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Reconciliation requires remembrance: Steinmeier and Gentiloni open exhibition Italy

28.11.2016 - Article

Between Two Stools – The History of Italian Military Internees 1943-1945

During the Second World War, 650,000 Italian prisoners of war were deported to Germany for forced labour. Thousands of them died. Until now, little attention has been paid to the fate of these individuals. Together with his Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni, Foreign Minister Steinmeier opened an exhibition on this topic in Berlin today (28 November).

Steinmeier and Gentiloni opening the exhibition together with a contemporary witness
Steinmeier and Gentiloni opening the exhibition together with a contemporary witness© Photothek.net

Michele Montagano was 22 years old when his odyssey through German labour and prisoner of war camps began in autumn 1943, an odyssey which left him greatly weakened both psychologically and physically but which he was lucky enough to survive. After Italy ended its alliance with Nazi Germany on 8 September 1943, Montagano was one of the hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers who were transported to Germany by the Wehrmacht for forced labour.

The exhibition includes items from the prisoners’ daily lives
The exhibition includes items from the prisoners’ daily lives© Photothek.net

More than sixty years later, Michele Montagano returned to a former German labour camp. Together with Foreign Minister Steinmeier and his Italian opposite number Gentiloni, he walked through the exhibition telling his story. Tinware in which the soldiers scratched their yearnings and thoughts, missing person reports and diaries – the exhibits tell the stories of the individuals behind the large numbers.


The missing person report for a military internee
The missing person report for a military internee© Fondazione Luigi Micheletti

Before that, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni opened the exhibition Between Two Stools – The History of Italian Military Internees 1943‑1945. It has been set up thanks to the work of the German‑Italian Commission of Historians and is being funded by the Federal Foreign Office, which has made available more than 1.4 million euros. “This look back into the dark past sheds light on our view of the present”, said Steinmeier. He added that the road to joint remembrance of the German‑Italian war past had only become possible due to considerable mutual trust. “For that I’m deeply grateful to you, Paolo, and to all our Italian friends”, stated Steinmeier.

Even after the war, the Italian military internees were still quite literally caught between two stools. As they had been fighting alongside the Wehrmacht until Italy abandoned its alliance with Nazi Germany, their fate was not adequately acknowledged in either Italy or Germany. A place to remember them has now been created with this permanent exhibition at the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre in Schöneweide.

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