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How Much do Italians Love their Country?

When does patriotism turn into ugly nationalistic excess?

Roma, l'altare della patria (Wikimedia Commons/Photo Nicola Zanarini)

What is patriotism? According to it is “devoted love, support, and defense of one's country; national loyalty”. The definition itself is broad, and allows for much interpretation.

The other day an American friend of mine who is a frequent visitor to Italy asked me the puzzling question, why are Italians not patriotic? How come they’re not like Americans? Why don’t say things like “Italy is the greatest country on Earth”?  Why don’t they brag about their history and their art?  She went on to observe though, that they do brag about their own region or the town where they were born, they just don’t seem to have any loyalty to the nation. I had never really given this idea much thought but it occurred to me that what my friend was pointing to–either knowingly or not—was  the endemic campanilismo that has for centuries defined an “Italian’s” relationship to his country. So she may have a point. Do Italians really still think in those terms? Is campanilismo (the idea that your loyalty extends as far as the sound of your church bell) not only still alive and well in post-globalized Italy but also supplanting a broader loyalty to the nation? When I recently read that only 60% of Italians even recognize the national flag, and that L’inno di Mameli  did not become the official anthem until 2017,  I had to admit that maybe there was a valid point to consider in her question.

What is patriotism? According to  it is “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty”.  The definition itself is broad, and allows for much interpretation. Certainly we can make a case for campanilismo if “nation” is interpreted as the physical, geographical designation that was born in 1861 with the Unification. Politically, Italy is officially a young country with much history and turmoil  behind it. This history has been frequently painful; foreign invasions, wars, and the need to pay lip service to the ruling authority have always been a way of life. As one theory goes, “the residents of the ‘boot’ (lo stivale), with no national government to rule them, no army to defend them and no flag to unite them, saw themselves as Neapolitans, Paduans, Venetians, Sicilians, citizens of a village rather than a country.” The source astutely points out that in the Italian language the same word, paese, means both, the country and the hometown. 

The frequently shifting political domination made it inevitable that citizens would identify with the immediate socio-political structure instead of a distant and disembodied foreign authority. It’s easy to identify with the town of your birth when it represents the only stability and continuity that you may have known. The new king may reside in Austria or Spain, but the mayor of my town lives next door, the church where I was baptized is down the block, the school where I learned to read is across the street. In an opinion piece published in The New York Times noted Italian pundit and columnist for Il Corriere della Sera Beppe Severgnini, put it this way, “Public life in Italy is based on rivalry. Centuries of foreign domination have forced Italians to find comfort, security and a sense of identity in their own community.”  Yet attachment to the local community doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with patriotism. Loyalties exist at different levels. You can be a Tuscan, a Neapolitan or a Sicilian and an Italian at the same time.

Another theory advanced regularly to explain the supposed lack of Italian patriotism is that they are still wary (or even ashamed) of their Fascist past, and to express strong  patriotism not only smacks of Fascism but recalls Mussolini’s infamous braggadocio about the greatness of the Italian people, inheritors of the illustrious ancient  Roman legacy.  I can understand that unless you’re a neo-Nazi, you might want to avoid such associations.

The Lega Nord, for example, offers a curious example of how patriotism can turn into sectarianism and even schismatic zeal. Proud of their self-conceived identity as Italians of the most superior kind, they disdain other groups that don’t measure up to their exacting standards. The recent alliance between the 5 Star Movement and the Lega has led to a serious crackdown on such “undesirables”. Much like the policies that Donald Trump is pushing through in America, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio have introduced stringent measures that restrict the rights of illegal immigrants in the name of national cohesion.  These include an accelerated plan to deport an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants, the dismantling of the “migration reception” policy, the shutting down of all unregistered Roma camps,  and the requirement that imams be registered with the State. The rhetoric from the “patriotic right” aims to “save Italy for the Italians” and is reinforced by instilling the fear that the migrant influx threatens to wipe out “our white race’”. 

Benito Mussolini speaks in Piazza Venezia, 1936.

Then too, some people equate patriotism with nationalism, and nationalism has been the cause not only of multiple wars in the XIXth and XXth centuries, but also of  Fascism, the colonial wars, and  Nazism. Therefore, “It comes as a really small surprise that most Italians are so very little patriotic.” 

Maybe the more interesting question might be this: is patriotism a good thing? Even better: how much patriotism is a good thing? When does patriotism turn into ugly nationalistic excess? Wasn’t Fascism a fervid expression of national pride and an attempt to force patriotism on all? And what about Nazism? These two ideologies, both an expression of “patriotism,” illustrate how it can lead to a monstrous abuse of human rights. We are living through an episode of such patriotism in America as Donald Trump, widely seen as an “ethnic nationalist,” and  hell-bent on enforcing a zero tolerance policy on illegal immigration at the Mexican border, has  had children as young as six months separated from their parents, all in the interests of “Make America Great Again”.

I don’t buy the notion that Italians are not patriotic. It’s possible to be patriotic without shouting about it, we can believe that Italians show patriotism every time they express pride in their language, their culture, their history, their “Made in Italy” style. The line between love and devotion to country and patriotic excess is a thin one. We might be wiser to see ourselves as part of a larger community, that of the human race. Maybe Italians have found this balance.

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