Mussolini’s Heirs Equate World War II Killings of Italians With the Holocaust
By comparing the foibe killings with Nazi genocide, the Italian right is whitewashing the country’s past.
There are few historical taboos in Italian politics. Politicians can easily get away with saying Italian dictator Benito Mussolini “did good things,” tweeting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or even promoting a World War II bunker-turned-tourist attraction with guides cosplaying as Wehrmacht officers. But there’s one thing that will still get a public figure in serious trouble: casting doubt on whether the so-called foibe killings of Italians by Yugoslav communist partisans at the end of World War II was ethnic cleansing and should be put on the same level as the Holocaust.
Tomaso Montanari, an art historian and rector of the University for Foreigners of Siena, found out the hard way. After publishing an opinion piece where he criticized how the right had weaponized the memory of such massacres, for a few weeks between August and September, Montanari became the most reviled figure in Italian media.
And it wasn’t just the right-wingers. Sure, Montanari was attacked by Giorgia Meloni, leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy, but attacks also came from the centrist and liberal camps. A lawmaker from Italia Viva, the centrist party of former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, demanded the rector be fired in a country where such cancellation requests are quite rare. Italy’s most prominent newspaper, the Corriere della Sera, ran a front-page article accusing Montanari of “infamy.”
The foibe mass killings are a gruesome historical episode not widely known outside of Italy. Until recently, the event was barely discussed and hardly memorialized. But in the past few decades, the foibe has become somewhat of a “civil religion” for Italian institutions and a large chunk of the political class, elevating the massacre to almost the same level as the extermination of European Jews for part of the Italian public. In fact, the foibe killings are the only war crime that enjoys a national remembrance day, other than the Holocaust, and it is not uncommon for small cities to celebrate both remembrance days together, since they are only two weeks apart.
In other words, the foibe has gone from being an almost forgotten episode to something that is memorialized, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, as “[Italy’s] own Holocaust.”
The conservative candidate who lost Rome’s recent mayoral election, Enrico Michetti, went as far as complaining that the foibe massacres unfairly enjoy less interest than the extermination of European Jews. And on top of that, he did so using an explicitly antisemitic trope: “Maybe it’s because [the foibe victims] did not own banks or belong to a lobby,” he wrote last year. Ruth Dureghello, president of the Jewish Community of Rome, tweeted that “Michetti’s words are dangerous and hide a disturbing prejudice.”
But even without Michetti’s overt antisemitic cliché, the comparison would still be both inappropriate and politically charged. “The Holocaust represents such a source of moral capital and authority that to compare the foibe, or any other event, to it is to stake a powerful moral claim about persecution and victimhood,” said Pamela Ballinger, a professor at the University of Michigan.
After all, the foibe and the Holocaust were crimes of two very different scales: One was the systematic extermination of an ethnic group throughout Europe that claimed the lives of 6 million Jews. The other was a very specific set of brutal attacks, far more limited in time and scale. Historians put the figure of Italians murdered by Yugoslav partisans between 3,000 and 5,000 people. Some of them were bureaucrats and officials belonging to Mussolini’s regime, but many others were ordinary citizens the Yugoslav militias accused of regime complicity even if they played no role in it.
It’s not surprising that the Italian right, which has long had an ambivalent relationship with fascism, has tried to weaponize the foibe since the 1990s. The right’s argument was Mussolini’s regime did bad things and was complicit with the Holocaust, but the other side was equally bad; they also committed genocidal crimes. What’s most surprising is such a narrative eventually became dominant and was embraced even by progressive leaders. Italian President Sergio Mattarella, a moderate Catholic, and former President Giorgio Napolitano, a former communist, both framed the foibe as “ethnic cleansing.”
The foibe-Holocaust equation is deeply troubling. Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, director of Italy’s Contemporary Jewish Documentation Center Foundation and a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, calls it a “Holocaust distortion.” Although he doesn’t object to a memorial day for the massacres’ victims, Luzzatto Voghera said he’s worried by how it has been used to draw comparisons with the genocide of European Jews. “That’s a misrepresentation that ignores what the Holocaust was,” he said.
Until recently, the foibe-Holocaust equation has remained a marginal debate. But now, the right is pushing it more explicitly—with two bills.
The first, a national bill sponsored by the Brothers of Italy and currently under discussion in Italy’s parliament, would criminalize foibe denial, just as Holocaust denial is outlawed in Italy. The second, a local law already approved in the northeastern region of Veneto, states that to receive local public funds, institutes doing historical research must acknowledge the foibe killings were, first, a genocide, and, second, had at least 12,000 victims.
But actual researchers would disagree on that characterization and the number of victims. More than a genocide, they say, it was a gruesome war crime with political motivations. The United Nations defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” but in this case, the victims of foibe were killed because they were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as associated with the fascist regime or because they opposed then-Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito’s expansionist goals.
Raoul Pupo, professor of contemporary history at the University of Trieste, said foibe cannot be characterized as ethnic cleansing but rather as “mass political violence,” since Yugoslav militias targeted ethnic Italians because they associated them with a nation that had oppressed Slavs for decades.
The term “foibe” technically refers to chasms in the ground that are common in the upper Adriatic Sea, the coastal area between northeastern Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia. But because such caves have been used as mass graves, it refers to two separate mass killings of Italians perpetrated by Yugoslav partisans: in 1943 in Istria and in 1945 between Trieste and Gorizia.
Several formerly Austro-Hungarian territories with a mixed population of Slavs, Germans, and Italians were transferred to Italy after World War I. At that point, Italian authorities launched a ferocious campaign to forcefully Italianize 500,000 Croats and Slovenes. The situation worsened when Italy, then ruled by the fascist regime, invaded Yugoslavia in 1941. At that time “massacres became the way to solve problems” for all parties involved, Pupo said. The Italian army, he noted, tried to repress Yugoslav militias through mass collective punishments, burning villages, killing all the men, and deporting women and children to concentration camps.
The first foibe war crime in Istria, now Croatia, took place in the immediate aftermath of the fall of fascism. Croatian partisans in the area arrested and murdered anyone they believed to be connected with the fascist regime. Most of the victims were ethnic Italian “landowners, small bourgeoisie, priests, or bureaucrats from Italy,” said Italian-Slovenian historian Joze Pirjevec, author of the book Foibe: A History of Italy.
“It was a horrible act,” the historian said, but it must be viewed in the context of World War II, “in which violence was the norm.” Around 500 ethnic Italians were slaughtered in the 1943 Istria massacre just after German and Italian troops murdered thousands of Yugoslavs.
The other foibe massacre took place two years later between Trieste and Gorizia, Italy. It was bigger in scale and had an explicit vendetta carried “under the direct control of the Yugoslav military police, the OZNA” after the end of the war, Pirjevec said.
The area, which is still part of Italy today, was occupied for about a month by Tito’s army, which launched a campaign of violence again fascists, collaborators, and anyone perceived as an enemy of Tito, including anti-fascist partisans. The order was “to purge not on the base of nationality but of fascism.” They killed between 3,000 and 4,000 people in 1945, some of them shot on the spot and others deported to a prison camp and starved to death. Thousands of ethnic Italians left the upper Adriatic region that became part of Yugoslavia, fearing persecution.
After the war, both episodes disappeared almost immediately from collective memory. Relations between Italy and Yugoslavia were relatively good, at least after Tito broke with then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and Italian leaders had no interest in reopening an old wound.
But things changed in the 1990s.
When the Cold War came to an end, so did the postwar Italian political system that relied on an unwritten pact of keeping fascist nostalgia out of the mainstream. In the vacuum that followed, Silvio Berlusconi came to power as prime minister and chose among his allies the National Alliance, born from the ashes of the Italian Social Movement, a proudly neo-fascist party that used to be kept at the margins of politics but has now returned to the mainstream. (Today’s Brothers of Italy is an offshoot of the National Alliance.)
Suddenly, the post-fascists were part of political debate and had access to the media. “The politicians of the National Alliance started to obsessively talk about foibe on talk shows,” said Federico Tenca Montini, a researcher at the University of Trieste and author of a book on foibe media representation.
The post-fascist right had obvious interests in drawing attention to war crimes by Yugoslav communist militias. It was a way of saying, “yes, we have an embarrassing past, but so do the other guys.” This rhetoric met little resistance from the Italian left, which was eager to distance itself from its communist roots after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
After Berlusconi and his allies won elections for the second time in 2001, the foibe was made a central part of Italy’s collective memory. Streets and roundabouts were named after victims. In 2005, the public broadcast Rai issued a miniseries on the foibe. In 2018, two Italian regions, Veneto and Lazio, financed the production of the film Red Land Red Istria. The film—a flop at the box office despite the presence of cinema’s old glories, actors Geraldine Chaplin and Franco Nero—fictionalized the true story of Norma Cossetto, a young Italian woman who was raped and killed in Istria in 1943. Right-wing politicians praised the movies and compared Cossetto to Anne Frank.
Once again, the comparison is misleading. “All victims deserve respect, but the two stories are completely different,” said Tenca Montini, noting Frank was a teenager murdered for her Jewish ethnicity as part of a mass effort to wipe out European Jews while Cossetto was an adult woman murdered because she was the daughter of a high-ranking fascist official and was perceived as associated with the Italian forces.
But that’s not what many Italians would like to hear.
The foibe’s weaponization as a genocide of ethnic Italians has contributed to minimizing the Holocaust’s gravity and Italy’s complicity in it. Lest anyone forget, Italy’s Jews were constantly persecuted from 1938, when Mussolini issued the racial laws, until the end of World War II. And fascist authorities actively collaborated with German forces to deport thousands of Italian Jews to Nazi death camps.
Efforts to equate the foibe with the Holocaust conveniently transforms Italy from a perpetrator into a victim. Historical truth will be the primary casualty, and distorting it has become a propaganda tool to whitewash the country’s past and legitimize the current Italian right, which still claims some connection to the fascist regime without fully embracing it.