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.

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.