Book Review

Of course I read in Italian the books I present on this page. However, they are available in English.
Enjoy the reading

Robert Darnton

Censors at work: how the states shaped literature

Norton & Company, 2014

Who were the censors? What exactly were they doing? Simple guardians of orthodoxy or literates themselves? How did they consider the work they were doing and, therefore, themselves? Is it possible to consider them as some sort of editorial reviewers?

In the three essays in the book Robert Darnton guides us through three different historical eras to see censors in three different states: pre-revolutionary France, from the middle of the century to just before 1789: in the Empire of Great Britain, and more precisely in India, the second half of the nineteenth century and finally in the German Democratic Republic (DDR).

Darnton gives us a fascinating trip full of surprises.

In eighteenth-century France (field in which Darnton is a specialist), we find censors more attentive to style than to the content of the texts; we find their boss – Malesherbes – friend (or, in any case, not an enemy) of the Enlightenmentist philosopes, we find a whole series of excitement to have texts published that otherwise would have had serious difficulties ending up in the bookshelves; we find “some judgments[….] to look like real

There are no “good” and “bad” people fighting the last blood. Since the censor profession was almost never paid, one could think of a precise choice of the censor, a sort of vocation that could make these characters to be considered particularly bigotted characters with a narrow mentality, to a sort of modern inquisitor. But Darnton shows us that things were not at all put in these terms: writers and censors came from the same social, cultural and classroom environments. And this glue meant that the censor, who believed himself to be a defender of good literature, intervened much more often to improve the text from a stylistic or linguistic point of view rather than to ban its publication. Cuts, but also tips; objections, but also corrections. Rather, it became censors because, although it was often a tedious task, it guaranteed relations with important personalities of the bureaucracy and the burden of the State.

Of course, there were forbidden issues that had to be tackled with all possible caution. Attacking the crown or church frontally could be dangerous: arguments like Jansenism were “hot” and thorny. But they were themes that, among other things, could cool down or overheat depending on the time and contingencies (a war, a diplomatic dispute or their end). The most fearful philosophers like Voltaire often had their works printed by publishers operating outside the border, who then secretly sent them back to France with forging frontiers (publishers- booksellers non-existent or foreigners). The censors, and Malesherbes first, knew of the existence of this market and knew that some famous writers used it, but they were careful in their fight against it and often turned a blind eye.

The discourse was different when the court life and private life of the king and his family were attacked. At that time, the work of contrasting the clandestine book market – fruitful and in the hands of people of few scruples – was intensifying at the hands not of the censors as such, but of the police. Particularly dangerous were considered the “keyed” novels (in which the protagonists referred to existing characters) that threw powerful and real ridicule into the ridicule. The danger was not the quality of the works – they were fictional novels written badly – but in the themes they dealt with: powerful and pornography. Darnton shows us and guides us in this market and its operation with really nice pages, full of clandestine deposits, publishers-firate, banquets in free zones of the cities where you can get to buy this material. A world to explore.

I jump for the moment the second essay and I connect myself directly to the third because, despite the time span, even the censors of the GDR saw themselves as guardians of good literature (socialist).

In my opinion, the GDR is the most interesting case of all socialist countries. The impressive pervasiveness of the regime in all branches and aspects of people’s lives is well known. It is a penetration capacity that has left the citizens themselves and even the Soviets shocked.

Over time, the regime perfected a myriad of espionage methods mainly because part of its population, taking advantage of the possibility of receiving television and radio programmes from West Germany, had a rather precise idea of the gap between the two Germanias. It was a reality that the regime had to deal with. Not only that, the continuous escapes to the West of intellectuals who then denounced real socialism were a real thorn in the side of the regime that forced him, at least in some strands of cultural production, to keep the level of publications and artistic works high.

That is why, apparently unsuspected, there is some flexibility in censorship. The path of a book from the writer’s drafts to publication was a veritable labyrinth full of stages and bargaining. But if we exclude some taboo topics such as pollution, a political satire particularly fierce and shameless,”warm” social themes – here too, just as in eighteenth-century France – a work was rarely definitively eliminated. It was usually postponed to better times. And, even more surprisingly, it was the censors themselves who found ways to include them in the lists of publications planned by the regime.

This does not mean that censorship was not heavy and that its shadow did not rest on the authors, even though officially it did not exist. Even when he stayed firmly in the 1980s, it did not disappear. The authors themselves, more or less consciously, imagining the requests and prohibitions of the regime during the drafting of their works, came to self-censorize themselves. Moreover, the presence of censorship was only one of the weapons in the hands of the regime: to authorize travels and conferences abroad, to grant small privileges such as the subscription to Western German newspapers and magazines (provided that the material obtained was then used for works against capitalism), to guarantee high circulation runs were all used to “sweeten” the authors and keep them on their own side.

But on the whole, Darnton’s picture is less disturbing than one would expect: within an incredibly bureaucratic regime, on the one hand censors and publishing houses – though infiltrated by both party members and Stasi – and writers on the other hand were able to create interstices, spaces of manoeuvre that were the result of laborious bargaining and that often resulted in a The paradoxical fact is that the space for manoeuvring was derived precisely from the overlapping of functions and tasks between State, party and Stasi: since the roles were not well defined, there were “gaps” of competence that could be put to use.

The second essay is as interesting as the others, but has a less facetted articulation. It examines the censorship carried out in India after a revolt in 1858 due to an insufficient knowledge of Indian culture on the part of the rulers and continues until the early twentieth century.

The whole essay shows the contradictions created by the interweaving of British liberalism and imperialism in India, which are inevitably destined to explode. The vast territory and the number of its inhabitants forced the English to a form of domination based on the co-optation of local politicians. By bringing the benefits of liberal “civilization” (education, medicine, communication routes, etc.) and cultivating a culturally westernized elite, the British were in fact slowly digging the pit under their feet. It could not be otherwise since they themselves provided the Indians with tools to nurture nationalistic feelings. Feelings destined to become all the more attractive because the misunderstanding of the English (i. e. Western culture) of indigenous culture, pushed the population towards forms of political and cultural radicalisation against the dominators themselves. As the essay shows, the explosion was only delayed by the progressive appropriation of Indian culture by the British. Sooner or later, India would rebellion. That was just a matter of time.

The censorship did not only concern the works markedly written against the rulers, but also targeted precisely those aspects of Indian culture that were incomprehensible and barbaric in the eyes of the Westerners. Even an Irish clergyman, who had warned of the dangers of these operations, ended up being taken to court by Indigo planters.

The innovation of Darnton’s book lies in the look. Darnton observes his material not with the victim’s eyes but with those of the executioner. This is the key to penetrating the processes of negotiation and negotiation between the parties. Every system contains flaws: France recognised it in the eighteenth century, despite the fact that freedom of opinion and of the press was not provided for, with the publication of works due to the intervention of protectors who defended the writers; the Indians knew this, who often cited the frozen legislation that officially protected freedom of expression – and the British government itself unintentionally acknowledged this when it had to invent the nebulous concept of “disaffection”.

Darnton’s perspective therefore makes it possible to measure some of the boundaries of a conflict that is much wider and more complex than what can be grasped by the examination of a frontal clash between repression and freedom and opens up a territory of investigation that is still largely unexplored.

This book should be carefully studied by all history students. Darnton’s loose, agile and captivating style is interwoven with many questions with which the author interrogates the vast documentation examined, examples of how languages other than ours “deciphering” themselves, of how different and distant documents can be linked together. The Censors at work is not only a history book, nor a critical tale of history. It is also a splendid lesson in historical method.


Roger Price
The Revolutions of 1848
London Macmillan 1988

The history of the “spring of peoples” could be summed up almost entirely with a commentary shortly after the events of Cavour:

If the social order were really threatened, if the great principles on which it rests, run a real danger, we would see – we are convinced – many of the most determined opponents, among the most exalted Republicans, appear first in the ranks of the Conservative Party “.

But of course, as always in history, things are more complex and the factors multiple. Just as in the paintings of the Impressionists, smoothed and perfect if viewed from afar, but more complex lumpsy as we approach the canvas, the history of the 1948 revolutions requires more than an explanation.
Roger Price’s book is a succinct story of events, a very useful introduction to the deeper study of the facts. But it is still a complete text, an authoritative and safe guide.
From his analysis, the reader comes out with the conviction that 1848 was a sort of “development fever” typical of adolescents:”in many respects – he writes in his conclusions – 1848 marked the end of the ancient regime” (p. 108).
The picture of events takes place in a Europe with a very large agricultural area (and still lagging far behind, especially in Central and Eastern Europe). Even in England, the mother of that industrial revolution which had begun to change the world,”less than 10% of the population was employed in factories” (p. 11).
The sign that something was changing under the apparent homogeneity and stability of the rural world is in the protagonism of cities in the events of 1848. They are Paris, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Vienna, Milan, Budapest and other cities, the driving forces of the events. This means professions related to the life of cities: professors, lawyers, traders, craftsmen; in other words, a wide range of professionals who felt underestimated and considered the political space that they would have had the right to see recognized inadequate (pp. 24-26).
If cities are the context of events, the middle class is the protagonist. The old regimes put back on the throne of the Restoration collapsed like paper castles under the shock of the political action of a bourgeoisie that had become strong enough to demand its own space. The collapse was so fast that he took surprise and caught the same revolutionaries unprepared.
But if it had been relatively easy to join forces against the monarchy, it wasn’t so easy on what then had to be achieved. Especially in the variegated Austro-Hungarian Empire, the revolutionaries had been able to appeal to nationalism and find support with propaganda aimed at demanding greater autonomy from Vienna. In addition to the first visions of nationalism – and this is true in all countries – there were also demands for social protection from the poor and for better living and working conditions by workers – especially by skilled workers. Therefore, a broad array of forces had emerged.
The fundamental question posed to the initially victorious revolutionaries was what anguished all the revolution:”How far to stop? Robust and far-sighted governments such as the English government had averted contagion by promoting a series of reforms that had in some way appeased the thirst for social justice; the Vienna government made concessions to farmers by abolishing feudal residues, thus neutralizing their potential discontent (p. 52). But elsewhere, where cities and factories were tumultuously built up, concrete demands were made from below for measures to combat unemployment and poverty in general: the fuse that stirred up the soul had been lit two years before the economic crisis – which in some cases, as in Ireland, had seen the addition of famine – in 1846.
The descent into the grassroots classes, workers and poor people frightened the bourgeoisie. This is a phenomenon that Price records in all the countries affected by the movements. Obtained more liberal constitutions, the enlargement of suffrage, freedom of the press, laissez faire measures in the economy, most members of the new parliaments were satisfied. Not so much the most radical wing, minorities representing workers and poor people, who called for more comprehensive social legislation. The pattern of the 89 Revolution was repeated when the events took a oscillating pendulum course: at each new conquest, one part of the parliament was satisfied, another, usually a minority, wanted to obtain further results; at that point the moderate part of detachment became a moderate component while the most radical minority tried to push the revolution forward.

In 1848 this phenomenon reappeared again. The working and radical minorities were there to testify that the world of work had changed and that some state intervention in the economy was needed. From the very first moments, class divisions were manifested: the same representatives of the working classes in parliament were bourgeois and had, after all, more elements in common with the moderate liberals than with the “utopian socialists”. This applies to France as well as to other areas, such as Vienna (pp. 48-49). Even in France, the cradle of revolutions, the creation of the Ateliers Nationaux was not gone beyond the creation of the Ateliers Nationaux, which were in fact the recognition of the oldest practice of classic public works and resembled a little too much the Workhouses with their corollary of hard work and repression: one could not hide the fact that they were inefficient and that “they had turned out to be a disappointment” (p. 63).
Feared by the possible deflagration of the social revolution, the bourgeoisie resorted to two fundamental elements: the army and the old bureaucracy. They were wedges of the old regime in the new one that was trying to be born. The national guards deliberately excluded the populans from the national guards; but the measure was considered insufficient: In France as in Germany as well as in Austria-Hungary the fear of the revolution prevailed and ended up producing a split between the bulk of the bourgeoisie who did not intend to go beyond a generic paternalism or forms of pietism towards the poor and “terrorized by the prospect of a new revolution” (p. 53) and the popular classes. Among the upper middle class there was a vision of the popular classes that portrayed them as incapable of managing themselves and devoted to drinking vices and unbridled sexuality. As had already occurred in the 89 Revolution, in 1948 there was an enormous flowering of the press: newspapers, phamplets, warnings etc., but in the art of propaganda the great and middle-classes had more cards to play in their favour than the workers both because they could count on professionals of the pen, and because they were equipped with more means: the considerations that Tcqueville took on events (see note on page 66) were found to be eng
The revolutionary front began to break up and the defeated reactionary players were easy to play a major political role again. The reliance on the army to suppress the insurrections of workers who felt betrayed meant that the new regimes were in fact dependent on the old order and were unable to impose a new order. The outcome of the revolution in the election of Napoleon III in France is the most convincing proof of this: most voters, even among those who had obtained the right to vote thanks to the revolution, preferred to shelter themselves under the wings of the monarchy, even if incarnated in an inept. The same thing happened in Vienna after a number of concessions, while in the rest of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after the initial collapse, it was relatively easy to recover in both Italy and Hungary.
The repression of the most extreme fringes, now isolated and weakened, was brutal. It is not a question here of dividing history into good and bad: the bourgeoisie was ready to play its rightful role. He would have done so in the following decades. The workers and their representatives understood that if it was easy to find alliances to move against the old order, it was not at all to build the society they dreamed of and that the ideas and solutions they had put forward were insufficient. Finally, the old regimes are almost never completely destroyed: they maintain an unsuspected but decisive elasticity and force of inertia. These are issues that should be kept in mind.
With the uprisings of 1948, Europe changed its skin: the modern world, incubated since the two revolutions, industrial and 89, was born and began to walk on its own legs.

Norman Ohler
Blitzed : drugs in the Third Reich
Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 292 pp.


Usually right-wing political movements make health and physical vigour a characteristic feature of right-wing political movements. To read this book by Ohler, it would seem that in German society during the Nazis, in the high military and party spheres and in their head, things were not at all like that: Hitler was rotten drug addicts.
This book has provoked bitter controversy among historians: there are established academics such as Kershaw who believe it to be reliable and others who have criticised it.
Personally, I think that this book has a fundamental ambiguity. It is a history book, but whoever wrote it is not a historian; it is based on a number of documents made available recently, but there are fictional parts.
What’s more: there are moments when the lack of expertise of the A., not in handling words (those who know how to do it well), but in mastering the documents, emerges quite clearly: for example, suspects that Rommel makes use of amphetamines based on his way of fighting (p. 104 ff.).): This claim must be substantiated by documents. On the other hand, Ohler himself says:”I am not a historian and I do not pretend to rewrite events” (p. 141). It is not a confession of humility, it is a way to protect oneself.
In fact, the four parts into which the book is divided, in my opinion, are of unequal value. It is plausible that in a defeated country and in the midst of an economic catastrophe such as Germany after the First World War, a large part of society sought refuge and consolation in the artificial worlds of drugs. In this particular case, it is a synthetic drug in particular, but this is not surprising given that Germany was at the forefront of chemistry, as witnessed by the presence of world-class pharmaceutical companies such as Bayern and others.
Synthetic drugs were an amphetamine, Pervitin, which was successful and spread in a resounding way. He was able to almost completely eliminate the symptoms of hunger and keep his body awake and active for days. A product with such characteristics was ideal for armies and soldiers. Wemacht ordered orders in the tens of millions of packs. There were those who, in the military entourage, evaluated the contraindications of Pervitin and tried to limit its use among the troops. But these measures were unnecessary.
Some doubts are beginning to emerge in the second part, which deals essentially with the first two years of war: according to the. A., the invasion of Poland and the astonishing, dazzling victory against France, were essentially due to the excessive use in the army of this new rediscovered. The replica, however, did not happen with the invasion of the USSR essentially because it was a war much less of movement than the one on the western front considered because of the vastness of the country and therefore of the fronts and tactics of the Soviets to retreat,. As a result, the use of Pervitin was ineffective.

With the third part (from 1941 to 1944) the narration moves from the historiographic plane almost always kept in the two previous ones, to make room for wide novelized traits. Here the A., speaks to us of the “patient A” [Hitler] and his strange, symbiotic relationship with his personal physician, Gilbert Theodor Morell – a charlatan rather than a physician. An unscrupulous arrival, Morell gave Hitler a deadly mix of doping substances, steroids, cocaine, morphine and dozens of other substances, inflaming his body and progressively obscuring his reason. The A. A., its reconstruction on several documents suffices, but there are contradictions. For example, on p. 226 he writes:

Since the autumn of 1941, Hitler has been a fierce consumer of hormones and steroids and, since the second half of 1944, of cocaine and Eukodal. In that phase, therefore, Hitler did not have even a day of lucidity “; some pages later, however, states that Hitler had become” drug addicts “after the 1944 attack and, above all, that the addiction to drugs had accentuated its pre-existing human characteristics (p. 239). In short, the author doesn’t dissolve the excitement that emerges from his own narrative: if from a military point of view things for Germany began to get hurt in 1941, i. e. when Hitler began to take hormones, steroids and other founders and, from that moment, as he says, no longer had a day of lucidity, then Hitler lost the war because of drugs? Ohler’s answer is negative:”Hitler[…] remained polished until the end. Drug use does not compromise its decision-making ability. He was always in himself, he knew exactly what he was doing and acted with cold blood “(pp. 239-40).


These conclusions, however, contradict previous descriptions: for example, although not the A., it does not say so expressly, in his reconstruction there is a coincidence between the military tactical mistakes made by Hitler on the occasion of the invasion of Russia and the assumption of the doping substances of his doctor:”The intuition[by Hitler] that at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa[the invasion of the USSR] had proved itself to be almost as it should have done. These are ambiguities that some historians have pointed out.

The central thesis of the text is that “drugs in the Third Reich were used as an artificial instrument of mobilization, to compensate for the physiological loss of motivation and to maintain high the morale of the entourage” by Hitler – Morell, his doctor, also served other large pieces of the regime. It is a thesis that needs to be developed and further developed: the spread of drugs in society is indicated, undocumented (if not through some private letters of cultural personalities).
However, on the whole, it is a well written and compelling book that, despite certain limitations, deserves to be read.


John Foot
The man who closed the Asylums. Franco Basaglia and the revolution of the mental health care
Verso Book, 424 p.



John Foot is an English historian, very attentive to Italian events. He has written some books on sport, Milan and Italian culture.

The man who closed the Asylums is not a story of Italian psychiatry. It is not even a history of Italian asylums, nor a biography of Basaglia. The book is a cultural history of the central and most fruitful decades of republican history, focused on psychiatry. The centrality of Basaglia’s figure is due to his role as a sounder in those years.

Italy is a country capable of great innovations. Negative, as in the case of fascism; but also positive, as in the case of the Resistance (the strongest in Europq after the Yugoslav one), of a Communist party capable of creating “models” (emilian, for example) studied and admired even by the USA; in industry (Ovetti, Ferrari); in fashion. The closure of asylums can rightly be claimed as one of the Republic’s finest and most deserving successes. Foot’s book clearly demonstrates this with the hallucinating descriptions of asylums and wards.

On the other hand, there is no form of sensationalism in the book. The narration, melted, lively, captivating, is always balanced, always balanced and meditated. Just as are the evaluations of the protagonists and of the figures studied and encountered. Basaglia’s hagiography is not present. The great admiration for what he defines as the most important intellectual in the history of republican Italy, is balanced by the great respect for other protagonists of those years. First of all, Giovanni Jervis, a great intellectual and charismatic figure who collaborated with Basaglia in Gorizia and then detached himself from that experience to follow other paths. And even more so, perhaps, Franca Ongaro, Basaglia’s wife. If, as the saying goes, behind a great man there is always a great woman, then Basaglia had the good fortune of having a woman for his wife who was able to stand by him if not to guide him. She was not only the one who gave shape to her husband’s volcanic ideas, but also to correct them, direct them and put them into practice. Foot Foot rightly regrets the almost lack of studies on the Ongaro.

Franco Basaglia and Franca Ongaro, in a small asylum on the extreme outskirts of the country in 1961: an insignificant place, the last place to think about in order to create a revolution. This was not the case, and it was not so because of many factors intertwined.

To the ostracism and exclusion that Italian universities often reserve to the brightest and most promising young people – which is why Basaglia accepted the assignment to Gorizia – they made a leaven to the effervescent cultural climate that was forming in those years: the “History of Madness in the Classical Age” by Foucault,”The Damned of the Land” by Fanon and “Asylum” by Goff. And as proof of the closure of the academic world, these texts were published thanks to the initiative of publishers aware of the cultural delay in the country accumulated during the twenty years of fascism such as Einaudi, Rizzoli, Feltrinelli.

A stimulating and engaging cultural climate due to the collapse of positivism and organicism that had ended their days in the ignominy of biological racism. Basaglia is immersed in this climate, confronted with experiences in Scotland and London, he links up with other experiences, surrounded by curious, open and determined collaborators. These are the stimuli that Basaglia reworked by creating the therapeutic community as soon as he dismantled the asylum from within.

Gorizia becomes the centre, the beacon of a cultural revolution that radiates on the country and overflows outside. But it is also the result of an innovative climate, not only at European or world level, but also at home. The Gorizia experiment finds support in the Minister of Health, the socialist Mariotti, other intellectuals start to investigate the asylum issue: Angelo del Boca, a great journalist and historian, gives the prints a work that becomes a bomb:”asylums like lager”. This is the image that public opinion takes on and contrasts.Zavoli filmed a documentary, photographers of value created works.

The breach is open, new paths are opened. This is the second part of the volume, where Foot analyzes some local realities. Here, among others, two interesting things stand out in my view.

The first is that the political world “discovers” and actively deals with the asylum problem. Central and local government are in tune with a section of civil society and public opinion. There are different paths, but on the whole the provincial and local administrations are attentive and collaborating. Politicians who didn’t know the reality of asylums, once discovered they are upset:

I thought that welfare institutions were a necessity. For the madmen the asylum, for abandoned children the brefotrofio, for elderly people alone the hospice. With Basaglia[…] I have learned to reject these solutions[….] institutions[thought to] set aside the most burning social problems (p. 201).

These are the words of Mario Tommasini, provincial councillor in Parma, worker. Here, as elsewhere, Italy at two levels – that of the ruling classes distant from the popular classes – disappears, forces are activated from below. what happens in Reggio Emilia, which calls Jervis who creates mental health centres; this is what happens in Perugia with Giacanelli, Arezzo, Trieste, where Basaglia will have the support of a Christian Democrat exponent.

These are experiences that lead to the second aspect. That is to say, the different paths in the closing of asylums followed by individual realities. For those who, like me, study the birth of asylums, this is a particularly interesting aspect because, if you look at the formation of the structures born before unification, you meet conditions and solutions diversified according to the areas, states and local realities. In their divestiture and closure, these remnants seem to be repeated. If it is true that everywhere the “Basagliani” meet and receive political support (often from the PCI and the left-wing parties, but not only, as the case of Trieste testifies), it is equally true that the bottom-up movement that emerged in the Sixties and exploded from 1968 has exerted considerable pressure on the political class, pushing it to accept or promote solutions that otherwise, alone, it would have been difficult to achieve. The proof of this is the fact that the “basil law”, as the 180 is mistakenly called, is the result of mediation between operators and politicians with positions that are sometimes very distant from each other.

La Repubblica dei madti is a book that is appreciated for Foot’s ability to keep together the many facets and peculiarities of these decades, but above all because it always maintains, throughout the storytelling a prudent balance between the various aspects, moments and personalities. See, for example, the pages in which it analyses and discusses the concept of “antipsychiatry”, a concept of which Foot adequately detects and shows the ambiguity: Basaglia and his followers were not only chosen as a guide by many operators, cultural, trade or activists who were, were opposed by conservative public opinion, but also saw the emergence of positions to their “left”, much more extreme than theirs. Foot treats these aspects with great delicacy, without unbalancing or letting yourself go to summary or approximate judgements (pp. 43 ff.). Or see the pages that reconstruct the procedure of Law 180 (pp. 285-294), where the same balance is found.

The book Foot’s foolish fools is a work in which the reader perceives the author’s commitment and hard work, often forced to use second-hand sources to reconstruct passages and contexts. For example, Foot follows a path of the divestiture of Gorizia’s asylum by relying on an internal publication of the asylum,”Il Picchio”, the magazine of hospitalized patients. This choice is partly forced because, as often happens in Italy and especially for closed institutions, part of the documentation has been dispersed.

Much remains to be done, to be rebuilt; Foot repeats it or lets you understand it often. But it gave us a fascinating compass, dense and beautiful indeed. This is a book should not be missing in the shelves of those who want to understand something more, and from an original angle, about the recent history of our country.