Book Review: Il Potere di Non Punire: Uno Studio Sull’Amnistia Togliatti (The Power Not to Punish: An Examination of the Togliatti Amnesty)

Paolo Caroli. Il Potere di Non Punire: Uno Studio Sull’Amnistia Togliatti (The Power Not to Punish: An Examination of the Togliatti Amnesty). Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane 2020.

Forgiveness—juridical, political, personal—in the aftermath of violence is always a complicated subject and Paolo Caroli’s work, Il Potere di Non Punire: Uno Studio Sull’Amnistia Togliatti (The Power Not to Punish: An Examination of the Togliatti Amnesty), does an admirable job researching the complex history of Italy’s post-war reckoning with its past, and the ways in which the country’s amnesty program reflects the challenges and shortcomings of Italy’s postwar transition. Not only does Caroli argue that amnesty enabled the country to evade acknowledging Fascist atrocities perpetrated during the Second World War; he argues that the relationship between political, juridical and legislative power in postwar Italy created a framework that continues in more contemporary times. This foray into the present provides the author an opportunity to consider the weight of historical memory on the present, and to contribute a rich, innovative analysis to the scholarship on postwar and contemporary Italy.

The legacy of World War Two in Italy was for many decades defined by the Italian resistance, and by images of the “good Italian”, who, whether depicted as bumbling, humane or squeamish when it came to inflicting pain on innocent civilians, stood in stark contrast to the violent sadism of the evil German. A good number of scholars have written on the emergence and institutionalization of these stereotypes, and the fact that they have been endorsed and embraced in Italy as a means of forgetting Italy’s fascist past and its complicity with the violence typically attributed to Nazi Germany. Since the 1990s, however, Italian war crimes have been the subject of renewed investigation. Italy’s use of chemical weapons in its invasion of Ethiopia in 1935; its passage of anti-Semitic racial laws in 1938; the establishment of Italian concentration camps during the Second World War and the collaboration of Italian soldiers in the round up of Italy’s Jews; along with crimes committed against local populations following the Italian invasion of Southern France, Greece and Yugoslavia, for example, have emerged as topics demanding additional attention, despite institutional resistance to grappling with this legacy. Nonetheless, questions of accountability persist, in both historical and legal contexts. And this is where Caroli’s volume provides an important contribution. As a legal scholar, his work examines how the Italian state dealt with fascist crimes and the impact—both immediate and decades later—of the juridical and political interpretations surrounding the so-called Togliatti Amnesty of 1946, which pardoned or reduced sentences for both Fascists and partisans for crimes associated with the war.

In the first chapter of Il Potere di Non Punire, Caroli focuses on the immediate postwar period in Italy, with a discussion of the unique nature of transitional justice in Italy, where the country’s wartime experience, first as an Axis ally (1940-1943), and then as a country under German occupation and in the midst of a civil war (1943-1945), in which the terms ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’ gained particular complexity, and even the ‘past’ was difficult to define. And yet, while the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis may have led to expectations of an Italian version of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, the Badoglio Armistice between the Kingdom of Italy and the Allied forces, and Italy’s subsequent declaration of war against Germany meant that criminal prosecutions of Italians would be treated differently from those of its two former allies.

Caroli’s analysis of Italy’s unique position from 1943-1945 is the subject of his second chapter, where he also explores the Togliatti Amnesty itself. In both legal and historical terms, Caroli analyzes the ways in which the crime of collaborationism was used to denounce fascist crimes that occurred in the period following the signing of the armistice. The term itself is significant since, as Caroli argues, it suggested that fascists were not committing independent crimes in the name of fascism, but were rather supporting the enemy instead (130-131). In this chapter Caroli also examines the figure of Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Communist party from 1927 until his death in 1964, and credited with building the Italian Communist Party into the largest communist party in Western Europe. In Caroli’s analysis of Togliatti, however, the emphasis is on Togliatti’s abilities to reconcile ideology with the realities on the ground. After convincing the Communist Party and other political groups to establish a national unity government. Togliatti saw clemency as a form of national reconciliation — an act that had defined changes of power in Italy in the past—and inevitable given the national and international pressures at the time (142).

These pressures are examined in greater depth in Chapter Three, where Caroli discusses the Togliatti Amnesty in the broader framework of the postwar transition and Italian jurisprudence. The early months of 1946 saw the start of Allied peace treaty negotiations. Even leaders from the Left, who had had sought to hold Italian fascists accountable, felt threatened by the prospect of punitive treatment at the bargaining table. In particular, discussions over territorial losses, war reparations, and the punishment of war criminals – the Yugoslav government had even submitted a list of Italian war criminals it wanted to try – created increasing pressure on the Left to relinquish its attempts at accountability in an effort to ensure that the treaty was not excessively punitive in its treatment of Italy, in terms of its citizenry, its economy and its geographical integrity. The Togliatti Amnesty, issued only 14 months after the war ended, needs to be considered within this context. But as Caroli argues, the decision to declare an amnesty was only one part of the equation. The amnesty law gave significant discretionary power to the judiciary when it came to an interpretation of its language, and it was the judiciary that used the amnesty law to ensure that many fascist war criminals were not brought to trial. The implications of this action is two-fold: the public was denied the historical record that the trials would have generated, while the absence of punitive measures meant that fascism was essentially rehabilitated, reinforcing the amnesia that had defined Italy’s post-war reckoning (or rather, lack thereof) with its perpetrator past.

Chapters Four and Five move Caroli’s investigation into a comparative context. First, he compares the Italian experience with that of Spain, South Africa and Germany—a discussion that allows the author to evaluate the impact of amnesty on memory. Second, a comparative framework allows the author to examine a more contemporary transition in Italy, namely the political transition that occurred in 1992 when the Tangentopoli corruption scandal and the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) investigation led to calls for reform and the initiation of the Second Italian Republic. In this period, as Caroli explains, the tensions between political and judicial power once again ignite questions about the possibility of collective clemency—a question that first arose in the context of Italy’s postwar transition (16). Rather than take the opportunity of a new transition to examine the past and to implement substantive institutional reform, Caroli describes once again a transition that was never fully engaged with, with a leadership that lacked the will to examine the past and to implement reforms accordingly.

In examining the Togliatti Amnesty and its aftermath, Caroli concludes that Togliatti’s efforts at uniting the nation ultimately became a vehicle for impunity (300). At the same time, he suggests, the Togliatti Amnesty is symptomatic of the broader failings of the transitional justice process in Italy, which were defined more by cover ups and the deformation of facts than a search of accountability and truth—a failure that continued even after stability had been re-established in Italy. With the so-called memory boom of the post-1989 era, Caroli examines the ways in which the memory of the Holocaust and World War Two expanded, but here too, he offers evidence as to how the new discourse translates into new forms of self-absolution rather than a critical examination of the past (300-301).

Because of the ambitious purview of the volume, as well as its at times technical language, the work would be well-served by an index. Nonetheless, in a substantial volume that combines both historical and legal research, Caroli offers an illuminating examination of the ways in which Italy’s past continue to impact its present. Indeed, while the Italian case surely offers a unique study of unfinished transitions and denial, the amnesia reflected in a thwarted reckoning of the violent past is, alas, all too common, and much can be learned about the significance of a historical and legal reckoning through Caroli’s important scholarly contribution.

Ariella Lang