ROME — For years, Gildo Negri visited schools to share his stories about blowing up bridges and cutting electrical wires to sabotage Nazis and fascists during World War II. In January, the 89-year-old made another visit, leaving his nursing home outside Milan to help students plant trees in honor of Italians deported to concentration camps.
But at the end of February, as Europe’s first outbreak of the coronavirus spread through Mr. Negri’s nursing home, it infected him, too.
Shut inside, he grew despondent about missing the usual parades and public speeches on Italy’s Liberation Day, grander this year to mark the 75th anniversary. But the virus canceled the April 25 commemorations. Mr. Negri died that night.
“The memory is vanishing, and the coronavirus is accelerating this process,” said Rita Magnani, who worked with Mr. Negri, at the local chapter of the National Association of Italian Partisans. “We are losing the people who can tell us in first person what happened. And it’s a shame, because when we lose the historical memory we lose ourselves.”
Time and its ravages have already cut down the lives and blurred the memories of a generation that saw close up the ideologies and crimes that turned Europe into a killing field.
The virus, which is so lethal to the old, has hastened the departure of these last witnesses and forced the cancellation of anniversary commemorations that offered a final chance to tell their stories to large audiences. It has also created an opportunity for rising political forces who seek to recast the history of the last century in order to play a greater role in remaking the present one.
Throughout Europe, radical right-wing parties with histories of Holocaust denial, Mussolini infatuation and fascist motifs, have gained traction in recent years, moving from the fringes and into parliaments and even governing coalitions.
The Alternative for Germany is looking to capitalize on the economic frustration the coronavirus crisis has triggered. In France, the hard-right National Rally had the country’s strongest showing in the last European Parliament elections. And in Italy, the birthplace of fascism, the descendants of post-fascist parties have grown popular as the stigma around Mussolini and strongman politics has faded.
Italy is especially vulnerable to the loss of memory. It has endured a severe epidemic and has the oldest population in Europe. It is also a politically polarized place where areas of consensus in other countries are constantly relitigated, with recollections of Nazi and fascist atrocities countered with retorts of summary executions by Communist partisans.
In the three quarters of a century following Italy’s defeat and de facto civil war with Mussolini’s short-lived Nazi puppet state in the north, the people who lived through the war and fascism have offered a living testimony that shined through the muddle. That generation was to get a final close-up and megaphone on the 75th anniversary of the war’s end, in Italy and throughout Europe.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, Germany had spent more than a year booking flights and hotels and organizing wheelchairs and oxygen tanks for 72 survivors and 20 American soldiers who liberated the camps. For five days starting on April 29, they were to meet one another and tell their stories. The pandemic made that impossible.
Instead, only four officials took part in the event.
“Many survivors had been living for the day,” said Gabriele Hammermann, who runs the Dachau concentration camp memorial, and was one of the four participants. “In these times of change in which fewer and fewer survivors are able to come to the memorial site, it was of particular importance that the baton of remembrance be handed to the next generations.”
On May 8, Victory in Europe day, the BBC broadcast parts of Winston Churchill’s speech 75 years before, (“We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing,”) and Prime Minister Boris Johnson lamented the lack of parades but said that fighting the virus “demands the same spirit of national endeavor” as the war effort did.
In France, Geneviève Darrieussecq, the Secretary of State to the Minister of the Armed Forces, said regional ceremonies were canceled “especially as former fighters and flag bearers are particularly exposed.”
Some veterans groups have said they understood that memorials for the past needed to take a back seat to immediate health risks. Others found the absence devastating.
In Russia, which lost tens of millions of soldiers during a war that forged its national identity, President Vladimir V. Putin had planned a major military parade for May 9, to be attended by President Emmanuel Macron of France and possibly other world leaders in Moscow. Instead he made phone calls of solidarity and rescheduled the event for June 24. “We will do this,” he said.
In the meantime, as the virus upsets all of modern life, it is also severing connections to the past.
In Spain, José María Galante, 71, survived the Spanish Civil War and the regime of the dictator Francisco Franco, and spent recent years trying to bring his torturer, Antonio González Pacheco, a policeman known as “Billy the Kid,” to justice. But in March, Mr. Galante died of the virus. Weeks later, the virus also killed Mr. Pacheco, 73.
“It’s a huge loss for all those who believed that Spain should not silence its past,” said Mr. Galante’s longtime partner, Justa Montero.
When the virus killed Henry Kichka, a 94-year-old Belgian writer and Auschwitz survivor, on April 25, the Belgian politician Charles Picqué wrote “a great witness of Shoah left us,” and that it was “now up to the young generations to continue his battle against hate.”
In Italy, it’s more than just the memory of the fascist era that risks being shut away, as the country debates what to do with its vulnerable elders.
For months, officials have debated what policy to adopt for the country’s older at-risk population, including those who rebuilt the country after the war, fueled its boom and endured the domestic terrorism of the 1970s — itself an echo of the civil war. In a gerontocracy like Italy, proposals to encourage the elderly to stay inside would mean shutting away much of the political, academic, industrial and business elite.
At the beginning of March, the leading health official in Lombardy asked people over the age of 65 to stay home, a suggestion echoed by the national government in a decree.
Grandfathers published open letters to their grandchildren, urging them not to stash away the protagonists of the 1940s as “useless burdens.” A former president of the country’s highest court noted that the Constitution assures freedom of movement to all citizens. (“I know 80- year-olds who are in great shape,” he wrote.)
“Who can make a society without models taken from the past?” said Lia Levi, 88, an Italian writer, who is Jewish and suffered under Italy’s racial laws as a child. She said that many of the partisans who fought the fascists never wrote a word or became political, but simply lived their lives and told their children and grandchildren what they saw.
“I can tell you when I was kicked out of school, and that I couldn’t understand why, that humanizes historical facts,” she said, adding, “We see each other.”
Unlike Germany, which has forced itself to look unflinchingly at its crimes, Italy has often looked away.
Post-fascist parties sprouted after the war, and their direct political descendants are still vibrant, and growing. Nationalism is back in vogue, with leaders purposefully echoing Mussolini, whom many here openly admire.
In May, Giorgia Meloni, a rising star on the Italian right and the leader of the increasingly popular Brothers of Italy, the descendant of Italy’s post-fascist parties, paid tribute to a right-wing politician who once avidly supported Mussolini’s racial laws.
The deaths from the virus of those who fought fascism have gotten less attention.
Piera Pattani worked clandestinely as a trusted confidante and liaison for local resistance leaders around Milan during the war. She helped allies escape from fascist Italian guards and watched the German SS take her comrades away.
Into her 90s, she remained healthy and lucid and willing to tell her stories in classrooms. She ended up in a nursing home. But in March she was infected with the virus. She died alone in the hospital at 93.
“The virus did what fascism couldn’t,” said Primo Minelli, 72, the president of Legnano partisan association and her friend. “It has brought a lot of people away who could have stayed longer.”
That mattered especially now, he said, because of a political climate that he found threatening. “Firsthand testimony is valued over indirect testimony,” he said. “There is already an attempt underway to remove the history of resistance. That effort will be sped up when the witnesses are gone.”
The families of other partisans said they themselves only felt the full weight of that history now that the people who lived it had died.
“You know how it is, when someone’s well, it seems like a fable, what they say about the past,” said Teresa Baroni, 86, who lost her husband, Savino, to the virus in March. “And then they are gone and it doesn’t seem like a fable anymore.”
She said her husband, 94, hardly ever talked about his time escaping fascists and fighting with the Mazzini brigade in San Leo, on Italy’s eastern coast. He turned down invitations to speak in classrooms, embarrassed about his bad Italian, and spent his life farming with his wife.
When he tested positive for the virus and ambulance workers prepared to take him to the hospital in March, his wife kept him at home, saying she had slept next to him for 66 years and wouldn’t stop now. He died beside her days later, she said, taking his stories with him.
“Memory goes away when those directly involved go away, and we are all old,” said William Marconi, a partisan who fought Nazis in Tirano in northern Italy. “And this virus is killing the old.”
Mr. Marconi, 95, still lives in Tirano, where he said his inability to walk has kept him at home and away from the threat of a virus that killed one of his former comrades, Gino Ricetti, on April 26.
Mr. Marconi had written about his experiences, but had grown less than sanguine about the prospect of younger generations learning the lessons of the past.
“I’m not convinced memory serves,” he said. “Even those who know history, they do it again and again and again.”
Reporting was contributed by Emma Bubola from Milan, Raphael Minder from Madrid, Christopher Schuetze from Berlin, and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.