25 April is a national holiday both in Italy and in Portugal, and for the same reason: the liberation from a long-lasting dictatorship and the end of the war. Italy became free in 1945, after twenty-three years of fascist dictatorship and five years of war. Portugal ended forty-eight years of dictatorship and fourteen years of colonial wars (or War of Liberation, if you ask the former colonies) in 1974.
History is written by the victors, they say, which is why the point of view we take on historic events is crucial. How would we remember the insurgency of the partisans in Italy if fascism and Nazism had prevailed? How would we remember Celeste Caeiro, who offered the carnations to the tanks involved with the coup in Lisbon, had Marcelo Caetano managed to hold onto power? We do not have answers to these questions, because Italy and Portugal built a democratic political culture and wrote an anti-fascist constitution that repudiates the dictatorship and promotes freedom. Which is what they both celebrate on 25 April.
Seventy-five years ago, the National Liberation Committee of Upper Italy officially proclaimed the insurgency against Nazi-fascism in a radio announcement. Portugal celebrates forty-six years of freedom, meaning that the period of democracy is still shorter than the dictatorship was. Having spent a much longer time within the boundaries of democracy, Italy has a story to teach Portugal in this regard: memory is malleable and values can change. Glorifying a myth such as the Liberation by commemorating it every year can become a tired ritual. Commemorations, per se, do not guarantee the intergenerational transmission of collective memory.
Commemorations, per se, do not guarantee the intergenerational transmission of collective memory.
During the long decades of rule by the Christian Democrats, the commemoration received lukewarm support from the government, and open attacks on Liberation day began with Silvio Berlusconi in the 1990s. Before 2009, Berlusconi – the man who brought the neo-fascists (MSI) into government and who has spent a political lifetime railing against communists – never attended public commemorations, because he was reluctant to acknowledge the fundamental role played by the communist left in the Italian resistance. In 2008, he even proposed to change the name of the celebration: from Liberation Day, to Freedom Day (his party at the time was “The People of Freedom”).
Since 2011, Giorgia Meloni has been proposing to substitute 25 April with 17 March (Anniversary of the Unification of Italy) saying that it is better to celebrate historic facts that keep Italians united rather than divided. In 2019, Matteo Salvini refused to celebrate 25 April saying that after so much time it is pointless to carry on with this “derby” between communists and fascists. In the meantime, in a purely populist fashion, the Five Star Movement remains agnostic on the issue and is ready to welcome fascist people among its rank and file.
Portugal saw its first timid attempt at historic revisionism in 2004, when the right-wing government decided that the theme for the celebrations for the 30 years of the revolution was “April is evolution”, removing the first letter of the word to defuse the revolution into a more moderate evolution. Moreover, it is worth remembering that during the 25 April celebrations of 2015, the right-wing CDS – People's Party proposed to celebrate 25 November as the ‘real’ outcome of 25 April. This is a reference to the failed military coup of 25 November carried out by Portuguese left-wing activists, who hoped to hijack the Portuguese transition to democracy. Celebrating that date, would have allowed the CDS to completely change the meaning of the Carnation revolution and celebrate the defeat of the far left. In 2010, the members of the Social Democratic Party (despite its name it is a right-wing party, showing how strong was the stigma against the right-wing dictatorship in 1974) started wearing carnations during commemorative celebrations in the Portuguese parliament, while CDS – People's Party – never accepted this symbolic gesture.
Since last October, Chega – a party to the right of CDS – has gained parliamentary representation, and far right ideas have entered into a democratic institution that so far seemed immune to them. This does not mean that Portugal will have a party like Salvini’s Lega in government any time soon. However, it shows that collective memory changes and the stigma associated with a concept considered taboo for a long time, like fascism, can fade away, opening the doors for radical right populist ideas, as I show in my book, Populism and Collective Memory: Comparing Fascist Legacies in Western Europe.
In Portugal, the liberation from a long dictatorship is more recent than in Italy, and despite the little signals analyzed above, its collective memory is more cohesive. However, over time it is likely to observe a similar pattern of attacks towards the Carnation revolution as a divisive symbol, in the name of a shared memory.
In this sense, the resolution (2019/2018) “on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe” adopted last year by the European Parliament sets a precedent for historic revisionism. The resolution proposes a symmetric condemnation of fascism and communism (and therefore anti-fascism). If the European Union wants to equally blame the Soviet Union and Germany for the tragedy of World War II, the least we can say is that commemorating the past in this way will hardly forge a better future.
At the same time, the European Parliament decided to watch Viktor Orbán killing Hungarian democracy, transforming the country into an autocracy. The same Orbán who celebrates the regime of Miklós Horthy, Hitler’s ally and the man responsible for the deportation of Hungarian Jews into concentration camps.
As usual, this 25 April Bella Ciao will echo through the Italian balconies, and Portuguese radios will play Grândola, Vila Morena, the song used as a signal to start the revolution back in 1974. This is important, but it does not prevent our collective memory from fading away. Learning history’s lessons to avoid repeating our mistakes is possible only if we build a collective memory that does not seek refuge in blame shifting, scapegoating, and revisionism. That is our duty. Asking whether in April 1975 the Vietnam War ended with the fall or with the liberation of Saigon is already a revolutionary act.
In recent days, both in Portugal and in Italy, the far right have used the pandemic to propose the cancellation of the ceremonies of 25 April. In Italy the post-fascist party Brothers of Italy argued that we should commemorate the victims of Covid-19 as well as "all victims of all wars" (that would technically include Hitler and Mussolini). In Portugal, André Ventura wrote to the president of the parliament asking for a cancellation of the commemorative session of April 25, arguing that it would "be a huge step forward in the name of our democracy".