Italy, the Real Great Powers and the Conference of Paris in 1919. A “mutilated victory”? (nuovarivistastorica.it)

di Richard James Boon Bosworth, del 13 luglio 2020

Una vittoria mutilata?

L’Italia e la Conferenza di Pace di Parigi

In 2013, I moved permanently to live in Oxford.  I therefore passed the many centenaries of the First World War in the U.K.  What was striking for a historian of modern Italy was the fashion in which British memory entirely omitted Italy from its recollection. No war entry in May 1915, no Caporetto, no Vittorio Veneto, no Southern front (by contrast with innumerable invocations of “Flanders”), no peace treaties, no comment on what Paolo Soave, in its essay (Una vittoria mutilata. L’Italia e la Conferenza di Pace di Parigi (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2020),  reminds us was seen by many Italians as a  mutilated victory, where, in so far as its Great Power ambitions were concerned, after the peace-making in Paris, Italy might as well have been on the losing as on the winning side of the war.

Writing with commendable succinctness, not always a feature of Italian academic writing, Paolo Soave tells the story of Liberal Italy’s difficult war from 1914 to Versailles and beyond. Throughout the conflict, according to Soave’s tabulation taken from the curiously dated source of Mario Toscano’s monograph Il Patto di Londra (1934), 680 000 Italian soldiers died, 110 000 were wounded and 500 000 were made prisoners of war, often in that capacity treated with deep suspicion by the authorities in Rome. Soave avoids that issue and his mathematics need correction with the totals accepted by more modern analyses, where, for example, the almost 600 000 civilians who suffered premature death through war-induced deprivation need adding to the tally.  But the point remains that, relatively-speaking, Italy indeed made a heavy contribution to its Liberal war.  With my own doubts about too simplistic a reading of Italy’s suffering in its Nazi-fascist Second World War, I might want to add the reminder that the First conflict sent 50% more Italians to their deaths than did the Second.

In recounting his version of the war, Soave draws deft portraits of his leading international and national characters from Sidney Costantino Sonnino, obstinately clinging to the Treaty of London of April 1915 that took Italy into combat, to Woodrow Wilson, the American president who thought, from 1917 on, that he was bringing a New World morality to a corrupt old Europe (Somewhat remarkably in these days Wilson has had his name deleted from Princeton University’s Institute for Public and International affairs given the charge by the Black Lives Matter movement that he was a persistent racist; in fact the evidence against him might extend beyond his hostility to black Americans to what he thought of Japanese rivals of the US in the Pacific and those who lived in the Americas south of the Rio Grande).  It was Wilson, more than Britain’s Lloyd George or France’s Clemenceau, who made plain at Versailles that the post-war world of ‘self determination’ and the League of Nations must not be bound by the terms of the Treaty of London, notably in their full detail in the Adriatic.  Sonnino’s claim that ‘for Italy, domination of the Adriatic is a question of life and death’ was, for Wilson, merely a delusion of the ‘old diplomacy’.  Not even the withdrawal by Sonnino and his Prime Minister, V.E. Orlando, from the talks in Paris in April (and their subsequent humiliating return) changed the discourse.

As Soave concludes, after a further exploration of the historiography curiously excluding the works by Arno J. Mayer, seen by many as the most central contributor to debates about Versailles, Italy did indeed endure a vittoria mutilata, made all the more dramatically apparent to that national public opinion that mattered, by Gabriele D’Annunzio’s seizure of Fiume and the launching of his ‘poetic revolution’ there.  Italy, Soave states, entered the conflict as a ‘Great Power of courtesy title only’ (or what I called back in 1979 the ‘least of the Great Powers’), and found at its end, despite its massive sacrifice of blood and treasure, that it was even more isolated and potentially dependent on other states’ good will than it had been in 1914-5.

It is a sensible conclusion. Yet perhaps some deeper structures needed further noting.  Mayer underlined the sense in which Versailles was a battle of ‘Wilson versus Lenin’, an issue certainly of relevance to an Italy about to pass through its biennio rosso.  But it is also necessary to underline a duality in the war throughout its course.  The real Great Powers, with the ambiguous exception of the U.S.A., were not nations worried about ‘self-determination’ but Empires.  They fought for global mastery.  By contrast, the lesser combatants, such countries as Greece, Romania and Serbia, aimed to round out their nations, in what was in large part a ‘war of Austro-Hungarian succession’, in quite a few senses continuing the vicious ethnic killing that has entered history as the ‘Balkan wars’ of 1912-3.  The Italy that aggressively attacked Austria-Hungary in May 1915 (and Turkey in August and Bulgaria in October) but delayed formal conflict with Germany until 28 August 1916, was therefore in fact behaving like a small power when it declared itself to be fighting the ‘Fourth War of the Risorgimento’, aiming to bring all Italian speakers in the Trentino, Trieste, Istria and Dalmatia home to the patria.  The fanatical determination of Giovanni Amendola, later to be a liberal democrat martyr to Fascism, on the dismantling of the Austrian empire as the nation’s central war aim, offers a case study in what might be called the ‘peculiarity of Italy’s war history’ which, well beyond Amendola’s understanding, was denying ‘greatness’ even while it was being asserted.

But, in hoping for self-determination and the enhancement of the nation above all, Italy was caught in another contradiction.  A key oddity in its reality, unremarked in an Italian historiography always likely to be metropolitan rather than global, appears without comment in Soave’s text when he cites Wilson joking in January 1919: ‘I hope that you don’t want to have New York, the biggest Italian city in the world’.  In so far as a democratic or populist foreign policy was concerned, one of the many ironies confronting Italian politicians, was that, through the decades before 1914, hundreds of thousands of people from what is best termed ‘the Italies’ (and so not the self-conscious nation, Italy) had settled in North and South America. In the 1930s, Nazi foreign policy aimed fanatically to bring all Germans home to the Reich (and to massacre many others who might object to such policy).

Fascist Italy, by contrast, was still stuck in the dilemma of the nation’s Versailles. No Fascist seriously aimed to claim New York or Buenos Aires for Mussolini.  Instead this regime tried, in a typical least of the Great Powers manner, belatedly to occupy Ethiopia for itself and so become a “real” European Empire (just as the course of history was pushing the old Empires towards their own conversion to being first and foremost nations).  When it bloodily seized Addis Ababa and talked of providing a ‘black army’ of 500 000 men in the Axis cause (whatever Hitler might have made of such assistance), the Italian dictatorship (which well deserves that title) was indeed being Italian in endeavouring to behave as the Greater Powers had sought to do between 1914 and 1918.  Similarly Fascist chat about romanità, however inapposite in an Ethiopia where the Caesars’ legions had never trod, should be seen as a dated attempt to claim an imperial purpose, mimicking the fashion that British and French statesmen, trained in the classics, had almost automatically seen themselves as the heirs of Rome when they were expanding their Empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Soave half implies that the Italy whose Liberal war-making had proven too thin in reward in 1919 for national opinion (despite acquiring “natural” borders in the Alto Adige and Trieste), was driven to Fascist aggression as a result.  I might want to argue in reply that Mussolini’s Italy, throughout its history, always remained the least of the Great Powers until, by 1945, it was fortunately for the Italian people reduced to a rank below such leading status and responsibility.