A political mountain to climb: why the Alps are such a commonly used metaphor in European thought
È qui, su queste montagne, in queste valli … che la Repubblica celebra oggi le sue radici con la festa della Liberazione.
It is here on these mountains, in these valleys, that the Republic today celebrates the day of its Liberation.
With these words and evocative references, Italian president Sergio Mattarella recently marked the 78th anniversary of the end of the fascist dictatorship in Italy. He was speaking during a visit to Cuneo, in the north of the country.
This was the first time Italy has celebrated the date under the leadership of prime minister Giorgia Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia, a party that finds its roots in Mussolini’s fascism and often flirts with its ideas today. Mattarella used his status as a unity figure to elevate anti-fascism above party politics and to uphold it as a constitutive element of a democratic state.
He quoted eminent Italian legal expert and a founding father of the Italian constitution, Piero Calamandrei:
If you want to go on pilgrimage to the place where our constitution was born, go to the mountains where partisans fell.
The location of Mattarella’s speech was evidently significant even before he uttered these words. As early as 1947, the Piedmontese province of Cuneo was recognised as one of the most symbolic sites of the Italian resistance against the Italian fascist and the German Nazi regimes.
And Mattarella’s decision to specifically mention mountains is no coincidence. He was following a long tradition of using such imagery to make a political point. During my research for an academic monograph on this topic, I found that communists, Catholics and fascists alike have deployed images of mountains – and particularly the Alps – in their rhetoric, each ascribing them with their own meaning.
In Italy, for instance, communist workers’ groups such as the Club Alpino Operaio and the Unione Operaia Escursionisti Italiani organised mountain stays for workers they wished to keep away from drinking and other vices. In an alpine setting, they thought it would be easier to instil solidarity among proletarians across borders.
Fascists used the Alps as grounds on which to improve the health of the nation. Like the Nazis in Germany, they opened summer camps and colonies for children to increase their physical strength and to boost their fascist education.
Catholics also organised hiking trips and camping stays for young people, stressing that class differences could be erased and moral and religious values be upheld more easily in an alpine environment.
From the 19th century, books such as Johanna Spyri’s Heidi depicted mountains as healthy and conducive to friendship. But after the first world war, the Alps came to represent the violent fighting that took place on them. Indeed, as global warming melts the ice, some relics of the carnage that unfolded there continue to emerge.
More than other geographical features such as seas or lakes, mountains came to represent higher political ideals. As famously noted by German critic Sigfried Kracauer, Bergfilm (or “mountain films”) by directors such as Arnold Fanck and his mentee Leni Riefenstahl pitted individuals against nature and immortalised the Alps as the embodiment of national “purity”. That aesthetic would go on to be appropriated by the Nazi regime.
For other movements, the Alps expressed the imperative of avoiding another conflict after the first world war and ensuring permanent peace. The “Alpinist” Pope Achille Ratti (1857–1939), who reigned as Pope Pius XI from 1922 to 1939, in 1923 proclaimed Bernard of Menthon the patron saint of the mountains, and wrote about the Alps as a preferred place for peaceful interaction among people.
Sergio Mattarella marks liberation day.
The League of Nations, whose main site was in Geneva, often emphasised its proximity to the mountains. In its publicity, it often used alpine imagery to present itself as strong, clean and noble.
Such references and associations are not simply decorative. Indeed, as my research shows, historically they proved quite powerful. The League’s choice of alpine imagery and overall “emotional style” proved long-lasting, though in the late 1930s it backfired as it allowed the institution to be stereotyped as distant and ill-equipped to deal with a gritty, real world.
In modern times, localist movements like the Italian political party the Lega Nord, or Northern League, have appropriated mountain foods such as polenta as a means to question both national and European institutions. In their rhetoric, this quintessentially alpine dish serves as a marker of local identity and the embodiment of natural and artisan production. It is the opposite of the artificial, industrial, cosmopolitan goods coming in via global trade.
Meloni’s own Fratelli d’Italia organised a large gathering in the Alps in 2020, a kind of general assembly aimed at developing specific measures to protect and support the mountain regions, including their “traditions” and “identity”.
The party later campaigned against closing Italy’s ski resorts during the pandemic, arguing:
La montagna è parte fondamentale dell’identità italiana e non può essere umiliata.
Mountains are a fundamental part of Italian identity and cannot be humiliated.
The use of the term “humiliated” is reminiscent of fascist rhetoric and slogans that often equated compromise with humiliation and often glorified pride – or “living a day as a lion” – as a marker of moral fortitude and strength. “Italian identity” refers to the fascist use of mountains as natural borders, as well as to the policies of forced Italianisation of the populations living within them.
Seen against this backdrop, Mattarella’s choice to point out the symbolic value of mountains and to reclaim their significance in the history of Italian anti-fascism thus acquire new significance. By adopting a strong emotional style, the Italian president put forth an alternative version of pride and a bold response to growing far-right movements.
As in the writings by Beppe Fenoglio, one of Cuneo’s landmark resistance fighters and writers, mountains in Mattarella’s narrative serve as a space to uphold the country’s moral fabric and a vantage point from which to ponder how to save the world in trouble down below. More