Wednesday, December 14, 2011
King Vittorio Emanuele III
The King had picked the winners but most of the consequences were still disastrous. Casualties were extremely heavy, allied support had to be called in to stave off defeat and national pride was wounded as a result. Still, the King might have been praised if Italy had emerged better off after the victory when all the promised spoils were delivered. Unfortunately, almost none were forthcoming. Aside from some gains in the Austrian Tyrol region, Italy was given none of the territories she had been promised and this led to outrage, directed against the other Allied powers, the government and, to some extent, the King himself. To further demonstrate the danger of becoming involved in politics, Vittorio Emanuele III survived two assassination attempts and watched as increasingly radical factions took hold in the country and threatened to destroy all the House of Savoy had built with civil war. The dashed hopes for national expansion and the increasing chaos in the country from the First World War to the early 20’s would have a major impact on the most controversial period of history for the Kingdom of Italy as a whole.
Critics, since that time, have claimed that Vittorio Emanuele III did not need to make that choice. They argue that if he had mobilized the army (which was staunchly royalist) he could have stopped the fascist “March on Rome” and kept Mussolini out of power. There are two major problems with that argument. First, it would have meant Italian soldiers shooting down Italian civilians in the streets. It would likely have sparked a civil war, exactly what the King wished to avoid at any cost, and destroyed the Italian nation. The second problem is that, even if the fascists could have bee suppressed, that still would not solve the political problem. It would have effectively forced all power to go to the radical socialists as there was no other major force to oppose them and Italy would have gone down the nightmarish road of republican Spain. The Savoy monarchy would have been destroyed and Italy would have become a communist satellite in southern Europe. The King knew that many of the fascists were revolutionary in temperament and that Mussolini himself had once been a radical leftist who opposed the monarchy, however, he had no choice but to work with the man who was the only one available to save the situation.
For a time, things got better. The threat of civil war was ended, law and order were restored and a stable government was established. As the saying went, the trains started running on time. In 1929 the people of Italy and Catholics around the world rejoiced at the ending of the stand-off between Church and State in Italy when the Lateran Treaty was signed between Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. The Church recognized the Kingdom of Italy and the Italian government recognized Vatican City as a sovereign state. Catholicism became the official religion of Italy and the past unpleasantness resulting from Italian unification and the occupation of Rome was finally consigned to the past. The Church gave support to the King, Italian clerics swore allegiance for the first time to the King of Italy and Mussolini was praised, in the words of the world press as “the man who gave God back to Italy and Italy back to God”. Italy also intervened in Spain to support the nationalist faction (which had the support of Churchmen and monarchists) against the Soviet-backed republicans, resulting ultimately in the victory of General Franco and the nationalists.
When Mussolini decided to enter World War II the King, like most of the military high command, had grave misgivings about Italian preparedness but, as a constitutional monarch, he had to go along with his government and issue the declaration of war in 1940. For a brief time the Kingdom of Italy reached its peak in terms of territory, controlling all of east Africa, the formerly Italian areas of France, all of the Adriatic coast and most of Greece but reverses came quickly and as losses mounted the popularity of the King declined as well as that of the fascists. By 1943 enough members of the Fascist Grand Council no longer supported Mussolini that the King was able to act and after the council voted against Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel III summoned him to the palace and, with the support of the government and the army, he dismissed Mussolini and placed him under arrest. The King appointed Marshal Pietro Badoglio as Prime Minister, renounced his titles as Emperor of Ethiopia and King of Albania and began negotiations with the Allies for an armistice.
In retrospect, probably the most accurate thing that has been widely said about King Victor Emmanuel III was that he was unlucky. He reigned during the peak of power for the Kingdom of Italy as well as the time of her darkest devastation. He was a good man, a responsible man, a devoted husband and father, who was forced to make some very tough decisions. It is an immense injustice that he was held to blame for things which were far beyond his control and punished for crimes he never committed. His people and his country were his paramount concerns and it was thanks largely to him that Italy survived World War II and if anyone is quick to be critical of some of the hard choices he had to make, they would do well to ask themselves first what they would have done if faced with the same alternatives.