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Silencing history: forgetting Italy’s past during the refugee crisis in Europe


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.

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  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    By crimes, I intend acts that contravened laws and norms to which Italy had subscribed at the time (Labanca 2004: 303–304).

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    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.

  4. 4.

    Fascist Italy invaded Greece in October 1940 without prior consultation with Nazi Germany.

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    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.

  6. 6.

    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).

  7. 7.

    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.

  8. 8.

    Moreover, between 2011 and 2017, almost 300,000 foreign citizens chose to shift their official residence from Italy to another country.

  9. 9.

    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).


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The author would like to thank Dr. Lina Klymenko and Dr. Elisa Pascucci for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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Correspondence to Marco Siddi.

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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

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  • Italy
  • Memory
  • Forgetting
  • Postcolonialism
  • Foreign policy
  • Migration