Monday, July 16, 2018

Force of Destiny

In my experience, no one loves paperwork like the Italians. Over the course of a semester teaching in Italy, my wife and I, with our proper national visas, never got complete approval to live in the town we in fact lived in. We were called in to one office in town twice to fill out paperwork. Before, in between, and after these two visits, we were given assignments to collect various forms and stamps verifying these forms; one legally necessary step involved purchasing a particular stamp available only at tobacco shops.

Back in the office that casually dealt with approving all these papers and stamps, the smiling woman behind the glass took our completed, stapled, stamped packets and put her own ink stamps on them: she placed her mark on every page, carefully stamping the meeting of each consecutive pair of pages over the staple, and even – with particular relish – stamping the stamps. It was all important enough to her and her organization to spend at least four months on the task of clearing us to live in the lovely town of Arezzo but not important enough to bar us from actually living and working in Arezzo while waiting for the approval. Clerical mania seemed to me simply part of the Italian character.

But Christopher Duggan’s The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796 taught me that, if there even is such a thing as a national character, it came about only very recently. Now I knew that Italy had existed as a country only since the middle of the nineteenth century. And I knew that the process had something to do with Garibaldi, Mazzini, and Cavour: names of piazzas and streets in every town we visited told me that much. But surely, I supposed, there had been, for centuries before, an Italy yearning to cast off the French and the Austrians and to breathe freedom. But Duggan tells the story of an orchestrated celebration in Naples in 1860 in which many people in the crowds encouraged to shout, “Viva L’Italia!” believed Italia to be the name of their new queen.

Did the peninsular wars of the 1860s really create a unification? North belittled South, South disdained North, and both looked with distrust to Sicily. The cities that fought together to oust their imperial overlords had long histories of killing each other. The leaders of “the” movement sometimes battled each other in the field. Only twenty percent of the population knew the Italian language. No, using the word “unification” is a stretch for a process that essentially turned regional warfare into civil war, as armed bands arose in many localities to resist the only discernible change brought about by the birth of the new nation: national taxes.

So Mazzini et al. spoke after political unification of the need for “moral unification”: the meeting of minds and hearts rather than simply of geographical regions. As I was reading about the struggle for “moral unification,” a seemingly silly thought occurred to me: if only the revolutionary leaders had thought to introduce a national football team! And then I came to the chapters on Mussolini.

Of all the tragic ironies in this history, the most tragic is that Mussolini did actually unify the thoughts and wishes of the Italian people – in fact made them an Italian people. He unified them by murdering all the elected Socialists and then outlawing all parties other than the Fascists. He unified them by getting all those non-Italian speaking children into schools and making sure they learned in one of their first lessons the words il duce. And, lo and behold, he unified them by encouraging youth to play football and then creating a national team for everyone to back. He arranged to bring the newly created World Cup to Italy in 1934 (I wonder what paperwork he had to fill out), and in the most astonishing fashion, the national team won the championship in overtime. It was an ending so improbable, if they made the story into a movie, some character would be bound to say, “If they wrote this in a book, no one would believe it.”

In the end, though, Mussolini unified (nearly) all of Italy in an intense desire to join the Allies and expel him and his Nazi pals out of the country he made. We lived near a deeply touching monument mourning a local German atrocity, and in many lovely piazzas we visited all around Italy saw plaques thanking the Allies for liberating their country. But even if Italians turned against il Duce, his football idea stuck. Italy has won the World Cup four times, more than any other country except Brazil.

Note from Sept: I just read an essay by Chesterton from 1924 on Mussolini. Chesterton saw from the beginning, as I suppose every observer did, that Mussolini had finally achieved the supposedly impossible task of unifying Italy. He also saw that one sometimes must credit positive achievements to cruel madmen.

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