Politics is about foes and friends, Carl Schmitt claimed. During the Cold War, the borderline between foes and friends was evident, reinforced by the iron curtain from 1961. However, while politics seemed paralysed at the national level, there were initiatives at the local level to create friendships across borders. Teresa Malice’s book on “twinning cities” tells the story of efforts - during the Cold War - to develop warm friendships between cities in the dictatorial GDR and cities in democratic Italy. Since the Italian cities, such as Bologna, Livorno and Collegno, were ‘red cities’ with socialist mayors, one might argue that this was a rather easy project. Despite this reservation, Malice’s book calls to mind the argument and answer in Benjamin Barber’s What If Mayors ruled the World: That problems that cannot be solved at the national level, can be solved at the local, municipal level. At the national level, politicians are mired in rivalries; at the local, municipal, level they are closer to the problems and more likely to seek solutions through cooperation.
The shift from the level of nation-states to the level of municipalities is mirrored by the historiographical shift from a history-from-above approach to a history-from-below approach, and this is the approach taken by Teresa Malice in her dense and at the same time wide-ranging account of “town twinnings” in the 1960s and 1970s. In her introduction, she establishes a theoretical framework by situating her discussion within the so-called ‘cultural turn’, characterized by an interest in ‘the history of everyday life’, ‘the history of mentalities’, ‘micro history’. This turn is corroborated by the statement of one of her interviewees: “For us, the social is the local.” (p. 288)
The further one gets into the more than 400 pages of the book, the closer one gets to the individual agents of history, their mentalities, or – to use the word of the title– their imaginations. Diaries, letters, travelogues and oral interviews are the main sources of the book, and they allow the reader to listen to the individual experiences of, for instance, Italians in Wernigerode and Leipzig or Germans in Reggio Emilia or Livorno. Teresa Malice has an eye for tectonic shifts at the geopolitical level, but her main interest is the level of “microsociability.”
Throughout the book, the argument moves from the general to the specific: The first chapter describes the “Soviet myth” and the role of communism in Italy. The different, “asymmetrical” conditions of communism in a dictatorial state like the GDR and a democratic state like Italy imply that they enter the project of twinning with interests and intentions that do not necessarily coincide, but the idea of “antifascism” provides a common ground. The second chapter focuses on the PCI, the Italian Communist Party, relations with Europe and the double bind in its relations with the GDR and the FRD. The third chapter narrows the focus from general diplomacy to town twinning as a tool in diplomatic and cultural exchanges. The fourth chapter follows this up by exploring how communist-led local administrations have dealt with twinning. In the last two chapters, Teresa Malice works “strongly empirical”. (p. 190) The fifth chapter is an account of the actors within the twinning process – its administrators, its activists and its “connecting personalities”, i.e. translators and other mediators. The chapter concludes with a discussion of welfare as a pivotal theme in municipal exchange.
The sixth chapter gives the reader an illuminating impression of the ‘history-from-below’-perspective. It consists of an examination of how these “actors” saw each other, of their experiences when visiting their twin city. The visual dimension was important in the twinning process: Ceremonies, sporting events, flags, etc. It is probably an exaggerated expression of gratitude when ‘Marino’ from Carpi writes in a letter to the mayor of Wernigerode that their hearts were filled with tears when they saw their beautiful flag (p. 323), but it is quite convincing when Malice describes how the young people of East Germany were fascinated by blue jeans, the symbol of freedom. (p. 335) To a very large extent, twinning was about seeing – seeing: seeing the other, seeing how the other lived, dressed, communicated.
In the last chapter, Malice also delves into the discussion of generations, generational differences in the way we understand the other (and ourselves). In some respects, she takes up the discussion from the first chapters, where she points to participation in anti-fascist movements as a shared experience of the first generation to initiate the twinning movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, the young participants did not have this shared experience, and this naturally had an impact on what they experienced during their visits to their twin city – and what they remembered when they looked back. Among the discussions in this book, the reflections on remembering are particularly complex and interesting. How did people from the GDR reflect on the not so distant Nazi-period? How did people from Italy reflect on the relationship between fascism and resistance? And how do interviewees now, in the second and third decade of the 21st century, look back on their youth as communist activists? With regard to the latter, Malice speaks of an inclination to minimize or even to disqualify the past.
Teresa Malice opens her book with a visual experience: the description of an arriving in the city by car, where a street sign not only announces that “you are now entering…”, but often also indicates the “twin cities” of that city, accompanied by a small flag. (p.1) At the end of the book, however, she refers to The Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The book is, as already mentioned, strongly empirical, but while reading the more than 400 pages, this reader got the impression that it would have improved the reading experience if the argument had been supported by more visual sources than three grey photos. In particular, in the section on the twinning of town planning, does one miss visual information.
When Benjamin Barber called for a collaboration between the mayors of big cities from different countries, it was against the background of globalization. The town twinning between Italy and Germany took place against the very different background of the polarization between capitalism and communism. The collapse of the communist world after the fall of the Berlin Wall completely changed the rationale behind twinning projects. In a globalized world, there seemed to be no reason to build such trans-local bridges between pairs of cities. At present, we are witnessing a new collapse, the collapse of globalization and the rise of a multipolar world with polarizations at multiple levels. In this context, the idea of town twinning could become a new way of imagining a better future, but that would require a new book. This book is a rich contribution to our knowledge of our not so distant past. It is informative, impressive in its use of archives, convincing in its arguments, balanced in its interpretations, and well written throughout.