World War I

   Italy’s decision to participate in the war that broke out in August 1914 was a matter of acute calculation of the country’s best interests. When war broke out, Italy was joined in the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria. Seen by the Italian government as purely defensive, the treaty promised Italy’s assistance to Germany and Austria should either be the victim of an attack. As Austria’s displeasure mounted concerning Serbian aggrandizement at Turkey’s expense in the Balkan Wars, Italy made clear that the Triple Alliance would never be a license for Austria to engage in aggressive war against the Serbs. Thus, when the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand led to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, Italy—claiming that the Triple Alliance’s conditions had not been met—declared its neutrality, while Serbia’s and Austria’s allies mobilized for what each thought would be a swift war resolving outstanding problems of national aspirations, imperial ambition, and the settling of scores. It soon became clear that the most an Austrian victory might yield to Italy would be concessions in Africa (perhaps Tunisia, French since 1830). But a French victory over Austria and Germany could mean that territories such as the Trentino might become Italian. Neutrality, the policy favored by Giovanni Giolitti, might favor either Austria or Serbia at war’s end but certainly not Italy. The decisive factor was the desire to establish Italian credentials as a power and to take part in establishing the postwar equilibrium. Thus, the Treaty of Londonof April 1915 formalized Italian entry into the war as an ally of France and Britain. It was accepted by the Italian Parliament only after Gabriele D’Annunzio and other nationalists had manipulated crowds in the public squares of Italy to rout opposition opinion that, in fact, held the majority in Parliament.
   War fever, however, was followed by bloody reality. Hostilities in some of Europe’s highest mountains could not have begun at a worse time. Russian forces had suffered defeats that obliged them to withdraw from (Austrian) Galicia, thus freeing Vienna to reinforce its positions in the Alpsand in Friuli. In 1916, the Austrian Strafexpedition in the Trentino caused the government of Antonio Salandra to fall. By the summer of 1917, 11 bloody but indecisive battles at the Isonzo River had been fought on a 96-kilometer (60-mile) front and had advanced Italian forces barely 16 kilometers (10 miles) toward Trieste. When the Austrians learned of a massive Italian offensive being planned by General Luigi Cadorna for the spring of 1918, they sought, and received, assistance from their German ally in the form of experienced troops and officers. The 12th battle of the Isonzo, begun in October 1917, ended at Caporetto, where the Italian line broke.
   Rumors of a rout became self-fulfilling. It was only at the Piave River that the line finally held. British and French reinforcements soon arrived and enabled the Italian army to counterattack with a vengeance, driving Austria to ask for an armistice after a stunning defeat at Vittorio Veneto in October 1918, at which the Italians took more than 400,000 prisoners. The armistice came on 3 November 1918, eight days before the armistice on the Western Front. In all, Italy lost 650,000 killed or missing during the war, less than the terrible sacrifices made by France and Germany, but comparable with Great Britain. Half a million men were permanently disabled. The war also reduced respect for Parliament and for the liberals who controlled it. The growing gap between the wealthy and the poor heightened social tension. Moreover, many returning veterans found that even the newer engineering and metallurgical industries, made rich by the conflict, now faced shrinking markets and needed no new workers. Thus, not only were social divisions sharper than they remembered, but the consequent bitter tensions did not stand comparison with the comradeship of the military life. All of these factors contributed to the rise of Fascism.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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