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Europe engaged in “war over memory” as the far right attempt to memorialise fascism and downplay the Holocaust

The village of Antrodoco, Italy abuts the forested Mount Giano, whose 20,000 trees spell DUX, in tribute to “Il Duce”, the title used for Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1925 until his death in 1945. Italians are divided over the fate of this forest, and other reminders of the country’s fascist past, debating if this forest and other fascist monuments should be restored or razed. Some far-right and extremist groups see these monuments as important national symbols, and in February, activists from the neo-fascist party Casapound hiked the mountain to replace 2,000 trees. Similarly, in 2013, the mayor of Brescia tried to restore a fascist monument to the centre of town but failed.

Antrodoco tends to vote centre-right, but in this year’s elections, nearly half the town voted for the far-right populist Anti-Immigration League. The party ended up as the largest one in the country’s current right-wing ruling coalition. This was partially the result of far-right groups successfully mainstreaming anti-migrant, nationalist, and xenophobic sentiment leading up to the election, an effort that relies heavily on symbols both past and present.

The fate of war-time monuments is something of a bellwether for Europe, and the increased debate over them shows a deep fracturing in how societies approach institutional memory. In Poland, the government, dominated by the populist right-wing Law and Justice Party, made it illegal to incriminate Poland or assign it culpability of any sort for the Holocaust (often dubbed the “Holocaust law.”) The government is trying to get the POLIN museum to change an exhibit on the Jedwabne pogrom, and at a Polish university, leaflets were distributed that blamed the Jews for the Holocaust. Poland has also attempted to rename the Majdanek memorial, and director of the museum at Auschwitz is facing threats.

One particular monument to Soviet soldiers in Bulgaria has been vandalized many times over the years. Harking to its Soviet history, and in anger over the vandalism of a Soviet monument with antisemitic graffiti, Russia angered many when it claimed to have saved Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust, a statement that was seen as ignorant and ahistorical by many Bulgarians. Other memorials in honour of Jewish Bulgarians in WWII have also been defaced with references to Palestine and Hamas.

Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovakia, have taken to removing Communist-era monuments, including those referencing World War II, altogether, sometimes to the great dismay of others, including ethnic Russians and the Russian state. Russia demanded punishment of the vandals after they desecrated a Soviet WWII memorial in Vienna.

In Greece, monuments to the Greek Jews who died in the Holocaust have also been defaced. One in Athens was defaced with right-wing extremist slogans in 2017, along with the smashing of monuments in Arta and Kavala soon after the community held a memorial for its previous Jewish community. This year, a memorial in Thessaloniki was defaced twice – once with far-right slogans, and once with Palestine-related slogans.

The result is a continent engaged in a war over memory, played out in public via desecration of physical monuments. In this resurgence of extremist identity-based politics, the motivation behind such destruction is not always about antisemitism, but often includes deeply felt tribalist instincts orthogonal to antisemitism: nationalism, pride, and resentment. This is not a mere revision of narrative in deference to nuance or recently learned facts; this is a contest to own historical memory itself, an issue of no little import when entire sections of society seek to re-write history for their own ends.