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From Silence to Shock: Students' reactions to the images used in Italian history textbooks, breaking down inter-generational silence about Italian colonial crimes

Being unaware of their “historical pre-existence” (Ortega y Gasset, 1930), young generations cannot appreciate neither the historical reasons accounting for their current social and political situation, nor the best directions of their future efforts (Sweeny, 1993).However, knowledge of a massive violence occurred in the past, where old in-group generations played a role either of perpetrators and passive by-standers, or of victims, requires new generations to elaborate a specific kind of social identity's loss: either a loss of moral decency (for descendants of perpetrators or passive by-standers), or a loss of the sense of control on one's own destiny (for the descendants of victims) (Nadler & Shabel, 2018). Societal self-censorship is an often used strategy to cope with these threats to social identity. Having the role to convey to students a scientific-based knowledge of the group past, history teaching is a privileged occasion to break down such a detrimental intergenerational silence (Leone, 2017). However, effects of this communication, when teachers break down a widespread societal self-censorship, have to be keenly studied, in order to make this challenging history teaching really beneficial for students. To deal with this issue, the present paper experimentally explores reactions of Italian students when presented with images of past colonial crimes committed by the Italian Army during the colonial invasions of Ethiopia –  crimes that are still now heavily silenced in societal discourses on the national past. Similar observations have already been conducted on texts currently used by Italian history manuals. Results showed that, compared with a more evasive and mild one, a clear and detailed text on Italian colonial crimes provoked more self-conscious emotions of moral shame, yet enabled students to better grasp the gist of the text and to support reconciliation activities (Leone et al, 2018). Students' reactions to images currently used in history manuals  (nostalgic images of colonial times; Fascist propaganda; images showing the suffering of victims in a shocking way), were observed both directly (by non intrusive videotaping) and asking participants for self-assessments. Results, both at an emotional and at a cognitive level, are discussed.