Some years ago I was interviewed by a reporter for Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most prestigious newspaper. He had heard that I was a follower of Umberto Bossi, leader of the secessionist Lega Nord, and he wanted to know what plans I had for breaking up the United States. After disclaiming any secessionist political agenda, I freely admitted my conviction that it would have been better if the South had won the war and expressed my admiration for Bossi, whom I had met several times and interviewed at length, and told him that I regarded several of the Lega Nord’s leaders as friends. But, I added, I did not entirely accept the northern view of Italian history, which I summarized as the myth of the Risorgimento. According to this official version of Italian history, the enlightened patriots of Piemonte and Lombardia went south to liberate the suffering masses from the oppression inflicted by the archduke of Tuscany, Pope Pius IX, and Francesco II, the Spanish Bourbon king of Naples. In this myth, Cavour plays the part of Ben Franklin, Mazzini of Thomas Jefferson, and Garibaldi of George Washington. Viewed from the perspective of the Italian south, however, north Italians conquered and subjugated southern Italy, which they have exploited ever since—all the time complaining about the crime and poverty of Sicily and Naples.
“Complete nonsense,” was the knee-jerk response of the liberal journalist. While he loathed Bossi and the Lega, he nonetheless accepted the official history put out by Italian textbooks. It was as if I had blasphemed against Lincoln. Italy, even more than Britain and the United States, has been the victim of a Whig theory of history. Out of the medieval darkness of feudalism, campanilismo (hometown loyalty), and the Catholic Church, enlightened patriots created a rational, modern state devoted to democratic ideals and human freedom. The only dark spot was a certain regime that lasted from 1922 to 1945. The Risor-gi-mento (Italian unification), say the textbooks, was the American Revolution, fascism was like slavery and racism, and the antifascist resistance the equivalent of the civil-rights movement. It is no accident that the first phase of this myth was immortalized in English in three books by George Macaulay Trevelyan. Trevelyan is famous in his own right for creating the essential Whig history of England, but as the son of the noted Whig historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan, and thus the great-nephew of Lord Macaulay, who codified the Whig interpretation of history, Trevelyan was the very incarnation of triumphant Whiggery.
G.M. Trevelyan’s three books on Garibaldi are still essential reading for an English-speaker interested in Italian history. They tell an exciting tale, though what is most interesting, ultimately, is what he deliberately leaves out—the ugly truths that many of the leaders of Italian unification were cranks (Mazzini), cynics (Cavour), and thugs (Garibaldi), whose conquests were not universally welcomed by south Italians. Even the Yankee historian William Roscoe Thayer is more frank than Trevel-yan about Garibaldi’s eccentricities—e.g., his violent hatred not just of the Catholic Church but of Christianity in general. Thayer, inevitably and quite correctly, saw the Risorgimento of the 1860’s as a parallel to our own national struggle, though just as inevitably he thought it quite a good thing. From Thayer and Trevelyan to Dennis Mack Smith, Italian historical writing has been dominated by this progressive version of history. To be fair to these authors, they probably believe it the way a Muslim believes in his religion: It is the only religion they have.
In recent years, a kind of revisionism has set in. Up until now, at least, Italians were given credit for being basically nice people, and while Mussolini may have been one of the beasts of the leftist apocalypse, Italians, so it was always said, would not fight: They would rather eat pasta and sing “O Sole Mio” than engage in fascist violence (a stereotype that Giulio Evola, the eccentric Fascist, bitterly accepted). Then came R.J.B. Bosworth’s books on Mussolini. Bosworth can scarcely manage to write a page without assuring his readers that, after all, Italians are not very nice. They oppressed the natives of North Africa and were not very kind to homosexuals and Jews. I prefer Trevelyan and Dennis Mack Smith, who at least do not seem to hate the Italian people.
Seeing the announcement of Christopher Duggan’s new book on the past two centuries of Italian history, I hoped against all reason that at last an honest book on Italian history would be available in English, but after plowing through this long-winded, ill-written, and tendentious book, I have ruefully concluded that such a book will never be written, because it could never be published. I ought to have known. Any book praised by the Financial Times as “impressive,” the Sunday Times as “enthralling,” the Independent as “ambitious and brilliant,” and the Spectator—o tempora, o mores—as “a brilliant work” could not fail to be dull and dishonest. And the title alone (borrowed from Verdi’s opera) should have been sufficient indication that we are dealing with another uninspired example of progressive mythomania.
To his credit—and this is small credit indeed—Duggan follows Bosworth in debunking nearly every major politician in Italian history. Cavour (the Italian Bismarck), he rightly notes, could hardly speak Italian—he used Piemontese at home and French in public, when he could. Mazzini (the ideologue of revolution) was a mystical crank, as he notes, and the kings of Piedmont, anything but effective. Only Garibaldi, the Pancho Villa of Italian history, gets off unscathed. It is not so much that Duggan tells deliberate lies—though, as Huck Finn would say, he does provide some stretchers—as that he offers a series of half-truths and omissions that once again reinforce the self-serving progressive myth.
The most startling omission is the failure (refusal) throughout the book to consider the point of view of “the enemy.” If, for example, there is one Italian book known to English-speakers it is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s masterpiece The Leopard (made into a beautiful film by Luchino Visconti). When the referendum on unification receives an incredibly high “yes” vote in Sicily, the Prince of Salina observes that the new regime has shown absolutely no restraint in perpetrating such a fraud. Indeed, there is no reason to believe any of the official figures on the referenda, which, nonetheless, Duggan cites with a straight face. Cavour’s impudence has found its match! Anyone who hopes to find out what the Spanish Bourbons, or the Sicilians, or faithful Catholics thought about unification will soon be disabused.
Duggan’s worst blind spot concerns the Catholic Church. His ignorance of all things Catholic is apparent in every allusion to the Church. He thinks, for example, that Manzoni and Rosmini were Italian versions of Montalembert, who (like Lord Acton) tried to reconcile Catholic teaching with liberalism. Can he actually have read either of them? One of the most important events in 19th-century Italy was the First Vatican Council, at which a defiant Pius IX, in the teeth of liberal opposition (led by Lord Acton), proclaimed papal infallibility. Duggan does not so much as mention the council, even to deride it. But then, as he says, by the 1890’s “it was to socialism that virtually all the best minds . . . were drawn.” These best minds, according to him, are the crackpot Cesare Lombroso, who said you could recognize criminals by their physiognomy (they all look like Sicilians); Lombroso’s student Enrico Ferri; Edmondo de Amicis (author of a once-popular children’s book); Francesco Ciccotti (a career socialist who recommended Mussolini for the editorship of Avanti! and found his moment of fame later, when he fought a duel with the Fascist leader); Gaetano Salvemini (who made a career out of antifascism); and the artist Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo. Thank goodness for Wikipedia, or I would not have known who this anti-Catholic painter was. The pull of socialism on intellectuals was undoubtedly pervasive, but one would have thought Giosuè Carducci, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Luigi Pirandello, or even the young Gioachino Volpe would have made the list—but, then, they were not socialists. Indeed, the last two joined the Fascist Party. This is typical of Duggan’s self-imposed blindness; one of the more comical features of the book is the liberal way in which he applies the word distinguished or great to mediocre or forgotten writers and political intellectuals like Giuseppe la Farina. Carducci he admires for his anti-Catholic fervor, and he does treat Vincenzo Gioberti respectfully, but he equates Gioberti’s vision with that of Mazzini, conveniently overlooking the fact that Gioberti was a priest. On the other hand, such truly great writers as Manzoni and Leopardi, Pirandello and Sciascia are reduced to the pigmy dimensions of political propagandists.
Duggan repeats the old canard—many times refuted—that Pius IX began as a liberal but was frightened by events. He repeatedly describes Mazzini as religious, without ever making his anti-Christianity or self-worship clear. He claims that Mazzini’s radicalism, during the “Roman Republic” of 1848, “did not stretch, as had been widely feared, to attacks on the Church.” No mention of the decree that tried to force priests to participate in Mazzini’s bogus Easter ritual, or the fact that during that ceremony Mazzini, dressed in street clothes, appeared in place of the Pope. He briefly alludes to the part played by Freemasons and other mystical oddballs, and even describes the obscene initiation rite of the Carbonari, who had to simulate Christ’s crucifixion—but, he explains, this was only a bit of Catholic piety! Duggan is forced to admit that Pius IX’s liberal prime minister was murdered, but, in the telling of the Pope’s hurried departure from Rome, there is no mention made of the bullet, meant for the Holy Father, that killed his secretary. Duggan never misses an opportunity to take a swipe at Pius IX, and, in a rare citation from a nonliberal source, he gets in this unsubtle jab: “In His Holiness we recognize not only the Pope but also the Father and supreme Duce [leader] of the Italians . . . ” Oh my!
In depicting the papacy as the great obstacle to progress and unification, Duggan glosses over the Kingdom of Piedmont’s anti-Catholic policies. Not surprisingly, he does not mention Angela Pellicciari’s path-breaking Risorgimento anticattolico—or, virtually, any other conservative or Catholic writer. Of course, an Englishman who says Gladstone was a Conservative cannot be expected to know much about conservatives—or history, for that matter.
Predictably, Duggan’s entire treatment of fascism is extremely misleading. In these pages, the fascists were street thugs, while the equally violent communists, socialists, and anarchists were only defending themselves. In tracing the origin of the term, he does not seem to know that the Italian fascio (a bundle of things) is derived from the Latin fascis, which in the plural was the bundle of sticks with an ax that symbolized the power of a high Roman magistrate. Anyone who has traveled through Italy with his eyes open will understand how Mussolini deployed this allusion to the ancient empire as propaganda for the new empire. Duggan conveniently ignores the fact that, in the late 1920’s and early 30’s, Benito Mussolini was the most admired statesman in the world, drawing statements of unequivocal admiration from Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and Franklin Roosevelt. He chooses not to mention Mussolini’s successful defiance of Hitler, who had to call off the takeover of Austria in 1934, when the Duce sent troops, or the premature praise he received for brokering the peace deal at Munich. His refusal to understand Mussolini’s significance and his sly way of equating fascism and national socialism is all the less excusable after the publication of Nicholas Farrell’s revisionist Mussolini: A New Life (2003), but, typically, he does not cite Farrell.
Duggan admits that there was some Jewish enthusiasm for the Duce. What he fails to mention is the extremely large number—perhaps a third—of adult Jewish males who joined the Fascist Party. He tries to explain—without offering a serious argument—Mussolini’s about-face decision to persecute the Jews as a reflection of the new racist spirit the Fascists picked up in their African empire, and he says, again without proof, that the Fascists were all in favor of it. Some were; others—even antisemites—were not. In fact, the entire episode is complex. In part, Mussolini wanted to ape the toughness of his German disciple, Adolf Hitler; in part (as Duggan concedes), he was attacking the bourgeoisie; also in part, he had come to regard Jews as the leaders of communism and antifascism—which, indeed, they were. Mussolini was never an antisemite—his longest-lasting mistress was Jewish—and his actual laws were not race laws, nor were they aimed at expelling or exterminating Italian Jews. Fascist laws permitted many exceptions: Jews who had joined the Fascist Party in critical times or had converted to Christianity before the decrees, or had a gentile mother.
In describing the capture and death of Mussolini, Duggan mentions the fact that the Duce’s young mistress, Claretta Petacci, threw her arms around him and then skips over the actual shooting: The ugly fact that the communists shot her is only implied, not stated. Luigi Villari argued that Petacci was killed to prevent her from talking about the disgraceful details of Mussolini’s “arrest” and murder. A veil of mystery surrounds the Duce’s end, and, while one does not have to believe the story of the lost “Dongo gold,” the communists did manage to find a great deal of money at the end of the war. Duggan sees nothing wrong in the shooting of Mussolini, and he refers to the murderer as the “executioner”—as if a communist thug had some legal authority to try, much less kill, anyone. At this point, an honest stomach begins to protest against reading further, and when Italy’s most distinguished postwar journalist, Indro Montanelli, is mentioned only as an admirer of Mussolini, it becomes clear that the author’s political agenda has overwhelmed whatever judgment he might possess. On the other hand, the suppression of Montanelli is very useful to Duggan. No need, then, to mention that Palmiro Togliatti, the Italian communist hero who saved democracy by abjuring violence, actually asked Stalin not to send back the Italian POWs from Russia, because they would spill the beans on the great Dictatorship of the Proletariat. It was Montanelli’s newspaper, Il Giornale, that debunked the myth of Togliatti as the independent Euro-communist, a myth that Duggan still accepts. That is only one of Montanelli’s crimes that cannot be forgiven.
Duggan is eager to preserve the leftist myth of antifascism, and he is very dismissive of any evidence that contradicts it. His usual argument is to set up and knock down a straw man that no one seriously believes. Thus, he says there is no proof that the United States reestablished the Mafia in Sicily after the war. What he does not mention is the recruitment of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, whose agents went around Sicily threatening reprisals against anyone who resisted the invasion. After the war, Luciano and his Sicilian confederates met in the Hotel des Paumes in Palermo to establish the Cosa Nostra.
Duggan’s account of Italy in the 1980’s and 90’s might have been written by the Communist Party—excuse me, by the “Democratic Party of the Left.” Like Togliatti, communists are quite respectable these days. The only flies in the Marxist ointment are Silvio Berlusconi, Gianfranco Fini, and Umberto Bossi. The Lega’s followers, according to Duggan, are racist shopkeepers. He derides Bossi’s appeal to Lombard history, to the original Lega Lombarda that defeated Barbarossa, and he ridicules the “Senatur’s” claim that north Italians are a moral people. Only a child would believe such stuff. There is, therefore, no mention of the serious political intellectuals (e.g., Gianfranco Miglio) who joined the movement and took seriously the Lega’s program for decentralization, or the serious analysis made in America by Paul Piccone, the editor of the Marxist journal Telos. Through Piccone, I met a Milanese political-science professor, who taught in the United Kingdom and wrote about the Lega (and might have been interviewed, if Duggan were interested in doing any serious investigation). He was a leftist, he said, and would never vote for the Lega, but he was grateful to a movement that had given him back a sense of cultural identity as a Lombard.
There is no shortcut to understanding Italian history. A serious student will have to read Italian and talk to Italians, who are remarkably candid—even the communists—in private conversation. The Force of Destiny is the latest in a long series of books written by English and American historians to justify their smug conviction of Anglo-American superiority. Those dagos are funny little monkeys, after all, but they have a mean streak. Eat their spaghetti, drink their wine, but never get close enough to understand one of them. “Ignorance,” as an Irish writer has one of his most memorable English characters opine, “is like a delicate, exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone.”
[The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796, by Christopher Duggan (New York: Houghton Mifflin) 668 pp., $30.00]