Lessons from 1940s Italy?

July 16, 2020 | By eric.terzuolo | Filed in: Historical Analogies, Italy.

Historical analogies can help us think about the present and the future. Our current situation is in part similar to the aftermath of World War II in Europe. No war with tens of millions dead, but a disrupted and dysfunctional system, international and domestic, that needs a lot of work. Globalization did not bring all the expected benefits, to put it mildly.

Back to the 1940s?

I thought about this on Bastille Day, while moderating an online discussion of my friend Steve White’s very fine new book Modern Italy’s Founding Fathers: The Making of a Postwar Republic (Bloomsbury, 2020). Contrary to the frequent negative stereotyping of Italy, it struck me what a good job the Italian political leaders who emerged from World War II did. They built on the ruins of the Fascist regime and found a new place for Italy in the international system. 

Christian Democrats, Socialists, Communists (who had played a leading role in the Resistance) and smaller anti-Fascist parties found a way to collaborate across ideological lines, at least in the early postwar years. They effectively filled the leadership vacuum that Fascism had left.

Historical Analogies and Continuties

Historical analogies generate questions. Was it easier to cooperate across political lines in 1945 than it seems to be 75 years later? If so, was it the psychological trauma of the war that pushed people together? Or did the emergence of two superpowers, for all the miseries of the Cold War, at least provide some organizing principles and leadership for the international system that seem absent today, including cooperation between rivals?

Continuities from the past pose some continuing challenges for Italy. I’d include here the persistent weakness of European-style liberal parties, which are important parties of government elsewhere in Europe, focused on free markets, democratic values, and individual as opposed to group rights. Also persisting is the Italian government’s difficulty in dealing with the Catholic Church, a powerful political actor domestically but also, as the Holy See, a powerful external force.

Italy and the US

Historical analogies in the US-Italy relationship require some care. As in the 1940s and 50s, Washington still tends to look for “America’s man” in Italian politics, but over time a more diverse series of politicians have assumed that role. And the forceful attempt to call the shots in Italy exemplified by Clare Boothe Luce (US Ambassador from 1953 to 1956) shifted toward a more collaborative relationship over time. Of course, with US diplomacy recently reduced to “my way or the highway,” we may be experiencing some “back to the future,” or perhaps “forward to the past.”

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