The Archives of the Municipality and the High Court of Asmara, Eritrea: Discovering the Eritrea "Hidden from History"

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Eritrean independence in 1993 raised fundamental questions regarding the Eritrean past. Inevitably, scholars initially focused their analysis on the history of the Eritrean nationalist movement and liberation struggle. The long guerrilla war against the Ethiopian regime attracted the interest of numerous researchers, not only because of its implications for the redefinition of the political landscape of the Horn of Africa, but also because of the ways in which it had mobilized and reorganized Eritrean society.1 While this literature has shed much light upon interesting aspects of the political history of independent Eritrea, further investigation of the precolonial and colonial past is still required to gain a deeper understanding of the formation of Eritrean national identity in all its intricate facets.

The question of Eritrean national identity is intimately connected to its colonial history, which in many ways remains marginalized in the analysis of Eritrean past. The Italian colonial period between 1890 and 1941 was a crucial moment in the definition of those social and political transformations which contributed to the formation of Eritrea-asa-nation. Nevertheless, this historical phase remains underexplored. The colonial past has been an issue that European powers to varying extents have had to confront since the end of empire. Both historians of colonialism and Africanist historians have collaborated in the reconstruction of the past of colonized societies. In Italy this process remains in embryonic form. Many Africanist historians, such as Irma Taddia and Alessandro Triulzi, have already addressed the problem concerning the gaps left by Italian historiography on both the colonial past and the history of the colonized societies in its various aspects.2 As Triulzi points out, both practical and political reasons slowed the development of those debates that were emerging in the historiographies of other excolonial powers.

Italy emerged from World War II as a defeated nation. The "dream" of an fascist east Africa empire ended in 1941, but after joining the Allies in 1943, Italy still hoped to obtain the mandate over the former colonies once the war ended. "Colonial nostalgia" was the leitmotiv of early Italian colonial historiography. It was at this time that a huge literature focused on colonial policy emerged, written mainly by ex-colonial officials who emphasized issues like "the Italian presence in Eritrea" and the "modernization" of Eritrea. This created a mythology about Italian colonialism in Africa, and especially in the so-called "first-born colony" of Eritrea, that emphasised what Triulzi called the "atypical" nature of Italian colonialism.

The massive migration of Italian laborers to Eritrea during the mid193Os contributed to the spread of the image of Italian colonialism as the "colonialism of the poor," different from that of Britain and France, especially in terms of its relationship with local populations. This mythology became deep-rooted in the Italian collective imaginary and contributed to the spread of stereotypes about Italian colonial policy. These ideas remain influential, especially at the institutional level. For example, it was only a few years ago that the Italian Ministry of Defense was prepared publicly to acknowledge the use of chemical gases against the civil population during the invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. After sixty years it has been confirmed that approximately 500 tons of chemical gases were used by the Italian army.3

Stereotypes and falsifications about Italian colonialism were and are reproduced at the institutional level. In July 2001 the undersecretary of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was invited to the Casa degli Italian! in Asmara to meet the Italian community of the "ex colony". He opened his speech by emphasizing the Italian action in Eritrea, but also in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Libya, places "in which our civilization left a sign. …