Interview in La Lettura, literary supplement of the Corriere della Sera (24 November 2019)
November 28, 2019
At the annual Rendez-vous de l’Histoire, the biggest French history festival which is held every year in October in Blois, we at the Centre International de Recherche of the Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne, almost always organise a round-table debate on an aspect of the First World War related to the over-arching festival theme. This year the theme was ‘Italy’ (which is rare – more usually it is an abstract topic). To mark the entry to our research centre of Marco Mondini, one of the leading younger Italian historians of war (there is of course a distinguished senior cohort in the field), we proposed a debate on ‘L’Italie au centre de la Grande Guerre?’ Along with Marco, whose most recent major work is a political and military biography of Luigi Cadorna, the Italian commander-in-chief from 1915 to 1917 (Il Capo: La Grande Guerra del generale Luigi Cadorna [Bologna: Il Mulino, 2017]), we were joined by Dr Vanda Wilcox, of John Cabot University, Rome, whose Morale and the Italian Army during the First World War (Cambridge: CUP, 2016) is a fine study of why Italian soldiers kept fighting, and by Franziska Heimburger (member of the Centre International de Recherche of the Historial and lecturer at the University of Paris IV). She is an expert on language and war and who examined the relations, linguistic and other, between the Italians and the British and French Divisions which arrived after Caporetto (no, they didn’t ‘save the day’ as has long been believed in both countries!).
I chaired the debate and proposed two propositions: first, that Italy is central to the history of the Great War, although it is usually seen as marginal (especially by historians outside the country focused on the western front); and secondly, that the Great War is central to the history of Italy in the first half of the 20th century, although the latter is usually dominated by Fascism and its outcomes. We spent an enjoyable hour and a half with a packed room trying to reverse this double marginalization.
In the interview here which Marco Mondini conducted with me at Blois for La Lettura, the literary supplement of the Corriere della Sera, I suggest that despite the very fine work done by Italian historians of the Great War (Quinto Antonelli, Bruna Bianchi, Antonio Gibelli, Mario Isnenghi, Nicola Labanca and Giovanna Procacci come to mind along with others including Giorgio Rochat, the doyen of Italian military history), their work is less well known outside Italy than it should be. Also much (though not all) of it is conducted in a national framework (they are hardly alone in that!). But the case that Italy was at the heart of the Great War turns on the basic paradox of national history everywhere that any such claim can only be established by transnational history. In that context Italy was central because (for all its particularities) the Austro-Italian front and the Italian experience of the war were comparable to the other fronts that ringed Europe in a mutual industrialized siege. Moreover, in what was a war of coalition, the Austro-Italian front was important to the overall outcome, especially after Caporetto.
The other paradox is that we think of the war ending on 11th November 1918 (well, 4th November in the Italian case). But it didn’t. In many parts of Europe, continued fighting, wars and civil wars, and social and political unrest continued until around 1923-1924. In short, a ‘greater war.’ This is true of Italy and it was in that process that the Great War became the incubus of Fascism. Without the war and the ‘greater war,’ no Fascism, at least not in the form in which it was pioneered in Italy. If Italy was central to (and a quintessential manifestation of) the Great War, the war was central to the defining episode of 20th century Italian history.
The theme of next year’s Rendez-vous de l’Histoire is ‘gouverner’ – to govern. With any luck the Historial de la Grande Guerre and its research centre will be back with another stimulating debate!