The Politics of Grief: Fascist Italy’s Military Cemeteries of the First World War
Mussolini’s Fascist regime sought to exploit grief for political gain by taking control of the commemoration of the fallen soldiers of the First World War. Whereas initially Italians who died fighting in the war were buried in makeshift cemeteries close to the battlefields, in the late 1920s Mussolini decided to exhume their remains and rebury them in large ossuaries.
Located along the former front in north-eastern Italy, the vast scale and monumentality of the Fascist ossuaries means that they are unlike other European memorials. By imposing a narrative that spoke of victory, they helped to silence discordant memories of the war as pointless slaughter. By twisting sorrow into pride, they were intended to promote imperialism and militarism, and to bolster public support for future wars. In essence, the monuments represent an attempt to harness feelings of grief and loss to the Fascist cause. As such, they offer an example of the use of emotions as political tools and the nexus between emotions and politics.
This research combined emotional, political, and architectural history in order to uncover the political motivations behind the creation of the cemeteries. Drawing on both visual and textual sources, it explored a range of documents held in previously inaccessible military archives, and propaganda including videos, pamphlets, newspaper articles, and postcards. As the sources suggest, the Fascists aimed to channel the emotions elicited by the dead in support of the regime. As sites of rituals and rallies, the cemeteries were meant to foster feelings of pride, triumph, self-sacrifice, and even joy, while restricting sadness, regret, and resentment at what some saw as a pointless bloodshed. Propaganda declared that “one should not cry for the dead,” but personal responses show how individuals could resist the regime. Thus the Fascist cemeteries present an ideal case study for the interplay between national politics and individual emotions—a timely issue given the emotionality of politics today and the current ascent of the Italian far-right.
In August 2021 the project on the emotional politics of grief was concluded, with two Open Access articles published in 2022.