What was the impact of the first world war on Italy?

The intervention crisis

Italy declared neutrality in 1914, and it split the opinion of the liberals in parliament. Italian PM, Antonio Salandra argued Italy should join the war as he feared if Germany and Austro-Hungary won the war they would not be sympathetic to the allies.

However, if Britain and France won and Italy had not assisted them in their efforts, they would be open to discussing Italy's ambitions in the Mediterranean. At the start of 1915, Salandra and his foreign minister began secret negotiations with the British and French governments, as well as Germany and Austria. However, the Entente offered Italy the best deal, promising that with victory Italy would gain much of the irridente lands, such as South Tyrol and Istria. On the 26th April 1915, Italy signed the Treaty of London, pledging to support Britain, France and Russia.

News of the treaty caused significant unrest in Italy as it had been conducted in such secrecy, The PSI was very much against intervention, as were most Catholics, including the pope, Benedict XV.

In April 1915, the politicians who had won Italy's local elections, known as prefects, were asked to report on public opinion and overwhelmingly replied that most Italians in the provinces feared war and had little concern for irredentism or war against Austria.

In early May 1915, the crisis of Italy joining the war grew when Giolitti denounced the Treaty of London and 300 deputies announced their opposition to Salandra's decision. Their backing neutrality called on Giolitti to become PM again.

Crowds of supporters for the war held rallies in the streets where those backing neutrality were declared traitors. Mussolini, who believed that entry into WW1 was the best chance of creating revolution in Italy, was expelled from the Socialist Party for promoting intervention. Salandra resigned and the king asked Giolitti to form a new government, but he was worried by the fact that going back on the Treaty of London was now impossible. If he did, then Italy would have betrayed both sides of the war. The king told Giolitti that he felt committed to the treaty and might abdicate if they were not honoured.

Giolitti felt he could not support the treaty, but didn't want to risk overthrowing the king, so he declined the offer to become PM again. Salandra was reinstated as PM on 16th May and on 20th May was granted emergency powers by parliament.

On 25th May 1915, Italy formally declared war on Austria, with Salandra proclaiming that only through national unity could Italy claim victory against its enemies. Italy's entry into the war had been mostly due to both foreign and domestic political reasons and had little to do with the interventionist protests going on at the same time. However, the myth that the government was forced into WW1 by 'interventionists' would later pla a strong role in Mussolini's political campaigns after 1918.

The majority of Italy opposed the war and the debate over Italy's entry of the war had caused divisions. The PSI had voted against Salandra's emergency powers, and were the only left wing party in Europe not to support their country's intervention in the conflict.

Military Stalemate, 1915-16

The war between Italy and Austria was fought mostly in the mountainous area bordering the two countries. Conditions were horrific and thousands of Italian soldiers were killed by cholera and frostbite.

Two years of stalemate followed Italy's declaration into the war, and thousands of Italians were sacrificed just so they could move a few hundred metres on the mountainside. in 1915, 62,000 Italians died during four attempted offensives against the Austrians that failed to change the situation at the front. Nearly 5 million men were conscripted into the army, with the majority being peasants or agricultural workers. The majority of peasant conscripts couldn't understand the orders being given to them by those in charge (who were mostly well educated northern Italians).

Conscripts were treated poorly by their commanders and rations were extremely low. Many of the soldiers could not comprehend why the war was being fought or why Italy had joined and around 290,000 Italians were court-martialled during the war for desertion.

Defeat at Caporetto

In 1916, the Austrian army launched the Strafexpedition, a major offensive in the Trentine salient, in order to open a path that would allow it to attack Verona and Bologna.

Although the Italian army was able to halt the attack, it had a severe impact on army and public morale. Salandra was heavily criticised and forced to resign. He was replaced by Paolo Boselli, but the military efforts didn't improve. The situation reached its lowest point with Italy's humiliating defeat by the Austro-Hungarian forces at the Battle of Caporetto in October 1917, when Austrian forces attacked the Italian front line. Poor leadership and low morale saw the Italian army dissolve in the face of the Austrian forces and a humiliating and chaotic retreat took place.

What had been an initial victory for the Austrians turned quickly as Italian soldiers streamed down the mountains, many without weapons and there were reports of looting, violence between Italian troops and celebrations by some who thought the war was over.

00,000 soldiers lost contact with their regiments, large quantities of military arms were lost, as was the majority of the Veneto region. One Italian senator, Leopoldo Franchetti, was so overwhelmed by the nature of the defeat at Caporetto that he committed suicide. In total, 10,000 were killed, 30,000 wounded, 300,000 taken prisoner and 400,000 soldiers simply vanished. The defeat caused anger and debate in Italy. Following Caporetto, Boselli resigned and was replaced by Vittorio Orlando.

The Italian army was recognised under a new commander, General Diaz. Rations for soldiers were raised and annual leave increased. Promises of land reform for the peasant conscripts were made and in Dec 1917, an organisation to look after the welfare of the soldiers and their families was introduced.

General Diaz was also a much more cautious commander, focused on holding the Italian line at Piave and avoiding the needless sacrifice of soldiers in suicidal offensives. Casualty rates fell considerably from 520,000 in 1917 to 143,000 in 1918.

Socialist responses to the war

The PSI continued to oppose the war, refusing to vote for war credits in parliament and declaring a policy of 'neither support nor sabotage' to the war effort. Its stance was despised by the nationalists and many liberal supporters who saw it as defeatist, unpatriotic and anti-Italian.

The hysteria after Caporetto against 'defeatists' who 'had stabbed Italy in the back' led to arrest and imprisonment of many PSI leaders. Mussolini blamed Italian socialists, stating that they were a more dangerous enemy than the Austrians.

The war economy and cost of war

At the beginning of the war, Italy was behind Austria in nearly all key economic areas crucial for the war. For example, steel production was less than one million tonnes, while the Austrians were at 2.6 million tonnes. Over the course of the war, Italy made a significant economic improvement.

By the end of the war, Italian industry had produced around 20,000 machine guns and 7000 pieces of heavy artillery, a greater number than the British were able to manufacture. The success was driven by Alfredo Dalliolio. He organised the recruitment of women and peasants into the factories and ensured that those men deemed essential to war production were exempted from conscription. Hours of work were increased, strikes made illegal and workers could face military tribunals if their behaviour was deemed unsatisfactory. 1/4 of munitions factory employees were women and 1/3 of Italy's 900,000 workers in the war economy were either men exempted from military service or on secondment from the army.

The military industry grew substantially during the war with Fiat increasing its workforce from 6000 to 30,000. Dallolio's ministry financed industrial expansion by making payments in advance, arranging cheap loans and establishing profitable contracts for big business.

There was little government interference in industry and leading industrialists ran the central and regional committees for industrial mobilisation. Worryingly for the long term, this growth was based almost entirely on government investment in war production, which had been paid for by foreign loans and printing more money. While the war continued these issues could be ignored, but the conclusion of the war would bring about inevitable inflationary problems and massive cuts to government spending as the country found itself around 23 billion lire in debt.

Italy's economy became unbalanced with a few war-based sectors such as steel and engineering growing at a disproportionate rate compared with other industries. The majority of war production happened in the north east and the growth in these areas accelerated the division between north and south Italy.

The south remained a predominantly agricultural society, but the war saw the north's economy grow by over 20% between 1911 and 1921. The bitterness of the south that it was being ignored and left behind as the north progressed would be a major challenge for politicians after the war. There was also resentment and unrest among the industrial workers in the north.

By 1917, bread and pasta were being rationed and meat and sugar consumption was was falling sharply.

Long hours and a fall in real wages of around 25% at a time when the industrialists were making vast profits fuelled work anger, particularly as the majority didn't support the war. The government increased indirect taxes to pay for the war effort and this in turn led to greater social division, as the poorer in society felt that these affected them more greatly than the rich. In August 1917, 50 workers were killed protesting in Turin against bread shortages and the continuation of the war.

The riots shocked politicians who had made steps to increase food shortages and pro-war propaganda. Italy's industry had made very good increases in the war, but the long-term economic and social problems would have a profound effect on the country when the war ended in Nov 1918.

The significance of victory

The shift in military tactics, and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw Italy's prospects in the war improve and by October 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was near collapse.

Orlando encouraged Diaz to attack, believing that an Italian win would help strengthen its position in the negotiations that would come after the war. On 24th October 1918, Italian forces launched an offensive across the Piave, entering the town of Vittotio Veneto and splitting the Austrian army in two. Austria signed an armistice on 4th November and the war in Italy came to an end.

The Battle of Vittorio Veneto came to symbolise the greatest moment of the Italian nation. Salandra proclaimed the victory as representing the patriotism and self-sacrifice he had hoped the war would bring about.

However, despite the victory Italy suffered 650,000 casualties, its economy was even more distorted between the north and south and suffered from debt and inflation and the legacy of the war would be a more divided Italy: between those who backed the war and those who had not, and those who had fought the war and those who had stayed at home. After Caporetto, the difficult task of fulfilling these commitments. Returning soldiers wanted compensation for the sacrifices they had made and many Italians believed that the war should bring major change in Italian politics.


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