Published Date

December 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 18: What Is the Future of Italy? (1945)

When the war broke out in 1914, Italy was, and since 1882 had been, an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The alliance was something of a paradox. On the one hand, friendship for England was the cornerstone of Italian foreign policy. With France, the other “Latin sister,” all conflicts of interest that had pushed Italy into the Central Powers camp had been settled.

On the other hand, Austria was known among the Italian people as “the secular enemy.” Before 1870 it had long been dominant in Italian affairs, always working against unification. The Italian-populated cities of Trento and Trieste and their surrounding provinces (not all of Italian population) were still under Austrian rule. Italian patriots had not given up hope that some day they could be wrested away from Austria to complete the process of national unification.

Immediately on the outbreak of the first World War, Italy declared its neutrality. This it was entitled to do under the terms of the alliance, because Austria was the aggressor against Serbia. It was also quite agreeable to the mass of the Italian people, who wanted to stay out of the war altogether. Some of them, in fact, wanted to join England and France a fight that would get Trento and Trieste for Italy.

The popular feelings and desires were not entirely reflected in the government’s diplomatic maneuvers. Some very complicated negotiations with both belligerent camps ended in the signing at London of a secret treaty with England and France in April 1915. By this pact the Italian government agreed to enter the war against its German and Austrian allies in return for the promise of specified territorial additions along the northern and eastern Italian borders. The people of Italy, however, remained in ignorance of the treaty and fought bravely for loftier goals.


At the peace conference

The Treaty of London was Italy’s hole card at the peace conference—and the Italian delegation fumbled it. They could have played it for all it was worth for the treaty laid down in black and white exactly what was due Italy for its war effort. Or they could have tossed it in and called for a new deal on the common Allied aims of a lasting peace with territorial settlements according to the wishes of the peoples involved.

The chief Italian delegate, Signor Orlando, and his colleagues did neither. In the first place they stood by the treaty with the violations of the principle of nationalities which it entailed. For the Treaty of London promised Italy South Tyrol with its quarter of a million Austrians south of the Brenner Pass. It also promised the province of Istria with half a million Slavs. And then the Italians went ahead and, on the principle of nationalities, asked for still more.

Storm over Fiume

This something more was Fiume, a little town of Italian population wholly surrounded by an area of Slavic population in territory formerly belonging to Hungary. To give Fiume to Italy would have meant carrying the principle of nationalities to an absurd extreme, especially since that same principle was being violated in Italy’s favor. Moreover, it was needed by the new state, Yugoslavia, as an essential outlet to the sea. President Wilson refused to accept the Italian claim to Fiume as legitimate. On that small issue came the break that turned Italy sour on the peace settlement.

Sensible Italians recognized that Italy’s primary war aim, the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire, had been achieved beyond the fondest hopes. The war had strengthened Italy’s international position enormously. Italy was supreme on its eastern flankno other European power had achieved as much.

Under the conditions of nervous strain, moral confusion, and economic crisis that follow all great wars, however, straight thinking does not always prevail. Fiume became a slogan used by extreme nationalists to spread the notion that Italy was being cheated out of the fruits of victory. These people deliberately kept the question of Flume open, and it became a festering sore in the Italian consciousness. It was one of the things that helped to bring fascism.

Of course it was not the only thing. Inflation came along to destroy values and sow the seeds of insecurity among the middle classes. There were difficulties in regaining foreign markets. The government’s economic policies were confused and inadequate. There was unemployment, and there were strikes.

The workers’ seizure of the factories

Economic troubles made the surface boil even though the country’s underlying situation was improving Lured by the high price of farm land, many of the big landowners sold oft their holdings in small pieces to the peasants. Italy gained a stronger social structure as thousands of formerly dandles, peasants became small landowners.

In the big industrial cities like Milan and Turin, however, there no such casing of the tension. The climax came in the late summer of 1920, when workers in the industrial north seized control of the factories. They did it under socialist leadership and to the accompaniment of much talk about a revolution similar in aim to the Russian Revolution of three years earlier. Some of the socialist leaders talked as if they were in earnest and some people believed them.

Among the believers was the editor of a Milan newspaper, a man by the name of Mussolini. One day during the short time the workers were in complete control and economic life was at a standstill, the editor left his newspaper office in Milan to visit the nearby general headquarters of the workers. He assured their leader that he, Benito Mussolini, was with them.

What, no revolution?

It soon became apparent that there wasn’t going to be any revolution. The socialist leaders talked well about it, but they had no idea how to conduct a revolt and didn’t want to anyway. They were mostly individuals raised in a tradition of gradual social change and respect for the existing system. Beneath their talk they were as afraid of revolution as anyone and never called for an uprising. The workers left the factories, order was restored without bloodshed, and the socialist movement went into a decline:

That was in September 1920. If there ever was danger revolution in Italy, it disappeared from that moment on.

That same newspaper editor was among the first to recognize that the danger was over. He also saw how to profit from it politically. A few weeks earlier he had feared socialism and offered it his support: Now that it was on the downgrade, he loudly proclaimed that it was Italy’s greatest menace. Now that all possibility of socialist revolution was past, he sallied boldly to the attack.

Mussolini was playing on the element of fear—everywhere one of the strongest allies of totalitarianism. The middle class, the industrialists, a good many members of the younger generation lived in fear—even after September 1920—of revolution. To guarantee against it, they swung their support behind the newborn fascist movement and its promises of “law and order.”

Why didn’t the government do something?

The words “law and order” are often abused, but they describe one of the chief principles of government: to maintain conditions in which citizens call live peacefully, securely, and with assurance of prompt and equal justice for all. Because the times were critical and men in power were not equal to their tasks, the government did not maintain these essential conditions in Italy. The law was disregarded, political violence went unpunished; rebellion was not suppressed, and discipline in the army slackened. The machinery of government was beginning to break down and to leave the way open for fascism to gain hold on the country.

The source of trouble in the government can be laid in part to the failure of the party system to function effectively. Without strong parties, the parliament didn’t swing its weight; with an impotent parliament; the cabinets were irresponsible and unstable; without a government that worked, the country drifted toward dictatorship.

What parties were there

After the first World War the party situation appeared to be somewhat improved. To be sure, most of the so-called parties the same kind of confused and shifting groups as before. But instead of only one well-organized party there were now two: the Socialist and the Christian-Democratic—then known as the Popular party.

The Socialist party was the largest and, since it believed in gradual change, could have played an important role. But it couldn’t stomach the monarchy. As long as the monarchy stayed, the Socialist party refused to take a hand in the government. With such an important cog missing from the machinery, the government could hardly be expected to work well.

The Christian-Democratic, or Popular party was launched in 1919. Its purpose was to realize in political life the mural ideals of Christianity. It was strongly backed by the Catholic clergy and led by a priest, Don Luigi Sturzo. Though independent of the church, it was held in suspicion by the older liberal and democratic groups in whom the anticlerical tradition was strong. Smooth working relations could not be built on such grounds.

Between them the Socialist and Christian-Democratic parties elected about half the total membership of the parliament. A coalition between them would have provided the basis for a satisfactory government, but the differences in their programs proved insurmountable. Since the Socialists wouldn’t play and the other liberals didn’t trust the Christian-Democrats, no government could obtain a stable majority.

The March on Rome

By 1922 the reputation of parliamentary government in Italy had reached rock bottom. It seemed to be totally useless. Blood shed between Fascists on the one hand and Socialists, Communists, and Christian-Democrats on the other was a daily occurrence. The Fascists, often with help from the central government, had gained control of many local governments. They felt the time had come to threaten a violent seizure of power; it would at least be worth seeing what happened. At Mussolini’s call, therefore, the armed forces of the Fascist party converged on Rome in October 1922. Mussolini himself “marched” from Milan in the comfort of a sleeping car. Outside the city they set up an awful clamor, shooting off their guns and generally making as if to attack. Inside the city were units of the regular army probably strong enough to disperse the Fascist forces if the word had been given.

It was not given because the king refused to give it. The government resigned and the king could then call in Mussolini and ask him to form a new government.

Next section: The Rise and Fall of Fascism