Academic journal article History Review

Liberal Italy: The Midwife of Fascism, or a Much-Maligned State? F.G. Stapleton Defends the Record of Italian Governments from 1861 to 1914. (Talking Points)

Academic journal article History Review

Liberal Italy: The Midwife of Fascism, or a Much-Maligned State? F.G. Stapleton Defends the Record of Italian Governments from 1861 to 1914. (Talking Points)

Article excerpt


For students of Italian history, the period of liberalism between 1870 and 1922 is all too often an unfrequented backwater. It is glanced at, if at all, as a topic that either ends the glorious period of Italian unification or, alternatively, prepares the way for the coming of the Fascists. It is a thin and unappetising filling between the far more important ends of an Italian historical sandwich. It was the tragic failure to the high hopes of the Risorgimento, and also the obvious causal factor behind the emergence of Fascism. Marxists like Antonio Gramschi have condemned the regime as toothless, corrupt, self-seeking and illegitimate. But are such viewpoints accurate and historically fair? Some historians have challenged the notion of a doom-laden state that spent over half a century awaiting its own inevitable demise. For Trevelyan in 1910, it was the remarkable apotheosis of nineteenth-century liberal-inspired nationalism. Pertinently, Denis Mack Smith and Michael Clark have asked what the regime could have done better, given its problematic inheritance.

What nails hold down the coffin lid of Italian Liberalism and are they secure?

* Italy was not unified but Piedmontised.

* Italian political maturity was retarded.

* Long-term economic development was stunted and resources squandered.

* State sponsored anti-clericalism undermined national unity.

* Incompetently directed foreign policy adventurism betrayed Italy's national destiny.


When one looks at the significant factors that led to the evolution of the first Italian governmental institutions it is difficult not to accept the reality that the unification of Italy post-1861 was a triumph for the state of Piedmont-Sardinia. Cavour merged the seven Northern states by largely diplomatic manoeuvrings, whilst Garibaldi won the South by war. The handshake at Teano in 1860 completed the process, except for Rome

Just as in the case in Germany, the dominant `Inspirer State' chose its own model for the new government. The Constitution of 1871 was based on the Piedmontese Statuto of 1848. Italy's king was renamed Victor Emmanuel II, despite the fact that this was literally true only for Piedmont, and his dynasty monopolised the Italian throne. Government would follow the Northern mould with its centralised structure, and the regional governments conformed to the Piedmontese system of prefects appointed by the monarch. The mayors of the municipal councils, or communi, were answerable to the prefect not the electorate.

Yet it is well to remember that the statuto of 1848 was easily the most liberal of the pre-unification constitutions. Since both England and Prussia as `agents of unification' preserved special roles for their institutions in the forming of the United Kingdom and the German Empire, the precedent was established. Indeed for Trevelyan this was proof of self-evident progress emanating from the North. Thus Piedmontese influence could inoculate the Italian Peninsular with the vaccine of liberal modernisation and universal material improvement. Moreover, the divisions amongst the opposition meant that no alternative could be effectively promoted. But in practice did the constitutional blueprint work?


The system of government that emerged between 1870 and 1914 has often been categorised with the label `Transformismo'. At its simplest, this term attempts to describe the process that characterised Liberal government. The Italian constitution created a bicameral structure, with an upper house called the Senate and a Lower House, the Chamber of Deputies. The chamber dominated parliamentary business. It was from here that the Prime Minister emerged but, since no rigid party system established itself and liberals dominated both houses, Prime Ministers had to assemble loosely defined coalitions of `interest groupings' on the right, centre and left. …

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