Review: The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796

Posted 23 May, 2012 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796
By: Christopher Duggan

The birth of modern Italy was a messy affair. Inspired by a small group of writers, intellectuals, and politicians, Italy struggled in the first half of the nineteenth century to unite all Italians under one rule, throwing aside a multitude of corrupt old rulers and foreign occupiers. In the midst of this turmoil, Italian politicians felt compelled by a “force of destiny” hideously at odds with Italian reality. After great sacrifice Italy was finally unified — and turned out to be just as fragile, impoverished, and backward as it had been before. The resentments this created led to Italy’s destructive role in World War I, the subsequent rise of Mussolini and authoritarianism in the 1920s and ’30s, and the nation’s humiliating defeat in World War II. This haunting legacy deeply informs the Italy of today.

This book was actually recommended to me by a classmate/department colleague while we were in Trento for our semester exchange. I’ve never really read a detailed history of Italy–my knowledge of its history is confined to whatever major instances emerged within the greater European history–so I thought this was a good way to rectify that, albeit modern Italian history and nothing from its early modern period or back. I also read this book as part of the I Love Italy reading challenge that I am participating in.

Suffice to say, the book is pretty extensive in laying out the events that took place in Italy since 1796 right up to around 2006. What’s core about this book is his study of how the notion of Italy and being Italian was formulated over the course of some 200 years and the problems that Italians have in formulating a cohesive idea that would bring the country together. It’s a fascinating venture, especially given my personal interest in national identity and the formulation of a somewhat cohesive identity from various regions with their own sets of values, histories, symbols and in some cases dialects. Given these different factors and the inability of the central government to not only formulate a cohesive identity that Italians can readily accept but also deal with the economic and social conditions equally has been a ongoing theme throughout modern Italian history; it’s interesting to read how many of these problems are still applicable today.

Given the amount of detail that Duggan provided in the book, it can make for some dry reading sometimes, especially if you’re not into reading up political factions and economic conditions, but they are all relevant to this narrative. I might have just been me but the detail did become more and more compact the closer the reader moves towards the contemporary period, which may reflect the scholar’s specialisation, I’m not sure. I personally wished that he had provided more information on the social and cultural aspects of Italian state particularly in the 20th century because they make up such integral aspects and expressions of identity.

Overall, The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy since 1796 is a comprehensive volume of modern Italian history and definitely a good reference to turn to. If you’re curious about this period or are in need of a reference for an Italian history paper, I would strongly recommend turning to this volume first.

Rating: ★★★★½

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