Selective memory can be very dangerous both for those who remember and those who are forgotten. Its effects are particularly insidious when the selector is a government. This week, Italy is indulging in just that.
Last year parliament passed a bill instituting a Day of Memory to commemorate those killed by Yugoslav partisans at the end of World War II and for the Italians who left their homes in Dalmatia and Istria at the same time. It will be celebrated on 10 February and on Sunday and Monday, Italys public broadcaster screened a mini-series set in the grim days of 1945 painting a highly slanted picture of them. Over the last fortnight, the media and politicians have given the story coverage, which was as wide as it was uncritical. For effect, they often linked it with the Shoah memorial day on 27 January.
Beneath the worthy statements of concern and sympathy for the victims, there is a distinctly unpleasant whiff of former nationalism wafting southwards from Italys northeastern border redolent of a different age. Alongside the nationalism, there is an attempt by parts of Italys right wing to play the victims, take the moral high ground by comparing the Yugoslav massacres with the Shoah and implicitly render Fascism less homicidal.
Behind the Day of Memory is the emotive word foibe . These are the carsic caves above Trieste where an unknown number of victims were killed in 1943 and again in the weeks before and after the end of the war in 1945. The murderers were Yugoslav partisans and reasons for the murders were various; some were Italian fascists of the old order, others were people in authority who might have tried to prevent a hoped for Yugoslav annexation of Trieste. Others were anti-communist Slovenes or Croats while still others were Soviet citizens who had volunteered for the Wehrmacht and were being sent back by the Allies. Some were caught up in the slaughter because they were relatives of the intended victims. There is no accepted figure for the numbers killed but most scholars talk of somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000.
On the other side of the border, refugees began to flee; Istrians and Dalmatians from Zadar and Split (Zara and Spalato for Italians - the names themselves are indicators of the divide). It is the victims of the foibe and those who left their homes or were forced out who are being remembered on 10 February.
Now, it is only natural that victims of massacres and expulsions and their descendants seek to tell the rest of the world and also, why not, try for material reparation. In recent years, German pressure groups have grown up among the descendants of theVolkdeutsch forced to leave Silesia and the Sudetenland after the war; they lobby for moral and material compensation and some of their representatives come to the Istrian commemorations. There are Hungarians who still keenly feel the loss of parts of their territory to Romania after World War I. Irredentism and nationalism are not limited to Italy and the Balkans.
But what makes these commemorations particularly disturbing and out of place is that they are both official and exquisitely one-sided.
There is a bitter irony in the pictures of the German President Horst Koehler making amends last week at Yad Vashem in Israel for his countrys crimes more than 60 years ago at the same time as his equally worthy counterpart, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi will be remembering Italian victims of the war, without a mention of the tens of thousands of Yugoslavs who died in Italian concentration camps like Rab or Gonars during the war or in Italian reprisal killings; or the campaigns to Italianize Istria and Dalmatia under both the fascist and pre-fascist governments.
Apart from President Ciampi, there are the less worthy heirs of the fascists in Alleanza Nazionale (AN) who use the foibe as a stick to beat the Italian left for the crimes committed by their communist comrades and to attack the Slavs for ethnic cleansing. The Trieste AN deputy, Roberto Menia has dismissed the Slovene and Croat dead as terrorists while his party colleague and cabinet minister, Maurizio Gasparri last year spoke about millions of Italians killed in a macabre raising of the victims stakes. More recently, he wrote of the need to remember the Shoah and the foibe on the same level.
With the 10 February Day of Memory, official Italy, the state, the government and the opposition, give a blinkered view of history which bodes ill in a European Union where dangerous nationalisms should be laid to rest.