Italy’s Far-Right Government Is Relitigating World War II

Far-right Italian premier Giorgia Meloni likes to claim her party has “left fascism in the past.” Yet the announcement of a new museum honoring Italian victims of Yugoslav partisans represents a disturbing attempt to rewrite the history of World War II.

Giorgia Meloni attends the closing of the celebrations for the remembrance of the foibe on February 18, 2018, in Rome, Italy. (Stefano Montesi / Corbis via Getty Images)

The foibe are, most literally, sinkholes. Often hundreds of meters deep, these shafts pockmark the borderlands between Italy and the former Yugoslavia. For centuries, the foibe in these provinces, known as the Julian March, were used to dispose of waste. In two World Wars, they filled up with destroyed equipment and dead horses — but also human bodies. Today, the word foibe is most habitually used to evoke murdered Italians thrown into these shafts.

February 10 is the anniversary of the Allies’ 1947 Paris peace treaty with Italy, which had to  hand these border territories to Yugoslavia, after Fascism’s failed attempt to dismember that country. Since 2005, this date has also been an official Remembrance Day marked by the Italian Republic. Each February 10, institutional figures and memorial groups meet at the foiba in Basovizza, just outside Trieste, to honor Italians killed by Yugoslav partisans, as well as those who left Yugoslav-annexed areas over the following decade.

After rising historical research starting in the 1980s, in recent decades the foibe killings have become a central focus of Italian public debate. The dissolution of the Italian Communist Party in 1991, the rise of Berlusconian right-wing politics, but also the breakup of Yugoslavia, all troubled antifascist narratives and fed a rival focus on “the defeated,” whose side of the story was exalted in schlocky but mass-market pop-history books. Last week, Giorgia Meloni’s government announced the foundation of a new, public-funded museum in Rome, honoring foibe victims’ memory.

This is outwardly about balancing the record — challenging a supposedly monolithic and one-sided anti-fascist “vulgate” of Italy’s past. Press agency ANSA (Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata) reports that the museum will recognize a story of “ethnic cleansing” against Italians, a “tragedy . . . swept under the carpet by anti-Fascists in the postwar years.” But to understand what’s happening, we also ought to know that this past isn’t only just being rediscovered. Rather, a highly selective version of the foibe story is an old battle horse of World War II revisionism, rising over the decades from a subculture to a dominant narrative.

Snapshot of Reality

All public institutions choose to honor some people over others: to take some for heroes, others for victims, and some of the dead generations as best ignored. Just as Confederate statues are not a residue of the Civil War itself but largely a product of the Jim Crow era or resistance against civil rights, the public commemoration of World War II is also deeply shaped by latter-day politics. It rarely conforms to some abstract idea of the historical record or scholarly research.

This is quite evident in modern Italian right-wingers’ way of talking about their own Lost Cause. As scholar Eric Gobetti suggests, a narrow focus on Italian victims of Yugoslav partisans is overshadowing Fascist Italy’s own role in bringing violence to this region. Gobetti moreover notes that foibe victims — Italians supposedly targeted by “ethnic cleansing” — were far fewer in number than the Italians who died in Yugoslavia as anti-fascists fighting alongside Josip Broz Tito’s partisans.

Gobetti’s book E allora le foibe? tells us that national strife didn’t begin in 1945 but had already spiked after World War I, as nation-states divided territories hitherto under Austro-Hungarian rule. If back then the region’s biggest city, Trieste, had a two-thirds Italian-speaking majority, the hinterland was much more diverse, and Italian state power and the Italian language had to be imposed by force. This struggle made the region an early center of Fascist street violence, even before the Fascists took over government in late 1922.

In 1941, Benito Mussolini’s regime went further, invading Yugoslavia as an ally of Nazi Germany. The Axis powers and their local collaborators captured large swaths of Balkan territory, cementing their control through mass deportations, reprisals, and anti-insurgency operations. In total, the war and occupation killed one million Yugoslavs, including in Italian army atrocities like the Podhum massacre. But Mussolini’s empire didn’t last — and the Yugoslav partisans, led by Tito’s Communists, eventually beat the Italian Fascist forces back across the prewar border.

Italy’s military collapse in autumn 1943 and — after a period of direct Nazi German rule — the Yugoslav partisans’ eventual victory in spring 1945 were each followed by waves of violence. These are the moments that foibe Remembrance Day focuses upon. The crumbing of the Italian state in its borderlands fueled widespread social violence, from peasant uprisings to more individual score settling — but also more targeted repression by the new Yugoslav Communist authorities.

Raoul Pupo, the best-known scholar of this history, estimates that as many as five thousand Italians were killed in these two moments, most of them in the second phase in 1945. Other historians reach lower totals, in particular those who rely on lists of known victims; right-wing politicians venture much higher figures, without evidence. Yet more controversial is their honoring of the dead as “martyrs.”

An Italian Anne Frank?

Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has often equated foibe victims and Jews killed in the Holocaust. At several recent commemorations he has repeated that “there are no dead Serie A and dead Serie B,” whether at Auschwitz or in the foibe. Like him, today’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has also often spoken of these Italians as “martyrs.” But it’s not only right-wingers doing this. In 2007, one center-left president denounced a suppressed history of anti-Italian “ethnic cleansing.” An Education Ministry information pack for schools issued in 2022 claimed that Italians were eliminated “just as Jews had been across Europe.”

Ahead of foibe Remembrance Day 2023, I met historian Pupo in Trieste. In the 1980s a leading Christian Democrat in the city, Pupo reports that the words “ethnic cleansing” became widespread during the 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia but don’t well explain the events of 1943–45. His account pivots on the creation of a new political regime, which crushed domestic opponents as well as representatives of the defeated Italian state power. Tito’s forces executed some tens of thousands of domestic enemies — mostly Nazi collaborationists, monarchist soldiers, and other potential oppositionists. Lists of the Italian dead are patchy, but Fascist party officials, policemen, and landowners count heavily among known victims.

Despite the widespread language of “ethnic cleansing,” a tiny minority of known foibe victims were women or children. Yet the best known of all victims is Norma Cossetto, upon her death in October 1943 the twenty-three-year-old daughter of a local Fascist leader. Although a member of Fascist student circles she had no important role in the regime, and reports that she was raped before being murdered are widely cited as emblematic of Yugoslav cruelty. In 2019, public broadcaster RAI (Radiotelevisione italiana) screened Red Land, a dramatized account of her final weeks. A graphic novel about Cossetto, from a publisher attached to neofascist group CasaPound, has been widely issued in schools. Some accounts even present Cossetto as an “Italian Anne Frank.” This past November, Arezzo’s town council created a joint tribute to Cossetto and the Jewish teenager, as two symbols of violence against women.

Such “both-sidesism,” often applying the familiar imagery of the Holocaust to the foibe, is today widespread. Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party has called for the existing ban on Holocaust denial to be extended to the foibe. Some regional governments have passed laws against “denialism” or “playing down” the supposed anti-Italian “ethnic cleansing.” While Pupo is among the most dedicated historians of the foibe, in 2019 he was labeled a “minimizer” by the Friuli-Venezia Giulia regional authorities after he coauthored a text that rejected the term “ethnic cleansing.” Even baseless claims and implausible victim counts, challenged by almost all professional historians, risk becoming politically mandated truths.

Endangered Species

The government-announced foibe museum in Rome, with €8 million pledged by the Culture Ministry, appears designed to uphold this version of events, centered on the idea that “Italians were killed just for being Italians.” Meloni’s party often critiques left-wing anti-fascism by claiming that it’s time to recognize victims “on both sides.” Yet this equivalence is deeply flawed. The prominence given to the foibe does not correct the historical record or honor the dead in general, but provides nationalists with a sweeping myth of Italian victimhood, which ignores the historical factors behind the killings.

The February 10 Remembrance Day falls fourteen days after Holocaust Memorial Day, making this fortnight a common battleground over the past. Some town halls jointly commemorate “the martyrs of the foibe and the Holocaust.” Even apart from the offensiveness of the equation between (often Fascist) Italians and Holocaust victims, the pairing of the two also glibly erases other Italian crimes, notably in Yugoslavia itself. As the anniversary of the 1947 Paris peace treaty, February 10 also happens to be the anniversary of Italy finally renouncing its colonial claims in Africa. Yet there is no day to honor the victims of Italian colonialism.

As I argue in Mussolini’s Grandchildren, this rewriting of history does not center on venerating the Fascist regime or — still less — on reviving historical territorial claims. Rather, the real aim is to erase the residual political legacy of the Resistance and the anti-fascist parties who founded the Republic in 1946. Claiming that militant anti-fascism served as a repressive ideology in postwar decades, Meloni has explicitly compared the reappraisal of foibe history to efforts to draw public attention to members of the neofascist MSI (Movimento Sociale Italiano) killed by leftists in the 1970s.

This approach habitually cites the need for historical “pacification,” able to integrate Italian victims of all political sides into a single national story. Yet this outwardly benign intention of piety for the dead also suppresses important historical realities. We saw this last March, upon the anniversary of the 1944 massacre at Rome’s Fosse Ardeatine, in which the Nazis and their Italian Fascist helpers murdered 335 political prisoners and Jews, massacred in an anti-partisan reprisal. Prime Minister Meloni sparked controversy by falsely claiming that the 335 were killed “just because they were Italian.”

Meloni has used this same phrase with regard to foibe victims. Yet the evidence suggests that Fascists and other representatives of Italian political and economic power made up most of the dead. Some seem unembarrassed by this. Before Remembrance Day 2023, a group of relatives and admirers of Nazi collaborationist paramilitary force Decima MAS staged a commemoration in Gorizia. Local officials welcomed them into the municipal buildings. Last month, Roberto Menia, the veteran Fratelli d’Italia senator who sponsored the original foibe Remembrance Day bill, called for plaques to be set for two Fascist senators “murdered by Tito’s partisans” in 1945.

This isn’t just an Italian story. Across Central and Eastern Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fueled battles over the legacy of 1945, in many cases providing an opportunity to polish the image of anti-Soviet nationalists even if they were Nazi collaborators. Italy’s right-wing parties are doing something similar, casting Italians as innocents caught in between Nazis and communists, while soft-pedaling homegrown Fascist crimes.

This isn’t just about the past. For the focus on Italians as a “victim group” is also well designed to dovetail with more present-day identity politics. Ignazio La Russa, today president of the Senate, marked one recent foibe Remembrance Day tweeting that “the worst racism” is the Left’s “ideological racism against Italians. Yesterday [it was] in favor of Stalin and Tito, today against Italians who want controls on immigration and the Islamic threat.” Mussolini’s heirs surely don’t want to rebuild his empire. But they do want to have Italians recognized as an endangered species.