Pamela Ballinger. The World Refugees Made: Decolonization and the Foundations of Postwar Italy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020. xxiii + 305 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-4758-8.
Reviewed by Christoph Kalter (Universitetet i Agder)
Published on H-Africa (December, 2020)
Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)
The book under review makes an ambitious and fruitful contribution to migration and refugee studies, to the history of postwar Europe, and to the history of decolonization. It does so via a case study of Italy, demonstrating how the remaking of this nation after empire and fascism was conditioned by transnational developments, but also, conversely, how “Italy served as a crucial laboratory in which categorizations differentiating foreign or international refugees from national refugees were worked out in practice, with consequences that resonated far beyond the particular time and place” (p. 3). The “world refugees made” in the book’s title thus points to a global moment in which postwar and decolonization, mass displacement and the incipient Cold War overlapped and “where the modern international refugee regime coalesced” (p. 10). Italy, the author claims, ended up playing a key role in this process.
An anthropologist by training, Pamela Ballinger is professor of history and Fred Cuny Chair in the History of Human Rights at the University of Michigan. The narrative of her second book—after History in Exile: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans (2003)—revolves around the Second World War and the first decade after the 1947 peace treaty that the newly established Italian Republic concluded with its former enemies who now occupied what had previously been Italian territories. Through this 1947 peace treaty Italy renounced its claims over a host of former colonies in East Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia) and North Africa (Libya), its protectorate in Albania, the Dodecanese Islands (ceded to Greece), and parts of the contested Venezia Giulia region (ceded to Yugoslavia). While 1947 marked a high point of Italy’s decolonization, the dismantlement of the fascist empire was a drawn-out process rather than an event. It had begun in 1940-43 with the state-organized mass repatriations that evacuated thousands of Italian citizens from the colonies, and it continued through 1960, when Italy’s UN trusteeship over Somalia ended. What Ballinger calls Italy’s “long decolonization” (p. 19) set in motion a multitude of multidirectional migrations between the former Italian lands and the Italian Peninsula, but also beyond. In total, some 750,000 people were displaced, the bulk of them (450,000) from the African possessions. As they reached a postwar, postfascist, and postimperial nation trying to reassert sovereignty in a world marked by intergovernmental cooperation, they triggered a long and oftentimes difficult conversation over what it meant to be Italian—and what it meant to be a refugee.
The ntroduction and chapter 1 contextualize Ballinger’s account within the history, historiography, and public memory of Italy’s empire and its ending as well as of the long-standing migrations that were central in the making of the nation. Ballinger unsettles the conventional story of Italy’s decolonization as precocious, abrupt, and overall uneventful. She further argues that a popular tendency to read the massive nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian emigration in analogy to the African immigration the country experienced in the twenty-first century fails to acknowledge the history of refugees to the Peninsula from Italy’s empire—a history that provides a missing link between both phenomena in spatial and temporal terms.
Zooming in on a broad range of moments and actors that made this history and based on a wide variety of archival sources from institutions dealing with displaced persons in Italy, the narrative really sets in with chapter 2. It traces the early movements out of—as well as, intriguingly, oftentimes also back into—the Italian overseas territories in Africa and the Aegean, that is, areas that increasingly came under control of the British Military Administration (BMA) in the course of the war. Until the fascist defeat of 1943, evacuations of civilians to the Italian Peninsula followed the needs of fascist propaganda and the logic of a “state-sponsored humanitarianism” (p. 45) co-organized by Italian and British authorities. At the same time, however, a host of other, nonstate actors—old ones like the Vatican, and very recent ones like the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA)—got involved in managing tens of thousands of Italian citizens displaced by the war. After the September 8, 1943, armistice that, quite uniquely, turned Italy simultaneously into a defeated Axis power and an Allied co-belligerent, Italy’s “national refugees” became embroiled in the politics through which various actors wished to secure their respective postwar projects. Italian authorities, for example, were reluctant to accept further repatriations from the colonies, not only because they feared the destabilizing effects of receiving “national refugees” in a war-devastated Peninsula, but also because they hoped to use Italian settlers as an argument for retaining some sort of authority over Italy’s former possessions. The British, by contrast, saw such communities as a provocation to the indigenous populations of these territories and feared they might create an instability that would threaten the UK’s position.
Chapter 3 tells the story of Italy’s renationalization after the war—a project and process of rebuilding the nation-state within a web of “overlapping internationalisms” (p. 77). Displaced Italian citizens as well as foreign refugees were instrumental here in that “they created both a practical dilemma and a rich opportunity for the Italian state to assert its authority at the domestic and international levels” (p. 78). Conceptually speaking, Ballinger makes the case for analyzing the early postwar politics with a focus on the preponderant role of intergovernmental institutions like the UN and its agencies dealing with refugees (UNRRA, the International Refugee Organization [IRO], and finally the UN High Commisoner for Refugees [UNHCR]). These intergovernmental bodies, mediating between the Italian as well as newly independent or liberated nation-states, the occupying powers, and various strands of internationalism, were instrumental in organizing mass repatriations of non-Italians from Italy, but also of Italians from Albania or the Dodecanese Islands to the Italian Peninsula. In the process, they helped reaffirm a world order based on ethno-national categories—and at the same time produced a crucial distinction between international refugees, for which they assumed responsibility, and “national refugees,” who were, by contradistinction, seen as the sole charge of their countries of citizenship. Taking a long view of the development of Italian nationality, chapter 4 shows how this debate over who should help Italy’s “own” refugees reveals a deeper ambivalence over who, precisely, counted—and would continue to count—as an Italian citizen before and after the 1947 peace treaty. “Troublesome categories” of people (p. 175), among them meticci, or mixed-race children, disturbed the division of labor between national and intergovernmental agencies of refugee relief, and readers of H-Africa will find the discussions of race and imperial citizenship as well as of the stigma imposed on Italo-African populations after the war especially instructive. Here as throughout the book, one of the strengths of Ballinger’s account is that she shows the life-changing power of colonial legacies, but also, and crucially, demonstrates how decolonization not only continued but also transformed earlier colonial-racist and fascist classifications and projects. Such transformations are at the core of chapter 5, a fascinating engagement with how refugees, Italian officials, and private foundations addressed the issue of finding housing for displaced persons in the Italian Peninsula. Whether in the refugee camp set up in the Cinecittà film studio, in Rome’s monumental EUR district, or in the Sardinian town Fertilia, founded in 1936 as an urban center for the fascist reclamation project of draining the marshes that covered the area—Ballinger shows how repatriates “built on, rather than dismantled or erased, the literal and figurative ruins of fascist empire” (p. 177). At least for this reviewer, Ballinger’s ethnography of these “foundational ruins” (p. 204) of the postimperial nation was among the most inspiring parts of a book that overall provides ample food for thought.
From my vantage point as a historian interested in the migrations of decolonization to western Europe, the work under review not only fills a gap in a field where engagements with the Italian case are scarce. It also provides highly stimulating and transferable insights on a number of key issues, among which the critical historicization of the distinction between international refugees and national repatriates stands out. This distinction, as Ballinger observes, seems commonsensical now, but is in fact the result of a decade-long and highly politicized work of classification for which the management of displaced persons in and from Italy was a consequential starting point. This important finding is in large part the result of the relational perspective she chooses—one that considers repatriates from very different parts of Italy’s empire together and in relation to non-Italian displaced persons—and will hopefully inspire more relational histories of migration.
Ballinger also liberates Italy’s decolonization—through well-informed side-glances to France, Portugal, and others—from a pervasive, but ill-founded narrative of exceptionalism. In my mind, however, such comparisons and connections to other decolonization-induced migrations could have been pushed further, not least in regard to a dimension that could be central to Ballinger’s argument but is left underexplored: What were the migrants’ motivations for leaving their homes, what were the processes of decision-making? Why and how did they conceive of themselves as refugees, even as official bodies denied them that status? How did they settle into their new homes and which forms of groupness did they create in the process? Ballinger seeks to strike a balance between reconstructing the stories of individual migrants on the one hand and the work of those who counted, classified, and administratively handled them on the other hand, but the book clearly ends up giving more weight to the latter group. This is a legitimate choice, but it left me wishing for more.
A minor criticism is that I think the introduction and conclusion as well as some parts of the text could have, without being overly didactical, laid out more straightforwardly what readers should expect or should have taken away from the individual chapters. Finally, but this is not something the author can be blamed for, I think that readers unfamiliar with this history—and I hope and believe there will be many—might at times find themselves struggling with the complexity of the subject matter. The sheer breadth of geographical locations, the multitude of actors involved, as well as the scope of ever-changing military, political, and legal situations at least made me feel dizzy, as did the plethora of acronyms that unfortunately seem to habitually bewitch the writing of international history.
But in light of the work’s achievement this is only nitpicking. Pamela Ballinger has authored a densely documented, conceptually strong, and beautifully written book that compellingly proves the point made by Peter Gatrell and others: Putting the histories of migration center-stage opens up new and productive vistas onto the nations and, indeed, the world refugees made.
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Christoph Kalter. Review of Ballinger, Pamela, The World Refugees Made: Decolonization and the Foundations of Postwar Italy.
H-Africa, H-Net Reviews.
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