There were hardly any consequences of the Great War that were as lasting as the mourning for the dead. In the aftermath of the conflict, one of the main challenges that nations faced was how to cope with the deaths of millions of mostly young men. There was a close affinity between mourning and aggression. The intertwinement of mass death and mass mourning had a destabilizing potential that could only be defused by the political alchemy of patriotic death cults. These cults of mourning were intended to transform anger into awe, sadness into pride, and trauma into consensus. Thus, in all the warring countries, enormous energy was invested in honoring the fallen after 1918.[1] This was true for the victors as well as the vanquished. Everywhere, the political funerary cult for the fallen became a central element of public life and an important medium of political culture. It was able to secure loyalty and consensus, but it also became a focal point of conflict, as numerous studies on individual countries have now shown.

In Italy, the cult of the fallen of the First World War was particularly significant. Before 1914, the nationalization of the masses through national symbols, myths, and liturgies clearly lagged behind other European countries and only made a decisive leap forward under the banner of war, mass death, and the cult of the fallen. Monuments and tributes to the fallen of the Great War represented the first nationwide patriotic cult of united Italy that transcended diverse social and political milieus. They gave "the rituals and symbols of patriotism a truly national dimension for the first time."[2]

The cult of the fallen was also instrumental in Italy, however, because the war had led to great political polarization and had evoked little enthusiasm among the general public. The death of nearly 700,000 soldiers therefore represented a fundamental challenge and burden for Italian society after the war. In the struggle to interpret and deal with the fallout of the war, the neutralists and pacifists, who had been unable to prevent the country’s entry into the conflict, drew the short straw again after 1918. The cult of the fallen by and large benefited an affirmative and patriotic-heroic war memory, which was reinforced and cemented by fascism.[3]

Microcosms of Mourning and Commemoration of the Dead

The process of remembrance had already begun during the war and, at least initially, it was not directed “from above.” Microcosms of mourning and commemoration of the dead formed at all levels of society, including communities, schools, businesses, government agencies, circles of friends, and families. They were motivated by the spontaneous need to come to terms with the trauma and for consolation, explanation, and sympathy. Here, hegemonic patriotic discourses were mostly picked up and amplified, although they were also used and adapted with an eye to the local milieu. Exemplary in this respect are the more than 2,000 commemorative writings, which had mostly already been published during the war in Italy, mainly by bourgeois and petit bourgeois families for their fallen loved ones.[4] These were the milieus from which the war’s reserve officers and later considerable parts of the fascist movement were recruited. It was also here that a hitherto largely ignored micro-politics of memory had developed that published and communitized private grief.

In producing these memoirs, the mourners were able to support each other. Often this involved friends and colleagues, who, for instance, helped to distribute the writings to a mourning community that extended beyond the family itself. The memoirs show how far the secularization of the Italian middle classes had progressed and the religious potential of nationalism that was able to develop within these milieus. The focus was not on Christian interpretations, but rather on the religiously inflated ideology of patriotic sacrificial death and martyrdom, which promised that the fallen would have an afterlife in the nation’s commemorative space and in the collective memory of future generations. The fallen were not only glorified, but their deaths were massively aestheticized. The heroes always experienced quick and painless deaths in the throes of battle, with a bullet in their chest or forehead. Rarely was any reference made to mangled bodies, rarely were the actual horrors of war discussed. Not only did all of this provide the mourners with obvious psychological relief. This bourgeois-elitist cult of the fallen was also an attempt to transform trauma into social honor and loss into symbolic capital. This was only possible at the price of pervasive domestication and self-censoring of mourning, for in order to derive social acknowledgement from the loss, the death needed to be recast as voluntary sacrifice. In this way, those involved reinforced, largely inadvertently, the phraseology of patriotic sacrifice by using the authority of the persons concerned to substantiate and give authenticity to it. In this way, this civic-familial death cult proved to be a laboratory for an affirmative culture of remembrance, which would later reach its full expression.

The Unknown Soldier

After 1918, the most significant state ceremony in honor of the fallen was the ritual surrounding the “milite ignoto” in November 1921.[5] Similar celebrations had already taken place a year earlier in Paris and London.[6] In Italy, the project first emerged in July 1920 within the sphere of the national-democratic veterans’ movement. Here, the simple soldier was viewed as the real winner of the war and a contemporary symbol of the national community. Honoring him would reconcile the torn post-war society and ritualistically end the war. With the “milite ignoto,” a popular national cipher had been found which could bridge class barriers and party lines and account for the war’s democratizing dynamics. Moreover, for the families of the many war dead whose bodies were never found, it provided a collective body and a place on which they could concentrate their mourning and remembrance.

According to many observers, the ritual for the unknown soldier developed into the first truly popular national celebration of united Italy. The public’s response was overwhelmingly positive, a sentiment that was bolstered by all political camps except the socialists and communists. Such a consensus, however, was only possible at the price of a certain ambiguity, which was further reflected in the absence of speeches at the closing ceremony. From the political right, the ritual was celebrated as an apotheosis of patriotic duty, while other groups primarily perceived it as a mourning ceremony that recalled the human cost of war. Even the socialists and communists could not entirely ignore the innovative symbolism, reverently characterizing the “milite ignoto” in their press as a “fallen proletariat.” The openness and ambiguity of the symbolism were accommodated by selections of soldiers that dispensed with any indication of individual military heroism. Indeed, the circle of candidates was not limited to dead soldiers killed in battle. The symbolism also developed suggestive power through its physicality. Thus, shortly before the funeral of the “milite ignoto,” the mother of a missing soldier demanded that the coffin be opened because she was certain that it could only contain her son.

War Memorials

In addition to these main sites of worship, most municipalities in Italy erected monuments to the war dead. Indeed, many did so in the first years after the war.[7] These monuments were much more numerous and also less controversial than those of the Risorgimento.[8] Like the monuments of the First World War in other countries, they featured the simple soldier and thus contributed to the Great War’s push toward equalization. They were donated by heterogeneous groups whose importance and composition varied from place to place: veterans and family members of the fallen, congregations and pastors, local dignitaries, as well as political, cultural, ecclesiastical, and charitable associations.[9] Often the initiatives were supported by local governments, if they did not originate from them entirely. Central government authorities played a minor role. Larger cities witnessed a fragmentation into a variety of initiatives. Not only the individual districts, but also schools and universities, government agencies and enterprises, and associations and organizations dedicated monuments to their fallen. For the most part, they were simple memorial plaques in the respective buildings. In smaller towns, and in city districts, however, forces were often combined for a single project that had significance to the larger community. These initiatives frequently had a transverse character, encompassing a broad political and social spectrum in the name of collective mourning, local identification, and patriotic fervor.

The Catholic Church had a significant presence at the tributes to the fallen.[10] This was a first, for up until then national and religious cults and symbolism in Italy had hardly commingled.[11] Many monuments were erected near churches or in cemeteries. Frequently, parishes honored their fallen soon after the war with memorial plaques or votive chapels, often long before a monument was erected in the piazza. These ecclesiastical honors to fallen soldiers were an integral part of the wartime masses for the dead, which were still held after 1918. The Church was thus now also involved in the secular cult of the fallen. The inaugurations of the monuments usually took place in the presence of Church dignitaries and often began with a mass. The military cemeteries at the front were interspersed with Christian symbolism and sacral structures. Important places of war memory, such as the Monte Grappa, were ordained sacred sites by the Catholic Church and elected as destinations of patriotic pilgrimages, in which Catholic organizations also participated.[12]

Most of the monuments were marked by affirmative and national attitudes. They manifested an ideology of patriotic sacrifice, which also formed a key element of nationalism and its religious idealization in Italy from the 19th century onward. The leitmotifs of this ideology are typically demonstrated by the war memorials’ inscriptions: the soldier's death as a sacrifice for the national community; the right of the dead to everlasting memory; and their immortality in the collective memory of the nation and future generations, for whom they are to serve as role models. The monument inscriptions present the war as a just struggle for freedom, unity, and the greatness of Italy. The glorification and idealization of the dead and their reframing of the victims as sacrificing helped mitigate the impact of the war dead and contain the grief of the bereaved. They also met the need for meaning and consolation, promising eternal remembrance and immortality and the permanent incorporation of individual mourning into collective memory.

Within this framework, however, there were different areas of emphasis. The political interpretations ascribed to the monuments were still extremely variegated in the early post-war years. Heroizing semantics that underscored victory, glory, and the valor of the fallen, and the latter’s exemplary character for youth, were present from the beginning. Language of mourning and pain that put a spotlight on death and the memory of loss was, however, also common. In addition, wording in which the fallen were primarily presented as children of their community was commonplace.

The imagery in general remained varied and ambiguous.[13] Not only were victory and triumph, heroism and patriotism represented, but so too were the victims of war and the attendant sadness. Eagles and lions, laurel wreaths and banners were displayed along with palm leaves and crosses. The depictions of the soldier varied widely, ranging from triumphant gestures and heroic poses of military manliness to soldiers who were wounded and dying. Notable differences could also be found in the female figures, which extended from the winged goddess of victory and torch-carrying statues of liberty to allegories of Italy and the homeland such as grieving mother figures.[14] While many monuments were not virile and heroic, or monumental and triumphal enough for fascism, this is nonetheless a clear indication of the heterogeneity of the cult of mourning in the years after 1918.[15]

Pacifist-Socialist Cults of the Fallen

In the initial aftermath of the war, there was also a socialist-pacifist oriented cult of the fallen in Italy, which was reflected by an extensive number of public memorial plaques.[16] These monuments were mostly arranged by socialist municipal administrations and the veterans' organizationLega proletaria,” which encompassed the entire socialist spectrum, from the Partito Socialista Italiano (Italian Socialist Party) to the communists, and numbered more than 1 million members in the spring of 1920. These memorial plaques were meant to challenge the hegemonic cult of the dead and its patriotic rhetoric. Here, the dead were not referred to as the "fallen", but rather as "victims", and the war was denounced as a horrible massacre. The inscriptions were interspersed with accusations against the rulers, who had to answer for the war. The reminder was supposed to strengthen the class consciousness of the survivors and their hatred of the war. Death was thus attributed a significance here that the survivors and future generations needed to legitimate in the struggle for a new social order that would bring about lasting peace.

Today, there are hardly any traces of this subversive cult of the dead in Italy. It had already met with resistance from the authorities before 1922. A number of memorial plaques were removed or their inscriptions changed just a few months after their dedication. Often, however, the prefects, mayors, and police forces intervened earlier, such as in Monturano in the province of Macerata, where a plaque was banned in 1919. Its inscription ended with the words "Peace to the victims, war to the leaders, today, tomorrow, always."[17] Many war memorials fell victim to the “punitive expeditions” of the fascist militant leagues, especially the memorial plaques in socialist party premises, which were the preferred targets of fascist violence. The purges against the left cult of the fallen reached their peak in 1922.

Memorial Parks

When the fascists took power, the cult of the fallen quickly adopted a new strategy, especially with the “parchi della rimembranza.” The ministry of education arranged for their installation at the end of 1922. They represented a new form of the cult of the dead, which, outside of Italy, especially resembled the German “heroes’ groves” (Heldenhainen).[18] Above all, schools were mobilized for their installation. Across Italy, students were urged to plant a tree for every fallen member of their community. By employing the natural symbolism of eternal recurrence and youth, the cult of the dead achieved an almost cheerful and vitalist touch in the “parchi della rimembranza.” The focus was on the overcoming of death and the immortality of the dead, who were mystically united with the younger generation – without however having to resort to the Christian symbolism of the Passion and the Resurrection. The directive from Rome was obviously implemented at the local level relatively quickly and widely, perhaps in part because the initiative met the survivors’ need for an individual honoring of their dead. After only a year, more than 5,700 memorial parks were created.

Local Monument Cult under Fascism

The fascist regime was the driving force behind the local monument cult, which it sought to give clearer ideological direction and instrumentalize politically. Now, open opposition to the hegemonic discourses was hardly feasible. The prominence of central government interventions increased. At the local level, new actors entered the scene among the organs of the party.

The local commemoration of the dead was now often shaped by fascist rituals. The dedication of monuments was frequently combined with the inauguration of fascist party headquarters. The regime tried to align the nation and fascism symbolically, to monopolize the memory of the war, and to represent the “fascist revolution” as the culmination of the national rebirth, which allegedly began with the war. The “martyrs of fascism” were now integrated in the cult of the fallen. In turn, the fascist roll call for the dead – one of the oldest and most important rituals of the movement in which the names of the dead are called out and acknowledged in each instance by those present with the cry "presente" – was transferred to the honoring of the war dead. The fallen soldiers were thus made into champions of fascism and the dead of the fascist movement were touted as executors of their legacy.[19]

Fascism exerted influence in particular where no monuments to the fallen had been previously erected.[20] Often heretofore unsuccessful initiatives by the authorities and the party were now vigorously supported or obstacles were cleared out of the way. In many places, however, the local party organs also seized the initiative themselves. Here, the competition with other municipalities or districts and their party sections played an important role. After all, the lack of a war memorial could be interpreted as a failure of the local fascist officials, especially in places where the left earlier had a strong foothold.[21]

Overall, however, the monument cult was dominated by continuities. It was sustained by entirely distinct local forces with heterogeneous preferences, interests, and traditions which managed to preserve a certain degree of autonomy. As a result, the monuments continued to show considerable variation in their design and public testimony. In the literature, it is often observed that vitalist-virile and heroic warlike symbolism was enhanced in the iconography of the monuments, whereas the symbolism of death and mourning fell out of favor.[22] A shift of emphasis in this direction was undoubtedly consistent with the fascist standpoint on the subject. This can also be detected in tender documentation for which state authorities acted as the contracting entity.[23]

However, this programmatic shift from cult of mourning to hero cult was only reflected in the imagery of the monuments to a limited degree. A sharp break cannot be detected. Although dying soldiers lying on the ground or exhaling their last breath at the bosom of a pietà became less common, they could still be found even after 1925, and not only in isolated cases. Conversely, the figures of upright soldiers rushing forward with a weapon or flag in hand could already be found before fascism took hold. Neither motif, however, dominated either before or after 1922. Instead, classical obelisks, columns and pillars, and allegorical female figures prevailed.[24] Genuine fascist symbols like the fasces were only represented in exceptional cases. Half-dressed, antique-like heroic figures became more common.

Clearer changes may be observed in the inscriptions.[25] The overall trend was a move away from the complex texts of the initial post-war years, which evoked the various political meanings of death. In contrast, shorter, hackneyed phrases became more ubiquitous. While the semantic range was constricted, a codification in the strict sense did not take place during the fascist period.

There is less certainty about another finding, namely the noticeable increase of succinct dedications in the vein of “ai nostri caduti.”[26] Indeed, this concision may be an index of an oppositional attitude towards the emphatic rhetoric of the regime, as well as a vestige of resistance that could only be articulated by taking recourse to a minimum of text.

Fascist Monument Policy in the 1930s

It was not until the 1930s that fascism could successfully free itself from the heterogeneity and polyvalence, as well as the traditionalism and localism, of local tributes to the dead. The regime now began to build large-scale national memorials on the former front lines that gave monumental expression to the fascist state’s claim to power. Thus border fortifications arose on Monte Grappa, the Pasubio and the Montello, in Oslavia, Caporetto and Redipuglia. Symbolically marked by means of colossal towers and statues, they were visible from afar and mostly served as cemeteries and ossuaries and accommodated the remains of the fallen. In the course of this ambitious architectural project, the burial of the war dead was reorganized by the central government. Unlike at the former Western Front, where a dense network of smaller cemeteries had been created, the Italian war dead were exhumed and largely concentrated in these few areas. The memorial sites became popular destinations for still largely unexplored battlefield tourism engaged in by schools, mass fascist organizations, veterans' associations, and the Italian Alpine Club, and popularized by the guidebooks of the Italian Touring Club.

The most important of these memorial sites is Redipuglia, where alone more than 100,000 dead were put to rest, including the bones of 60,000 unidentified fallen soldiers.[27] The complex is a gigantic apotheosis of military order and discipline up to the point of death. Even in this instance the regime was not entirely able to emancipate itself from the monarchy and the Church. A resurrection chapel was accordingly integrated into the site with appropriate frescoes and conspicuously large crosses.


The case of Italy exhibits many similarities with the other countries involved in the war. As in most patriotic cults of the fallen, the soldier's death was nationalized, glorified, aestheticized, and excessively sacralized, whereby national and Christian interpretations often intertwined. In Italy, this shaped most discourses, rituals, and monuments from the outset. At the same time, the Italian case has distinct features. In particular, one of these was the intense writing cult of bourgeois families and local networks relating to particular dead soldiers, which had already emerged during the war. In the majority of the other warring nations, there also is no equivalent to Italy’s pacifist cult of the fallen, which was primarily established in the northern strongholds of the socialist party in the initial years after the war. However, it was quickly eliminated by the fascists. In the monument cult, the fascist regime reinforced the aspects of heroism and monumentality. The language of mourning soon gave way to that of military valor. Nonetheless, an overt turning point cannot be identified. Indeed, even at the height of its power, fascism was unable to free itself from the Catholic Church and ecclesiastical elements in the monumental ossuaries and military cemeteries of the 1930s. This, too, marked an important continuity.

Oliver Janz, Freie Universität Berlin

Section Editor: Nicola Labanca

Translator: Christopher Reid