Edinburgh Centre for Global History

Italians in Scotland during World War II

Since 1861, over twenty-five million Italians have emigrated from Italy, with their descendants around the world numbering around sixty million.

According to the Italian Embassy, there are now approximately 220,000 Italians in Britain, of whom 30,000 live in Scotland. Scholars such as Donna R. Gabaccia argue that Italy’s migratory workers and exiles repeatedly formed broad, transnational social networks that resembled ‘diasporas-in-formation’, scattering in multiple directions. Italians started to settle in Scotland around the mid-nineteenth century with peaks in immigration occurring at the turn of the century, in 1913, and again after the First World War in 1920-21. By the outbreak of the Second World War there was an Italian-born population of over five thousand in Scotland.

Dr Wendy Ugolini’s research challenges the romanticised nostalgia which surrounds the Italian presence in Scotland, rooted in its highly visible presence in coastal ice cream parlours and fish restaurants. Instead, her monograph, Experiencing War as the ‘Enemy Other’: Italian Scottish Experience in World War II (Manchester University Press, 2011), highlights the extent to which the Italian diasporic population was subjected to racialised hostility throughout the first half of the twentieth century, culminating in manifestations of anti-Italian violence during the Second World War.

Within Scotland, long-standing stereotypes of the Italian diasporic population as dirty, servile and racially inferior were reinforced by their marginalised religious identity as Roman Catholics. When Italy declared war on Britain in June 1940, Italophobia intensified with Italians redefined as the ‘enemy within’ - epitomised by the British government’s implementation of a policy of internment, deportation and relocation and the concurrent anti-Italian riots in cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow.

‘Communities of allegiance'

Ugolini’s research focuses particularly on the wartime existence of competing ‘communities of allegiance’ amongst second generation Italians, those of Italian parentage who were born and raised in Scotland. Through an analysis of oral history interviews with forty-four men and women of Italian origin and previously unpublished archival material, Ugolini’s research takes a case study of a long-established immigrant group and explores how notions of belonging and citizenship are undermined at a time of war.

Examining the question of contested loyalties amongst second generation Italians who served in the British forces, this research aims to contribute to the debate on how we examine and document the phenomenon of ‘hybrid identity’ amongst second-generation immigrants. Overall, it illuminates the complex and diverse ways in which ethnicity interacts with a sense of belonging to a nation at a time of conflict and how notions of who is entitled to be part of a ‘national’ community can shift and evolve over time.

Dr Wendy Ugolini

Project leader

  • School of History, Classics and Archaeology
  • University of Edinburgh

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