The Risorgimento was the political and social process that unified different states of the Italian peninsula into the single nation of Italy. It is difficult to pin down exact dates for the beginning and end of Italian reunification, but most scholars agree that it began with the end of Napoleonic rule and the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and approximately ended with the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, though the last “città irredente” did not join the Kingdom of Italy until the Italian victory in World War I.
As Napoleon’s reign began to fail, other national monarchs he had installed tried to keep their thrones by feeding those nationalistic sentiments, setting the stage for the revolutions to come. Among these monarchs were the viceroy of Italy, Eugène de Beauharnais, who tried to get Austrian approval for his succession to the Kingdom of Italy, and Joachim Murat, who called for Italian patriots’ help for the unification of Italy under his rule. Following the defeat of Napoleonic France, the Congress of Vienna (1815) was convened to redraw the European continent. In Italy, the Congress restored the pre-Napoleonic patchwork of independent governments, either directly ruled or strongly influenced by the prevailing European powers, particularly Austria.
At the time, the struggle for Italian unification was perceived to be waged primarily against the Austrian Empire and the Habsburgs, since they directly controlled the predominantly Italian-speaking northeastern part of present-day Italy and were the single most powerful force against unification. The Austrian Empire vigorously repressed nationalist sentiment growing on the Italian peninsula, as well as in the other parts of Habsburg domains. Austrian Chancellor Franz Metternich, an influential diplomat at the Congress of Vienna, stated that the word Italy was nothing more than “a geographic expression”. Artistic and literary sentiment also turned towards nationalism; and perhaps the most famous of proto-nationalist works was Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). Some read this novel as a thinly veiled allegorical critique of Austrian rule. The novel was published in 1827 and extensively revised in the following years. The 1840 version of I Promessi Sposi used a standardized version of the Tuscan dialect, a conscious effort by the author to provide a language and force people to learn it.
Those in favour of unification also faced opposition from the Holy See, particularly after failed attempts to broker a confederation with the Papal States, which would have left the Papacy with some measure of autonomy over the region. The pope at the time, Pius IX, feared that giving up power in the region could mean the persecution of Italian Catholics. Even among those who wanted to see the peninsula unified into one country, different groups could not agree on what form a unified state would take. Vincenzo Gioberti, a Piedmontese priest, had suggested a confederation of Italian states under rulership of the Pope. His book, Of the Moral and Civil Primacy of the Italians, was published in 1843 and created a link between the Papacy and the Risorgimento. Many leading revolutionaries wanted a republic, but eventually it was a king and his chief minister who had the power to unite the Italian states as a monarchy.
One of the most influential revolutionary groups was the Carbonari (charcoal-burners), a secret organization formed in southern Italy early in the 19th century. Inspired by the principles of the French Revolution, its members were mainly drawn from the middle class and intellectuals. After the Congress of Vienna divided the Italian peninsula among the European powers, the Carbonari movement spread into the Papal States, the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Modena and the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia.
The revolutionaries were so feared that the reigning authorities passed an ordinance condemning to death anyone who attended a Carbonari meeting. The society, however, continued to exist and was at the root of many of the political disturbances in Italy from 1820 until after unification. The Carbonari condemned Napoleon III to death for failing to unite Italy, and the group almost succeeded in assassinating him in 1858. Many leaders of the unification movement were at one time members of this organization.
Two prominent radical figures in the unification movement were Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. The more conservative constitutional monarchic figures included the Count of Cavour and Victor Emmanuel II, who would later become the first king of a united Italy.
Mazzini’s activity in revolutionary movements caused him to be imprisoned soon after he joined. While in prison, he concluded that Italy could – and therefore should – be unified and formulated his program for establishing a free, independent, and republican nation with Rome as its capital. After Mazzini’s release in 1831, he went to Marseille, where he organized a new political society called La Giovine Italia (Young Italy). The new society, whose motto was “God and the People,” sought the unification of Italy.
The creation of the Kingdom of Italy was the result of concerted efforts by Italian nationalists and monarchists loyal to the House of Savoy to establish a united kingdom encompassing the entire Italian Peninsula. The Kingdom of Sardinia industrialized from 1830 onward. A constitution, the Statuto Albertino was enacted in the year of revolutions, 1848, under liberal pressure. Under the same pressure, the First Italian War of Independence was declared on Austria. After initial success the war took a turn for the worse and the Kingdom of Sardinia lost.
Garibaldi, a native of Nice (then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia), participated in an uprising in Piedmont in 1834, was sentenced to death, and escaped to South America. He spent fourteen years there, taking part in several wars, and returned to Italy in 1848. After the Revolutions of 1848, the apparent leader of the Italian unification movement was Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi. He was popular amongst southern Italians. Garibaldi led the Italian republican drive for unification in southern Italy, but the northern Italian monarchy of the House of Savoy in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia whose government was led by Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, also had the ambition of establishing a united Italian state. Though the kingdom had no physical connection to Rome (deemed the natural capital of Italy), the kingdom had successfully challenged Austria in the Second Italian War of Independence, liberating Lombardy-Venetia from Austrian rule. The kingdom also had established important alliances which helped it improve the possibility of Italian unification, such as Britain and France in the Crimean War.
The transition was not smooth for the south (the “Mezzogiorno”). The path to unification and modernization created a divide between Northern and Southern Italy. People condemned the South for being “backwards” and barbaric, when in truth, compared to Northern Italy, “…where there was backwardness, the lag, never excessive, was always more or less compensated by other elements…”. Of course, there had to be some basis for singling out the South like Italy did. The entire region south of Naples was afflicted with numerous deep economic and social liabilities. However, many of the South’s political problems and its reputation of being “passive” or lazy (politically speaking) was due to the new government (that was born out of Italy’s want for development) that alienated the South and prevented the people of the South from any say in important matters. However, on the other hand, transportation was difficult, soil fertility was low with extensive erosion, deforestation was severe, many businesses could stay open only because of high protective tariffs, large estates were often poorly managed, most peasants had only very small plots, and there was chronic unemployment and high crime rates. Cavour decided the basic problem was poor government, and believed that could be remedied by strict application of the Piedmonese legal system. The main result was an upsurge in brigandage, which turned in a bloody civil war that lasted almost ten years. The insurrection reached its peak mainly in Basilicata and northern Apulia, headed by the brigands Carmine Crocco and Michele Caruso. With the end of the southern riots, there was a heavy outflow of millions of peasants in the Italian diaspora, especially to the United States and South America. Others relocated to the northern industrial cities such as Genoa, Milan and Turin, and sent money home.
Italy in World War I
The First World War (1914–1918) was an unexpected development that forced the decision whether to honor the alliance with Germany and Austria. For six months Italy remained neutral, saying that the Triple Alliance was only for defensive purposes. Italy took the initiative in entering the war in spring 1915, despite strong popular and elite sentiment in favor of neutrality. Italy was a large, poor country whose political system was chaotic, its finances were heavily strained, and its army was very poorly prepared. The Triple Alliance meant little either to Italians or Austrians – Vienna had declared war on Serbia without consulting Rome. Two men, Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino made all the decisions, as was typical in Italian foreign policy. They operated in secret, enlisting the king later on, but keeping military and political leaders entirely in the dark. They negotiated with both sides for the best deal, and got one from the Entente, which was quite willing to promise large slices of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the Tyrol and Trieste, as well as making Albania a protectorate. Russia vetoed giving Italy Dalmatia. Britain was willing to pay subsidies and loans to get 36 million Italians as new allies who threatened the southern flank of Austria.
When the Treaty of London was announced in May 1915, there was an uproar from antiwar elements. Salandra resigned but no one could form a majority against him, and he returned to office. Most politicians, and indeed most Italians opposed the war, including most Catholics. Reports from around Italy showed the people feared war, and cared little about territorial gains. Rural folk saw war is a disaster, like drought, famine or plague. Businessmen were generally opposed, fearing heavy-handed government controls and taxes, and loss of foreign markets. Reversing the decision seemed impossible, for the Triple Alliance did not want Italy back, and the king’s throne was at risk. Pro-war supporters mobbed the streets with tens of thousands of shouting by nationalists, Futurists, anti-clericals, and angry young men. Benito Mussolini, an important Socialist Party editor took a leadership role, but he was expelled from the Party and only a minority followed him. Apart from Russia this was the only far left party in Europe that opposed the war. The fervor for war represented a bitterly hostile reaction against politics as usual, and the failures, frustrations, and stupidities of the ruling class.
Italy proved unable to prosecute the war effectively, as fighting raged for three years on a very narrow front along the Isonzo River, where the Austrians held the high ground. In 1916, Italy declared war on Germany, which provided significant aid to the Austrians. Some 650,000 Italian soldiers died and 950,000 were wounded, while the economy required large-scale Allied funding to survive. Before the war the government had ignored labor issues, but now it had to intervene to mobilize war production. With the main working-class Socialist party reluctant to support the war effort, strikes were frequent and cooperation was minimal, especially in the Socialist strongholds of Piedmont and Lombardy. The government imposed high wage scales, as well as collective bargaining and insurance schemes.
Italy participated in the war primarily to gain new territory in the North and the East; it blocked a major Austrian peace proposal in 1918. The Treaty of St. Germain awarded the victorious Italian nation the Southern half of the County of Tyrol, Trieste, Istria, and the city of Zadar. Italy did not receive other territories promised by the Pact of London, so this outcome was denounced as a “Mutilated victory”.
The rise of Fascism
The Italian Fascist movement was founded on March 23, 1919 by Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was a World War I veteran, working for the Socialist newspapers until he broke off and established his new Nationalist organization, Fasci di Combattimento. In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, Italy was denied the execution of wartime secret Treaty of London (1915) it had concorded with the Triple Entente; wherein Italy was to leave the Triple Alliance and join the enemy, by declaring war against the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, in exchange for territories (Istria and Dalmatia), at war’s end, upon which the Kingdom of Italy held claims. The disrespect for the promises caused widespread indignation among Italian nationalists, while poet and adventurer Gabriele D’Annunzio led an expedition to occupy ethnic Italian Fiume, assigned to Yugoslavia.
At the same time, the so-called Biennio Rosso (red biennium) took place in the two years following the first world war in a context of economic crisis, high unemployment and political instability. The 1919–20 period was characterized by mass strikes, worker manifestations as well as self-management experiments through land and factories occupations. In Turin and Milan, workers councils were formed and many factory occupations took place under the leadership of anarcho-syndicalists. The agitations also extended to the agricultural areas of the Padan plain and were accompanied by peasant strikes, rural unrests and guerilla conflicts between left-wing and right-wing militias.
Thenceforth, the Fasci di Combattimento (forerunner of the National Fascist Party, 1921) of Benito Mussolini successfully exploited the claims of Italian nationalists and the quest for order and normalization of the middle class. In 1920, old Prime Minister Giolitti was reappointed in a desperate attempt to solve Italy’s deadlock, but his cabinet was weak and threatened by a growing socialist opposition. Giolitti believed that the Fascists could be toned down and used to protect the monarchy from the socialists. He decided to include Fascists on his electoral list for 1921 elections. In the elections, the Fascists did not make large gains, but Giolitti’s government failed to gather a large enough coalition to govern and offered the Fascists placements in his government. The Fascists rejected Giolitti’s offers and joined with socialists in bringing down his government.
In October 1922, Mussolini took advantage of a general strike to announce his demands to the Italian government to give the Fascist Party political power or face a coup. With no immediate response, a group of 30,000 Fascists began a long trek across Italy to Rome (the March on Rome), claiming that Fascists were intending to restore law and order. The Fascists demanded Prime Minister Luigi Facta’s resignation and that Mussolini be named to the post. Although the Italian Army was far better armed than the Fascist militias, the liberal system and King Victor Emmanuel III were facing a deeper political crisis. The King was forced to choose which of the two rival movements in Italy would form the government: Mussolini’s Fascists, or the marxist Italian Socialist Party. He selected the Fascists.
Upon taking power, Mussolini formed a coalition with nationalists and liberals. In 1923, Mussolini’s coalition passed the electoral Acerbo Law, which assigned two thirds of the seats to the party that achieved at least 25% of the vote. The Fascist Party used violence and intimidation to achieve the threshold in the 1924 election, thus obtaining control of Parliament. Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti was assassinated after calling for a nullification of the vote because of the irregularities.
Over the next four years, Mussolini eliminated nearly all checks and balances on his power. On 24 December 1925, he passed a law that declared he was responsible to the king alone, making him the sole person able to determine Parliament’s agenda. Local governments were dissolved, and appointed officials (called “Podestà”) replaced elected mayors and councils. In 1928, all political parties were banned, and parliamentary elections were replaced by plebiscites in which the Grand Council of Fascism nominated a single list of 400 candidates.
In 1929 Mussolini and the Catholic Church came to an agreement that ended a standoff that reached back to 1860 and had alienated the Church from the Italian government. The Orlando government had started the process of reconciliation during the World War, and the pope furthered it by cutting ties with the Christian Democrats in 1922. Mussolini and the leading fascists were atheists but they recognized the opportunity of warmer relations with Italy’s large Catholic element.
The Lateran Accord of 1929 was a treaty that recognized the pope as the sovereign of the tiny Vatican City inside Rome, which gave it independent status and made the Vatican an important hub of world diplomacy. The Concordat of 1929 made Catholicism the sole religion of the state (although other religions were tolerated), paid salaries to priests and bishops, recognized church marriages (previously couples had to have a civil ceremony), and brought religious instruction into the public schools. In turn the bishops swore allegiance to the Italian state, which had a veto power over their selection. A third agreement paid the Vatican 1750 million lira (about $100 million) for the seizures of church property since 1860. The Church was not officially obligated to support the Fascist regime; the strong differences remained but the seething hostility ended. The Church especially endorsed foreign policies such as support for the anti-Communist side in the Spanish Civil War, and support for the conquest of Ethiopia. Friction continued over the Catholic Action youth network, which Mussolini wanted to merge into his Fascist youth group. In 1931 Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno (“We Have No Need”) that denounced the regime’s persecution of the church in Italy and condemned “pagan worship of the State”.
In 1935 Mussolini decided to invade Ethiopia. The Second Italo-Abyssinian War resulted in the international isolation of Italy, as France and Britain quickly abandoned their trust of Mussolini. The only nation to back Italy’s aggression was Nazi Germany. After being condemned by the League of Nations, Italy decided to leave the League on 11 December 1937 and Mussolini denounced the League as a mere “tottering temple”. At this point, Mussolini had little choice but to join Hitler in international politics, thus he reluctantly abandoned its support of Austrian independence. Hitler proceeded with the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria, in 1938. Mussolini later supported German claims on Sudetenland, a province of Czechoslovakia inhabited mostly by Germans, at the Munich Conference. In 1938, under influence of Hitler, Mussolini supported the adoption of anti-semitic racial laws in Italy. After Germany annexed Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Mussolini decided to occupy Albania to avoid becoming second-rate member of the Axis. On 7 April 1939, Italy invaded Albania.
As war approached in 1939, the Fascist regime stepped up an aggressive press campaign against France claiming that Italian people were suffering in France. This was important to the alliance as both regimes mutually had claims on France, Germany on German-populated Alsace-Lorraine and Italy on the mixed Italian and French populated Nice and Corsica. In May 1939, a formal alliance with Germany was signed, known as the Pact of Steel. Mussolini felt obliged to sign the pact in spite of his own concerns that Italy could not fight a war in the near future. This obligation grew from his promises to Italians that he would build an empire for them and from his personal desire to not allow Hitler to become the dominant leader in Europe. Mussolini was repulsed by the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact agreement where Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to partition the Second Polish Republic into German and Soviet zones for an impending invasion. The Fascist government saw this as a betrayal of the Anti-Comintern Pact, but decided to remain officially silent.
World War II and the fall of Fascism
When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 beginning World War II, Mussolini chose to stay non-belligerent, although he declared his support for Hitler. In drawing out war plans, Mussolini and the Fascist regime decided that Italy would aim to annex large portions of Africa and the Middle East to be included in its colonial empire. Hesitance remained from the King and military commander Pietro Badoglio who warned Mussolini that Italy had too few tanks, armoured vehicles, and aircraft available to be able to carry out a long-term war and Badoglio told Mussolini “It is suicide” for Italy to get involved in the European conflict. Mussolini and the Fascist regime took the advice to a degree and waited as France was invaded by Germany in June 1940 (Battle of France) before deciding to get involved.
As France’s defeat was obviously inevitable, Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940, fulfilling its obligations towards the Pact of Steel. Mussolini hoped to quickly capture Savoy, Nice, Corsica, and the African colonies of Tunisia and Algeria from the French, but Germany signed an armistice (June 22: Second Armistice at Compiègne) with Marshal Philippe Pétain establishing Vichy France, that retained control over southern France and colonies. This decision angered the Fascist regime In summer 1940, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Egypt, but Italian forces were soon driven back by the British (see Operation Compass). Hitler had to intervene with the sending of the Afrika Korps of General Erwin Rommel, that was the mainstay in the North African campaign.
Continuing indications of Italy’s increasing subordinatation to Germany arose during the disastrous Greco-Italian War. Mussolini had intended the invasion of Greece to prove Italy’s strategic autonomy, but the Greeks humiliatingly put Italian forces on the defensive. Because of a putsch in Yugoslavia, Germany began a Balkans Campaign which had as result the dissolution of this country and Greece’s defeat. On that occasion, Italy gained south Slovenia and part of Dalmatia. But despite territorial achievements, the Italian Empire was a paper tiger by 1942: it was faltering as its economy failed to adapt to the conditions of war, and Italian cities were being heavily bombed by the Allies. Also, despite Rommel’s advances, the campaign in North Africa began to fail in late 1942. Complete collapse came after the decisive defeat at El Alamein.
By 1943, Italy was losing on every front. By January of the year, half of the Italian forces fighting in the Soviet Union had been destroyed, the African campaign had failed, the Balkans remained unstable, and Italians wanted an end to the war. In July 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily in an effort to knock Italy out of the war and establish a foothold in Europe. On 25 July, Mussolini was ousted by the Great Council of Fascism and arrested by order of King Victor Emmanuel III, who appointed General Pietro Badoglio as new Prime Minister. Badoglio stripped away the final elements of Fascist rule by banning the National Fascist Party, then signed an armistice with the Allied armed forces and the Kingdom of Italy joined the Allies in their war against Nazi Germany.
Soon after being ousted, Mussolini was rescued by a German commando in Operation Eiche (“Oak”). The Germans brought Mussolini to northern Italy where he set up a Fascist puppet state, the Italian Social Republic. Meanwhile, the Allies advanced in southern Italy. In September 1943, Naples rose against the occupying German forces. The Allies organized some royalist Italian troops into the Italian Co-Belligerent Army, while troops loyal to Mussolini continued to fight alongside Nazi Germany in the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano, the National Republican Army. In addition, a large Italian resistance movement started a long guerrilla war against the German and Fascist forces.
The Germans, often helped by Fascists, committed several atrocities against Italian civilians in occupied zones, such as the Ardeatine massacre and the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre. On 4 June 1944, the German occupation of Rome came to an end as the Allies advanced. As the Allies advanced north, they encountered increasingly difficult terrain, as mountains offered excellent defensive position to Axis forces. The final Allied victory over the Axis in Italy did not come until the spring offensive of 1945, after Allied troops had breached the Gothic Line, leading to the surrender of German and Fascist forces in Italy on 2 May shortly before Germany finally surrendered ending World War II in Europe on 8 May. It is estimated that between September 1943 and April 1945 some 60,000 Allied and 50,000 German soldiers died in Italy.
Mussolini was captured on 27 April 1945, by communist Italian partisans near the Swiss border as he tried to escape Italy. On the next day, he was executed for high treason, as sentenced in absentia by a tribunal of the CLN. Afterwards, the bodies of Mussolini, his mistress, and about fifteen other Fascists were taken to Milan where they were displayed to the public. Days later on 2 May 1945, the German forces in Italy surrendered. The government of Badoglio had remained in being for some nine months. On 9 June 1944 he was replaced as Prime Minister by the 70-year-old anti-fascist leader Ivanoe Bonomi. In June 1945 Bonomi was in turn replaced by Ferruccio Parri, who in turn gave way to Alcide de Gasperi on 4 December 1945. Finally, De Gasperi supervised the transition to a Republic following the abdication of Vittorio Emanuele III on 9 May 1946, the one-month-long reign of his son Umberto II (“King of May”) and the Constitutional Referendum that abolished the monarchy; De Gasperi briefly became acting Head of State as well as Prime Minister on 18 June 1946, but ceded the former role to Provisional President Enrico de Nicola ten days later.
Birth of the Republic
The aftermath of World War II left Italy with a destroyed economy and a divided society. Following Victor Emmanuel III’s abdication, his son, the new king Umberto II, was pressured by the threat of another civil war to call a Constitutional Referendum to decide whether Italy should remain a monarchy or become a republic. On 2 June 1946, the republican side won 54% of the vote and Italy officially became a republic. All male members of the House of Savoy were barred from entering Italy, a ban which was only repealed in 2002. Under the Treaty of Peace with Italy, 1947, the eastern border area was annexed by Yugoslavia causing the Istrian exodus, while Italy lost all its overseas possessions.
The General Elections of 1946, held at the same time as the Constitutional Referendum, elected 556 members of a Constituent Assembly, of which 207 were Christian Democrats, 115 Socialists and 104 Communists. A new constitution was approved, setting up a parliamentary democracy. In 1947, under American pressure, the communists were expelled from the government. The Italian general election, 1948 saw a landslide victory for Christian Democrats, that dominated the system for the following forty years.
The economic miracle
In the 1950s and 1960s the country enjoyed prolonged economic boom, which was accompanied by a dramatic rise in the standard of living of ordinary Italians. The so-called Italian economic miracle lasted almost uninterrupted until the “Hot Autumn’s” massive strikes and social unrest of 1969–70, that combined with the later 1973 oil crisis, gradually cooled the economy, that has never returned to its heady post-war growth rates.
It has been calculated that the Italian economy experienced an average rate of growth of GDP of 5.8% per year between 1951–63, and 5.0% per year between 1964–73. Italian rates of growth were second only, but very close, to the German rates, in Europe, and among the OEEC countries only Japan had been doing better. Between 1955 and 1971, around 9 million people are estimated to have been involved in inter-regional migrations in Italy, uprooting entire communities. Emigration was especially directed to the factories of the so-called “industrial triangle”, a region encompassed between the major manufacturer centers of Milan and Turin and the seaport of Genoa.
The needs of a modernizing economy demanded new transport and energy infrastructures. Thousands of miles of railways and highways were completed in record times to connect the main urban areas, while dams and power plants were built all over Italy, often without regard for geological and environmental conditions. Strong urban growth led to uncontrolled urban sprawl.
The natural environment was constantly under threat by wild industrial expansion, leading to ecological disasters like the Vajont Dam inundation and the Seveso chemical accident. The boom had also a huge impact on Italian society and culture. The pervasive influence of mass media and consumerism on society has often been fiercely criticized by intellectuals like Pier Paolo Pasolini and film directors like Dino Risi, Vittorio De Sica and Ettore Scola, that stigmatized selfishness and immorality that characterized miracle’s years.