Italy Moves Towards War

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.

See the previous installment or all entries.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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