Translated by Guillaume Durocher
Translator’s Note: This has been retranslated from a French translation. I have improved the paragraphing. The title is editorial. Source: Emil Cioran, Apologie de la barbarie: Berlin-Bucarest 1932–1941 (Paris: L’Herne, 2015), “L’Italie est-elle une grande puissance ?,” pp. 203-209. Originally published in Vremea, May 31, 1936.
I have never been able to think anything specific concerning Italy’s meaning in the world. And if I were forced to adopt a specific attitude towards it, I would choose to remain silent. It is not a matter here of a subjective reaction, of displaying a preference or a revulsion, but merely of interesting oneself in the destiny of a country, in its transhistorical totality in a sense, in its overarching meaning. I despise those who, out of a fondness for Fascism, make Italy out to be the axis of the world. Likewise, I despise those who reject Italy under the pretext that they do not accept its [Fascist] system. I am sick of the babbling ideologues who only know the Left and the Right. I even hate the mediocrity of their thought, which simplifies history so they need not have to think about it. Today – as ever – one can only be an incurable pessimist or an incorrigible revolutionary.
Italy’s fate is very curious. This country, which was able to bring about a phenomenon like the Renaissance, does not, however, attract the world’s admiration. I mean that, up to now, I have met no serious man who trusts the Italian people. Everyone admires Italian culture, but doubts or even despises the people who gave birth to it. If I were forced to ignore Italian culture, the other cultures would not be enough for me. And yet – I do not know why – I always forget the Italian people. In this respect, world opinion at the beginning of the Italo-Abyssinian war was significant. Never has a declaration of war been accompanied by so much mockery and doubt. No one believed in Italy’s success and yet, at the end of the war, she excused herself for her triumph.
The great powers that are capable of inspiring fear and strength are those that succeed in all fields, simultaneously. France burst forth into the world with the same strength, with the same zeal, in all fields of life; and these fields were not disassociated, because they drew their source from a shared primordial pulsation. Italy entered the world with a spiritual offensive, to which there was no corresponding political force of equal intensity. That is true not only of the Renaissance. The entire history of Italy is chock full of inequalities. Her most interesting period – that of Mazzini’s prophesying – is quite simply grandiose by its political insufficiency. The Italians have not remembered much of Machiavelli. Only Mussolini seems to have read him carefully . . . and he even seems to have learned a great deal from him.
I believe that right from the beginning, Mussolini grasped the deficiencies of the Italian people, its peripheral role in world politics. The delusions of grandeur that he has brought to Italy and the will to power that he has artificially inspired in the country can only explain themselves in this way. As rough as these may be, Italy’s current visibility has arisen less according to the internal evolution of peoples, than according to rational and conscious determinants. I have the impression that the Italians have resolved to be a great people. In this respect, Mussolini’s act following the entry of his armies into Addis Ababa was significant. Instead of considering this victory – which was not won principally by heroism – with modesty, he proclaimed with great pomp: from this day forward, Italy is an empire. Never have I been able to witness such an image of the artificial in history, of false greatness.
Empires are built and great conquests occur through an instinctive dynamism, a breathing so deep as to be fatal. Or, if it is in the name of an idea, there is nothing logical or controlled about this: it is fashioned organically, all along a continuity that is apparently ungraspable and yet present in all the unconscious and conscious areas of the soul. There is no Italian idea of culture, even as an incomparable Italian culture exists. If we can define ourselves relative to Fascism, it is just about impossible to define ourselves with respect to Italy. Have you not noticed the theoretical and moral crises caused by Bolshevism and Hitlerism? Here is the reason: given that Bolshevism and Hitlerism have behind them the ideas of the Russian and German cultures, and that we, for our part, want to take a position with respect to one or the other, we are necessarily made to confront these two great European finalities which are Russia and Germany.
Fascism is too political and insufficiently messianic. No messianism in the world had considered this idea to be central: the State. Yet Mussolini’s statal maximalism leaves even Hegel trailing behind. The Hitlerians have always wished to make clear that what distinguishes them from the Fascists in the first instance is the conception of the State. For Hitlerism, the people is the central and foundational idea. In its name, one can conceive a messianic vision; in the name of the State, never. The example of Russia is also very illustrative. The Russian messianism of the past century drew its roots from the people’s mysticism, in the idea that it alone holds the truth and represents real life. We know that one of the great passions of the Russian intellectuals was to “go towards the people.” This intoxicating socialization with the popular masses prefigured the convulsions of Bolshevism.
Through Fascism, Italy suggested to itself that it become a great power. The result: she has succeeded in attracting the world’s serious interest. Nothing more. I do not believe Italy is capable of creating serious conflicts in Europe, because she is not imperialist in the soul. Overpopulation and Mussolini’s political genius have obviously raised her historical level, but that has not been able to make her essentially imperialist, that is to say inspired by a thirst for conquests detached from necessity. Conquest linked to need is no great thing. In the Europe of today, only German imperialism is genuine. People will object: Do the Germans not need conquests? Yes, of course; however, even if they conquered all the territories that they need, their imperialist idea would not disappear. Imperialism is a way of breathing and an integral aspect of the orientation and the direction of German history.
Without Fascism, Italy would be a failed country. Externally, she fulfills the criteria of a great power. But does she have the necessary internal vibration? Does she know the prolonged resistance that an idea can embody, the historical dimension which a lasting affirmation can acquire? I doubt it. This people which has known unique spiritual flowerings, why is it that it waited centuries to accomplish itself politically? Italy’s political realization was late, in truth. For let us think: What conflicts has Fascism created in the world? So many problems, none of which concern it! Fascism is not, strictly speaking, a Weltanschauung. That is understandable. Firstly, Fascism has not been enriched by the Italian tradition. Just as there is no Italian idea of culture, nor a messianic vision concerning her meaning in the world, so there are neither antecedents nor a historical basis [for Fascism]. Fascism is born of immediate events and has built itself, in a sense, from them. Hence, there is a certain degree of contingency which even its fanatical admirers recognize. Messianisms are mutually exclusive. Yet, if Fascism had represented something other than a political form, it would have come into conflict with the ideas of European culture and would have violently asserted itself among them, as do, directly or indirectly, Russia and Germany. Messianic destinies create historical incompatibilities.
No one is unaware of the fact that the Abyssinian war was not very honorable for the Italians; it in no way does justice to their strength. Despite this, one thing brings them glory: their resistance in the face of the English. The people who succeeds in destroying the British monster, this monumentally artificial empire, will represent a unique ethical moment in history. If Italy really had had the scale of a great power, she would have exploited England’s tacit provocation. History is implacable and does not record half-wars. Deep down, there are only wars of exterminations. The glory of nations is raised upon bloodbaths – like all history, for that matter.
Mussolini’s greatest merit is to have invented Italy’s strength, because Italy did not slide towards her fate, nor did she evolve naturally towards her greatness. Fascism was a shock without which Italy would be a compromise comparable to the current Romanian democracy.
 I am not sure what Cioran is referring to here.
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