In a celebrated essay, Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014) emphasised the close, even circular relationship between monument and document, between collective memory and historiography.[1] Given the note of caution sounded by the famous French historian, we would be well advised to consider the links between such different fields as public memory and historical research, between the political uses of memory and professional history. In examining the evolution of Italian historiography of the Great War, we need, therefore, to bear in mind the close reciprocal links between collective memory and historical studies. While bestowing particular attention on the evolution of these links, we need also to take into account the public mood, the political uses to which history is put, and the public sphere in which they evolved. In this way, we will be able to observe how the phases in the development of First World War Studies dovetail with the more general progress of national and international history.

In the first post-war period, the lack of archival material weighed heavily on Italian studies and likewise on research undertaken in the other European countries. Shortly afterwards, the rise of fascism rendered even the publication of collections of official documents and memoirs problematic, although similar items were then appearing in the rest of Europe. Indeed, the regime would not countenance placing the victory in question and, despite a number of new initiatives, this reticence had a profound impact upon memory and upon Italian studies. In the second post-war period, the possibility of a more open debate and access to archival documents led to a new wave of studies, still based however on the line that the First World War had been the “fourth war of independence”. It was in fact only at the end of the 1960s that a rupture was discernible, which gave rise to the critical historiography that would dominate during the next three decades, placing greater emphasis upon critical aspects and the actual experience of war. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of grand historical narratives, although there was no lack of new ideas, such as studies on the efficacy of propaganda and on local social and political behaviours, narratives of the conflict seem to have become fragmented. The risk is, then, that the memory of the war will shatter into tiny pieces.

The Post-war Period

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the social, economic, cultural, and political demobilization after the first truly global conflict was complex and assumed somewhat peculiar characteristics. The gains and losses suffered in the war were polarised, in that the middle classes emerged in pieces while the popular classes were hard-pressed to recover the gains of the pre-war period and were, therefore, compelled to engage in widespread agitation. The economic restructuring was painful. The war itself had infected and divided Italian culture: the liberal political system, as is well known, failed to hold up against the impact of the war and the post-war period. As a consequence, between 1922 and 1925, ten years after the opening of hostilities on the Italian front, the country lost its political freedoms.

Italy’s post-war crisis was also reflected in scholarly research. When the guns fell silent, historians had no archival documents at their disposal. Italian archives were no exception, save perhaps in a negative sense. Even in the case of diplomatic history, the documents arrived late. Historians are familiar with the historiographical and political battles occasioned at an international level by the publication of collections of diplomatic documents produced in the aftermath of the Conference of Versailles, when disputes flared up around the question of the responsibility of the Central Powers. Even if, in the years and decades following 1918, there was no lack of texts and interventions by Italian historians on this subject, we should not underestimate the fact that the first volume of the Documenti diplomatici italiani was only published in 1954, followed by a further two volumes in the 1970s. The series in question (the fifth) was only completed in the 1980s. This lengthy delay demonstrates, among other things, just how much the fascist regime inhibited unfettered historical enquiry.

The aftermath of the Great War was above all else a period of mourning and was devoted to political discussions and polemic, rather than to historical research. Those who had advocated neutrality – the pacifists, the socialists, and the Catholics – charged the Italian ruling class with having dragged the country into war. This same ruling class was also attacked for what it had failed to do in peacetime, that is to say, from Versailles onwards. Extreme nationalists, the followers of Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), and the fascists challenged it immediately after the end of the conflict with the assault on Fiume and more generally during the post-war period. Meanwhile, a highly acrimonious debate regarding Caporetto was unleashed. It was set aside following the publication of the volumes of the relevant Inchiesta.[2] White-hot in 1919, as much as and perhaps even more than elsewhere, political debate then cooled, only to be buried once and for all by the fascist regime. For the time being, historians kept silent.


With the advent of fascism, memory and historical studies became in large part tied to the policies of the regime. Indeed, in no other European country did a government continue to proclaim itself to be a child of the Great War, which is effectively what the squadristi and Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) were doing with their claim to represent “the Italy of Vittorio Veneto”. In other European countries, the memory of the Great War could obviously not be eliminated, but there was an attempt to file it away, to neutralise it, to reduce it to commemoration. In Italy, by contrast, that memory was loudly proclaimed – and, in extreme cases, replaced by other bellicose emphases (for example, the war in Ethiopia from 1935-1936). The reason was obvious: for fascism the memory of the Italian Great War was supposed to unleash a rhetoric of the warlike qualities of the Italian people and of the ruling regime. It was a time for myth, as Mussolini himself had said. The victory was not up for discussion, and people looked askance at those who wished to analyse it or recall too many details. One can all too easily intuit the consequences this attitude had for the collective memory of the conflict and for Italian studies.

Unrestricted research was in fact accepted by the fascist regime, that is, insofar as it did not clash with the regime’s political and cultural interests. The position of historians improved in relative rather than in absolute terms, with respect to other actors in the public sphere. Around the 1920s, the Carnegie Endowment volumes paved the way for a social and economic history of the war in Italy and elsewhere.[3] Other studies, organised by the military establishment itself or stemming from documentation produced by it, prepared the ground for studies informed by social history, covering soldiers’ religious practices, their mentalities, and general attitudes (thanks, for example, to the precedent set by army health services or by military courts).[4] Adolfo Omodeo’s (1889-1946) research into the feelings of combatants, ordinary soldiers, and especially reserve officers was of fundamental importance.[5] These exceptions aside, in the historiography of Italian participation in the conflict, traditional diplomatic, political, and military accounts were favoured.

The shadow of censorship hung over scholarly debates. Thus, only between 1932 and 1938, with a sympathetic Roman printer, did General Roberto Bencivenga (1872-1949), a follower of Giovanni Amendola (1882-1926) who had been sentenced to imprisonment, manage to get his five important volumes on the war published.[6] Piero Pieri (1893-1979), for his part, was only able to discuss them in the form of reviews appearing in the Nuova rivista storica, a scholarly journal that was not widely distributed.[7]

The Second Post-war Period

In the course of the Second World War, Italians came to realise, if they had not already intuited it before, that the regime’s military and bellicose qualities were in reality quite minimal. Defeat on the battlefield in 1940-1943 and the division of the country in 1943-1945, by virtue of operations affecting the entirety of national territory from south to north, represented a dramatic confirmation of this fact.

After twenty years of dictatorship, the country had recovered its liberty and the most diverse and even critical views and interpretations were now possible and tolerated. But, albeit in the oppositional dialectic typical of the Cold War, a considerable number of images had already been impressed on the minds of Italians and a considerable number of judgements had been shared, even across the ever-so-bitter political polarisation. This would have numerous and complex consequences for collective memory and for studies of the Great War.

After 1945 the first global conflict was no longer perceived as a “great” war. This implied that, in public memory, the Second World War took precedence over the first. Once depictions of the earlier conflict as a liberal war or as the first step in the warlike expansion sought by fascism had “faded”, how was the Great War to be remembered?

The conflict began to be “sanitized” and purged of its most dramatic aspects. 1914-1918 had certainly not been a chivalrous war, and yet, in contrast to the genocide of the European Jews and the harshness of widespread resistance, the first global conflict assumed the calming attributes of a (more) regular war. At the same time, the old national-liberal interpretation advanced in the very earliest post-war period now seemed implausible and old-fashioned. This led to the rehabilitation of the version already dear to democratic interventionists, of the “fourth war of independence” for Trento and Trieste. This version harmonized with the moderate interpretation of the more recent war of liberation and resistance as precisely another “war of independence” from the Nazi invader, a “second Risorgimento”. Following this general line, even if very cautiously, between 1945 and 1965, historians went along with the conflict’s “passing over into history”.

The best example of this is the short book that Piero Pieri published on the war’s fiftieth anniversary, which was based on an earlier intervention and synthesis. L’Italia nella prima guerra mondiale (1965) represented by far the best introduction to the theme, as it was somewhat critical of previous militaristic interpretations. However, it was also permeated by the democratic interventionist conception of Italian involvement in the global conflict; it was construed as a fulfilment of national aspirations.[8] For example, Luigi Cadorna’s (1850-1928) handling of the war was criticised, but never to the extent of casting doubt on the national need for the conflict.

Archives became more accessible in the 1960s, through the convergent effects of the government permitting the release of archival documents after fifty years and the belated establishment of an independent institution in the form of a central state archive separate from the state archive in Rome (a separation decided upon in 1953 but put into effect only in 1960). For this reason, up until then the work of identifying other sources, literary or biographical, had been important. This period therefore saw the publication of the Cadorna family papers and the private papers of Angelo Gatti (1875-1948) and Ferdinando Martini (1841-1928).[9]

Using these documentary sources and the first archival deposits as they gradually became available, historians began to study the diplomacy surrounding Italy’s intervention in the war, the stances of the main political groups, the interests represented by major economic forces, the ill-defined actions of the leadership of the workers’ movement, and the actions of the papacy and the lay Catholic movement. Noteworthy advances in knowledge were made and an initial debate took shape, above all if one considers that this was after twenty years of dictatorship. Yet up until the fiftieth anniversary, these studies failed to break with the traditional patriotic interpretation favoured by democratic interventionists. For this reason, up until then the history of the world war by Italian historians could be defined later by a critical observer like Giorgio Rochat, in terms of the once customary diplomatic, political, and military history, as “a version, updated in form, but unaltered in political substance, of the traditional interpretation of the conflict”, even in the best of cases.[10]

Critical Historiography

Jay Winter has noted that, at the international level, the generation of “fifty years later” was still caught up in nostalgia, while it was only with the advent of the “Vietnam” generation that critical historiography succeeded in demolishing the old myths.[11] Other observers, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, have dated the birth of a historiographical revision, and, more generally, of a judgement of Italian public opinion regarding the Great War, to 1968. While not wishing to underestimate the role played in this respect by the “years of collective action” and by social movements in the transformation of Italy and the mindset of Italians, this dating seems particularly inexact, even misleading.

Around the time of the fiftieth anniversary, the First World War loomed large in the public sphere. When 1968 and 1969 erupted in the squares of Italy, a new interpretation of the Great War had already been broached. Of course, extensive use was made of the anti-institutional mood of those years and the years immediately following. Consequently, these were the years in which historians built up a more critical memory of the war.

First through a handful of monographs and then a more wide-ranging series of studies, the image of the Great War began to change, even for Italians. The most original and important studies were I vinti di Caporetto (1967) by Mario Isnenghi,[12]L’esercito da Vittorio Veneto e Mussolini (1967) by Giorgio Rochat,[13]Plotone di esecuzione (this publication dates from 1968 and had an extraordinary impact) by Alberto Monticone and Enzo Forcella (1921-1999),[14] and Storia politica della Grande guerra (1969) by Piero Melograni (1930-2012),[15] followed again by Isnenghi with Il mito della Grande guerra[16] (published in 1969-1970 but in fact a graduate dissertation that had been written a good deal earlier). These were all works conceived well before 1968: they represented a reaction against a centre-left that was ossifying, and against the old national interpretation of the conflict as the fourth war of independence, a reading which was now at last deemed to be inadequate.

The interpretative turn was a radical one, and from then on it was central to all that followed. If for its protagonists the Great War had been at the origin of modern memory, as Paul Fussell (1924-2012) put it,[17] it is certain that, for the Italian peninsula, the new critical historiography that emerged between the fiftieth anniversary and 1968 lay at the origin of the modern Italian perception of the conflict. Historical analyses no longer included only the plans and strategies of the generals but also the actual experiences of the combatants. There was no longer only heroism but also repression; not only victories but also defeats, no longer the end of 19th century liberalism but – by virtue of the powerful mechanisms for the mobilisation of consciousness and the effective system of repression – an anticipation of the totalitarian or, at any rate, authoritarian and repressive systems of the 20th century. In fact, in the climate of the 1970s and after these pioneering works, historical research into the First World War changed.

The conflict was now considered to constitute a radical caesura between the liberal 19th century and both the Giolittian early 20th century and the advent of fascism. The features of coruscating and disturbing modernity were highlighted, along with the operation of robust repressive structures. Themes such as the authoritarian politics of the various governments, repression in the factories, the heavy hand of military justice to which the troops were subjected, the ruthless and intractable military mobilization of the country’s natural resources (and furthermore the political choice of governments to extend only the most minimal help to prisoners held by the enemy so as to stop combatants conceiving of prison as a means to evade the drama of the conflict), and so on, served to shatter the modicum of Risorgimento consensus that the traditional and national patriotic interpretation of the fourth war of independence could still suggest. Then, later on, around the mid-1980s, thanks in part to the translation of studies by John Keegan (1934-2012),[18] Paul Fussell, and Eric Leed,[19] a perspective more closely attuned to the actual experience of war emerged, above all to that of the combatants themselves.[20] To the authors mentioned above we should therefore add studies that were based upon autobiographical sources or documentation from the medical sphere, which served to illustrate “the transformation of the mental universe” of the combatants and the tragic psychiatric disturbances from which they suffered.

A synthesis of this historiographical tendency appeared relatively late, in 2000, with the publication of La grande guerra 1914-1918 by Mario Isnenghi and Giorgio Rochat.[21] Its authors made a fundamental contribution to the process of rethinking the conflict and neither subsequently abandoned this field of study. While still adopting a wide-ranging and synoptic approach, the two historians gave free rein to their own scholarly interests, but their historiographical preferences, for example, in the case of the sections on diplomatic history, or even on the economic aspects of the war and the history of actual experiences of war, which, though in evidence, were somewhat muted. Isnenghi and Rochat were moreover preceded, if only by a little, by a pair of shorter syntheses by Giovanna Procacci and Antonio Gibelli,[22] a symptom of the fact that scholars were mindful of the need for a new general history. That said, for its sheer breadth and interpretative power, La grande guerra 1914-1918 has remained the synthesis of a whole period of historical studies, side-lining the short book by Piero Pieri from 1965 once and for all.

Twenty-Five Years

For Italians, as for many Europeans, around the end of the Cold War, many of the conditions deemed necessary for understanding and remembering the Great War up until then waned. By the 1990s, the last eyewitnesses had died. But there was something far more significant in play. Italians – with some exceptions regarding those from the north-east – had less and less understanding as to why the war had been fought and knew less and less about it. As a consequence, the conflict appeared to them ever more distant and less comprehensible.

The end of the Cold War brought about a crisis, in some cases a final one, for some of the grand narratives that had served as axes for the whole of that short century: a kind of nationalism, faith in liberal democracy, and communism. Yet, once they had been eclipsed, it became ever harder to identify the keys that could provide an explanation as to why, from 1914 (in the case of the Italians, from 1915) to 1918, the world had fought uninterruptedly for fifty-one (in the case of the Italians, forty-one) months of total and devastating war. Furthermore, wars were no longer fought by mass armies. Archivally, politically, militarily, and even culturally, the Great War became ever less “thinkable” for all Europeans, the Italians among them.

Now not a national war, a militaristic anticipation of subsequent expansionism, the fourth war of independence, or an imperialist and repressive war, the eclipse of the 20th century grand narratives left the Italian 1915-1918 with no other option but to be “only” a war. Its character as a terrifying war, with more than 600,000 dead, and its propensity to now seem absurd derived precisely from temporal distance and from the fading of the ideologies for which it had been fought, glorified, or opposed, for almost a century. Without classical liberalism, nationalism, militarism, revolutionary faith, and so forth to call upon, the Great War remained, for Italians, simply something horrifying. Ever more distant, and therefore mysterious, indecipherable, irrational and inhuman, the memory of the Great War shattered into tiny fragments. If this was the general picture of collective memory, or of oblivion, one can perhaps also more readily grasp why institutions have become ever less interested in the Great War. Politics has remembered it in a somewhat intermittent fashion, when anniversaries come around (we have no recollection of any important speeches that address it by politicians, from Silvio Berlusconi to Romano Prodi, only those by the presidents of the republic, usually on 4 November,[23] which was celebrated in Italy as “Victory Day”, then as “Armed Forces Day”, and nowadays as “Armed Forces and National Unity Day”). Memorialization has continued at a somewhat reduced pace, while actual monuments are hardly ever erected now.

This assessment of public memory is necessary if we are to understand the preconditions and consequences of the historiographical work from this period. Between the end of the Cold War and the centenary, historians have, in reality, continued to take an interest in the Great War, but less than they once did, and to undertake research, that, though of high quality, is ever more academic and often local (relating to the north-east). For this reason, the memory of the Great War has become less and less a national heritage.

This does not mean that there are no important works. The aforementioned synthesis regarding Italian participation in the Great War by Isnenghi and Rochat dates from 2000 and remains the best study. These same years saw the publication of some other fairly important works, although they were the culmination of an earlier historiographical cycle (Gibelli 1991, Procacci 1993). Finally, these were also the years in which some themes were brought to light in the context of Italian studies, rendering them advanced points in the international historiographical debate (such as studies on the experience of war, popular literature written by the soldiers themselves, and popular agitation during the conflict).[24] Historiographical research in Italy has, however, worked in an ever more forgetful country and collective memory.

Nevertheless, there has been no shortage of publications. For example, in 2014, Lisa Bregantin and Daniele Ceschin furnished the new edition of Isnenghi and Rochat’s 2000 volume with an updated bibliography and compiled a list of around one hundred and fifity titles, covering the last fifteen years, which includes only book-length studies, although it does not mention all of the major works. Some space is allotted to studies of mass culture during the conflict,[25] together with discussion of the concept of “war culture”,[26] along with those, typically cultural, studies of the mobilisation of consensus, artists, memory, monuments etc. This is only one theme among many. The coexistence of richness and a degree of fragmentation and dispersion of approaches and interpretations after Isnenghi and Rochat’s synthesis of 2000, is somewhat evident in the seventy or so contributions featuring in the two collective volumes from 2008 edited by Isnenghi and Ceschin. This aspect was, all in all, due not to the editors or the authors, but to the time in which they were living.[27]

Glimpses from the Centenary

Over all this, the tsunami of the centenary came crashing down. It is hardly possible in the space of a few lines, and when we have only just emerged from it, to draw up an accurate balance sheet, though some tendencies can be identified.

The centenary proved to be a veritable “spectacle”.[28] Institutions at the communal, provincial, and regional level, state institutions and those of civil society, print media, radio, and television programmes, cinema, websites, publishing houses and historians as well as freelancers, journalists,[29] amateur enthusiasts, and even the wholly incompetent felt compelled to organise conferences, seminars, publications, and public initiatives on the theme of the Great War. The government set up a designated official committee, presided over by a politician and endowed with fairly meagre funds. Between 2014 and the end of 2018, the committee permitted the use of its official logo for around 2,500 initiatives, which represents only a portion of those actually undertaken. In the course of those same years, over 2,000 new books that contained the words “First World War” or “Great War” in their titles were printed. Seen in perspective, and with regard to the lack of interest (if we exclude the north-east) shown over the previous twenty-five years, the centenary can be understood as a major event, one that will certainly leave a mark on public memory.

It is not an easy matter to gage whether historians played a crucial role in this huge media and celebrity circus. Important collective works were published.[30] The many conferences held certainly led to a deeper understanding of various issues. Above all, many documentary sources were consulted, read, and published. For a genuinely scrupulous historian, however, truly innovative studies were few and far between.[31]

There was some research on the front itself, but most attention was devoted to the home front.[32] Interest in the cultural history of the conflict, which arose some years prior, continued and perhaps peaked.[33] Admittedly, some cultural historians held themselves to be the sole combatants, or “victors”, of the battle of the centenary. In my opinion, they are mistaken. Alongside mass culture, the centenary was “filled up with” local politics,[34] society distant from the front,[35] the contributions to the war made by the most diverse and scattered localities (there were countless reprints of wartime comics [albi d’oro] in these years), and even some new studies on the combatants themselves.[36] Often, works such as these recall a horrific war, a senseless slaughter, the reasons for which were lost, which had happened in the previous twenty-five years. It is, then, but a short step to an impassioned remembering of the victims. In parallel to these developments, and from another perspective, alongside all those who were intent upon representations of victimhood and a markedly local celebration of those same victims, there have also been those determined to lay claim – this is a new phenomenon – to honour for the victory and to stress the need for pride in a war won[37] (with some exaggeration: even in the case of Caporetto, there has been some attempt to turn it into a victory[38]). On this same front, some historians have once again proclaimed the war to be a moment at which the national unification of Italians first occurred.[39]

Thus, although apparently opposed and not politically correct, and certainly at variance with the common sense of the fiftieth anniversary, in the Italian centenary, a sense of victimhood and a new pride advanced together. This may well be a sign of the times.

If these would seem to have been the most conspicuous tendencies of the centenary, in the 2,000 volumes published during these years, anything and everything can be found: regional studies, local studies, studies of propaganda and of welfare, studies of the part played by women in war, studies of the colonies in wartime, and so on. All of these themes are, of course, not infrequently encountered in contemporary international historiography. What is striking here, however, is the odd combination of a preoccupation with victimhood and nationalistic pride.

Nicola Labanca, Università degli Studi di Siena

Reviewed by external referees on behalf of the General Editors

Translator: Martin Thom