Italy is falling apart, both politically and economically. Faced with a massive debt crisis and defections from his coalition in Parliament, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- the most dominant political figure in Rome since Benito Mussolini -- tendered his resignation last week. Yet Italy's problems go deeper than Berlusconi's poor political performance and his notorious peccadilloes: Their roots lie in the country's fragile sense of a national identity in whose founding myths few Italians now believe.
Italy's hasty and heavy-handed 19th-century unification, followed in the 20th century by fascism and defeat in World War II, left the country bereft of a sense of nationhood. This might not have mattered if the post-fascist state had been more successful, not just as the overseer of the economy but as an entity with which its citizens could identify and rely on. Yet for the last 60 years, the Italian Republic has failed to provide functioning government, tackle corruption, safeguard the environment, or even protect its citizens from the oppression and violence of the Mafia, the Camorra, and the other criminal gangs. Now, despite the country's intrinsic strengths, the Republic has shown itself incapable of running the economy.
It took four centuries for the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England to finally become one in the 10th, yet nearly all the territories of the seven states that made up 19th-century Italy were molded together in less than two years, between the summer of 1859 and the spring of 1861. The pope was stripped of most of his dominions, the Bourbon dynasty was exiled from Naples, the dukes of central Italy lost their thrones, and the kings of Piedmont became monarchs of Italy. At the time, the speed of Italian unification was regarded as a kind of miracle, a magnificent example of a patriotic people uniting and rising up to eject foreign oppressors and home-bred tyrants.
However, the patriotic movement that achieved Italian unification was numerically small -- consisting largely of young middle-class men from the north -- and would have had no chance of success without foreign help. A French army expelled the Austrians from Lombardy in 1859; a Prussian victory enabled the new Italian state to acquire Venice in 1866.
In the rest of Italy, the Risorgimento (or Resurgence) wars were not so much struggles of unity and liberation as a succession of civil wars. Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had made his name as a soldier in South America, fought heroically with his red-shirted volunteers in Sicily and Naples in 1860, but their campaigns were in essence a conquest by northern Italians of southern Italians, followed by the imposition of northern laws on the southern state known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Yet the southern city of Naples did not feel liberated -- only 80 citizens of Italy's largest city volunteered to fight for Garibaldi -- and its people soon became embittered that the city had exchanged its role as the 600-year-old capital of an independent kingdom for the status of a provincial center. Today, its status remains reduced, and southern GDP is barely half what it is in the regions of the north.
United Italy skimmed through the normal painstaking process of nation-building and became a unitary state that made few concessions to local sentiment. Take Germany, by comparison: After the unification of 1871, the new Reich was ruled by a confederation that included four kingdoms and five grand duchies. The Italian peninsula, by contrast, had been conquered in the name of the Piedmontese King Victor Emmanuel II and remained an aggrandized version of the kingdom, boasting the same monarch, the same capital (Turin), and even the same constitution. The application of Piedmontese law over the peninsula made many of the kingdom's new inhabitants feel more like conquered subjects than a liberated people. Violent uprisings throughout the southern regions in the 1860s were savagely repressed.