Stille, Alexander 1957–
Stille, Alexander 1957–
Journalist and writer. Worked for Boston Globe and U.S. News & World Report in Italy, 1990-93; Columbia University, New York, NY, San Paolo Professor of International Journalism.
Los Angeles Times Book Award, 1992, for Benevolence and Betrayal.
Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families under Fascism, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1991.
Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1995.
(Author of text) Passion, Justice, Freedom: Photographs of Sicily, photographs by Letizia Battaglia, Aperture (New York, NY), 1999.
The Future of the Past, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to periodicals, including the Boston Globe, New Yorker, and New York Times.
Alexander Stille writes about the problems of the modern Italian state in his books Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families under Fascism and Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic. The first, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 1992, is a study of the Italian Jewish community under the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. The second looks at the uneasy relationship between the crime families of Italy and Sicily and the Italian government, and especially at the recent attempts of the judicial system to bring criminals to trial. Stille writes from his own and his family's experience: his "paternal grandparents," explained Istvan Deak in the New York Review of Books, "were Jews who emigrated to Italy from Russia after World War I." His father was a writer who published under the joint pseudonym Ugo Stille (German for "silence") after Mussolini passed racial laws in 1938 restricting the freedom of Jews to write and work. Stille's father immigrated to the United States in 1941. From 1990 to 1993, Alexander Stille worked as a journalist in Italy, during the period when the crime families made "excellent cadavers" out of some of the leading governmental reformers. "Mr. Stille," wrote New York Times contributor Richard Bernstein, "is a writer to watch."
"The story of Italian Jews under Fascism brings home not only the outrage and disastrous consequences of the racial laws, but the illusions and willful blindness of the Jewish communities," declared Victor Brombert in his review of Benevolence and Betrayal for the Times Literary Supplement. Brombert continued: "It also tells of the humanity, courage and plain decency of the many who stood up to oppose the spreading evil." "In 1984," stated Edith Kurzweil in the Partisan Review, "Alexander Stille decided to find out what had happened to Italian Jews under fascism which, after all, had been in power for sixteen years before the racial laws were put into effect in 1938." "Italy has always been the least anti-Semitic of European nations," explained Carole Angier in New Statesman and Society, "and Italian Jews, accordingly have been the most secure and assimilated." This was as true in ancient times as it was in the late 1930s. "The Jewish community of Rome," declared Commonweal contributor Philip P. Hallie, "was the oldest in the Western world … two hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ there were tens of thousands of Jews in Rome," he explained, "and … at Julius Caesar's death Jews kept watch and wept over Caesar's tomb out of gratitude for his tolerance."
Many Italian Jews celebrated the coming to power of the fascists as a good thing for Italy and supported Mussolini "by praising him to the skies," Hallie continued, "and by melting down some of their most precious gold and silver religious objects ‘for the Fatherland.’" "Out of a Jewish population of 47,000 in 1938," wrote Edward Alexander in Commentary, "more than 10,000—that is, one third of the adults—belonged to the Fascist party." So assimilated were Italian Jews into Italian culture in 1938 that they minimized the impact that Nazi racism could have on them. "Nearly all Jewish Italians had relatives who had intermarried with Catholics, had many children and friends, and were as attached to their fatherland as they were to their families," Kurzweil noted in the Partisan Review. "Thus they all started out by assuming that the Germans' racial laws could not possibly damage them, or even touch them."
This was not the case. Stille covers the lives of five representative Jewish families in Benevolence and Betrayal, trying to determine how these people dealt with the sudden onset of oppression. Ettore Ovazza of Turin responded by increased dedication to the Fascist party, even going so far as to attack his fellow Jews. In 1943 he was denounced to the S.S. and summarily executed. The family of anti-fascist Vittorio Foa, also of Turin, "supplied the resistance with one of its most vigorous fighters," stated Stefan Kanfer in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The Di Verolis of Rome were devastated in 1943. Many family members died in the aftermath of the city's purge in that year. Two members of the Schoenheit family of Ferrara spent the last years of World War II in the concentration camp at Buchenwald; both father and son survived the war.
Stille's "stunning achievement—the result of meticulous research and comprehensive understanding—is to give faces and personalities to people who might otherwise have remained consigned to anonymity," New York Times Book Review critic Barbara Grizzuti Harrison declared, "to generalized categories rather than to be seen with their own peculiar natures, motives and characters." As Angier noted, "he is clearly a most sympathetic interviewer, and a most judicious user of the results; and he makes superb use of contemporary letters, diaries, and—startlingly—of police and secret police files. I have never read a more immediate and moving retelling of personal stories of the Holocaust, or indeed of anything else."
Excellent Cadavers, is "a fascinating and horrifying book," stated Denis Mack Smith in the New York Times Book Review, that "explain[s] in great detail how in the last twenty-five years the Mafia has terrorized Sicilian society and helped to bring the first Italian Republic close to collapse." Stille draws connections between organized crime and political corruption, showing how each draws on the other for support. During the 1980s, government reformers—including prosecutors Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone—began moving against the Sicilian Mafia, or Cosa Nostra. Each of them was targeted by the crime families. "The magistrates lived for years in virtual isolation," wrote Martin Clark in the Times Literary Supplement, "could have no social life, exposed their families to reprisals, and often had little support from their superiors. They did manage to break up many Mafia families, and they paid for this success with their lives."
Despite the ambiguity of criminal prosecution in Italy in the mid-1990s, Stille views the struggle led by Falcone and his compatriots as a victory for the forces of law and order. "Mr. Stille demonstrates how this victory of law was, necessarily, coincidental with the end of the first Italian republic, which occurred in 1993 with the radical reform of the electoral system," wrote Wall Street Journal contributor Roger Kaplan. "Whether the second republic—with its reforms, its new men and its invigorated civil society—can sustain the work begun by the Sicilian judges is far from certain." "Excellent Cadavers is an act of faith that humans will work and sacrifice to live decently," asserted Art Elsenson in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "It is a fine monument to those who died and those who live to act on that hope."
In his next book, The Future of the Past, Stille discusses the problem of preserving antiquities and ancient knowledge. Physical artifacts naturally decay with time, a process that is accelerated when they are handled, studied, or even just visited by modern observers. Knowledge from the past is lost as manuscripts decay, and even the electronic age has not cured this problem: as technology and software change rapidly, retrieving information from older hardware and software becomes a complicated and expensive proposition. Pollution, industrialization, and expanding populations all take their toll on the remnants of ancient cultures. At times, the needs of modern people are pitted against the preservation of the past. Furthermore, "preserving" a monument or other artifact is an artificial act that maintains an idealized image of the object in question. The Sphinx in Egypt, for example, has been so altered to maintain its classic appearance that little of the real thing is left today. Stille's book introduces the "passionate and forceful personalities of preservationists, dedicated scholars, bald opportunists, looters and other key players," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor. The Future of the Past is "rich with anecdote, detailed description and lively dialogue," the reviewer added. Stille is "a graceful writer," remarked Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor. A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that the book, which is made up of previously published pieces, does not always add up to "a sustained argument," but added: "Even so, Stille is an exemplary reporter." A similar opinion was offered by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, who called The Future of the Past a "fascinating but helter-skelter" collection of "deftly written, keenly observed pieces."
In his book The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi, Stille takes a look at contemporary Italian politics and its culture as influenced by the former prime minister and media mogul Berlusconi, who served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006. The author recounts Berlusconi's modest middle-class upbringing in Milan, his development of the country's first state-independent television station, his rise in Italian politics in the 1990s, and his powerful influence on Italy and Italian politics both in and out of office. Stille also delves into Berlusconi's ties with the mafia and how, after his business empire was threatened by political and social reforms, he used his television station and newspapers to ruthlessly campaign for election by appealing to people's baser instincts. "Stille makes a convincing argument that Berlusconi ran for office largely as a way of assuring that his businesses could run more smoothly," wrote Rachel Donadi in the New York Times. Donadi also noted: "In The Sack of Rome, Stille walks us through the dizzying ins and outs of Berlusconi's many bribery and corruption trials." Donadi added: "Stille has a gift for exposition, and his analyses of the Italian political situation are as sophisticated as they are clear."
Writing in the St. Petersburg Times, John Freeman noted: "The Sack of Rome tells how Berlusconi built this empire, and analyzes how this ‘Citizen Kane on steroids’ changed Italian society in the process." Freeman added that the author "depicts how a society of great historical intelligence fell prey to its own worst instincts when faced with a powerful TV salesman turned politician." In her review in Business Week, Gail Edmondson wrote: "Having deflated the idea that Berlusconi is an efficient CEO, Stille explains his appeal as an alluring showman-politician." Edmondson went on to call the book "a frightening case study and one that has plenty of bearing on our own media-driven politics." Noting in Booklist that The Sack of Rome is "clear in plot," Gilbert Taylor added that the author's "account is an informed, even entertaining, access point for understanding Italy's political present." A Kirkus Reviews contributor referred to the book as "good reading for those interested in the intersections of money, personality, media and politics." A contributor to the Economist wrote that The Sack of Rome "is neither a biography nor a work of investigative journalism. Its real value is that it represents the first attempt, in English at least, to recount in a readable fashion the story, not of Mr Berlusconi himself, but of Berlusconiism."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 1, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Future of the Past, p. 1071; May 1, 2006, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi, p. 68.
Business Week, July 3, 2006, Gail Edmondson, review of The Sack of Rome, p. 132.
Commentary, May, 1992, Edward Alexander, review of Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families under Fascism, pp. 56-59.
Commonweal, April 24, 1992, Philip P. Hallie, review of Benevolence and Betrayal, pp. 15-18.
Contemporary Review, June, 2003, Anthony Radice, review of The Future of the Past, p. 370.
Economist, July 1, 2006, review of The Sack of Rome, p. 78.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2002, review of The Future of the Past, p. 93; April 15, 2006, review of The Sack of Rome, p. 398.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 8, 1992, Stefan Kanfer, review of Benevolence and Betrayal, p. 11; April 30, 1995, Art Elsenson, review of Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, p. 2.
New Statesman and Society, March 13, 1992, Carole Angier, review of Benevolence and Betrayal, pp. 48-49.
New York Review of Books, November 5, 1992, Istvan Deak, review of Benevolence and Betrayal, pp. 22-26.
New York Times, June 21, 1995, Richard Bernstein, review of Excellent Cadavers, p. C16; May 1, 2002, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Future of the Past, p. B10; August 6, 2006, Rachel Donadio, review of The Sack of Rome.
New York Times Book Review, January 12, 1992, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, review of Benevolence and Betrayal, pp. 3, 15; April 23, 1995, Denis Mack Smith, review of Excellent Cadavers, p. 7; May 1, 2002, review of The Future of the Past.
Partisan Review, Volume 59, number 2, 1992, Edith Kurzweil, review of Benevolence and Betrayal, pp. 325-328.
Publishers Weekly, March 4, 2002, review of The Future of the Past, p. 71; April 17, 2006, review of The Sack of Rome, p. 184.
St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, FL), July 2, 2006, John Freeman, review of The Sack of Rome.
Times Literary Supplement, June 5, 1992, Victor Brombert, review of Benevolence and Betrayal, p. 12; September 1, 1995, Martin Clark, review of Excellent Cadavers, p. 7.
Variety, November 6, 2006, Nick Vivarelli, review of The Sack of Rome, p. 34.
Wall Street Journal, April 25, 1995, Roger Kaplan, review of Excellent Cadavers, p. A18.
PBS Wide Angle Web site,http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/ (March 15, 2007), "The Prime Minister and the Press," interview with author.