Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Heed the echoes of Mussolini's Italy in today's world



When surveying one's world it is always dangerous to forget the past. In his recent book about Italian priest and politician Luigi Sturzo (Don Luigi Sturzo: The Father Of Social Democracy), Australian historian John Molony describes an exchange at a 1931 conference.

Don Luigi Sturzo: The Father Of Social Democracy, by John MolonyWhen the Italian speaker urged Germany not to respond weakly to Hitler a German delegate replied, 'You are forgetting we are Germans, not Italians.' To which the Italian replied, 'It is precisely because you are Germans that your destruction will be more complete and humiliating than that of the Italians.'

In contrast to the elegant, elegiac tone of Molony's recent memoirs, The Father of Social Democracy is urgently and passionately written. He writes about an Italian past in which his own life has been intertwined through his study and involvement in the Jocist movement in Rome, his meeting and fascination with Sturzo, and his participation in the Australian debates about the Movement and Catholic involvement in politics.

This book is an accounting, showing how easily democracy, freedom and respect for human rights can be surrendered both by politicians and by the Catholic Church. It invites reflection on our situation today.

Sturzo grew up in the aftermath of the reunification of Italy and the loss of the Papal States. His ministry as a priest led him to see the harsh life of the rural poor, who were exploited by landlords and ignored by the liberal governments of Italy. So he began to form groups of young Catholics to push for political change. His work developed eventually into a political party which Sturzo described as non-confessional but guided by Catholic principles.

By the 1920s Italy was dealing with the aftermath of war, had been riven by violence instigated by Socialists and responded to by landowners and industrialists, and was led by ineffectual and divided governments which failed to deal with the persistent poverty of the regions or to form a strong national identity. The papacy was impoverished, preoccupied by the loss of the Papal States and by the rise of Communism in Russia and in Italy

In this world Mussolini emerged as an agent of violent protest and selective assassination. He promised firm leadership that would deal with Socialist violence, achieve reconciliation with the Catholic Church and promote an assertive national identity. Beneath these trappings was a nascent totalitarian state.

Sturzo was one of the few who recognised the deadly threat Mussolini posed to democracy and freedom. Instead of uniting against him most politicians, including many of Sturzo's party, tried to play him in the hope of taming him.


"In many nations there is the same desire for a strong, authoritarian leader who will overthrow the ineffectual rule of political insiders. Italy has had its Berlusconi; the Philippines has its Duterte; the United States is being offered its Trump."


The recently elected Pope Pius XI, who had seen and recognised the totalitarian character of Communism at first hand, also saw in Mussolini a strong leader who could oppose the Socialists and advance the interests of the church. The Vatican disowned Sturzo's party, the most effective resistance to Mussolini's takeover, and forced into exile Sturzo, on whose life several attempts had been made at Mussolini's behest.

The Italy in which Mussolini came to power has haunting similarities to today's world. Throughout the western world is found the same disillusion with a tired liberal politics that concentrates wealth in a few hands and disregards the human costs of its policies. Our contemporary governments are also characterised by division, paralysis and fragmentation, unable to govern effectively. In many nations there is the same desire for a strong, authoritarian leader who will overthrow the ineffectual rule of political insiders. Italy has had its Berlusconi; the Philippines has its Duterte; the United States is being offered its Trump. They promise to restore national pride and the end of government by the elite for the elite. In most countries their rise has been encouraged by politicians and media that try to use them in their own interests, offering only muted criticism of their brutal and undemocratic policies.

The part played by the Catholic Church in politics is also worth reflecting on from the perspective of Italy in the 1920s. As then, the Catholic Church is increasingly marginalised in the west, not by the loss of its property but by the loss of members and its good reputation.

The temptation is to focus on the interests of the Catholic Church, its internal order and on personal morality, to support politicians who make promises to support Catholic causes they will never deliver on, and to oppose those who do not. The issues to do with marriage, the termination of life, education and religious freedom are certainly central to the health of any society. But they can be addressed only in a world in which personal freedom and responsibility for society are assured. Because this world is under threat by an economic system that enriches the wealthy at the growing marginalisation of others and by the destruction of the natural environment, the Catholic Church should give them priority.

Sturzo's example is pertinent in such a world. He never lost sight of the people who mattered most — the poor who were betrayed by governments liberal and fascist alike. And in his practice of politics he never compromised where ethical principles were at stake. Molony's book is a tribute to a man of great integrity. The passion with which it is written is a tribute to the author.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Don Luigi Sturzo, The Father Of Social Democracy, John Molony, Mussolini



submit a comment

Existing comments

Please, please shout your second last paragraph from the rooftops. In addition I am becoming aware that the influence of extremely conservative Catholics in party politics has become increasingly covert. This disturbs me.

Sheelah Eegan | 26 October 2016  

Andrew, You have hit the nail squarely on the head! As soon as I started reading your article I thought of Trump and Duterte. Putin is another example .There are now many in Eastern Europe and now Turkey .The recent actions by Senator Brandis reflect a similar view here at home. My wife and I are about to visit the Philippines. I am rather concerned as in the Marcos years (1983) I was briefly detained by the 'men in black suits' at Manila International Airport after attending a Conference at a College in my role as a teacher. Seems being a teacher was subversive then and maybe still is. Sadly the promise of the quick fix is today's mantra- you are so right, we fail to learn from history at our peril .

Gavin | 27 October 2016  

Thank you Andrew for that interesting parallel from history to what is happening today. I have always appreciated your articles.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 27 October 2016  

Fr Hamilton correctly notes, “This world is under threat by an economic system that enriches the wealthy at the growing marginalization of others.” Long-time globalization supporter, McKinsey Institute, recently reported, “Real incomes of about two-thirds of households in 25 advanced countries were flat or fell between 2005 and 2014.” However it’s a bit rich to put Trump, who wants to reject the economic system, in the same strong-man slot as Duterte. And who is really acting like a strong-man? Obama used the Taxation Office to target conservative non-profit groups and even 26 Democrats wanted this investigated; he refused to enforce laws with which he disagreed; he uses the Executive Power to circumvent Congress, resulting in Obama-supporter Professor Jonathan Turley suggesting this “threatens the stability and functionality of our tripartite system.” What about Wikileaks documents showing: Obama advisor, John Podesta, admitting how they “conspire to produce an unaware and compliant citizenry”; how they work to incite violence at Trump rallies; and how they have engaged in massive voter fraud and are plotting new ways to get undocumented aliens to vote. Multinationals and the wealthy support Clinton, while in Victoria a socialist Minister has his dogs taxpayer-chauffered to his country estate.

Ross Howard | 27 October 2016  

Interestingly In 1919 Alcide Amedeo Francesco De Gasperi (; 3 April 1881 – 19 August 1954) was among the founders of the Italian People's Party (Italian: Partito Popolare Italiano – PPI), with Luigi Sturzo. Alcide was later an Italian statesman and politician who founded the Christian Democracy party. From 1945 to 1953 he was the prime minister of eight successive coalition governments.[Quite something in Italy or anywhere] His eight-year term in office remains a landmark of political longevity for a leader in modern Italian politics. A conservative Catholic, he was one of the Founding fathers of the European Union, along with the other Italian Altiero Spinelli, the French Robert Schuman and the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. His cause for beatification started in 1993 [I await the Kindle Edition edition being bedridden stroke/cancer rehab with internet] Mr Molony lectured us scholastics in Church History in 1967 at ANU [on Aquinas?] Excellent!!!

Father John George | 08 November 2016  

Gavin ah Marcos years!!! I was at Manila Uni in 1983 an anti-Marcos hot bed. We travelled to East Coast Infanta Diocese to observe Radio station, regarded by Marcos claque as subversive-as we entered Bishops residence, we were carefully noted by a gaggle of cops in local coffee shop opposite! Christmas traditional Novena Masses packed at 3am, as people had to get to work in fields etc early after Mass, before blistering heat!! [We slept on wooden beds in a loft full of Mosquitos-followed by Malaria!

Father John George | 08 November 2016  

May Inote, Pope Benedict XV approved of Sturzos PPI party despite papal "non expedit" that enjoined upon Italian Catholics the policy of abstention from the polls in parliamentary elections. Ironically co-founder,later outstanding politician and PM Servant of God Alcide De Gasperi later differed with Sturzo on the scope of the constituency of Christian democracy and a referendum to abolish the monarchy) in October 1945 and May 1946. [Again in fairness I have to await Kindle-my left stroke paralysis makes reading of Molony's applauded book problematical with one hand in use etc.

Father John George | 09 November 2016  

Forgive my addendum for Devil's Advocate:cautioning re beatification of Alcide De Gasperi who "...in opposition to the PPI’s leader, Luigi Sturzo, successfully recommended that the PPI should take part in Benito Mussolini’s new government. He replaced Sturzo as leader of the PPI, but the increasingly dictatorial tendencies of Mussolini led him to oppose the regime." [Perhaps one day a Blessed Luigi Sturzo Versus highly imprudent ? De Gasperi] But even Machiavelli would be bamboozled in that fracas-[Gasperi found safety as a Vatican Librarian during dictatorship;Sturzo in foreign exile for 20 years] cf Gilbert, Mark; Nilsson, Robert K.. The A to Z of Modern Italy (The A to Z Guide Series) (p. 131). Scarecrow Press. Kindle Edition.

Father John George | 09 November 2016  

While Sturzo suffered under Pius XI, he had a reasonable run under previous Benedict XV. Re latter: ‘Without Vatican tolerance, the PPI would have had to struggle for electoral support, but with Vatican sanction in the official sense it would have ceased to be what Sturzo wanted it to be – an autonomous political party/ Molony, J. N., The Emergence of Political Catholicism in Italy: Partito Popolare 1919– 1926 (London, 1977):p.66

Father John George | 09 November 2016  

Be it known that Don Sturzo laid the foundation for the later renowned Christian Democracy Party (DC).[ In 1953, he was appointed senator for life of the Italian Republic]. He died in Rome in 1959.Re Christian Democracy ( DC) It was a Christian democratic political party in Italy. The DC was founded in 1943 as the ideological successor of the historical Italian People's Party[of Don Sturzo], which had the same symbol, a crossed shield (scudo crociato). A Roman Catholic, centrist, catch-all party comprising both right- and left-leaning political factions, the DC played a dominant role in the politics of Italy for 50 years from its inception in 1944 until its final demise in 1994 sadly amid a nationwide judicial investigation of systemic political corruption. The party was nicknamed the White Whale (Balena bianca). Mind you Don Sturzi was critical of post war CD . Alcide De Gasperi, became first foreign minister and then, from November 1945, prime minister. No party other than the DC would hold the premiership again until 1981, a cycle of institutional dominance unmatched by any other party anywhere else in democratic Europe.

Father John George | 10 November 2016  

PLEASE PLEASE - whoever edits reviews or references to books - give the bibliographical details at the end - more people will read it as a result.

ROSALIE COTTER | 25 November 2016  

Similar Articles

Buried or burned, respect for the dead is what matters

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 02 November 2016

Last week the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an Instruction on the conditions under which cremation is legitimate for Catholics. The starting point is the conviction that for Christians the best way of treating the body after death is through burial. Yet cremation is open to possibilities that the Instruction does not envisage. Sprinkling the ashes over the sea or a place significant to the dead person can be consistent with an informed Christian sensibility. It need not be pantheistic.