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The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796
The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796
Christopher Duggan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2024
652 pp., 30.00

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Eugenio F. Biagini

The Irony of Providence

A history of modern Italy.

Flamboyant leaders, rousing music, splendid architecture, fascism, the mafia, and the pope: a country combining these features and boasting a unique place in the history of Western civilization must inspire great historiography. And it does. In fact, over the past fifty years, it has attracted so many publications that it is not easy to write anything like an innovative survey on the topic. Yet Christopher Duggan has triumphantly managed to do so, producing a work which will appeal equally to beginners and to those who are already familiar with Italian history. It is also elegantly written, its gripping prose making it difficult to put the book down once you start reading. Part of Duggan's success formula is his use of mini-biographies to bring the past to life—not only from the point of view of the élite and those who left behind major archive collections, but also from the perspective of "ordinary" people such as peasants, schoolteachers, trade unionists, and magistrates. This results in a powerful, often moving, reconstruction.

Duggan's central theme is the making of national identity. In Italy's case, he argues, this was a process primarily involving the agency of the élites: first the intellectuals, then the Romantic agitators of the age of the Risorgimento, and eventually the Piedmontese state and its officials. They all faced resistance from deeply rooted municipal interests and a conservative peasantry. In this respect, Duggan follows the familiar thesis of the creation of the Italian nation state as a transformation imposed from above and never fully successful because it lacked the support and legitimacy that only the masses could provide. Although he does not explicitly engage with any historiographical debate, and despite not being a Marxist in any sense of the word, his interpretation is reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci's theory of the Risorgimento as a "passive revolution," enriched by more recent ideas about "orientalism in one country" as a device for interpreting the North-South divide. Moreover, like the Gramscian historians, Duggan rejects Bendetto Croce's explanation of fascism as a "parenthesis" in an otherwise healthy national liberal tradition, and instead paints an unflattering picture of a repressive state clumsily trying to mold a passive populace into a modern nation. Finally, he also follows Gramsci in starting his account in 1796, when French Revolutionary armies invaded the Peninsula.

That event shook up the country as nothing else had since the Germanic invasions at the end of the Roman Empire. The intellectual élites of both North and South perceived Bonaparte's military success as the ultimate demonstration of the superiority of the democratic, centralized nation state over the regional dynastic principalities and aristocratic republics. Napoleon himself was of Italian background and in a way represented, for many young and ambitious upwardly mobile men and women, the openness and opportunities of the "modern" world. He gave them new political ambitions, some experience in the running of a centralized bureaucratic state, and even their tricolor flag. Some perceived even his predatory regime (further hardened, from 1805, under the Empire, into a military despotism) as an improvement on what they regarded as the decadent complacency of the old regime. Many others, however, did not, resenting Jacobin anticlericalism and the requisitioning of foodstuff and cattle by the French army. Soon, Duggan argues, "[p]easant fears and anger found an outlet in an explosion of religiosity" (my emphasis).

These were to remain, he believes, the main features of the conflict between the modern state and the church, not only in the 1790s, but for most of the period up to the late 1920s. There was, on the one hand, anticlericalism and heavy taxation in the interest of a more or less ill-conceived modernization project; and, on the other, resentment against an intrusive and oppressive government, with religion acting as an "outlet" for emotions, rather than as an independent cause of political resistance. Duggan is not interested in exploring the various dimensions of such a clash: for example, surprisingly he does not even mention the extent to which French ecclesiastical policies completed rather than subverted reforms already initiated by previous Italian governments under "Enlightened absolutism." Moreover, only incidentally are we told that the Jacobins, besides attacking the church, did something for religion by establishing civil rights for non-Catholic minorities, such as Protestants and Jews. The latter soon became targets of popular hatred, but Duggan does not explain why, a question which deserves some attention, given that there were so few of them anyway. Was it an isolated episode or part of a long-term pattern? Is this hostility to religious minorities in the 1790s relevant to explaining why a later generation of Italians displayed a remarkable degree of compliance with Mussolini's "racial laws" after 1938? Such legislation victimized not only Jews but also Pentecostals, whose style of worship allegedly led to "racial degeneration." Why was religious toleration so controversial for so long? Was this reluctance to accept civil rights for non-Catholics merely an "outlet" for emotions felt about material discontent?

Whatever the answer, The Force of Destiny is redolent of religious imagery, reflected also in the chapter and section titles, including "Deliverance," "Searching for the Nation's Soul," "Missionaries," and "Preaching." But such headings are actually about "secular" or "civic" religions, illustrating how successive generations of patriots tried to rally the people around what they claimed was a "God-given" national mission. It was all in vain: Duggan makes it clear that, on the one hand, for the impoverished rural masses, especially in the South, "old class hatreds" mattered more than any form of modern nationalism; and on the other, the evoking of national symbols further split the country along social lines, with the intellectual bourgeoisie facing kings, church, and plebs in an apparently hopeless struggle. Their plight was further compounded by popular Catholicism, which the reformers despised as one of the main causes of plebeian barbarism—and which proved very resilient and effective in mobilizing the masses for anti-national insurrections. As a consequence, especially under the Restoration (1815-1846), the élitism of the modernizing patriots found its ultimate expression in secret societies—like the Freemasons and the Carboneria—which further highlighted the deep divide between them and the masses.

A more damning indictment of political ineptitude could hardly be conceived. And yet unanswered questions remain. On the one hand, Duggan devotes so much attention to these intellectuals and would-be revolutionaries that one wonders whether, in the end, they were actually more effective than his book is conceding. On the other hand, if they were so hopeless, how could they possibly mastermind the making of a unified state by 1861? Finally, there is the question of the relationship between élites and masses: one is left to wonder, given the reformers' alleged ineffectiveness and impotence, how a national revolution could take place in 1848-9. The relevant chapter (pp.165-80) does not help: following a discussion of poems and hymns which apparently nobody read (except those who had written them), the reader is suddenly catapulted into a situation in which the populace of large cities—including Palermo, Naples, Rome, and Milan—rose in arms and seized power, doing so almost simultaneously, leaving their various rulers and even the mighty Austrian Empire altogether baffled. Neither is there any explanation of how Italy could—for once—"lead the way" in the European revolutions. Duggan neglects economic factors almost completely (they are relegated to seven lines on page 167), so that there is no analysis of the links between these revolts and the 1845-9 economic crisis, which included repeated crop failures and potato famines in most of Western Europe. His discussion of the other major popular episode in the Risorgimento—Garibaldi's 1860 expedition of "The Thousand," which resulted in the unification of most of the country—is also unnecessarily opaque when it comes to the popular initiative. Paradoxically, we are given full details of Cavour's (failed) machinations to stop a (successful) revolution but are not told why such a revolution in fact succeeded.

When it comes to the peasant reaction in the South (the "Brigand War" of the 1860s) we are back on familiar ground, with the "enlightened" élite and the modern state engaged in a struggle to the bitter end against the Catholic plebs. In later years we find a few new variations on the theme: the victims of the state also include some well-meaning popular nationalist heroes, such as Italia Donati, a Tuscan schoolteacher who committed suicide in 1886 after a relentless campaign of defamation. She had been rumored to be "whoring" with the town mayor and even to have procured an abortion, and, for all their rhetoric of liberalism and the rule of law, the authorities failed to protect her. In the following years, other projects of national integration failed, although the Catholic Church was gradually converted to the cause of the Italian state, largely because—with the development of a radical labor movement—the hierarchy began to fear the prospect of a socialist revolution more than they hated the anticlerical bourgeois establishment. As a consequence of this realignment, the state became less and less liberal, a degeneration culminating with the fascist coup of 1922 and the 1929 Concordat between Mussolini and the Holy See.

Duggan paints such a black and white picture that a few doubts are in order. In particular, was the relationship between Christianity and the national democratic project so altogether and consistently negative? Were the Communists and the working classes so implacably antagonistic both to religion and to the national project? As already pointed out, Duggan aptly illustrates his points by short life-stories: let me then add a further one, based on personal acquaintance but implying a rather different conclusion.

When Ida Terrosi was born in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano in 1903, her doting father named her after one of the main characters of Aida, perhaps Giuseppe Verdi's greatest opera. During a seventy-year career of unparalleled success, this composer had become the greatest interpreter of the national awareness of the Italian people, his music and librettos appealing to wider sections of the population than the works of any novelist, poet, or political agitator had ever reached before. In fact, this was well illustrated by Ida's father, who was familiar with Verdi despite never having been able to afford a theater ticket. He was an overworked miner who died of lead poisoning in his thirties, leaving a wife and a large family to fend for themselves. Life was not easy for the bereaved Ida, and in the early 1920s she married Amerigo Boni, who seemed to offer a way out from poverty, despair, and hard work at home. They must have made a striking couple: she, a petite but lively and intelligent girl with a family background combining labor activism and Catholic piety; he, a big man, a war veteran and hero who had served with the storm troops, the Arditi ("the Daring Ones") in 1917-8 before joining the Blackshirts on the March on Rome in 1922. As a reward for his services to the state and the Duce, he was appointed to run a small state-owned electric power station in the Alps. His young wife dreaded the place, but she proved as tough as her former-Ardito husband and culturally much more daring. Subsequently the couple moved to a more congenial power station in Turin, and Ida began attending one of the local Protestant churches, initially attracted by their rejection of the pope's authority. It was a remarkable coming together of the anticlerical traditions inherited from her father and her need to rediscover a Christian identity, perhaps to match the strong Catholic piety which had sustained her widowed mother. Still a teenager, she was converted and demanded to be baptized by total immersion.

Within a few years Amerigo was also baptized. In later years, until she died in 2005, Ida remained active in one or another of the churches of which she was a member (Baptist, Brethren, and eventually Waldensian). A relentless proselytizer for her faith, she also continued to be a staunch advocate of the labor movement and, to the end of her life, a fierce anti-fascist and a supporter of the Italian Communist Party. Yet, she had a strong sense of national identity, and thought that being Italian and evangelica were two sides of the same coin: both citizenship and religion were about justice, fairness, and self-reliance. In her old age this formidable lady used to recall, often in the course of a single conversation, the excitement of her own Christian conversion, the Resistance among factory workers in wartime Turin, and the oppression she had endured at the hands of local Catholics until Vatican II. She had never read a word of Karl Marx or any other socialist writer, but when questioned about her political views, she would expand—with all the solemnity of the 17th-century Diodati Bible—on what the Sermon on the Mount or the Book of Amos had to say about social justice.

Ida's story, which could not have been known to Duggan, corroborates the evidence provided by one of the sources he has used, the political analyst Roberto Michels, who in 1926 cited "conversions to Protestantism" as evidence of the success of socialist propaganda among the working class. The modern reader must find the idea of socialism encouraging conversion to Protestantism rather curious and ironic, especially in view of Marx's dismissal of religion as "the opiate of the people." Was Ida an exception? In a way, yes, but in her lifetime the size of religious minorities in Italy increased from about 150,000 Protestants and Jews to over four million, including 700,000 Protestants (mainly in the South), perhaps half a million Jehovah's Witnesses, an Eastern Orthodox community of a million members, and an even larger number of Muslims. Irrespective of their beliefs, these people have a stake both in democracy and the nation state insofar as they serve as guarantors of pluralism. To the present day, religious minorities in Italy are still struggling to secure the repeal of the restrictive 1929 fascist legislation (affecting all non-Catholic groups which have not managed to negotiate a special agreement with the state). Here therefore we find an instance in which religion is neither "secularized" nor "anti-national" and yet is politically engaged and committed to the democratic project. By the same token, has not the Catholic Church changed profoundly since the end of the World War II? Of course Duggan registers the significance of Vatican II, but it is not clear whether, in his opinion, it has had any impact on ordinary citizens' lives or their attitudes to the public sphere and the national ideal—independent of what the hierarchy and the church may think. Duggan quotes an Italian political commentator observing, in 1959, that "[a] democracy without patriotism will struggle to exist …. But patriotism cannot be imposed from above …. It has to be found within each person." This is probably true. What is not quite clear is whether patriotism must come in the format described and decried in this book, or whether more flexible and less magisterial combinations of apparently inconsistent values—as illustrated in Ida's life story—are possible.

The Force of Destiny is a pleasure to read. It is enlightening about many aspects of Italian life and culture. However, when it comes to the overall interpretation and weighing of the evidence, it is also selective, unnecessarily judgmental, and often perplexing.

Eugenio F. Biagini is on the history faculty at the University of Cambridge. With C. A. Bayly, he is the editor of Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalization of Democratic Nationalism, 1830-1920 (Oxford Univ. Press).

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