In February the Villa Aurelia was the site of a two-day conference on political violence organized by Andrew W. Mellon Humanities Professor Marla Stone (1996 Fellow). The conference examined specific historical events and movements in the United States and Europe in which violence was used to destabilize or overthrow the state. By probing the similarities of these movements, the conference deepened our understanding of historical events and gave us the context to understand current challenges facing democracy.
Titled “Political Violence: From the Storming of the US Capitol to the March on Rome,” the conference took a reverse chronological approach, beginning with contemporary events and then going backward in time to the start of Fascism in Italy, a century ago this year. Two renowned experts gave keynote speeches: Nancy MacLean, William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University and the author of several award-winning books, and Alexander Hinton, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights.
MacLean and other presenters made the point that the European far right and American far right of today are not closed systems: they borrow ideas from one another in a coordinated way. So too do ideas bounce from epoch to epoch. The trope of the dangerous (nonwhite or non-Aryan) outsider who threatens the (white) motherland was regarded as a recurring idea in far right and white nationalist movements throughout history.
Hinton’s keynote took an anthropological approach. He argued that Theodor Adorno’s idea of “reified consciousness” is one mechanism that allows people to dehumanize others in a way that allows violence to take place, because people do not understand their own subjectivity and are blinded to the historical past. (He uses the Frankfurt School’s definition of reification: the process of an abstract thing becoming seen as concrete). Hinton said that education was one important “mechanism of prevention” against violence, genocide, and human atrocities.
The University of Bristol’s John Foot spoke about how accounts of violence in books and other material can read almost like economic reports; they outline the statistics of casualties and deaths in a depersonalized manner and are, he said, a failure of representation. What obligations, he asked, does the historian of today have in writing about violence and trauma?
Many participants analyzed visual material to understand the goals of far-right and far-left movements. Stone and Simon Martin of Trinity College Rome analyzed the imagery of Fascist Party postcards, which present squadristi as heroic defenders of the Italian family, faith, and nation, whereas the “Reds” are presented as lazy, effeminate, and antipatriotic. Luca Peretti of the University of Warwick, for his part, used clips from 1960s Italian cinema to explore representations of political violence.
By linking the past to the present, the conference was timely and not a little disconcerting. Yet the excellent weather and beauty of the villa and its view over Rome provided a welcome respite. As participant Amy King summarized on Twitter: “Heavy topics eased by exceptionally beautiful surroundings!”