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Coronavirus depletes the keepers of Europe’s memory

Paderno Dugnano/Anpi via The New York Times/ANPI

ROME — For years, Gildo Negri visited schools to share his stories about blowing up bridges and cutting electrical wires to sabotage Nazis and fascists during World War II. In January, the 89-year-old made another visit, leaving his nursing home outside Milan to help students plant trees in honor of Italians deported to concentration camps.

But at the end of February, as Europe’s first outbreak of the coronavirus spread through Negri’s nursing home, it infected him, too.

Shut inside, he grew despondent about missing the usual parades and public speeches on Italy’s Liberation Day, which were to be grander this year to mark the 75th anniversary. But the virus canceled the April 25 commemorations. Negri died that night.

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“The memory is vanishing, and the coronavirus is accelerating this process,” said Rita Magnani, who worked with Negri at the local chapter of the National Association of Italian Partisans. “We are losing the people who can tell us in first person what happened. And it’s a shame because when we lose the historical memory, we lose ourselves.”

Time and its ravages have already cut down lives and blurred memories of a generation that saw close up the ideologies and crimes that turned Europe into killing fields.

The virus, which is so lethal to the old, has hastened the departure of these last witnesses and forced the cancellation of anniversary commemorations that offered a final chance to tell their stories to large audiences. It has also created an opportunity for rising political forces who seek to recast the history of the last century in order to play a greater role in remaking the present one.

Throughout Europe, radical right-wing parties with histories of Holocaust denial, Benito Mussolini infatuation, and fascist motifs have gained traction in recent years, moving from the fringes and into parliaments and even governing coalitions.

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The Alternative for Germany is looking to capitalize on the economic frustration the virus crisis has triggered. In France, the hard-right National Rally had the country’s strongest showing in the last European Parliament elections. And in Italy, the birthplace of fascism, the descendants of post-fascist parties have grown popular as the stigma around Mussolini and strongman politics has faded.

Italy is especially vulnerable to the loss of memory. It has endured a severe epidemic and has the oldest population in Europe. It is also a politically polarized place where areas of consensus in other countries are constantly relitigated, with recollections of Nazi and fascist atrocities countered with retorts of summary executions by Communist partisans.

In the three-quarters of a century following Italy’s defeat and de facto civil war with Mussolini’s short-lived Nazi puppet state in the north, the people who lived through the war and fascism have offered a living testimony that shined through the muddle. That generation was to get a final close-up and megaphone on the 75th anniversary of the war’s end, in Italy and throughout Europe.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, Germany had spent more than a year booking flights and hotels and organizing wheelchairs and oxygen tanks for 72 survivors and 20 American soldiers who liberated the camps. For five days starting April 29, they were to meet one another and tell their stories. The pandemic made that impossible.

Instead, only four officials took part in the event.

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In Italy, it’s more than just the memory of the fascist era that risks being shut away as the country debates what to do with its vulnerable elders.

For months, officials have debated what policy to adopt for the country’s older at-risk population, including those who rebuilt the country after the war, fueled its boom, and endured the domestic terrorism of the 1970s — itself an echo of the civil war. In a gerontocracy like Italy, proposals to encourage the elderly to stay inside would mean shutting away much of the political, academic, industrial, and business elite.

At the beginning of March, the leading health official in Lombardy asked people over the age of 65 to stay home, a suggestion echoed by the national government in a decree.

Grandfathers published open letters to grandchildren, urging them not to stash away the protagonists of the 1940s as “useless burdens.” A former president of the country’s highest court noted that the constitution assures freedom of movement to all citizens.

“Who can make a society without models taken from the past?” said Lia Levi, 88, an Italian writer who is Jewish and suffered under Italy’s racial laws as a child. She said that many of the partisans who fought the fascists never wrote a word or became political but simply lived their lives and told their children and grandchildren what they saw.

“I can tell you when I was kicked out of school and that I couldn’t understand why; that humanizes historical facts.”

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Unlike Germany, which has forced itself to look unflinchingly at its crimes, Italy has often looked away. Post-fascist parties sprouted after the war, and their direct political descendants are still vibrant, and growing. Nationalism is back in vogue, with leaders purposefully echoing Mussolini, whom many here openly admire.