Published Date

December 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

Economic and religious issues are not the only burning questions bound up in the general problem of Italy’s future. There are a number of outstanding political issues that are just as hot. Like the others they all have their domestic and their international facets. The decisions reached with respect to each will be partly made in Italy and partly made by the direct or indirect influence of non-Italian forces. And whatever the answers may be, they will concern both Italy and its near and far neighbors.


Will the monarchy be kept?

On one side of this argument are those who want to throw out the House of Savoy and set up a republican government. They say that Italy has no great monarchic tradition; that its republican traditions go much deeper; that the flourishing city-states and republics of the Middle Ages prove; the Italian people are capable of democratic self-government; and that republican forces and republican leaders, like Garibaldi and Mazzini, were always in the vanguard of the fight for national unity and independence in the nineteenth century.

They clinch their argument by recalling the responsibility of the king for fascism and his subservience to Mussolini. As Mussolini was overthrown, so must the monarchy be eliminated, they say.

On the other side of the argument the advocates of keeping the monarchy admit the great republican traditions, but say they were politically ineffective and that unity could never have been achieved without the leadership of the House of Savoy and its great prime minister, Cavour. Before 1922, they contend, the monarchy had been truly liberal and sincerely respectful of the rights of citizens. Its share in fascism is real, they admit, but they say that whereas Victor Emmanuel III ought to be removed, his heirs should be left on the throne.

In the difficult years ahead, the monarchists say, continuation of the monarchy will provide one element of certainty in what may be an otherwise confused situation.

The question of colonies

Italy entered the race for colonial empire rather late: Most of the prime lands in Africa had already been grabbed up. With English backing, however, Italy acquired certain bases on the Red Sea coast of Africa and later expanded them into the colony of Eritrea. Some wasteland along the Indian Ocean was also acquired and given the name Italian Somaliland.

An expedition bent on conquering Ethiopia in 1896 suffered a humiliating defeat and slaughter in the battle of Adowa. The defeat at the hands of the Ethiopians put a stop to Italian moves in that direction, but it rankled in the memories of Italian superpatriots and spurred the idea of revenge in the 1935 attack on Ethiopia.

An ultimatum presented to the tottering Ottoman Empire in 1911 led to a short war and the acquisition of the immense area of Libya, mostly desert, and the Greek-populated Dodecanese islands in the Aegean Sea.

This was the total of Italian possessions before fascism. The area in square miles was impressive, but it was mostly sand. Only a few thousand Italians settled in the colonies while millions migrated to other countries. Except for very small amounts of cotton and bananas produced in southern Somaliland, no useful economic development was in sight.

What to do with them?

The possession of colonies, however profitless, gave many Italians the feeling of belonging to the charmed circle of colonial powers. Others saw the colonies as the fruit of early discoveries in Africa by a long series of notable Italian explorers:

In launching on the conquest of Ethiopia in 1935 Mussolini exploited these cravings and also the resentment felt by many Italians that none of the former German colonies had been assigned to Italy after World War I. The glory that was Rome in the days of Caesar was a big talking point, of course, in all fascist colonial propaganda and figured somewhat in the annexation of Albania.

The sudden and unlamented passing of fascism meant automatically the end of all Italian claims on Ethiopia, already liberated by British armies and on Albania. Italy appears to agree that the Dodecanese islands should and will go to Greece. These matters are not open for discussion. The question of what to do about the old Italian colonies of Eritrea. Somaliland, and Libya, however, is open for debate and decision in the councils of the United Nations.

Italy hopes, for sentimental and economic reasons to retain the old colonies—especially if the other great colonial empires are allowed to survive unchanged. The economic argument is that Italy needs the colonies, no matter how slight their economic value, because of its own greatly reduced means. Many Italian sources, however, have suggested that an international trusteeship for all colonial areas would be the best all-round solution.

Will the boundary stay at the Brenner Pass?

In the eyes of the Italian people, a far more important question is what, if anything, will happen to their Continental boundaries. The frontier with Switzerland is not involved in any question of revision. However, the boundaries of France, Austria, and particularly Yugoslavia are up for re-examination and possible change.

The French government has put forward with varying vigor a demand for certain territory called the Val d’Aosta on the Italian side of the Alpine frontier. There is some evidence to indicate that Italy, to make amends for its attack on the prostrate France in 1940, might be willing to cede the territory. It is unlikely, however, that such a boundary revision can take place without arousing considerable opposition in Italy. If the Val d’Aosta goes to France in the peace treaty, some Italians are almost sure to view the cession as a national injury to be healed in some future accounting with France.

The Brenner Pass boundary with Austria presents another big problem. It became the boundary in 1919 when the other Allies agreed to go through with the promises of the Treaty of London. The northward shift of the border added about 250,000 German-speaking Austrians to the population of Italy. They lived in a compact area between the Gap of Salorno, north of Trento, and the Brenner Pass.

The fascist government launched a vigorous program to Italianize the region and its people. The names of cities, towns, rivers, mountains, and streets were changed from German to Italian. The people were forced to take Italian surnames. German education and the culture and the use of the German language were either suppressed or curtailed. Even the inscriptions on tombs were changed into Italian.

The local resistance to this program was strong and successful. After Hitler came to power in Germany, he and Mussolini agreed to a mass migration or removal to Germany of all who chose to leave. It is believed that more than 70 percent were ready to accept the offer and be resettled in Germany, but the German government was not able to carry out the mass transfer. Nor was the Italian government able to bring large numbers of settlers into the region. The exact distribution of nationalities in the area at the present day is not known.

The problem, therefore, may be not merely one of boundary revision, but also part of the larger problem of restoring their original homesteads all the millions of Europeans who have been uprooted by Hitler’s policy of compulsory population exchange:

Istria, Trieste, and Fiume

The eastern boundary with Yugoslavia poses an entirely different and even more important problem. Some of the most explosive issues at the Paris peace conference in 1919 were created by this boundary, and the problem appears to be no less complicated now.

The question was not finally settled at the Paris conference but was left for direct negotiation between Italy and Yugoslavia. The result, embodied in the Treaty of Rapallo of 1920, was heavily in favor of Italy. Not only the city of Trieste went to Italy, as expected, but also the entire Istrian peninsula. Fiume was made a free city, independent of Italy but having a common boundary. Italy also took the Dalmatian city of Zara but abandoned all the rest of its flimsy claims to Yugoslav territory.

These arrangements gave over to Yugoslavia a few thousand Italians in Dalmatia, meanwhile bringing more than half a million Slovenes and Croats under the Italian flag. From the Italian point of view it was undoubtedly a satisfactory settlement. It might have been tolerable also from the general European point of view had Italy followed a sensible policy toward the newly acquired minorities.

As one of the victor powers, Italy did not have to sign any treaty guaranteeing proper treatment of minorities. Even before the advent of fascism in 1922 the Italian government showed that it lacked the tolerance, especially in cultural matters, that might have won over the Slavic groups. After 1922 the fascist regime engaged in open repression of the Slav minorities.

The question reopened

In the light of the fascist aggression against Yugoslavia, the question is now reopened. Yugoslavia contends the boundary should be returned to practically what it was in 1915 between Italy and Austria. This would give Fiume, all of Istria, and Trieste itself to Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs do not deny that the cities are largely Italian in population—though they say the Italian majorities have been greatly exaggerated. But they point out that the cities cannot be separated from the surrounding territories, which are populated by Yugoslavs. Also they say that Trieste is the natural port for a large area of central Europe, of which Yugoslavia is an essential part.

On the Italian side it is acknowledged that the 1921 boundary has to be revised. Perhaps, the Italians suggest, the so-called Wilson line of 1919 would prove satisfactory. This was a compromise proposal that divided the Slavic-populated from the Italian-populated regions of Istria.

Trieste itself is the real core of the problem, and a tough one. In the Italian view it is a great Italian city, linked to Italy by an Italian-speaking countryside—a city with an old tradition of Italian culture, a city that symbolizes Italian patriotism and sacrifice in the first World War. No Italian government is likely to be found that will surrender Trieste of its own will. On the other hand, Marshal Tito says his forces liberated Trieste from the Nazis, thus reinforcing the Yugoslav claims. In the meantime, Anglo-American military forces and diplomatic pressure are attempting to make a negotiated compromise possible. An Anglo-American-Yugoslav agreement for administration of the area pending final settlement was signed by Marshal Tito and Marshal Alexander in Belgrade on June 9, 1945.

Next section: Italy’s Foreign Relations and the Future