The great Italian caricaturist Altan had a cartoon on the front of La Repubblica last week, in which an Italian is sinking below the waves, shouting: “I’m drowning!” On the beach, a fat man whose swimsuit sports the German national colors, says: “Zat is how you learn, zpendthrift!”
This in a left-of-center daily that is supportive of the crisis plan of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and has set its face against anti-German populism. The press of the right has been less restrained: A recent front-page photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed her with a hand upraised, perhaps to wave — but vaguely reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s minimalist Nazi salute, with the headline “Fourth Reich.” The article claimed that two world wars and millions of corpses were “not enough to quiet German egomania”. This in Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family.
I smiled at the Altan cartoon on an Italian beach, where I was last week, looking about for signs of desperation. They were not dramatic, but observable. Simply, fewer people came. The soaring cost of petrol, which went over the 2-euro mark for a liter, was generally held to be the main culprit for the reduction in the annual hunt for the sun. It was little problem to hire a beach umbrella, to book a table for dinner, even to park. While most summers the political news is absent or silly, this year the Italian papers chronicled, daily, the fever chart of the Italian and European economy, and it was febrile indeed — now a spurt of optimism, now a stab of doom.
The technocratic government led by Mario Monti, distinguished economist and former European commissioner, has seen little of the beach. The elected politicians, free from the usual business of government or opposition, were active, too: The political scene is as boiling hot as the climate. The left remains fractured and struggles for alliances and unity. The new populists, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Stars movement, remain attractive to many because of Grillo’s attacks on a partly corrupt political class. Yet he calls for an end to parliamentary politics, having run a blog column with a picture of Benito Mussolini, the prewar dictator, that evoked with approval his description of parliament (which he dissolved) as “deaf and gray.”
In the center, a loose coalition of Christian Democrats and secular liberals invoke the spirit and memory of Alcide de Gasperi, Italy’s long-serving postwar premier — who presided over the rapid recovery of the economy in the fifties and positioned Italy as a founding member of what became the European Union. It seeks to tempt Monti into heading the Christian Democrats and running for elected office after his temporary mandate ends next April.