In the United States, liberation from foreign domination and liberation from the past (the republican and democratic features of government) were largely the result of the American Revolution, which was spontaneous in origin, successful, moderate in its outcome, and—above all—supported by a considerable part of the population. This fortunate historical experience may lead many Americans to view the unification of Italy as if it were a replica of their own revolution. They see in the Risorgimento the spontaneous uprising of the people for their own independence. They mistake Giuseppe Mazzini for a George Washington in miniature; they imagine Giuseppe Garibaldi as a cross between Davy Crockett and Simon Bolivar.
The mistaken parallel is an act of generosity. In Europe, connection with the past—and with ancient political orders (both pre-democratic and pre-republican)—is much more complex and nuanced. For many Europeans, liberation from the past was not something to be desired. They had to be violently detached from their kings, their nobles, and their popes through the actions of extremist minorities.
The revolutions in Europe from 1789 to 1917 were a single, continuous phenomenon: a unitary process of overturning ancient norms, hierarchies, and loyalties. In one particular stage, the revolution used nationalism as part of its program to destroy the old social order. This was the context for the national unification of Italy and of other smaller countries.
At the Congress of Vienna (1815), the heads of the three imperial states that had defeated Napoleon restored an order based on the alliance between throne and altar. The Catholic empire was Habsburg Austria; the Orthodox empire was czarist Russia; and the Lutheran empire was the Kaiser’s Prussia. At the margin of Europe was the Muslim empire, with its capital in Istanbul—the Ottoman Empire. The four empires maintained good relations with each other for almost a century (down to 1914) and consolidated a European unity of a conservative, anti-revolutionary stamp.
Americans may have been taught that the three European empires were equally obscurantist and repressive. In reality, some of them were more liberal than others. The Kaiser’s empire was a “system of command and obedience” on the model of the Prussian military, but the Prussian government corresponded to the Germanic psyche, with its deep aspiration to organic and communitarian society. The czar’s empire was a mystical autocracy because “civil society” and a system of rights were unknown in Russia. There were, however, efforts to create a legal order in Russia, although they were continually interrupted by attempted coups and terrorist acts which forced the government into repressive measures, arbitrary arrests, and the use of the secret police.
The Habsburg Empire was the most open and liberal. It included diverse languages and nationalities—from the Hungarians to the Northern Italians, from the Slovenes to the Croats to the Czechs. All chose their own representatives at the parliament in Vienna. The constituent nations enjoyed considerable autonomy and were often bound together by nothing more than the crown of Austria. There was free speech and a free press. There was religious liberty. (Vienna, for example, had a flourishing and cultivated Jewish community.) The various nationalities had the freedom to use their national language even in parliament. The Habsburg administration was honest and effective, and the people of the Veneto, the Italians closest to the Austrian Empire, are still nostalgic for it.
The Habsburg Empire was, in sum, a government of laws, without the limitations that existed in Prussia or under the czar. But the Habsburg regime’s openness and pluralism—and the lack of arbitrary authority—made it easy prey for revolution. The empire was supranational, multiethnic, and multiracial. In order to destroy it, the revolutionary forces ignited nationalist passions, which were lying dormant under the Austrian crown, fostering separatism, secession, and ultimately disintegration.
After 1814, murky forces attempted to create a nationalist state of mind in the various populations of Europe. Because these forces adopted the rule of secrecy, they are hard to document, although they would come to be known as “Masonry.”
There were those who were able to identify, in all this nationalist fervor, a European disease. Franz Grillparzer, an Austrian writer, prophesied that humanity would be carried, by means of nationality, all the way to bestiality: an acute prognosis that would be fulfilled in Nazism, in the ideology of biological purity as the only political value.
The awareness of a common Italian identity, notwithstanding the division of Italy into a dozen small states, was very old. Dante and Machiavelli had fought for political unification of the peninsula; not, however, as an expression of a national-biological-linguistic vision but with reference to the Roman Empire. Italy, they argued, had to reconquer her spiritual inheritance. Italians, who had been reduced to a collection of nameless peoples under foreign domination, had to regain their pride and the virtues of Romanitas. They had to make themselves the center of a higher political order that would restore the civil, legal, and cultural units of the Roman Empire which had unified and civilized Europe.
These were cultural, even literary aspirations, which had made little progress toward realization. The “new patriotism” that gave birth to the Risorgimento and to the unity of Italy under the monarchy of Piedmont and Savoy was of a completely different type.
The creator of this new climate was Giuseppe Mazzini. A tireless agitator and conspirator, Mazzini succeeded in inspiring a collective state of mind in the Italian educated classes. In Mazzini’s view, the unification of Italy was bound up with a pronounced hostility toward the Catholic Church, which was seen as an “obscurantist and reactionary” obstacle to “the nation.” The Italy of the future, Mazzini proclaimed, was to be republican, with no more kings and popes. Revolutionary nationalism was to be aroused with assassination attempts, acts of terrorism, and insurrections by “enlightened” minorities.
The specifically anti-Catholic flavor of Mazzini’s “patriotism” and its derivation from the French Revolution made it an object of hatred to the great majority of the Italian population. The lower classes—essentially peasants—were strongly Catholic and attached to their local sovereigns: to the pope in the Papal States, to the House of Bourbon in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. They opposed, with scythes and pitchforks. Napoleon’s troops, who brought the “liberté” of the French Revolution, which turned out to mean the looting and seizure of their poor farms.
Italian cultural unity was foreign to this agrarian element of the population: They spoke local dialects and barely understood the dialect of Florence used by Dante and Machiavelli, which only a small educated elite learned. Linguistic unity was realized, to some extent, only under fascism, and later, definitively, by television, which introduced a standard Italian on the lowest level.
Mazzini was aware that the common people would never be drawn to his extremist nationalism. From the beginning, he dedicated himself to preparing a revolutionary minority of students, young officers, members of the middle class, and intellectuals who would drag the passive—or downright hostile—masses toward the future. To this end, he founded a secret nationalist society, the Carbonari, confederating numerous preexistent Masonic lodges and modifying their ideology in a “patriotic” direction. Then he organized “Young Italy,” a second center of clandestine conspiracy which was to be the model for the nationalist movements of other countries.
Mazzini enjoyed discreet but powerful international support, and he operated as a prominent member of a global network. A personal friend and correspondent of Albert Pike, the founder of American Masonry, Mazzini lived a great part of his life in London, where he took shelter every time the authorities of the Italian states were searching for him. London’s Masonic mother lodge protected him and provided him access to the mansions of the British aristocracy.
In British imperialist circles, Mazzini may have been seen as a useful tool for reducing Habsburg hegemony over the Italian states or for exercising British influence over Italy. It is certain that Mazzini the fugitive was always supplied with passports and papers.
Since there were no photographs at that time, he used the passport of his personal friend Rabbi Morales of Livorno, a leading member of a Jewish community that had close business ties with the British world. Mazzini’s mistress was also a leader in the Jewish wing of a movement that was anti-Catholic and “patriotic.” Her son, Ernesto Nathan, a Masonic grandmaster, would become the first mayor of Rome when it was “liberated” from the papacy and united by force to Italy.
In 1821, the network of agitators provoked a series of insurrections throughout Europe, from Spain to Greece. In Southern Italy, a putsch of progressive officers forced the king to adopt a liberal (that is, Jacobin-Napoleonic) constitution. Almost immediately, the people of Sicily rose up against the new government; the liberals had recourse to more ruthless military repression and soon found themselves fighting a civil war that split them into two camps within a few weeks. In Piedmont, students, intellectuals, and young officers (members of Young Italy) demanded that the king and the House of Savoy enter into immediate conflict with Austria in order to seize Lombardy and Veneto.
The little kingdom of Piedmont was the Italian Prussia, ruled by a military monarchy. However, the ruling family saw that, by adopting the progressivism of the Mazzinian nationalists, they had an opportunity for territorial conquests: at first, only Lombardy and Veneto; but over the years, their ambition extended to the entire peninsula. From that point on, Piedmont began to put itself at the service of the “Italian cause,” providing it with its military organization.
In 1848, in a vast and well-coordinated operation, “spontaneous” insurrections exploded simultaneously in Paris, Palermo, and Milan, even in Berlin and Vienna, street violence broke out—not, of course, with demands for national independence but with subversive intent.
Mazzini himself led the insurrection in Rome against the pope, who was driven into flight. The conspirators proclaimed a socialist, anticlerical, and Jacobin republic (the Repubblica Romana). A coup staged by upper-middle-class and progressive intellectuals expelled the Bourbon king from Naples and proclaimed a Mazzinian republic (Repubblica Partenopea). After the republic closed the churches and confiscated church property, the immediate revolt of the poorer classes—in whose name the progressives had taken power—put it in difficulty. Calabria revolted under the leadership of Cardinal Ruffo, and the rebels undertook the armed reconquest of the capital, converging on Naples with bands of peasant volunteers. In the end, the little people had the best of it: The republicans were lynched and hanged along the streets.
Not long afterward, the Repubblica Romana also fell, besieged by Austrian and French troops sent in to support the pope, the legitimate sovereign. Mazzini and Garibaldi, the heart and soul of the revolution, took to their heels. Even in Rome, the population had remained largely hostile to the Jacobin- Mazzinian government.
The 1848 uprising in Vienna endangered the center of the Catholic empire. Metternich had to flee the city. But in Italy, and also in Berlin, the army remained almost unanimously faithful—not only the generals and officers (for the most part Austrian), but even the common soldiers, often Croats, Slovenes, and North Italians. (Not one of the Italians enrolled in the Austrian army refused to march against the insurgents.) The king of Piedmont risked a military offensive in support of the Milan uprising. The Austrian General Joseph Radetzky easily defeated him and eventually smothered the revolt.
Order was also reestablished in Vienna. In Milan, the common people shouted to Radetzky, “Sun staa i sciuri!” (which, in the Milanese dialect, means, “It was the aristocrats who did it!”). The suppression of the insurrection was followed by trials and repression. The expanded Austrian police force wielded its power against the common people. For the first time, the man in the street in Milan realized that he was being governed by a foreign power. The hatred was directed not so much against the Austrians as against the “crucchi” (the name they gave the Croats, who called bread “kruh,” and who, with the Bosnians, were the most faithful elements of the imperial Austrian infantry).
Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Piedmont undertook a vigorous rearmament. A special group of assault troops, the Bersaglieri, was reorganized as a military-ideological corps with Masonic generals and soldiers selected for their anticlericalism. Piedmont secured the diplomatic support of England and, more importantly, an alliance with France.
French troops, united with the Piedmontese, unleashed war against Austria in 1859, conquering Milan, Lombardy, and Vencto. An expeditionary force composed of volunteers sailed from Ligurian ports (belonging to Piedmont) to conquer the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi. Blond (a rarity in Italy), a fanatical Mazzinian republican, an adventurer famous for his exploits in South America (where he had learned guerrilla tactics), Garibaldi was the only one of the progressives and nationalists who entered into the popular imagination. Piedmontese propaganda and the international Masonic press inflated his heroic qualities. As a result. Garibaldi has passed into history as the Italian Simón Bolívar.
The Garibaldian expedition was supported by the British fleet, which covered the landing of his volunteers (dressed in red shirts, the color of socialism) at Palermo. The Sicilians gave a warm reception to the “Garibaldini”; relying on Garibaldi’s promise of autonomy for Sicily, they rose up to support him against the king of Naples. The unification of Italy was sealed at the Southern village of Teano, where Garibaldi consigned to Victor Emmanuel the recently conquered South.
For decades thereafter, the Bersaglieri and Garibaldi’s irregulars had to put down the anti-nationalist revolt in the South. In this “struggle against banditry” (in the words of Piedmontese propaganda) the South was bled dry. One of the most developed regions of the peninsula became the poor and dependent South we know today.
The unification of Italy was made against the will of the majority of the Italian people. I state this not in a spirit of contradiction or by way of provocation, but to let my American friends understand the reason behind the political instability in Italy, which strikes foreigners as astonishing and sometimes comical. Italy today is a vital society of people who are trying to live by escaping the attention of the state’s policemen and tax collectors, whom they do not regard as their own.
The unification of Italians became a reality only later, in the period between 1916 and 1918, when Italy entered the Great War. Millions of poor Italians, who had until then lacked the right to vote, found themselves together in the trenches. Sardinian shepherds and Sicilian peasants, Piedmontese factory workers, farmers from the Romagna and clerks in Milan—all were made brothers in the bloodiest massacre in history.
Those who came back from the war went on to swell the ranks of fascist sympathizers. Ex-combatants gave their support, en masse, to the fascist movement that, after the Great War, confronted the uprisings staged by the latest incarnation of Jacobinism: the Communist Party under Soviet control.
The first fascist activists were called “blackshirts” because they were veterans of the commando corps which, during the war, had carried out operations at night beyond the lines. They were skilled workers: railroad men, telegraphers, a technological elite in a backward country. They were both nationalists and leftists. They rejected communism because it was anti-Italian, but they were part of the working class, interested in questions of social justice.
Fascism was not a reactionary movement. It was not a generals’ coup, à lá Pinochet, but a mass movement supported by millions of peasants and workers. Fascism succeeded in involving the Italian masses in the construction of the national state. It was not a democracy, but a caesarism of the people, and it was very popular.
Italy’s defeat in World War II interrupted the process of nationalization. It was a defeat that brought shame. Italy, allied with Germany, dethroned Mussolini and declared itself an ally of the English and Americans who had already occupied Sicily. A fierce civil war was the result, with thousands dead. In Milan alone, between the defeat of the fascist regime and the entrance of American troops, communist partisans killed 35,000 civilians suspected of fascist sympathies—in just a few days.
The general confidence in the capacity for a unitary nation collapsed forever. Today in Italy, to be “patriotic” is equivalent to being declared a “fascist” and therefore a criminal, politically incorrect, beyond the pale of civilization. It is the only country in the world where love of country is a crime. We are the seventh-largest economy in the world, and yet we are a political midget; a military nonentity, with a government always in crisis; an unreliable ally for the Western alliance. Italy is a lively society, but without national solidarity. Every important question provokes division instead of cohesion, and civil war seems always on the point of breaking out. No agreements can be made with anyone. Our official national history is a lie. Behold Italy: a society that does not manage to be a nation.