Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad

August 28, 2008

For centuries, high birth rates and a weak economy drove Italians in their millions across the Alps and overseas in search of work. In the Early Modern period, central and northern Europe were the favoured destinations. In the 19th century, new markets and cheaper and easier long-distance travel shifted the focus to Australia and the Americas: Brazil and Argentina initially, and then the United States and Canada. By the start of the 20th century more than a quarter of a million people were each year abandoning the impoverished Italian countryside of regions such as Calabria and Basilicata for what seemed, in relative terms, fabulous levels of pay to be had working as factory hands or labourers in the great North American cities. According to the national census of 1911, more than one sixth of Italy's population was resident abroad.

Mark Choate's lively, well-written and impressively researched study examines how the liberal state responded to the loss of so many of its young men in the peak years of emigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The newness of the Italian state - it was formally constituted in 1861 - and the climate of heightened European nationalism in these years ensured that the issue generated a huge amount of public discussion as well as a raft of anxieties and hopes (although according to what yardstick emigration was "the most important issue facing Italy after unification", as Choate maintains, is not altogether clear).

Some Italian commentators saw mass emigration as a panacea for the state's most pressing economic problems. A majority of Italians crossed the Atlantic with a view to returning home in due course: remittances helped to maintain the balance of trade and contributed to the country's first industrial boom in the early years of the century. There were also hopes (misplaced as it turned out) that the money pouring into the savings accounts of peasant smallholders would solve the historic imbalance between the northern and southern halves of the peninsula, and there was talk of lucrative new foreign markets being created, as emigres spread demand for Italian goods.

But, as Choate demonstrates, it was the negative assessments of emigration that were to prove most potent from a political point of view. This was in large measure because of a widely shared belief among the Italian ruling classes that the country was dangerously lacking in popular patriotism and internal cohesion. Emigration could consequently be seen in terms of an already weak national organism haemorrhaging, and haemorrhaging its best blood: the able-bodied young men who in the event of the much-anticipated European war would form the backbone of its army.

One disturbing result of this point of view was the development by the Nationalist movement of the concept of the "proletarian nation": the idea that Italy, as the poor latecomer to the table of the Great Powers, required - indeed deserved as a matter of social justice - colonies to save its citizens from having to go abroad to find work. The brutal subjugation of Libya in the early 1930s and the conquest of Ethiopia in 1935-36 were both to be justified in terms of Italy's need for a "place in the sun" where its exuberant surplus population could settle - although as many foreign observers pointed out, the Fascist Government might have been better advised to try to make its own sun-baked interior more habitable before acquiring huge additional tracts of arid land.

Choate is alert to these darker ramifications of the emigration debates, but his study focuses on what he sees as the more positive aspects. In particular, he is keen to explore the steps taken by the Government, the Church and other public agencies to protect emigrants from exploitation and to ensure that they developed or retained a strong sense of national identity when overseas. Schools, cultural associations and newspapers were among the instruments used to encourage patriotism and to prevent emigres feeling abandoned and becoming lost in the host country.

That more than 300,000 Italian emigrant reservists returned to fight for the mother country in the Great War is taken by Choate as evidence of the effectiveness of liberal Italy's "far-sighted and innovative migration policies". However, his study looks at intentions more than at effects, and it remains to be seen whether this ostensible display of patriotism was indeed a product of the state's nationalising endeavours. Other factors, such as the hope of finally securing the plot of remunerative land back home that so many dreamt of, may have come into play. And for most Italian emigrants that hope remained as unfulfilled after the war as before.

Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad

By Mark I. Choate. Harvard University Press. 319pp, £29.95. ISBN 97806740848. Published 6 June 2008

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