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

  • 25 October 2016


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.

When 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.