The Fascists’ Historian

Giampaolo Pansa topped Italy’s bestsellers’ lists by retelling the Resistance from the “side of the losers.” His works promised to shine a light on anti-fascist crimes — and handed the resurgent far right a narrative of victimhood.

Italian partisans in Florence, Italy, August 1944.

There are two reasons not to call Giampaolo Pansa a fascist historian. The first reason is that he wasn’t himself a fascist, just a writer whose narrative fascists admired. The second is that he was not a historian, in the sense of a researcher who critically engages with historical sources, but a polemically minded journalist who sought to shift the standards of public debate on World War II. He died on January 12 having done a great deal to achieve this objective.

A history student in his youth, and for decades a writer for middlebrow publications like La Stampa, La Repubblica, and l’Espresso, in the early 2000s Pansa begun to spin a revisionist account of the Italian Resistance. Touted in an oft-repetitive (but bestselling) series of historical essays and novels, this narrative claimed that the anti-fascist parties and especially the Italian Communist Party (PCI) had institutionalized their own myths as official history while silencing those who dared to question their authority.

This framing was tendentious — no one had silenced conservative historians like Renzo de Felice. But in the cultural climate of Berlusconism, this device set Pansa up to “expose” supposedly hidden instances of anti-fascist criminality, from rapes committed by partisans to mob executions of fascists. Here, the histories of the “defeated” fascists, invoked in Pansa’s titles, combined with those of innocents caught up in the supposed Communist vendetta. But while the numbers of victims increased with each retelling, the proof of real-life cases remained stubbornly low.

Indeed, Pansa’s books did not marshal new evidence or argument, instead rehashing old anticommunist themes (often taken from fascists’ memoirs and the self-published histories he used as sources). Even in the immediate aftermath of World War II, a largely unpurged police and legal system had put former partisans on trial for crimes against property and people; only in 1960 was any kind of “anti-fascist consensus” established, after the sharp confrontations over a bid to bring the neofascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) into the government majority.

Yet Pansa wrote in a period where this cordon sanitaire had collapsed. With the PCI dissolved in 1991 and the other main Resistance-era parties soon felled by corruption scandals, a newly emboldened Right declared open season on the “Republic born of the Resistance” and its founding myths. As Silvio Berlusconi allowed post-fascists back into government, Pansa’s works captured the mood of the times — condemning the “anti-fascist prejudice” that the Republic’s main parties had long used to assert their moral authority.

Resurgent Far Right

The demise of the “First Republic” founded in 1946 was, indeed, a period of resurgence on the far right. The conversion of the neofascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) into part of Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition in 1994 saw longtime MSI figures like Gianfranco Fini and Gianni Alemanno seek a more respectable image akin to Spain’s Popular Party, itself created by former Francoites. Fini had just a few years earlier called himself a “fascist for the 2000s” — and now intended to drop the ideological baggage of Benito Mussolini’s regime.

Pansa was not himself from the Right — he had written his undergraduate thesis under the supervision of left-wing historian Guido Quazza and his press associates were generally affiliated to the non-Communist left. Many tributes following his death have praised him as a troublesome challenger to dogmas, including left-wingers he accused of collaboration with Silvio Berlusconi. Yet his works on “the defeated” of World War II were the most prominent essayistic expression of the cultural shift heralded by Berlusconism.

In the anti-political climate heralded by the billionaire tycoon, denouncing the “pieties” of the Left, Pansa denied even the moral superiority of the Resistance — and the historians he labelled the “Gendarmes of Memory,” protecting the “only authorized and legitimate account of the conflict that bloodied Italy.” This was anything but a quest for scholarly objectivity — from Il Sangue dei Vinti, a “conversation” with an imaginary librarian, to the novelistic Eia Eia Alalà, he did away with the entire apparatus of footnotes and engagement with historical literature.

Pansa delivered a well-honed performance, designed to appear as defiance against hidden codes of public life. His was, in short, a work of trolling, designed to spark outrage from the Left which could then be condemned as indicative of its unwillingness to recognize its crimes. This message fed (and was amplified by) the self-flagellation of former Communists like President Giorgio Napolitano, who sought to burnish their own liberal credentials by regurgitating Cold Warrior lines about the PCI’s supposed totalitarian ambitions

In this same vein, Pansa’s “scoops” drew heavily on older accounts by fascists like Giorgio Pisanò (author of a 1992 book on the “Triangle of Death” in Emilia, where, he alleged, partisans conducted reprisals against fascists). He took these at face value as unimpeachable sources which left-wing historians had chosen to ignore. And as Gino Candreva has written, Pansa was unbothered even where such sources were lacking, as our fabulist instead resorted to such lines as “Some say” and “I have heard — but there’s no proof.”

The Voice of the Defeated

In truth, no one had “silenced” the losers of World War II — it was just that their cottage press of neofascist memorialization long had little interest beyond their own ranks. Fired by the 1990s resurgence of the far right, numerous real historians did, however, produce useful studies of neofascist memory, notably Francesco Germinario’s 1999 book L’Altra Memoria. In 1997 public broadcaster RAI even ran a radio documentary featuring eighty veterans of Mussolini’s forces, entitled “The Voice of the Defeated.”

Pansa’s interventions, cashing in on his own prestige as a journalist, made no similar effort to question the way fascists spun their own narrative. For this reason, his slogans were readily appropriated by even the least repentant fascists. Ilenia Rossini cites the case of Roberto Fiore, leader of Forza Nuova, who in a 2008 TV interview stressed the need to overcome the “fascism/anti-fascism” divide. Congratulating Pansa for his “healthy historical revisionism” he suggested that “Italy is changing and starting to evaluate that period in a more detached manner.”

Fiore had good reason to want such a “balanced” approach. Since 1945, enthusiasts for Benito Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic (RSI; “Salò Republic) had struggled to present its record in heroic terms, given both its crimes and its defeat. As Germinario explains, postwar neofascist literature tended to fuse elements of a victimhood narrative with a bid to depoliticize Salò’s record. Painting it as purely “patriotic,” claiming that Mussolini was not antisemitic, or portraying its troops as dutiful even in the face of certain defeat, helped to humanize its record.

With the end of the Cold War, most old fascists made more of a change of face than the likes of Fiore. In the case of longtime MSI cadre Gianfranco Fini, this could even take the form of an embrace of the liberal center — or, for 2008–13 Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno, a shift toward the center-right, married with more informal ties to the old neofascist camerati. The glue for this marriage-cum-turn was anticommunism — aided by Berlusconi’s constant denunciation of even liberals as “Stalinists” and “reds” and relativization of Mussolini’s prewar record.

Designed to troll the Left, Pansa’s operation was the same as that now favored by revisionist historians across the former Eastern Bloc — the insistence on putting communists on the same footing as fascists. As in the 2019 European Parliament motion condemning the “twin totalitarianisms” — reducing anti-fascist monuments and organizations to mere expressions of “Stalinism” — the demonization of the Left recklessly humanizes and normalizes the genocidal forces they fought and defeated.

From Poland to Bulgaria, hard-right governments and their court historians seek to redeem their own countries’ nationalisms, portraying interwar regimes as unsullied by Nazism yet also victims of communism. After the death of the PCI, Pansa’s trick was to present Italy as the same, as if beholden to a blanket Communist cultural dominance which now had to be erased. Many obituaries on Pansa will insist on the need not to speak ill of the dead. But Pansa’s problem was, he spoke all too kindly of the dead — and the wrong ones.