The World Refugees Made. Decolonization and the Foundation of Postwar Italy

Ballinger, Pamela
Anzahl Seiten
336 S.
$ 45.00; € 43,60
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Andreas Guidi, Universität Konstanz

In public history and commemorations of contemporary Italy, the most heated debates revolve around the final phase of the Second World War. The past years have witnessed a growing acceptance of memorial scripts originally associated with revisionist far-right views, such as the plead for an equal memorialization of partisans’ and fascists’ experiences during the Salò Republic and a mainly victimized narrative about the “exodus” as well as the massacres on Italians from the Eastern Borderland (the Julian March, Istria, and Dalmatia) in 1945. Why the state created the Giorno del Ricordo on February 10th, however, is largely unknown. On this day in 1947, Italy signed a Peace Treaty with former enemies or representatives of occupied territories, a crucial event which redefined borders and diplomatic relations at the dawn of the Cold War. Involving areas from East Africa to China, from the Aegean to France, this treaty is a landmark in the history of Italy’s decolonization which, however, rests on earlier and later displacements from the territories of the Italian Empire.

Pamela Ballinger’s new monograph The World Refugees Made invites us to rethink those crucial years through the range of initiatives, institutions, and experiences of refugeedom in Italy. As she argues, dealing with the inflow of approximately 700.000 (p. 2) individuals with different status and under different jurisdiction shaped Italy’s search for a post-fascist sovereignty and a national body politic. In other words, determining who was a refugee and who was not and, among the former, who was a “national” and who was a “foreign” refugee molded the “rebirth” (p. XII) of the Italian polity emerging from the durable traces of its imperial past. This process started with the first British occupations of Italian African colonies (1941) but lingered on well until the end of the war with legal and cultural consequences lasting until today.

Ballinger, professor of History and Fred Cuny Chair in the History of Human Rights at the University of Michigan, authored the groundbreaking History in Exile: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans in 2003, an anthropological account on the history and memory of the Italian esuli from the Eastern Border. Building on a decade of research and integrating a small amount of previous publications, Ballinger’s new book expands the scenery through accounts from all other lost territories of the fascist Empire (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, Albania, the Dodecanese). Through archival sources from several organizations dealing with repatriations, the author cogently builds a narrative where state-remaking is indissolubly linked to transnationalism and intergovernmentalism. The book succeeds in both re-centering Italy in the history of 20th century Europe and in bypassing an exceptionalism which still widely stresses Italy’s “short” imperial experience as well as alleged “strange”, “early”, or “soft” decolonization. The entanglement of Italian irredentism and colonialism, resulting in Mussolini’s “Nation-Empire”[1] and the resonance of the latter in contemporary migration debates in the country, unfolding like a “Mobius strip”[2] have been investigated by germinal studies in the last years. Ballinger builds upon this growing scholarly corpus with an innovative ethnographic approach on Italian archives and the landscapes of refugeedom, both bearing a mark – albeit a transformative one – of the fascist imperial past.

In Chapter 1, Ballinger assesses superficial media representation according to which Italians (the “us”) would have shared as “emigrant nation”[3] the fate of today’s immigrants (the “them”) in Italy. Instead of marking a cleavage, she frames the fascist imperial “prelude” in a stronger continuity and causality with this recent immigration. It was precisely by advocating the criteria to be recognized as national refugees that institutions in the aftermath of the Second World War mediated boundaries of belonging and “closed the door on large-scale naturalization” (p. 30) for former imperial subjects. The chapter stresses fascism’s reinforcement of an expansionist drive which turned out to be double-edged for the supposed coherence of the Italian nation. Ballinger creates the term oltreitalie to move beyond a scholarly national lens in the study of colonialism and decolonization. Italy’s imperial legacy destabilized national reconstruction a decisive phenomenon for those displaced directly affected but until now scarcely acknowledged by historians. By reinstalling the margins of belonging in the narrative, refugees appear to have been central in the laborious making of a new Italy.

Ballinger convincingly situates the origin of the refugee issue at the inception of the Second World War, as repatriations brought thousands of Italian citizens – often breaking up family units – from the colonies to the metropolis, most notably the navi bianche operation largely advertised by the fascist propaganda. Chapter 2 discusses displacements as a shift from a state-run “charity-based” toward a “rehabilitative” (p. 60) model of repatriation. This was made possible by the fall of the fascist regime and the disarray of the army between summer and autumn 1943 as well as the reversal of power relations in the war with the advancement of Allied troops in Italian territories. The main factor was, however, the pluralization of bodies responsible for relief and repatriation. The book carefully discusses the tensions between the British Military Administration, mediator states such as the Vatican, humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross and the newly created United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), and even local committees founded by Italians. No potential refugee was considered a politically neutral entity. In the twilight of fascist imperialism, the repatriated were suspected of lack of indoctrination and especially of morality, while the British did not hesitate to ponder the risks of them remaining in de facto lost territories as pawns for later Italian reclamations.

Chapter 3 is arguably the conceptually stronger contribution of the book. By assessing existing literature on the entanglement between displacement, sovereignty, and diplomacy[4] which produced a “retrenchment” (p. 79) of the nation-state after the Second World War, Ballinger makes a strong additional case for stressing the role intergovernmental bodies such as the emerging United Nations played in mediating “the tensions between the national and international.” (p. 80) The book elegantly moves between scales, as the emerging new world order is discussed along the experiences of (former) subjects of the fascist Empire, who “could live without democracy” but “not live without bread.” (p. 82) With fascinating insight in personal stories caught in legal interstices, Ballinger illustrates the limits of Italian sovereignty in dealing with the humanitarian emergency, but also how sovereignty became a claim reinforced by the exclusion of non-welcome persons displaced toward the Kingdom. This making of national refugees, situated within both war and decolonization, enters a dialogue with comparative perspectives on European contexts like France, Germany, or Portugal.[5]

Back then as today, migrants with an uncertain bureaucratic status move in different directions, and the efforts by some families to reunite by – often illegally – crossing the Mediterranean from Sicily to Tripoli effectively destabilizes perceptions of the North/South divide in this sea’s modern history. Ballinger links discussions about belonging and emotions to wide-angle accounts suggesting how the seismic Wilsonian moment and its semantics of nationality still vibrated among the ruins of the Second World War. X factors such as morality, piety, sentiments, and hearts equally flowed into the multisided negotiations illustrated above and substantially informed the legal script of the time. Chapter 4 is centered on the redefinition of citizenship and the “dialectical articulation of inclusion-exclusion both at home and abroad.” (p. 138) The book plays with temporal frames and discusses Italian citizenship history in the long term, but also by zooming in the frenetic redefinition of citizenship which led to its “patrilineal and consanguineal understanding.” (p. 173) This ambitious scheme proves overall effective, although the assessment of colonial regimes of citizenships linked to colonial governance is not always accurate, especially in the case of the Dodecanese islands. This is a general problem in the historiography of Italian colonialism resulting from the lack of studies appreciating pre-colonial (in this case Ottoman) social configurations and their persistence or transformation. Specifically, there was no significant amount – if at all – of Jewish “Levantines” with Italian protection before the seizure of the islands in 1912, and Venice could hardly be a reference of past belonging since it had never governed the Dodecanese islands (except Karpathos and Kasos). Furthermore, the naturalization of Muslims was favored and not hampered by the governors, and family sheets archived ad the Town Hall of Rhodes suggest that “local” spouses and children of metropolitan citizenship did in fact upgrade their status from “subject” (the most frequent subaltern bureaucratic category used in the records applied to most of the colonial population) to “citizen”, albeit preserving a less relevant formal distinction between Aegean and Metropolitan citizenship.

Chapter 5 redirects the discussion toward Italy and the locations where refugees were hosted. Here, Ballinger’s ethnographic approach brilliantly reflects on space and time, on how the fascist empire’s shadow after the Second World War acted as a transformative legacy. Just like “land” and its valorization through bonifica and new settlements were a chrono-topos used by the regime, they were re-used as a space to be inhabited and, through this further reclamation, re-enacted by Republican Italy dealing with the settlement of newcomers. From the “Esposizione Universale di Roma” (EUR) neighborhood in Rome to the Risiera di San Sabba in Trieste and the Fossoli Camp near Carpi, up to Fertilia in Sardinia and Gebelia in Latium, different refractions of the fascist past (from urban grandeur to genocidal violence to agricultural policies) throughout Italy came to be embodied and entangled with the trajectories of the refugees from the Eastern Borderlands and the colonies. The book analyzes in depth the case of the fishermen settlement Fertilia, where refugees fulfilled the bonifica post-imperiale (p. 183). Rather than a linear process, though, this was the result of endless negotiations between private donors (including Hollywood actor Don Murray) and foundations, intergovernmental bodies like the UNRRA, and the Italian government, which misinterpreted the local Sardinian economy. This chapter offers a precious conceptual contribution in considering these sites as “productive ruins.” (p. 205) Instead of static remains of fascist disgrace, they have been reenacted and transformed through an “excess of meaning”[6] stemming from the diverse personal trajectories of those who inhabited them, which bypasses fascism’s ideological legacy.

In the conclusions, however, Ballinger nuances this idea of dynamism with an example of an image originally used by fascist wartime propaganda to install hopes of return to Libya re-enacted by a poster spotted in Rome (in fact by an explicitly neofascist and microscopic group) referring to the lost territories in the Eastern Borderland. This evocative fragment underlines the importance and the originality of Ballinger’s work. The “world” made by refugees is a still “ongoing, if uneven and always contested, reckoning with Italy’s long decolonization.” (p. 214) It is an infinite tension between categorical order and confusion, institutional and personal initiatives, emotions and papers, settlements and movements. Despite a few factual inaccuracies[7], Ballinger’s book is illuminating in terms of work on the sources and ability to hold together those different settings, topics, and methodologies in a captivating prose. The World Refugees Made will become a standard reference for all courses on Italy’s decolonization and the country’s contemporary history, but it is also an indispensable contribution to the history of human rights, mobility, and the modern Mediterranean.

[1] Roberta Pergher, Mussolini’s Nation-Empire. Sovereignty and Settlement in Italy’s Borderlands, 1922–1943, Cambridge 2017.
[2] Stephanie Malia Hom, Empire’s Mobius Strip. Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention, Ithaca 2019.
[3] Mark I. Choate, Emigrant Nation. The Making of Italy Abroad, Cambridge, Mass. 2008.
[4] Jessica Reinisch, Internationalism in Relief. The Birth (and Death) of UNRRA, in: Past & Present 210/6 (2011), pp. 258–289.
[5] Manuel Borutta / Jan C. Jansen (eds.), Vertriebene and Pieds-Noirs in Postwar Germany and France. Comparative Perspectives, Basingstoke 2016; Christoph Kalter, Rückkehr oder Flucht? Dekolonisierung, Zwangsmigration und Portugals retornados, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 44 (2018), pp. 250–284.
[6] Tim Edensor, Industrial Ruins. Spaces, Aesthetics, and Materiality, Oxford 2005, p. 141.
[7] Mussolini’s death occurred on April 28, 1945 and not April 25 (p. 65), which is the recurrence of the Liberation of many towns in Northern Italy. Only the second post-fascist government built by General Badoglio and the King Vittorio Emanuele in 1944 might be considered “multiparty,” since the first Badoglio government was formed by bureaucrats and the military. The second Badoglio government did not emerge from elections and only lasted 55 days, which could hardly make it count as “democratic” (p. 244).

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