Magazine article The Spectator

Not Making Italians

Magazine article The Spectator

Not Making Italians

Article excerpt

THE FORCE OF DESTINY: A HISTORY OF ITALY SINCE 1796 by Christopher Duggan Allen Lane, £30, pp. 653, ISBN 9780713997095 £24 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

As O-level students 40 years ago, we were keen to answer questions about the unification of Italy because the thesis was simple to state and easy to argue. In the middle years of the 19th century the Italians had miraculously experienced a Risorgimento and, in a long, valiant, self-sacrificing struggle, had ejected their Austrian and Neapolitan oppressors and united their nation. The main characters in this epic were the heroic guerrilla leader, Garibaldi, and the Piedmontese prime minister, Cavour (hailed by the historian G. M.

Trevelyan as 'the most wise and beneficent' European statesman of the century), but many other Italians had distinguished themselves, especially those romantic young idealists who had started doomed revolutions all over the peninsula and who had cried, 'Viva Italia!' as they faced the oppressors' firing squads.

By 1968 our views (or those of our teachers) were already out of date, but for some reason our textbooks did not include the early works of a great British historian, Denis Mack Smith, who had already demolished the conventional view. Unification, he had shown, was not the consequence of a war of liberation but of a series of Italian civil wars and, more importantly, of battles fought between France, Prussia and Austria.

Not many Italians had wanted unification, and very few of them had been killed in the struggle -- about as many as died in a single day's fighting against the Ethiopians at Adowa in 1896.

Apart from a monumental history of Sicily, Mack Smith generally wrote biographies and political histories of the century before Mussolini's death in 1945. Now a former pupil of his, Christopher Duggan, has written a brilliant and comprehensive history of Italy from 1796, the year of Napoleon's first invasion. The earlier starting point enables him to deal equally with both segments of the observation of an acute Piedmontese politician: once Italy had been made, it would be necessary to make Italians. Nearly 50 years ago a British newspaper recommended that Ghana's first leaders should read Mack Smith's history of Italy to learn how not to set up a new state. Duggan's book is almost as critical of the Italian achievement: its subtitle might have been 'How not to make Italians'.

The Force of Destiny is, however, a cultural as well as a political history, an account of 'how the national idea unfolded in Italy'.

With an impressive knowledge of the literature of the 19th century, Duggan chronicles the endless 'searching for the nation's soul', the interminable efforts made by poets, novelists and philosophers to find its historical roots, in Dante or the Lombard League or even republican Rome, and the quest for suitable moments such as the battle of Legnano (1176) and the Sicilian Vespers (1282) which composers and painters could use as subjects for patriotic works. He also analyses the competing ideologies of the various nationalist groups and the fateful defeat of federalism, the one option that might have worked after unification.

It is difficult to write about the political or military history of united Italy with a straight face or without a sense of irony. Duggan is a restrained historian who does not resort to incredulity, but his comments on the inadequacies of politicians and generals are lethal in their deftness. …

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