From the Guardian: ‘Barcelona pursues Italy over 1938 bombing.’

A Spanish court wants Italy to apologise for the war crime of mass bombardment during the civil war, in support of General Franco…

In 1938 Savoia bombers from Benito Mussolini‘s Italian air force rained bombs on the Spanish city as they broke non-intervention treaties to support General Francisco Franco’s rightwing rebels in the Spanish civil war. The use of attacks from the air was designed to provoke panic, kill civilians and destroy morale. Within a few years, the technique would spread through war-torn Europe as cities such as Coventry, Hamburg and Dresden were subjected to blanket bombing…

Since the second world war, Italians have seen former Nazi officials pursued in their courts for war crimes, but have rarely debated Italy’s role in the Spanish civil war, when Mussolini deployed 60,000 soldiers and 750 aircraft.

We’ve got the usual conclusion: Survivor wants truth to come to the fore. And he wants an apology.

Barcelona after the 1938 bombings

Progress on the former front is promising. Trials can have enormous impact on the shaping of public memory. Take the ongoing case in London, involving three elderly Kenyans suing the British government for long-forgotten colonial crimes. (Caution: self-promotional hyper-linking!)

Though it should be warn that news stories covering these ‘historical trials’ often pit themselves against¬† a strawman: an episode of history that is alleged to have been woefully forgotten (historians speak of ‘historical amnesia‘) or furtively swept away. I’m not convinced that Italy’s role supporting General Franco in 1938 has been entirely forgotten in Rome.

But the effort to wring an apology out of modern-day Italy might prove elusive.

I’m sorry

I wrote an article many moons ago in The Huffington Post, on the subject of apologies for historical crimes/wrongs. In it, I summarized the state of affairs:

In the last fifteen years or so, we’ve said sorry to aboriginal groups forced into residential schools (Canada) or split apart from their families (Australia). We’ve said sorry to countries invaded during war (Japan to South-East Asia, Serbia to Bosnia, Germany to…a lot of states). We’ve apologized for slavery (US, EU), for Apartheid (South Africa), for Colonialism (Japan), for the Holocaust (Germany), and for collaborating in the Holocaust (France). We’ve said sorry for revolutions gone awry (Russia), for genocide and for looking away while genocide was taking place (US, Canada). Our apologies are for isolated incidents (wars, murders, genocides) and for long-term, sustained systems of oppression (slavery, racial discrimination, oppressive political regimes). We’re sorry to Jews (Germany, Vatican, Switzerland), to migrant children (Australia, Britain), to Aboriginals (Canada, Australia), to political protesters (Britain), to and to homosexuals (Cuba, Germany).

And I considered reasons why¬† historical apologies are usually not forthcoming: namely, the fear that an apology will inspire costly litigation. (One solution would be to borrow from the field of medical malpractice law–creating legislation that would make it possible to apology for a past wrong without that apology being taken as an admission of legal responsibility.)

I also considered the purpose of apologizing, and whether a state apology can ever be more than a token act.

Intellectually, I’m still ambivalent. But my non-gradschool-appropriate shrug-it-off tendencies dominate here: if the victims want it, the state should provide it. I’m sorry.