Francesco Crispi and Italy's Pursuit of War against France, 1887-9

By Duggan, Christopher | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Francesco Crispi and Italy's Pursuit of War against France, 1887-9


Duggan, Christopher, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The Conundrum of Francesco Crispi

Francesco Crispi is one of the most controversial and problematic figures in modern Italian history. He was born in Sicily in 1818, and as a young man was caught up in the heady world of literary and democratic romanticism in Palermo and Naples. In 1848-9 he played a major role in the Sicilian revolution that voted the deposition of the ruling Bourbon dynasty and the separation of the island from the mainland South. In exile in Turin, Malta, London and Paris in the 1850s, he conspired with the great ideologue of nationalism, Giuseppe Mazzini, to bring about Italian unification, and in the spring of 1860 he was instrumental in persuading Garibaldi to embark on his famous expedition of The Thousand. He acted as Garibaldi's Secretary of State in 1860, and strove to safeguard the national revolution for the democratic cause, to secure Rome as the capital of the new nation-state, and to sideline Count Cavour and his moderate supporters. He was unsuccessful, but in 1861 he entered parliament and sat--as he was to do for the rest of his long political career--on the far left of the Chamber. (1)

Yet this ardent democrat and leading protagonist of Italy's movement for national unification, close friend of Garibaldi and Mazzini (until an acrimonious breach with him in 1865) and other famous personalities of the left, developed into a major supporter of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria, a close friend of Count Bismarck, a scourge of the anarchists and socialists, and, as prime minister in 1887-91 and again in 1893-6, the exponent of an aggressive foreign policy that culminated in the catastrophic defeat of an Italian army at the battle of Adua in Ethiopia in March 1896. Adua brought Crispi's career to an abrupt end, and for a time after his death in 1901 a cloud hung over his name. But in the years immediately before the First World War he underwent a political resurrection at the hands of the Nationalists; and after the advent of Mussolini to power in 1922 he was celebrated extravagantly as the "precursor" of fascism, as the "giant among pigmies"--born ahead of his time, before the Italian nation was ready for him--and as the only politician of the liberal period, after Cavour, who was worthy of commemoration by the new regime. (2)

This adulation by fascism ensured that after 1945 Crispi's stock plummeted, and for many years he remained a relatively neglected figure. For liberal historians in particular, he was somewhat awkward and embarrassing. If, as they claimed, fascism was essentially a "parenthesis", a morbid outgrowth of the First World War with little organic connection to the political and cultural life of Italy between 1861 and 1915, how could such a central player of both the Risorgimento and the liberal era have been seen by the fascists as their "precursor"? (3) In the late 1960s and 1970s, as the nature of Italian fascism began to be debated seriously by academics, Crispi once again attracted critical attention. Historians of the left now saw him as evidence of the deeply flawed character of the liberal-bourgeois state, with its strongly dictatorial and illiberal proclivities. But Crispi remained something of a puzzle. He may have been authoritarian and anti-socialist in his later years, but he was clearly not a conventional reactionary. (4) Indeed, in his first term as prime minister in 1888-90 he pushed through an extraordinary package of liberal reforms that laid the basis of the modern welfare state in Italy. (5)

It is these reforms--of the public health service, of the opere pie (charitable welfare bodies), of the Council of State, of the criminal code, of the police, of local government--that have become the main focus of study for Italian historians in the last twenty years. Crispi the dictatorial "precursor" of Mussolini has given way to Crispi the moderniser, the liberal politician who, in the face of the growing challenge from the far left and organised Catholicism, set out to wrest the archaic state from the sclerotic inactivity into which it was sinking and to galvanise the country's flagging representative institutions. …

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