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C. Grove Haines Professorship Inaugural Lecture and SAIS Europe 67th Anniversary - The Birth of the Italian Republic

February 12, 2022

Speaker: Mark Gilbert, C. Grove Haines Professor, Professor of History and International Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS EuropeChair: Michael G. Plummer, SAIS Europe Director and ENI Professor of International Economics, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe, Bologna, ItalyTo mark SAIS Europe’s 67th Anniversary, Professor Mark Gilbert gave the C. Grove Haines Professorship Inaugural Lecture on the Birth of the Italian Republic on February 21st.
After a brief introduction by SAIS Director, Professor Michael Plummer, Professor Gilbert introduced the year 1946 as Italy’s “hanging chads” moment – referring of course to the term which became popularised as a result of the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Italy, at this point, was not a consolidated democracy, but a nascent one – making the crisis even more dramatic. In fact, the Italian general election held on 2 June 1946 marked the first time Italian women were allowed to vote in a national election. Electors were able to vote both on the representative they wished to elect, and on the referendum surrounding the abolition of the monarchy. As Gilbert argued, there are lessons to be learned from Italy’s passage to the Republic. Firstly, the importance of statecraft and the “virtù” of Italian politicians ensured a successful democratic transition. Secondly, the Italian case “prefigured the experience of many other countries in the post-war world by demonstrating the enormous freeing power of democratisation”. Values of “dignity,” “self-worth”, and “equal rights” became synonymous with a broader trend of democratisation. This last point, Gilbert emphasises, should not be forgotten as “we are living through a moment when democracy has lost some of its allure.”
Subsequently, Professor Gilbert set out to illustrate the context of a post-World War Two Italy. Describing the very violent scene that unfolded at Piazzale Loreto on 29 April 1945 around the public display of Benito Mussolini’s corpse, Gilbert pondered whether it was a “fitting end for someone who had brought catastrophe upon Italy?” And he had brought catastrophe: between 1940–43, a million Italian soldiers had been taken prisoner and over 250,000 had been killed in battle, with tens of thousands of civilians dying in aerial bombardments. Moreover, the King and his court betrayed the whole country by abdicating and condemning the country north of Salerno to Nazi occupation. Nevertheless, as evidenced in the lecture, Italy’s rebirth as a democracy truly began with the resistance movement, under which around 200,000 people took up arms and fought between 1943 and 1945. This was in spite of the Nazis alone committing 400 stragi (the murder of more than eight people) against Italian citizens after September 1943. Before the Allies arrived, partisan units had liberated Milan, Turin and Genoa. Illustrating the symbolic value of the bicycle, which was used by many women (staffette) to relay messages, Gilbert also emphasised the significant value 35,000 women partaking in the resistance brought. As such, Gilbert contended that the “cause of recognition for the democratic rights of women was certainly served the heroism of female partisans during the resistance.”
Following the war, Italy had zero reserves of foreign currency and faced a 480 billion lire reconstruction of the railway system alone. Food shortages verging on starvation, a rampant black market and the collapse of public finances only added insult to injury. In addition to this, as Professor Gilbert highlighted, the rapid rise of the communist party, which had shown an immense “unity of purpose,” scared multiple foreign onlookers, most notably the United States who imposed a decision to hold local elections early in 1946 to “prove Italy’s democratic credentials.” At this point the crisis of Parri’s government was exploited by the DC’s leader, Alcide De Gasperi, who became premier, somewhat surprisingly marking the first time a Catholic had been head of government in Italian history. “76 years ago this week,” Gilbert announced, a surprise accord between Nenni and De Gasperi determined Italy’s democratic future would be decided by a referendum on the question of monarchy and simultaneous elections to a Constituent Assembly. At this point voting had gone beyond being a mere right, and instead became a civic duty. This was momentous, especially as more than 75% of Italians had never voted before. As Gilbert rightly emphasised, it was also the first election in which women had the right to vote. Politicians and party officials alike wondered whether they would they vote like men, or not? As a result, women became a particular target of political campaigning. Committed to an expansion of social rights, all three major parties were invested in the broader progressive image of democracy.
In what was a “great day not just in the history of Italy, but in the history of democracy more generally”, 89.1% of the aventi diritto people voted on 2 June. “Even allowing for the fact that voting was obligatory,” Gilbert argued, “the voting figures were astonishing.” Resulting in a substantial win for De Gasperi and the Christian Democrats, the election also dealt a bitter blow to the communist party which came a “disappointing third, despite its propaganda effort.” Nonetheless, before taking questions from members of the audience, Gilbert drew attention to the constitutional crisis that emerged out of the referendum. Although 54% of Italians expressed their preference for a Republic, it took the High Court of Appeals until 10 June to verify the appeal. Subsequently, the King renounced his ability to call upon the military’s oath of loyalty to the crown and, avoiding largescale unrest and bloodshed, left the country. On 18 June 1946, the High Court finally announced the birth of Italy’s republic.In this manner, according to Gilbert, De Gasperi had “made himself and his party the fulcrum of the political system”. It was only through the true “desire of Italians to experience democracy for themselves, to turn the page on fascism, and above all to move towards a more equal society,” that greater social justice could be achieved. As Gilbert argued, this was something none of Italy’s democratic parties could afford to ignore.