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The case of Italy

Within the framework of PREWArAs, the case of Italy is particularly complex. At the turn of the century, Italy was a country facing significant economic and social developments. The combined result of the development of working-class organisations and the more permissive policies pursued by Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti produced a notable increase in strikes and social struggles. This did nothing but fuelling fears and perceptions of uncertainty and fear of social revolution among propertied classes. ‘Men of order’ and employers’ organisations established vigilante and strikebreaking groups to respond to a perceived weakness of the state in repression. The ‘Volunteer Workers’, an agrarian strikebreaking group founded in the fertile plans of Parma, represented a model for many years to come throughout the Po Valley. Gathering leaseholders, their families and faithful workers, the ‘Volunteers’ provided protection to blacklegs and carried out provocative actions against trade unions. Vigilante groups such as the ‘Citizens’ Patrols’ in Bologna also testified the willingness of ‘good bourgeois citizens’ to react against any troubles or disorders coming from the so-called subversives. Defence of freedom, private property and social order were the main aims of these groups, reflecting crucial insights within the political cultures of Italian propertied classes.

Political and electoral struggles and the control over long-established social hierarchies characterised the use of groups of private police in Southern Italy, where unfortunately violence reached very exorbitant levels. More institutionalised armed associations were also present in the country. Thanks to the support of the military, the shooting clubs aimed to prepare and continuing training good citizens, instilling values such as patriotism and love for fatherland, as well as some (rudimental) shooting skills. Although they had their origins in amateur clubs, groups such as the Volunteer Cyclists and Motorists (established in 1908) were armed groups supported by the Army with the clear purpose of training citizens for auxiliary duties in case of war.

Courtesy of Progetto Au.Gu.Sto. – DigitPA.

These are just few examples of a multifaceted reality in which institutionalised armed groups went hand in hand with more informal but nevertheless powerful private organisations. All of them had an influencing impact on the social, political and even cultural life of a country facing rapid economic growth as well as deep internal contradictions.

The rise of Fascism in post-WWI Italy represents a heavy legacy, which may affect our view of the previous period. Additional chariness is therefore needed to analyse the role played by armed associations in pre-WWI Italy, in order to avoid any generalisation or teleological bias. The study of Italian vigilante groups, student battalions, shooting clubs and strikebreaking organisations sheds light on crucial issues, such as the relationships between civil and military powers, processes of democratisation and nationalisation, spread of antisocialist cultures and practices. Such focus may help us to understand the long origins of the crisis of the Italian society and institutions, and to eventually address the apparent paradox of revolutionary aspirations against established powers coming not only from socialists and anarchists but even more from those social groups which were supposed to identify more with the institutions.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 677199).

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