Transforming Monuments into Objects of Collective Remembrance

A Guide to the Reschen Valley Series Extracts Historical Background Features

Last year, Professor Hannes Obermair, a South Tyrolean historian, agreed to meet with me. I was in Bolzano to do research for “Two Fatherlands: A Reschen Valley Novel Part 4” and since that illuminating afternoon, I have kept my eye on him and his work. Recently, I discovered an article in the digital magazine, Barfuss. As one of the curators for a permanent installation located in the controversial Bolzano Victory Monument, Obermair shared his thoughts and ideas in an interview with Julia Tappeiner in August this year. I have taken the liberty of summarizing that article because it is, unfortunately, only available in German and yet its message resonates with what the world has witnessed this past year.

Title photo by Wolfgang Moroder / Wikimedia Commons
Photo from WikiWand.

Hannes Obermair is the former director of the Municipal Archives of Bolzano. He played a leading role in the contextualization and historization of such controversial monuments as the Victory Monument or the Mussolini relief on the Casa Littoria in Bolzano. In the interview, Obermair claims that South Tyroleans are infatuated with their “victim” status, and he calls for a different approach to “the culture of remembrance,” or a collective culture of memory. South Tyrol was annexed by Italy in 1920 and that begins the background history to my Reschen Valley series.

“South Tyrol’s memory cultures – I prefer the plural – are divided,“ Obermair tells Tappeiner. “German-speaking South Tyroleans usually have different points of reference than their Italian-speaking fellow citizens. For example, the Option  is deeply etched into the collective memory of many German- and Ladin-speaking families, but fails to be of any great importance to the Italian-speaking community.“ Especially to those who do not have as deep of roots to the province.

Obermair claims this causes a division of identities rather than a unified narrative and that, in its place, history becomes more mythic, ego-centric, and can cause a loss of identity within the cultural whole. This, he warns, can lead to cultural stagnation. For example, Obermair refers to how most South Tyroleans still glorify the 19th-century hero, Andreas Hofer but calls that mostly reactionary and can lead to serious exclusion.

Photo from WikiWand.

In sharp criticism, Obermair compares South Tyrol’s behavior to that of a spoiled child. “It wants to belong a little everywhere, but only to share and enjoy the respective amenities. A person is German when it fits, and Italian when it is more comfortable.“ He states that if that approach led to an ensemble of identities, then it would work. Instead, he sees that kind of design leading to opportunism and ethnocentric feelings of superiority. In other words, Tappeiner prompts, there is little room for self-criticism in the culture of remembrance. Obermair agrees with this assessment. “If someone were to skim over our historical contributions, one would have to conclude that South Tyrol’s history was populated by geniuses and heroes. This defiant refusal of knowledge is difficult to counter because it fulfills unconscious expectations of undisturbed joy and a flattering idyll of home. But it is false consciousness that is created and … [a]gainst this background, critical narratives are extremely difficult in South Tyrol.“

In general, in their national myths, the South Tyrolean society tends to portray itself as a victim and as a construct of external enemies, Obermair claims. “For example, none of the still celebrated local artists were fascists or Nazis. The downside of this is that it leads to the false claim that since we were injured, but have never injured one another, we are entitled to incessant reparation. It is very convenient if you don’t have to make amends yourself. And everything you do is then immediately excusable.”

The enormous political stability of post-war South Tyrol has, according to Obermair, created a glass ceiling for reflective ego-identities. He speaks of a “historical herd immunity” where nobody dares to break through the conventional narrative. And when someone does, they are ignored.

South Tyrol may be one of the most European and pluralistic societies in its history and yet one of the more tragically broken and contradictory of any other region on the continent. That there may very well explain why I am so drawn to the South Tyrolean story. This plurality reminds me very much of my connection to Ukraine through my own immigrant family. As a matter of fact, as I read the article, I was stunned at how much Obermair’s interview resonated for me not only based on my experiences in growing up in the Ukrainian diaspora, but what I observe on the sidelines of America’s polarized society today.

Though critical of the South Tyroleans, Obermair is also hopeful and has ideas and solutions that he brings to the table. For example, a few years ago he began curating an “experience” in the form of a permanent installation at the Victory Memorial in Bolzano, called “One Monument, One City, Two Dictatorships”. The double dictatorship experience would actually be an ideal basis for understanding in order to promote a symmetrical reappraisal, Obermair says.

When Tappeiner asks him whether he believes South Tyrol should better come to terms with its own past, especially its connection with National Socialism, Obermair responds: “It is the deep-rooted fear of weakening as a collective that leads to the successful fading out of South Tyrol’s National Socialist entanglements again and again. The same happens with fascism in large parts of the Italian language group. The double dictatorship experience, the power and influence of both fascisms, is actually an ideal basis for understanding, in order to promote a symmetrical reappraisal, which does not want to make any daily political capital out of its findings. If one approaches South Tyrol’s contemporary history impartially, and without a moral index finger, then the gray area in between will dominate. The stories of victims and perpetrators would be closely interwoven. This actually forbids the creation of ethnocentric narratives of suffering.“ The problem, he adds, is that it’s more comfortable to fall back on old habits.

Obermair concludes that if we were to build monuments, fashion statues, and place memorials that depict both the perpetrators and the victims, we might all benefit from a more factual and realistic historical narrative. “I find the addition of the Roman monument in Heidenheim, to which the silhouette of a mine victim has been added this year, very successful, and a model as to how we might better handle our public spaces.”

The historian praised the “Stolpersteine“ project – or stumbling blocks – in Bolzano and Merano, where plaques have been installed in various areas around the cities indicating where victims of the Holocaust and fascism were affected. What better way to come to terms with the dark chapter of South Tyrol?

Photo by Christian Michelides

The permanent exhibit at the Victory Memorial contains a collection of artefacts, documents and illustrations of radical transformations made to the city between 1918 to 1945. Obermair believes that using the Victory Memorial – which was erected to symbolize Italy’s power over South Tyrol – changes the symbolic character of the obscene testimony it stood for and transform it into a place of reason and reflection. Instead of seeing the memorial’s original intention, Obermair claims the object becomes a witness to itself.

“The bloody failure of the dictators’ concept of history and society is exposed as arrogance and real barbarism, especially in the monumental legacies they leave behind. That perspective is only possible with the authentic relics, and that is why they are so valuable.” Yes, it may seem paradoxical unless, Obermair states, you consider them to be “the historical dump from which the precious metals of our critical consciousness can be extracted.“

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She wants her home. He wants control. The Fascist regime wants both.


Two Fatherlands

The victory monument on Piazza della Vittoria in Bolzano was a nineteen-metre-wide gate, over twenty metres high, eight metres deep, and bedecked with solid white marble, as was the Fascist style. Add pictorial pillars—fourteen here—and a superhuman, bare-chested woman over Latin script to finish off Il Duce’s signature.

Angelo stepped back, hand raised against the midday sun, so that he could translate the provocative lines. Here at the border of the fatherland set down the banner. From this point on we ennobled the others with language, law and culture.

The past tense was not a slip of the marble cutter’s chisel. It was there to make the reader hover between past and present, to create undertones of a before and after. To cause controversy. On the day of the monument’s inauguration, ten thousand Tyroleans protested in Innsbruck. The Italian authorities took little heed. The nationalists believed that the allogeni, the “others,” were in their hearts Italian, after all. They had already been educated in the Italian ways once and, having relapsed into otherness, merely needed to be “recovered,” or redeemed. 

Ennobled referred to the idea that the Roman imperial empire had already managed to tame the barbarians of the North long before Italy claimed the hinterland and planted its banners. German civility, the words claimed, stemmed from the close contact of its dignified neighbours. Why should they not be grateful to be under Italian rule?

Angelo faced the road. Across the street, Gina came around the corner. He watched her. He never tired of watching her. She was a petite powerhouse, and she always looked good. Today, she was wearing a russet, orange, and pomegranate-red striped coat with a dark-brown fur trim. Possibly beaver. They were her colours, her style. Her dark, wavy hair was set in large curls and pinned up just at the sides. Angelo realised with a jolt that she had changed little in all the years since he’d met her. She was still gorgeous—small and curved—and she impacted all his senses in one heavy punch to the beltline.

When she spotted him, she gave him a wan smile, then crossed the road. He kissed her cheek, lingering just a little longer than customary. She smelled of autumn spices.

“I’ve reserved a table at Due Platani.” Angelo offered her his arm.

A few steps away, Gina looked up at the monument Angelo had been reading shortly before. “You actually read the inscriptions?”

“Don’t you?”

She smiled crookedly and pointed to her eyes. “Nearsighted.”

Angelo chuckled. There was nothing wrong with her eyes. If one thing had changed about her in all these years, it was her disenchantment with fascism. She had gradually moved to more moderate political rhetoric. Discreetly, anyway.

“How was the meeting?” she asked.

“The ONC wants as few Tyroleans as possible, the veterans saying they cannot imagine a peaceful cohabitation. My father found it to be a grand idea, moving the affected Tyroleans all into Mastromattei’s hamlets, and the electrical society kept pointing out the legalities, much to the Colonel’s consternation. It sounded like a lover’s quarrel.”

Behind the monument, Angelo steered Gina across the street to the café. Evenly spaced tables and chairs had been set out beneath the two large plane trees the café was named after. “Is it too cold for you to sit outside?”

“Nonsense. I have my coat.” She took the seat at the one table fully bathed in sunshine. “So, the result was?”

“I’m to mediate the situation with the Steinhausers and their little committee. Mastromattei said that if they are the good Italian citizens I have made them out to be, then they will understand that by leaving their homesteads, they are improving the country. It is—in other words—their patriotic duty to accept fair and balanced offers. Or else…”

Gina’s left eyebrow arched. “Libya?”

“Mastromattei did not say it. I think he was afraid to throw himself into the camp of the hardliners, but my father did. Explicitly. The Colonel suggested that MFE would see to it that the allogeni understood their choices.”

He did not tell her the most biting of the Colonel’s comments, when Angelo’s father had said, “These people will be found guilty of resisting public authorities. Detain them for crimes against the state, if you must! Put them all in a penal colony if barbarians so badly want to be together.”

Gina’s forehead creased. “I see. And how did Mastromattei take that?”

Angelo smirked. “You can imagine. But he did confirm the rumour that Hitler is making noises about taking back the Alto Adige.”


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