The Birth of Nationality

Anti-nuclear banner. Rome, 2011.

During the past hundred years, ten new states have appeared on the map of Europe: Greece, Belgium, Serbia, Italy, the German Confederation, Rumania, Montenegro, Norway, Bulgaria, and — possibly — Albania. With the exception of Albania (and is this the reason why we have to qualify its viability by the word possibly?), all of these states have appeared upon the map against the will of, and in defiance of, the concert of the European Powers.

They have all, again with the exception of Albania, been born through a rise of national consciousness preceded and inspired by a literary and educational revival. The goal has been democracy. None of them, in achieving independence, has succeeded in including within its frontiers all the territory occupied by people of the same race and the same language. Irredentism is the movement to secure the union with a nation of contiguous territories inhabited by the same race and speaking the same language. It is the call of the redeemed to the unredeemed, and of the unredeemed to the redeemed.

If we were to regard the present unrest in Europe and the antagonism of nations from the standpoint of nationalism, we could attribute the breaking out of contemporary wars to five causes: the desire of nations to get back what they have lost; the desire of nations to expand according to their legitimate racial aspirations; the desire of nations to expand commercially and politically because of possession of surplus population and energy; the desire of nations to prevent the commercial and political expansion of their rivals; and the desire of nations to stamp out the rise of national movements which threaten their territorial integrity.

Nationality, in the twentieth century, has a mental and civic, rather than a physical and hereditary basis. We are the product of our education and of the political atmosphere in which we live. This is why assimilation is so strikingly easy in America, where we place the immigrant in touch with the public school, the newspaper, and the ballot. Just as the Italians and Germans and French of Switzerland are Swiss, despite their differences of language, so the Italians of the Adriatic littoral are the product of the dispensation under which they have lived.

Holocaust Remembrance Day, Rome.

Unlike the Alsatians, they have never known political freedom and cultural advantages in common with their kin across a frontier forcibly raised to cut them off; unlike the Poles, they have not been compelled to revive the nationalism of an historic past as a means of getting rid of oppression; unlike the Slavs of the Balkans, their national spirit has not been called into being by the tyranny of a race alien in civilization and ideals, because alien in religion.

I have among my clippings from French newspapers during the past five years a legion of quotations from Vienna and Rome correspondents, concerning the friction between Austria-Hungary and Italy, and between the Italian-speaking population of Austria and the Viennese Government, over the question of distinct Italian nationality of Austro-Hungarian subjects.

There have been frontier incidents; there have been demonstrations of Austrian societies visiting Italian cities and Italian societies visiting Trieste; there has been much discussion over the creation of an Italian Faculty of Law at the University of Vienna, and the establishment of an Italian University at Trieste or Vienna; and there have been occasional causes of friction between the Austrian Governor of Istria and the Italian residents of the province.

But the general impression gained from a study of the incidents in question, and the effort to trace out their aftermath, leads to the conclusion that these irredentist incidents have been magnified in importance. A clever campaign of the French press has endeavoured to detach Italian public opinion from the Triple Alliance by publishing in detail, on every possible occasion, any incident that might show Austrian hostility to the Italian “nation.”

In 1844, Cesare Balbo, in his Speranze d’Italia, a book that is as important to students of contemporary politics as to those of the Risorgimento, set forth clearly that the hope of Italy to the exclusion of Austria from Lombardy and Venetia was most reasonably based upon the extension of the Austrian Empire eastward through the approaching fall of the Ottoman Empire. Balbo was a man of great vision. He looked beyond the accidental factors in the making of a nation to the great and durable considerations of national existence.

Alpinisti on parade, Turin.

He grasped the fact that the insistence of the Teutonic race upon holding in subjection purely Italian territories, and its hostility to the unification of the Italian people, was based upon economic considerations. Lombardy and Venetia had been for a thousand years the pathway of German commerce to the Mediterranean.

As long as Italy was under Teutonic political influence, the path to the Mediterranean was easy. United Italy and United Germany were born at the same time. But while the birth of Italy threatened to close eventually the trade route to the Mediterranean to Germany, the necessity of a trade route to the south became more vital than ever to the new German Confederation from the sequences of the union.

If Austria, Balbo argued, should fall heir to a portion of the European territories of the Ottoman Empire, she would have her outlet to the Mediterranean more advantageously than through the possession of Lombardy and Venetia. Once these Ottoman territories were secured, Austria would be ready to cede Lombardy and Venetia to a future united Italy.

Our modern idea of a state is of people living together in a political union that is to their economic advantage. Only the thoughtless enthusiasts could advocate a change in the map of Europe by which fifty million people would be cut off from the sea to satisfy the national aspirations of a few hundred thousand Italians.

Adapted from The New Map of Europe (1916.) Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.