Italy’s Dirty Linen

Getting the Boot: Italy's Unfinished Revolution

by Matt Frei
Times Books, 273 pp., $23.00


Fifty years ago the collapse of Mussolini’s authoritarian regime left his country in chaos, out of which emerged a new parliamentary republic. The achievements of this republic have since then been widely discussed, most recently by two of the more perceptive foreign observers now living in Italy. Matt Frei is an always well-informed journalist who reports for the BBC, and his new book contains a wealth of fascinating comments. Patrick McCarthy writes as a professor of European Studies at the Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center and treats the subject more analytically than Frei, with an even greater accumulation of detailed and persuasive evidence. From quite different perspectives they reach broadly similar conclusions. Both describe the enormous changes for the better that have taken place in Italy since the dark days of military defeat in 1945 and show how, after casting off the incubus of fascism, Italy moved with impressive speed from being predominantly agricultural to becoming one of the major industrial nations in the world, with a great increase of individual prosperity. In fifty years its people have also made notable contributions in virtually every field of Western culture.

Yet the main theme of both authors is not these undoubted successes. It is rather the more difficult story of how Italy’s political practices have been corrupt, self-destructive, and often more hindrance than help to social or economic development. Although the main Italian parties have all produced a few politicians of stature and integrity, in general “the political class”—the active politicians and civic leaders—has not measured up to the sophistication or to the enterprise and intelligence of ordinary citizens.

Admittedly the historical setting was not propitious. Fascism had its origin and classic manifestation in Italy after 1922: the word “fascism,” like “mafia” and “vendetta,” has come into universal currency from the Italian language, and the Fascist heritage has lingered beneath the surface of political life. Another divisive impediment has been communism, which as a consequence of Mussolini’s ham-fisted politics, found far more support in Italy than in other Western countries. Further back in history, many centuries of foreign occupation and authoritarian rule encouraged qualities of rebelliousness and individualism which, however admirable at the time, attenuated any sense of allegiance to the state or the community.

Such ingrained habits are not quickly changed. Italy has been a unified state for not much more than a century, and loyalties even today are sometimes as much regional as national. Some Italians continue to blame the Risorgimento for having created an artificial union of disparate peoples that allowed prosperous northern Italians to exploit an impoverished south. Others have put some blame on the Vatican which, after many years of refusal to recognize the existence of an Italian nation, was subsequently, Frei writes, “responsible for some of the worst aspects of modern Italy”; McCarthy claims that it was “the prime cause of the new state’s weakness.” Pius IX and Pius X both issued anathemas against liberalism and democracy. Pius XI tried to persuade the…

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