Italy divided over its unified history

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Niccolo and Donkey
Italy divided over its unified history

Telegraph UK

Nick Squires

March 13, 2011

Thursday marks the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. But, as Nick Squires finds, patriotic fervour in many places is in decidedly short supply.


With its onion-domed churches, German street signs and restaurants offering strudel, schnitzel and sauerkraut, South Tyrol is the least Italian part of Italy.

Now, lingering resentment felt by many of its inhabitants that the province was once prised from the Austro-Hungarian empire and given to Italy is casting a dark shadow over the country's celebration of the 150th anniversary of its founding as a modern state.

Thursday marks the anniversary of the day in 1861 when the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed and the new country's parliament made Victor Emmanuel II its first monarch – a key event of the Risorgimento, as the movement to unite Italy was known.

It is supposed to be a huge national party – special coins have been minted, parades will be held, dignitaries will give rousing speeches and the red, white and green of the Italian tricolor will be hung from balconies across the country.

But patriotic fervour in many places is in decidedly short supply, begging questions about how successful Italians have been in moulding a nation from the hotchpotch of principalities and city states ruled at one time or another by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Spanish, the Austrians and the papacy.

And nowhere is the question put more angrily than in the pocket of ice-capped Dolomite mountains and forested valleys that make up South Tyrol.

"Many people want South Tyrol to leave Italy altogether and rejoin Austria," said Ruth Kaufmann, 35, a shop assistant, as she strolled down Rauschertorgasse, a cobbled alleyway in Bolzano, the Germanic-looking provincial capital. "They're sick of being told they should speak Italian, and they've never felt part of Italy."

Alex Corso, a hotelier who has an Italian father and a German mother, recalled how during the 1960s and 1970s German speakers threatened violent action against the Italian state.

"They were preparing a revolution – they wanted to kill all the Italians," he said. "They said South Tyrol was taken by force and that they were assimilated against their will. Speaking German was almost forbidden – the Italians even tried to ban black bread!"

In South Tyrol, where wurst sausuage is a popular street snack and mustachioed men drink Bozner beer in cavelike cellars, bitterness towards the Italian state reaches the highest levels of politics.

Luis Durnwalder, the president of the province, caused national outrage earlier this month when he said that South Tyrol - handed to Italy as a reward for supporting the Allies during the First World War, and renamed Alto Adige - should take no part in the unification celebrations.

"I hold nothing against Garibaldi but for us the anniversary represents something else and recalls the separation from the motherland of Austria," he said. "German speakers have nothing to celebrate. In 1919 we were not asked if we wanted to become part of Italy."

Uncertainty over whether Italy has really managed to forge itself into a viable nation-state goes wider, recalling a famous remark by Massimo d'Azeglio, a 19th century statesman, who shortly after unification said: "We have made Italy. Now we have to make Italians".

Metternich, the Austrian master-diplomat, was scathingly dismissive in his assessment of the young country: Italy, he said, was nothing more than "a geographical expression".

A century and a half on, the cultural, linguistic and political fault-lines exposed by the 150th anniversary of unification are evidence that Italy is still a work in progress.

It has been said that the only things that can unite Italians are war and football, and people take more pride in being Milanese, Tuscan or Genoese than Italian. They may all carry the same bland, EU-designed passports, but Italians seem as wildly divergent in temperament, culture and language as ever.

Those in the north-eastern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia have more in common with their Slovenian neighbours than with their political masters in Rome, while mountainous Piedmont in the north-west has a strong French influence.

Sicily's Saracen past is still much in evidence in its Moorish architecture, passion for couscous and Arabic place names such as Marsala (originally Mersah-el-Allah).

In contrast to Britain's swing towards linguistic homogeneity, Italy still boasts almost as many dialects as types of pasta. Romans find it impossible to understand Neapolitans when they speak in dialect, despite the fact that the port city is just over an hour away on the train.

Sardinians speak "Sard", recognised as a distinct language, although around the town of Alghero a 15th century form of Catalan is still spoken.

Other pockets of the country converse in variations of Greek, Albanian, Croatian and, in the remote valleys of the north-east, Ladin – a combination of Celtic dialects and Latin from the time of the Roman legions.

The debate about the success of the Italian experiment has raged for months in newspaper editorials and on television, but the country could not even decide whether Thursday should be declared a national holiday.

Some government MPs agreed with business leaders that closing offices and businesses for the day would cost too much when Italy is struggling to recover from a recession.

For Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, the festivities will be a welcome distraction from accusations that he slept with an under-age prostitute, a charge on which he will face trial in Milan on April 6.

But the uncomfortable truth for him is that his struggling conservative coalition is kept in power by a political partner that is deeply suspicious of the idea of Italy as one nation.

When the Northern League was founded 20 years ago the party – then known as the Lombard League – wanted to secede from Italy and set up an independent state called Padania.

It has scaled back its demands but is still pushing for a fiscal reform package which would enable rich northern regions to keep more of their taxes rather than help to subsidise what it sees as the indolent, corrupt and mafia-plagued south.

The party goes from strength to strength and recent polls suggest that in the event of an early election its share of the national vote would increase by 50 per cent.

The League's outspoken leader, Umberto Bossi, shows open contempt for the Mezzogiorno, as the south of Italy is collectively referred to.

Last year he infuriated Romans when he said the city's motto, SPQR – which in Latin means the Senate and the People of Rome – in fact stood for "Sono porci questi Romani" – Romans are pigs.
The latest north-south battleground is the Alpini, an army corps of mountain troops who were traditionally recruited from northern Italy.

To the horror of the League, 60 per cent of the corps' soldiers are now southerners. In an attempt to redress this, the party tried to push through a new law last week under which northern recruits would have been paid €500 more a month than their southern counterparts, but it was defeated in parliament.

Mr Bossi and his supporters have for years railed against "Roma ladrona" or "thieving Rome", accusing the capital of taking funds from the wealthy north and squandering them on the unproductive south.

He once said that instead of uniting Italy in 1861, Giuseppe Garibaldi had "divided Africa" – playing on a racist stereotype held by some northern Italians that the south has more in common with North Africa and the Arab world than with the Mitteleuropean industriousness of cities like Milan and Turin.

Last week a group of League supporters in the Veneto region burned an effigy of Garibaldi.

"There's not much to celebrate in terms of Italian unification when the second most powerful party in the government intellectually rejects the idea of a united Italy," said David Gilmour, a British historian and the author of a newly published book, The Pursuit of Italy.

"The League can make or break the government – Bossi is a kingmaker and could take out Berlusconi at any time. There are far fewer things for Italians to cheer compared with the 50th and 100th anniversaries of unification.

"In 1911, Italy was swept with nationalistic fervour and was about to invade Libya. In 1961, they could celebrate the post-war economic miracle and a growth rate of six per cent a year."

In his book, Mr Gilmour recounts how a distinguished former minister once told him, in conspiratorial tones: "You know, Garibaldi did Italy a great disservice. If he had not invaded Sicily and Naples, we in the north would have the richest and most civilised state in Europe." After looking cautiously round the minister added: "Of course, to the south we would have a neighbour like Egypt."

There are nonetheless aspects of Italy's progress since unification to celebrate. In 1861 just 2.5 per cent of the population spoke standard Italian – all the rest used regional dialects. Radio and television mean that most can now speak what foreigners would consider Italian.

From an agrarian society of impoverished peasants and exploitative landowners, Italy has developed into a leading economy, notwithstanding the slowdown of the last decade.

Its population has increased from 22 million in 1861 to more than 60 million. Italy has won the soccer World Cup four times, and to envious outsiders it seems to be a permanent winner in the lottery of life, its people enjoying a "dolce vita" of good food and wine, jaw-dropping art and architecture and long lunches on sun-dappled terraces.

The next decade could prove crucial in determining whether the country can maintain its already fragile cohesion. Northern Italy's demand, articulated through the League, for much greater powers has drawn parallels with Scottish devolution and Catalan autonomy.

"Unless it concedes a greater degree of federalism, I expect Rome will lose the north," said Mr Gilmour. "The desire for it is so strong – it's a gut feeling that goes across the social scale. I think Italy will survive only if it becomes what it should have been all along – a federal state."

As the spring sunshine glinted on the snow-capped peaks surrounding Bolzano, Mr Corso, the hotelier, agreed. "I don't want to chop Italy into two parts but a lot of what the Northern League says makes sense," he said.

"Taxes which are raised in regions like South Tyrol should stay here. We have plenty of our own problems. The south needs to learn to look after itself."
Dr. Heywood R. Floyd

Its difficult to dispute that South Tyrol seems like it should be part of Austria, rather than Italy. South Tyrol might not make sense as part of Italy, but maybe as part of Padania?

President Camacho
Is there an instance in modern history of a unitary state making the conversion to federalism?

On the other hand, in a sense it would seem that the very distinction is almost obsolete in the era of the managerial state. Unitary states such as France and the United Kingdom seem to allow for more local autonomy in various respects than Federal Republics like Germany and the United States.
Dr. Heywood R. Floyd

"in a sense it would seem that the very distinction is almost obsolete in the era of the managerial state. Unitary states such as France and the United Kingdom seem to allow for more local autonomy in various respects than Federal Republics like Germany and the United States."

That's the problem with the managerial states; basically all distinctions become obsolete/irrelevant when one is in its clutches. Its the form of government where you have so much freedom, that you no longer have to bother with actually choosing among various options. Everything simply gets decided for you, and your embrace of that reality is the stick by which we measure your enthusiasm for freedom, or, conversely, whether you are "a terrorist."