Vol. 1 No. 4 2008


The Force of Destiny
—A History of Italy Since 1796

By Christopher Duggan

Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2007

Reviewed By Jane M. McCabe

On May 13th or 14th of this year Shimon Peres, the ninth and current president of Israel, gave a speech to Israeli youth in which he said, “Forget history. It doesn’t matter.” He encouraged them to do unimaginable things and told them that they live in an altogether new age, the age of technology, in which the old paradigms are no longer relevant.

Mr. Peres may have been speaking more figuratively than literally. In any case, I beg to differ because I believe knowledge of history is vitally important in order to interpret present reality, and thus be able to effectively deal with it. If you don’t know where you come from, how can you know who you are?

Reading Christopher Duggan’s masterful and detailed account of the formation of modern Italy, The Force of Destiny—A History of Italy Since 1796, has been very instructive. Countries can be compared to individuals—each has its own history, idiosyncrasies, strengths and weakness. In 1796, when Napoleon invaded the Italian peninsula, Italy as we know it today did not exist, rather was made of up a collection of municipalities: the Duchies of Savoy, Milan, Parma, Modena, Ferrara, and Grand Duchy of Tuscany; the Republics of Genoa and Venice, the Papal States, and the Kingdoms of Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, each with its competing interests and allegiances.

Most people remember Italy as the greatest power in the ancient world during the time of Roman Empire, from the 3rd Century BC until its collapse in the 5th Century AD. At its height the Roman Empire encompassed all of Western Europe, including Great Britain, North Africa and the Middle East including Iraq.

The Romans are remembered for their organizational genius and bureaucratic acumen, for building roads, aqueducts and walls, for instituting the first mail delivery system, for establishing parliamentary government made of senators, and for establishing laws that still influence our legal system today. The Roman Empire casts a long shadow.

The fall of Rome occurred in 410 AD when Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths and was subsequently overrun by Huns, Lombards, Byzantines, Arabs (Sicily), Normans, Hofhenstaufens, and Aragonese, ushering in what is commonly referred to the Middle (Dark) Ages, when Europe reverted to a more primitive, superstitious and barbaric time. Each invading group settled and established its own culture.

Therefore, when Italy again rose to preeminence during the Renaissance of the 14th, 15th, and 16th Centuries, it was not a nation, but a collection of city states, which were centers of trade and the exchange of ideas. The Renaissance started in Italy and from there spread to Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, England—in short, to all of Western Europe. It was a revival in interest in Ancient Greek and Roman culture, but it inspired new things: a new philosophical movement, humanism (from which developed the Enlightenment); new literature with the writing of Petrarch, Machiavelli, Dante, Erasmus, Rabelais, and Shakespeare; new styles in painting, architecture, and music with the creative works of Michelangelo, Leonardo de Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Botticelli… The list goes on and on.

People tend to think that nations as they exist today existed in previous times when this is not often the case. Between 1100 and 1500 nations arose in Europe—in England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Russia—but, Germany and Italy were latecomers to the tribe of nations and did not become unified until late in the 19th Century, Germany in 1870 under Bismarck and Italy after a protracted struggle in 1860. The countries that had long been nations had a head start. France had its Revolution; the Enlightenment encouraged scientific, rational thought, affecting the Industrial Revolution that propelled these countries into material prosperity. By the 19th Century the nations of Europe were becoming Empires—they were acquiring under developed parts of the world as colonies, which they exploited for natural resources. Small countries such as the collection that made up Italy simply could not compete on the world stage.

The first part of The Force of Destiny concerns itself with Italy’s struggle to achieve unification. From 1796, when Napoleon’s armies overran the Italian peninsula, until modern times, Italy was governed first by the French, then by the Austrians. After achieving unification in 1860, it became first a parliamentary monarchy (with competing factions), then a dictatorship, and finally a democracy. In modern times Italy has had something of a inferiority complex. Its reputation was for laziness, decadence, and the inability to fight. The attempt to shake this sleeping beauty from her lethargy was extremely difficult and calls to mind an analogy of a thousand drones trying to move a Queen bee. Most of the population in 1796 wasn’t very interested in unification. They were content to live as they had for centuries.

Risorgimento is the term Italians use for the resurrection of Italy, the awakening of Italian nationalism culminating in unification and independence. It was an idea, a dream first proposed by intellectuals, those privileged to travel to England and France where they saw first-hand the effects of progress and wanted these things for Italy. They understood that Italy could never achieve her place in the modern world and become an empire unless she was unified.

Italy looks like boot, a long boot, with Rome located almost dead center. Northern Italy is industrialized (its people tend to be better-educated and have a higher standard of living) while southern Italy is agricultural. Its people are poor, poorly-educated, and insular. In the early 19th Century they weren’t interested in unification. The intellectuals who promoted the idea of unity came mainly from the north. Italians honor three men above all others as the founders of modern Italy— Mazzini, Cavour, and Garibaldi. Mazzini was the prophet, preaching the gospel of freedom, Cavour the statesman, devising a practical political program, and Garibaldi, the picturesque military adventurer, recklessly leading his followers to victory. They never liked or trusted each other, but each in his own way contributed to Italy’s unification.

No country likes to be subjugated by another nation, but things are often gained from one’s oppressor. But Duggan points out that being governed by France, Italy was exposed to tenets of the Napoleonic Code: the equality of all citizens before the law, the right of an individual to choose his profession, supremacy of the lay state, and freedom of the individual conscience. When Napoleon was defeated in 1812, control of Italy was given to Austria. It’s less clear what benefits Italy derived from Austrian management but it lasted for the next 50 years.

During this time, secret societies arose in opposition to French, then Austrian rule; literature circulated, and art, particularly opera, was created whose purpose was to instill national pride. But hope of unification remained thwarted. Central to Giuseppe Mazzini’s crusade was the belief that Italians must fight for their nation from a sense of religious duty rather than for economic betterment, or because of social issues. God, he claimed, had ordained Italy to be a great nation with a great mission in the world, so it was incumbent for Italians to unite in order to implement his will.

After travels in Britain and France, Camillo Benso di Cavour returned, fascinated with progress and convinced the best way to advance Italian civilization was by steering a middle path between political extremes. Cavour was a hard-headed politician, the Disraeli, who maneuvered Italy from Austria’s grasp.

Garibaldi collected fellow adventurers, provided them with arms and red shirts. On May 5, 1860, this famous company of the “One Thousand” set sail from Genoa for Sicily in two small steamers to overthrow the king. The enterprise was foolhardy, but it succeeded, because neither the people, nor the soldiers were loyal to their king. Garibaldi was so revered by his compatriots that when a bullet was removed from his ankle, souvenir hunters were willing to pay huge sums for the relic.

However, as Duggan so aptly points out, after unification was achieved Italy didn’t have an easy go governing herself, as unification did not mean all her factions would automatically come together. The new kingdom of Italy was parliamentary monarchy. For the next sixty years she was an impoverished nation with factions competing for power, a situation which students of history will recognize often leaves a country ripe for a strong man, a dictator, to take control. After World War I such a man emerged in the form of Benito Mussolini.

One of the hardest terms I’ve ever tried to understand is fascism. During the time I used attend lectures at New York City’s West Side Marxist Center, about the worst thing anyone could call you was “a fascist.” For years it has defied my understanding. Definitions in dictionaries left me scratching my head. So, I welcomed the section in The Force of Destiny on Mussolini’s Fascist Italy to help me understand fascism.

The symbol of fascism is bundle wheat stocks tied together. The best definition I find comes from Word’s dictionary: “any movement, ideology, or attitude that favors dictatorial government, centralized control of private enterprise, repression of all opposition, and extreme nationalism.”

By 1919 there was a fascist movement in Italy but they lost the 1919 elections. They were led by Benito Mussolini, who had come through ranks of the Italian army during World War I. Fascists believed that violence was an appropriate means to an end, a brutal necessity to affect change on a national or an international level. Mussolini created squads (“black shirts”) to assault their enemies—proponents of the left and members of the church. Violence was more than just a tool of war—it was an instrument of propaganda, a means of generating a spirit of virile idealism, the conviction that force ultimately determines the course of all human affairs!

A strong man in charge often answers a heart-felt need in the people who accept him, even though it is at the sacrifice of their liberty. A dictator is in effect a parent—the people are children and they are obliged to do the will of their father. If they do so, they will achieve their goals. Duggan reminds us of the desire the martyrs of unification instilled in Italians, that Italy regain her status as a world power. Mussolini’s rhetoric plugged right into this desire.

In speeches he constantly referred to the importance of discipline, order, and hard work; he touched on the leitmotifs of patriotism, the need for Italy to be “reborn,” to shake off the old vices and become strong, feared and respected, the search for moral unity, AND to regain the status she had in her previous eras of glory.

Liberty was attacked as a bourgeois ideal. As soon as Mussolini became prime minister in 1922, freedom of speech was denied, and opposition to fascism was repressed. The Fascist government undertook the molding of fascist minds. Teachers were required to wear uniforms. Physical training (as preparation for war) was mandatory. Racism was encouraged. The only art tolerated was propaganda promoting fascism.

Since population growth was encouraged, a tax was levied on unmarried men. The “ideal” woman was the one who bore and raised children and kept the home. While exposing moral virtues, fascism also had an erotic component—Mussolini was a respectable married man, but the idea he had a fatal allure to women and was sexually voracious, making love to a different woman every day, was promoted.

Soon Italians referred to Mussolini as Duce. He was elevated to the status of a demigod, compared favorably to Socrates, Caesar, Washington, Napoleon, Lincoln, even Jesus Christ. Fascism was not only a party, a regime, but a faith, a religion! The Italians believed the Duce connected them to the nation, which would enable Italy to fulfill her rightful destiny as a force in the world. Fascism was the epitome of dynamism and modernity that would spearhead an economic miracle. Italy would become an Empire again, like it had been in ancient times!

Sound familiar? Totalitarianism seems to breed such phenomenon. In the 20th Century alone we have seen the likes of Adolph Hitler , Joseph “Papa” Stalin (who killed more Russians than those killed in the Holocaust), Chairman Mao , Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and a host of petty tyrants.

The growing gap between the fascist ideal and reality was denied. The epitome of Mussolini’s approval came when he invaded Ethiopia. The adulation he received belied the financial burden he had incurred.

Germany’s course under Hitler ran parallel to Italy’s under Mussolini, so it comes as no surprise Hitler was soon courting Mussolini. Hitler didn’t understand how impoverished Italy had become under Mussolini and how weak and ill equipped she was militarily to support the Axis cause. In 1943 Italy was overrun by Allied forces. Mussolini’s Fascist government collapsed, and he was forced to resign.

On April 27, 1945, Mussolini, dressed in a German greatcoat and helmet, with his mistress were apprehended on the shore of Lake Como. They were killed and their bodies hung upside down. Fascist Italy was over.

The Force of Destiny shows clearly how Italy emerged from the Second World War, as it had from the unification process in 1860 and the First World War, deeply split and uncertain as to its identity. In the space of a decade, however, there was an extraordinary surge in manufacturing that transformed Italy from a relatively backward agricultural country into one of the world’s most powerful modern economies. If it never attains its preeminence, to have twice ruled the world is more than most nations achieve.

If one seeks to understand what life is like for people living under a totalitarian regime that controls all aspects of their lives and thus to know the value of living in a free society, a democracy, where one can do what he wants and be whom he wants to be, the section on fascism alone in The Force of Destiny is worth reading. Forget history? I think not!

Jane McCabe is a freelance writer living in Amargosa Valley, Nevada

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