This was supposed to be a post about making historians in the nineteenth-century England, but the devastating news about the earthquake in central Italy changed my plan. Watching the local news on the evening of the disaster revealed both the scale of the disaster as well as reminded once more how ruthlessly media can treat those who have suffered unbearable losses demanding to hear “how the destruction made them feel.” One reporter was particularly insistent on chasing locals who obviously were reluctant to share their emotions with the rest of the world. National disasters certainly are more than the sum of the human suffering they cause: the misery and images of the devastation sell news and contribute to widely shared solidarity and a strong emotional response from us who follow the events from a distance. These, then, can and have been channeled to serve various political causes. This was the case with the 1908 Messina earthquake – if not the biggest, at least one of the biggest natural disasters ever in Italy. The aftermath of the catastrophe also involved a Finnish historian who used the Italian misery for his own nationalistic purpose.
The Messina earthquake took place on 28 December 1908, at 5.20 in the morning when the locals were in sound sleep in their homes. The destruction was complete: 98 per cent of Messina was in ruins and smaller towns and villages on both sides of the strait were wiped away. The number of casualties was in between 80 000 and 1000 000. Italians were struck by the disaster and a deep sense of solidarity swept over the country as news began to spread. Il Giornale di Italia talked about “la riviera delle morte” and about the infernal conditions that reigned in southern Italy. Dramatic photographs competed with the sensational headlines, showing collapsed houses, ruined villages, men and women in rags, orphaned children, corpses, injured, and queen Elena in the midst of this inferno in a white nursing costume. This image of the queen quickly became an important symbol and was planted into the visual vocabulary of the catastrophe and its political utility for nation building. John Dickie emphasizes that the Italian politicians were quick to grasp the usefulness of the national solidarity for uniting the still largely disunited people. In no time they began to refer to the earthquake as a national disaster. The emotional response from the Italians was translated into a patriotic language: the earthquake made Italy one nation and mourning became a political act.
Foreign nations used the earthquake similarly for advancing their own political ambitions. Assisting the victims helped to polish their international reputation at a time when political tensions were growing all over Europe. Sending out money and material help guaranteed positive publicity as the Italian press reported in detail the donations that were flooding from abroad. The propaganda opportunity was seized also by Henry Biaudet, the Finnish historian residing in Rome.
When the devastating news reached Rome, Biaudet was deeply shaken about the scale of the human catastrophe that had struck the Messina region. He wrote immediately to his friends in Finland pleading them to collect money to be sent to the victims. Italy had given so much for the minds and bodies of Finns in the shape of art, edification, inspiration, and bodily wellbeing, that it was now their time to give back to Italy and the Italians, Biaudet explained. Soon, though, the tone of his letters took a political turn and he began to talk about Messina as an opportunity to make Finland known abroad.
Biaudet suggested to his contacts in Finland that rather than sending money to Italy, they should construct ten wooden barracks and ship them to Messina. Any form of housing was desperately needed and Biaudet was convinced that ten sheds would bring visibility to Finns and their charity in the Italian press. He even envisioned this little batch of cottages to eventually become a permanent village called “Finlandesa.” Such an honor would have granted Finland a lasting visibility in Italy. Biaudet’s enthusiasm was not shared in Helsinki. After a long silence he finally heard that his idea was considered unrealistic. Building and sending the barracks from Finland to Italy was too complicated and expensive. Biaudet was furious. While the Finns had procrastinated, Sweden had sent out 500 sheds and the Canadians were apparently ready with a shipment of another 3000 shelters. After such a generosity, ten tiny sheds from Finland would not have even reached the news, Biaudet concluded. He was left with no other option than to capitulate and regret about the missed opportunity to promote Finland in Italy.
Reading these letters for the first time and sensing Biaudet’s enthusiasm for using human suffering for political purposes was a disquieting experience. They showed no excusing for using a natural disaster for propagandistic ends. It was the unashamed tone of the letters that I found troubling. They showed so clearly the mechanisms that are applied when disasters, chaos, and suffering of others is used for propaganda. The Messina earthquake was certainly not the last time this occurred: a quick look to the news from this very week show how in the name of ameliorating human suffering all over the world countries still strive to score propaganda points from us who follow these events comfortably from the safety of our living rooms. Help is needed when a disaster strikes, but unfortunately the cost of it might be higher than it appears to be.
The Henry Biaudet Papers, National Archive of Finland
Il Giornale di Italia, 28.12.1908-30.1.1909
Dickie John: “A patriotic disaster: The Messina – Reggio Calabria earthquake of 1908”, The Politics of Italian Nationality: A Multidisciplinary Perspective, eds. Gino Bedani & Bruce Haddock (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000): 50-71.
Dickie John, “Timing, Memory and Disaster: Patriotic Narratives in the Aftermath of the Messina-Reggio Calabria Earthquake, 28 December 1908”, Modern Italy 2 (2006): 147-166.
Garritzen Elise, “Henry Biaudet: Suomen epävirallinen lähettiläs Roomassa”, Pro Finlandia: näkökulma Ranksa ja Italia, eds. Jussi Nuorteva & Pertti Hakala (Helsinki: National Archive of Finland, 2014): 200-208.