By Emanuele Giordana
“Angelo Del Boca had the ability to go beyond military, diplomatic and purely institutional history. He had a tension that looked at people and not just at structures”. This sentence by Valeria Deplano, a young scholar at the University of Cagliari, captures the calibre of the journalist, historian and man Angelo Del Boca. Partisan, essayist, and polemicist, Del Boca was recently remembered in Milan at a well-attended conference organised by the “Istituto Parri” and the Lombardy Institute of Contemporary History at Palazzo Moriggia (Museum of Risorgimento). The conference was entitled “Italiani brava gente? (are Italians good-hearted?) and was taken from one of his most famous essays. It is certainly an appropriate title at a time when the myth of the ‘good Italian’, building roads and bridges and fighting wars as a mission of peace, is making a powerful comeback in the ideologies of a government that probably didn’t like it at all.
The conference was conceived by Angelo’s family and organised by Nicola Labanca, who formed the first team of scholars to lift the veil on Italian colonialism with Del Boca and Rochat. Italian colonial history has always been neglected and censored (like the famous film The Lion of the Desert on the figure of Omar al-Mukhtar), or derived from absolving rhetoric, that even Italian President Scalfaro used in a public speech in 1996, but fortunately corrected a year later, as Alessandro Pes (also from Cagliari university) recalls. The refrain is always the same: Italiani brava gente! (with exclamation mark). Italians are so good, in fact, that in the collective imagination, the soldier is above all a worker, or rather “someone who brings work” to primitive societies that thus gain access to civilisation. He does this, Pes continues, “in contrast to the ‘greed’ of countries like Britain and France”. A man who wears the Italian flag is indeed “particular and exceptional”, suggesting that humanity transcends war and – we say – justifies it.
Labanca, who closed the conference, asked the many academics in the room to give their own accounts of how Del Boca had influenced their work, in addition to their scheduled speeches. And the first thing to note is that twenty years ago, not only would a symposium on Italian colonialism have been a rarity, but, unlike today, the number of participants would have been meagre. The Milan conference (after Novara, Fondotoce Val d’Ossola and New York) testifies both to the commitment of the man (“a journalist of impeccable moral rectitude”, according to Ada Marchetti of the Lombardy Historical Institute) and to the fact that today the view of what Italian colonialism was is less and less absolving, despite the efforts to continue the work of concealment.
Del Boca also had the ability to link the past with the present, to see yesterday’s lessons in tomorrow’s facts, precisely because he was both a historian and a journalist. His last interviews on the Libyan crisis were revealing and the affair of “I Gas di Mussolini” (“Mussolini’s gas”, a book published in 1996 and republished in 2021) is worth telling. The newspaper il Manifesto extracted from it and published the hitherto secret telegrams in which the “Duce” gave the go-ahead for the mustard gas bombings. Del Boca’s theory about the gas, initially denied even by the famous Italian journalist Indro Montanelli – who later apologised – became the official truth thanks to the extensive work in the archives he shared with Il Manifesto when the telegrams containing Mussolini’s orders appeared. The official truth was later officially confirmed by the Minister of Defence Domenico Corsione, when he made public the documents on the use of dichlorodiethyl sulfide, the lethal mustard gas.
Born in Novara on 23 May 1925, Del Boca died in Turin at the age of 96. His family has always made a point of organising events that go beyond paying tribute to a husband or father (the next one will be in Turin). It is a choice that keeps alive a historical memory that is always in danger of being deliberately concealed. Proof of this is the change of mark in the phrase Italiani brava gente, from an exclamation mark to a question mark and vice versa.
Cover image: © Davide Del Boca