Interview with Dr Emiliano Perra

Earlier this year, we in the W.U.Hstry blog interviewed Dr. Emiliano Perra who is currently working as Lecturer in Modern European history at the University of Winchester. It is safe to say that the team had an really interesting and enjoyable time talking to Emiliano, and these are the questions we asked, and intriguing answers we got.

 

Where and what did you study at university?

I studied Contemporary History at the University of Bologna in Italy as an undergraduate, and then I did my MA and PHD at the University of Bristol.

What attracted you to history, and modern history in particular?

Initially as an undergraduate I thought that studying modern history was a way to understand the present and the world we live in; of course it’s a very naive view because we’re not simply a product of the past. In any case, it was this kind of political/ethical strive that pushed me towards history, in particular what in Italy is called contemporary history. I never studied ancient or medieval, I only had one exam in early modern history. That was one of the main problems with the university structure in Italy; it was very narrowly focused.

Do you feel like you missed out on classical and medieval?

I think it would be good to have a broader perspective when you’re an undergraduate, because it helps you think in different terms, and in those formative years it’s something one can benefit from. Then you can specialise. There’s always time to specialise and to narrow your focus when you know what you want to do.

What was your undergraduate experience like? Did it live up to your expectations?

I had some amazing lecturers, but in general terms there was no clear emphasis on trying to engage students; for example, there were not many seminars. I don’t know if it lived up to my expectations because I don’t remember what my expectations were, but if I look back at those years, I think my experience as a student could be better, more formative. Part of the blame was mine; I was a good student but I did not get the most out of the interaction with staff. I hope our students here have a different type of experience.

What advice would you give to students of modern History?

Whatever you decide to do, do it seriously and with intensity; do something that matters to you; if you feel that what you’re doing is not relevant, then it means you’re not doing it right, and you should just rip it up and start again. Do something that is fulfilling and do it until you are really exhausted. In practical terms, this means reading a lot, because as historians that is what we do and it’s the only way to get access to real, deep knowledge. Also, try to understand how books are written, because reading loads and reading with a certain type of eye also helps writing. If one doesn’t write well, it means that one doesn’t think well, and if one doesn’t think well, in the end they won’t live well. These are formative years, and one should get the most out of this. It’s also so expensive that you should make the most out of it! Have a purpose, do something that matters, that’s the only way I can think of it. We all have different interests, and that’s the great thing about history, there’s a lot of room for everyone, but whatever you do – don’t do it half-heartedly!

What are you researching now, if anything?

I have two ideas for research. One is visual representations of genocide in general. I come from the field of Holocaust studies so it feels like a natural evolution of my own career as a researcher. The second one is the idea of defeat, countries that have been defeated and how defeat is remembered, how countries come to terms with these painful, often traumatic and very often divisive memories, like defeat and humiliation. I just validated a module for the MA on that, so my hope is that teaching it will be a way to test ideas. I’m quite excited about that, so that would be my first project.

What’s been the biggest obstacle in your career?

One was the context of where I come from. Italy is not a very dynamic society, and academia is part of that. It is a well-known problem; there simply is not much room for young scholars, so it’s very hard to find positions. When I decided to try to work in Britain, the biggest obstacle was myself. It’s very hard in this line of work to keep the focus and the confidence in yourself all the time, but it’s so competitive that if you don’t have that, you’re making life harder for yourself; at times that was a problem.

If you could have taken a different career path, where would you have liked to end up today?

Within the realm of possibilities, I would have liked to have been something like a research journalist, which is a bit different from what we do. They work on something for a few months, write about it, and then move onto something else; that’s not a world apart from what we do. But in a completely different world, I would have liked to be a professional bass player or drummer. I play neither the bass nor drums!

What brought you here to the University of Winchester?

A job opportunity which was a one year position to replace Tom, then it was extended for another year to cover for Natalya, and now it’s permanent! I think that applies for pretty much everyone, the fact that there was an opening and you go for it.

What was your experience of being a student in Italy like in comparison with here in England?

As a student, we’re talking about two different things. It’s so different. That’s one of the great things about academia here in Britain: there is a culture of trying to deliver lectures that engage students, and there are student questionnaires so you get feedback and I think that’s a win-win game, because if students enjoy it, then you also enjoy it. That’s the biggest, clear cultural difference. I’m still talking about the past in Italy, though, it might have changed since. I could see that my lecturers were sometimes bored, because it wasn’t an environment where you could ask students questions, so it sometimes was: show up, give a one hour lecture, go back home or to your office. It’s not satisfying for anyone. Seminars are another thing. I have very few experiences of seminars in Italy but I have very fond memories of those I attended; I learned a lot. There was one on the philosophy of history and it was very good, I still remember much of what we talked about, but it was just one episode.

What’s your stand on the use of living memory in history?

I have no particular problems with that. It’s a type of source, and just like any other source it needs to be handled carefully. I guess it depends on the type of questions and your interest; if your interest is to find out about something that is not covered by other documents, they can be precious. But you shouldn’t take them at face value; you need to bear in mind the fact that people tend to reconstruct their memories. We can see that ourselves; it’s sometimes hard to determine to what extent what we remember comes from first-hand experience or contaminates with other things we have heard over time. When I try to explain this to students, I make the example of 9/11, although we’re getting to the point that soon they’ll be too young to remember it, but personally I can’t tell what I remember exactly from the day because I was watching it on television just like other hundreds of millions of people, or because I saw it countless times in documentaries. That’s a bit of an extreme example because it’s so iconic, but I think that also applies to a number of other aspects. And it’s something that, in the field of Holocaust studies, has been discussed very widely because you have the survivors who give testimony, and it’s very valuable, but at the same time it depends – who are the survivors? How many times have they told the story? It’s something you can say about all types of stories; in general terms, the more the story is polished, the more times it means it’s been told; it’s a crafted narrative, and just like any other narratives, it’s based on selections. I have absolutely no problems with that, as long as we are aware of the fact that it’s based on a reconstruction of a memory. There’s no such thing as pure memory; even individual memory tends to be socially constructed. That is, unless we’re talking about the memory of traumatic events which have never been told. The memory of traumas is different; it can emerge in different ways, it is often compulsive and can be triggered by apparently random factors. If the question is one of how people now remember the events of the past, then clearly these problems are not there: what’s interesting is the way people remember it, and whether their memory is reliable or not is not a problem.

Do you have a particular curiosity about a certain Nazi official, say, Hess or Speer?

Not really, if anything because there are some excellent books on some Nazi officials, for example Into That Darkness about Franz Stangl by Gitta Sereny, who also interviewed Albert Speer, and Albert Speer also wrote an autobiography. Personally I don’t have a particular interest in any; I wouldn’t invest say two years of research on that. But Albert Speer was a good one because he was clearly educated, there were moments when I think he was aware of what he was doing; he’s a complex figure.

What is your thought on the portrayal of the Third Reich in film and memory?

It has been done so many times that there is a serious risk of audiences experiencing what some call compassion fatigue. Another problem is that until not many years ago, it was deemed immoral to make films about the Holocaust that were not closely linked to history. It was a very normative field. As a result, there are too many films that play it safe, paying lip service to the memory of the event, but in the end being very predictable. At the same time we’re talking about something that’s so iconic, Nazism and the Holocaust in general, that they have become a generic symbol of evil. Now that we have almost reached the post-witness generation, we will see more and more representations with an ever increasingly loose link with the history of the events. Inglorious Basterds is a fitting example of that. Nazism is becoming a signifier of evil in general, and you get things like sci-fi and horror films that are clearly inspired by the Nazis but are not about them. Over time we will see more of that; perhaps, one or two centuries from now, the SS will be a symbol that everyone recognises with evil without even considering the history behind it. I think the time for epic historical dramas on the Holocaust like Schindler’s List is over.

Do you think because Nazi Germany is such an iconic figure, we forget to look to the other states and establishments that had similar experiences, that their allies fade into shadow?

Yes, it quite often happens in the countries that have a history of collaboration, my own is a perfect example of that; there’s a whole narrative about Italians being kind-hearted by default and certainly different from the Germans. It goes like this:  we Italians were not like them, they were the ones that did the horrible things, we were just forced to collaborate. It’s a very self-acquitting narrative that is obviously extremely simplistic and selective, but it works for some countries. Some other countries did some work; for example France after a number of years started to talk about it in earnest, to the point that they developed what Henry Rousso called the ‘Vichy-syndrome’, and they would only talk about that (and not, for example, crimes perpetrated by France in the decolonisation process). Other countries like Italy are a bit behind. Being ready to come to terms with the past can be complex. Another problem with the centrality of the Holocaust in memory culture is that such emphasis on the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis can act as a screen memory and hinder the discussion of crimes perpetrated by other regimes (including the democratic ones). This is part of the broader discussion about the relationship between the memory of the Holocaust and that of other genocides.

Are there any particular Second World War films you’d like to comment on? Pearl Harbour for example?

Pearl Harbour is a dreadful film, but if you’re interested in how films that are very popular reconstruct events, it’s the film you want to watch. One thing I’d like to do is use our obvious familiarity with Hollywood films about WW2 and other historical events for obvious reasons and subvert it. It would be nice to use films about the same events but that have been produced elsewhere; it would be a way to de-familiarise ourselves with what we think we know, because many of the classical Hollywood narratives are based on reiterating what the viewer expects. I like the idea of looking at events from a different point of view. There are some fascinating Soviet films on WW2; one is called Come and See, made in 1985, which is very brutal but it really is an interesting take on WW2. I don’t find Pearl Harbour very thought-provoking!

If you could have a source, either one that has existed before and been lost in time, or something you could create yourself to help your research, what source would it be?

I really wouldn’t know because I’m interested in the consequences of events. The perfect example of a source that we don’t have is Hitler’s written order to exterminate the Jews. It would have made a number of debates easier to deal with, but I don’t think it makes much difference. I tend to be interested in memory, the after-effects of events, and in that case, because of my thinking in those terms (which links back to my original interest in trying to understand the present – I’m still as naive as I was at 18!), I don’t particularly have a craving for that Holy Grail of sources. Also, in 20th century history we have so many sources that we’ve got enough to deal with as it is!

Finally, if you had a time machine for one trip alone, for research or pleasure, when and where would you choose to go and why?

I’m really happy to live in the present. These are exciting times because of the anthropological transformations we have gone through with the development of something like the internet. It’s a paradigm shift, and we are sitting on the cusp of that. My generation lived part of our lives before that and now we are part of this, with potentially incredible possibilities. I wish I could live in the future instead of the past! In terms of personal interest that is not scholarly, I am also happy that I was involved in the indie rock scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the short moment in which the indie scene of the late 1980s was almost mainstream, and it felt great. After that, the whole notion of alternative and indie lost most of its meaning, but those were exciting times! But going back in time, it would be interesting to get a sense of the mood in Hitler’s bunker in April 1945, or be there on the day of the Russian Revolution and get a sense of that, things like that which are pretty obvious. Or something that’s very positive, because there aren’t many instances in history where something good happens. We’ve also experienced an historic moment which was very positive in the election of Obama, the first African American candidate in the US. I remember watching it and the scenes were quite moving, I think whether it had been the first African American or the first woman, it would have been equally great.

We then spiralled into a discussion on the parameters of the time machine question, and have settled that the terms are: you cannot interfere, you can only observe, you are safe from harm and the time machine does pick you up straight after.

I’d love to see Stalin, I’m fascinated by these horrible historic figures such as Pol Pot, to see each one of them for a brief moment as a person.

During or after their rise to power?

During, so that’s why being safe is important! But it must be frustrating, being a fly on the wall and knowing what happens next.

We in the W.U.Hstry blog would like to thank Emiliano Perra for his patience and for taking part in this interview. We would like to wish him all the best with the future research and students.

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