The research project and the webdoc

The project “Fascist Past. Fascism and Nazism in the TV story RAI and Mediaset”, aims to analyze the ways in which Italian television has told the experience of the fascist and National Socialist regime, over 70 years of Italian history (from 1954, the beginning of RAI television broadcasts, to 2022), influencing convenient narratives, wrong perceptions, stereotypes and public uses of the past. What television memory has been conveyed to the general public and how have the ways of representing Fascism and Nazism changed over time by the television medium? Is it possible for a television program (a documentary, a fiction, a series) to be able to tell the story and to do so in an intelligent and critical way? Compared to some particularly dramatic moments in the history of the twentieth century, such as the advent and consolidation of the dictatorship, can historians still afford the luxury of remaining extraneous to communication and television storytelling, where the mass media have always played a fundamental role in building the collective memory of a country?

Historians have been trying to answer these questions for some time, investigating the relationship between history and television, being forced to compare the narratives that the media give of the past.

There is no doubt, in fact, that history today enjoys a great fortune as a television genre and that it has acquired an increasingly important role in contemporary communication. The story is the scene of successful television series, the subject of infotainment programs, the protagonist of in-depth programs and dissemination (very often made by thematic channels that make history an important genre of audio-visual narration). Not to mention the numerous Festivals dedicated to history with good public success and the fact that history increasingly provides the setting for short stories, novels, or comics.

It persists, however, the problem (detected several times on the pages of the “Corriere della Sera”) of historians who are still unable to communicate with the general public, who see in the disclosure a debasement of their discipline, and who do not have the tools to interact with the public discourse on history; they do not reason about the imaginary that surrounds them, about the open questions that contemporaneity places in their eyes.

Historians, and especially contemporaries, are therefore called to ask themselves the question of how to communicate, transmitting their knowledge to the general public by coming into contact with those who feed on these narratives, but without betraying the scientific nature of the discipline that is made of rigor, sources and method. A question that the historian Claudio Pavone led to the centre of the debate several years ago during a conference organized by RAI entitled “Come raccontare la storia in TV. UN seminario di Rai educational” (How to tell the story on TV. A Rai educational seminar), 20th February 1997 (for internal use but available at the Library of Via Teulada). During those days of study, Pavone invited historians to work not only as consultants but to write for television as authors, in the construction of in-depth programs and documentaries, evoking the birth of a new professional figure “guaranteed by university education and the productive structures of RAI”. A new figure of author of history programs, aware of the problems related to the use of sources, methodologies, debates, the tools of the historian’s profession, which also had the “ability to control and know the potential of old and new media”. In other words, a mediator who was “able to design an effective communication of history, with the means that technology makes available, adapted to the level of knowledge reached in the research venues and destined for a diverse audience but, as a rule, not specialists”.

Over time the hope of Peacock has been gathered by a new generation of historians who feels it is their duty not only (or not so much) to write or speak to the experts and to communicate with scholars of their own level, but that tries to make its knowledge usable and translatable (also in a captivating and seductive way) for those who know little or nothing about history. Moreover, how is it possible that a contemporary historian does not watch television, which is the greatest builder of public memory (and public history) and which is the source itself to tell the story of the ‘900 (since we know the facts and we imagine them, just because the television told us)?

Television is not only a means of diffusion and communication, but it shapes our collective memory of the past, our way of imagining and representing it. Not to mention that television with the new digital platforms, the thematic channels in streaming (especially in the years of pandemic), have now become part of the lives of students and teachers as valuable teaching tools, as shown by the product offer of Rai Cultura and the channel “Raiplay #Learning: La scuola non si ferma”.


But what was (and still is) the role of the mass media and television in building the collective memory of the fascist past? It is precisely by reasoning on these questions that the research group has begun its investigation into audiovisual archival sources and historiographical production (scientific and informative). And as we will see later in the section dedicated to research for the Teche Rai and Mediaset, the television story (along with the press and in general the media) has contributed strongly to convey in public opinion myths hard to die like that of the “good Italian”, the “bad German” or a “Mussolini victim of Hitler”, very often leveraging sensationalist aspects of the past, mysteries or secrets. Examples are, in this sense, some episodes of the program produced by Rai3 “La Grande Storia”, dedicated to the many mysteries that were hidden behind the madness of Hitler or other episodes of the same program that gave ample space to the Duce’s affairs, trying to attract the average viewer by talking about transgression, death and sex. Products almost always entrusted to the management/ narration of journalists, as in the case of the program of Gianni Bisiach, aired in the 90s on Rai1 “Le grandi battaglie della Storia “ (the siege of Leningrad, the attack on Europe, the lightning war, the war in North Africa and the battle of El Alamein), reconstructed through confidential documents, unpublished footage alongside images of suffering and death to tell the horrors of war as if we were watching a film, with the almost total exclusion of historians as authors or consultants.

Of course, there is no denying that television, especially since the 1990s, has changed path, bringing to the small screen what were the novelties of the studies on fascism and the Shoah. Think of the 1997 documentary “Memoria. I sopravvissuti raccontano”, edited by Marcello Pezzetti and Liliana Picciotto, broadcast on Rai2 with great success of audience: over 7 million viewers. A result that certainly resented the ratings of Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s list (broadcast on Rai1 with 12.3 million viewers and 50% share) and the cinema release of the film by Roberto Benigni, “La Vita è bella”, but that also demonstrated a change of pace in the sensitivity of Italians around the theme of the Shoah, It was also aided by a new policy of memory favoured by the centre-left government led by Romano Prodi.

The television seasons have often been influenced by the historical and political events that have accompanied the definition of memory policies and the attempt to rewrite the civil calendar (e.g. Holocaust Remembrance Day 27 January; Remembrance Day 10 February). It was therefore decided to reserve specific sections of the webdoc – the final objective of this research project – to the political events that marked the debate on the public memory of fascism, from the 1950s to the present.

Il webdoc (obiettivo finale di questo progetto) contiene dunque una parte dedicata alla nuova stagione inaugurata dalle politiche della memoria messe in atto negli ultimi anni dal Presidente della Repubblica Sergio Mattarella, che ha provato a farsi portavoce di una memoria europea riconciliata, inaugurando una nuova stagione del discorso pubblico incentrato sulla rivalutazione dell’antifascismo e della Resistenza che ha lasciato molto spazio alla memoria della Shoah.

A season that in 2015 saw Mattarella visit the Fosse Ardeatine, a symbolic place of the memory of the Resistance, refusing the “compensatory gesture”[1] to visit the victims of the foibe. Or the summer of 2020, when the President of the Republic went to Basovizza with the Slovenian President and to the strain that recalls the death of the four shot by the Fascist Court, returning to the Slovenian community the Narodni Dom, the house of the people set on fire by the fascists in 1920.Il tentativo è di osservare il racconto sul fascismo e sul nazismo da una prospettiva diversa – la memoria televisiva e il racconto pubblico sul passato – e di farlo attraverso fonti audiovisive preziose, finora mai consultate.

The role of the mass media in defining the collective memory of the past is also a theme that has recently come to the attention of the historical debate, as demonstrated by the conference promoted in 2021 by SISSCALT and the Italian-German Cultural Centre of Villa Vigoni, What story for the general public? Fascism and Nazism between historiography and media, which saw historians, journalists and communication experts both Italian and German.

As already pointed out in 2012 by the Final Report of the Italian-German Historical Commission, there is also a significant gap between the plan of historiographical research, with acquisitions now consolidated compared to the advent of the fascist regime and the war period 1939-1945, and what the media narrative conveys in public opinion, also through social media.

The aim of the research project is therefore to incorporate the recommendations of the Italian-German bilateral Commission, which clearly indicated the need to overcome the barriers between national memories, and the mutual stereotypes that still weigh on the relations between the two states and between their citizens.

Focusing on audiovisual sources as the object of historiographical investigation on the fascist past, the project wants to solicit a reflection on those reconstructions and removals dictated by political interests and national needs.

This in the idea that only a process of deconstruction of national memories and a careful analysis of the policies of memory, put in place by the post-war governments of the two countries to overcome the traumas of the conflict, will help overcome mutual stereotypes and conventional narratives, consolidated in the post-war period.

[1] Cfr. F. Focardi, Nel cantiere della memoria. Fascismo, Resistenza, Shoah, Foibe, Viella, Roma 2020.