history: forgetting Italy’s past during the refugee crisis in Europe. Int Polit (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41311-020-00209-9
- Foreign policy