This is another cross-post from the Great War Blog, a daily diary of your modern world being born in blood and fire a century ago. Today’s entry recalls the diverse political wave which took Italy to war in 1915, the roots of Italian fascism within that coalition, and the surprising source of their inspiration.
16 May 1915 – Interventionists
Four days ago, poet Gabriele D’Annunzio appeared on the balcony of a Roman hotel (see above) to start a riot against the Italian parliament. “Comrades, it is no longer time for speaking but for doing. 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.” Roaring in delight at their prophet’s words, the speech turned into a demonstration.
Rejecting the Liberal parliamentary majority which has restrained his country from going to war, D’Annunzio sees himself as the voice of a new Italy casting off its corrupt, old-fashioned ways. But he is merely settling a power struggle between rival factions of Italy’s ruling class: parliament convenes on the 20th, and Giovanni Giolitti, the former Prime Minister whose calm and steady voice keeps winning floor votes on the question of war, had been whipping support in the capital for days to counter the growing vehemence of interventionists and maintain Italy’s neutrality. Following D’Annunzio’s call to arms, conservative Prime Minister Antonio Salandra submitted his resignation to King Vittorio Emanuele III, who rejected it. Salandra has tried diplomatic demands to complete the dream of a Greater Italy, and meanwhile concluded a secret treaty to attack Austria. With the failure of diplomacy, war seems inevitable.
Emboldened by the royal endorsement of Salandra’s warmongering, the next day’s demonstration became a riot, with the crowd invading parliament to smash the furniture and attack the Austrian embassy. Yesterday, another gathering that had been called to agitate for war instead became a mile-long victory parade between the Piazza del Popolo and the Quirinal, with an estimated 150,000 people attending. Having once marginalized extremists of left and right by building centrist coalitions, a fine political art known as transformismo, today Giolitti finally leaves Rome, for he is under attack from all sides. The center cannot hold. With no one left standing in the way of war, the slaughter can finally begin, and some people just couldn’t be happier about it.
The interventionists are just as diverse a bunch as the neutralists. The basic political problem for all Italian prime ministers is how to maintain stability with a revolutionary, subversive left competing against a conservative oligarchy during a period of rapid modernization and social change. Catholic politics have emerged within this dynamic: working classes hew closer to the left, while bourgeois interests tend towards the right. While there is no mass movement among Catholics to demand war, during this week Christian Democrat Giuseppe Donati cries out in Florence: “Parliament can be corrupted, but the Fatherland will not be murdered!” Serving in the Army, he will be wounded in battle and become the only prominent interventionist from his party to survive the conflict.
The interventionist movement consciously hearkens back to the ‘founding father’ Catholic patriots of the Risorgimento, the 19th Century historical process during which Italy became a unified state for the first time in millennia. Invoking the philosopher Vincenzo Gioberti, Father Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, novelist Alessandro Manzoni, and others, the interventionists can draw from a well of shared national history. Another figure in that pantheon is Giuseppe Mazzini, a contemporary and competitor of Karl Marx whose writings have begun to reshape the mind of one very consequential interventionist: future dictator and former socialist Benito Mussolini, whose newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia receives quiet British support for its promotion of intervention.
Mussolini is on hand for these events in Rome. Five days ago under the headline “Down With Parliament!,” Mussolini called for a violent revolution to upend the old order. “For the health of Italy a few dozen deputies should be shot: I repeat shot in the back.” Deeply influenced by D’Annunzio’s style and ideas, Mussolini will one day pronounce him “the John the Baptist of fascism” and lobby for his endorsement. By contrast, Gaetano Salvemini is an opponent of Giolitti who will one day bemoan having misunderstood the aged politician — and become an ardent critic of Mussolini. For now he cheers the political violence, but he will end his days criticizing Mussolini’s fascist squads. Their familiar styles, such as the black fez, are borrowed from the fashions D’Annunzio cuts for his men during a brief postwar dictatorship of Fiume.
Ultimately a Wilsonian interested in diminishing the powerful business and banking interests which support Giolitti, Salvemini backs Salandra and war in order to galvanize Italian civil society. This proves to be a colossal miscalculation, and Salvemini compounds the error with poor political skills. Building a small group of ardent believers rather than make political alliances, Salvemini will never achieve the influence of D’Annunzio. Having lost an eye flying dangerous missions that were more art than combat, D’Annunzio will complain of smelling “the stink of peace” and oppose the Treaty of Versailles, calling it a betrayal of the promises made in the secret Treaty of London. Salvemini will play the moderate, making room for a Yugoslavian state across the Adriatic Sea and supporting political reforms that the fascists denounce, and consequently wind up an exile at Harvard University.
With such disparate motives and outcomes, we cannot establish a single identifiable political strain with unique responsibility for the emergence of Italian interventionism in 1915; many Liberals will end up supporting the war, too. To explain Italy’s entry into the Great War and its role in the outbreak of a second conflagration, we must look beyond politics, and in fact one of the most striking features of that multi-decade story is the ubiquitous presence of an artistic movement. Indeed, D’Annunzio’s ardor for mass violence, his love of machines, and his conspicuous philandering resonate with the school of Futurism, marked as it is by misogyny, worship of mechanical speed, and adoration of mass warfare as a spiritual cleansing process for nations.
A holistic bunch, the Futurists establish a new kind of film, fashion, design, and architecture in addition to more traditional art forms. Their avant garde works exhibit novelty, sharp angles, bright colors, and a rejection of any previous artistic rule-set in favor of a machine-driven logic — a particularly radical position given Italy’s rich cultural heritage. In February, the founder of the Futurist movement, Fillipo Marinetti, called for a ‘Futurist synthetic theatre.’ His vision sounds very much like ‘experimental theatre,’ but with martial purposes. For Marinetti, art is war, and war is art:
As we await our much prayed-for great war, we Futurists carry our violent antineutralist action from city square to university and back again, using our art to prepare the Italian sensibility for the great hour of maximum danger. Italy must be fearless, eager, as swift and elastic as a fencer, as indifferent to blows as a boxer, as impassive at the news of a victory that may have cost fifty-thousand dead as at the news of a defeat.
For Italy to learn to make up its mind with lightning speed, to hurl itself into battle, to sustain every undertaking and every possible calamity, books and reviews are unnecessary. They interest and concern only a minority, are more or less tedious, obstructive, and relaxing. They cannot help chilling enthusiasm, aborting impulses, and poisoning with doubt a people at war. War — Futurism intensified — obliges us to march and not to rot [marciare, non marcire] in libraries and reading rooms.
Indeed, Marinetti calls war “the only true hygiene.” Unlike any political category in the country, riven as they all are by the question of war, his movement is uniformly enthusiastic about the bloody battles to come. In the postwar gloom, Italian Futurists will merge with fascism. Futurism is so pervasive within Italian fascism that Mussolini will coin the world ‘totalitarianism’ from the the movement’s ‘total’ view of art, politics, and society as a single transformative, violent whole.