Book Review: Garibaldi’s Mixed Legacies

November 19, 2022

Enrico Acciai, Garibaldi’s Radical Legacy: Traditions of War Volunteering in Southern Europe (1861–1945). Translated by Victoria Weavil. Abingdon, Oxon./New York, Routledge, 2021. 195pp.

In 1936, the Italian unit of the International Brigades named itself the Garibaldi Battalion. Arguably, this was a signal to its fighters, who held differing political opinions, not to oppose each other any longer, since the famous General Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) symbolized the need for unity to defeat a foe. A charismatic figure in his time, Garibaldi had attracted and led volunteers to battle for an independent and unified Italy. But national unity was only one part of his legacy. Garibaldi was also a proponent—and a practitioner—of transnational warfare. As Enrico Acciai shows in Garibaldi’s Radical Legacy, even after his death, his name was invoked when men from various countries volunteered to fight outside the Italian peninsula for values like freedom and social justice. The list of places where his influence was felt includes Poland, Crete, Greece, France, and the Balkans as well as Spain. Although Acciai doesn’t discuss all these insurrections in detail, his short book sheds a new light on left-wing internationalism in the 1930s.

In many ways, the Garibaldi’s 19th-century followers anticipated the ethos of the International Brigades. They were motivated not by material rewards, but ideals opposed to the established order. Some left their own countries to join conflicts in other lands. Mostly non-professional soldiers, they often arrived with scant training and discipline; however, once they had built their military skills and strong bonds of comradeship, governments feared them. That’s why, after they had left the scenes of battle and had returned to their homes or sought refuge in exile, they were often kept under surveillance. (Acciai and other scholars have scoured archives for the reports of police informants about the lasting ties and new activities of so-called subversives.) With time, many Garibaldians changed their political stripes, adopting new ideologies. Nonetheless, their pride in their revolutionary past was often conveyed orally, especially to their own families—a custom that, as Acciai shows, shaped later generations of radical thinkers, activists and volunteers.

Personal contact was not the only mode of transmission of radical values, histories, and traditions. Books and periodicals, too, were central to the maintenance and growth of such national and transnational networks. Propagandists joined the effort to recruit volunteer soldiers and to raise funds for their arms. The women who joined in this work made important contributions to transnational warfare, and it is regrettable that their role is understudied and, therefore, undertheorized. Historian Lucy Riall, whom Acciai praises, has done groundbreaking research on this topic. Her book Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero (2007) demonstrates that female writers and readers were crucial to the construction and spread of the mythic Garibaldi.

In part, Riall argues, Garibaldi’s was a cult of self-sacrifice: some of his followers were drawn into fights with small chances of success. As in a civic religion, strategic calculations were often trumped by belief and enthusiasm.  Acciai, in turn, traces the way the famous surname Garibaldi, carried by his sons and grandsons, led people into various and sometimes opposing political directions. Indeed, I wish that Acciai had written more about the fascist affiliations of Ezio, Ricciotti Jr. and Peppino Garibaldi, whose cases point to significant strains at the very center of the Garibaldian tradition.

Because Acciai’s book raises important issues about how left-wing internationalism grew and survived, despite repression, it would be a pity if it were read only by university students and scholars. That said, the text places considerable demands on a general audience. Anyone not well versed in European history should be prepared to look up terms like the Risorgimento, the Paris Commune and syndicalism. In Italy, where Acciai teaches, it may be common knowledge that “the Hero of the Two Worlds” is an honorific expression to refer to Garibaldi, who served as a military leader in both South America and Europe. But when it’s used without explanation, as it is here, not everyone will understand. The problem of intelligibility is compounded by typos that occasionally transform the text into an erudite guessing game. (Can you recognize “Porudhon” as a garbled version of Proudhon?) Perhaps one function of a reviewer nowadays is to remind publishers that when we buy or borrow a book, we expect that it has been well proofread.

Karen Karin Rosenberg is a working on a book about the writings of Russian revolutionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.