Report 150th Anniversary

Just what is Italy?

One and a half centuries after unification, Italy is still a divided country. Its neighbours may well view it as a single entity, however, historian Gian Enrico Rusconi argues that this perception is based on a poor understanding of the centrifugal forces at work in the country.

Published on 16 March 2011 at 16:05

How did Europeans respond to the unification of Italy 150 years ago? With astonishment, disbelief and admiration. In their eyes, Italy had succeeded in an almost impossible feat, and it had done so in a remarkable manner. And today? Europeans continue to respond to Italy with astonishment and disbelief, but their perceptions are tempered by a cynical mistrust. It is as though they no longer recognise the country.

The unification of Italy was a decisive moment in European history, and Europe was not only the stage for this event, but also played a part in the drama. Italy created itself through the political and military struggle to become a fully fledged European nation. Thereafter, it became a model for another European people engaged in a quest for national unity, the Germans.

Shifting alliances with its European neighbours

In 1866, when Prussia set its sights on the grand goal of nationhood, Otto von Bismarck did not apply the strategy employed by the father of Italian unity, Count Cavour, but he nonetheless wanted Italian support to combat the mutual enemy, Austria — a common interest that subsequently gave rise to the myth of “the natural alliance” between Italian Piedmont and Germanic Prussia. For better and for worse, this was the moment that established the basis for the future convergence between the two countries, which was to have such grave consequences.

In the light of its geopolitical position, Italy has had to exercise adroit and opportunistic diplomacy in its shifting alliances with its European neighbours. When war broke out in 1914, Italy, which was officially an ally of the Central European powers, announced it would be neutral before joining the Franco-British side a year later — a move that was naturally viewed as a betrayal by Austria and Germany.

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As a result, for the first time European countries were clearly divided into two groups in their judgement of Italy. But in the light of European reconciliation that followed World War 2, it is perhaps in poor taste to remind ourselves of this period. Suffice it to say, that it nonetheless illustrates an issue that continues to baffle other Europeans: the fact that we are still hotly debating whether we should continue to be a unified nation, and what Italian unity should entail.

Anti-national sentiment

What our neighbours do not understand is how we can say that we do not feel Italian. For them, notwithstanding any regional differences, the Italian character of the entire peninsula is a self-evident fact. This is not a matter of denying existence of customs, traditions, cuisine and phony piety that are perceived as Italian, but rather of acknowledging the absence of a sense of collective belonging to a state.

Unfortunately, for many Europeans this shortcoming is only a venial sin, and on this basis they fail to recognise the highly charged anti-national sentiment in the federalism proposed by the Northern League. Germans, who have benefited from the long-standing existence of an efficient and well-oiled federal state, are simply unable to look on federalism as anti-national. But that is the reality in Italy. And it is yet another reason why we have such difficulty understanding one another.


Divided about what to celebrate

"Italy is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its unification [on March 17, 1861, Victor Emmanuel of Savoy was proclaimed "King of Italy"] in an atmosphere that may seem surprising," writes the French political scientist Marc Lazar in La Repubblica. “The Northern League, which is in the government, is challenging the planned celebrations and even the idea of ​​celebrating the unification itself." For the League there is nothing to celebrate, since if it had stayed outside the rest of Italy the north "would be better off."

"A heated debate about the celebrations and the Risorgimento, the movement that led to the unification of Italy, also has historians and intellectuals sparring”, adds Lazar, who reports that employers are “criticising authorities for declaring March 17 to be a holiday,” since “the public, it seems, is showing precious little enthusiasm for the various commemorations underway". The case of Italy is not an isolated one, notes Lazar. “In Europe, almost all celebrations, even if they are aimed at promoting harmony and mutual understanding, open up old wounds. France has fought civil wars and runs into serious difficulties when choosing what to celebrate. In Belgium, Germany, Spain and Portugal the situations are familiar. In most of the countries of Europe we are witnessing a proliferation of commemorations, an inflation of conflicting claims on cultural memory, of nostalgic impulses that celebrate the past as a golden age. Hit by the weakening of their political institutions, the states of Europe, old and new, are getting harder to define in the era of globalisation and the rise of new powers – and the rise of the new Europe, too.”


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