Popular imagination is so ingrained with the horrors of French trench warfare that Italy’s war role rarely comes up. What little I knew (until I my World War I obsession caught on) I learned while hiking in the Dolomites. Military roads and leftover trenches with scrap metal and barbed wire were reminders of the “White War” fought Austro-Italian border.
Italy’s decision to choose the Allies was almost a fluke. Italy was an Austrian ally when an anarchist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. It was the third member of the Triple Alliance of Austro-Hungary, Germany and Italy, countries that pledged to support each other if any of them was attacked. Originally set to expire in July 1914 — talk about a “what if?” scenario — the pact was renewed and amended in 1912 with Italy “guaranteed” compensation if any signatory made territorial gains in the Balkans.
Soon after Ferdinand’s assassination, Italy warned Austria that it would expect compensation in the event Vienna acted against Serbia. Austria decided to turn to Germany, which gave it a “blank check.” Italy was suddenly shut out and learned of the Austrian ultimatum to Belgrade only after its issuance.
On July 31, 1914, Italy declared its neutrality, leaving Vienna and Rome to haggle over which Italian-speaking parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Italy would receive as compensation. Would it get Trentino-Alto Adige? Trieste? Bits of Albania?
Germany, eager for the support of Italy’s army, urged Austria to make a deal and make it fast. When Austria dithered, Italy shopped for the best arrangement it could get, shuttling between Vienna and London until it got an offer it liked. That offer was the Treaty of London.
But at the time of its signing Italy was in turmoil and divided. The events in Sarajevo were overshadowed by reports of a “red week” of labor unrest. The tension soon escalated into an intense debate over whether Italy should jettison neutrality and join the war, and on which side.
The Catholic Church, wary of offending Catholic Austria, opposed going to war. According to an informal government survey, most Italians were either unaware of the war or against it. Another opponent of the war was the growing Socialist Party, whose newspaper was edited by a young fellow named Benito Mussolini.
Pro-war groups thought conflict would build national spirit and unity and sought to join Germany. But military gains by Britain and France made in early 1915 suddenly made them seem a better bet. More to the point, Italy depended on British coal.
Italian nationalists saw defeating Austria as a means to acquire land inhabited by some 700,000 Italian speakers in Austrian-controlled Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli and Trieste. The “Futurist Manifesto” written in 1909 by poet Tommaso Filippo Marinetti glorified war as “hygiene” and purification. Intellectuals, artists and writers were pro-war. Northern industrialists saw war as good business. Predictably, the Italian military wanted war. As did newborn pro-war groups called fasci, whose members called themselves fascisti.
But it was an insider “plot against peace” hatched by Italian Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino that tipped the scales. Guided by what Salandra called Italy’s “sacred egoism,” the two men negotiated secretly with France and England. To sell their deal to the government, the Italian monarchy and the public — in the dark about the ongoing talks — Salandra turned to poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Throughout May 1915, D’Annunzio’s speeches about “founts of blood in the perfume of the Italian spring” incited pro-war riots, leading to fellow poet Marinetti’s arrest. When Mussolini turned pro-war, going against his party, the Socialists ousted him. Salandra and Sonnino’s game worked. On May 23, 1915 Italy declared war on Austria (but not Germany).
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had described Italy as having a “large appetite and poor teeth.” Its untrained troops spoke more regional dialects than Italian. Untrained, they were immediately hindered by bad leadership and having to fight on a mountainous “vertical” front, where Austria always had the high ground. Italy managed to mobilize as many men as Britain, but also ended up executing three times as many for desertion or dereliction. Austria had the upper hand before Italy’s late-war breakthroughs.
Italy ultimate got what it wanted, a seat at the victors’ table at Versailles. But that didn’t stop domestic turmoil. The matter of Austrian territory that had caused such trouble in 1914 continued doing so in 1920 — with D’Annunzio orchestrating an ultra-nationalist rip tide. Back in 1914, when Mussolini had slammed the door on the Socialists, he’d told them: “You hate me today, but you love me still… whatever happens, you won’t lose me.” Soon, Italian nationalism evolved into full-scale fascism, with Mussolini in charge.
All this political and military hostility came full circle on yet another date my birthday makes me remember: April 25, 1945. On that day Milan and Turin were finally liberated from fascism and World War II ended for Italy.