Inventing an imaginary Enemy





Inventing the Enemy

By Umberto Eco



SOME YEARS AGO in New York I found myself in conversation with a taxi driver whose name I had difficulty in placing. He was, he explained, Pakistani and asked where I came from. Italy, I replied. He asked how many of us there were and was surprised we were so few and that our language wasn’t English.

Then he asked me who our enemies were. In response to my “Sorry?” he explained patiently that he wanted to know who were the people against whom we have fought through the centuries over land claims, ethnic rivalry, border incursions, and so forth. I told him we are not at war with anyone. He explained that he wanted to know who were our historical enemies, those who kill us and whom we kill. I repeated that we don’t have any, that we fought our last war more than half a century ago — starting, moreover, with one enemy and ending with another.

He wasn’t satisfied. How can a country have no enemies? Getting out of the taxi, I left a two-dollar tip to compensate him for our indolent Italian pacifism. And only then did it occur to me how I should have answered. It is not true that we Italians have no enemies. We have no outside enemies, or rather we are unable to agree on who they are, because we are continually at war with each other — Pisa against Lucca, Guelphs against Ghibellines, north against south, Fascists against Partisans, mafia against state, Berlusconi’s government against the judiciary. It was a pity that during that time the two governments headed by Romano Prodi had not yet fallen; otherwise I could have explained to the taxi driver what it means to lose a war through friendly fire.

Thinking further about the conversation, I have come to the conclusion that one of Italy’s misfortunes over the past sixty years has been the absence of real enemies. The unification of Italy took place thanks to the presence of Austria, or, in the words of Giovanni Berchet, of the irto, increscioso alemanno — the bristling, irksome Teuton. And Mussolini was able to enjoy popular support by calling on Italy to avenge herself for a victory in tatters, for humiliating defeats in Abyssinia at Dogali and Adua, and for the Jewish plutodemocracy, which, he claimed, was penalizing us iniquitously. See what happened in the United States when the Evil Empire vanished and the great Soviet enemy faded away. The United States was in danger of losing its identity until bin Laden, in gratitude for the benefits received when he was fighting against the Soviet Union, proffered his merciful hand and gave Bush the opportunity to create new enemies, strengthening feelings of national identity as well as his own power.

Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one. Look at the generous flexibility with which the skinheads of Verona would, just to identify themselves as a group, choose anyone not belonging to their group as their enemy. And so we are concerned here not so much with the almost natural phenomenon of identifying an enemy who is threatening us, but with the process of creating and demonizing the enemy.


Hitler proceeds with a greater delicacy, bordering almost on envy: “In regard to young people, clothes should take their place in the service of education . . . If the beauty of the body were not completely forced into the background to-day through our stupid manner of dressing, it would not be possible for thousands of our girls to be led astray by Jewish mongrels, with their repulsive crooked waddle” (Mein Kampf, 1925, translated by James Murphy).

From facial appearance to customs: this brings us to the Jewish enemy who kills young children and drinks their blood. He appears very early, for example, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where there is a story, much like that of Saint Simonino of Trento, of a young boy seized while passing through the Jewish quarter while singing “O alma redemptoris mater.” His throat is slashed and his body thrown into a pit.

The Jew who kills young children and drinks their blood has a very complex genealogy: the same model existed earlier in Christianity, in the creation of the enemy within — the heretic. A single example is enough:

In the evening, when we light the lamps and commemorate the passion, they take young girls initiated into their secret rites to a particular house, they snuff out their lamps as they wish no one to witness the indecencies about to take place, and give vent to their licentious practices on whomever it might be, even upon sister or daughter. Indeed they believe they are pleasing the demons by violating the divine laws that forbid union with those of the same blood. Once the ritual is over, they return home and wait for nine months to pass: when the time comes for the godless children to be born of a godless seed, they assemble once again in the same place. Three days after the birth, they seize the wretched children from their mothers, cut their tender limbs with a sharp blade, fill cups with the blood that spurts forth, burn the newborns while they are still breathing by throwing them on a pyre. Then they mix blood and ash in cups to obtain a horrible concoction with which they contaminate food and drink, secretly, like someone poisoning mead. Such is their communion.






L’invenzione del  nemico