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Italian Historian Emilio Gentile Visits Harvard, Dante

One of Italy’s major luminaries on the history of fascism, Professor Emilio Gentile, recently visited the Boston area to hold lectures at Harvard’s Center for European Studies and the Dante Alighieri Society in Cambridge.

A professor at Rome’s Università La Sapienza and former student of Renzo De Felice, Gentile is considered one of Italy’s foremost cultural historians of fascist ideology.

At Harvard, Gentile held a lecture on October 16, titled “The March on Rome: How Antifascists Understood the Origins of Totalitarianism (and Coined the Word).” The lecture was part of the first annual Gaetano Salvemini Colloquium in Italian History and Culture, an initiative promoted by the Minda De Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard and the Consulate General of Italy in Boston.

“I consider it an honor to have been chosen as the opening speaker for the Salvemini Colloquium cycle here at Harvard, and at the same time I feel the responsibility that comes with it,” said Gentile after being introduced by the Consul General of Italy in Boston, Giuseppe Pastorelli, and Renato Camurri of the University of Verona. “I hope to fulfill the task at hand in the best possible way.”

Gentile walked the audience through a brief history of the rise of fascism and how historians analyzed it at the time, as well as approach Gentile’s colleagues take today.

“I personally agree with Giuseppe Galasso when in 1996 he wrote: “[Italian fascism] was a role model and a school for totalitarianism and right wing dictatorships – in, and out of, Europe – in terms of power conquering techniques, institutional setup, the ‘factory of consensus,’ the relationship with economic forces, the connections between domestic and foreign policy,” Gentile said.

“The trivialization of the March on Rome gravely influenced the comprehension of the origins and nature of the fascist regime. There are historians who believe that fascism reached power without no government program or ideas for a new regime.”

Gentile went on to explain how varying interpretations of the March on Rome and its consequences make the subject still controversial among historians.

“In 1966 Renzo De Felice said that Mussolini after the March on Rome did not have a ‘clear authoritarian will’ but that he only wanted to grant more strength to the executive branch of government without even questioning the parliamentary system. More recently, in 2000, Roberto Vivarelli repeated that, by the time it reached power, fascism had not yet shaped itself into a specific physiognomy, and that ‘in its first year of government it remained a nebula with very uncertain borders.’

“Hence, according to these historians the one-party regime introduced in Italy by fascism was the product of unforeseen circumstances and events and most of all a consequence of its adversaries’ weakness.

“In reality, even if fascism did not have a clear government program, it did have its own ideas about the kind of State it wanted to build: an anti-democratic State that would not allow political and civil freedom to fascism’s adversaries. This idea was expressed many times by Mussolini and the fascist press on the eve of the March on Rome. And since the first months following their rise to power, Mussolini and the fascist party actively implemented their idea of State, first and foremost by maintaining the armed militia, in order to terrorize all those who did not accept fascism or did not consider its rise to power as an irrevocable event.”

The lecture by Gentile was followed by comments and contributions Charles Maier (Harvard University), Spencer DiScala (University of Massachusetts) and David Ward (Wellesley College).

From left: Spencer DiScala, Emilio Gentile, Charles Maier, Renato Camurri, David Ward.

The following day, Gentile presented his work at the Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts, introduced by Dante president Spencer DiScala.

Prof. Gentile’s presentation was translated from Italian to English by Stefano Salimbeni.

About Nicola Orichuia

Nicola is an Italian journalist and media enthusiast living in the United States. He keeps an eye on the Italian-American communities across the country and is always looking for positive stories to highlight.