Military history


A Mania for Expansion

My Native Land! I See the Walls, the Arches,

The columns and the statues, and the lone

Ancestral towers; but where,

I ask, is all the glory?

    LEOPARDI, ‘To Italy’ (1818)

Europe before the First World War was rackety and murderous, closer in its statecraft to the Middle East or central Asia than today’s docile continent, where inter-state affairs filter through committees in Brussels.1 It was marked by the epic formation of two large states. When Germany emerged in the 1860s, Italy had taken shape in a process of unification called the Risorgimento or ‘revival’. Led by Piedmont, a little kingdom with its capital at Turin, the Risorgimento merged two kingdoms, the statelets controlled by the Pope, a grand duchy, and two former provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

By 1866, the Italian peninsula was unified except for Papal Rome and Venetia, the large northern province with Venice as its capital. Rome could not be liberated until France withdrew its support for the Pope. Against Austria, however, the Italians found themselves with a mighty ally; Prussia’s prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, invited them to attack Austria from the south when he attacked from the north. Italy lost the two decisive battles of the war and won the peace. Austrian Venetia became the Italian Veneto.2 The Italians even gained a fraction of Friuli, but not the Isonzo valley or Trieste.

In the east, the new border ran for 150 kilometres from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea, partly along the courses of the Aussa and the Judrio rivers, hardly more than streams for most of the year. Elsewhere the new demarcation ran across fields, sometimes marked by wire mesh hung with bells. Local people came and went to church or market as they pleased. The customs officers knew which women smuggled tobacco and sugar under their broad skirts, and waved them through all the same. Personal contacts were everything. Austrian border guards looked the other way when Italian nationalists crossed the border for Italian national holidays in Udine or Palmanova. In the language of the day, the new border was cravenly administrative instead of nobly national. It was makeshift and relaxed, not the absolute perimeter that nationalists dreamed of. Even worse, Austria kept control of the high ground from Switzerland to the sea. Trieste, like south Tyrol, remained a dream. ‘Is it possible’, lamented Giuseppe Mazzini, the father of liberal nationalism, ‘that Italy accepts being pointed out as the only nation in Europe that does not know how to fight, the only one that can only receive what belongs to it by benefit of foreign arms and through humiliating concessions by the enemy usurper?’

The 1866 war could have had a much worse outcome. As Garibaldi, the figurehead of unification, would admit in his memoirs, the alliance with Prussia ‘proved useful to us far beyond our deserts’. The legendary warrior heaped contempt on the regular army commanders, whose arrogance and ignorance had negated Italy’s massive advantage in strength and dumped the nation ‘in a cesspit of humiliation’. And it was Garibaldi who said the best that could be said of the campaign: Italians from all over the peninsula had joined forces for the first time. This was a landmark in national history, though it could not outweigh the military failure, which bequeathed the young kingdom a complex that the Italians could not win anything for themselves. For decades afterwards, foreign leaders winked at Italy’s diplomatic achievements: they had to lose badly to make any gains!

The nation’s leaders yearned for spectacular victories to expunge the bitter memory of those defeats in 1866. The army was in no condition to provide such solace, even after the command structure was amended on Prussian lines in the 1870s. This thirst for great-power status led to defeats in Ethiopia in 1887 and 1896, and the pointless occupation of Libya in 1911. King Victor Emanuel II’s refusal to clarify the army command in 1866 led the next generation of commanders to insist on a unified structure with no ambiguities. His determination to exercise his constitutional role as commander-in-chief, despite being wholly unfitted for that role, would deter his grandson, Victor Emanuel III, from holding his own chief of the general staff to account during the Great War.

Then there were the borders. It was well and good to have Venetia, yet Austria’s continuing control of the southern Tyrol meant the newly acquired territory was not secure. Venice was still a hostage, for Austrian forces could threaten to pour down the Alpine valleys and swarm over the plains to the sea. The new demarcation in the far northeast was even worse. Patriots denounced it as humiliating, indefensible, and harmful to Friuli’s development.3 They quoted Napoleon Bonaparte’s remark that the natural demarcation between Austria and Italy lay between the River Isonzo and Laibach (now Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia), taking in parts of Carniola (the Austrian province roughly corresponding to today’s Slovenia) and Istria, joining the sea at Fiume (now Rijeka), and his reported comment that the line of the Isonzo was indefensible, hence not worth fortifying. Garibaldi called it an ugly border, and hoped it would soon be moved 150 kilometres eastward.

One of these protesting patriots was Paolo Fambri. Born in Venice, he fought as a volunteer in 1859, became a captain of engineers in the regular army, and then a deputy in parliament and a prolific journalist who ridiculed the new border at every opportunity. Fambri defined the problem by its essentials. What is a border? It may be literal (a river) or symbolic (a pole across a road), but between states with the power and perhaps the will to threaten each other, it must be solid, ‘a force and not a formality’. The Alps should serve Italy as its ramparts. Instead, they enclose the country like a wall. As for the new frontier near the Isonzo, ‘a more irrational and capricious line was never yet imposed by arrogance or conceded by the most abject weakness’. There was no coherent historical, ethnic, physical, political or military concept behind it. Just as Italy’s security in the north was a hostage to the Tyrol, so its security in the east was threatened by three great natural breaches in the Julian Alps: at Tarvis through to Villach (today in southern Austria); at Görz (now Gorizia) and the valley of the River Vipacco (now the Vipava, in Slovenia), through to Laibach; and up the coast from Fiume and Trieste. Italy could not be secure without controlling all this territory, but the chances of a successful pre-emptive attack were ‘worse than bad’, because the enemy held all the high ground. The Austrians, by contrast, could stroll over the Isonzo and onto the plains of Friuli ‘without a care in the world’. Either Austria or Italy could hold all the territory from Trieste to Trent (now Trento), but they could not share it, so the 1866 border could never become stable.

Giulio Caprin, a nationalist from Trieste, was equally scornful: the new border ‘is not a border at all: neither historic nor ethnic nor economic; a metal wire planted haphazardly where nothing ends or begins, an arbitrary division, an amputation… alien to nature, law and logic’. Foreign analysts agreed the border would not last. A British journalist wrote in the 1880s that if Italy ever fought Austria without allies, defending the Veneto would be very difficult. Not only would Austria hold the high ground in the east; the southern Tyrol would become ‘the most threatening salient’, looming above the Italian lines. Further east, where the Alps curve southwards, turning the plains of Friuli into an amphitheatre, Austria’s position enjoyed ‘peculiar excellence’. Just how excellent would be tested half a century later. Perceptive observers noted another effect of the 1866 border. By putting pressure on the south-western corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this border encouraged Habsburg high-handedness towards Vojvodina and Bosnia, the empire’s restive Slavic lands close to Serbia. In this way, Garibaldi’s ‘ugly border’ added a line of gunpowder to the incendiary pattern of 1914.

The abortive bid for Trieste in 1866, when an army corps marched around the northern Adriatic, hoping to capture the Austrian port before Bismarck forced a peace settlement on Italy, fired Italian nationalists on both sides of the new border with fresh enthusiasm. Their watchword became irredentism, coined from the slogan Italia irredenta, ‘unredeemed Italy’. The irredentists wanted to ‘redeem’ the southern Tyrol, Trieste, Gorizia, Istria and Dalmatia by annexing them to the Kingdom of Italy. The Christian overtone was anything but accidental: for these nationalists, the fatherland was sacred and their cause was a secular religion.

Formed by cells of disillusioned Garibaldians, Mazzinians and other hotheads gathering in groups such as the Association for Unredeemed Italy (founded in 1877), they were inspired by ambitions that were almost comically beyond their grasp. Not only were the Austrians determined to stop them spreading their revolutionary ideas; successive governments in Rome were ready to sacrifice them as the price of staying in the good graces of Europe’s great powers. Governments could do this because the irredentists swam against the tide of public as well as diplomatic opinion. With the capture of Rome in 1870, most Italians reckoned that Italy was complete.

The human cost of unification since 1848 was around 6,000 dead and 20,000 wounded: as such things went, not excessive for the creation of a nation state with 27 million people. Yet the achievement left a hangover. The compromises entailed by state-creation tasted bitter to the very idealists who had inspired the Risorgimento. Their feeling was caught long afterwards by Valentino Coda, a veteran of the Great War who became a leading Fascist: ‘In a nation that was only born yesterday and lacks unitary traditions, irredentism was the only spring of patriotic action, even if the bourgeoisie and the socialists conspired to suffocate it.’ Irredentism was the best cause around for disaffected nationalists, at a loss for direction in a country where ‘civil society’ was a crust of professionals – lawyers, merchants, scholars, administrators, army officers – resting on a magma of industrial workers, peasant farmers and labourers, unenfranchised, extensively illiterate, patchily becoming a political class.

There was more to this bitterness than dislike of the way that Venice and the Veneto had been brought into Italy. Mazzini spoke for many when he denounced the course and outcome of unification. From their point of view, the kingdom had been hustled into existence, leaving two large communities of ethnic Italians outside its borders. Even worse, the pre-1860 élites – the court, landowning aristocracy and professional classes – kept their power, ensuring that their interests were not threatened by broader involvement. There had been no transformation of the political system or culture, nothing like a revolution in values. The House of Savoy blocked the way to progress. The masses were still alienated subjects rather than active citizens.

Other prominent figures made this analysis, but no one was as sharp as Mazzini. The executive, he wrote near the end of his life, governed with ‘a policy of expedients, opportunism, concealment, intrigue, reticence and parliamentary compromise characteristic of the languid life of nations in decay’. Like dissident leaders in other times and places, he was tormented by the low means that politicians used to achieve a great purpose, by his own impotence (as distinct from moral stature), and by ordinary people’s sluggish reluctance to rise against their oppressors, whether foreign or domestic. Visionary, cadaverous, clad in black, Mazzini in old age seemed more spirit than man, kept alive by a burning will to sustain the people’s faith in self-determination. He wanted a strong state, but one that had been transformed by revolutionary idealism.

This prophet of European integration believed Italy had a mission to extend European civilisation into northern Africa. He scorned the ‘brutal conquest’ that typified European colonialism; foreign engagement should be emancipatory, extending the rights and freedoms that European citizens fought for at home. The fact that politicians do not take the huge risks incurred by foreign adventures without more selfish ends in view did not distract him. He saw Austrian control over the south Tyrol and Trieste as ‘the triumph of brutal force’ over popular will. On the Tyrol, he was an orthodox nationalist: everything up to the Alpine watershed must be Italy’s, including the wholly German areas around Bozen (now Bolzano in the Alto Adige). Yet he was uncertain about the north-eastern border. Sometimes he said it should follow the crest of the Alps down to Trieste, at others, that it should follow the Isonzo. Shortly before his death, he wrote that Istria must be Italian because the poet Dante had ordained it six hundred years before, in lines known to every patriot:

 a Pola presso del Carnaro

che Italia chiude e suoi termini bagna.

to Pola by the Quarnero bay

washing the boundary where Italy ends.

(The town of Pola is at the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula.) He was never a maximalist, however: he had too much respect for Slavic self- determination to claim that Dalmatia – the eastern Adriatic coast – should be controlled by its tiny Italian minority. His views on Italian– Slav relations were far-sighted: the two peoples should be allies in seizing freedom from their Austrian oppressor. After his death in 1872, the irredentists imitated his style of total dedication to an ideal. His legacy was an ascetic commitment to the fatherland, a radical libertarianism that was ultimately contemptuous of liberalism, with its unavoidable compromises and calculations, its suspicion of state power. This fanaticism was handed down to later generations, including the volunteers of 1915.

The 1870s bore hard on irredentist ideals. When the Emperor Franz Josef visited Venice in 1875, Victor Emanuel assured him that irredentist claims would be dropped, and that Italy’s intentions were entirely peaceful. The next year, the King praised the ‘cordial friendship and sympathy’ between Italians and Austrians. The Austrian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1878, sent shock waves through the Italians of Dalmatia, who were already hugely outnumbered by Croats and now feared they would be swamped by a million and a half more Slavs, pressing at their backs. Anti-Slav prejudice spread up the Adriatic shore to Trieste, but Rome lent no moral or practical support.

This was nothing beside the hammer blows that came in 1882, the annus horrendus for nationalists. In May, Italy signed a treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary. This was the Triple Alliance, which would endure until May 1915, the eve of war. Alliance with the old enemy was so controversial that successive governments denied its existence. (The text was not published until 1915.) Under its provisions, Italy was guaranteed support if France attacked. It also gained security along its border with Austria, good relations with Germany, and the international respectability that went with membership in a defensive great-power alliance. The most significant clause dealt with the Balkans:

Austria-Hungary and Italy undertake to use their influence to prevent all territorial changes which might be disadvantageous to one or the other signatory power. To this end they agree to interchange all information throwing light on their intentions. If, however, Austria-Hungary or Italy should be compelled to alter the status quo in the Balkans, whether by a temporary or by a permanent occupation, such occupation shall not take place without previous agreement between the two powers based on the principle of reciprocal compensation for every advantage, territorial or otherwise.

Any Austrian moves in the Balkans could in principle be leveraged to deliver Trentino and/or Trieste as ‘compensation’. Indeed, Italy might even encourage Austrian expansion, for that ulterior purpose.

As well as full recognition of their own borders, Italy’s allies got guarantees of mutual and Italian support if France or Russia attacked either of them. Military protocols, added in 1888, specified the Italian support that would be sent to Germany if France attacked. In military terms, Italy’s benefit was doubtful, as France was more likely to attack Germany. Politically, it was curious to swap the public renunciation of claims to Tyrol and Trieste (inviting domestic accusations of betrayal) for a conditional clause about compensation. On the other hand, Italy stayed in the alliance for so long because it married realist foreign policy goals with the officer corps’ admiration for the Prussian army. Ties with Austria were a price worth paying.

The chief drawback was not obvious in 1882. For it turned out that the alliance removed Italy’s freedom to shift as occasion suited between France, Germany and Austria, and hence to punch above its weight. Intended to raise the country’s international standing, the Triple Alliance narrowed its scope of action. If Italy was to build an overseas role, it needed significant allies. This is why a Catholic liberal politician, Stefano Jacini, criticised Italy’s real motive for entering the Triple Alliance as a ‘mania for expansion’, which led the country to take on ‘an enormous armament quite disproportionate to our resources’.

Out of France’s long shadow at last, Italy chased colonial power in the Horn of Africa. In 1885, it occupied a dusty port on the Red Sea, ‘where not even the standard of a Roman legion could be re-discovered’; from this seed, the colony of Eritrea would sprout. Further south, the colony of Somaliland took shape over the 1890s. The third profitless prize in the region was Ethiopia; when the Emperor Menelik denounced Italy’s protectorate, Italy slid down a path of threats to the exquisite humiliation of Adua, where Ethiopian forces killed 6,000 Italians in a single day in 1896. This did not cure the mania, which eventually led to the attack on Libya, a gambit that would have driven Mazzini and Garibaldi to despair. In September 1911, Rome informed Ottoman Turkey that the ‘general exigencies of civilisation’ obliged Italy to occupy Libya. Having accomplished this, Italy declared war on Turkey itself. Although the war ended formally in October 1912, when the Ottoman state ceded Libya and let Italy occupy Rhodes and the Dodecanese Islands, local resistance could not be quelled. Unable to assess or affect the attitudes of hostile Libyan tribes, the army clung to the coast, within range of the naval guns. Some 35,000 men had embarked in 1911. By 1914, the commitment had grown to 55,000 men with no victory in sight.

This was all instigated by Giovanni Giolitti, the greatest reforming politician that Italy has ever produced. He wanted to outflank his nationalist critics with a spectacular invasion, and thought Libya would be a stroll. Instead it became a quicksand. Giolitti lied about the costs of the campaign and conjured up imaginary victories. He drew cautionary lessons about plunging the country into war, ill-prepared, but kept them to himself. The ultimate legacy of his cynical adventure was the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

Libya confirmed that the Italian army was incapable of waging effective colonial campaigns. After a flurry of reforms in the 1870s, including universal conscription and the reorganisation of the general staff, successive initiatives to overhaul the military had suffocated in red tape and party-political wrangling. Unhealthy closeness to the royal court undermined professionalism in the officer corps. Measured against Italy’s geostrategic vulnerability and colonial ambitions, the reforms were half-baked and the army was still much too small. Bismarck’s quip was still true: Italy had ‘a large appetite and very poor teeth’.

The second blow to the irredentists in 1882 was the death of Garibaldi on 2 June. In his last years, the great hero kept exhorting the Italians of Tyrol and Trieste not to lose heart. His passing left many of his compatriots feeling bleakly that their country’s best days were already behind it. The towering figure that had encouraged and sometimes berated them for almost forty years was gone, and nobody could take his place.

The third blow was another death: the execution of a young man in Trieste, one Guglielmo Oberdan (originally Wilhelm Oberdank: like many nationalist fanatics, his own national identity was ambiguous). Along with other draft-age Habsburg Italians, he fled to Italy in 1878 to avoid being sent to the new Austrian garrisons in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 1882 happened to be the 500th anniversary of Trieste’s submission to Habsburg power. The celebrations were scheduled for September, and Franz Josef would be there. Oberdan decided to assassinate the Emperor. Acting either alone or as part of a shadowy network, he re-entered Austria. Arrested near the border with bombs in his baggage, he confessed. The Emperor rejected pleas for clemency, and Oberdan was hanged in a barracks cell on 20 December after refusing religious rites. As he mounted the gallows he cried ‘Long live Italy! Long live free Trieste! Out with the foreigners!’ He became the only full-blown Italian martyr of Austro-Hungarian brutality. While it failed to derail the Triple Alliance, his act put Trieste on the map. Local patriots sang a rapidly composed ‘Hymn to Oberdan’. Within five years, there were 49 ‘Oberdan societies’ in Italy and Austria, defying repression in order to nurse irredentist dreams.

These societies got scant encouragement in the kingdom. Hardest on them was the government of Francesco Crispi, a Sicilian lawyer turned politician with the aura that all Garibaldi’s former comrades possessed. As prime minister from 1887 to 1891, Crispi believed Italy had an imperial destiny much larger than the unredeemed lands. The Triple Alliance should be a platform for these endeavours. But he was a realist, too, who knew there was no international support for seizing the southern Tyrol and Trieste. He spent heavily on the military and talked a lot about ‘Italian rights in the Mediterranean’ while quietly instructing Italian leaders in Trieste to clamp down on their irredentists. As a reformed freedom-fighter, Crispi disliked the new generation of militant idealists and their cause.

Based on the votes of 2 per cent of the population and royal approval, Italian governments were highly unstable. Their make-up was not determined by parties or party loyalties; every cabinet included moderates from Right and Left, dominated by an outsized personality. After Cavour and Crispi, the next such personality was Giovanni Giolitti, prime minister five times between 1892 and 1921. The decade and a half before the Great War is known as the era giolittiana, the era of Giolitti. He won and kept power by winning over moderate leftists and Catholic conservatives and by manipulating elections. Rather than working solely to benefit his own class, the Piedmontese élite, however, he was an enlightened conservative with liberal tendencies, pioneering redistributive taxation, improvement of labour conditions, social change through public spending, and electoral reform.

Amid the colourful monomaniacs and profiteers of the day, Giolitti was prosaic on a grand scale. He was a wily calculator, an artist of the possible, a patrician seeking ‘to reconcile stability with liberty and progress’. To his detractors, he became the emblem of a political order that was practical but petty, humdrum and sometimes corrupt, ‘unworthy’ of Italy’s achievements and ideals. The nationalists detested him. His project, they said witheringly, was Italietta, ‘little Italy’, shorn of splendour, preoccupied with trivial problems – like the balance of trade deficit, agricultural tariffs, tax collecting, the unruly banking sector, the plight of peasant farmers, the tyranny of absentee landlords, rural emigration, and the use of martial law against strikers in Italy’s giddily expanding cities.

Many things improved under Giolitti. Italy ended the tariff war with France, doubled its industrial output over the decade to 1910, and narrowed the trade deficit. Measured by the growth of railways, the navy, education, merchant shipping, electricity consumption and land reclamation, the country was developing at a phenomenal rate. Yet it was still firmly the least of the great powers, and poor by comparison. With 35 million inhabitants, it was Europe’s sixth most populous state. (Russia had nearly 170 million, Germany 68 million, Austria-Hungary nearly 52 million, Britain 46 million, and France, 40 million people.) The middle class was very small: only 5 per cent of the population. Some 40 per cent worked on the land (there were 9 million farm labourers with their dependents, living at subsistence level), and 18 per cent were artisans or industrial workers. Health indicators were at preindustrial levels. The economy was primarily agricultural, with low productivity because farming was unmodernised except in the north. Hence the country was not self-sufficient in staples, importing three times more wheat than it produced. Lacking coal or iron reserves, Italy had little heavy industry; iron and steel, chemicals and engineering were getting under way, but textiles and foodstuffs were still the mainstays of a sector that was also limited by low investment and poor working conditions – though thanks to militant trades unions, industrial salaries had increased steadily since 1890. Even with this recent growth, Italy was not catching up with France, Germany or the United States. Businesses were small or very small: 80 per cent were completely unmechanised and employed two to five people. Most Italians had only the vaguest notion of the state; their lives were local and regional by dialect, custom, labour and experience.

Despite his modernising achievements, the Socialists also often sided with nationalists and democrats against Giolitti, scorning his devotion to ‘empirical politics’. Guilty as charged, said Giolitti, ‘if by empiricism you mean taking account of the facts, the real conditions of the country, and the population … The experimental method, which involves taking account of the facts and proceeding as best one can, without grave danger … is the safest and even the only possible method.’ Antonio Salandra, Giolitti’s successor in 1914, would shred this liberal credo when he took the country to war against its nominal allies, Austria and Germany.

Source Notes

ONE A Mania for Expansion

1the most threatening salient’: Martel.

2a policy of expedients’: Mack Smith [1997], 222

3 more spirit than man: Bobbio, 71–2.

4 Dante had ordained it: Inferno, IX, 113.

5 ‘mania for expansion’: Mack Smith [1997], 149.

6where not even the standard’: Bosworth [1979], 11.

7 the colony of Eritrea: By 1913, Eritrea had only 61 permanent Italian colonists. Bosworth [1983], 52.

8a large appetite’: Bosworth [2007], 163.

9 by manipulating elections: Salvemini [1973], 52.

10 least of the great powers: Bosworth [1979]. The information in the rest of this paragraph is from Zamagni  Bosworth [2006], and [2007]; Salvemini [1973]; Giuliano Procacci; Forsyth, 27.

11empirical politics … possible method’: Gentile [2000].

1 The gulf between past and present was measured when Yugoslavia fell apart amid bloodshed and lies in the early 1990s. Faced with the savage, nation-building politics of their grandparents’ day, Europe’s leaders denied the evidence of their eyes, trying to douse the fire with conference minutes and multilateral resolutions.

2 The story of Italy’s third war of independence is told in the Appendix.

3 In fact, Friuli developed on both sides of the border after 1866, as even Italian nationalist historians acknowledged. On the Austrian side, vines and fruit orchards were planted, and groves of mulberry trees fed the silkworms that supplied the textile industry. Gorizia flourished as ‘the Nice of Austria’ and Grado, with its shining lagoons and sandy beaches, became central Europe’s favourite seaside resort. Land reclamation schemes created rich farmland near Monfalcone.

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