Historicism and Fascism in Modern Italy

Rik Peters*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalBook/Film/Article reviewProfessional


    This paper discusses David Roberts's latest book in which he seeks to throw some light on urgent postmodern historiographical issues from the angle of Italian historicism, led by Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) and Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944). Focusing on the relationship between theory and practice, Roberts argues that there was a close relationship between Italian historicism and fascism. On the basis of the principle that "reality is nothing but history", both Croce and Gentile sought to develop a philosophy that connects historical thinking to action. In this context, Gentile's presentist interpretation of the historical sublime eventually led to totalitarianism, whereas Croce's radical historicism formed the basis of a more liberal view of society. In his discussion of the reception of the Italian tradition, Roberts rejects Carlo Ginzburg's and Hayden White's "misreadings" of Croce and Gentile, and concludes that Italian historicism is still relevant to modern historiography. In this paper I show that Roberts, by renouncing an exclusively philosophical approach to the Italian tradition, tends to overlook the underlying issues. In order to redress the balance, I argue that the political issues between Croce and Gentile went back to profound philosophical differences concerning the relationship between philosophy and history on the one hand and between past and present on the other. From this perspective, Ginzburg's and White's debates about the relationship between history and politics, and the role of the historical sublime in historiography, should not be viewed as "misreadings" of Croce and Gentile, but as mere variations on the themes of their predecessors. The relevance of the Italian tradition is therefore not primarily to be found in its response to postmodernism, but in setting the agenda for rethinking the relationship between history and practical life in the contemporary world.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)115-129
    Number of pages15
    JournalHistory and Theory
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Feb-2010


    • historicism
    • Fascism
    • modern Italy
    • postmodernism
    • use of history
    • presentism
    • historical sublime
    • ontology

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