Last Tuesday – 2nd June – was a public holiday, this time to mark La Festa della Repubblica, which is effectively ‘first cousin’ to La Festa della Liberazione celebrated annually on 25th April. Back then we were in the depths of the coronavirus crisis, with fear and uncertainty running high and stringent quarantine restrictions still firmly in place, so this year’s Liberation Day celebrations were a muted and sombre affair, the poignant irony of the anniversary, which marks Italy’s liberation from the forces of fascism in 1945, all too apparent to a nation in tight lockdown [Irony and Inspiration].
Some six weeks later, with coronavirus apparently in retreat, the stripped-back, mask-clad celebrations to mark this year’s Republic Day seemed similarly loaded with symbolism as the country stood poised to return the following day to some kind of normal life, and to exercise once more those basic constitutional freedoms that for three months it had put on hold (as specifically provided for in the constitution, incidentally). For it was on June 2nd 1946 that in the first free national vote since 1924 – held, too, on the basis of universal suffrage and with an eighty-nine percent turnout – the people elected the Constituent Assembly whose primary function was to draft the constitution that came into force on 1st January 1948. The five hundred and fifty-six members of the Constituent Assembly came from all walks of life and held views that covered a broad political spectrum, but the one thing they all shared was their bitter hatred of fascism. Thus the core principles of democracy, popular sovereignty, peace, equality and freedom were declared the foundations on which the Republic would be established.
Ah, yes. The Republic: 2nd June is better known as Republic Day rather than Constitution Day because on that day in 1946 a national referendum was also held in which the electorate were invited to decide on the form of government they wanted, a monarchy or a republic. And by 54% to 46% the people voted to abolish Italy’s eighty-five-year-old monarchy in favour of a republic. This represented a complete volte-face on the part of the Italian people. Back in 1861, the first king of the newly united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, was hailed as a national hero in light of his central role in Italy’s unification. Indeed, together with the military and political heroes of the Risorgimento, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Benso Cavour and Giuseppe Mazzini, he shares the epithet ‘Fathers of the Fatherland’. And it was in gratitude for Vittorio Emanuele’s contribution to the creation of the modern-day Italian nation that the gargantuan Vittoriano, which is also known as the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland), was built in the centre of Rome in 1885. So it is slightly ironic that it is at this monument to the united Italy’s first monarch that wreaths are laid, flags are raised, and march-pasts and fly-pasts conducted – all in commemoration of the day on which the country voted to oust his successors just two generations later.
The reason for the dramatic change in fortunes of the House of Savoy is quite simple: the monarchy had become fatally compromised by King Vittorio Emanuele III’s tolerance of Mussolini and his regime throughout the fascist era, not helped by his public refusal in 1943 to accept any responsibility for Italy’s catastrophic circumstances at the time in having appointed Mussolini prime minister in 1922. In the absence of any moral legitimacy and with the Allies and the Partisans driving the Nazis and the Fascists into retreat, it was clear that it would be impossible for Vittorio Emanuele to hold any meaningful role in post-war Italy, so he reluctantly gave in to pressure from the Allies and in 1944 transferred his powers (but not the title of King) to his son Umberto who became Regent. However, while Umberto was not as badly tainted by fascism as his father (largely because the King had not allowed his son to become involved in the exercise of power), he was personally, politically and militarily ill-equipped to rally meaningful support for the crown. The King made a last-ditch attempt to save the monarchy (and so keep the Communists at bay) by formally abdicating in favour of his son on 9th May 1946, even though he made it publicly known that he considered Umberto unfit to rule. Even though he enjoyed the support of the Catholic church (who preferred to frame the republic vs monarchy debate in terms of Communism vs Catholicism) and despite attempts to curry favour with all sides by granting pardons to criminals and agitators while handing out titles to regional notables, it all came as too little too late: preparations for the referendum were already well underway. In the end, Umberto II’s reign came to an end when the republic was declared, ending his reign after just thirty-four days, even though he disputed the outcome of the referendum, defiantly characterising it as a coup d’ètat. In a rare moment of insight and statesmanship, however, he rejected the suggestion that he should proclaim a rival government outside Rome, start a civil war in which the army would fight to save the Savoy crown: “My House united Italy. It will not divide it.”
It is to their shame, therefore, that neo-fascist protesters in Rome this weekend have not learned the lessons of history and so do not share the insight of that earlier Fascist sympathiser as they seek to destabilise their wounded nation at a time when not since 1946 has unity been more vital.
Image courtesy of Andreas Solaro/AFP – http://www.thelocal.it