The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 172nd installment in the series.
March 6, 1915: Italy Moves Towards War
In the confused, chaotic days of July 1914, when Austria-Hungary set in motion the events that would unleash the First World War, the Dual Monarchy’s leaders faced a crucial dilemma that would require a tough decision – but in characteristic fashion they just tried to ignore it.
Since the medieval period the ruling Hapsburg dynasty counted among their possessions the ethnic Italian lands of Tyrol, Trentino, and Trieste, expanding to include Lombardy and Venice in the 18th century. Although they lost Lombardy and Venice to the newly formed Kingdom of Italy in 1859 and 1866, respectively, the older ethnic Italian territories remained in Hapsburg possession and soon became a major source of friction between the old feudal realm and the new nation, where nationalists called for the “redemption” of Italians suffering under the Austrian boot. The Austrians only made things worse with the Hohenlohe Decrees banning Italians from public office in August 1913; Italy and Austria-Hungary were also competing for influence in the Balkans.
Italy was nominally allied with Austria-Hungary in the Triple Alliance with Germany – but this was a strictly defensive agreement, and when war clouds began gathering Rome warned Vienna that Italy was under no obligation to fight by Austria-Hungary’s side if the latter provoked a European war by her actions against Serbia. At the same time, German leaders rightly feared that Italy might join their enemies to get the Tyrol, Trentino, and Trieste.
As Europe slid towards war in July 1914, the Germans repeatedly urged their Austrian colleagues to bite the bullet and voluntarily cede the Italian territories in order to keep Italy out of the war. But Emperor Franz Josef and Foreign Minister Count Berchtold, under pressure from the powerful conservative Hungarian Premier István Tisza, refused to begin dismembering their own empire – after all, this was the whole point of the war against Serbia). They were aided by the political situation in Italy, which was adrift during this period due to the deaths of chief of the general staff Alberto Pollio from a heart attack on June 28, 1914 (the same day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated) and Foreign Minister San Giuliano, who died following a long illness on October 16, 1914. Furthermore longtime Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti had resigned back in March 1914 and his successor, Antonio Salandra, was relatively inexperienced.
Italy declared its neutrality on August 3, 1914, but Austria-Hungary’s Italian problem wasn’t just going to go away: as the war dragged on into 1915, Italian nationalists were beating the drums for war, arguing that it was now or never as far as liberating their ethnic kinsmen. The “interventionists,” as they became known, staged noisy demonstrations and sometimes attacked pro-peace rallies across Italy, while both sides turned to the press to make their case to the public, waging a bitter war of words in political newspapers.
Indeed the controversy over whether Italy should intervene in the war split the Italian Socialist party, as hyper-nationalist socialists like the rabblerousing journalist Benito Mussolini renounced the party’s traditional pacifism and were expelled (or left before they could be expelled – above, Mussolini is arrested after a pro-intervention rally turned violent in April 1915). In the fall of 1914 Mussolini founded a new newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia – apparently with funds provided by the French government and Italian industrialists – which he used as his platform to advocate intervention against Austria, fiercely condemning Salandra’s opportunistic “wait and see” policy of sacro egoismo (sacred selfishness).
Mussolini presented a range of arguments and sometime shifting rationales for going to war beyond simply liberating the northern Italian provinces, including imperialism and mystic notions that war would improve the Italian people. On March 4, 1915, he wrote that expansion in the Adriatic region would set the stage for an Italian empire in the Mediterranean, “looking towards the east, where Italian expansion can find vast and fertile soil for its energies.” Two days later he wrote that war would “temper” the Italian national character like a “burning forge.”
Under mounting pressure from the interventionists, in the first months of 1915 the Italian government drifted towards war, further enticed by British and French promises of territory around the Adriatic. On February 12, Italy warned Austria-Hungary that further military activity in the Balkans would be viewed as a hostile act; two days later, the Austrians brushed off the threat and bombarded the port of Antivari (today Bar), Montenegro.
Around this time public agitation was reaching a fever pitch, with the anonymous author “Piermarini” noting, “Italy looks very much like a country getting ready for war… Many officers told me that their men kept asking, ‘When are we going to fight?’ just as if Italy was already at war… Almost every day there are demonstrations in favour of going to war.” On March 4, Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino secretly presented Italy’s demands to the Allies, including territorial compensation and generous loans; against their better judgment the Allies eventually assented to many of these, formalized in the Pact of London on April 26, 1915 (conveniently ignoring the fact that their promises conflicted with Serbian ambitions in this region).
Meanwhile Austria-Hungary, facing up to facts too late, staged a last-ditch attempt to keep Italy out of the war – and Sonnino, ever opportunistic, was more than happy to see what he could get out of them. On March 9 Austrian ambassador Karl von Macchio finally agreed to Italian demands to cease offensive operations in the Balkans (not much of a sacrifice, considering Hapsburg forces were unable to mount an attack following their defeat at Kolubara). This laid the groundwork for talks on territorial concessions, and on April 8 the Italians presented sweeping demands including the Trentino and land on the Dalmatian coast – but these were rejected out of hand by Emperor Franz Josef. The Great War was about to spread to a new front.
Wooing the Neutrals
Italy wasn’t the only neutral country trying to play the two sides off against each other. Across the Balkans, the Allies and Central Powers were both trying to recruit the smaller neutral powers of Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania – for the time being, without success.
Allied efforts during this period focused on getting Greece to help Serbia under the terms of their Balkan League defensive pact, offering the Greeks territory in Turkish Asia Minor as a reward. They received a sympathetic hearing from Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, but Greece’s King Constantine, who was married to Kaiser Wilhelm’s sister Sophia, opposed intervention and on January 29 Greece refused to come to Serbia’s aid.
None of this deterred Venizelos, who on March 1, 1915 proceeded to offer the Allies three divisions for an amphibious landing near the Dardanelles– without, however, asking the rest of the Greek government. As it turned out, the idea was a non-starter because the Russians didn’t want to share the Turkish straits with the Greeks, but the fact that Venizelos made the offer without consulting anyone was enough to bring down his government.
On March 3 Venizelos belatedly presented the idea to the Greek Crown Council, which firmly rejected it on March 5; on March 6, King Constantine dismissed Venizelos, making way for a new, pro-German government formed by Dmitrios Gounaris, who officially declared Greek neutrality on March 10. But this hardly spelled the end of the wily Venizelos, who’d continue working to bring Greece into the war on the side of the Allies – with or without the consent of the king and the crown council.