Thursday, June 02, 2011
Italy’s Other Anniversary
This year Italians (some of them at any rate) celebrated the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the kingdom of Italy. It has been a series of low key events partly because there’s not a lot to celebrate in Italy at the moment but mainly because a good part of the government would like to secede. The date was 17 March when the new kingdom of Italy was officially proclaimed in the Piedmontese capital Turin.
Today is Italy’s other anniversary; the day in 1946 when Italians rejected the monarchy which had unified the country and chose a republic with almost a 10% margin (54.3 to 45.7 with an 89% turnout and women voting for the first time). There were good reasons for pensioning off the house of Savoy; Victor Emmanuel III had accepted Mussolini and fascism and made him prime minister in 1922, he had signed the Racial Laws of 1938 which deprived Italian Jews of their political and most legal rights (despite some private wingeing because his dentist was Jewish “some of my best friends are Jewish… but”); he accepted the declaration of war in June 1940 which most Italians were against and finally, when he could have done something strongly symbolic and stayed in German occupied Rome in 1943 he fled and ran away to the south even ordering his son Humbert to go with him. Humbert was young, healthy and an army officer so could have maintained the Crown’s prestige. He fled too. After the war, his aging father clung onto his position so long that Humbert did not have time to establish himself as a plausible successor.
It was a shabby performance by the little king and it was a tribute to the idea of Italy created by his father and grandfather that as many as 45% actually voted in favour of the monarchy.
At the same time as they chose the republic, Italians voted for a constituent assembly and it is this constitution that is being celebrated today more than the institutional choice.
Despite the continuing divisions between north and south, for the first time, the country’s economy became one; education and the growing presence of mass media slowly unified the language and by the 1970s all Italians were speaking Italian, albeit with a strong accent. Millions of Italians moved from the poorer areas of the south and north east to the industrial triangle of Milan-Genoa-Turin which not only created a standard Italian language, it also created “Italians” who were less attached to their families’ origins.
The country was divided by the Cold War. The Iron Curtain came down in the middle of the Constituent Assembly with the Communists and some Socialists on one side and the Christian Democrats and the other parties on the other. But in spite of that division which lasted until 1989, all the parties were united by their loyalty to the Constitution and by their antifascist position. For the next 45 years they would all go under the label of partiti dell’arco costituzionale (parties within the constitutional arc). Their local branches spread across the country socialising millions of young Italians in the ways of their chosen party. This was not so different from the way Mussolini had tried to do with the Fascist Party except that this time there was a choice.
For all its failings, mostly in its inability to deliver decisive government and clear decisionmaking, the 1948 Constitution has served Italy well. It preserved both the form and substance of democratic pluralism during the Cold War and it has withstood the very serious attempts to undermine that pluralism over the last 17 years, not only by Berlusconi. It regulated the sometimes very bitter social divisions which accompanied the “economic miracle”. I would maintain in any case that what was called “lack of governability” is an Italian cultural and social trait which cannot be resolved with this or that institutional architecture.
National days in any case are for the symbols rather than the detail. The US did not become independent on 4th July nor did France become a republic on 14 July. Italy actually declared the Republic on 18 June not today and constitution came into force on 1 January 1948s.
National days can be and probably should be an opportunity for reflection on national identity. In Britain there has been a decades long debate on how to re-invent national identity. The Empire and World War II have long since ceased being the cement which holds the country together and for all the hooha in April, a royal wedding isn’t enough either. There are indeed British values and principles that most of the country accept and subscribe to but there is no symbolic moment when those values are celebrated. The most articulate forum at the moment is OpenDemocracy’s OurKingdom.
There was a suggestion earlier this year that maybe 17 March should become the national day. Apart from meteorological considerations – it’s better to celebrate in the season when you can parade and party in the open – Italy is no longer that kingdom and not just because the king left. There are a few diehard monarchist left but apart from them, no one seriously laments the passing of the monarchy and a great many would object to making a permanent celebration of it.
Germany had a problem when to celebrate – now it is reunification (3 Oct 1990), before it was the date of the East Berlin rising in 1953. I don’t know what they celebrated between 1948 and 1953. I asked some Irish friends what they would celebrate if it weren’t for St. Patrick (already a trifle too religious for an increasing number of secular Irish) and got some worried glances; the Easter Rising in 1916… er no. Even less the 1922 Treaty both tremendously divisive moments. Perhaps the republic in 1949 but without great enthusiasm.
Today in Rome, there are 80 foreign delegations and 40 heads of state taking part in the celebrations showing that even if the Italian government is shaky, its economy stagnant and the national identity is being re-invented in the face of immigration, it nonetheless does exist. Sixty five is an age for retirement – the Italian republic is not ready to retire but is certainly in the process of recreating itself and 2nd June is a far more appropriate date than 17 March which we can leave to Ireland.