Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Opera Buffa of Italian Fascism: soccer and politics

Those who can appreciate the old, favorite joke about Italy---that their language has 14 tenses, but two can only be used while retreating---will be interested in the new biography of Mussolini and the Italian people by Bosworth, Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, reviewed by Wheatcroft in the Washington Post. Why was Italian fascism never as bad as Nazism or Communism---less totalizing, less competent, less anti-Semitic, less attractive to both the average and the intellectual Italian? The answer seems to what Neuhaus first described, following Tocqueville, as "mediating institutions" that insulate the individual from megastructures such as the state and the international corporation: the family, community organizations, churches, local artistic ventures, and so forth. In this way, the Italians, through their lack of organization, are similar to Americans in their "diversity of institutional ways in which [they] have traditionally addressed human needs."

Even sports can come between a poor Duce and his desired nationalism. Football (soccer), while exploited as effectively as possible by Mussolini, generally caused more regionalism than it subverted in Italy, even forming, as Martin writes in Fascism and Football, an "outlet for the old provincial grievances that fascism has never tolerated." One Italian politician recommended putting an end to football because of its "idiotic localism." (But see this Spiegel article on Paolo di Canio's fascist salue and the Roman mayor's bringing of di Canio together with Holocaust survivors; see also this depressing Slate description of Lazio.) The Germans under Hitler much more effectively transformed the 1936 Olympics and the 1938 World Cup into referenda on racial superiority politics, as shown by the excellent BBC documentary that aired just a week ago, Football & Fascism. (I know little about Franco and his association with Real Madrid.) Wheatcroft also mentions the murder by fascists of Ottavio Bottecchia, the two-time Tour de France winner, without noting the broader anti-fascist trends in Italian cycling of the time.

It is good to keep in mind how wicked Mussolini was, and how much madness il fascismo generated. But there is something to the claim that the pre-modern centrality of family life in Italy, and the pre-modern strength and sensibilities of the Catholic Church, made this infection less severe than in Germany. (Why would not the Orthodox Church in Russia have been more successful in mitigating Communism, given the importance of family and church there? There may be a theological or cultural explanation for this, but it seems likely that the sheer amount of time the Commies had to decimate the Orthodox Church might be the most significant fact. Take a look also at Hammer and Tickle, exploring the Orwellian idea that in a Communist society every joke is a tiny revolution.) While coming too late, the Vatican's distaste for fascism culminated in 1931 in the encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno, condemning Mussolini's interference with Catholic activities, and reiterating that placing the state above the duty to God is heresy. These difficulties parallel the confusing relation of the Protestant churches in Germany with Nazism, with both Niemollers and collaborationists, discussed by Richard Steigman-Gall in The Holy Reich. Interestingly, the Catholic Church was in opposite situations in Germany and Italy, with German Catholics mostly allied with Weimar socialists and opposing Hitler's rise, while the fear of socialism in Italy led the Vatican to be too friendly to early fascism. Strange.


Blogger spjoe said...

I saw Fascism and Football - the BBC doc when it was aired in the UK. I thought it was fantastic. I hear from friends there that there is also a type follow-up film called 'Communism and Football' that has recently been shown and is definitely worth a watch.

ps. what country (& magazine) is this?!

7:53 PM  

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