Italy: The post-war crisis

  • Created by: naomi
  • Created on: 11-05-13 13:58

The 'mutilated victory'

The nationalist writen D'Annunzio coined the phrase 'mutilated victory' to express the widely held view in Italy that the country had not received its just rewards at the Paris Peace Conference 

Italy and the peace settlement

  • Italy's victory exacted a high price - 600,000 men killed, 1 million seriously wounded
  • much depended on Italian government securing a favourable peace settlement - Italy's delegates that the 1919 peace conference were in a difficult position 
  • D'Annunzio & other interventionists & nationalists - public opinion - expect extensive territorial gains inc. Adriatic port of Fiume - not mentioned in 1915 Treaty of London 
  • Orlando warned that Italian popular feeling was 'very exciteable' 'consequences of a disappointment would be very grave'
  • Britain, France & USA considered Italy's demands excessive
  • By end of WW1 - widely accepted by the Entente that the peace settlement would be based on President Wilson's 'Fourteen Points'
  • Treaty of Saint Germain signed September 1919 - Italy received the Trentino, South Tyrol, Trieste, Istria & Eastern Galicia
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The 'mutilated victory'

  • BUT many Italians denounced the peace settlement
  • they claimed that the Entente had undermined Italy's victory for their own selfish or self-righteous motives & the Italian government had failed to defend the nation's vital interests
  • Britain & France - greater sacrifices during the war & were not in a giving mood after being compelled to send military reinforcements in 1917 to shore up the Italian front
  • Orlando failed to press the Italian case effectively - he was no match for his British and French counterparts, the crafty David Lloyd George and the hard-headed Georges Clemenceau 
  • the Entente decided that Fiume should go to Yugoslavia - Orlando broke down and wept on hearing this news
  • France, in particular, wanted a strong Yugoslavia as part of a chain of new central European states which would prevent Germany expanding eastward in the future
  • Italy was also denied a share of Turkey and Germany's African colonies
  • Demobalised soldiers, particularly ex-officers, regarded the peace settlement as scant reward for their efforts
  • as they saw it, liberal democracy was failing to translate their vision of a dynamic expansionist Italy into reality, and the anti-war Socialist Party was threatening to take control 
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The occupation of Fiume

  • September 1919 - 2000 soldiers led by D'Annunzio seized Fiume in defiance of the Italian government
  • this military takeover had been organised by nationalists, senior army officers and sympathetic industrialists
  • occupation achieved without any violence - General Pittaluga, commander of the local Italian trrops - refused to stop D'Annunzio's men 
  • lots of troops deserted to join this venture - clearly revealed how the Italian military felt about Fiumein particular and the 'mutilated victory' in general
  • D'Annunzio & legionaries - national heroes - succeeded in one bold act where months of official diplomacy had failed
  • clear the the new government of Francesco Nitti lacked the resolve to use the army against D'annunzio's forces because the occupation was very popular in Italy
  • Fiume was held against the wishes of the Italian authorities, the Western allies & Yugoslavia for over a year (15 months) 
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The occupation of Fiume

Fiume proved to be an important episode for several reasons

  • popular acclaim for the takeover revealed the extent of Italian dissatisfaction with the post-war settlement
  • many Italians regarded Giolitti's successful attempt to end the occupation as an act of national betrayal
  • seizure of Fiume exposed the weakness of the Italian state and revealed that the loyalty of the Italian army could not be taken for granted
  • seemed to demonstrate that direct action could achieve rappid results by cicumventing the traditional political methods of negotiation and compromise
  • finally, as Fiume's 'Regent', D'Annunzio developed a new style of mass politics which included forcing opponsents tro drink caster oil, giving the 'Roman salute', chanting slogans and making balcony speeches to enthusiastic crows below
  • Mussolini visited Fiume during the occupation and these techniques heavily influenced his approach to fascism 
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Post-war economic crisis

Economic aftermath of the First World War 

  • liberal state came under further pressure as its economic difficulties mounted in the immediate post-war period
  • to fund the war effort, the government had borrowed heavily from Britain and the USA
  • as a resukt, ITaly's national debt rose from 16 billion to 85 billion lire between 1914 and 1919
  • since these loands did not fully cover Italy's war expenditure, the government had also printed more money whih, in turn, creating soaring inflation
  • by 1920, the lira was worth just 25% of its 1914 value and, between 1915 and 1921, the cost of living quadrupled
  • inflation eroded middle-class savings, landowners' rents, state pensions, and real wages for state employees and factory workers
  • large industrial companies, such as FIAT and Pirelli, had made enormous profits due to wartime government contracts but, after 1918, demand for their products fell significantly as the authorities imposed spending cuts 
  • with orders drying up, industrial share prices halved and in 1921 two major munitions companies, Ansaldo and Ilva, collapsed 
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A militant workforce

  • after 1918, industriliasts also had to content with a more militant workforce
  • once wartime factory discipline was eased, workers protested in increasing numbers against falling living standard, long hours and the strike ban
  • 1914 - total of 170,000 workers had participated in 781 strikes 
  • 5 years later, 1.5 million were involved in 1860 stoppages and in 1920 there were nearly 2 million strikers
  • manual workers also flocked to the socialist trade unions, boosting their membership from 250,000 to 2 million between 1918 + 1920
  • a further 1.2 million employees, mainly engaged in textile production and agriculture, belonged to the Catholic trade unions.
  • returning soldiers, who possessed only small discharge payments, were angry about their poor job prospects in the post-war economic downsturn
  • by late 1919 unemployment had climbed to 2 million & there was severe social unrest
  • some regions barely under government control - situation had become so volatile
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A militant workforce

  • middle-class Italians and coservatives, fearful of a socialist revolution, expected the authorities to deal harshly with the workers, but the government, in their view, failed to respond decisively
  • often the official reaction was to pacify strikes and riots with compromises and favourable settlements
  • Nitti's ministry urged industrialists to make concessions to their employees, and also established food committees to control supplies and prices after riots broke out in northern and central Italy in June 1919 over the soaring price of staple items
  • Italian shopkeepers bitterly resented this intervention because it halved the price of many of the basic foods they sold
  • in the short-term, these government attempts to 'buy off' popular discontent were successful but they left the middle class deeply alienated
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Discontent in the countryside

  • simmering economic and social tension was also evident in the rural areas, not least because demobilised soldiers returned to their villages demanding 'land to the peasants'
  • many of them bought land from intimidated or financially strapped landowners
  • others took over uncultivated areas by force, particularly in Latium (around Rome) and the south
  • overall, between 1911-1921, the number of peasant owners doubled to around 3.5 million 
  • land purchases and occupations took place in northern and central Italy too
  • peasant sharecroppers in Tuscany and Umbria clamoured for full ownership, the right to retain more of the produce and greater influence over land use
  • moreover, a socialist trade union strike compaign on behalf of agricultural labourers in Emilia pressed for better wages, jobs for members only and a guarantee of winter work
  • in the left-wing strongolds of Ferrara and Bologna, the socialist unions' labour exchanges controlled agricultural jobs and wages and prohibited the hiring of non-union workers 

Faced with these challenges, the larger landowners and tenant farmers felt beleaguered. Government measures merely strenghtened their resentment.

Official decrees pased in 1919 and 1920 recognised peasant occupations of uncultuvated land and endoresed union labour exchanges. The latter were given state subsidies as well. Many landowners concluded that the government were actively encouraging revolution in the countryside 

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Growing political instability

Italy becomes a mass democracy

Italy's unstable political system was the other factor fuelling the post-war crisis. WW1 has split the traditional ruling elite into hostile fractions. Interventionists opposed neutralists and Giolitti's supporters vied with Salandra's followers

Divisions also existed within the ranks of the so-called 'democratic interventionists', whose aims had been thwarted at the 1919 peace conerence. In addition, the Liberal state made changes to the electoral system that were to have far-reaching political consequences

  • December 1918 - Orlando introduced universal male suffrage for all Italians (irrespective of age) who had served at the front and every other man over the age of 21. This measure, designed to reward the troops, created an Italian electorate of 11 million
  • then, 8 months later, Nitti government opted for proportional representation by bringing in the party list system. Under these new arrangements, Italy was divided into 54 enormous constituencies and would elect 508 deputies
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Growing political instability

The advent of mass democracy and the shift to proportional representation undermined the important of the traditional link between liberal politicians and the local elites who kept them in power

The furture belonged to parties with the resources and machinery to organise mass voter support at elections

At the time, however, few shared the shrewd assessment of Giovanni Amendola, a journalist and liberal politician, that 'the list system means the abdication of the Liberal Party'

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The impact of the Socialist Party


  • the radicalisation and growth of the Socialist Party (PSI) compounded the regime's political problems
  • inspired by the Bolshevik Party's seizure of power in Russia in 1917, the PSI executive adopted a policy of revolution in December 1918 
  • this decision was endorsed by the party's annual congress in October the following year.
  • furthermore, the PSI joined the Comintern and sentt high-level representatives to the Soviet Union
  • now committed to a socialist republic and the dictatorship of the proletariat - or manual labourers - the Socialist Party organised numerous strikes, protests and demonstrations in Italy
  • it attracted huge support too, with membership increasing from 50,000 to 200,000 1914-1919
  • however, much of the PSI's radicalism was for show
  • the party had no clear strategy for carrying out a socialist revolution and focused instead on preparing for the November 1919 general election
  • but the Socialist Party's radical image & its encouragement of workers' protests destabilised the political system in two improtant ways: meant that the PSI could not be drawn into a coalition governments with 'bourgeois' parties, meant that the Italian middle classes, fearful of an imminent left-wing uprising, became increasinly disnchanted with the liberal state's apparent failure to crush socialist subversion
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The impact of the Catholic Party

  • the creation of a mass Catholic party pledged to 'combat capitalistic liberalism' placed extra pressure on Italy's political system
  • in 1918, Pope Benedict XV granted Catholics permission to participate in national elections and, in January 1919, the Catholic Popular Party (PPI) was founded under the leadership of Luigi Sturzo
  • backed chiefly by peasant owners and tenants in the northern half of the country, the PPI endorsed their land and rent campaigns
  • moreover, althought the PPI was officially 'non-confessional' and did not seek to represent the Church's interests, most of its supporters were practicisng Catholics who rejected the secular Liberal state and the landlors
  • consequently, the emergence of the PPI in the immediate post-war period made it harder for liberal politicians to win over and retain Catholic opinion at the very time when such support was needed to ensure that the political system continued to function
  • in fact, no government during this period was able to secure the long-term allegiance of the PPI
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The end of the Liberal State

When the first elections under the new rules were helf in November 1919, the results demonstrated that the Liberal state had effectively collpased.

The PSI and PPI, the two organised mass parties, obtained 156 and 101 seats respectively.

Between them, they accounted for over half the vote, with the Socialists taking 32.4% and the Popular Party 20.5%.

The Liberals won 220 seats but lost control of parliament. Elections in 1921 produced a similar result.

From this point on, liberal governments required either Socialist or Catholic support in order to survive. Stable coalition ministries proved elusive, however, and between 1919 and 1922, Italy had four different prime ministers.

In short, the post-war Italian democratic system contributed significantly to the instability because it undermined the customary practice of transformismo and led to the emergence of mass parties which were either unwilling or unable to form lasting coalition governments

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The end of the Liberal State

Three key factors made parliamentary politics unstable in the immediate post-war years

First: the liberals were unable to form a majority administration on their own. In clinging to the pre-war methords of transformismo, they failed to act as a unified party and come to terms with the new mass democracy

Second: the PSI, now formally advocating socialist revolution and the destruction of the bourgeois parliamentary system, refused to co-operate with non-socialist parties and would not serve in a coalition government. This strategy was designed to subvert liberal democracy 

Third: for the system to function without the Socialists, the liberals and PPI had to work together. Unfortunately, there was little common ground on many issues. Anti-clerical liberals refused to make concessions over Catholic schools, female sufrage and agrarian reform as the price for ongoing PPI support in parliament. These liberal-Catholic conflicts led to protracted government crises which eroded public confidence in the parliamentary system. 

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Conclusion: A system crisis?

By 1920-21 Liberal Italy was a state in crisis

For many Italians, it had failed to obtain the kind of territorial rewards due to a victorious nation after the First World War 

Indeed, D'Annunzio's daring occupation of Fiume seemed to underline the government's weakness in pressing its case for greater concessions

The transition to peacetime conditions had also created serious economic difficultues and sharpened social divisions which undermined the liberal system

In particular, growing working-class militancy during these years led 'respectable' Italians to fear an immediate socialist revolution

At the same time, changes to the electoral system, and the emergence of the PSI and the PPI, made it virtually in impossible to form stable coalition ministries

Fascism proved to be the one political force capable of exploiting these cicumstances, first to build up a support base and then to acquire power 

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