“An essential counter to revisionist narratives”: Claudio Pavone’s A Civil War reviewed in Counterfire

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In a thoroughly-researched review published in Counterfire, David Shonfield praised Claudio Pavone’s book as one of the most important historical and political statements on contemporary Italian history, and on the history of civil wars more generally.

As Shonfield accurately emphasizes, calling a civil war the events that occurred in Italy between 1943 and 1945 is still not taken for granted today.

“The greatest merit of Claudio Pavone’s monumental work about the resistance and the downfall of fascism is that it rescued the reality of the civil war as well as the words from the fascists. In doing so he defined and described three separate but interrelated wars that took place between 1943 and 1945: the war of national liberation against the Germans, the civil war against fascism and the class war that underpinned both.”

The book tells the story of “why people fought, those on the fascist side as well as the partisans, about their personal conscience as well as their political consciousness. It is about how attitudes and mindsets changed and hardened as the struggle became deeper and bloodier. It is also about the crisis of a society emerging from twenty years of dictatorship during which millions had apparently supported, or at least accepted, the regime.” Rather than a post hoc glorification of the Italian Resistance, Pavone’s forensic, thoroughly-researched analyses dig into the actual historical dirt – on both sides.

"It is hard to convey the incredible wealth and detail of the material Pavone draws on, and that it is only a small fraction of what is available. Momentous events such as the four-day uprising in Naples and the partisan war in the mountains of the Abruzzi and Tuscany get mentioned only in passing. Most of his material is inevitably drawn from the war in the north because it was there that the struggle was most prolonged and bitter: in cities such as Bologna, Genoa, Turin and Milan, in the hills and mountains of the northern Apennines and Liguria, in the Alps and the Dolomites, and in the frontier zones bordering Austria and Yugoslavia."

In a recent interview, Pavone himself reaffirmed the importance of calling a historical spade a historical spade.

"People thought that by using this expression I was wishing to justify the fascists. In reality by using the term “civil war” I intended not to make two sides equivalent but rather to emphasise the differences."

The book thus is “an essential counter to revisionist narratives.” And in the end, Pavone’s history is what history is all about, as Shonfield is keen to stress.

“Revision is what history is about: the re-evaluation of events as new information becomes available, with the aim of getting closer to the truth, while recognising that the ‘absolute truth’ is a meaningless concept. History is not an exact science, but then neither is quantum physics. Yet, there is all the difference in the world between revision and revisionism.”

Last November, Mark Mazower wrote a very enthusiastic review of A Civil War in the Financial Times, pointing that “Pavone’s great work is among the few indisputable masterpieces of contemporary history. But more than this, it is a unique meditation on the passions and tensions that continue to swirl beneath the surface of modern politics.”

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