It is a well-known trope of modern politics that every election is the most important election in a generation, if not a lifetime. In Western democracies, in particular, the chief function of election campaigns is to dramatise and magnify the ideological differences between the two main parties or coalitions that represent the interests of the elites, until the choice between them resembles an existential struggle of good versus evil, evil versus good. This is essential both to drive voter turnout and to legitimise the electoral result. (Taking part, in fact, is often portrayed as a peacetime civic duty on a par with serving in the armed forces during a war. The only people whom you’re allowed to despise more than the partisans of the other side are those who abstain from voting.)
Whenever the rhetoric escalates – as it always does, sooner or later – I’m reminded not just of a particular election but of a particular campaign poster. This one.
The Italian election of 1948 – the first of the neonate Republic – was fought not through mass media but in the squares, from the pulpits, in the factories. Its main vehicle of party-political propaganda was the poster. Millions of them were printed and distributed, and some specimens have become justly famous. None more so than the one above, in which the secular allegorical personification of Italy (Italia turrita – we met it before), sporting the banners of Country, Family and Liberty, protected Herself with the shield of the Christian Democrats against a cowardly attack by the red hand of the Communists. Underneath, the slogan: DEFEND ME!
The poster’s designer is unknown – although there are some who claim that it was Gino Boccasile, the author of wartime propaganda under Mussolini’ Salò Republic, and later a renowned advertising man – but we do know that it was the great journalist and humourist Giovannino Guareschi who created another very famous image of that campaign:
In the secrecy of the voting booth
God can see you
You can’t get a lot more existential than this: a fight not only around radically different conceptions of the state, the economy and society, but the very soul of the citizen. God can see you. You must do the right thing. Stalin can’t. Remember who has the power here.
It would, however, be misguided to express nostalgia for the stark character of that confrontation. Whatever noble and genuine ideological differences animated people on both sides, what was playing out in Italy in the weeks leading up to 18 April 1948 was actually the beginning of the Cold War. And as a war – an actual war – it was represented.
Vote, or he will be your master.
They shall not pass!
Defend your town, and you’re defending Italy!
Vote: for the sake of your country!
Is he the one you’re waiting for?
From another idea of Guareschi’s came this brilliant representation of the Communist threat.
Just as cleverly, a card allowed the voter to reveal the sinister features of Stalin lurking in the noble visage of the revolutionary hero Garibaldi (the symbol of the Popular Democratic Front, under whose banner the Communists and the Socialists ran together).
Long live the Democratic Front? Turn upside down to spot the deceit
The Christian Democrats weren’t above presenting themselves as the administrators and guarantors of the much needed aid and reconstruction funds provided for under the Marshall Plan. And in those immediate post-war years, ridden with sudden and catastrophic increases in the cost of living, what could be more essential, more basic than bread?
The bread we eat: 40% Italian flour 60% American flour sent for free
What is most striking in this campaign by the party of faith is the lack of positive images and messages. Even the appeal to the family was depicted in the form of a gory mythical struggle:
The sword of the Christian Vote vanquishes the serpents of divorce and free love.
To find a hopeful, non-threatening poster we must look at the election for the Constitutional Assembly held two years earlier, in which a good man in the popular style of one of those ‘thanks for the grace received’ paintings demonstrated how to cast a good vote.
With this vote you ensure your own good
Christian Democratic Party
It’s doubtful that it was those posters that won the campaign. What they do show, however, is that the Christian Democrats were supremely comfortable with making the election a question of under whose sphere of influence Italy should place itself. And not just because that choice had already been made, amongst the great powers, but also because the draw of the American promise was greater. Theirs was the army that had liberated us. Theirs were the food and the resources that staved off the general misery of a country impoverished by twenty years of fascism and devastated by war. Theirs was the side on which the Church stood, with its power to reach – like the posters themselves – a population that still suffered from staggering rates of illiteracy.
If it was a referendum, either with America or with the Soviet Union, the Left was going to lose. Their timid posters reflected this, as they pointed to a danger that was not clear but hidden, murky.
Behind the shield with the cross, a bloody dagger.
Behind the shield with the cross, deceit and war.
What the Front had instead – and it was no small thing – was the idea of progress, and of the future. There was no hope in the message of the Christian Democrats other than of safety from harm, and of a vague, generic, conservative good. Compare these images:
Break with your vote the chain that binds you into misery and poverty
In this sign you will conquer
Vote the Popular Democratic Front
Peace, Liberty, Labour
Vote the Italian Communist Party for the future of Italy
These, to be quite clear, were parties that at this time read diligently from the instruction sheets of the Cominform. It was no slander to call them Stalinist. But the aspiration to a different life of the vast majority of their members, that was real, and expressed itself into a language and in a tense that I recognise from my own childhood, a quarter of a century later, when the Left could still look with hope, even confidence, to the future.
That was our most important election, of which remain but these images. Not revolution but civil war was a very concrete possibility. Another war, between two powers far greater than ours, was being fought within out borders, through symbols such as these. It would be far too naïve to presume that we really had a say in the matter.