The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

047 Victor Emmanuel III and the five-foot tall kingship

Victor Emmanuel III

Victor Emmanuel III

Turbulent Italy rushes into war

It is Sunday 16 May 1915. It is the 47th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

The Battle of Festubert gets bogged down in skirmishes, which eventually result for the allied forces in a gain in ground of one kilometre, at the cost of 16,000 lives.

The Russians occupy the town of Van in the east of Anatolia while the Turks withdraw to the Kurdish town of Bitlis.

Based on a telegram from war correspondent Charles à Court Repington an article in The Times  is published, which attributes the Aubers Ridge catastrophe that happened a week earlier to a shortage of grenades. 

In the House of Lords the ‘Shell Crisis’ is then met with Lord Kitchener’s plea to increase the production of ammunition.

Under the command of August von Mackensen the Germans unleash their artillery on Przemyśl in Galicia. The Russians try to evacuate the town by a counter attack.

On the Gallipoli peninsula the Anzacs manage to hold their own against the dominance of the Turks, but Lord Kitchener already speculates on a retreat.

In the wake of this Gallipoli fiasco British prime minister H.H. Asquith chooses to discharge Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and form a coalition government.

And the Italian government decides to mobilize, after having been entrusted with far-reaching powers. Thus the war party has won the battle for king Victor Emmanuel III.

When in May 2004 the Spanish crown prince gets married, the Italian pretender to the throne is also invited as a high ranking guest. If only this invitation had not been sent. After dinner this Victor Emmanuel IV will start bashing one of his cousins, who also claims to have a right to the Italian throne. Oh well, they must have thought in Italy. Perhaps our republic is not everything, but return to the monarchy? We had better not do that.

The longest ruling monarch of Italy was the grandfather of the present number four, Victor Emmanuel III. He wore the crown in both world wars, but the second one led to his downfall. The prince had adopted a too favourable stance regarding Mussolini’s fascists to serve his time after the war. He had already had to give up questionable titles of ‘Emperor of Ethiopia’ and ‘King of Albania’ halfway through the Second World War. When peace had come, his son Umberto II could try to save the monarchy for another month, but that turned out to be a hopeless challenge.

Victor Emmanuel III had already come to the throne in 1900, as a direct result of what in those days was called the ‘anarchism of the deed’. In the first year of the new century Victor Emmanuel’s father, King Umberto I, lost his life in the same way Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand would experience in Sarajevo fourteen years later. In the case of the Italian king there were four bullets.

Umberto’s assassin was called Gaetano Bresci. He was Italian by birth and had moved to America in order to build a life as a silk weaver. In 1900, however, he returned to his native country for a special mission, to kill the king, thus unleashing the revolution. A few moments before his arrest he would formulate this more exactly: ‘I have not shot Umberto. I have killed the king. I have killed a principle.’

The killing of Umberto fits in a series of anarchist assassinations of dignitaries. In June 1894 president Sadi Carnot of France is the first. In August 1897 prime minister Canovas of Spain is next. September 1898 Empress Elisabeth, Sissi, of Austria-Hungary. September 1901 president McKinley of the United States. November 1912 prime minister Canalejas of Spain. May 1913 king George I of Greece. They were all killed by radical individuals, who were driven by social despair and were possessed by the ideal to create a society of equals. It would only take one spark, they thought.

Four of the six ‘tyrant murders’ were committed by Italians. French socialist Jean Jaurès commented: ‘For many years all anarchist hooligans have been Italians. And that is no coincidence. It is because the misery and the reaction there are very intense and the violent passion and the destructive instinct lead to murder’.

The Italian Errico Malatesta is a prominent teacher of anarchism. In June 1914 he thinks he can put his violent theory into practice. Italy is in the thrall of The Red Week. Turmoil in the streets. Workers who go on strike. But The Red Week will not only expose the division of Italian society as a whole, but also the fragmentation within the political left. When socialists and republicans decide to end the general strike, Malatesta has to go into exile again.

On the eve of the Great War Italy is a young nation, filled with assertiveness, just like Germany. But even less than Germany it is a colonial world power. As early as 1896 Italy suffered a humiliating defeat against Ethiopia, that was supported primarily by Russia, France and Great-Britain.

It should be noted that the Italian nation is very much subject to the opposite forces of left and right, republican and monarchist, agricultural and industrial, and also north and south. All these antagonisms were already visible at the time of the Risorgimento, the multicoloured movement that had indeed successfully sought to achieve Italian unification after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Before that the peninsula had been a collection of kingdoms and duchies, and on top of that the pope in the holy middle.

The annexation of the Papal States in 1870 seemed to be the completion of the Italian resurrection, but there remained a crown on the work: the territories that fell under the rule of the Austrian emperor. This desire of the irredentists would be the main motive to declare war to Austria-Hungary in May 1915, despite all German diplomacy.

The Italians were also familiar with opportunism. Prime minister Antonio Salandra called the principle of his foreign policy ‘Sacro egoismo’ (i.e. sacred egoism). Before the war Italy had chosen the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Dreibund, but this triple friendship proved to be of little or no value when it came to mobilizing in 1914.

Initially Italy emphatically declares itself neutral, but in the first months of 1915 Rome begins to estimate that the allied have the best papers. Germany is stopped at the Marne and the British attack on the Dardanelles looks promising. It encourages the Italians to sign the secret Treaty of London on 26 April 1915. The Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia) grants Italy a lot more territories as spoils of war than pre-war partner Austria-Hungary had wanted to give up.

‘We want war’, a prominent socialist shouts at the king of Italy over the heads of a crowd in Milan. ‘When you, as our monarch who has the power to send our soldiers to the front, renounce your right, you will lose the crown.’ This socialist is called Benito Mussolini. He has been a self-confessed opponent of the Libyan war that Italy had fought with the Ottomans, but now the same Mussolini joins the war effort as a true patriot.

Newspapers that want to remain neutral are swamped with popular anger. And on 18 May Giovanni Giolitti therefore leaves the capital. Giolitti was the elder statesman in Italy. As prime minister he had prevented an escalation of the class struggle with social reforms and liberal politics. In these years the king had also been willing to grant his people greater freedoms.

In May 1915 Giolitti, the ‘godfather of Italy’, expects more benefit from neutrality than from war. According to him Italy is not ready for war yet. In the years to come this will prove to be an accurate observation. With his point of view Giolitti falls out with his former protégé, prime minister Salandra, but it also results in fierce demonstrations here and there in favour of war. Under this public pressure Victor Emmanuel chooses the side of Salandra.

Did ‘the people’ want war? Doubtful. ‘The street’ was not the voice of the majority as such. But this voice as so often remained silent while war was endorsed by parliament, the senate and the king.

Perhaps Victor Emmanuel III did not play a leading role in the ‘glorious days of May’, but he was a willing puppet in the hands of the warmongers. He is often described as shy and hesitant. His appearance was certainly not imposing. ‘Little Victor Emmanuel’ was only five foot tall. Kaiser Wilhelm II simply called him ‘the dwarf’. There is a photograph showing the Italian king walking next to the Belgian king Albert, as if a father is taking his little son for a stroll.

During the great War Victor Emmanuel will not leave the side of his troops. He likes the business of war. But strong man on the front is general Luigi Cadorna, a ruthless character who does not mind a few more dead bodies. The Italians therefore pay a high price for their participation in the war: 650,000 of their soldiers lost their lives. The biggest defeat is the Battle of Caporetto in 1917.

Victor Emmanuel was of the House of Savoy, which had first ruled the kingdom of Sardinia and from 1861 presided over all Italy. His father gave his only child the following poor advice: ‘Remember: to be a king all you need to know is how to sign your name, read a newspaper and mount a horse.’ But for Italy he really needed to do more than that. Between 1900 and 1922 the king had to intervene ten times in a parliamentary crisis. But after that Mussolini took control to the satisfaction of the king, who just hated squabbling politicians.

The popularity of the monarchy also remains considerable during the fascist years. The beauty of the queen, born as princess Elena of Montenegro, gives a substantial impulse to this. She bears Victor Emmanuel five children.

In 1938 the monarch commits the biggest sin of his political life. He tacitly agrees with the racial laws that are mainly aimed at jews, thus breaching the oath he had sworn at his coronation.

As the Second World War progresses Italy’s little monrach tries to get rid of Mussolini, but the latter keeps the support of Adolf Hitler. When in 1943 Victor Emmanuel reaches a ceasefire with the allies, his daughter has to pay the price. Princess Mafalda is married to a German. Although this prince is a loyal nazi, Mafalda is imprisoned by the nazis, apparently in an attempt to put pressure on her father. Eventually Mafalda ends up in the concentration camp of Buchenwald. There the princess is mortally wounded during an allied bombardment in August 1944.

After his abdication in 1946 Victor Emmanuel III moves to Egypt in exile, where he dies in 1947 at the age of 78. During a referendum a year earlier the Italian people voted for the republic as a form of state. After a reign of almost a millennium the House of Savoy has no more subjects.

The royal residence in Turin has been put on the list of world heritage, but the members of the family were not allowed to enter Italy until the year 2002. That was painful. In 2007 Victor Emmanuel IV, the heir-apparent with the dark image, filed a claim for damages with the Italian government. He wanted 260 million euros for the injustice done to his family during all those years of exile. This is just one of the unpaid bills of the history of Italy.

Next week: John Condon

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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