Wednesday, December 14, 2011

King Umberto II

Officially the last King of Italy and last reigning member of the venerable royal house of Savoy, Umberto II occupied the throne for so short a time that he has gone down in popular memory as the “King of May”. His life was one of great early promise and high hopes for the future which ended in one of the (many) gross injustices following World War II. He was born on September 15, 1904 in Racconigi, Piedmont to Their Majesties King Vittorio Emanuele III and Queen Elena of Montenegro. He was their third child but only son and was raised with the certain destiny that he would become King of Italy. From early in his youth he was given a practical education and extensive military training to prepare him to carry on the illustrious military tradition of the House of Savoy. The importance of the monarchy to the unity of Italy and the glorious history they were expected to live up to were heavily stressed on the young man and he became very meticulous about royal protocol and presenting just the right public appearance for any occasion.

As he grew up, his attention to detail paid off as the Italian press hailed him as the handsomest prince in Europe. The tall, dashing, soldierly Prince of Piedmont had mastered perception but he still needed a proper, royal beauty to be his princess. After World War I, the number of reigning Catholic royals had been considerably reduced but an ideal candidate was found in the strong-willed and stunning Princess Maria Jose of Belgium. By this time, Italy was under the rule of the fascist party but radical socialists were still a problem and when Prince Umberto went to Brussels to propose to his Belgian bride one tried to assassinate him. Of course, the effort was unsuccessful and on January 8, 1930 the couple were married in Rome in a magnificent ceremony with all of the pomp and pageantry the ancient House of Savoy could muster. Still, there were problems. The couple were initially happy enough but were not well suited to each other and the antagonism between the new Princess of Piedmont and Mussolini was evident from the start.

In keeping with Italian tradition, Prince Umberto stayed strictly out of political matters. He was expected to deal with those when he became king and not a day before. Nonetheless, Mussolini was wary enough of him to keep him closely watched and under tight control. Aside from the usual royal engagements Prince Umberto was mostly kept busy with his military career becoming commander of the Northern Armies and later of the Southern Armies. He was a good soldier, despite some claims to the contrary, but was kept from active service in most campaigns by the government, due both to concerns over his security as well as (perhaps even more so) worries that he was insufficiently supportive of the fascist regime. Nonetheless, he could not be ignored and in 1942, with the Second World War well under way, he was promoted to the rank of Marshal of Italy. However, by that time it was all too clear that the war was going against Italy.

A sense of duty and deferment to his father kept Prince Umberto out of politics but he was well aware that Princess Maria Jose was working through the Vatican, trying to coordinate anti-fascist elements in Rome with representatives of the United States, to take Italy out of the Axis and into the Allied camp. The Prince himself could not be involved in this but he supported the efforts of his wife and kept silent about the whole affair. A single report could have ended it all but the Prince showed his support by saying nothing even though suspicions were eventually raised enough for the Princess to be sent away. By that time, Allied forces had overrun Italian East Africa, Libya (Italy’s “Fourth Shore”) and when British and American forces invaded Sicily there was no longer any doubt as to the outcome of the conflict. Support for Mussolini fell away and King Vittorio Emanuele III was finally in a strong enough position to dismiss the dictator and have him arrested, after which Italy made a separate peace and shifted to the Allied nations.

However, the Germans quickly occupied northern Italy while the Allies moved into the south. The King was urged by others in the House of Savoy to step aside as many considered him tainted for having been so long associated with the old fascist regime. Torn between what he regarded as his sacred duty and the practical reality of the situation the King declined to abdicate but stepped aside from political affairs in favor of Prince Umberto, naming him Lieutenant General of the Realm with full power to act in his name. The King then left for what he hoped would be a temporary relocation to Egypt where King Farouk had been friendly toward the Italians and had a rather tense relationship with the British. In his absence Prince Umberto won praise from every quarter for his astute handling of the situation, cooperation with the Allies and continued resistance to the German occupation and the fascist puppet-state set up in the north by Mussolini following his rescue by Nazi special forces.

Under Prince Umberto the Royal Italian forces joined the war again to assist the Allies as much as possible, continuing to the final defeat of the Nazis in 1945. Yet, the republican revolutionaries had again come out of hiding once the fascist presence was gone and there were the occupying Allied forces who often were prejudiced against the House of Savoy. A new clique began to push for the overthrow of the monarchy, whether by democratic or violent means, and they had a great deal of Allied support. Finally, King Vittorio Emanuele III was persuaded that the only hope to save the monarchy was to abdicate in favor of his son. He did so on May 9, 1946 at which time his son became King Umberto II. However, the new political factions had already pushed the Royal Family aside and ugly accusations were abounding as the abdication brought back painful memories from the time of Italian defeat. Instead of focusing on King Umberto II and his record of success since 1944 attention shifted back to his father, the fall of Rome and the fascist regime.

Within weeks a referendum was held on the abolition of the monarchy. King Vittorio Emanuele III had once said that no nation was less suited for a republic than Italy and the referendum which created the Italian Republic was enough to prove his words prophetic. The entire process made a farce of the democratic concept. Voters were intimidated, poll numbers skewed and the decision announced before all the votes had even been counted. Indeed, many had been prevented from casting a vote and disenfranchisement was worst in the south where monarchist sentiment was the strongest. Nonetheless, the powers that be had spoken and on June 12, 1946 the Savoy reign and the Kingdom of Italy came to an end.

King Umberto II and Queen Maria Jose were forced into exile and soon separated. King Umberto II spent most of his years in exile in Portugal. He traveled extensively, winning probably more friends and admirers than he had ever had before. However, the new political class in Italy only hardened their position and banned any male heirs of the Savoy dynasty from setting foot on Italian soil. The excuse given for this was that the government had decided to blame the rule of Mussolini on the Royal Family and yet, in the ultimate show of hypocrisy, the Mussolini family itself was not barred from the country or suffered any loss of liberties at all. The true reason, of course, was that a strong royalist element remained and the republican government wanted to see it suffocated by the absence of any Savoy royal in the country. His Majesty Umberto II, the last King of Italy, died still in exile, in Switzerland, on March 18, 1983. It was noteworthy that kings, queens and princes from across Europe came to his funeral to pay their respects, even from countries which had been the enemies of the Kingdom of Italy during the war but not one representative of the Italian government was present.


  1. I look forward to the day Prince Aymone of Savoia-Aosta will bring the monarchy back to Italy and help unite Italians. Evviva il re!

  2. I look forward to the day the monarchy returns to Italy in the person of Prince Aimone di Savoia-Aosta to help unite Italians without regard to political divisions. Padre St. Pio of Petrelcina prophesied that the Savoias would return. I was at Umberto II's tomb in the Pantheon.