"Obiettivo Grande Guerra". A conference in Treviso on Photography and the Great War

The Great War was not the first one to be documented by pictures, yet  it developed a very special relationship with photography. There were - as usual - official photographers who shot in different ways the most striking or the most normal aspects of the trench life, of the soldiers and the guns, of the battlefields or of the frontline, sometimes for propaganda purposes, sometimes to report the reality, sometimes even for military strategy. There were moreover simple soldiers and civilians who captured with their private cameras their personal experience, what happened around them and their neighbors. There were finally the portrait photos exchanged between the soldiers and their family, maybe as attempt to concretize in the pictures the nearness to the beloved. It is a fact that we have today in hand millions of images of the Great War, approaching the Centenary publications follow each other and thanks to the new communications media we can even track and share from our sofa such an amount of materials as never before. A simple research in the web or a tweet - and a picture, a visage of someone living one hundred years ago suddenly appears on our screens. 

It would be interesting to ask ourselves, how we deal with these images, if we are able to read them – since even the apparent immediacy of the visual communication cannot avoid interpretative questions – and if the easiness in sharing them could be sometimes in inverse proportion to understand their historical, cultural and human message. It is therefore welcomed, any initiative that discusses this topic, analyses and point out the role photography played during the WWI.

This is also the case of a forthcoming conference supported by the historical research center CEDOS that will take place in Treviso, 4th April 2014, at 4.00 pm. Entitled Obiettivo Grande Guerra, it aims to analyze how the Great War was depicted – and understood – by the use of photography. Three paper are in program. The first one – given by Adriano Favaro, former director of Treviso historical Photo Archive – will concentrate on the history of photography during the years of the WWI considering both its professional and amateur uses. The second paper – by Elisa Ruggiero – will present the historical overview on the aerial photography from the nineteenth up to the twentieth century, disclosing its meanings and techniques. The third one – by Paolo Seno – will illustrate the photo collection of the Austrian officer Karl Pflanzl, focusing in particular on more than 130 pictures taken on Monte Nero and that vividly captured the incredible military and logistic effort of the Austrian Army to protect the eastern Italian front line. Three papers which surely can enable us to move few steps into the knotty relation between Great War and Photography.

Further information here.

Caporetto, refugees, exile. Interview with the Italian historian Daniele Ceschin

Daniele Ceschin's book
WWIB: In your book Gli esuli di Caporetto about the Italian refugees during the Great War the reader can find a precise and detailed reconstruction of the turbulent days after the military defeat and of that handful of weeks immediately after. (We have always to keep in mind the numbers of refugees, the huge portion of territory lost by the Italian army after that infamous military defeat). What kind of approach and investigation did you face to research through this chaotic months of the Italian history? Which sources did you use? We guess that was a hard work for an historian...
D.C.: In the book – a reworked-version of my PhD thesis – I conceived the phenomenon of Venetian refugees as the encounter – and clash – between different Italies, that suddenly had the war in common, but that till then never got to know and recognize each other. A unique experience, which may be compared at some extents with the emigration, but was much more unexpected and violent. Refugees were not simply civilians escaping the war. No matter if they were running away voluntarily, by choice or from necessity, they represented a newness of the conflict, an unprecedented social actor, that was going almost unconsciously on the stage. Little by little the exodus turned into a discovery of another Italy at war: not that of the military operations or the zones immediately behind the front, but rather that struggling from afar, and yet completely immersed into the war effort.
I made use of various sources: newspapers, diaries, memories and above all letters, in particular subvention requests. These letters were sent to deputies from Veneto or Friuli and represent a significant source to retrace the whole history of the phenomenon of refugees, even if they are not always reliable, since we must consider not only their subjectivity, but also their intent – namely get a concrete support. The work in archive and in researching lasted for three years, mainly in Rome, at the Archivio Centrale dello Stato (Central State Archive).

WWIB: Can you point out briefly the main stages of the great escape of the population living between Friuli and Veneto regions after the rout of Caporetto (end of October-beginning of November 1917)?
D.C.: An impressive exodus went with the military retreat in October-November 1917 and continued also during the following months, at least till end spring 1918. It involved in particular the ruling, land-owning class and business men, provoking a sort of “internal” or “civilian” Caporetto. In the occupied regions the escape was from cities like Cividale, Gemona, Tarcento, Pordenone, Sacile, Conegliano, but above all from Udine, the “capital of the war”. A hindered escape, since in this case the troops in retreat took precedence in crossing the bridges and it occurred over a little more than two weeks by trains or other makeshift transports.

WWIB: Can we distinguish different categories of “refugees” in this period?
D.C.: People were escaping not only from the cities, but also from the rural and mountain regions, even if to a smaller extent. And they were not only wealthy persons, but also artisans, workers and farmers. The getaway of those living in the centres along the main roads, who run away before and by train rather than on foot, was usually more successful and they mainly reached a refuge beyond the river Piave, but this is another story. Anyway, if the state of refugee as a result of the war shows a “class nature”, the exodus as a choice shows a “mass nature”. There were obviously also unusual decisions, such as the desire to stay and defend the property or take care of the loved ones, but also the lacking perception of the danger.
With regard to the other territories of the non-occupied Veneto, we should distinguish the civilians evacuated immediately or during the following weeks and months on orders of the military commands, on the one hand, and those who voluntarily decided to go away from their cities (anyway, this option was unavoidable for the refugees from Venezia) because they were afraid of the bombings or because of the difficulties in surviving the war situation, on the other hand. 

WWIB: Can you give us an indicative figure of the phenomenon? How many civilians were involved in the evacuation? How did the Italian government manage the emergency? Which – national or international - organizations took care of transferring the refugees in different parts of the countries and of keeping them in contact with their relatives?
D.C.: The exodus affected about 250.000 civilians from Friuli and the provinces in Veneto, which were occupied up to Vittorio Veneto, and as many civilians from cities like Padova, Treviso, Vicenza and Venezia. Overall 244.858 refugees coming from 308 municipalities, that’s to say about 20,61% of the population (according to the census of 1911). In addition, the mass departure affected – besides the soldiers and the military commands – at least 200.000 people, who were not registered as inhabitants of Friuli or Veneto and were part of both the so called “war bourgeoisie” and the logistic apparatus employed by the high command – public officials, medical corps or war workers. This part of the exodus was never made a point, on the contrary it was neglected even in the official statistics.
By and large a “decentralization principle” ruled to prevent the refugees to pour out into cities like Milano, Bologna, Firenze and Roma. Military reasons officially legitimized this decision, that met in reality priorities related to public order, to food supplies, to accommodation capacities and to the war economy. So, even if the more wealthy refugees found at the end a place in the big cities, many of them were forced to spend their “exile” in small towns of the province, oft inhospitable, and stuck there till the end of the war and even after.

WWIB: We know that an Italian national identity was achieved long after the political unity of the country. Did the rout of Caporetto and the following experience of the refugees helped in strengthening the connection between north and south regions of Italy? Did this tragedy helped in consolidating a national – maybe even patriotic – common identity?
D.C.: Prejudices against the refugees arose almost immediately despite the reassuring reports and the relationship between local population and refugees from Veneto and Friuli were oft difficult. First of all there was a problem of “social antagonism” due to the scarce assistance resources of the local authorities, to the unemployment and the concurrence that the new arrivals introduced in the job market. It was a popular opinion that the dearth of food – which was a central preoccupation already before Caporetto – was caused by the coming of the refugees. One of the most negative attribute ascribed to these latter was their insufficient willingness to work. Those who had no job, were immediately regarded as idle. The Caporetto refugees were moreover blamed for the excessive duration of the war. But the reasons of the aversion to them can be discovered in the hard material life condition of the Italian population after two and a half years of conflict. It would be however misleading to attribute these forms of mistrust only to the local population, or to reduce them to simple and understandable attitudes of defence against – real or supposed – dissimilarities. On the contrary, in many places the prejudice was rooted in the cultural differences, sometimes in the different class origin.

WWIB: What was/were for you the most surprising thing(s) discovered while working at this book?
D.C.: The civilians who eventually became refugees experienced an extraordinary explosion of writing and this fact affected also the lower classes, like workmen or farmers. And we cannot forget the great woman part in all this story, up to the point that it’s probably opportune to speak in feminine terms. While analysing their letters, we discover that these were essentially grant-in-aid requests addressed to members of Parliament belonging to the occupied regions of Veneto and Friuli. These letters are a great source from where starting to study the history of refugees, even if they are not always reliable because of the main reason which originated the letters (material aid). In the first weeks after the battle of Caporetto these letters were mostly concentrated on first aids. The main and constant concern was about the relatives remained in the occupied regions. Necessity of family reunion, the need of a job, tough life conditions due to the inflation, the impossibility to adapt to new climate: all the above mentioned reasons were the most frequent in the applications they sent to get the permission to move from one place to another.

WWIB: The condition of being "war refugee" became and probably is still today the starting point to study a wider clot of figures. I'm thinking of people who have been displaced or are seeking political asylum, the stateless, etc.? Do you agree and, if so, in what terms?
D.C.: The migrations within Europe during the twentieth century have being studied according to a precise pattern that refers to the category of “refugee” seen as a person moving from one state to another (this is the reason why we have today the refugees studies) or to the conceptual frame of stateless (Hannah Arendt). With the Second World War for instance Germany inherited more than seven million displaced persons, a new expression that defines all the civilians living outside their country because of the war. As you can figure out, the theme is extremely topical. Just think about the present wars and what is now happening in Syria.

WWIB: Are you planning new studies on the Great War years?
D.C.: I’m now reorganizing all my contributions to the Great War, almost fifty articles written in the last ten years and that went along with my main books: Gli esuli di Caporetto. I profughi in Italia durante la Grande Guerra (“The Exiles of Caporetto. The Italian Refugees in the Great War”, Laterza 2006, the new edition just came out) and the two volumes of the book edited with Mario Isnenghi, La Grande Guerra: dall’Intervento alla «vittoria mutilata» (“The Great War. From Intervention to the Mutiled Victory", Utet 2008). These contributions are essays published in collective books, articles of national or local reviews and proceedings of the conferences I took part to. Putting them together is like to see reflected on a mirror my main interests on the First World War. These interests are the rhetoric of war, the violence on civilians, the repression against the internal enemy and the memory.
Secondly I’m also working on a new book about the Italian defeats from Risorgimento to the Second World War, basically an idea originated from Caporetto. Without any doubt that defeat represented a new trauma for the population living in the regions of Friuli and Veneto. The ruling class was very closed to get swept away with no possible comeback. This was a tremendous shock also for the public spirit. The rout of Caporetto weakened for some weeks the hope of victory and the internal front really risked to collapse. On a parliamentary level, we had later a wide patriotic establishment with the hegemony of nationalists. Today the word “Caporetto” still evokes the defeat par excellence, the most terrible defeat in 150 years history of our country.

Antonio Gibelli
WWIB: What Italian books should they translate outside Italy to get a better understanding of the position and conditions of our country during the First World War?
D.C.: There are several Italian studies that would deserve a translation and attention outside of Italy. I’m now thinking about Mario Isnenghi’s Il mito della Grande Guerra (“The Myth of the Great War”) and beside of that we cannot forget the study that Antonio Gibelli dedicated to changes in the mental landscape. Or take also Bruna Bianchi’s commitment in understanding the war madness and pacifism: these books are Italian classics but they would deserve a translation in order to give the right importance to the Italian historiography and to the Italian contribution to the Great War. We put our hopes in the hands and in the minds of a new generation of historians.

The Poets and the World War: Fabio Pusterla and the threads of memory

A Belgian lancer
Events are planned everywhere to mark the centenary of WWI and define the general frame of its collective memory. Meanings, values and importance of the Great War are based today more on a social construction than on personal experiences, becoming so a narrative message inextricably bound to the historical and cultural context in which it is created. Comparative studies slowly enable us to learn other interpretative traditions, but especially in the daily life and even in official commemorations we still run the risk to use a sort of prepackaged “discourse”, so that all the myths and common clichés about the First World War come to light, impersonal and superficial. We should be aware of this danger, in order to avoid all alteration and rhetorical drift. Above all, it is a duty of memory to reflect critically upon the meaning of the WWI today and to elaborate it in our personal life. A cultural activity – like the celebration of WWI should be – always implies a personal engagement, a postural change in our horizons of meaning and action.

Fabio Pusterla
In this sense, we can be legitimated to question the attitude in approaching the Centenary. Today, after 100 years, how do the threads of memory still compose the legacy of the WWI? Why should we take part in the celebrations? But above all, are we still able to feel and catch the pieces of the past world war and to make them a living remembrance also in our personal life? Why remembering at all if the Great War does not speak to us anymore?
Submerged crowd is a poem by Fabio Pusterla, one of the most interesting contemporary Italian speaking poets, as well as translator and essayist. He composed this text – published in the homonymous collection Folla sommersa, Milano 2004 – when he read by chance in a newspaper about the death of Paul Hooghe (1899-2001), who was – incorrectly - considered the last living soldier of the Great War.  We offer today our translation of the poem because on the background of the general reflection introduced by Todorov’s citation on forgetting as an integral part of memory, it vividly discloses the intermediate zone where exchanges between our individual conscience and past public memories occur, giving breath to both. The poem weaves together few details collected in the news item about Paul Hooghe – from his death in Brussels at the age of 102, back to his enlistment as a teenager in the Belgian Army – and the author’s desire to know and understand him, disclosing so a virtual meeting, whose meaning is not diminished by the absence of one of the interlocutors. Memory becomes therefore the place where even a short article in a newspaper can be enough to trigger a domino of questions, of suppositions, of attempts to visualize the changing of the landscape or to recollect memories, feelings, hopes and fears of a single stranger, who preserves a collective – also our – message. A frontier place where we have the chance to meet living testimonies beyond time boundaries and enter in a dialectical exchange with them, to get involved in it, if we are willing and receptive. This is maybe a way to keep alive the past, to remember the Great War also in the private movements of our personal memories and feelings, in our personal attitude, and to give finally the human meaning it deserves. 


La memoria non si oppone affatto all’oblio. I due termini che formano contrasto
sono la cancellazione (l’oblio) e la conservazione; la memoria è,
sempre e necessariamente, un’interazione dei due.

Tzvetan Todorov

Paul Hooghe, l’ultimo lanciere caduto su nessuna spiaggia, il superstite
delle trincee dimenticate e scomparse, su cui sorgono oggi
grandi complessi commerciali o lussuosi villaggi satellite
immersi nel verde di pitosfori, di platani le cui radici vagano
per antichi camminamenti sotterranei, il granatiere fantasma
ultracentenario spentosi a Bruxelles pochi mesi or sono,
come una piccola candela su cui passa il vento, che era stato
coscritto sedicenne di un secolo sedicenne (1916) eppure già
molto cattivo, molto crudele, ma si era ancora
al principio di tutta la storia,
alle vaghe promesse di stragi, alle belle bandiere: sapeva
di essere una curiosità, aspirava a un Guinness dei primati, a una targa?
E aveva memoria,
lui, almeno lui, dei corpi nella notte o nel fango
straziati, trucidati, dei traccianti, sobbalzava, incompreso,
ripensando una mina saltare, una nube nervina?
Quei morti gridavano ancora grazie a lui,
dalla Marna o sul Carso?
O il nastro era già scorso, la pellicola
riavvolta e ormai illeggibile, tradotta
nel passato remoto dell'euro, o in un alzheimer? Ottant’anni,
secondo gli storici perdura la memoria
viva che il mondo ha di sé: poi è deportata
in un posto dove adesso c’è Paul Hooghe, coi suoi compagni,
i ricordi che forse aveva mio padre e quelli della sua età,
tra un po’ ci sarà anche mio padre e tutti i suoi amici e nemici,
una grande folla sommersa che ci guarda in silenzio e ci attende.


Memory is not the opposite of oblivion. The two terms that form a contrasting pair
are effacement (oblivion) and conservation. Memory is  always
and necessarily an interaction between the two.

Tzvetan Todorov

Paul Hooghe, the last lancer fallen on no beach, the survivor
of the forgotten and disappeared trenches, on which today safely rise
big shopping centers or luxurious satellite villages
plunged in the green of Pittosporum, of sycamore trees whose roots meander
through old underground walkways; the over one hundred year old ghost
grenadier passed away in Brussels a few months ago,
like a little candle on which the wind blows, who had been
conscripted as a sixteen year old in a sixteen year old century (1916) and yet
already very evil, very cruel; but so far the whole story
was just at the beginning,
at the murky promises of carnages, at the nice flags: did he know
he was a curiosity, did he long for a Guinness World Record, for a plaque?
And he, did he have memories,
he at least, of the bodies in the night and in the mire –
torn apart, lacerated – of the tracer; did he jump, not understood,
as he recalled a mine blowing up, a cloud of nerve gas?
Did all those dead men still yell thanks to him
from the Marne or on the Kars?
Or was the tape already run out, the film
rewound and by then illegible, translated
into the distant past of the Euro, or into an Alzheimer’s confusion? Eighty years
persists, according to the historians, the living
memory that the world has of itself – then it is deported
to the place where now Paul Hooghe is, with his companions,
the memories that perhaps my father and all those of his age had;
my father too will be there soon, and all his friends and enemies –
a big submerged crowd, that silently gazes upon and waits for us.

Aviation and flight during the Great War. An exhibition at Francesco Baracca Museum (Ravenna, Italy)

The trench is by far the centre of the World War I imagination, even though the aviation started playing a relevant role during the conflict and definitely turned into the undisputed protagonist of the wars that followed up to this time. Winged Victory by Victor Maslin Yeates is for example the first real novel about aerial combat in the First World War. In Italy we recently had the opportunity to read a study by Fabio Caffarena, Dal fango al vento ("From the mud to the wind"), dedicated to the fast development of aviation in our country, from the first Futuristic imagery to the real efforts of technological modernization. Caffarena’s innovative study keeps the distance from the myth of the aces and unveils for the first time the origin of a consistent part of the aviation corps: mechanics, clerks, farmers, carpenters that became aviators by chance or to escape the trenches.

Going back to the mythological interpretation, among the Italian aviation aces Francesco Baracca (Lugo, 9th May 1888 – Nervesa della Battaglia, 19th June 1918 - beside the image of the monument hosted where Baracca crashed, in the Montello hill) has become almost a symbol and a hero, thanks to his 34 victories. A new stage of the ALISTO project, led by the Treviso Province and launched in the international cooperation between Italy and Slovenia, is the new exhibition hosted precisely at “Museo Baracca (Ravenna, Italy). ALISTO is acronym standing for “Ali sulla storia” (Wings on History). The aim of this project is to reconstruct, recollect and give new interpretations to the huge quantity of aerial photography that for the first time was made available by Italian and Austro-Hungarian aviation. Of course these documents are representing also a precious piece in the understanding of the landscape as it was at the time. Beside of that, the exhibition, that is open until the end of March, sketches out the full range of “flying objects” of the First World War and so the visitors are encountering also the zeppelins and the pigeons, not only the first shaky planes always on the verge of crashing.

Aviation and flight during the Great War
Museo Baracca, Lugo, Ravenna (Italy)
1 March – 30 March 2014
(Open with the same time of the museum)
Here is the exhibition’s poster in Italian and Slovenian.

"Kriegsdeutungen im Künstlerbuch": an exhibition of artists' books in the Herzog August Bibliothek

Herzog August Bibliothek
Founded in 1572 by Duke Julius of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, the Herzog August Bibliothek became soon one of the largest European libraries with the passionate book hunter and collector Duke August (1579-1666) and boasts among its librarians famous thinkers like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Today it houses more than one million imprints - most of them dated before 1850 - and represents one of the oldest and most significant libraries of its days which has survived to the present without substantial losses to its original collection. Therefore one cannot be surprised about the fact that the HAB is today an international research centre for early modern studies. Pleasantly unexpected may appear instead the interest even in current matters and the existence of other special collections such as that of artists’ book.

The Malerbücher Sammlung collect more than 4.000 items, including works combining text and illustrations by famous painters and sculptors, such as Braque, Chagalle, Dalí, Enst, Matisse, Léger or Wols. These volumes are stored in the historical building of the Augusta, the hearth of the HAB, where in a special room temporary exhibitions take place. The present one is entitled Kriegsdeutungen im Künstlerbuch ("Interpretation of the war in the artists' book") and is open till 18th May 2014. The exhibition aims to inspect the representations and interpretations of war experiences in the artistic illustration collected in printed books or series, starting with the Great War up to the present. Works by contemporary artists such as Barbara Fahrner and Mimi Gross are displayed together with testimonies of the WWII by Frans Masereel or Roland Dörfler. The focus is however on the WWI and interesting works by Richard Seewald, Erich Erler and Max Beckmann are displayed. Above all Otto Dix’s Der Krieg (The war) is of great impact.

Otto Dix, Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor
Largely based on his memories as machine gunner from 1914 to 1918 on both Eastern and Western fronts, the etchings (only a part of the 51 total) of Der Krieg were printed by the Kupferdruckerei O. Felsing in 1924 and are carachterised by a stark realism with an almost hallucinatory taste. The cycle has its model in Goya's Los Desastres de la Guerra (The disasters of war - 1746-1828) and provides both a powerful and unpleasant insight into the horror and paradox of the Great War. Regarded as one of the most important documents on war senseless and human cruelty, Otto Dix's work is yet not a simple condemnation: it testimonies moreover the psychological struggle of the artist self, who first volunteered during the WWI, then kept getting elaborating the trauma of the experienced death for years afterwards. The exhibition enables the visitor to fill the time gap and share the artist's sight on dead, mutilated, decomposing bodies and souls in a lifeless landscape, as if even the nature was killed. Eventually we may be confronted with the unpleasant feeling not being able to wake up from a nightmare - the same feeling Dix probably had in working at this series - and become so aware of the monsters produced by the sleep of reason.

Further information on the exhibition (only in German) here.