Italy as an “Emigrant Nation”

In 1911, the country of Italy celebrated its 50th birthday as a unified nation-state. The Italian government marked the occasion with a special census that revealed, among other things, that one out of every six Italians lived outside of Italy.

Italian-American Women in New York, 1912
Italian Immigrants in New York, 1912 – Library of Congress

Between 1880 and 1914, thirteen million Italians emigrated to the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and other places well beyond Europe. (And others moved within Europe — e.g., French industrialists, for example, targeted relatively cheaper Italian workers, hiring thousands for their factories.) At the height of this diaspora, 2% of the nation’s population each year was leaving. Now, some of this emigration was seasonal (e.g., the golondrinas — “swallows” — who spent one growing season working on farms in Italy and another doing the same in Argentina) and many emigrants returned to Italy within 5-10 years (in part because the Italian government made it easy to reestablish citizenship).

Still, such an enormous population transfer could not but pose serious questions for Italians in Italy. Indeed, Mark Choate of Brigham Young University, in his wonderful book Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad (Harvard University Press), claims that emigration was the issue for post-unification Italy:

Italian society, culture, and politics relied upon a shifting population base, as emigrants moved between countries and continents or returned home, taking social and economic resources with them. Emigration galvanized a host of domestic concerns: ancient divisions within the recently united peninsula, regional underdevelopment in southern Italy, prevailing illiteracy, and organized crime. Why did so many choose to depart their newly created country? What did it mean to be an Italian abroad and at home? (p. 4)

(Two bits of full disclosure: first, Mark is a colleague from grad school; second, I’m late to the party, as Mark’s book came out three years ago. One of the problems with being a professor in a small department at a relatively small liberal arts university is that there’s not a great deal of time left over in which to keep up with everything in the many fields you’re asked to teach.)

Choate, Emigrant NationIt’s Mark’s last question in the selection above that most intrigues me. What happens to national identity when the nation scatters? Can the nation exist beyond a common territory or lacking its own government? According to Mark, Italian nationalists from across the political spectrum debated such questions, plus others like, “Was [emigration] a ‘hemorrhage’ of Italy’s best blood, or did it reflect the exuberance of the Italian people spreading across the globe? Should Italy center itself as the pole of Italians scattered worldwide, or should it conquer new territories for emigrant settlement under Italian rule?” (p. 1)

Of course, the Italians were not the first national group to face such questions. Diasporic peoples had long been challenged to maintain shared identity. Intriguingly, Mark points out that pre-unification Italian nationalists frequently likened their people to a more famously scattered group: the Jews. Giuseppe Mazzini called the Italians “Israelites among the nations”; the nationalist composer Giuseppe Verdi used the story of the Judeans’ captivity in Babylon as an allegory for Italian subjugation by the Austrians in his early opera Nabucco (1842).

So the initial instinct of post-1861 Italian nationalists was to cast emigration in moral terms, with those leaving often castigated as being unpatriotic, anti-social, reprobate, or cowardly (for dodging the draft). But the focus of Mark’s book is on the consensus among nationalist politicians that Italians should embrace their status as a “global nation” and treat emigration as a kind of colonization (a more profitable one than Italy’s colonies in Somaliland, Eritrea, and Libya — net drainers of Italian gold often proposed to defeat the argument that the “new” imperialism was driven by economic motives — since the government made it easy for Italians abroad to send part of their wages home through branches of the non-profit Banco di Napoli). What emerged was a public-private cooperative effort to promote Italian-ness (better in Italian: italianità). Two pillars of this unusual “colonization”:

First, prizes, scholarship, and subsidies for language training — primarily funneled through Italian Schools Abroad and the Dante Alighieri Society, which still has chapters in places like Massachusetts and Buenos Aires. Remarkably, many Italian emigrants learned Italian (as opposed to regional dialects) once they left Italy. And as David Skeel pointed out in a review of Emigrant Nation, the Italian government continues to promote the Italian language; the AP Italian exam was offered again in 2011 after a one-year hiatus primarily because the Italian government restored its funding of the program. (Also worthy of note: the Italian foreign ministry still sponsors the Dante Alighieri Society and Italian Schools Abroad, a program whose stated objectives are “the promotion and diffusion of Italian language and culture abroad” and the “maintenance of the Italian identity of the children of Italian nationals and citizens of Italian descent, even second and third generation.”)

Second, cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church — at a time when the Church opposed the Italian nation-state and many nationalists were stridently anticlerical! For its part, the Church viewed North America (until 1908) as a missions field and sent priests, monks, and nuns to serve the Italian immigrant population, since “From this perspective, Italians were migrating en masse to a land of infidels” (p. 131). And rather than duplicate efforts, the government was happy to help fund Catholic institutions (not just churches, but hospitals and schools) that would help to consolidate Italian identity in the face of pressure to assimilate.

Giovannia ScalabriniOne of the leaders of this effort was Msgr. Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, the bishop of Piacenza, who (unlike others in the hierarchy) saw little tension between Roman Catholicism and Italian nationalism. Quite the contrary, he hoped that church-state support for Italian emigrants would redound to the benefit of church-state reconciliation at home, as he made clear in his 1887 pamphlet Observations on Italian Emigration in America:

Religion and fatherland, these two supreme aspirations of every good heart, become intertwined, become complete in this work of love, which is the protection of the weak, and fuse together in a marvelous harmony. The miserable barriers, erected by hate and anger, disappear… every distinction of class and party withdrawn…. May Italy, sincerely reconciled with the Apostolic See, emulate its ancient glories and add a new, undying glory, setting even its faraway children on the shining paths of true civilization and progress. (quoted on p. 132)

How effective were such efforts? (Mark also discusses how innovations like steamships and telegraphs made it possible to sustain a trans-Atlantic community of Italians who shared news, wrote home, and wired money.) Perhaps the best test was World War I, which Italy entered in 1915. Just as their British allies appealed to the Dominions and colonies in a desperate quest for more soldiers and workers, the Italian government now sought to mobilize the global Italian nation, with mixed success. On one hand, Italian-Americans in particular had put down economic, social, cultural, and even political roots in the United States and did not necessarily see Italy’s war against Austria-Hungary as their own. (This was especially true where socialists and anarchists were most influential.)

Rome's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Rome – Creative Commons (Mike Coats)

On the other hand, Italy did succeed in gathering hundreds of thousands of reservists from the United States and, most successfully, Argentina. In his conclusion, Mark notes that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Rome is lit by two undying torches, contributions of Italians abroad; to the west of this site, a lighthouse funded by Italian Argentines stands atop a classical column.

The current number of Americans living abroad is debated (between 2-6 million, from what I could gather doing some quick research), but at 1-2% of the population it’s undeniably tiny by comparison to what we’ve seen in Italian history. Still, I increasingly hear of students and alumni who have chosen to work or study outside of the United States, and not all of them intend to return.

So when I presented Mark’s findings to my Modern Europe students in our discussion of 19th century European migrations (not just away from Europe; the biggest migration was from the countryside to the city), I asked them to keep a few hypothetical but contemporary questions in mind, questions that I’d very much invite answers to in the Comments section:

  • Do you expect to spend most of your life within 100 miles of the place you grew up? If not, what would cause you to move to another place?
  • Would you consider leaving the United States? What might motivate such a move? Would your departure be temporary or permanent?
  • Would you think of yourself as an American if you lived for a lengthy period of time in another country?

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