A review of Richard Evans on Eric Hobsbawm with special attention to Italy.

Richard Evans, Eric Hobsbawm. A Life in History, Little, Brown, 2019.

John Foot, University of Bristol

It is rare for academics to have biographies dedicated to them, including historians. But Eric Hobsbawm was no ordinary academic, and no ordinary historian. His books were consistent best-sellers, right across the globe. He was a household name, and not just in the UK, but also in Italy, Brazil and other nations. His slogan/concept of the ‘short twentieth century’ has been taken up by many, and was perfectly timed to hit the zeitgeist as the world changed in the 1990s. He was a brilliant synthesiser of history, especially in his celebrated Age of … series, but he also was interested in subjects not often dealt with in the mainstream – bandits, organised crime, millenarians, southern Italy in general. And for most of his life and long career, he called himself both a communist, and a Marxist. He was followed by the secrete services and his life was documented by them, something which provides Richard Evans with a wealth of material from which to draw, and he leaves very little out. This biography runs to nearly 800 pages.

Hobsbawn’s life was almost like a microcosm of the twentieth century, linked as it was to empire, fascism, socialism and communism . He was born in Alexandria in Egypt, he was in Berlin in 1933, he witnessed the election and enthusiasm around the Popular Front in France in 1936, had a glimpse of Spain during the civil war and revolution and took part in World War Two. After 1945 he travelled widely, was a warrior in the cold war, and lived long enough to see the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It was an extraordinary life, encapsulating some of the most tragic and dramatic moments of the twentieth century itself. 

Evans claims that his book ‘focuses above all on his personal experiences and indeed on his inner life’ (p. ix), but this is not always true. There is an immense amount of detail about the facts of Hobsbawm’s life, but as for his ‘inner life’, this is a different matter. The biography moves between the public and the private, but I’m not sure we really ever fully understand what drove this great historian, and why he was to become so popular and so widely read. The collapse of his first marriage was clearly a low point, and Evans claims he contemplated suicide. His second marriage was much happier and long-lasting, and brought him two children. He also had a child from another relationship with whom he kept in close touch and supported. There are fascinating snippets of his private life here and there, including the fact that he spent a lot of time in the bars and clubs of Soho as a young man.

Almost symbolically, he was born in 1917 into a Jewish family. After Egypt, he briefly visited Trieste in 1919 with his mother – his first but certainly not last encounter with Italy. He soon sympathised with the left. By 1931 he was an orphan, and his relationship with the rest of his family remained fractured and complicated. He was in Berlin in 1933, leaving Germany before Hitler came to power, but he witnessed the political violence which preceded that moment. In London he attended Marylebone Grammar School for boys and moved towards communism as a school boy. He was undoubtedly a swot, and he later wrote in his diary that ‘Britain was provincial, boring and predictable’ (p. 55). He read Marx as a teenager and made a pilgrimage to the great man’s (at the time modest) grave in Highgate Cemetery in North London. In his free time he enjoyed cycling and walking, but he also wondered about how revolution would be organised. 

He quickly developed a lifelong passion for jazz and saw Duke Ellington on stage. In the mid-1930s he was admitted into Kings College, Cambridge, to study history. In 1936 he was in Paris for some of the demonstrations around the election of the Popular Front and saw the Communist Maurice Thorez speak to a huge crowd. He also slipped across the border for a time and experienced the thrill of revolutionary Spain. He was a striking and brilliant student, and notoriously scruffy. He frequented groups of communists at university, some of whom later went on to be well known spies for the USSR. After graduating he decided to do a PhD, but the war intervened. He was kept from the front line, it seems, because of fears that he might ‘spread communism’ amongst the troops.  

Italy was important for Hobsbawm’s intellectual development, his political life and as a constant holiday destination (he continued to visit right into his nineties). He both read and spoke well in Italian and was deeply influenced by Antonio Gramsci.[i] He said that he often read and re-read The Prison Notebooks, in the 4-volume Einaudi edition edited by Valentino Gerratana. Gramsci was useful to him for his political understanding of revolutionary movements, but also for an analysis of the Italian south. Politically, he moved towards a more centrist and moderate position in the 1980s and 1990s, as did the Euro-communist movements he admired, particularly that of the Italian Communist Party. Hobsbawm was friends with many leading Italian intellectuals and politicians, Piero Sraffa, Delio Cantimori, Giulio Einaudi and Corrado Vivanti, who was the link between the PCI and Einaudi. He had a close relationship with the Turin publishing house which published many of his books in Italy, and the circle around Giulio Einaudi himself (although he complained about their royalties and the time they took to publish some of his earlier books). In the 2000s he remembered how Einaudi ‘would take (under-royaltied) authors like me to dinner at the opulent Cambio restaurant, unchanged since Cavour had planned the transformation of the Kingdom of Savoy into the Kingdom of Italy at its tables. In the last war every member of the firm, Einaudi claimed, had joined the armed resistance’.[ii]

In many ways, Italy, and its large and culturally-sophisticated Communist Party provided Hobsbawm with the political and cultural home he struggled to find in the UK, with its tiny Communist Party and large Labour Party. Anna Di Qual has looked deeply into the activities and role of Hobsbawm in Italy and her work is essential for a further understanding of his cultural and political presence over an extended period of time.[iii] His natural home was Einaudi, but he also published with Rizzoli, Laterza, Riuniti (the PCI’s own publisher) and Mursia amongst others. Giulio Einaudi also convinced him to edit a multi-volume history of Marxism. 4 Volumes and five tomes. It was a vast and costly project, which took years to complete. 

He saw Italy as what he called ‘a political laboratory’. In 1977 he wrote that ‘Italy was, as it were, a microcosm of world capitalism inasmuch as it contained in a single country both metropolis and colonies, advanced and backward regions.’ His interest in the Italian Communist Party was deep and long-lasting, and he interviewed Giorgio Napolitano – an interview that became a book – in the 1970s. His work on banditry included a number of studies of Italian personalities and movements. His second wife, Muriel Seaman, had worked in Rome and he learnt Italian – speaking to a high level. This can be seen in a fascinating TV interview with Enzo Biagi, where the two spar around questions of Marxism and historical method (http://www.teche.rai.it/2020/08/made-england-le-grandi-inchieste-enzo-biagi/). Hobsbawm well understood the complexities of the language and the subtleties of debates. He was depressed and shocked by the swift collapse/suicide of the PCI after 1990, something he lived from the inside and the outside, as a militant and as a historian. Hobsbawm wrote that the (ex) Communist Party ‘lost both its sense of the past and its sense of a future’ in the 1990s.[iv] He became close friends with Napolitano, and his 80th birthday was celebrated in the Teatro Felice in Genoa in 2002 with a debate with Napolitano and others, in front of a packed theatre.

Marxism for Hobsbawm was both a method – he was always interested in laying down the economic base behind all historical change, and the role of class struggle, and the importance of the poor, the working class. But he was also unorthodox, writing about bandits, outsiders, the excluded. He always understood the importance of culture – most famously jazz, of which he was a huge fan, but also sport (he loved football), literature, art. He could take the long view – as in his magnificent multi-volume history which ended with The Age of Extremes. But he could also adopt a micro-approach, as with his essays on jazz.

Above all Hobsbawm had a great and much under-rated and much looked down upon skill – he could reach and engage a wide audience in history, synthesise complicated debates, summarise long periods of time in a few pithy and dense pages, which could be read by anyone. His writing was crystal clear, easy to follow and outward rather than inward looking. He was both read and widely cited, the opposite of a historian like Renzo De Felice, whose writing style was inward looking and academic, and footnote heavy. Hobsbawm used footnotes sparingly, not because he had not read widely, but to lighten the text and indicate the key work in each field and area. See for example, the clarity of his introduction to the influential The Invention of Tradition, which manages to be conceptual and entertaining as well as do its main job of introducing an edited text, all at the same time. His books went way beyond the academy into the homes of many millions of people, across dozens of countries. Often, a Hobsbawm book might be the only history book in a household. 

In later years, his methodology could appear somewhat anachronistic – outdated even. Marxism was not in vogue. He struggled with gender analysis (as in the infamous title of his book Labouring Men) and had no interest in oral history, which he never understood. He lived long enough to see many of his interpretations and pioneering studies contested and often refuted. He didn’t leave the Communist Party, even after 1956 and 1968, but he understood that he had been wrong – the Soviet model had been an illusion, or worse. As he later said, ‘I was a loyal Communist party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about a number of things about which it’s reasonable not to be silent.’ He tried to see the file the British secret services kept on him while he was still alive, but they wouldn’t let him. It has since been selectively released and is extensively used by Evans in this biography. He believed passionately in the power of history, saying in 2002 that “it’s more important to have historians, especially skeptical historians, than ever before.” 

Evans is very good on the institutional conservatism of the academic world, and the prejudices Hobsbawm faced as a Communist and Marxist. His proposed books were often rejected in the early part of his career, or delayed. He was denied numerous jobs which were given to far lesser but less political historians. His popularity also aroused suspicion and sometimes contempt. He was a charismatic lecturer, a diligent supervisor (it seems) and many of his students went onto glittering academic careers. Despite being outside of the game, in many ways, Hobsbawm was very good at playing academics off against each other, and avoiding the suffocating tedium of university administrative tasks. He wasn’t interested in climbing the power ladder, and his promotion was very late, given his achievements. He managed to evade being head of department by manipulating the appointment of another academic willing to do that very job.

It is not easy to pigeon-hole Hobsbawm. He was often called an ‘economic historian’, because of his ‘Marxist’ approach to history and the way he privileged the economy and class structures, but he was never this narrow in his life or his work. For many years he wrote a column on jazz for the influential UK magazine The New Statesman (using a pseudonym). His famous books on social bandits looked at marginal figures, criminals, priests and rabble rousers including anarchists. Many of his formulations became commonplaces or at the very least the centre of debates – social banditry, the long nineteenth century, the short twentieth century. He did privilege the economy in his overall analysis of these figures, but he also was interested in their lives in themselves, in the people he studied and wrote about, and in social change and revolution. As Christopher Hill wrote of him, he was often inspired ‘by a humanity and a deep sympathy for humble people.’[v] There are stories of him chatting with peasants in the south of Italy in this book. He was genuinely interested in these lives. He did not live or work in an ivory tower for much for his life.

His magisterial ‘Age of’ books do have a strong basis in economics, as would befit an old school Marxist, and his most returned to subject was the industrial revolution itself, but within that framework, he was able to include art, music, individual change, rebellions (such as the brilliant work with George Rude on the Captain Swing riots) institutional and structural change and of course politics. His ability to synthesize material was notable (he was a voracious reader, always with a book in hand, but he wore his learning lightly). He was also an innovator, helping to found the important journal Past and Present and taking part in the History Workshop series. His innovation, however, only went so far. He never understood nor practiced oral history, and although some of his work was similar in form, he didn’t embrace micro history. He continued to call himself a Marxist right to the end. But this ‘Marxism’ did not suffocate his work (and it changed over time in subtler ways). He popularized history, but his books were also staples on student reading lists, and they were also read by historians. This was a rare skill.

Politically, his communism waned with time. Evans maps out in enormous detail Hobsbawm’s increasing success and interest to publishers. As his books began to sell well, he had more power to decide what to do, ask for advances, and direct his own projects. In the earlier days he was the victim of publisher dictats and anonymous reader reports. As time went on, he was more and more in charge. He lived in the posh London neighbourhood of Hampstead, and often holidayed in Wales, but he was also a globe-trotter, with constant invites to give talks, receive prizes and attend ceremonial type meetings. He enjoyed some of this, but clearly found a lot of it very tiresome. In short, he became a celebrity. His house was always full of often famous guests, which Evans lists in an orgy of name-dropping. In this latter part of the book, there is too much detail, too many lists of advances. But perhaps this mirrors Hobsbawm’s own career. His fame eventually spread far and wide – in Europe (particularly in Italy) and even more so in Brazil. He lived this success as an outsider and an insider. His friend Roy Foster said that ‘he accumulated privileges, but he liked his outsider status’.

He helped to shape the shift in the Labour Party away from a more labourist, union-connected position towards the moderate centre. His interventions paved the way for Tony Blair’s New Labour and the ‘Third Way’. There was some irony in all this – the Marxist and communist helping to shape a shift to the centre. But he continued to oppose imperial wars and was a trenchant opponent of the Iraq conflict. He was no fan of Blair, despite often being ‘blamed’ for providing ideological gloss on the abandonment of Labourist politics. In many ways he was a conservative. He had little truck with 1968, and all that it personified. 

Hobsbawm was always an internationalist and a comparative historian. Politically, he often looked abroad. He was influenced by, and influenced, continental schools of history and historiography. He felt ill at ease in the US on many occasions, but he adored US music. By the end, was he still a Marxist? This is debatable. His views certainly became more moderate, although some referred to him as ‘the last Stalinist’. He retired from his permanent academic post in 1980, but he missed teaching and was offered posts in New York and elsewhere, where he continued to engage with students and colleagues. His retirement was extremely active – he published the important collection The Invention of Tradition (edited with Terence Ranger), which was translated into Italian and many other languages, and also fed into his later much-debated studies of nationalism (Nations and Nationalism). The Age of Empire came out in 1987 and The Age of Extremes in 1994 (when he was 87 years old, which is astonishing in itself). Age of Extremes was a global bestseller and appeared in 30 languages. In Brazil it had an extraordinary success and was cited by two Presidents, Cardoso and Lula. It was the best selling book in all categories. He sold more than a million books in Brazil.

By then, his lack of interest in women or gender, typical of many men from his generation of historians, was attracting serious criticism, but the old skills were not diminished, and he was writing about a time he had also lived through, which gave this book a particular edge, and at a time when everything was changing, and the Soviet bloc had collapsed. As Perry Anderson wrote, cited by Evans, he had an ‘astonishing fusion of gifts: economy of synthesis; vividness of detail; global scope, yet acute sense of regional difference; polymathic fluency, equally at ease with crops and stock markets, nations and classes, statesmen and peasants, sciences and arts’ (Evans, p. 541).

What remains of his work today? He was an innovator, and a populariser. His output was eclectic and original. He was not a determinist, and his ‘Marxism’ was relatively flexible. Above all, his books were widely read, often by those not particularly interested in history, and by many students of the subject. He had a gift for summarising complicated procedures and processes and events in a few sentences or pages. He had blind spots which were of their time, but now can seem inexcusable. He lived long enough to almost become out of date in his own lifetime. For example, he never really discussed or was interested at all in Africa and he was hostile to feminism – women often played second fiddle, or barely appeared, in many of his books. He also remained strangely faithful to the USSR, something which damaged him at various points throughout his long and distinguished career. He liked to change subject and interest. He wrote that he was ‘psychologically an unsystematic, intuitive, spontaneous historian, disinclined to plan’ (ix). He was also a public figure, who was read by political leaders – Presidents, Heads of State, people of great influence – as Evans said, ‘Not for him the life of a scholar shuffling between the study, the library and the lecture hall’ (Evans, p. viii).

[i] See, for example, Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Great Gramsci’, The New York Review of Books, 4 April 1974.

[ii] ‘An Assembly of Ghosts’, London Review of Books, 27, 8, 21.4.2005.

[iii] Anna Di Qual, Eric J. Hobsbawm tra marxismo britannico e comunismo italiano, Edizioni Ca Foscari, Venice, 2020, Studi di Storia, 14, 2020 (book downloadable here) https://edizionicafoscari.unive.it/libri/978-88-6969-401-1/ See also the excellent analysis by David Broder, ‘Hobsbawm in Italy’, Jacobin,  https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/11/eric-hobsbawm-italy-pci-gramsci

[iv] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Poker Face’, London Review of Books, 32, 7, 2010.

[v] Bryan Palmer, ‘Eric Hobsbawm’s Century’, Jacobin, 7.8.2020, https://www.jacobinmag.com/author/bryan-d-palmer

An open letter to Bristol Student Union

An Open Letter to Bristol Student Union


Dear Bristol Student Union

Like many other staff in the university, I was shocked, saddened and depressed by the communication you recently issued. Here is why.


  1. You are demanding more face to face teaching, in the current climate, during a pandemic, despite constant calls from the people who teach you, and the staff in the other services you use (such as the library) that teaching should now go online.
  2. Why do we want to go online? Is it because we are lazy, or shirkers, or can’t be bothered to go to the classroom? No. Most of us would much prefer to teach in the classroom if possible. Online teaching is far more work for us, and has driven some staff to the edge of breakdown through overwork. There are two main reasons why most of us would prefer to move entirely online for the moment. The first is ‘health and safety’ – are buildings really ‘covid secure’? Can we trust the ‘world-beating’ track and trace app to sort things out? Should staff be commuting on public transport to work at this time? Should students have been encouraged to move from right across the country to cramped halls of residence, and then moved from classroom to classroom, during a pandemic? Should we trust the risk assessments? I have a heart condition and have been graded ‘yellow’, but I am still ‘fit’ to teach f2f. And that is before we even get onto mental health. Many other universities have now gone online, and it looks like the government itself is planning to force universities to go online before Christmas in any case.
  3. The second main reason is pedagogic – educational. 198 students (at least) in my School are currently self-isolating. Turnout in classes for f2f has been very poor, whereas it has been very good in online classes. Students are losing out because of the current, and bankrupt, ‘blended’ system which you seem to support. Why should a lecturer take a risk (and everyone accepts there is somerisk, which vastly increases for certain types of people) to teach one person f2f while the rest of the class are stuck in their rooms, with no teaching at all?
  4. You are also demanding ‘more staff’ in libraries – which means more risk for them… and there are the cleaning staff, the porters the administrators, and yes, even the managers (!).
  5. We should be on the same side. Staff and students really are ‘in this together’? We want to teach you to the best of our ability, you want the best teaching possible. We want to stay safe, and for you and your families, and the people of Bristol, to stay safe, and for Bristol hospitals not to be overwhelmed. At the moment this can only be done through an online delivery. In the future, who knows?
  6. Finally, you mention compensation through student tuition fees. I hate the fees system. It has had a terrible effect on university education and the outlook of students and management. I just want to point out that in the current system, if fees start to be ‘paid back’, this will lead to staff cuts, and redundancies, unless there is a government bailout, which does not appear to be on the cards. Staff have already been laid off at the start of the pandemic, and sackings are happening right across the university sector. 

Yours, in solidarity, and in hope… John Foot.

Piazza Fontana. 1969-2019.

Piazza Fontana, 1969-2019. History, memory, confusion.


I studied Piazza Fontana for 10 years or so, in the 1990s. I was interested in the divided memories produced by the bomb, the trials and the deaths of Giuseppe Pinelli and Luigi Calabresi. Not many people were interested, at that time. It was many years in the past, and the militancy and campaigns which had accompanied the Piazza Fontana case, and the Pinelli mystery, had faded. A new case, connected to the same events, was attracting lots of attention – after Adriano Sofri and others were charged with the murder of Calabresi at the end of the 1980s. This story inspired a whole new series of trials. My research took me to some strange places. I went to see Enrico Baj, in his beautiful house in Brianza, and he gave ma an original catalogue of the famous exhibition of his art work The funeral of Giuseppe Pinelli, which was due to open the day Calabresi was murdered, and thus never did. I interviewed some of the protagonists from the time – the great journalist Corrado Stajano, Aldo Aniasi (the mayor of Milan for much of the 1970s who had spoken at many anniversaires), some anarchists, Enrico Deaglio, Giorgio Boatti, Mario Capanna. I saw Dario Fo on many occasions – he would turn up to meetings and events and put on a ‘show’. There was also a big, new trial, going on in Milan at the time. I went along. Nobody was there, in the audience, watching. It almost seemed to be taking place in silence, amidst the indifference of the general public. Something had happened. New generations had not learnt, or had not been taught, about Piazza Fontana at all. Few knew what had happened that fateful day – the 12 December 1969 – when a bomb in a bank caused carnage, and brought Italian democracy to the brink.

I studied the incredible funerals of the victims of the bomb, and Pinelli and Calabresi. I looked at what had happened on every anniversary since 1969 – the first years were particularly violent, and led to more deaths, including that of the student Saverio Saltarelli killed by a police tear gas cannister fired at close range near the university in the centre of Milan on the first anniversary of the bomb. I looked at the plaques and the shifting memories – a ‘memory war’ which is still going on even today – with plaques being changed, re-written, broken, moved around and discussed almost continually since 1969. I studied the numerous trials and investigations – into Pinelli, Calabresi, Piazza Fontana itself. It was all connected, and it never seemed to stop. The trials went on and on and on, but nobody was ever found guilty or, if they were, many people refused to believe in the verdict or the sentence. Incredible conspiracy theories continued to do the rounds – two bombs, anarchists in disguise, SISDE, CIA, NATO. Who had placed the bomb? Why? With what aim? Who was Nino Sottosanti, ‘Nino il fascista’ (see the latest, beautiful book by Sofri himself for more)? Were Calabresi and Pinelli really ‘good friends’? Why was Delfo Zorzi living in Japan?

Milan was still home to many of the protagonists of the vicenda in those years. Pietro Valpreda, for example, had a bar in Corso Garibaldi called Le barricate: 1898 (it was close to one of the places where workers had put up barricades during the revolt of that year). On the walls were numerous posters relating to the campaign to free Valpreda after three years in prison without trial (the law had been changed to allow him out, at last). He was often quite grumpy and would only let in the people he liked the look of. After a few years, the bar shut down.

My research took me far and wide – way beyond Milan itself. On holiday in Tuscany, I forced my poor family, one hot August day, to go to the cemetery in Carrara. It is an amazing place, with a huge monument to Gaetano Bresci (who shot the Italian King dead in 1900 in Monza) outside. Inside, Giuseppe Pinelli is buried (his family moved him from Musocco in Milan) with a large, white piece of marble and an inscription from his favourite book by Edgar Lee Masters – Spoon River. I also found strange connections with my own life. Pinelli had set up the Circolo Anarchico “Ponte della Ghisolfa” in Bovisa, right in front of Piazzale Lugano, 22 – where I lived for more than ten years. He used to visit the cartoleria run by my mother-in-law. Milan is a city, but also a village. Everyone knows everyone else.

Piazza Fontana and the Pinelli case divided Milan, and Italy, in half. It was Italy’s Dreyfus case. People lined up on different sides of the argument. There were two truths (at least), two memories (at least). In the end, these divisions produced the famous two Pinelli plaques in Piazza Fontana itself – a perfect representation of divided memory. Two plaques, about the same event, with slightly different versions of that event. Take your pick. Everyone was (sort of) satisfied. Now Calabresi has a monument too – which is much less well-known, and much less visited – at the place where he was shot in 1972.

The bomb, and the dead anarchist, and the murdered policeman led to numerous books, poems, films, documentaries, a few novels, incredible journalism (Marco Nozza, Camilla Cederna, Giorgio Bocca, Corrado Stajano, Giampaolo Pansa), one of the most famous and produced plays in theatrical history (Accidental Death of an Anarchist, of course), art, photography, songs, a new form of ‘inchieste’ (Strage di Stato, produced by a anonymous collective in 1970). Piazza Fontana was full of mysteries and shady characters, who seemed to come from the world of fiction – Guido Giannettini the spy, the white-haired fascist Franco Freda, the long-haired anarchist Valpreda, the stoic and tireless wives of the victims – Licia Pinelli and Gemma Calabresi – the tragic taxi-driver/witness Cornelio Rolandi. The whole affair also led to an extraordinary number of trials, which rarely found anyone guilty, but which lasted for years. Benedetta Tobagi’s new book for Einaudi recounts the first series of trials relating to the bomb, moved to Catanzaro (about as far away as possible from Milan for the poor relatives of the victims) and caught up in a number of political and judicial controversies. Justice was not done for the victims, nor for Pinelli – nor was it seen to be done. Only the Salvini inquest, much later, was able to get close to the truth – and by them most of the key protagonists were dead, or (in one key case) in Japan.

What do Piazza Fontana, and the Pinelli case, and the Calabresi murder mean for Italian history. Was 1969 a turning point? Did it mark a ‘loss of innocence’? Certainly, many saw in those events the reason to take up what became romantically known as ‘the armed struggle’. The bomb, and the cover-up, and the failure to prosecute those responsible, led to hatred, anger, verbal and real violence. The role of the state itself seemed to legitimise violence against the representatives of the state. The idea that Pinelli had died thanks to ‘un malore attivo’ seemed completely ridiculous. And then there were the other massacres, often linked to Piazza Fontana – Via Fatebenefratelli in 1973 (at the inauguration of a statue of Calabresi, when a so-called ‘anarchist’ threw a bomb into the waiting crowd, killing 4 people), Brescia 1974, Bologna 1980 (to mention the most well-known). It was a dark week in Italian history, and its shadow still hangs over Italy today. Maybe in 2069, we might – finally – find out what really happened. But don’t hold your breath.


John Foot, 11.12.2019

Back to work after the UCU strikes. The power of the Institution

Universities are ‘total institutions’. They control the time, activities and movements of people who work and study in them. I study institutions, and their history, and those who fought to change them. After the first wave of UCU strikes came to an end, it was fascinating to see how quickly I was ‘re-institutionalised’. On my first day back at work, my stress levels rose. I felt that crazy, manic feeling of rushing from place to place, reading emails constantly, meeting with students, juggling dozens of balls in the air, without any sense of achievement or having done anything. Universities are also extremely inefficient places, where huge amounts of time are simply wasted, every day. Emails are constantly sent to people who have no interest in them, but you need to look at them to confirm you have no interest in them, and then throw them away. Systems are set up which simply take up time. Students and staff spend hours moving from place to place, turning computers off and on, entering data on systems. This week I had to go all the way to another city in the UK to conduct one interview. I then attended a ‘post-offer visit day’ where I spent most of the time chatting to my colleagues – which turned out to be the best 90 minutes of my week. We multi-task, all the time, which means that none of our tasks are done properly. This week we were also told to prioritise nine ‘student-facing’ activities by management, and ‘de-prioritise’ research, following the strike. But nobody in term-time in a modern university can ever ‘prioritise’ research.

The institution pulls you in, atomises you, divides you from your colleagues and isolates. I felt that familiar sensation of rushing past colleagues with a simple ‘hello’ – sorry, no time to actually talk to anyone, all day. There were vague plans to ‘have a coffee sometime’, which you know means in two month’s time at best, and lists of events which you realise you can’t attend because they clash with other events, or teaching, or meetings with acronyms – SPARC, RPG, DTP etc. etc. Nobody really understands how this place works, Why are there ‘Deans’, why are there ‘Faculties’ and ‘Schools’, what is the ‘Senate’, who are the ‘Trustees’,  what on earth are the ‘Ordinances’? The opaque nature of all these rules and regulations is where the institution’s power really lies. I actually read through Bristol University’s ‘Ordinances’ this week – it was illuminating, as much as for what they didn’t say as for what they did. Words inside this institution actually mean the opposite of what they should. ‘Consultation’ means ‘we will do this anyway, but we will pretend to ask you about it’. ‘Study spaces’ are ‘places where nobody in their right mind would ever study’. The ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ is not about Teaching, nor about Excellence, and it’s not even really a Framework. All this is so far removed from the playful anger of the strike over the last few weeks, the brilliant banners, the sense that something was changing. Many people working in universities now feel differently, but the institution itself has remained exactly the same.

An Open Letter to the Vice-Chancellor – Bristol University. The UCU Strike, Universities, Staff and the Future

Open letter to the Vice-Chancellor, University of Bristol





Dear Hugh Brady


I am writing this letter as we go back after 14 days on strike. You might be surprised to hear that I am not desperate to return to work. You recently said that this strike has been a ‘lightening rod’ for so many other issues. I entirely agree with you. While the main dispute remains about pensions, so many other issues have come to the surface over the last four weeks. Above all, there is a sense that staff at all levels in our university are over-worked, suffer from stress, taken for granted and – in many cases – entirely ignored. Ever since the fees were introduced at such a high level, the entire focus of the university has been on students. This has made staff and their work almost entirely invisible. We have been loaded up with more and more tasks, with no extra reward or even acknowledgement of who we are apart from spin around REF and TEF results.

I would like to provide you with two concrete examples of this trend. First, staff collective spaces – these have been systematically removed without any consultation or discussion – common rooms, the Hawthorns, etc etc. There is nowhere for humanities staff to go for lunch within our structures beyond one, cold, common room, and our timetables are often scheduled for us to teach at lunchtime. Lunch, discussion, the chance to meet other colleagues – all these things have been abolished. Meanwhile, previous collective or staff spaces have been covered with generic and extremely ugly ‘student study spaces’… What about staff study spaces?

A second issue is staff mental health. There is counselling provision for staff, but very little ongoing or directed mental health support. A student in our department committed suicide last year. This was a horrible and tragic event, above all, of course, for the family of the person involved. But it was also traumatic for staff in our department many of whom knew the student well. Yet no support whatsover was provided for staff involved in this tragedy. We are expected to be at the front line in terms of pastoral care for our students, but no support is even contemplated for us and the mental health training we receive is, I’m afraid, laughable. This is an urgent issue which needs addressing immediately.

I’d like to tell you a small story about my professional life, if I may. I am a relatively senior academic and  was recently involved in a major bid which would benefit – if successful – not just our university but 9 other institutions. This bid took more than 18 months to complete, and was put together in addition to my normal job – teaching, research, administration. It involved over 60 physical meetings. During certain key periods I worked through weekends and late into the evening. The stress of the bid process put strain on my family and private life and affected my research activities. Yet, I was happy to put this time in. Why? Because I care about this university, I care about post-graduate research and I want to do a job well.

However, what I have discovered in this strike (this was something which was obvious to me before, but which I couldn’t see) is that the university doesn’t care about me – or about staff – at all. All we got for the first three weeks of the strike was a hostile email from HR. There was nothing from you, no offer to meet the union or the strikers, no acknowledgement of our demands and the depth of feeling.

It has been on the picket lines and in meetings and in teach outs that I have (re) discovered the ‘community’ and ‘collegiality’ of which you so often speak. I have chatted to colleagues for the first time in years, met colleagues who I had only seen on email, laughed and joked and sang songs with them, marched with them down to college green. Without your staff, no class gets taught, no essay gets marked, no book gets catalogued, no email gets written. We are the university, and I hope that – finally – this message has reached the upper echelons of Senate House (it took the students occupying that space to finally get you to listen to us). I sincerely hope that things will change from now on. For sure, we have changed – and the old ways of doing things will not be acceptable to us any longer…


best wishes


Professor John Foot

Director, South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership

Bid Lead, SWWDTP2

Subject Lead, Department of Italian

UCU Rep, Department of Italian

Review of Sergio Luzzatto, Primo Levi’s Resistance. Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy, Metropolitan Books, 2016.

Review of Sergio Luzzatto, Primo Levi’s Resistance. Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy, Metropolitan Books, 2016.


John Foot


Divided Memories and Italy


Twentieth century Italian history is marked by divisions over the past, myths, and disputes over facts. Divided memories have developed over time and have become part of the landscape, expressed through competing monuments, plaques, anniversaries and ‘memoryscapes’. Historians in Italy have usually lined up on one side or the other of these divides – be they fascist/anti-fascist, or communist/anti-communist. History has been both intensely public – historians are public figures in Italy in a way they are not in the UK or the US – and deeply politicised. This has affected both what has been studied (some subjects have been taboo) and how it has been studied.

Within this landscape, Sergio Luzzatto has ploughed a very different furrow. His work comes at Italy’s history from unusual angles, unmasking uncomfortable truths through his choice of subject matter and his uncompromising approach to it. His brilliant study, for example, of Benito Mussolini’s corpse and its complicated after-life tells us much more about fascism than many more orthodox works. The same is true of his smaller and less well-known work about the body of the ‘father of Italy’, Giuseppe Mazzini (published as The Mummy of the Republic). His methodology is highly original – a mix of micro-history, ego-history (he often places himself, and his own role as a historian, at the centre of what he does) and deeply serious archival research. He is also a story-teller of some skill and a fine writer. His books are gripping, scholarly and controversial – all at the same time. And he is not afraid to take on some of the most difficult subjects for the left to cope with – the popularity of religion, the real strength and power of anti-fascism, the distortions and lies of history itself.

Luzzatto’s mixture of strategies and methodologies was displayed most strikingly in his powerful study of the life of Padre Pio, a monk from the deep south of Italy whose cult has developed a mass following. The decision to study Padre Pio was, in itself, a controversial one. No historian of note had ever taken this story seriously. What emerged was a fascinating detective story, full of lies, bitter disputes within the Church, politics and violence. Luzzatto’s research effectively unmasked Padre Pio – who claimed to ‘have’ ‘stigmata’ as a fraud. But the book goes way beyond this kind of simple debunking of a myth. Luzzatto shows how the rise and rise of Padre Pio (whose cult is now very big business indeed) was deeply entwined with fascism and with his local, southern, milieu. The Padre Pio story is deeply revealing about contemporary Italy, but up to now, it has been almost entirely ignored by historians. Luzzatto takes us deep into the heart of the cult, and in the process introduces us to a series of entertaining and ruthless mediators and middle-men, which propagated and profited from the cult they had helped to create.


Primo Levi, Partisan


Now, Sergio Luzzatto has taken on one of the most sacred cows of all: Primo Levi himself, perhaps the greatest writer to emerge from the Shoah. In doing so, he is also engaging head on with the myth of the anti-fascist resistance, which fought against Italian fascists and the Nazis in Italy between 1943 and 1945. Luzzatto himself is a man of the left, and is also part of the tiny Jewish community by birth. In using his forensic historical tools to look more deeply at the life of Primo Levi and the history and memory of the Resistance, Luzzatto is, in many ways, taking on himself and his own history and sense of tradition.

This book is an almost perverse choice in this sense, seemingly designed to cut him off from family and friends and colleagues. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that Einaudi, the prestigious publishing house in Turin which had published most of Luzzatto’s previous works, and which had famously (or infamously) first rejected then published Levi’s If this is a man, felt unable to bring out this book. Luzzatto went elsewhere, to Silvio Berlusconi’s Mondadori publishing house. Whatever else Primo Levi’s Resistance is, it is certainly a break with the past – and it has caused great controversy in Italy.


But in order to understand Luzzatto’s take on Primo Levi and his role in the Resistance, we need to take a stape back, and examine the Resistance itself.




When I lived in Italy in the 1990s and 2000s, some friends rented a weekend house for a few years at a tiny place called Quarna. We would often visit them there. A short drive from Milan takes you to the edge of Lago d’Orta, a stunning sliver of water encased by hills, and well off the tourist trails which mark its larger and much more well-known neighbours – Lake Como and Lake Maggiore. The road there takes you alongside the water to an industrial town called Omegna – where they make those little Bialetti coffee machines that you find all over the country (and now in trendy bars across the world).

You then wind quickly up into the hills, via a series of hairpin bends. The homes here are not particularly sought after. You are off the beaten track and the sun struggles to break through the thick vegetation; it always felt cold there, even in the summer.

We would often drive up from the house to the top of the hills, out of the woods – where the mountains begin – towards the light and sun. Here there was a beautiful field with a stunning view of the finger-like lake below, stretched out and shimmering. A few rural houses and barns were stretched across the top of the field. One of them has a little plaque on it. It is a simple plaque, recording the fact that a few people gathered at that spot in the Autumn of 1943. But it is also an important sign – a slab of marble that marks the very beginnings of what would become known as The Resistance – La Resistenza.

Between September 1943 and April 1945 thousands of men and women joined and fought in the Italian resistance. To do so, they often ‘went up’ to the mountains, where they came together in small groups that spontaneously formed all over Northern Italy in particular. These people were from all walks of life and a held a variety of political positions. Some were convinced Communists or Socialists or Anarchists, others were Christian Democrats. Many were simply soldiers on the run, and the Resistance (especially in the early days) often linked up with foreign ex-POWs (in Italy there were numerous Allied soldiers in the hills and mountains, as well as Russians, Yugoslavs and numerous others). These tiny groups struggled to survive in those early days, when they were highly vulnerable to attack and infiltration. Their activities were largely improvised and they relied on local peasants for shelter and food (and non-betrayal). The issue of leadership and discipline was an extremely important one right from the start. This story has often been told in heroic terms, but also in more realistic and non-rhetorical ways through fiction, non-fiction, film, poetry, cinema and other cultural forms.

Italy’s anti-fascist resistance was made up of hundreds of similar and equally humble beginnings. These improntu groups, with whatever arms they could get hold of, started to attack the Nazis and the Italian fascists. Many such groups were short-lived, others were much more successful. Very little of what happened with the early resistance was planned. People decided to fight back. They heard about groups forming, and they joined them. It was even clear what they would actually do. It was a nasty, brutal war: a civil war and a war of liberation at the same time. Some also saw it as a class war – a form of revolution.


Debunking the Resistance


Yet, Sergio Luzzatto’s Primo Levi’s Resistance is not really a book about Primo Levi, and it is even less a book about Primo Levi as a partisan. This is not surprising, as Primo Levi was only a partisan for a mere 3 months – and it is unclear exactly what he did when he was an active member of the resistamce. So short was his time in the resistance that it is a bit of a stretch to call him a ‘partisan’ at all. He took part in no battles, and almost certainly didn’t kill anybody at all. It’s not even clear if he knew how to use a gun.

He did make a clear choice – to join the resistance – but this was in also, in part, dictated by the fact that his family was on the run and in hiding in the mountains to the North of Turin – the Aosta Valley – in 1943. He made so little impact that, after his capture, he was able to argue that he hadn’t been a partisan at all, in a misplaced attempt to avoid immediate execution. By declaring himself a Jew on the run (which he had been at first) his fate would – as we all know – be deportation: to Auschwitz.

So, the three months of Levi’s time in the resistance does not really hold enough interest (or even material) to sustain an entire book (and Levi himself wrote very little about that period of his life). But it does allow Luzzatto to produce another kind of book altogether. Primo Levi’s time as a partisan is the spark for a study of the Resistance itself – its vicissitudes, its betrayals, its tragedies, its absurdities, its failures and its heroism. Levi is the hook for this story, but he is not even the main character – nor even (I would argue) the one Luzzatto is most interested in.

By debunking the Resistance with a capital R, Luzzatto gives us the real resistance – with all its failures, tragedies and petty disputes. Luzzatto is taking down a myth (or perhaps two myths – that of Levi and that of the Resistance) but his work enrichens both those stories. Like the novels of Fenoglio or Meneghello or Calvino, his intensely anti-rhetorical version of that past increases the power of those men and women who decided to take up arms. And often, as Luzzatto shows, the failed miserably to make any impact at all.

The miniscule grouping of which Levi was a part was quickly infiltrated by a wily and intelligent spy, and rounded up. They left no mark on the history of the resistance, nor on the history of Italy – but some of that group would go on to play a major role in other parts of Italy and other groupings. Levi meanwhile was arrested and within weeks found himself on the ramp at Auschwitz, separated from his fellow deportees and sent to work. He would not return to Italy until 1946.

So what is it about this Levi story (the Levi story which nobody else has really been interested in[i]) that so fascinates Luzzatto? There are two answers to this question. First, there is the issue of the violence within the resistance. Luzzatto concentrates much of his analysis and story on the execution of two young men by other partisans from Levi’s group (this is shorthand – Levi was never the leader of this group, nor is there any evidence that he took any kind of leading role in decisions) just before the capture of the entire band.

Luzzatto ruminates about this case of partisan justice – and he shows how a false version of the past has entered into public memory. This is still a taboo subject in Italy. But there are no great revelations here. There is no smoking gun, or smoking document. These are stories that have been told – less well – about other similar events in similar places. Unlike with Padre Pio, who Luzzatto effectively unmasked (while arguiing, quite rightly, that this wasn’t the most important thing about his story at all – in historical terms) we are not really shown a new side to Primo Levi. What the book does do is go deep into the resistance and its brutal, dirty, fragile, chaotic and almost mundane reality, especially in those early days. Levi is a pretext for another set of stories, many of which are linked in some way to Luzzatto’s own journey into the past.

The full story of these lonely (and fairly pointless) deaths will have to await the reader of this volume – there are elements that are very close to detective work here and if I were to reveal them it would spoil the denouement. Suffice to say, these executions represented – according to Luzzatto – a trauma that remained with Levi throughout his life. The very mention of such events is also something that leads a historian on the left into a whole series of difficult areas. Why were these young men killed? How were they remembered (or forgotten)? Should these stories be told at all (in a political sense)? What was ‘partisan justice’ at all? What right did one ‘partisan’ have to kill another (often on the basis of very flimsy evidence)?

Luzzatto is a marvellous story-teller, and is adept at painting a geographical picture of where his action takes place. We really feel the spaces and heights and isolation of the cliffs and farmhouses in the Aosta Valley – and the stark beauty of the views they afforded those hiding out there. He transports us to these places. As he writes ‘History must be purseud on foot and not just read’.

And the resistance itself was largely fought on foot, without access to sophisticated equipment, with no air power or motorised divisions. It was a guerilla war, without uniforms and with whatever guns and ammunition these improntu groups could get their hands on. Death often came quickly, and it was often a lonely end. Bodies were simply left behind, often in unmarked graves. When partisans were taken prisoner, they were often simply shot. In turn, they had no resources and no prisons to keep any hostages for long. The rules of war were not applied to this war. For the Nazis, the partisans were bandits, criminals, not real soldiers – and they were usually Italians, who had ‘betrayed’ Germany in September 1943 by leaving the war and changing sides. The civil war between Italians was even more violent, if possible, and was mixed with social hatred and years of built-up-tension under the regime.


The Fascist Spy and post-war Italy


The other part of the story that Luzzatto becomes fascinated by is that of a fascist spy – Edilio Cagni – the man who infiltrated Levi’s nascent group and was responsible for his capture. Again, too much detail here would ruin the story for the reader. Nonetheless, it is Cagni who is, in many ways, the real protagonist of this book. An extraordinary double-dealer, agent provocateur and profiteer, Cagni moves through the book as a kind of cipher, turning up at various points in places where he has no right to be (in prison, out of prison, in Rome). It was easy for Cagni and a fellow spy to outfox the young partisans and prepare them for capture. The very openness of the early resistance made it very vulnerable to activities of this kind. Cagni did not only infiltrate those first partisan groups up in parts of the Aosta Valley, but he also testified against resistance leaders in Turin. Many of those convicted at those trials were shot as a result. They became Resistance martyrs – remembered with plaques and ceremonies in the post-war period.

Cagni’s story is, in itself, absolutely gripping. But it also tells us a great deal about Italy and its relationship with its fascist past. Why (and how) did the Cagnis of Italy get away with it? How did those who had done the dirty work for fascism – the direct identification can capture of partisans – end up living a normal life in the country’s capital, despite numerous trial. Why wasn’t Italy purged of these kind of people, and – with no serious purges – what did this mean for anti-fascist Italy? Were the Cagnis of Italy the real winners from the war?

Cagni’s extraordinary life encapsulates a type of character that comes up very often for those writing about Italian history – the turncoat, the adventurer, the ‘transformist’ type figure – who move between different worlds and seem to get off scot-free. Luzzatto seems to delight in the telling of Cagni’s story – leading us down the highways and byways of a historian’s life and its obssessions – with endless googling, the sudden discovery of a key document or piece of information, the disappointment at the discovery that somebody crucial has died, the huge gaps, and a trail which goes completely dead. There almost seem to be 3 or 4 Cagnis at any one time of the story – a Cagni who has gone through the official justice channels and is supposedly in prison, and another ‘Cagni’ out and about on the streets, seemingly oblivious to the charges against him. Cagni is described by Luzzatto as a ‘pure and dinstinterested hunter of human prey’.


Luzzatto the Historian


Luzzatto likes to reveal his working methods. He often refers to himself in the first person. A pompous academic word for this is inter-subjectivity – but it is never done in a self-aggrandizing way and it makes for a fascinating read. Historians don’t often do this – put themselves into the story, tell us about how they are doing what they are doing, reflect on their ‘craft’ and their ‘role’. On more than one occasion Luzzatto’s splits into two – Luzzatto the Levi fan – the Levi obsessive perhaps – and Luzzatto in the loftier role of historian, judging things from above, relying on documents and information – not guesswork – not allowing his emotions or political outlook to get in the way or cloud his judgement. But there are times when the mask slips – when these ‘two Luzzattos’ get confuse – or merge. And Luzzatto – through his research – also changes history – and memory. His research changes the accepted facts – forcing some relatives of the dead into the difficult position of re-evaluating the past – with possible traumatic effects. At what point, Luzzatto seems to be saying at times, should we stop. Should historians play god? Is there a limit to how far we can dig around?

The partisan execution story told by Luzzatto is also one of false memory and cover-ups. The victims were commemorated as if he had died a hero – and it is Luzzatto who unmasks the truth. And this was certainly not the only case of this kind in post-war Italy. Take, for example, the story of a partisan called Dante Castellucci (‘Facio’) who was active in the mountains above Parma. In post-war Italy Facio was remembered as a hero with plaques and medals, but he had been shot by his own side after a summary trial, and almost certainly for political reasons. It was not until very recently that the truth about Facio’s death was finally revealed.


Criticisms and Ego-History


But Primo Levi’s Resistance is also a book with some important limitations. Perhaps most seriously of all is the gap between the documentation available and the story Luzzatto wants to tell about Primo Levi himself – as a partisan. Is Luzzatto, for example, over-reading the tiny pieces of writing Levi dedicated to those three months. These are, after all just fragments in the grand scheme of what became a vast literary and journalistic production, over a lifetime, as can be seen in the enormous three-volume Complete Works recently published in the US by Liveright). At the very least, the English-language title is misleading, and the subtitle isn’t much help either.

As if to offset these possible objections, which must have tormented him (but probably were also stimulating) Luzzatto starts with a personal reflection – a memory of being read to by his mother at the ages of ‘ten maybe eleven’. The book was not a classic children’s book, but a collection of letters written by partisans condemned to death.[ii] This was almost a sacred text for many of the left in the post-war period. Luzzaato explains that he will also, one day, when the time is right, give that book to his own children. But he has no illusions about many young people in today’s ‘post-anti-fascist’ Italy, where ‘the values of anti-fascism’ for his students ‘are almost as alien as the fraudulent truths of Fascism’.

Luzzatto draws big conclusions in this book from a tiny moment of history, and tends to magnify the importance of those lonely partisan executions in Levi’s own work (the key references are to one chapter in The Periodic Table, a poem, and a few other fragments and clues). This is problematic, and has been criticized by Levi experts. There is, at times, a sense that Luzzatto is over-selling the reasons behind this book. ‘Why’, Luzzatto asks (and asks himself) ‘spend so much time on something that seemed no more than a micro-history … ‘. Was this, in reality, a ‘ridiculously small story’. These are good points, made by Luzzatto himself. It is almost as if he is anticipating the criticism to come.

And beyond Levi’s own story, Luzzatto was well aware that he was entering dangerous ground. Research on violence within the Resistance has certainly taken place in recent years – and there are now many well-known stories in the public domain – of political killings or of partisan justice. But there is still, at times, a sense that you should not really be looking into these grey areas – that it is a kind of betrayal to even go there at all. Is Luzzatto’s real point that nothing is ever clear-cut – even with someone like Primo Levi. That Levi had his own ‘grey zone’, from his past?

Primo Levi’s time as a partisan was, by any measure, the most micro of micro-histories. The stories connected to those three months are not particularly unusual, nor are they ground-breaking. The only reason, really, for devoting so much time to those three months is the presence of Primo Levi himself – who didn’t even play a major role in the events described here. This might be a fatal blow for another historian – but for Luzzatto – who revels in the detail and even in the mundanity of some of what he recounts – it is not. But there remains the charge of bad taste, at the very least. By elevating this moment in Levi’s life to one of great importance, there is a danger of losing sight of Auschwitz itself. Was that time in the mountains really so important?


Purging the Fascists


Much of the book is not taken up by the resistance itself, but by its legacy, and the fates of those who had fought on either side of the divide. As Luzzatto writes ‘the Italian civil war was too lengthy and too cruel to end quickly and painlessly’. Many thousands of fascists – and many others – were killed in the aftermath of the official end of the war. This was the ‘settling of accounts’ – the ‘resa dei conti’ – a period which has proved so controversial in Italy in recent years. As one anti-fascist wrote of the partisans after the liberation ‘they were looking for people to put up against the wall’. Beppe Fenoglio – perhaps the greatest writer to emerge from the Resistance – put these words into the mouths of one of his characters in the same period ‘all of them, you must kill them all’. It was brutal. And, for leading fascists, the best thing of all – the safest thing – was to end up in the hands of the Allies. The days of killing quickly came to a stop. If you survived that first week or so, you had a very good chance not just of making it alive, but also of getting off scot free.

Italy’s purging process was notoriously limp and uneven. Many fascists simply continued to occupy positions of power. No Italian war criminals were prosecuted for war crimes. There were not Italians on trial at Nuremberg, and there was no ‘Italian Nuremberg’. Luzzatto maps out this process for the characters from his own micro-history in excruciating detail. He shows how the drip-drip of amnesty, the absurdly long judicial processes involved and the increasing importance of the cold war helped leading fascists escape punishment. The most absurd case told here is that of the arch-spy himself – Cagni.

Cagni’s story is exemplary, but also – in retrospect – difficult to believe. His first trial was meant to take place in April 1946. Already, by then, the revolutionary wave had passed. The partisans had (mostly) put away their guns. Some had even ended up in prison – or in asylums (but this is another story) themselves. The ‘wind from the north’ – the wave of radical change from the resistance – was far weaker than it had been just a year before. Primo Levi also gave evidence to that trail. Cagni, at this first trial, was given the death sentence. But he appealed immediately.

An amnesty in June 1946 – passed by Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti – led to thousands of ex-fascists being released from prison. Togliatti sold this to his members as a necessary measure in order to prevent civil war, but it caused widespread anger and numerous protests. Some ex-partisans even ‘returned’ to the mountains. Occasionally there were riots and protest strikes (once such case is described in detail by Luzzatto). But the Communist Party leadership held firm.

Other judges would be more lenient. The political and anti-fascist push of those early trials was not repeated as they moved city, and fewer and fewer witnesses could be bothered to turn up. Cagni also had a good series of lawyers. Soon, the original sentence was quashed and a new trial was planned. Only one witness would turn up to testify against Cagni in 1947. The death sentence was no longer possible and Cagni’s lawyer appealed yet again – this time to the even more conservative higher court – the Court of Cassation. Predictably, for those who have studied such things, the Cassation Court was kind to Cagni.

There would be yet another new trial, this time in Viterbo not far from Rome (and from the ‘revolutionary north’). It was now October 1949. Cagni’s judicial process was still dragging on. A 20-year sentence was handed down, but this was reduced to just over six years thanks to amnesties and the period he had already served. Soon (too soon, surely) Cagni was a free man. By 1950 he was living in Rome. Despite his role in numerous arrests and his direct part in the executions of resistance leaders, he could now live a normal life. But Luzzatto, tantalizingly, does not give us much information on Cagni’s ‘second life’. He appears to have (in the end) given up his search. ‘Each reader’ he concludes ‘can individually imagine what became of Edilio Cagni’.




Memory is another key area where Luzzatto is both sharp and unyielding. He shows how the dead were used and re-used – as martyrs, as heroes (even when they clearly weren’t) for either side (in the civil war) or by the Italian state. The needs of memory often took precedence over those of history, or truth. There were, in fact, many cases of false medals and blatant lies in the post-war period. Only brave historians and others would expose such falsehoods – and it would often take years for them to do so. Luzzatto himself reveals one particularly grotesque case of falsified memory in his book – where a young man shot by his own side is described as having died ‘heroically for the liberation of Italy’.

What kind of Italy emerged from the resistance? Would it be the Italy of Levi, or the Italy of Cagni? Or, perhaps, it would be an Italy where both Levi and Cagni would co-exist (without ever meeting again). The one, after a long period of relative silence, would go on to become a public figure, and the key chronicler of the holocaust for many. The other would live out his life in relative obscurity, and take his many secrets to the grave with him. Luzzatto is interested in telling both of their stories, but not around a binary and simplistic idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Italy. Both Cagni and Levi and their complicated lives help us understand the war, the resistance and the multiple, divided and sometimes false memories and histories which emerged from that dirty, brutal and multi-faceted conflict.





[i] Although there is another book on the subject now available in Italian, Freidan Sassy’s, which Luzzatto describes rather haughtily as ‘fairly modest’ in a footnote, and doesn’t refer to again (despite by now having had time to do so).

[ii] P. Malvezzi and G. Pirelli eds., Lettere ai condannati a morte della Resistenza italiana (8 September 1943-25 April 1945) (Turin, Einaudi, 1952).

Oriel, Cecil Rhodes and Me

I ‘went up’ to Oriel College, Oxford, in October 1983. I had been to state school – and Oriel was something of a culture shock. There were ‘normal’ people there, but there were also a lot of people who didn’t seem normal at all. They appeared very much at home in the quads of Oriel and in dinner jackets and gowns. And they very quickly joined in with the ‘traditions’ of the college, including something called ‘pegging out’, where a student would be derobed (stripped) and pinned to the lawn with croquet hoops. They also tended to row – a lot. Many people in Oriel were very good at rowing. Oriel was an all-male bastion when I arrived, but an announcement was soon made that it would go mixed. This finally happened in our third year. ‘They’ – the strange people – were outraged at this decision, and took part in an unusual form of political protest on one occasion which involved the throwing down of gowns in front of high table.

I had never really heard of Cecil Rhodes before going to Oriel. But I found out about him soon enough. One of my first essay assignments involved going to the Rhodes Library, an amazing building decked out in luscious carved wood. In Oriel’s dining hall there was a large portrait of Rhodes above high table, and then there was the statue with his foot peeking over the ledge, on the front of the college, looking out to the rest of the world. Rhodes was everywhere. But nobody talked about him, or even vaguely questioned what he was doing in all these places. We were soon told about the subversive earring which had been painted on the ear in Rhodes’s portrait (it was still there a few years ago) – a wry comment by some student prankster no doubt – and a reference to the fact that Rhodes is often seen as gay by historians and others. The College tolerated the earring, as supposedly they must have known about it.

In my third year, a small group of us began to take on the strange public school crowd. We set up a women’s committee to welcome the new arrivals, got the JCR annex renamed as the Nelson Mandela room (I’m told that the apartheid regime crumbled when it heard the news) and put together a satirical little magazine called the Oriel Wirker. I wrote an article in that little paper calling for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’s portrait from the dining hall in the college. My arguments were – I seem to remember – that he was a hyper-imperialist whose vast wealth had basically been stolen from the people of Africa. I even did some research. I had two amazing tutors in Oxford (Gavin Williams and Stanley Trapido) who taught me African politics. They were an inspiration. The piece fell on deaf ears. So I decided to take things further. I put in a motion to the Junior Common Room – the student body in the college. I still remember the humiliating defeat that evening and the key argument of my opponents – that if Rhodes was an ‘Oriel man’, he ‘must have been a good chap’.

But was Rhodes really a ‘good Oriel man’? In the Oriel Record (2014), a publication I always read from cover to cover, the true story of Rhodes’s relationship with Oriel is laid out by Brian Escott Cox.[1] Rhodes – who was already rich thanks to Kimberley diamonds – was ‘admitted’ to Oriel at the age of 20 in 1873. Rhodes was ‘most unusually’ given ‘permission to live out of college’ and, in fact, ‘never at any time lived in college’. But after one term as a ‘student’, he returned to Africa. He did not turn up in Oxford again until 1876. By the time he returned, Rhodes was ‘well on his way to becoming one of the richest men in the world’. He would stay for seven terms, but, for Cox ‘he was not a good college man, in fact he was not a college man at all (and) he never lived nor dined in college.’ He was also ‘a member of the Bullingdon Club’. Rhodes left £100,000 (a lot of money in those days, some say the equivalent of £36 million today) to Oriel in his will. Some of that money was used to build the famous statue.

Now a much more serious campaign has brought #Rhodesmustfall Rhodes into the public eye, with demonstrations, articles and the highly intelligent use of social media. The movement began in Cape Town, where a fairly hideous statue of Rhodes was eventually removed, before moving to Oxford. The proponents of the campaign (which is by no means only about the statue itself) are intelligent, savvy and angry. They highlight issues linked to Britain’s colonial past, and the lack of discussion about this past.

But the Rhodesmustfall has campaign has led to howls of outrage from the establishment, and in particular from a whole host of eminent historians. Some of these arguments are simply ridiculous, such as those which compare this student-led movement to Isil (or Isis or whatever we want to call it). Others trot out the boring charge of ‘political correctness gone mad’. For this, I refer you to Stewart Lee and his work.

Others are more serious. Michael Howard, a distinguished professor of history, called the campaign an ‘attempt to rewrite the history of the college and the university’. This is a strange argument for a historian to make. For years, there has been no discussion whatsoever of Rhodes and his legacy. This campaign has re-opened debates, including those about the history and legacy of imperialism. It has re-energised the importance of history and historical debate, which was previously moribund. Moreover, there is nothing permanent about a statue, or a monument. History tells us that statues are continually being removed, or damaged, or changed, or simply forgotten. What is so special about a not-very-interesting statue of a very rich colonialist who had a country named after him (a country which is no longer named after him)? When fascism fell in July 1943, Italians took to the streets to tear down statues of Mussolini and symbols of fascism. They did so with joy. It was a sign of political change. They weren’t stopped by an eminent historian telling them they were ‘rewriting history’.

A second argument is even weirder. We are told that it is folly to judge the past with the values of the present. But why is this the case? The past is always judged with the values of the present. This is different – very different – from seeing the past in context (which is also what historians do, all the time). If we didn’t judge the past with the values of the present, we would still think black people were inferior beings, or gay people mentally ill, or imperialism ‘the white man’s burden’. What was acceptable in the 19th century is often no longer acceptable today. Of course we should judge Rhodes with the values of today. That is the whole point. The statue should come down, and the sooner the better. But the debate should go on.




[1] Brian Escott Cox, Cecil Rhodes – Provost Clark and Harriet Butler, Oriel Record, 2014, pp. 36-42.