Birth of a Non-Nation

Italian History as Not Told in the Textbooks

In the United States, liberation from foreign domination and liberation from the past (the republican and democratic features of government) were largely the result of the American Revolution, which was spontaneous in origin, successful, moderate in its outcome, and—above all—supported by a considerable part of the population. This fortunate historical experience may lead many Americans to view the unification of Italy as if it were a replica of their own revolution. They see in the Risorgimento the spontaneous uprising of the people for their own independence. They mistake Giuseppe Mazzini for a George Washington in miniature; they imagine Giuseppe Garibaldi as a cross between Davy Crockett and Simon Bolivar.

The mistaken parallel is an act of generosity. In Europe, connection with the past—and with ancient political orders (both pre-democratic and pre-republican)—is much more complex and nuanced. For many Europeans, liberation from the past was not something to be desired. They had to be violently detached from their kings, their nobles, and their popes through the actions of extremist minorities.

The revolutions in Europe from 1789 to 1917 were a single, continuous phenomenon: a unitary process of overturning ancient norms, hierarchies, and loyalties. In one particular stage, the revolution used nationalism as part of its program to destroy the old social order. This was the context for the national...

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