Schools History Project on

Using life histories deepens students’ thinking


This activity, by Diana Laffin, forms part of a sequence of learning focussed on the enquiry question: Did the Fascists unite or divide Italy in the years 1922-1944?

It uses real life narratives to develop students’ thinking about the impact of fascism on the lives of individual Italians during this period. The activity requires small groups of students to work collaboratively on an individual life story. Students make judgements about the factors that might have made the individual feel ‘at the heart of’, ‘part of’ or ‘outside’ Italian society at different points in time. In a follow-up activity, students relate their use of life histories in fascist Italy to the broader historical approach of micro-history.

Note: You can read a detailed description of this activity and find further life histories in Diana’s book Better Lessons in A Level History (History In Practice) Hodder (2009).

Download the Activity and Resources

The activity [ click here ]

Resource 1 – Character Narrative and other possible characters [ click here ]

Resource 2 – Zonal Diagram [ click here ]

Small-group work on individual narratives

• Organise your class into small groups of 4 and give each group a narrative relating to a real life character (see the example in Resource 1)

• Divide the groups into two with one pair looking at 1929 and one at 1939.

• Using their knowledge of the fascist state in Italy each pair to completes a zonal diagram for their year (Resource 2) with factors which might have made their character feel ‘at the heart of’, ‘part of’ or ‘outside’ Italian society.

• Students discuss with the other pair what had changed between the two dates.

Whole-class kinaesthetic activity

• Nominate one student in each pair to wear a tabard labelled with the name of the person whose life history they have studied.

• Clear a space in the classroom or find an open space where you can recreate the zonal diagram. Place the heart in the middle of the space ( at the ‘heart’ of Italian society ) and divide the space into three zones.

• Put up the 1929 date and ask the individuals in tabards to stand in the zone they feel they belong. Question them about why they are there.

• Put up the 1939 date and repeat the process with the 1939 student wearing the tabard. Question them about why they have/ have not moved zone.

Adapting the activity

1. Use an individual narrative as a starter and plenary for an enquiry. Find a particularly interesting individual narrative. This could be a written account, an oral or video clip or simply a narrative that you tell yourself. Describe the individual’s background and situation at the start of the regime/event/situation you are studying. Ask your students to speculate on what might happen to them in the next few years (or whatever time period is appropriate) and put these in a sealed envelope. At the end of the unit, display and share the speculations and reveal what really did happen. Discuss the differences.

2. Get students to relate the live of individuals to wider changes. Divide the class into small groups and give each group an individual life history. As you teach different phases or aspects of a topic ask students to explain the impact on their individual and to and make judgements about how far their individual’s experiences can be generalised to other people from their age group, gender, social class or religion.

Developing a broader understanding of microhistory

Two useful articles, by Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson, that help A level students appreciate the wider methodological issues surrounding microhistory are:

What Is Microhistory?

Microhistory: In-Between Methodologies and Conceptual Frameworks

Resource 1:
A real life in Fascist Italy: Ettore Ovazza

The Ovazza family were a successful Jewish banking family based in Turin. The state of Piedmont, in Northern Italy had a long history of toleration and the Ovazzas had been strong supporters of Italian unification in the 19 th century. Ettore Ovazza’s father had been proud of his Italian and Jewish background and had the words ‘Fatherland, Faith and Family’ carved on his tombstone. He had, along with his three sons, voluntarily enlisted to fight in the First World War. The family were well integrated into Italian society and, while they followed Jewish traditions such as celebrating Passover, they spoke Italian rather than Hebrew at home.

Ettore Ovazza had studied law at university and then travelled to Germany with a view to a diplomatic career. At the outbreak of war he had volunteered and trained as an officer, only to suffer the humiliating defeat at Caporetto. His patriotic letters from the front were published in 1928 and received general praise. After the war, the city of Turin was badly affected by the turmoil of the Biennio Rosso with repeated strikes, lockouts and violent demonstrations. The Ovazza family were alarmed by these developments.

Aged 30 when Mussolini came to power, Ettore Ovazza was a committed Fascist from the start. He was not unusual in this respect. Two Jews held office in the Fascist government and 10 000 were members of the Fascist Party, about one in three of the adult Jewish population. Ovazza took part in the March on Rome in October 1922 and in 1929 he was invited to meet Mussolini as a part of a delegation of Jewish war veterans. He described the encounter later:

‘On hearing my affirmation of the unshakeable loyalty of Italian Jews to the Fatherland, His Excellency Mussolini looks me straight in the eye and says with a voice that penetrates straight to my heart: ‘I have never doubted it’. When Il Duce bids us farewell with a Roman salute, I feel an urge to embrace him, as a fascist, as an Italian, but I can’t; and approaching him at his desk I say: ‘Excellency, I would like to shake your hand’. It is not a fascist gesture, but it is a cry from the heart…

Such is The Man that Providence has given to Italy’.

In the 1930s Fascist attitudes to the Jewish population began to change. Hitler came to power in Germany and, although Mussolini rejected his racist views, they influenced some leading Fascists in Italy. In 1934 several Jews were arrested in Turin for smuggling in anti-Fascist literature. Ettore Ovazza reacted by redoubling his efforts to support the Fascist regime. He founded a newspaper called Our Flag reminding Italians of the Jewish sacrifice for Italy in the Great War and attacking the idea that all Jews were Zionists. Taking a leading role in the Jewish community in Turin, Ovazza ensured that all the key positions were held by Fascist supporters. When Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, he immediately volunteered for service, an offer that was turned down probably due to his age (43). Despite the beginnings of anti-semitism, Ovazza was still being rewarded for his patriotism. In 1935 he was honoured for his contribution to the colony of Libya and in the following year was invited to be part of the honour guard at the tomb of the royal family in Turin.

In 1938 when a series of anti-semitic laws were passed, the Ovazza family were hit hard. They were no longer allowed to marry ‘Aryan’ Italians, to send their children to state schools, to employ Italian servants or be in the army. Much more damaging were the rules that stated they could not employ over 100 people, or own valuable land or buildings.This put an end to the Ovazza business and banking operations. Ettore Ovazza was expelled from the party and his brother from the military. In 1939 Jews were banned from all skilled jobs and cafes in Turin displayed signs saying that Jews were no longer welcome. Jewish organisations were disbanded and many Jews converted to Catholicism or emigrated abroad. However, Ettore Ovazza accepted the racial laws without renouncing his faith. He was reluctant to leave the country, hoping that the Duce would alter his views. He wrote an anguished letter to Mussolini, expressing his pain:

Was it all a dream we nurtured? I can’t believe it. I cannot consider changing religion, because this would be a betrayal - and we are fascists. And so? I turn to You – DUCE – so that in this period- so important for our revolution, and you do not exclude that healthy Italian part from the destiny of our Nation.’

The family began to live on savings and sales of possessions. Permission had to be asked to own a radio or take the family to the seaside. Yet, despite the growing danger, and the emigration of his brother, Ettore Ovazza kept his family in Italy, only at the end of the war attempting to reach safety in Switzerland. The family were intercepted by the Nazis and all of them were murdered, their bodies being chopped up and burnt in the ovens of a school.

Adapted from Stille, A. (1992) Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism Summit Books, New York.

Other Possible Characters

Other possible characters to use are:

Antonio Origo

Wanda Newby

Carlo Levi

Cosimo Arrichiello

Their life-histories can be found in the following publications:

Arrichiello, C. (2000) Italian Heartbreak: Life Under Mussolini Minerva Press, London.

De Grazia, V. (1992) How Fascism Ruled Women Italy 1922 - 1945 University of California Press

Levi, C. (1947) Christ Stopped at Eboli (Penguin Modern Classics) Penguin, London

Moorehead, C. (2000) Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d'Orcia John Murray, London

Newby, W. (1991) Peace and War: Growing Up in Fascist Italy (Picador Books) Collins and Sons

Stille, A. (1992) Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism Summit Books, New York.

Willson, P. (2002) Peasant Women and Politics in Fascist Italy: The Massaie Rurali Routledge, London

Resource 2:
Zonal Diagram

Resource 2 - Zonal Diagram