Eugenio Scalfari, the editor of La Repubblica, says that Italians have become obsessed with secession. But do they have a sense of identity in the first place?by Eugenio Scalfari / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
9th June 1996
By focusing so much on the Northern League and the danger of secession, we have overlooked more fundamental questions about Italy: What do Italian people think of their nation? Is there an Italian national identity?
The other day I met Irene Pivetti (a leading member of the Northern League) at her office in Montecitorio. She had just returned from a rally in Pontida. After listening to my appraisal of the role of some northerners in the Italian Risorgimento, she said: “The Italian Risorgimento was a violent process carried out by intellectuals such as Pisacane who represented the will of a powerful elite rather than that of the people.” If this is the way that a young and intelligent woman like Pivetti views the Risorgimento and national identity, then perhaps it is time to shift the focus of debate away from the proposed new state in the north of Italy-Padania-to the more fundamental issue of Italy’s legitimacy as a nation.
The memory of the last months of fascist rule in 1943 is still vivid in my mind. When the Americans came and reduced the area of San Lorenzo in Rome to rubble, my friends invited me to toast the final liberation. Then, after the 8th September, the country split into two. On the one hand, there were those who supported freedom (divided in turn between the supporters of the US and the communists supporting Stalin). On the other, there were those who vowed faithfulness to Il Duce and courted the Third Reich. What would happen to an Italian nation which, almost from the moment of its birth, had been undermined first by Victor Emmanuel’s dynastic egotism and then by the megalomaniac rule of Mussolini?
“One army, One language and One religion…,” insisted the Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni. But had it ever been true? A survey carried out by the Cattaneo Institute in Bologna among young people aged between 15 and 24 had the following results:
Only 10 per cent of young Italians would fight for their country, against 16 per cent in Ireland, 17 per cent in France and Germany, 21 per cent in England, 24 per cent in Greece and 41 per cent in Portugal.
To the question “Do you identify more with your town, your region, your country, Europe or the world?”, 35 per cent of Italians answered that they identify mostly with their town, 35 per cent with Italy, 13 per cent with their region, 13 per cent with the world and 4 per cent with Europe.
In the south, Sicily and Sardinia, 52 per cent of the young said they felt proud to be Italian. In the north, the percentage fell to 38 per cent. National pride was found to be generally stronger among young people from the lower classes. Differences between left and right have little impact.
The Italian football team was found to be the strongest focus of national pride, even if these feelings rarely last beyond the match itself.
One could say from this that Italians simply do not feel as good about their own country as other nationalities do about theirs. Alternatively, the high percentage of young individuals who chose an identity which is not national could reflect a more cosmopolitan outlook, associated with greater wealth and education.
There are now many independence movements in Europe: the Catalans, the Basques, the Scots. But none of these movements has exclusively fiscal and economic motivations as their justification-the exception being northern Italy.
The historian Galli Della Loggia argues that the idea of nation in Italy collapsed on 8th September 1943, although he acknowledges that it was never very strong. By contrast, during the two unpropitious decades of fascist rule national feeling had surged for the first time. The idea of a new “empire” struck the na?ve imagination of the people. Then, in the space of a few years, support for fascism broke down in the face of defeat and with it went feelings of nationalistic euphoria. I believe, contrary to Galli della Loggia, that with the defeat of the fascist state in Rome, national feeling not only declined but changed its shape and found expression in a new phase which was to become the most stimulating in the history of Italy.
This heritage however was lost in the 1980s, when politics became associated with business and ridden by factionalism. Every region of Italy produced its own brand of corrupt politician to serve in government. When the institutional crisis became fully apparent, the Italian people found themselves without a culture or a political machinery worthy of a great country. The only thing left to guide Italy was its entrepreneurial vitality.
To Irene Pivetti I say that nations do not rise from singing songs and going to rallies. They need a strong political basis and generous ideals. It took two centuries for France to be born, from Louis XII to Louis XIV via Henry IV, Richelieu, and Colbert. Our Risorgimento may not have been effective in consolidating the idea of an Italian nation. But those northern combatants died for a set of ideals which have been passed down to us today. The aims and ambitions of the Northern League, on the other hand, seem strikingly mundane-the enlargement of the motorway between Venice and Milan or the abolishment of obstacles to trade. Such proposals are sensible, yet it is foolish to demolish our national institutions for them, just when a new political class is trying to give them fresh credibility.