As the date of our launch event approaches staff from CRAM will be posting summaries of their research. In the first of this series, Dr Jonathan Dunnage explains his current project on post-Fascist police culture in Italy….
Institutional Memory, Narratives and Worldviews: Rebuilding Italian Police Culture after Fascism.
What measures are taken to reform police forces which previously collaborated with dictatorial regimes and how successful are they? How thoroughly do police forces and their personnel abandon ideological allegiances and professional notions related to authoritarian forms of rule, and what factors determine this? How do police forces deal internally with dictatorial pasts? What light can historical case studies addressing the above questions throw on democratic police reform today?
In the context of the above questions, my project analyses the development of the internal culture of the Italian Interior Ministry police after the fall of Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. While in the first instance the project focuses on an individual historical case study, in the longer term the project aims to incorporate a strong comparative element, by considering the results of similar research on post-dictatorial police culture in different societies and engaging the participation of other researchers.
The project seeks to examine the broader cultural legacy of twenty years of dictatorship in terms of the values, professional ethos, worldviews and sense of the recent past which permeated the Interior Ministry police of the newly created democratic Italian Republic.
Drawing on police journals, institutional correspondence and film footage, in the first instance, I have examined how the largely unpurged post-war Italian Interior Ministry police presented themselves to the public and to their own personnel against the background of the recent dictatorship. It is significant that the narrative underlining texts and ceremonies, such as the annual ‘Police Day’, stressed the re-birth of a police force which embodied democratic values. Moreover, such values, it was claimed, were built on an earlier Liberal tradition within the police which dated back to the unification of Italy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, direct references to the fascist years were avoided in the post-war police narrative; yet, the manner and style of these representations of the police, as evident not only in police literature, but also commemorations and festivities, were arguably acquired during the dictatorship. Fascism had employed highly aestheticized spectacles to showcase the police as a fully integrated institution of Mussolini’s regime. Indeed, what also emerges in the post-war narrative is the surviving sense of institutional pride which fascism had previously instilled in the police, bearing in mind that before Mussolini came to power police officials had considered their institution as the ‘Cinderella’ of the Italian state. While there is, arguably, no problem with a police force feeling pride in its role as defender of a nation founded on democratic values, the position of the post-war Italian police was somewhat ambivalent if we bear in mind that it was often the same individuals who had made successful careers during the fascist period who were now proclaiming their adherence to democracy and, moreover, were employing a style which was, arguably, fascist to do this!
A further question which the project will seek to answer regards how the fascist past of the police and their personnel was managed and treated beyond official pronouncements. How, for example, did personnel committees evaluate promotion applications by staff who had been in service under the dictatorship? What can these discussions (or, at least, the formal written record of them) tell us about the way the institution and their personnel related to the recent past? This raises the broader issue of what risks to democratic renewal are carried by the efforts of police forces to build on compromised institutional histories and traditions for the purpose of enhancing internal unity and loyalty. Even if such initiatives were not characterised by ideological nostalgia for past authoritarian regimes, they inevitably involved acts of mystification of their roles under those regimes.
Beyond issues surrounding the self-representation of the Italian police in the context of the transition from fascism to the Republic, other aspects which the project will address include the attitudes of personnel in the face of Allied efforts to introduce democratic police reform in Italy (1943-1947), and the extent to which criminological theories characterising policing under the fascist dictatorship continued to influence the police after 1945, with particular attention paid to the classification and treatment of criminals, homosexuals and prostitutes.
I would be keen to make contact with anyone researching similar issues regarding the transition of police forces from dictatorship to democracy whether in the context of the present day or from historical perspectives.
 For further reading, see Jonathan Dunnage, Mussolini’s Policemen. Behaviour, Ideology and Institutional Culture in Representation and Practice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), and ‘Surviving Fascism, Narrating Fascism, Transplanting Fascism: the Evolution of Italian Police Culture from the Dictatorship to the Early Years of the Republic’, The Italianist, 29.3 (2009), 464-84.