- From Fascism to Democracy: Culture and Politics in the Italian Election of 1948
Robert Ventresca has written a fine history of the Italian election of 1948. He seeks to rescue this event, a pivotal one for the Italian Republic, from what he calls 'historiographic inertia' - the pervasive and erroneous belief that past commentators have said everything that needs to be said about the event. Ventresca argues that the election - any election - is a 'form of societal self-expression,' with this one reflecting Italy's struggles of the near and distant past. He aims towards an histoire totale of the period. In successive chapters, the book covers American intervention, the role of the Catholic church and the upsurge of Marian devotion, the role of the Communist party, the role of Catholic Action and Civic Committees, propaganda, and the campaign and aftermath of the election. Ventresca integrates conventional political coverage with elements of social history, presenting a broader than usual analysis of Italian society during the election. The book's essential conclusion, that the election represented the genuine choice of the Italian people rooted primarily (although not exclusively) in domestic issues, is sound, and it rescues the election from the charges of subversion and manipulation that have often dominated the historiography.
This book has several strong aspects. I particularly enjoyed the section on Marian devotion. Ventresca ably shows that such displays, often dismissed as a product of Vatican-inspired propaganda, disturbed Catholic authorities, who sought to distance themselves from these uncontrolled manifestations. Instead, these phenomena reflected Italians' sense of unease about the various economic and political crises afflicting their country and the threat that atheistic Communism potentially posed to the faithful. This chapter finds a good complement in later coverage of the church hierarchy's use of Catholic Action and Civic Committees to provide an electoral organization that the Christian Democratic Party (DC) seemingly lacked. Taken together, these chapters show that the Church and its adherents were not as monolithic as they are commonly portrayed. Ventresca could have gone even further to show the polymorphous nature of the DC; it spanned the spectrum from far-right monarchists to leftists associated with labour unions and peasant land leagues. This diversity was the DC's greatest strength but also a potential weakness, as the party's cohesiveness would face repeated tests in the following decades. Ventresca's [End Page 437] greatest accomplishment is his ability to show that domestic Italian issues determined the election to a much greater degree than external ones. The result not only demonstrated the effects of foreign intervention and Italians' fears, but also their legitimate choices about their future that were firmly rooted in Italian history.
Despite these strengths, this work does sound some discordant notes, ranging from the trivial - the misspelling of the name Jefferson Caffery and the inaccurate use of the word militate, for example - to more serious ones. The bibliography doesn't list archival sources, and the notes don't contain a list of abbreviations. Heaven help the reader who misses the first reference to an archival source, as a lengthy trawl through the notes seeking the original abbreviation awaits. On a deeper plane, the author has done some useful research on the Partito Communista Italiana. It seems odd, therefore, that the Soviet Union's intervention in the political battle through its extensive subvention of the Communist party receives only cursory coverage, while the much better known American interference earns most of a chapter and the conclusion that American actions undermined 'healthy democratic governance' over the following decades. Perhaps the book's biggest difficulty is that its accomplishments are more modest than its lofty aims. Ventresca's book doesn't represent an histoire totale on the lines of the annalistes; although it skilfully integrates aspects of cultural and political history, it lacks a sufficiently profound depth of research on the longue durée and on the lives and views of members of various strata of society to reach that goal. Nevertheless, it is a solidly researched and written...