The Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio was an ugly, spindly, bald little man who had fled Italy in a hurry when his extravagance drove him to bankruptcy. In May 1915, he was back, playing a new role, as the saviour of the nation.
Italy had stayed out of the Great War, now in its ninth month. The country had been tied by treaty into an alliance with Germany and Austria, but Rome was not consulted before Austria declared war on Serbia, so the government decided it was not bound to join the Central Powers.
Besides, there was nothing Italy wanted that it could gain at the expense of Austria’s enemies. But within the Austrian empire, near Italy’s northern border and along the eastern Adriatic coast, were towns with big Italian communities which revanchists like D’Annunzio believed should be in a greater Italy.
His intervention mattered because public opinion was volatile and D’Annunzio was Italy’s leading poet, a charismatic speaker and an effective rabble-rouser. He was, as his biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett demonstrates, an extreme example of a repugnant personality and a great artistic talent residing in the same person.
He knew the terrible cost of war. In Paris, he had been in contact with Peppino Garibaldi, grandson of the founder of modern Italy, who had raised a legion of Italian volunteers to fight alongside the French. One quarter were already dead. No matter. D’Annunzio had a headful of Nietzschean ideas of supermen and the will to power, of virility and nationhood, and was transfixed by the idea that Italy must put itself through this rite of passage to earn respect as a nation.
On 13 May 1915, he chatted pleasantly in his hotel room with two acquaintances, one a sculptor, the other an aristocrat whose wife was on D’Annunzio’s long list of sexual conquests. Outside, an excited crowd was clamouring to hear the poet and prophet of war. He had been back in Italy for less than 10 days, and had arrived in Rome only the previous night. As the agreeable conversation wound down, D’Annunzio stepped out on to the adjoining balcony and delivered what amounted to an incitement to riot and murder.
“Comrades, it is no longer time for speaking but for doing,” he declaimed. “No longer time for orations, but for actions, Roman actions. If it is considered a crime to incite the citizenry to violence, I glory in that crime, I take it upon myself alone…Every excess of force is allowable, if it avails to prevent the loss of our Fatherland. You have to prevent a handful of pimps and swindlers from sullying and losing Italy.”
The crowd roared its agreement. The next day, a riot broke out in the centre of Rome. The parliament building was invaded, and furniture smashed. Troops were called out to guard the Austrian embassy. Ten days later, on 24 May, Italy went to war.
In D’Annunzio’s mind, he was the voice of a vigorous, uncorrupted Italy railing against a corrupt ruling elite. Actually, he was helping to settle a power struggle between rival factions of Italy’s ruling class, and helping to thwart the will of parliament.
The faction that wanted Italy to enter the war was small but active. Its most famous convert was the journalist Benito Mussolini, who was editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti! when war began, and wrote editorials warning that to take Italy into the conflict would be “an unpardonable crime”. By October 1914, he had changed his mind. He resigned from Avanti! and took just two weeks to launch his own French-backed, pro-war daily newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia. His old comrades promptly expelled him from the Italian Socialist Party.
Secretly, Antonio Salandra, Italy’s Prime Minister since March 1914, and the Foreign Minister, Sidney Sonnino, were also of the war party, having calculated that Germany and Austria were heading for an early defeat and that it would be in Italy’s interest to be on the winning side. The previous month, they had secretly signed a treaty in London, committing Italy to enter the war.
Their problem was how to get their decision past the Italian parliament, which was controlled by a shrewd and seasoned statesman named Giovanni Giolitti. Over 70 years old, he had served four times as Prime Minister and had dominated Italian politics since the turn of the century. Giolitti thought Italy’s army was not up to fighting a modern war, and calculated that there was more to be gained from staying neutral. He carried a clear majority every time he spoke.
To thwart parliament, the government needed the street disturbances. Hugh Dalton, Britain’s future Chancellor of the Exchequer, was in Rome and noted how “hundreds of thousands of good people of all classes were walking through the streets of Rome and other Italian cities, intoning with a slow and interminable repetition, ‘Death to Giolitti, Death to Giolitti!’”
On 13 May, the day that D’Annunzio delivered his inflammatory speech, Salandra handed in his resignation to the King, who sent for Giolitti to form a new administration. The old man’s life was under threat. His house was under guard. More importantly, he did not believe it would be possible to break the secret London treaty, and did not want to be the prime minister who took the country to war. He declined. The King had no choice but to recall a much-strengthened Salandra.
Italy suffered nearly 2.2 million casualties in the war that followed – 650,000 dead, 947,000 wounded and 600,000 taken prisoner or missing in action. During a catastrophic defeat at Caporetto, in 1917, the Italians showed so little stomach for a fight that 265,000 were taken prisoner, and about 400,000 vanished, in most cases because they fled the battlefield and sloped off home.
After the war, Italy gained some territory, including Trieste and South Tyrol, which it might have gained anyway had it stayed neutral, while all the Italian-inhabited ports on the east Adriatic were allocated to the newly created kingdom of Yugoslavia. The humiliation at Caporetto and the belief that Italy’s reward for its sacrifices was what D’Annunzio called a “mutilated peace” created the conditions that left the road to Rome open for Mussolini. He hailed D’Annunzio as the John the Baptist of fascism. The poet, who ended his days in empty luxury, watched by Fascist spies, thought that description was an insult.
Earlier ‘moments’ in the series can be seen at independent.co.uk/greatwar
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