Argument

The End of Italy

Why should we be surprised Italy is falling apart? With dozens of languages and a hastily made union, it was barely a real country to begin with.

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.

Italian diversity has an ancient history that could not be suppressed in a few years. In the fifth century B.C., the ancient Greeks spoke the same language and thought of themselves as Greeks; Italy's population at the time spoke about 40 languages and had no common sense of identity. The diversity became even more pronounced after the fall of the Roman Empire, when Italians lived for centuries in medieval communes, city-states, or Renaissance duchies. This communal spirit is still alive today: When you ask citizens of, for example, Pisa how they identify themselves, they are likely to answer first as Pisans, then as Tuscans, and only after as Italians or Europeans. As many Italians cheerfully admit, their sense of belonging to the same nation becomes apparent only during the World Cup, when the Azzurri, the members of the national soccer team, are playing well.

Language is another barometer of Italy's fractiousness. The distinguished Italian linguist Tullio De Mauro has estimated that at the time of unification, just 2.5 percent of the population spoke Italian -- that is, the Florentine vernacular that evolved from the works of Dante and Boccaccio. Even if that is an exaggeration and perhaps 10 percent understood the language, it still means 90 percent of Italy's inhabitants spoke languages or regional dialects incomprehensible to those elsewhere in the country. Even King Victor Emmanuel spoke in the Piedmontese dialect when he wasn't speaking his first language -- French.

In the euphoria of 1859 to 1861, few Italian politicians paused to consider the complications of uniting so diverse a collection of people. One who did was the Piedmontese statesman and painter Massimo d'Azeglio, who is reported to have said after unification, "Now we have made Italy, we must learn to make Italians."

Alas, the chief means chosen by the new government to achieve this aim was an effort to turn Italy into a great power -- one that could compete militarily with France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. This attempt, however, was bound to fail because the new nation was so much poorer than its rivals.

For 90 years, culminating in Mussolini's fall, Italy's leaders were determined to create a sense of nationhood by turning Italians into conquerors and colonialists. Vast sums of money were therefore spent on expeditions to Africa, often with disastrous results; at the Battle of Adowa in 1896, in which an army was wiped out by an Ethiopian force, more Italians were killed in a single day than in all the wars of the Risorgimento put together. Although the country had no enemies in Europe and no need to fight in either of the world wars, Italy joined the fighting in both global conflicts nine months after they had begun when the government thought it had identified the winner and extracted promises of territorial rewards.

Mussolini's miscalculation and subsequent downfall destroyed Italian militarism and at the same time punctured the idea of Italian nationhood. For 50 years after World War II, the country was dominated by the Christian Democrats and the Communists. These parties -- which took their cue from the Vatican and the Kremlin, respectively -- were not interested in instilling a new sense of national identity to replace the old one.

Postwar Italy was in many ways a great success. With one of the highest growth rates in the world, it became an innovator in such peaceful and productive fields as film, fashion, and industrial design. Yet the economic triumphs were uneven, and no administration was able to reduce the disparities between north and south.

The government's political and economic failures are not the only cause of the malaise that now threatens Italy's survival. Some flaws in the national structure were inherent in the circumstances of the country's creation. The Northern League -- Italy's third-largest political party, which suggested that the country's 150th birthday in March should be cause for mourning rather than celebration -- is not simply a bizarre aberration. Its attitude to the south, xenophobic and even racist as it sometimes is, demonstrates the truth that Italy has never felt itself to be a properly united country.

The great liberal politician Giustino Fortunato used to quote his father's view that "the unification of Italy was a sin against history and geography." He believed that the strengths and civilization of the peninsula had always been regional and that a centralized government would never work. Now he looks more prescient by the year. And if Italy has a future as a united nation after this crisis, it must accept the reality of its troubled birth and build a new political model that takes account of its intrinsic, millennial regionalism -- if not as a collection of republican communes, hilltop duchies and principalities once more, then at least as a federal state that reflects the essential features of its past.

ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

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