The most spectacular successes of the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century were in Italy and Germany, two areas with ancient regional identities but a total lack of political unity. Italy had last been united during the period of the Roman Empire, whereas Germany had never been truly united. Each term - Italy and Germany - referred to a region and a language, not a kingdom or nation, places where people spoke similar lingual dialects and had some kind of a shared history, but were divided between various kingdoms, cities, and empires.
This very lack of unity was, however, a source of inspiration for the nationalists of the first half of the nineteenth century. One of the great nationalist thinkers was an Italian, Giuseppe Mazzini, whose Young Italy movement inspired comparable movements all over Europe in the 1830s. Mazzini was the quintessential romantic nationalist, someone who believed that nations would organically emerge to replace the tyranny of the old feudal order of conservative monarchs. Young Italy was just one of a number of “Young Europes” (e.g. Young Germany, Young Ireland) that shared this essentially optimistic, even utopian, outlook. In turn, many Germans dreamed of a united Germany that might escape the oppressive influence of censorship and oppression. Those kind of radical nationalists had their day in the Revolutions of 1848, but then saw their hopes dashed when the conservative kings of Prussia and Austria rallied their military forces and re-took power.
That being noted, in the aftermath of 1848, even kings came to accept that the popular desire for nations was too strong to resist forever, and at least in Prussia, the idea that a conservative monarch might “use” nationalism to enhance his power came to the fore. Instead of allowing a popular uprising that might permanently replace them, conservative monarchs began maneuvering to co-opt the very idea of nationalism. This was not a great, sinister master plan, but instead a series of pragmatic political calculations, usually led by high-ranking royal officials rather than the kings themselves. Through a combination of deliberate political manipulation and sheer chance, the first nation to unite under conservative leadership was Italy.
Italy had been dominated by foreign powers since about 1500, when Spain and France jostled for control and extinguished the independence of most of the Italian city-states of the Renaissance during the Italian Wars. Later, it was Austria that came to dominate in the north, adding Italian regions and cities to the Austrian Empire. The south was an essentially feudal kingdom, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, dominated by lesser branches of first the Habsburg and then the Bourbon royal lines. In the middle was the Papal States, ruled directly by the pope and still controlling Rome as of the 1850s (after a short-lived republic in 1848 was dismantled by the French under Napoleon III). Despite the popularity of the concept of nationalism among the members of the small northern-Italian middle class, it had relatively little mass support (and less than 3% of the population was literate in the standard “Italian” language, the dialect spoken in the region of Tuscany).
The core of Italian unification was the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, a small kingdom consisting of a large island in the Mediterranean and a chunk of land wedged between France, Spain, and the Austrian-dominated northern Italian states. Its king, Victor Emmanuel II, was from the old royal house of Savoy, and the kingdom retained independence following the Napoleonic period because it served as a useful buffer state between the French and Austrian spheres of influence. Victor Emanuel enjoyed interfering in foreign policy and took pride in his military prowess, but he was too lazy to become involved in domestic affairs, which he left to his ministers. In turn, the most intelligent and important of his ministers was Count Camillo di Cavour (1810-1861), the true architect of Italian unification.
Cavour was determined to increase Piedmont-Sardinia’s power, and he used Italian nationalism to do it. He did not have any sentimental attachment to the concept of “Italy.” Instead, he wanted to make Piedmont-Sardinia the center of a larger, more powerful kingdom. As of the 1850s, a war (the Crimean War, described below) had torn apart the system of alliances that had been so crucial in maintaining the balance of power after the Congress of Vienna, and Cavour knew that he could play one great power off against the other to Piedmont’s benefit. His plan was to use the rivalry between France and Austria to his advantage, by having France support some kind of Italian independence from Austria in order to weaken the Habsburgs. Cavour successfully bargained with Napoleon III, the new emperor of France as of 1852, and in 1859, with French military support, Piedmont-Sardinia pushed the Austrians out of northern Italy and gained political ascendancy in the name of a new “Italian nation.” Cavour gave France the city of Nice in return for continued support in holding the Austrians in check.
Out of nowhere, another figure entered the story: Giuseppe Garibaldi, an unexpected political leader who brought southern Italy into the equation. Garibaldi was an adventurer, a romantic nationalist, and a revolutionary who had spent most of his adult life as a mercenary battling in independence campaigns and wars, mostly in South America. He rushed back to Italy during the Revolutions of 1848 only to see his hopes of both a united Italy and freedom from foreign control dashed thanks to the machinations of the Austrians, the French, and the papacy.
Following Piedmont-Sardinia’s success in pushing Austria back in the north, however, Garibaldi returned. In May 1860, Garibaldi, with a tiny force of 1,000 red-shirted volunteers (mostly townsmen from the north, including numerous under-employed professional men and students hoping to avoid their examinations) packed aboard two leaky steamships, set out to invade Sicily. Very rapidly, Garibaldi captured Palermo, the chief city of Sicily. He succeeded because he won the support of the Sicilian peasants by suspending taxes and promising to divide up the large estates and distribute the land. The landowners of Sicily, even those who were most reactionary, were forced to see that the only hope of law and order lay in protection by this radical dictator and his revolution. Their gradual and reluctant transference of allegiance to the insurrection was a decisive event and helped to make possible the next phase of Garibaldi's astonishing conquest.
On August 18 Garibaldi crossed to mainland Italy, entering Naples. He planned an invasion of the Papal States, but Cavour convinced Napoleon III that it was necessary to block the further progress of Garibaldi's adventurers and assured him that the position of the papacy itself (under French protection) would not be affected. Cavour threw the bulk of the Piedmontese army into the Papal States, annexing them and heading off Garibaldi. When he arrived, Garibaldi ceded his conquests to Victor Emmanuel, and Italy thus grew to encompass both Sicily and the south. Thus, in about six months, the northern conquests of Piedmont-Sardinia were united with Garibaldi’s bizarre conquest of the south.
Cavour’s schemes for a Piedmontese-led united Italy had not included the south, which like most northern Italians he held in contempt. Thus, in a real sense southern Italy emerged as the unfortunate loser of the wars of unification, even more so than did Austria. Taxes had to be increased, because the war of 1859 had to be paid for, and the new Italian state needed a larger army and navy. There was also the fact that the extension of low tariffs from Piedmont to economically backward regions often completely extinguished the few local industries that existed. Nor did the new state have funds to alleviate distress or to undertake public works and infrastructure projects in the south. The rural poor became more totally dependent than ever on the local landowning class in their adjustment to the new scheme of things. Some refused to adjust and became "brigands" who rose up against the new political order almost immediately. The restoration of order in the south required a major military operation, the so-called Bandit Wars, which over three years that cost more lives than had the wars of the unification itself. In the aftermath of the wars, the south was treated almost like a colony rather than a full-fledged part of the Italian nation, and politics in the south revolved around the growing relationship between the official Italian government and (as of the 1880s) organized crime.
At the time of Cavour's death in 1861 the new state had a population of twenty-two million but an electorate of only half a million, limited to property-owners. Politics in the new Italian state (a constitutional monarchy in which the king still had considerable power) was about patronage: getting jobs for one's cronies and shifting the burden of taxation onto those who could least afford to pay it. In many respects, unification had amounted to the occupation of the rest of the country by the north. It would be many years before the new state would begin serve the needs and interests of the majority of its citizens.