Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Remembering Queen Elena

It was on this day in 1952 that HM Elena of Montenegro, Queen of Italy, consort of HM King Vittorio Emmanuele III was taken to her eternal reward in Montpellier, France. Her cause for canonization is currently being considered. May she pray for us and rest always in the sight of God.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Emperor Claudius

Amongst all the emperors of Rome, Claudius has a very unique story; the malformed fool who became the ruler of the world, so it is no wonder that he has been the subject of a great deal of literature and even his own television series (which is quite good despite being littered with historical inaccuracies). Claudius was only the fourth Roman emperor and the first to be born outside of Italy. He was born Tiberius Claudius Drusus on August 1, 10 BC in Lugdunum or what is now Lyons, France. His father was Drusus, the son of Livia Drusilla by her first husband, with whom she was already pregnant when she married the Emperor Augustus. Likewise, on his maternal side, he had illustrious ancestry as well, his mother Antonia being the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, the sister of Caesar Augustus. Yet, despite this lofty lineage, Claudius was a disappointment from the very beginning -even his mother was not terribly fond of him. When he was simply sitting still one might not notice anything wrong with him but when he moved it became very noticeable that something was not quite right and his disabilities would mark him as the object of shame and ridicule for most of his life.

What exactly was wrong with Claudius? We have descriptions but can only speculate as to the underlying cause. In fact, given what a competent emperor he eventually became, some have suggested there was never much wrong with him at all and that he was simply very adept at ‘playing the fool’ in order to survive. That is a tempting idea but it is beyond the realm of probability that he could have kept up such an act for so long from the very beginning of his life. Claudius was a mess to look at. He walked not so much with a limp (as often described) but an overall uneven balance, jerking his limbs and lurching back and forth. He had a very pronounced speech impediment, tended to drool at times, always seemed to have a runny nose and, according to some, was also hard of hearing and prone to twitch. All of this tended to put people off as did his habit of telling odd jokes that no one but him seemed to understand or find amusing. Still, the image some have of Claudius as the locked away, shy, disabled innocent is totally incorrect. The family were embarrassed by him and did not like to appear in public with him, but Claudius was no introvert. As he got older he enjoyed drinking, gambling and womanizing as much as any other privileged Roman youth.

It is also true that if Claudius was less than perfect physically, there was certainly nothing wrong with him mentally (though one of the popular explanations for his symptoms is cerebral palsy). He was a very intelligent man, was very well read and (in another aspect that makes me partial to him) was a historian, writing histories of the Etruscans who preceded the Romans; as well as the greatest enemy the Roman Republic ever faced: the Carthaginians. He was also no less ambitious than the other members of his family but he was intelligent enough to know that power was not to be taken lightly and he appreciated the dangers that went along with it and even the pursuit of it. Some have attributed this to his witnessing of the rest of his family killing each other off in palace intrigues until Claudius was the only one left. However, this is easy to exaggerate and usually goes back to the story that the Empress Livia (aka Julia Augusta, Claudius’ grandmother) was a murderess who had half the imperial family poisoned. An entertaining story, but one with no facts to back it up. As far as we can tell most of those who died in the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius were simply the victims of time and chance and nothing more.

All that being said, it certainly helped Claudius remain unscathed that most viewed him as a simple-minded fool who was no threat to anyone. Rather than a possible contender for the purple, he more often seemed to be viewed as a victim for ridicule and jokes. He had kept fairly distant from actual politics until being named consul by his nephew Gaius, aka the Emperor Caligula. He was more than up to the job but we may never know if he was appointed consul because of his intellect or as some sort of joke along the lines of Caligula famously appointing his horse to high office. Whatever the case, it was fortunate for all that Claudius survived to become Emperor of Rome and that his boat was not swamped in the tidal wave that brought down his nephew.

As most know, I am a big fan of Imperial Rome and an ardent defender of the original Julio-Claudian dynasty. For some, they have a bad reputation even to this day, but the facts rarely match the gossip that has become accepted “fact”. Augustus Caesar was a colossus and truly one of THE great men of history. Emperor Tiberius, while he did get a little nasty at the end, was a great soldier, a dutiful man and a capable ruler. Even Emperor Nero was not without his good points and while he, on the whole, deserves most of his bad reputation, a great deal has been exaggerated. Emperor Claudius we are just coming to, but then there is Caligula. With him there really is not much to say, the man was a horror. One day I may go into his story but for right now, suffice it to say that the end of the reign of Caligula was an extremely low point for the imperial monarchy. Not only was the Emperor murdered, his wife was murdered, his little daughter was murdered, his statues were smashed and his name was blotted out of the record books. His nearly four years in power were a nightmare that most wanted to forget. Claudius was by then 50-years old and was, supposedly, found hiding behind a curtain after this bloodbath and expected to be killed just like his nephew. However, a member of the Praetorian Guard found him and they hailed Claudius as Emperor of Rome.

The downfall of Caligula had been seized upon by the senate as an opportunity to take back power and restore the republic. They hoped that the urban cohorts would back them but the Praetorian Guard had already declared Claudius the new emperor (again, some suggest as a joke to highlight their own power) and Emperor Claudius solidified their allegiance with a generous bribe. When the urban cohorts defected to Claudius and the monarchist camp it was clear that the senate had been checked and republican rule would not be returning. In this, Claudius has often been portrayed as a hapless pawn but that is certainly not true. He knew what he was doing and worked quickly and cleverly to secure his newfound position. Despite what some romantics may think, a return to the republic would not have been good for anyone. True, there had been plenty of intrigue and bloodshed since the beginning of the reign of the Caesars but this was almost exclusively within the imperial family and household. Under the republic, the same had gone on but on a far wider scale, involving coalitions of senators and generals with their own armies, devastating the Roman world from end to end. For Rome, the empire meant peace and stability.

To reassert imperial authority, Emperor Claudius first had the murderers of his nephew Caligula executed. Caligula had become an insane, perverted, sadistic nightmare on two legs, but he was an emperor and the law had to be upheld. Still, Claudius was astute enough to know that most viewed the assassination of his predecessor as a good thing and only those who had done the actual killing were put to death. To show that things would be different, Emperor Claudius destroyed his nephew’s stockpile of poisons, returned confiscated lands, burned the criminal records, repealed the laws which awarded the emperor the property of anyone convicted of treason and put an end to treason trials altogether. It was a smart as well as benevolent move to make. Because of what happened to his nephew, Emperor Claudius was also downright paranoid when it came to his personal security, but not without reason and when someone did act against him Claudius could be just as harsh as Tiberius had been.

Perhaps the biggest problem Claudius had was his wife, the infamous Messalina. She soon became notorious for both arranging the murder of those who displeased her as well as immense amounts of adultery. As usual, malicious writers were quick to embellish Messalina to epically wicked proportions with stories of her as a murderous nymphomaniac, poisoning or framing for some capital offense those who would not share her bed, of her organizing wild orgies and even working at a brothel under an assumed name. It remains something of a mystery how all of this went on (though the more lurid tales are probably fabrications) without Emperor Claudius taking action. They say the husband is the last to know, but surely someone so paranoid about plots and intrigue would have had some clue. Was he aware but willingly ignorant or was he perhaps so enamored of his beautiful young wife that he refused to believe the evidence in front of him? Whatever the case, Messalina became ever more brazen in her behavior until she finally went too far and actually married one of her lovers while the emperor was away. Claudius thought it a plot to overthrow him but, if it was, it came to nothing. He was rushed to the Praetorian Guard camp and Messalina and her lover were promptly executed, though unlike her accomplice, the empress was not allowed to see her husband for fear that she might melt his resolve and convince him to spare her life.

It was really for the best as she was the greatest piece of “evidence” cited by those who believed that Emperor Claudius was a weak man who was ruled by his wife and his closest officials. This, however, is largely false and was likely “sour grapes” on the part of the traditional governing elite who were upset that Claudius filled high offices with freedmen (emancipated former slaves) who were often extremely intelligent and capable and whom he felt he could trust more than the usual power-hungry elite. It is also untrue that Emperor Claudius was some sort of republican at heart. He had no qualms about continuing the monarchy and, indeed, during his reign, further centralized power at the very top. He did, though, take a great interest in the justice system, often presiding over cases himself, and seeing that the government functioned smoothly. He is often criticized for his love of the games but in this he was no worse than any other average Roman of his time. His odd habits and paranoid behavior kept him from being as popular as he might have been but he gained a huge boost when his armies completed the conquest of Britain, the greatest expansion of Roman power since the imperial era began. He may have cut an odd figure at his triumph afterwards but all Romans took pride in the achievement.

Emperor Claudius also sought to bring the provinces of the Roman Empire outside Italy closer together and he was unusually generous in granting citizenship and appointed non-Romans to the senate (something extremely rare but not unprecedented as Julius Caesar had done the same). Unfortunately, women continued to be a problem for him. After the heartbreak and betrayal he felt over Messalina, Claudius had no desire to marry again but he was finally persuaded to accept his niece Agrippina (the younger sister of Emperor Caligula) as his wife. For Claudius, this proved a big mistake. Gossip soon began to circulate that Agrippina was simply Messalina “part two”. Her schemes, however, were mostly devoted to securing the succession of her son from a previous marriage over that of Britannicus, the son of Claudius and Messalina. She was ultimately successful and her son, by then known as Nero, was given the title “Prince of Youth” and married to Claudius’ daughter Octavia. With that done, Agrippina arranged for Emperor Claudius to be poisoned and he died on the night of October 13/14 54 AD. He was succeeded by his step-son, Emperor Nero, just as Agrippina had planned though she might have regretted her efforts before it was all over.

After his death, Emperor Claudius was deified, the first emperor since Augustus to be so honored (not counting the self-deification of Caligula) and yet, despite being declared a god, one still has the impression that Emperor Claudius was not as appreciated as he should have been. He was a brilliant man, despite his disabilities, and for about thirteen years was a very capable emperor, a learned man and a man who took his duties and responsibilities seriously. He wrote his own autobiography (which has unfortunately been lost) and he took great care to ensure the survival of the Roman Empire and the imperial monarchy at a time of great crisis because he wanted peace and moderation to reign throughout the world. He wrote about caring for sick slaves and, of course, caused controversy by giving power to his freed slaves. His jokes may not have been funny and he may not have cut a fine figure but he was a good man, he kept order in Rome and the provinces, improved the infrastructure, left behind some magnificent buildings, expanded the empire by conquering Britain and the world was better off for his reign.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Italians in Argentina

The Italian connection to Argentina goes back to the very beginning of European awareness of the country. The very first Europeans to see Argentina came in 1502 with the voyage of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (who the Americas are named after) and this was followed by the period of Spanish colonization. Some Italians came to Argentina in that period, some as simple settlers and others as Spanish colonial officials; this being the period when the Spanish Royal Family ruled southern Italy. When the first moves toward Argentine independence from Spain began to come about, at the forefront was a prominent Italian-Argentine who is still a celebrated national hero in Argentina today, one General Manuel Belgrano. He was born in Argentina to an Italian father and after being educated in Spain began to work for greater Argentine autonomy within the Spanish empire. Eventually this developed into pushing from complete independence. He supported the May Revolution and served in the first government but was defeated when he led a military expedition into Paraguay but which still led, indirectly to Paraguayan independence later on.

General Belgrano also designed a battle flag which was later adopted as the first national flag, eventually becoming the modern flag of Argentina with some minor changes. The government did not, however, agree to the plan he and some others supported for placing a descendant of the Inca rulers on the throne in a South American constitutional monarchy (Jose de San Martin also endorsed such a plan). General Belgrano remained though an Argentine patriot and died in 1820 still fighting to preserve the independence of his country. He has many monuments in his honor throughout Argentina as well as a monument in Genoa, Italy. In the later years of the nineteenth century Italian immigration to Argentina increased and by the twentieth century many Argentines of Italian descent began to play an increasingly prominent role in national life. One of the most powerful but also most controversial of these was Juan Domingo Peron, President of Argentina on three separate occasions. Like many, he was of mixed ancestry but included in that mix was Italian ancestry from the island of Sardinia. During his presidency, Peron would remark on the pride he took in his Sardinian heritage.

During his military career, Peron studied Italian alpine military tactics, was educated at the University of Turin, observed the Italian army and became a student of the Fascist system of government of Benito Mussolini. He admired Mussolini in many ways but preferred social democracy to totalitarianism (whereas the Duce was fond of boasting of the totalitarian nature of his regime). Back in Argentina, as he climbed the political ladder, he instituted the first social insurance program as well as other social welfare programs and increased benefits for labor unions, building up a strong base of support among the working class. He first gained the presidency on a wave of popularity from nationalizing the central bank and promising economic independence and “social justice”. He tried to portray himself as representing a “third way” between capitalism and communism, the “Free World” and the Soviet bloc. He opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union for the first time and refused to take Argentina into either the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund. He was criticized for giving Nazi war criminals refuge in Argentina but he also allowed no discrimination against Jews and was the first Latin American leader to recognize the State of Israel.

Peron founded a political dynasty but was eventually overthrown in a military coup led by the Catholic nationalist Lieutenant General Eduardo Lonardi, another Italian-Argentine. He tried to reconcile the country and for his efforts was deposed by the liberals in favor of a more vengeful leader. The second national leader after Lonardi was another Italian-Argentine, President Arturo Frondizi whose family came from Umbria. He tried to have the ban on the Peronist faction lifted and tried to mediate peace between the United States, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara (to no avail). He had a large middle class following but when he succeeded in removing the restrictions against the Peronist faction, the next election saw them make huge gains, alarming the military, and he was brought down in a coup in 1962. Another Argentine of Italian descent, President Jose Maria Guido, succeeded him briefly, presiding over a period of turmoil between right and left-wing factions within the military. He was succeeded by another Italian-Argentine, President Arturo Umberto Illia, whose family came from Lombardy, and he tried to be a more moderate leader but was also eventually brought down by a military coup.

The next Italian-Argentine to hold the presidency was Raul Alberto Lastiri who occupied the position temporarily in 1973 before the return of Juan Peron. After Peron and his wife held the top job a military junta seized power. Some of these generals were Italian-Argentines such as General Roberto Eduardo Viola who held power briefly in 1981. The most well known, however, and the most controversial was his successor General Leopoldo Galtieri. His parents were poor Italian immigrants and Leopoldo joined the army and worked his way up through the ranks. When he came to power the military had shut down Congress and all political parties but General Galtieri was praised by some in the United States for his staunch opposition to communism. President Reagan’s national security advisor called him a “majestic general”. Industries were privatized, government spending was cut and salaries were frozen. Galtieri himself retained control of the army but allowed opposition to be voiced, which democracy advocates certainly did. In 1982 Galtieri took his most controversial action when he ordered Argentine forces to invade the British held Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas in Argentina) which were seized in a relatively quick and easy surprise attack.

This came at a time of dropping popularity for General Galtieri and many think he ordered the invasion simply to boost his popularity. If that is true, it was not a successful tactic in the long-run. His popularity soared after the initial success but his political career would not survive the backlash that came with defeat. Galtieri did not believe that the British would be able or willing to respond to the seizure of the islands and the United States would want to stay out of it due to Galtieri’s support for the anti-communist cause in Central America. It is true that many in the British Foreign Office would have liked to be rid of the Falklands and, at a different time, Galtieri’s gamble might have worked but not when Margaret Thatcher was in charge. Similarly, if the invasion had come only a short time later Britain might have lacked the ability to respond due to cuts in the military budget. In any event, the British counter-attacked and within two months had retaken the islands with the Argentine forces there being taken prisoner. Galtieri was then overthrown, arrested by the military and sentenced to be shot but this was commuted and eventually he was pardoned. He died of a heart attack in a Buenos Aires hospital in 2002.

There have been the always present good and bad cases but Italians have had a greater impact on Argentina than probably any other minority group or any other group of Europeans aside from the Spanish. Today, nearly half the population of Argentina (or about 20 million people) have some Italian ancestry. The Italian influence can be seen in the arts, entertainment (television, movies etc) as well as sports (such as Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs in Texas or football stars like Lionel Messi and Javier Zanetti) and of course national politics as seen above. Italian cuisine is quite common, elements of the Italian language have worked their way into everyday speech in several areas and aside from those of Italian ancestry there are still well over half a million Italian citizens living in Argentina today. There are still Italian festivals and cultural events held throughout the country but just as an Argentine of Spanish ancestry would consider themselves Argentine rather than Spanish, those of Italian descent are just as thoroughly Argentine though there is probably more nostalgia for Italy compared to the rivalry or even hostility most Hispanic Americans still feel toward Spain.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Happy Birthday Princess Olga

On this day in 1971 HRH Princess Olga of Savoy-Aosta was born to TRH Prince and Princess Michael of Greece and Denmark. In 2008 she married HRH Prince Aimone, Duke of Apulia and they now have two sons; Prince Umberto and Prince Amedeo who will carry on the name of the House of Savoy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Marshal of the Air Italo Balbo

Italo Balbo is, in many ways, evocative of the Italian story as a whole during the final decades of the Kingdom of Italy and the Fascist era. He started his life as a restless revolutionary and a radical republican; an early and rough Blackshirt beloved of Mussolini. At the peak of his career he became a zealous and talented empire-builder, a bringer of civilization and finally he became an ardent royalist, disillusioned with the Fascist regime and often at odds with Mussolini. Italo Balbo was born on June 6, 1896 in Ferrara and starting at a very young age was drawn to radical politics, nationalism and a life of adventure. He was only fourteen he went to Albania with a group of volunteers led by Ricciotti Garibaldi (son of Giuseppe Garibaldi) to fight in a rebellion against the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. As a young man he supported Italian participation in World War I on the side of the Allies and when Italy did enter the war he enlisted in the Royal Army. Balbo first served as an officer candidate in the Alpini Battalion “Val Fella” before beginning training with the air service.

After the disastrous battle of Caporetto, Balbo returned to the front, serving in another Alpini Battalion where he took command of the assault platoon. He courage in the face of the enemy eventually earned him one bronze and two silver medals for military valor as well as promotion to captain before the war ended. He studied in Florence after the war and he wrote a paper on “the economic and social thought of Giuseppe Mazzini”. He was, obviously, a republican at this stage but came to detest the socialists and the labor and trade unions they controlled because of their disorder and disrupting of the Italian economy and society. He was working as a bank clerk back in his home town when, in 1921, he became one of the first members of the National Fascist Party. He rose to be secretary of the Ferrara branch of the Fascist party and soon organized his own squad of Blackshirts which he led in raids on local socialist and communist groups as well as helping to break up strikes and protests organized by Marxists in the area. Balbo soon became known as one of the most active and forceful leaders in the Fascist movement.

Balbo, second from left, with Fascist leaders
Like many of the early squadristi, Balbo had been a republican, saw himself as a revolutionary and envisioned a Fascist state in which local bosses like himself would hold more power rather than a central dictator. Obviously, this was not the vision of Mussolini who had started to move his party more to the right as the socialists and communists began to drive more support in their direction. This was also part of a deliberate effort by Mussolini to broaden his base of support beyond the radical fringe and become more than just republican revolutionaries who disagreed with the socialists almost only on their attachment to internationalism and denigration of patriotism. Unity was particularly sought with the older nationalists who were right-wing and staunchly monarchist. Yet, because Balbo had become such a star in the Fascist Party, he was chosen for a prominent leadership position. When Mussolini (from the safety of his office in Milan) planned the Blackshirt march on Rome in 1922, Italo Balbo was one of the “Quadrumvirs” chosen to lead it. However, he would serve alongside more conservative Fascists such as Cesare De Vecchi and General Emilio De Bono. The presence of Michele Bianchi, a socialist turned syndicalist, helped balance out the leadership and, Mussolini hoped, appeal to the widest array of Italians possible.

The march, of course, turned out to be little more than a parade as political maneuvering had already secured the premiership for Mussolini before his Blackshirts ever entered Rome, however, Italo Balbo had secured his place as one the leading members of the Fascist hierarchy and was appointed one of the first members of the Fascist Grand Council in 1923. The following year he was named commander of the Blackshirt militia and in 1925 was made Undersecretary for National Economy. His real significance, however, came in 1926 when he was made Secretary of State for Air. Mussolini wanted to put a renewed emphasis on Italian aviation and Balbo was the man who would be in charge of this project. Balbo learned how to fly himself and set to work organizing what became the Regia Aeronautica. By 1928 he had been promoted to General of the Air Force, later Minister of the Air Force and, eventually, Marshal of the Air. Aside from organizing the military air branch, Balbo also encouraged exploration and endurance flights that would generate publicity for the air force, encourage more Italians to take an interest in aviation and raise the profile of Italy in the skies. As part of this campaign, Balbo himself led a trans-Atlantic flight in 1930 from Italy to Brazil and in 1933 all the way to Chicago where he was received with great fanfare and media attention. President Roosevelt even decorated him with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Italo Balbo had risen to become an international celebrity and many in the Fascist ranks began to speak of him as the future successor of Benito Mussolini. However, Balbo and Mussolini did not always agree on everything and the issues they disagreed on seemed to be growing more numerous. When, in 1933, Balbo was appointed Governor-General of Libya many viewed it as an effort to “exile” him from Rome. It was also a formidable mission he was tasked with. Balbo came to Libya with the expectation that he would make it a model colony, demonstrating Fascist efficiency and truly turning the place into the “fourth shore” of Italy. Although many today would not like to admit it, Balbo did essentially that. Expansion and development increased to such an extent that Balbo became known as the “Father of Libya” and this was largely true inasmuch that Libya became modern and up-to-date for the first time in history. Mussolini, for a time, hoped that Italy might gain the remains of the former German colony of Cameroon for an Italian Cameroon that would be linked by a land bride to Libya and give Italy an Atlantic port. With the frenzy of new roads, buildings, settlements and harbor facilities going up in Libya, anything seemed possible.

When international tensions began growing over the threat of renewing the war in Abyssinia, Marshal Balbo began making plans for an invasion from his colony into Egypt-Sudan. If Britain decided to go to war with Italy over Abyssinia, or close the Suez Canal to Italian troop transports, Balbo wanted to lead the attack to force the vital chokepoint open. Ultimately, Britain did not intervene on behalf of Ethiopia but they did reinforce their military presence in the Mediterranean, however, there is reason to believe that had such a conflict occurred, Italy would have had a legitimate chance of success. At the height of the crisis, Balbo deployed his troops along the Egyptian border and due to the poor state of British military intelligence, they had no idea it happened and Balbo would have been in a perfect position to have launched an attack on Egypt and take the British forces completely by surprise. Britain only became aware of it all via Rome itself when Mussolini rejected the planned operation, which turned out to be unnecessary in any event.

Although it was hardly seen as a promotion, by being posted to Libya, Marshal Balbo actually had far greater autonomy than he would have otherwise enjoyed and used his position to circumvent the normal military bureaucracy to create his own elite unit of Libyan paratroopers. Balbo himself, along with his pilots, undertook reconnaissance flights over Egypt and the Sudan to familiarize themselves with the area in the event of war between Britain and Italy in north Africa. He was determined to be prepared for any eventuality. However, Balbo was also aware enough of the true state of affairs to oppose Italian involvement in World War II. In fact, he had come a long way from his days as a blackshirt leader and was increasingly conservative, realistic and even royalist. Balbo was the only leading member of the Fascist Party to openly oppose the racial laws aimed against the Jewish community and the only one to publicly denounce the Axis alliance with Adolf Hitler. As Italy moved closer and closer toward the prospect of world war alongside Nazi Germany, Balbo reversed his earlier republicanism and was grateful the monarchy had been preserved and hoped that the King would intervene to stop Mussolini from taking the country to war.

Unfortunately, while the increased attachment to the monarchy was laudable, this was an all too common response of many in the Fascist hierarchy; men who had previously opposed the King and helped Mussolini gain dictatorial power suddenly demanding that the King reassert himself, taking all the political risk, to bail them out of a situation of their own making and to take actions against Mussolini that they were unwilling to take themselves. Air Marshal Balbo, to his credit, did more than most in the Fascist ranks to express his displeasure (saying that the alliance would result in the Italians being totally subservient to the Germans) but nonetheless, acceded to the policies of the government and determined to do his duty as best he could. Part of this included an intricate plan for the elimination of British armored forces in Egypt through the use of diversionary attacks from the air and a fast moving motorized column. However, Balbo would not live to see any of his plans carried out. When Italy joined the war in 1940, Balbo became supreme military commander of Italian north African forces and began planning the invasion of Egypt. Unfortunately, while flying into Tobruk on June 28, just after a British air raid, his plane was mistakenly shot down by Italian anti-aircraft batteries.

Some, then and now, believe that Mussolini set up the whole thing to get rid of Air Marshal Balbo because of his opposition to Fascist policies. However, there is no evidence to back that up and it certainly would not have looked good for Mussolini as such an action would have contradicted his boast that “Mussolini is always right” considering that he had earlier considered Balbo to be his successor as Duce. Balbo was buried near Tripoli but his body was moved to Italy in 1970 after the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi threatened to desecrate the bodies of all Italians buried in Libyan soil.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Remembering the Unknown Soldier

It was on this day in 1921 that the unknown Italian soldier of the First World War was buried, with an eternal flame, at the King Vittorio Emanuele II Monument in Rome. Alberto Sparapani designed the tomb after a campaign to honor the 'unknown soldier' was made by Italian veterans of the Great War and by other Allied veterans, after Great Britain and France had done the same. The United States of America awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor of the Italian unknown soldier shortly before they took the step of honoring the unknown American soldier. The Kingdom of Italy lost over a million people, soldiers and civilians, in the First World War, more than the British Empire, less than France or Russia and less than any of the Central Powers other than Bulgaria. About 650,000 Italian soldiers died in the conflict. Some Italian soldiers had voluntarily joined the war prior to the declaration of war by serving with the French Foreign Legion, later Italian forces served on almost every major front of the war. Some served on the western front, others in Albania and Macedonia, in Libya and Somalia, in the Middle East and, of course, the primary front against the Germans and Austrians on the northeast border.

To honor the sacrifices of these men, Colonel Giulio Douhet, writing in "Dovere" recommended entombing the body of an unknown Italian soldier to symbolize all of those whose names are not recorded, who died for their King and homeland. The Commissione Nazionale per le Onoranze ai Militari d'Italia was established which would eventually see this goal carried out with the unknown Italian soldier entombed in the Altar of the Fatherland in Rome. The government proposed and King Vittorio Emanuele III approved a bill on August 11, 1921 to find the Italian warrior who would represent all at the monument. Eleven bodies were found and taken to the Basilica of Aquileia on October 27, 1921 and one of these was chosen by a simple woman, Maria Bergamas of Trieste, who was the mother of an army lieutenant killed on Mount Gimone, to have the honor of representing his comrades. With all due ceremony the coffin of the unknown soldier was taken to a special train and journeyed through Udine, Venice, Bologna, Florence and finally Rome where the coffin was carried from the train station by veterans who had earned the Gold Medal for Military Valor in the late war. A special memorial service was held at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli and on November 4, 1921 the remains were transferred to the Piazza Venezia and then finally entombed.

The date was chosen to coincide with the Day of National Unity and the Armed Forces, a day first set aside to mark the end of the First World War and which is the only national holiday from the era of the Kingdom of Italy to survive the destruction of the monarchy by the republic. On the day that the unknown soldier was laid to rest, King Vittorio Emanuele III was noticed to have tears in his eyes and suppressed his emotions only with difficulty as he stepped forward to bestow the Gold Medal on the deceased warrior, representing all of those who had fought with courage and heroism, anonymously enduring hardship and privation for their King and fatherland.