The claim that history is written by the winners has become axiomatic. But when an established narrative shifts, to the point that an opposite version of events emerges and is widely accepted, does that mean we now have a different winner? As empire is no longer viewed as the noble pursuance of the white man’s burden, the statues begin to topple and there is talk of reparations, can yesterday’s victims be seen as having the upper hand? In the USA people continue to argue about the rights and wrongs of the Civil War, the implication being that a new vision of the past would alter the distribution of power and wealth in the present. The past matters now.

Let me cite a case from my adopted country, Italy. For more than a century after its achievement in 1861, the unification of Italy was generally presented as a triumph of liberalism and constitutionalism, a great step forward in the emanci­pation and democratisation of a major European people. However, since the late Nineties, following the end of the Cold War and a general tendency in the West for nations to re-examine their founding presumptions, this notion has been constantly challenged and previously submerged counter narratives have come to the fore. In the south of Italy, proponents of the Neo-Bourbonist movement began to present the collapse of the old Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (43,000 square miles, ruled by a Bourbon dynasty), as an act of imperial aggression by the north of Italy on the south.

In the run-up to the 150th anniversary of unification in 2011, the debate became heated and the Neo-Bourbonists made inroads. In 2008, a group of supporters of the Two Sicilies Committee unveiled a memorial stone at the huge Fenestrelle Fort in the mountains of Piedmont, northern Italy. It read:

Between 1860 and 1861 thousands of soldiers of the army of the Two Sicilies who refused to repudiate their king and country were imprisoned in Fenestrelle. Few returned home, most died from hardship and privation. The few who know bow their heads.

Speaking at the unveiling, Duccio Mallamaci, local leader of the Party of the South, compared the Piedmontese fort to Auschwitz and claimed that 8,000 men had died there of hunger and cold. In all, he claimed, 40,000 southern prisoners were exterminated in the north.

The fact that the authorities allowed the stone to be placed would suggest an acknowledgement of the truth of these claims. Scores of books have been published in recent years suggesting that the Bourbon kingdom was preferable to the modern Italian state, a model of intellectual openness and industrial achievement, in short not at all the backward, repressive regime described in the traditional narrative of the Risorgimento, the movement that led to unification. The end of the Bourbon monarchy, they claim, was followed by wholesale massacre of the kingdom’s citizens and decades of devastating asset-stripping, damaging the south in favour of the north.

In particular, in 2010, the journalist Pino Aprile’s book, Terroni, amounted to an impassioned denunciation of the whole Risorgimento process and the subse­quent treatment of the south. The book has been through more than thirty editions, reputedly selling hundreds of thousands of copies. When The Guardian published a list of the ten best books on Sicily, it ranked Terroni first, commenting: “Italy, [Aprile] argues, is not actually a unified country but a colonial project that the Savoy monarchy in Turin devised to pay off their war debts from fighting Austria… [T]his is a marvellous piece of research and a valuable catalogue of uncomfortable truths about the origins of southern Italy’s economic woes.”

While researching my own Risorgimento book, The Hero’s Way, I discovered that the word “genocide” creeps easily into this debate. At one dinner party I attended, a writer from the south spoke of a greater slaughter than the Holocaust, arousing the vigorous protest of a Jewish man present. On another occasion a professor of Italian literature assured me that Garibaldi, great champion of 19th century liberalism, was little more than a cyni­cal if talented bandit, operating in line with the dictates of international freemasonry. Questioned, none of these people had read any serious historical accounts of the period, or biographies of those they criticised, but were nevertheless convinced that the traditional version of the Risorgimento was a lie. At another social occasion a Sicilian lawyer, in his seventies, confided that southern people were now long-resigned to being a colonised, subject people. The rhetoric is not unlike that used, say, by some members of the Scottish National Party: by speaking of resignation, one is justifying an eventual rebellion.

Married as I am to woman from the south whose family tend to share these revisionist views, I embarked on a project of reading. How else can one get to the truth? I soon came across three books dedicated to debunking the claims of the Neo-Bourbons; perhaps inevitably these are no more than elaborate exercises in fact checking. Nevertheless, they entirely demolish the narrative one finds in Terroni. Professor Alessandro Barbero specifically took on the claims about deaths at the Fenestrelle fort in I prigionieri dei Savoia. Over 378 pages, Barbero considers how the Italian government dealt with soldiers of the defeated Bourbon army who were not willing to serve in the Italian army.

Exactly 1186 prisoners were imprisoned at Fenestrelle in November 1860. Correspondence between prison and army officials describes the poor state of their health and laments the high level of hospitalisation required following their arrival: 178 soldiers were given hospital beds alongside regular Italian soldiers serving at the fort. As it turned out, the southern prisoners were held in Fenestrelle for less than three weeks. Five died. Again, correspondence is quoted indicating the efforts made to inform their families. The reader is struck by the meticulous bureaucracy surrounding the prisoners and the earnest, if sometimes heated exchanges between officials as to the exact nature of their responsibilities. There is no trace at all of any project of extermination or any systematic cruelty. There are no mass graves.

But the prisoners of Fenestrelle are only one detail in the broader claims of Neo-Bourbon revisionism. A far greater question is that of the thousands of briganti (brigands) who fought against the newly formed Italian government in the ex-territories of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies between 1861 and 1866. Neo-Bourbonists insist that far from being criminal, these men constituted a legitimate resistance movement that expressed the will of the people and could only eventually be crushed through a brutal strategy of concentration camps and mass executions. “Hundred of thousands [were imprisoned],” writes Aprile, “defined as brigands simply because they were southerners. If they were children they were precocious brigands; if they were women they were brigandesses, or wives or daughters of brigands, or relatives of brigands…all in respect of the law, of course, as with apartheid in South Africa”.

In 2019, the young southern historian Professor Carmine Pinto published a 500-page account of this long and complex conflict, followed in 2022 by a shorter work concentrating on the biographies of two of the war’s main protagonists. In brief, there had always been a tradition of banditry in the south, something successfully harnessed by the Bourbons after the Napoleonic invasion of Naples in 1799 when the brigands joined forces with royalists to resist the French. After his defeat in 1861, Bourbon king Francesco II tried to repeat this experience, encouraging the remnants of his army to ally with brigand bands and providing them with arms and money from his refuge in Rome. The brigand leaders seized on the situation to intensify their activities, which up to this point had been focused on kidnappings, theft and the collection of protection money. In 1863 alone there were 454 recorded kidnappings.

Towns were captured in Basilicata, Puglia and Calabria, and those siding with the Italian government were massacred. However, the alliance came apart, as traditional soldiers were appalled by the brigands’ cruelty and the brigands realised that the military support promised by the Bourbons was not going to materialise. From this point on the brigands’ activity was entirely criminal. Pinto methodically catalogues acts of atrocious violence, rape, castrations, decapitations and much more, pointing out that the brigands never had a political project, never attempted to redistribute land or wealth from the rich to the poor and never enjoyed widespread popular support, as Neo-Bourbonists claim. On the contrary, their most important allies were old aristocratic families who hoped for a return of the Bourbon monarchy in order to preserve their privileges, but did not wish to take the risk of openly opposing the new government.

However, the most illuminating aspect of these books is their account of the evolving reaction of the new Italian state. Elections in 1861 had returned a parliament in which southern candidates of the Right and Left took 163 of the 417 seats. Many of them had been supporting the cause of unification for decades. It was these southern deputies who called most urgently for the defeat of the brigands and who encouraged the govern­ment to assume draconian powers, something that many politicians from the north resisted until the introduction of the so-called Pica Law of August 1863, which remained in force until December 1865. This measure permitted the army to round up supporters of the brigands in temporary camps and to shoot anyone bearing arms against the Italian state. Those surrendering their arms would be spared. Some 12,000 people were arrested for the crime of “brigandry” in the first year of the law (not hundreds of thousands). Almost 11,000 trials led to 2,100 convictions, with more than half of the trials being resolved, as promised, in less than a month.

At the same time, combined groups of Italian soldiers and local National Guard militias worked together to fight the brigands, with the locals accounting for at least 50% of the force and proving the most determined to finish the job, often in a spirit of brutal vendetta. The government set up a fund to compensate citizens who had lost property or loved ones as a result of brigand activity and considerable rewards were offered to anyone betraying the brigands. There were wild public rejoicings as the various bands eventually surrendered, disintegrated, or were defeated in combat. That it was an ugly conflict no one disputes, with a death toll in the region of ten thousand on both sides of the conflict.

One comes away from these books with a sense that, however many mistakes it might have made, there was nothing evil or systematically predatory about the Italian government’s attempts to integrate the new nation and establish the kind of control over its territory that could guarantee the security of its citizens. Nor were these efforts made by one region of the country against another, but for the most part in a spirit of collaboration. Yet the desire for a simplistic polarizing version of the past seems irresistible. Our debates about history tend to boil down to a hunt for the guilty party; to nail yesterday’s villain is to empower one’s cause in the present. Despite all the fact-checking, the Neo-Bourbonist version of events flourishes.

To return, then, to our initial question, does this shift in the narrative about Italy’s past, a shift occurring at the expense of the facts, indicate a shift of power, new winners and new losers? It is hard to think of the Neo-Bourbons as winners, since they do not seem to have a serious political project. The party Sud chiama nord which calls for greater autonomy for the south, received less than one per cent of the vote at the 2022 elections. On the other hand, the more the view that the south has been the victim of a tremendous injustice prevails, the more likely its people are to benefit from a flow of subsidies that often seem to take on a penitential flavour.

If this is at best a dubious victory, it’s not hard to spot the loser in this tale: the nation-state. The effect of Risorgi­mento revisionism has been to erode pride in the history of Italy as a state and to ques­tion its very legitimacy. Alternatively, you could say that an existing lack of pride made citizens receptive to propaganda that denigrated their national identity. Looked at this way, the beneficiaries are those large supranational organisations, particularly the EU, that seek to replace the nation-state, encouraging people to think of themselves as individual world-citizens in a global community, not as members of a nation, competing and collaborating with other nations. It seems unfortunate that this perhaps noble aspiration should make progress at the expense of historical truth.

The stone at Fenestrelle commemorating a massacre that never happened was testimony to a zeitgeist at odds with the facts. Italy, of course, is hardly the only victim. In so many contemporary conflicts, the feeling that one is on the “right side of history”, seems to justify a wilful blindness. History has no sides, right or wrong.

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