BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Seven myths about the Mafia
, September 3, 2011
The Rise of the Italian Mafias
by John Dickie
Paperback: 448 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
John Dickie is a professor of Italian studies, so this is a work of serious history, and not merely a string of lurid, tabloid-style criminal episodes — despite the fact that some of them will make your hair stand on end!
Chronologically, his narrative extends to the conclusion of World War II, and geographically it is restricted almost entirely to Italy, although he acknowledges the emergence of “mafias” in other countries.
One way to interpret this history is to look upon it as an attempt to correct a series of misconceptions.
First, there is more than one “mafia” in Italy.
The “mafias” of the title refer to the Mafia (properly so-called) of Sicily, the Camorra of the Naples region, and the ’Ndrangheta of Calabria.
All three share many similarities, but there are also differences between them.
For example, the early Camorra was heavily involved in prostitution, whereas the Mafia maintained a traditional attitude toward women and sexual morality.
Second, despite fanciful legends locating the origins of the mafias in the mediaeval era, they are all in fact products of the mid-19th century.
Their gestation and birth in Italian prisons paralleled the gestation and birth of the Italian state in the Risorgimento of the early 19th century and the events of 1848-70.
This year is the 150th anniversary of the declaration of the kingdom of Italy in 1861, following the exploits of Garibaldi in the south and Cavour in the north of the peninsula.
A third myth, observable in examples of popular culture such as The Godfather (the book and the film) and the television series The Sopranos, is that of the mafiosi as Robin Hood-style champions of the oppressed.
The truth is that the mafias existed for no other purpose than to ruthlessly exploit the rich and poor indiscriminately in order to increase their own power and wealth.
Closely related to this misconception is a fourth: the romantic idea that mafiosi followed an arcane code of honour.
After all, wasn’t each mafia known as an Honoured Society?
In this case, the truism that “there is no honour among thieves” is undoubtedly true.
The history of the mafias is a chronicle of internal murderous betrayals, including regular violations of the oath of omerta, or silence (which was only ever observed from considerations of self-interest or fear, rather than loyalty).
Insofar as loyalty existed, it tended to be strongest when based on primal family and dynastic blood ties, rather than on any factitious sentiment of “brotherhood”.
The next major mistake to make about the terms Mafia, Camorra and ’Ndrangheta, and one which was common amongst Italian authorities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is to regard them as imprecise labels for merely loose and shifting associations of men with “attitude”.
Their hierarchical structures were all too real, as were the initiation rituals, which borrowed elements eclectically from sources as diverse as the Masonic Lodges and the Roman Catholic Church.
Myth number six is the belief that Mussolini and the Fascists successfully suppressed the mafias during the period 1922-43.
Despite their determination to get rid of what they saw as their rival for power in southern Italy, and despite the brutal methods which they used against mafiosi, Il Duce and his party did not destroy the societies, but only drove them further underground, from where they emerged to offer their “help” to the Allied invaders 1943-5.
Finally, there is a temptation to regard the mafias as representing a unique and ubiquitous weakness of the Italian national psyche.
The vast majority of Italians, even in the south, wanted law and order, and many heroic Italian priests, politicians, magistrates and policemen risked or lost their lives in fighting to attain it.
As Dickie reminds us, “Italy has never been a failed state, a mafia regime.”
What it was, however, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was an economically poor state, marked by political fragmentation and instability.
The isolation of areas of the south from the centres of power in Rome and further north is strikingly illustrated by the survival into the 1890s of a version of the Greek language from the Byzantine Empire in a remote region of Calabria.
This is an extremely enlightening piece of journalism and scholarship, but at the same time a depressing chronicle of murder, torture, exploitation, deceit, embezzlement, extortion, theft and corruption.
If it has a wider application, it helps to illustrate how it is possible for other evil criminal confederacies, from the Viet Cong to the Taliban, to pass themselves off as protectors of the very societies which they infiltrate, poison and prey upon.