San Miniato’s Two Plaques: Should Memory Always Be Shared?

On July 22, 1944, a bomb killed 55 civilians in the cathedral of San Miniato. Was it a Nazi massacre? Two plaques tell contrasting accounts of the same event.

Dec 28, 2023By Maria-Anita Ronchini, MA History & Jewish Studies, BA History
san miniato two plaques

 

In Italy, the past has always been a “battlefield.” The same events have been interpreted through parallel, contrasting narratives. Public memory was generally the result of selective remembering and deliberate forgetting. Historians, political parties, and mnemonic communities have regularly engaged in highly politicized historical debates to impose their version of the events. In the 1990s, Italian historians started to describe Italy’s lack of consensus over the past with the term “divided memory.”

 

The case of San Miniato (located in Tuscany) is the perfect example of Italy’s divided memory landscape. For decades, the 1944 tragedy has been commemorated as a Nazi massacre. However, according to another theory, it was actually a US bomb that killed the 55 civilians inside the church. These two conflicting memories have led to the creation of two contradicting plaques.

 

July 22, 1944, 10:00 am: the Massacre of San Miniato 

interior san miniato cathedral destryed by bomb
The interior of the cathedral of San Miniato destroyed by the bomb, Cesare Barzacchi, via Musei Civici di San Miniato

 

In July 1944, General Clark’s US Fifth Army was advancing toward Florence. The German army was retreating through Tuscany to reach the Gothic Line. During their fallback, Kesserling’s forces perpetrated several bloody massacres against the Italian population. Official records show that in Tuscany alone, around 4,500 civilians were murdered between April and August 1944.

 

On July 22, 1944, the German divisions occupying San Miniato, a hill town near Pisa, gathered the local population near the Duomo (cathedral). They were women, children, older men, and refugees from other cities. Many young men had joined the partisans operating in the nearby countryside. The only authority left in town was Bishop Ugo Giubbi.

 

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As the Allied forces started to bomb the area, the Germans, perhaps on Bishop Gubbi’s suggestion, moved all people inside the cathedral. Suddenly, at around 10 a.m., an explosive device detonated in the church, killing at least 55 civilians. The Germans left the town the day after the tragedy. On July 24, the American army arrived in San Miniato.

 

The First Inquiries and the “Official Truth”

san miniato cathedral
The cathedral of San Miniato, via Valdarno Musei

 

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the survivors and most of the local population believed that the responsibility for the killing lay with the German army. Many also claimed that Bishop Giubbi was partially to blame for the massacre and accused him of collaborating with the Germans. After all, Giubbi had supported the Fascist regime and was hostile towards the partisans.

 

The first official inquiry into the massacre, led by E.J. Ruffo, Captain of the 362nd Infantry Regiment of the US Army, confirmed the dominant narrative: it was a German mine or time bomb that caused the killing. In his final report, Captain Russo also wrote that the Germans had acted in retaliation for the partisans’ attacks against them. However, this first inquiry neglected to order a ballistic report on all fragments found in the church, including the remains of a US explosive device. In August, Chief of Staff of the Fifth Army Alfred M. Gruenther appointed a second commission to investigate the event. Its members reached the same conclusion: the Germans had perpetrated the massacre.

 

In 1945, the local government set up a commission to establish the final truth about the July 1944 event. The commission interviewed several witnesses, survivors, and military experts. After reviewing the findings, Florentine judge Carlo Gianattasio determined that two shells hit San Miniato’s Duomo, one American and one German. However, only the German device had caused the tragedy. The inquiry also cleared Bishop Giubbi of any wrongdoings. Nevertheless, the town residents continued to doubt his actions. In 1946,  they celebrated his death with bonfires.

 

The First Plaque

1954 plaque san miniato
The 1954 plaque on the wall of the town hall of San Miniato, via Musei Civici di San Miniato

 

Over the following decades, the version established by the 1945 commission became the official narrative in the town. In the postwar era, this narrative served as the basis of San Miniatio’s antifascist identity and public memory of the war years. However, not all locals agreed with the official account of the 1944 event.

 

In 1954, the tenth anniversary of the massacre, the victims’ families asked the town council to commemorate the event with a plaque. The text, written by literary historian Luigi Russo, states that the killing was carried out with “pure ferocity as befitted an army that was denied victory because it was the enemy of all liberty.” Ferruccio Parri, one of the most prominent leaders of the Italian resistance and former prime minister of Italy, unveiled the plaque.

 

The 1954 plaque brought out in the open the lack of consensus over the local past. For the first time since the massacre, an alternative account of the event entered the public discourse. Don Enrico Giannoni, a local priest, refused to endorse the official narrative by stating that it had actually been US shelling that killed the civilians in the cathedral.

 

While Don Giannoni’s counter-memory remained mostly hidden for decades, doubts about the massacre continued dividing the town. In the 1990s, local historians began looking into new evidence that questioned the official narrative of the event. As a result, San Miniato’s memory became “divided.”

 

Italy’s Divided Memory: Origins of a Historiographical Concept

young men women celebrate newly proclaimed italian republic
Young men and women in San Miniato celebrate the proclamation of the Italian Republic, 1946, via Musei Civici di San Miniato

 

After the war, the newly established Italian republic constructed the so-called “anti-fascist paradigm,” a self-exculpatory narrative of Fascism that claimed the Italians had never fully supported Mussolini’s dictatorship. In the 1990s, when Italy’s anti-fascist party system underwent a deep crisis, the work of several historians revealed the existence of an intricate microcosmos of alternative, conflicted memories. The newly discovered narratives often led to bitter political debates.

 

In 1997, Giovanni Contini published his research on the massacre of Civitella Val di Chiana, a town in Tuscany where the German troops killed 244 civilians in June 1944. Contini’s study, La memoria divisa (Divided Memory), showed that many locals blamed the partisans for provoking the Germans’ attack against their community with their “useless” guerrilla warfare. Historian Lorenzo Paggi, whose father died in the massacre, also described Civitella’s memory landscape as “divided” in his 1996 Storia e memoria di un massacro ordinario. La memoria divisa. Civitella della Chiana 29 giugno 1944–94 (History and Memory of an Ordinary Massacre. The Divided Memory).

 

Paolo Pezzino’s work on the massacre of Guardistallo, Anatomia di un massacro. Controversia sopra una strage tedesca (Anatomy of a Massacre. Controversy over a German Killing),  and Alessandro Portelli’s research on the Fosse Ardeatine mass killing also unearthed a deep-rooted hostility toward the resistance fighters that many believed had instigated the occupying German soldiers’ violent retaliation against defenseless civilians. Most importantly, these historians pointed out that the anti-partisan memories survived even after official records had demonstrated that they were based on false accounts of events.

 

Divided Memory in San Miniato and the 2002 Commission

two plaques on wal san miniato town hall
The two plaques side-by-side on the town hall of San Miniato, via Della Storia d’Empoli

 

In San Miniato, contrasting narratives of the massacre continued to coexist. In 1982, movie directors Paolo and Lorenzo Taviani told the story of the killing in their critically acclaimed movie La notte di San Lorenzo (The Night of the Shooting Stars), where the Germans were blamed for the mass murder of the civilians. The brothers’ father, Emilio Taviani, had been a member of the 1945 commission. The movie won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and reopened the controversy surrounding the events of July 1944.

 

In the following decades, several historians published conflicting accounts of the killing. In Guerra ai civili (War against Civilians), Michele Battini and Paolo Pezzino concluded that the responsibility for the massacre lay with the German troops. Lawyer and local historian Giuliano Lastraioli proposed a different theory in the 2001 La prova (The Proof). Quoting excerpts from the journal of the 337th Field Artillery of the US Army, Lastraioli stated that an American bomb had caused the killing. In San Miniato: tutta la verità sulla strage (The Whole Truth about the Massacre), Paolo Paoletti denounced the German “version” as a cover-up. He further declared that archival documents clearly pointed toward an American responsibility.

 

In San Miniato, these works, particularly Paoletti’s study, greatly affected the public discourse concerning the massacre. In 2002, the local council appointed a new commission to investigate the events of July 1944. After taking into account old and new evidence, the scholars on the commission concluded that the killing had not been a premeditated crime of the German troops but an unfortunate consequence of a US shelling.

 

San Miniato’s Divided Memory Becomes Public Memory: The Second Plaque

2008 plaque san miniato
The 2008 plaque on the wall of the town hall of San Miniato, via Musei Civici di San Miniato

 

Giovanni Contini and Lorenzo Paggi, two of the first historians to coin the term “divided memory,” were members of the 2002 commission appointed by the city council of San Miniato. After the inquiry, they published their findings in the book Stragi tedesche e bombardamenti alleati (German Massacres and Allied Bombings). Interestingly, the two scholars suggested that the divided memory surrounding the events of July 1944 needed to be taken into consideration. They argued that the anti-German account had played a key role in (re)shaping the town’s postwar identity. Thus, Paggi and Contini called for a “historicization” of San Miniato’s divided memory.

 

In 2008, on the 64th anniversary of the killing, the city council decided to put up a second plaque. The text of this “correcting” plaque, written by former Italian president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, acknowledges the findings of the 2002 commission. At the same time, it reiterates the occupying German army committed several atrocities against civilians in the area near San Miniato. After a heated debate, the city council opted to place the second plaque side-by-side with the first one. Today, the two conflicting plaques are displayed in the local Museo della Memoria (Museum of the Remembrance).

 

aerial view of san miniato
Aerial view of the town hill of San Miniato (Tuscany), via Valdarno Musei

 

The case of San Miniato raises crucial questions on the relationship between history, memory, and identity. In other words, should memory always be shared? In La morte della patria (The Death of the Fatherland), Ernesto Galli della Loggia claimed that a “strong” nation requires a consensus over the past. On the other hand, Sergio Luzzatto stated that shared memory results in “negotiated forgetfulness.” Either way, there is no denying that the history of postwar Italy cannot be fully understood without analyzing its “divided memory.”

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By Maria-Anita RonchiniMA History & Jewish Studies, BA HistoryMaria Anita currently works as a writer in Italy. She holds a BA in History from the University of Bologna and a MA in History & Jewish studies from LMU-Munich. Her primary interest is the relationship between memory and history. Maria Anita is passionate about analyzing the construction of historical narratives and collective memories. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching tv, and writing fiction.