Within the span of just a few weeks in mid-1943, Italy went from Benito Mussolini’s authoritarian grip on power to total collapse.
With no authority in place, ordinary people were left to question everything: Who is in power? What is the right side to be on? Who is guilty of what? Who do we answer to?
How everyday people cope with such rapid regime change in that period – from absolute control to no control at all – is a fascinating micro-study, said Joshua Arthurs, associate professor in the Department of History of West Virginia University’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.
In order to explore this further, Arthurs has been awarded the prestigious Rome Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome. The Rome Fellowship is awarded to about 30 emerging artists and scholars who represent the highest standard of excellence and who are in the early or middle stages of their working lives.
“This is a tremendously exciting opportunity for me to develop my research, for me to engage with leading figures – not only in my field, but a range of disciplines and professions,” Arthurs said. “I’m excited to come back to WVU with the fruits of my research in hand.”
Rudolph Almasy, interim dean of the Eberly College, underscored the importance of Arthurs’ work.
“Joshua Arthurs’ archival work is tremendously important – and interesting – as we try to understand events not all that long ago from which scholars and citizens can learn,” Almasy said. “The fact that Professor Arthurs has been awarded the Rome Fellowship attests to the value of his work as an historian.”
Arthurs will travel across the country utilizing a variety of records and first-hand experience to paint a picture of Italian life during the upheaval. Government archives, police records, arrest records, court records and even experiences from people that are still able to share their experiences.
“If you think about episodes of regime change that we’ve witnessed over the last decade – the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime, the events of the Arab Spring, the overthrow of Colonel Gadhafi in Libya – we tend to only consider it as changes at the top,” Arthurs said. “We don’t think a lot about how that experience is felt by ordinary people. How do you make sense of the past 20 years of life under Mussolini, then figure out where you’re going to go from there?”
Asking questions like these is what drives contemporary historical research and makes it a uniquely valuable discipline, according to Provost Joyce McConnell.
“On university campuses like ours and out in the field, we need experts in our own past to be part of the conversations we have about that past — and about the present and future as well,” McConnell said. “How exciting that one of our faculty members will be engaged in what is essentially a year-long conversation with other scholars from around the nation.”
Arthurs has been interested in Italy since he was an undergraduate student, thinking he’d become a Roman archaeologist. But quickly he became a fan of the modern city. Typically, he said, people only consider the city as a collection of historical ruins immortalizing the Roman Empire in days gone by. The modern-day Rome emerged from fascism’s collapse.
“The 20th Century and fascist era were a moment of really profound transition for Italy,” Arthurs said. “That’s when Italy really entered the modern era in many respects. It was a moment of heavy industrialization, urban growth and people’s social roles changed.”
Unlike Germany, the scars of the war are not as closely held. While Germany approaches the war as a national shame, many in Italy may have absolved themselves from guilt by comparison to other atrocities committed, and also by a sense of disassociation.
“These are emotions and memories that get dredged up in Italy. It’s important to look at how people felt the day after they heard fascism was no more,” Arthurs said. “There were some people that were nostalgic. I’ve encountered a variety of emotions”
By not properly knowing the effects of fascism, partly due to an understanding of ‘moving on’ from the past and also not hearing experiences back then, some in Italy today may not properly grasp how life was back then – another reason such an examination is important.
“The idea that people didn’t think that fascism was such a bad thing says a lot about how modern Italians think about today compared to people who lived under it for 20 years,” he said. “It’s a forgotten episode in Italian history and fewer people can speak to the experience of living under fascism.”
CONTACT: Devon Copeland; Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.