Secular religion came in with the French Revolution, but it has been in the century now ending that politics - in Bolshevism, fascism and Nazism - has been made sacred. Emilio Gentile quotes the anthropologist Clifford Geertz's remark that for the most part, the "political theology of the 20th century" has yet to be written and adds his own warning that we handicap ourselves in lacking a better understanding of it.
It is a claim amply supported by recent events, ranging from the election of neofascists to political office in Italy to the presence of leather-jacketed skinheads on almost any major city's streets to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
Choosing "The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy" for his contribution to this by-now multifaceted field, Mr. Gentile, professor of contemporary history and history of political movements at the University "La Sapienza" in Rome, mines one of its richer veins.
He has faced difficulties, including that of any historian having to work backward in time; plus, with these secular religions - all fragile, all failed - there is the temptation to dismiss sarcastically, to scoff. This is exactly what must be avoided, though, if understanding of what happened when and where it did (and not elsewhere) be one's goal. Mr. Gentile's great consolation is that Italian fascism was not any anomalous growth, but was rooted in the tradition and story of earlier great ages, starting with that of ancient Rome. Closer in historical time is the contribution to Italian fascism of remembrance in the years after World War I. Jay Winter, in his book "Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History," which came out earlier this year, mostly confined himself to events in England, France and Germany. The difference in Italy was a reckoning, among intellectuals and others who would found fascism there, of weakness in merely erecting monuments, visiting graves and holding church services.
Enthusiasts of the military activist Gabriele D'Annunzio, then of Benito Mussolini, demanded a more positive yield from their country's losses in the Great War and troubled times following it. Italy's Unknown Soldier, after a wreath- and flag-bedecked rail journey from Udine in the northeast of the country to Rome, was entombed under the Altar of the Nation on Nov. 4, 1921. Six days later, the newly named Fascist Party ended its annual meeting with an homage at the tomb. Over the next few years, the fascists would appropriate the rituals of remembrance for their "cult of the fallen."
The fascists were not making their new religion out of whole cloth. The idea of an Italian "national religion" was a leftover from the unfinished Risorgimento of the previous century. The ideas of Risorgimento hero Giuseppe Mazzini (he was among early admirers of George Eliot's novel of Florentine history, "Romola," when it came out in 1863) were refashioned to fascist purpose by the new movement's philosopher, Giovanni Gentile.
Futurism, the art movement that lent itself to the fascist cause, made much of speed, and it is salutary to consider that in just three years the party went from nowhere to the October 1922 march on Rome and installation in office.
Its path to power was eased, for all the brutal methods of provincial "squadristri," by weary bourgeois ready to listen to a party that, in its own propaganda, "spoke of duty when others spoke of rights, of discipline when all had abandoned themselves to license, of family when individualism was triumphant, of property when wealth had become anonymous." Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
In a mix of ancient and modern, the fascist "cult of the lictor" was a conscious attempt to re-create the glory of Rome and the old Roman religion, in which the individual subordinated himself to a state that emphasized warrior qualities, sacrifice and ritualization of …