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Exclusive Translation of a Recent Interview with Claudio Pavone

Matthew Schantz 1 November 2013

This interview originally appeared in La Repubblica on October 27th, 2013 and was conducted by Antonio Gnoli. The text has been translated by David Broder. Claudio Pavone's A Civil War will be released on November 18th.

At almost 93 years of age, Claudio Pavone has decided to write his memoirs. For a great historian – a man with a great past in his eyes – this seems a fine choice indeed. On the table of the study into which he welcomes me, pages flutter about amidst his notebooks and a silent computer. He says that his work is proceeding slowly. And that it has always been slow – both writing and reading. He also feels vaguely perplexed: ‘I don’t know who might be interested by this set of reflections on my life as a historian. We spend our time refuting other people’s errors, censuring certain egocentric and conceited ways of behaving and then, perhaps, end up doing the same thing ourselves’.

Your work has been acclaimed as a fundamentally important contribution to contemporary historiography – naturally, including your significant work on the Italian ‘civil war’.

‘Well, it’s not that it was without its critics. Some thought that with this expression I wanted to provide a justification for the Fascists. In reality, when I used the term ‘civil war’ my intention was not to draw an equals sign between the two sides, but rather to underline the differences between them. I owe the title of that book to Vittorio Foa – I would have called it ‘The Three Wars’.

What is your recollection of Foa?

‘A very beautiful one indeed. He was in the same prison where I was taken at the beginning of 1944. Vittorio had a lively, sharp mind. And extraordinary rigour’.

Where were you taken from and to?

‘I was arrested after 8 September 1943 [date of the German occupation of Italy], in a situation that my friend Marc Ferro defined as “not heroic, but grotesque!”’.

What happened?

‘I had entered into contact with the Socialist Party, which placed me in the hands of Eugenio Colorni – an extraordinary man. My activism consisted above all of propaganda work, distributing [the party’s newspaper] Avanti!. I remember that one day, walking down the street, with a bag full of mimeographed clandestine leaflets, I realised that it was past curfew. If they had found me with those leaflets, I’d have risked being shot. So I decided to get rid of them, and I threw the bag into a car. But it just so happened that this was the car of the OVRA [Fascist secret police] boss Guido Leto, who at that very moment, coming out of the door of his block, caught me in the act’.

What bad luck!

‘Yes, he hurled me back against his men, who arrested me. They took me to the commissariat, in order to interrogate me, and the day after I was taken to Regina Coeli [the biggest prison in Rome]. I was locked up in the sixth wing, with the other political prisoners’.

Who was there?

‘There were some members of the Fascist Grand Council – who had overthrown Mussolini on the 25 July, many of them were later shot after the Verona Trial – as well as some prominent anti-fascists. The first face I recognised was that of Ruggero Zangrandi, a classmate of mine at the Tasso high school. Also there were Manlio Rossi-Doria – later my father in law – Giuseppe Martini, and Carol Muscetta. Among the Socialists, the figure who most stuck out was Saragat. I tried to attach myself to him, but his response was embarrassingly icy’.

Did you know why?

‘I don’t know, perhaps he didn’t trust me. He treated me very badly. Leone Ginzburg was also there. In the evenings, given that the cell doors were left open – thanks to the tolerant attitude of some of the guards – we participated in improvised “classes”. Ginzburg gave an excellent talk on Dostoyevsky. Then, one awful day, we saw some Germans arriving in our wing, and distinctly heard them saying Ginzburg’s name. They took him to the second wing, run by the SS. As they took him away, one detainee began to sing the Inno del Piave [a patriotic song from WWI]. I cried. Leone was tortured, they beat him to a pulp. He died a few days later, in the infirmary, in early February 1944’.

Another man who died soon after was Eugenio Colorni

‘He died the year after [sic: Colorni died on 30 May 1944], on the eve of the liberation of Rome. Some Fascists recognised him in the street, and he was cut down by bullets. It was a terrible shock. For a while I had used to visit Colorni, a Leibniz scholar, who taught me about political loyalty and gave me hope in a better world’.

What happened to you after Ginzburg’s death?

‘I was transferred to the Castelfranco Emilia prison, not far from Modena. There, unlike in Rome, we were locked up in our cells and only allowed an hour outside each day’.

What did this new situation mean psychologically?

‘It was a rather heavy situation. Nestore Tursi lightened the mood somewhat. A doctor, and a Communist since the foundation of the party, he became my teacher’.

But how did you pass the time?

‘Apart from a few sporadic contacts and conversations, I spent my time reading. They brought me a book on Italian Jansenism, by Jemolo, and a short novel by Bruno Carra. I practically learnt them off by heart. Since there was a library run by a chaplain, I managed to borrow a copy of Don Quixote. But the really extraordinary thing was the ‘masked books’.


‘“Trick” books, with an innocuous dust jacket but containing dangerous texts. At one point, Nestore gave me a French novel. I began to read it, but soon saw that something wasn’t right. In fact, Engels’s Anti-Dühring was hidden in the pages. The first Marxist book I read’.

Did your family help you in your reading?

‘Oh god – well, it wasn’t as simple as that. My father qualified as a lawyer. He died relatively young, in 1943, aged 58. He had been the director of the transport bureau of the Confindustria [Italian CBI]. I believe that my passion for trains owes to him, as he was a logistics expert. In any case, dad was secular and mum a Catholic. They agreed to divide up my education between the two: so I went to a nursery and elementary school run by English monks – albeit without ever learning the language very well – and then did my eight years of middle and high school at the Tasso [a grammar school]. My schoolmates included not only Andreotti [later a Christian-Democratic Prime Minister] but also Mussolini’s sons Bruno and Vittorio’.

How did you get on with them?

‘Well, basically, they enjoyed many freedoms and their privileges were ultimately good for all of us’.

How was your life under Fascism?

‘I was for a long time a non-fascist. My father, who had six children, signed up at the fascio [i.e. as a Party member]. At home, he’d attack the regime, I sometimes heard him speak of “that pig Mussolini!”. But such was the Italians’ duplicity. And I do not agree at all with Renzo De Felice – though he was a great historian, don’t get me wrong –  who maintained that for a long time Italians spontaneously gave the regime their consent. The truth is that this doesn’t take account of Italian conformism: a Fascist in public, an anti-fascist in the privacy of your own home’.

But you were a non-fascist

‘Well, before ending up in prison, in the absurd manner I described, I don’t believe that I ever did anything particularly glorious. I was very proud, though, that in our family I had an uncle who had been a general and a grandfather who was a patriot’.

What did your grandfather do?

‘He participated in the 1848 uprisings, and for this reason spent ten years in jail under the Bourbon regime. Then the English minister Gladstone came to visit Naples, and was very troubled by what he saw there. It was then that he said that the Kingdom of Naples was an abomination of the human race. So the king picked out a few political prisoners and put them on a boat to South America. Luigi Settembrini was also among the exiled prisoners. And his son came on board as a cook, in order to help out his dad. In reality, this was just a means of getting weapons on board, in order to seize control of the ship’.

A mutiny like the ‘Bounty’, then?

‘Not exactly, also because the commander was rather more reasonable and agreed to turn the ship towards English shores. In a letter my grandfather recounted the festival atmosphere welcoming the new exiles to the city of Liverpool. He had to stay there for a few years, subsisting by giving Italian lessons, before coming back to Italy and starting his career as a magistrate’.

And you also mentioned your uncle

‘My father’s brother, general Pavone. After the Allied landings he tried to build a corps of volunteers. Before that he had been in Somalia, where he was able to see for himself the miserable state of our army. And this was the principal reason for his dispute with Rodolfo Graziani [the only marshal who remained loyal to Mussolini]’.

How did that end?

‘With the defenestration of my uncle, who came to the conclusion that given the point we had reached it was better that our army be defeated. When I recounted this episode to Vittorio Foa, he told me: look Claudio, that’s the difference between Fascism and Nazism. Hitler would have had your uncle shot for saying that, the Fascists only pensioned him off’.

You mentioned a volunteer corps

‘The [centre-left, republican] Partito d’Azione had been hoping that the military would revolt, even before the 25 July [1943 overthrow of Mussolini by the Fascist Grand Council]. One day, Carlo Muscetta and Raimondo Craveri – Benedetto Croce’s son-in-law – came to my uncle’s house, suggesting a plan for insurrection. Given how abstract it was, this didn’t lead to anything. At root, it is thanks to my grandfather – who I never met, as he died in 1899 – and my uncle, that I took up history. Their experiences appealed to me. I dreamt of their adventures, and began to concern myself with them even when I was young. At the Tasso they ended up calling me "the little historian"’.

How did you decide to become a historian?

‘My degree was in law, but I even considered doing a second degree in philosophy. I followed the lectures by De Ruggero and Calogero, and as a young man I had had a Jesuit priest who interested me in Kant. A fatal decision, as it was thanks to Kant that I lost faith in God. But in the end, it was my passion for history that prevailed. I became an archivist in Rome, and taught at the University of Pisa’.

What is ‘truth’, for a historian?

‘There are whole libraries of books trying to answer that. There exists no historical truth with a capital T. A version of events is truthful or false. I cannot say, for example, that the Romans were victorious over Hannibal at Cannae. But the question a historian faces is not the same as that of a scientist. Both in some way refer to the principle of cause and effect. But a scientist cannot claim that if he throws a stone from on high it will rise rather than fall. A historian can pose himself the question of what conclusions to draw from a certain action, and end up in the realm of the imagination. The Carthaginians defeated the Romans. Fact. But you can start from facts and draw erroneous conclusions’.

Speaking of errors, and to address the more personal level – what do you think your generation got wrong?

‘Good question. I think that our generation, the generation of political and civil commitment, set its sights too high. It sought objectives that did not take account of this country’s cultural backwardness. I think that an excess of optimism led to mistakes. Above all, we did not give much thought to the fact that the world was heading towards the ‘Cold War’ and that it was not easy to take one side or the other’.

How do you see it all ending, after seventy years of twists and turns?

‘Sometimes I say, self-mockingly, that I have succeeded in not dying as a Fascist or a Christian Democrat. I hope I do not fall under the weight of these last twenty years, as surreal as they have been painful. I believe that this is still a possibility. At this grand old age I spend my time ruminating over the past: but it would be a shame not to see how this all finishes. There is always, of course, the problem of death’.

How do you experience it?

‘I would say that you can face this problem even at the height of adolescence. It is not necessarily just a question for the elderly. The problem of old age is that of physical and mental decline. And there’s not much to be done about it. Life still makes me curious. And the truth implicit within curiosity is that greater or lesser future that I have in front of me. Dante’s verses come to mind, here, the ones where Virgil meets Statius in Purgatorio: "You were as one who goes by night, carrying the light behind him – it is no help to him, but instructs all those who follow". The historian – and that is what I still am – looks behind him. But he would like to read the future’.

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