Blog post

The Enzo Collotti I Knew

In an article for il manifesto, Claudio Natoli reflects on the life and work of Enzo Collotti. One of the most important historians of European fascism and the anti-fascist Resistance, Collotti died in Florence on October 7 aged 82.

16 December 2021

The Enzo Collotti I Knew

Here, I do not have space to cover all of Enzo Collotti's invaluable contribution to the birth, development and enrichment of studies on the history of the twentieth century.
I will limit myself to mentioning his research on the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany and then the two Germanies from 1945 up to the fall of the Berlin Wall; on World War II, the New Order in Europe and its various territorial expressions (from occupied Poland to the Adriatic coast and the Risiera di San Sabba [a Nazi concentration camp in Trieste], on which Enzo testified in a memorable trial). So, too, the history of anti-fascism in Italy and Europe; Italian and international fascism; the persecution of the Jews and the Shoah; the truth about the foibe [post-armistice killings by Yugoslav partisans, today the subject of an intense campaign of historical revisionism]; the interwar European workers' movement and Red Vienna; and the Italian Communist Party and the postwar Republic.
At the same time, we should remember Enzo's extraordinary, tireless work as an organiser of culture, a coordinator of profoundly innovative research projects, a promoter of countless conferences and scholarly gatherings in Italy and Europe, an editor and director of journals, reader and reviewer. He was a leading figure in the circulation of ideas and in the development of contemporary Italian historiography, through his decades-long work with the Institute for the History of the Italian Liberation Movement (INSMLI).
The list could go on and on. But even if it was much longer, it could still not exhaust the full scope of what Enzo represented for the community of scholars — and for all of us.
Indeed, Enzo had a rare capacity to combine scholarly rigour with civic commitment — and a real calling for the “battle of ideas.” He had a special ability for transmitting historical knowledge beyond cloistered scholarly circles, as evidenced by his indefatigable contributions to newspapers such as il manifesto. This was especially valuable at a time when the public sphere, newspaper columns, magazines and talk shows were flooded with “revisionist” slogans and talking points, in a determined effort to deprecate anti-fascism and the Resistance and to neutralise and erase the critical memory of fascism — thus delegitimising the Republican constitution [written after 1945 by the main Resistance parties].
But no less important — and many people could testify to this — was the sincere passion that Enzo Collotti devoted to university teaching, his ability to share his culture and his immense wealth of knowledge with generations of students. He did so through a constant interweaving of teaching and research, devoting careful attention to the preparation of dissertations and the training of his students and collaborators. But so, too, through his particular concern for engagement with — and ongoing education of — school teachers, to whom he continued to dedicate unforgettable meetings even through his later years.

Indeed, Enzo Collotti was a person who did not spare his energies. While he was reserved in nature — in this continuing a family trait (he was very reluctant to talk about himself or be talked about) — he was an extremely helpful and generous person.
I think it would be impossible to count how many times so many of us turned to Enzo for his opinion on a book, for suggested reading, to take a look at our drafts, to discuss our research projects or to seek his involvement in our university seminars. From this point of view, Enzo was a maestro in the deepest sense of the term — a great, indeed incomparable, teacher for all those lucky enough to work with him.
If I may offer a personal example, I will recall Enzo's essential contribution to the planning and realisation of the Day of Remembrance in Cagliari — a work in progress lasting more than fifteen years. He jealously preserved the flyers for the Cagliari event at his Florence home, which was full of papers and books; but what also endured was the profound impression he left on thousands of students, colleagues and school teachers. Or the days we spent together in Florence searching through his infinitely vast library, looking for the impossible-to-find pamphlets and pictures providing historical context for the major exhibition on Tina Modotti that we held in Udine in 2015.
And finally, the episode that pulled most on the heartstrings: the work we did for the publication of Aldo Natoli's Letters from Prison, for which Enzo wrote a beautiful testimony casting himself back to his own childhood. This was an exceptional event, because alongside Aldo's letters, the entire correspondence with his family had been preserved intact, and so it was possible to reconstruct, day by day, the impact of the Fascist prison on their lives (also through Enzo's letters and drawings).
I will confess — Enzo Collotti was not initially in favour of this book taking the form of a "choral history" of an anti-fascist family [as the subtitle called it]. Perhaps he feared that the expression of human empathy would veil its scholarly rigour, or that the ethical-political message of Aldo's letters might somehow be watered down.
Among Enzo's many gifts, however, was his ability to listen and respect his interlocutors, to persuade and be persuaded, and above all to delve into hitherto unexplored avenues of research. This is one of the last lessons that he has left to me and many others. For that, I will always be infinitely grateful to Enzo Collotti.

Translated by David Broder