- Il culto del littorio: la sacralizzazione della politica nell’Italia fascista
Emilio Gentile has long been recognized as one of the foremost scholars of fascist ideology, and the first historian to consider in depth the autonomous and crucial role of the PNF (National Fascist Party) in the construction of the Italian fascist regime. In this study, he has given us a provocative synthesis of his arguments of more than two decades. In particular, he has reformulated the main thesis of a collection of essays published in 1982 entitled Il mito dello Stato nuovo dall’antigiolittismo al fascismo (The myth of the new state from antigiolittism to fascism). In that book—following George Mosse’s paradigm of the nationalization of the masses—Gentile argued that the “choreographic” aspect of fascist politics had offered the Italian masses a “symbolic participation” in the construction of the totalitarian State; a participation which fulfilled confused but deeply-shared aspirations. In Il culto del littorio Gentile has developed a full conceptual and narrative treatment of this argument. By studying fascist symbols and rituals in their relationship to the “system of values and beliefs, and the political theology which inspired them” (310), this book discloses the liturgical nature of fascist choreography as the expression of a fascist “political religion.”
As Gentile stresses in his conclusions, it is ironic that the religious nature of fascist totalitarianism should have been completely neglected by historians of fascism, whereas a growing historiography on Nazism and Bolshevism as political religions has been accumulating in the last decade. In fact, the link between the logic of totalitarianism and the messianic nature of fascist ideology had been repeatedly and forcefully affirmed by both fascist intellectuals and foreign observers. It goes entirely to Gentile’s credit not only to have reminded us of this widespread interpretation of fascism among its contemporaries, but also to have attempted [End Page 235] the first full-scale treatment of its development and institutionalization into the “cult of fascism.” This book offers a guided tour in the “symbolic universe of fascist religion” (vii), as well as an explicit contextualization of fascism within the larger phenomenon of the “sacralization of politics” (vii), which Gentile treats as the “transfusion of the ‘sacred’ from traditional religions to mass-movements” (301) that has characterized all modern societies from the end of the eighteenth century onwards. Accordingly, the author begins his study by tracing the ideological origins of fascist “political religion” back to the Rousseauian and Jacobin conception of civic religion, through its Risorgimental materialization in Mazzini’s writings, and up to its first post-World War I reincarnation in the D’Annunzian “cult of the fallen.”
Having established such continuity between fascist religion and previous models of civic religion, the bulk of Gentile’s book shows that fascism differs from any version of civic religion of the nation because of its organizations as a militia-party and the totalitarian logic of its political cult of the State. In the years before its coming to power the Fascist Party had already elaborated its credo into a “sacralizing rhetoric” and liturgy (50) (closely modeled on Catholic ritual), which gave its members not only a sense of identity but also the messianic project to convert the entire nation to their faith and transform it into an “harmonic collectivity” (59). Upon coming to power, the Fascists first enforced the collective veneration of State-symbols (1923–26), then absorbed and transformed the cult of the fatherland into the cult of fascism (1926–32), and finally converted the masses to fascist faith and life style by developing the liturgical aspects of their religion to the point of “mechanical repetition” (1932–42) (65). Drawing upon both archival documentation and a wide range of published sources (in particular the veritable Bible of fascist religion: the 1940 Dizionario di Politica [Dictionary of politics]), Gentile’s narrative describes and brings together phenomena such as the “glorification of the Great War” (74), “the fascistization of history” (80), the “symbolic institutionalization...