Thursday, March 12, 2015

Did World War II Doom the Italian Monarchy?

It seems a very simple question. Did World War II doom the Italian monarchy? Italy entered the war, lost, and the monarchy fell. Surely the answer is, “yes”. Yet, it is not quite that simple. What if the Kingdom of Italy had won the Second World War? Would it still have fallen? The end of the monarchy did not coincide with defeat in the war as in Germany or Austria in the first war. In fact, it survived a short time after the war was over. There is actually quite a diversity of views on this subject. Some critics of the monarchy state with absolute assurance that republicanism was inevitable and that the reign of the House of Savoy was doomed no matter what happened. Others, think that the monarchy was doomed in 1921 when the Fascists came to power and that, after that, it was only a matter of time. Still others do make the case that the monarchy always held the upper hand up until Italy entered the war and that this was the critical mistake that ended any hope of monarchy surviving on the Italian peninsula. Losing a war, particularly in the age of “total war” such as the world wars certainly brought down many monarchies, most younger than the House of Savoy but which, outwardly at least, seemed more secure. However, there was certainly significant support for the monarchy remaining even after 1945. That the republicans had to resort to chicanery to squeak out even a narrow victory in the referendum is proof enough of that.

Mussolini and the King
The first issue to look at is whether the Italian monarchy was on stable ground before the war. More than one historian has asserted that it would only the outbreak of war that prevented the Italian monarchy from being abolished even earlier. Benito Mussolini had been, for most of his life, a socialist and staunch republican who only lately embraced the monarchy and was viewed by not a few as being insincere in that conversion (rather like his baptism in the Catholic Church which was viewed almost universally as something purely for show and political convenience). There are a number of comments and actions on the part of the Duce to reinforce this view. As far as actions go, his attempt to take control of the succession (no doubt to disinherit Prince Umberto of Piedmont who was disliked by the Fascists) prompted a confrontation with the palace and Mussolini, ultimately, had to back down. An attempt to assassinate King Vittorio Emanuele III in 1928 was blamed on republicans in the Fascist Party and Mussolini was clearly uncomfortable at public functions when he had to surrender pride of place to the monarch. According to Mussolini himself, his regular meetings with the King were “cordial but never friendly”. Yet, as insulting as Mussolini could speak about the King and monarchy, when the two met he was always respectful and polite.

Although he complained about having to deal with the monarchy such as when Hitler visited the country (and Hitler, who was adamantly opposed to monarchy, warned Mussolini that the Royal Family was against him and that the monarchy should be abolished at the first available opportunity), the Duce always seemed willing to make use of the monarchy as a dynastic tool for the advancement of Italian interests. When the so-called Austro-fascists sounded him out about the possibility of restoring the House of Hapsburg he made no objection and even spoke of another Hapsburg-Savoy dynastic alliance to cement the ties between Italy and Austria. During the Italian intervention he also proposed Prince Amadeus, Duke of Aosta, as a potential Spanish monarch (as his ancestor had briefly been). The King disliked this idea and, no doubt to his relief, Franco turned it down. Yet, there were other confrontations when Mussolini tried to interfere with the army, confrontations which the King always won such as the proposal to abolish the carabinieri (the prestigious and very royalist military police) and another to fuse the army and the MVSN (the Fascist militia or Blackshirts). Were these simply efforts to expand the much-boasted totalitarianism of the regime or part of an on-going anti-monarchist agenda?

Duce & Re-Imperatore
Not long before the war, Mussolini was heard more than once to say that he would get rid of the King and the Pope as well when the time was right. Some suggest that it was only the outbreak of war that prevented this from becoming reality. However, could Mussolini have abolished the monarchy if he had really wanted to? In 1938, when many viewed Mussolini as being at the height of his power and prestige, some observers noted that the monarchy remained just as popular if not more so. In the anonymous darkness of the cinema, watching newsreels, crowds were silent when Mussolini appeared but cheered the King when he came on the screen. It may have been the fact that the monarchy was keeping pace with or even surpassing his own popularity that prompted his occasional republican outbursts. This would mean that while he may have increasingly wanted to get rid of the monarchy, the facts which most encouraged this feeling were also those which would prevent his ever making good on his threats. In terms of monarchist sentiment, the highest echelons of the Fascist Party were being won over by the King just as many were grumbling about the leadership and decisions of the Duce.

After Mussolini, there was no more elite group among the Fascists than the “Quadrumvirs”, men who had led the ‘March on Rome’ in 1921; Michele Bianchi, Emilio De Bono, Cesare De Vecchi and Italo Balbo. Of these, Bianchi was dead by 1930, De Bono and De Vecchi had always been staunch monarchists and only joined the Fascist bid for power after Mussolini endorsed the monarchy and even Italo Balbo, previously an ardent republican, had become a monarchist after becoming disillusioned with Mussolini’s leadership. Balbo, like the King, had been particularly distressed at the decision to ally with Nazi Germany. Count Dino Grandi, president of parliament and a member of the Fascist Grand Council also remained supportive of the monarchy and increasingly dubious in his attachment to Mussolini (he would ultimately raise the motion in the Grand Council to restore the King to his full powers, thus removing Mussolini). Given all of that, and the fact that the army remained staunchly royalist, later proven by the fact that only one Marshal of Italy followed Mussolini in his Nazi-backed puppet republic in the north after 1943, would indicate that even if there had been an effort to abolish the monarchy before the war it almost certainly would have failed disastrously.

Prince Umberto & Mussolini
So, if the war did not save the monarchy; did the war doom the monarchy? Would it have made a difference if Italy had won or lost in the course of the war? There are quite a few mentions in histories of this period that Mussolini, who never liked having to share public acclaim with the monarchy during moments of triumph, wanted to abolish the monarchy and take the supreme position for himself. Such people point out that, had World War II ended in an Italian victory, it would have been the perfect time for Mussolini to carry out such ambitions. As usual, there is some circumstantial evidence to support such an idea. Mussolini seemed very determined to allow no high-profile royal figures to have the chance to achieve any military glory. He had kept Prince Umberto out of the Abyssinian War and, though he was commander of the initial invasion of France (which was far from successful anyway), never allowed him to command any major military operation. Kept out of the campaigns in North Africa, Greece, Yugoslavia and Russia, Prince Umberto was forced to spend most of his time inspecting second-line forces in Calabria. It is at least possible that this was part of a plan on Mussolini’s part to make sure that he received all the credit for victory if Italy had managed to win.

Yet, again, even if that had been the Duce’s plan, it may not have been successful. For one thing, Mussolini was never able to have the purely Fascist military victory that he always longed for. The invasion of Abyssinia is illustrative of this. The original commander was Emilio De Bono who (though a staunch monarchist) was one of the Fascist Quadrumvirs and the Blackshirt legions were set to play the dominant role in the fighting. However, De Bono’s cautious advance was taking too much time and he had to be replaced by Marshal Badoglio who was seen at least as being more the King’s man as a traditional Piedmontese army officer (though, oddly enough, De Bono was probably more attached to the monarchy in fact than Badoglio was). The MVSN is often wrongly considered the Italian equivalent of the German SS but, in fact, it would have been more similar to the SA. It was a militia, not an elite force and mostly consisted of men who were “weekend warriors” rather than professional soldiers. Even then, by the time of World War II, many of its commanders were monarchist former army officers rather than committed Fascists.

General Giovanni Messe
During the course of the war, even while Mussolini kept the Savoy princes from important commands, the army continued to be dominated by men loyal to the King before they were loyal to the Duce. In Africa, early on, the most successful commander had been the Duke of Aosta who certainly would not have backed any attack on the monarchy. During the height of Axis success in North Africa the Italian commander was Marshal Ettore Bastico who put loyalty to the Crown before the Fascist Party. General Mario Roatta, commander of Italian forces in the former Yugoslavia, though regarded as an unsavory figure by many, remained with the Badoglio government rather than Mussolini after 1943, an indication of where his ultimate loyalty was and in Russia the Italian commander was General (later Marshal) Giovanni Messe who, aside from being probably the most capable Italian commander of the war, was a staunch monarchist who even got involved in politics as a royalist after the monarchy was abolished. Furthermore, during the course of the war, regardless of his motivations, Mussolini had continued to make use of the monarchy such as by going along with the elevation of the Duke of Spoleto as King of Croatia. This would certainly have complicated matters if there had been any post-war move against the monarchy by Mussolini.

Given how many monarchists remained in positions of authority in government, even within the Fascist Party itself, as well as the prevalence of royalist sentiment in the army, it is hard to see how Mussolini could have abolished the monarchy even if Italy had won the war. Part of the problem, for the Duce at least, with the royalist figures such as De Vecchi, De Bono, former leader of the predominately royalist nationalist party Luigi Federzoni (who was also on the Grand Council) was precisely that Mussolini had appointed them all to high positions. Previously, he had stated that there would, in the future, be “another” Fascist revolution and this time, “without contraceptives” (taken by most to mean casting aside the monarchy and Church) and that he was “plucking the chicken feather by feather to lessen its squawking” (referring to his diminishment of royal powers) which could certainly be added to the column of evidence that Mussolini intended to move against the monarchy at some point. However, if part of that “plucking” involved the removal of royalists from positions of power, particularly non-military officials like those mentioned above, it would have been all but impossible to do without destroying the Fascist myth of the Duce as the man who was “always right”. After all, if Mussolini is never supposed to make a mistake, how could he purge such men at the very highest echelons of the Fascist state without admitting the he had been spectacularly wrong on numerous occasions over so many years?

The whole thing would have revealed just how empty was the oft-repeated boast that Mussolini had made Italy a totalitarian state. It would have shown that despite decades in power, neither the government or the army were purely Fascist and absolutely loyal to him. It would have also hurt his “always right” line of propaganda simply because Mussolini had kept the monarchy in place for so long. His slights against the monarchy were always out of public view and the public never saw the Duce being anything but formal and correct towards the King so as to maintain the image of the “diarchy”. It would have shown him, in dramatic fashion, to be a liar and a hypocrite. Of course, we can also see what happened when Mussolini did turn on the monarchy after 1943 and the result was a shambles. With only the Nazis and die-hard republican Fascists supporting him, he was forced to back peddle and try to reach out to the radical leftists. This, of course, did him no good as they continued to view him as the socialist “heretic” they always had since his split from them over World War I. Had he been Duce of a country victorious in war, he certainly would have had a much stronger position to do as he pleased but it is hard to see how he could manage to pull off such a dramatic break with the past as abolishing the monarchy without destroying his own reputation in the process.

That, however, was never an option though as Italy lost the war and so the only question left is whether losing cost the House of Savoy their crown. It certainly made a huge difference. Contrary to the popular perception (based mostly on World War II), losing wars was not something Italians were used to. Ties between the military and the monarchy were old and strongly held but, prior to World War II, Italian military operations had been overwhelmingly successful, from the war in Abyssinia, the intervention in Spain, the pacification of Libya, World War I and the war against Ottoman Turkey. The Italian military had been extremely over-hyped by Mussolini but given the recent history, the stunning losses in World War II came as quite a shock to the public and as a terrible morale blow to the royal army in particular. Of course, we know that losing the war did not automatically bring down the monarchy but there were several key points about the loss that certainly undermined the monarchy and left it in mortal danger. Examples include the German alliance, the Salo Republic and the blundering of the Allies. There was also one way in which Mussolini himself actually benefited the monarchy, albeit inadvertently.

Italian Co-Belligerent Force soldiers
The problem with the German alliance was that Germany was not willing to cut ties and allow Italy to sit out the rest of the war. It was German intervention which caused the resulting Italian civil war within World War II that proved so damaging to the Italian nation on every level. The 1943 armistice was supposed to take Italy out of the fighting but because of the German reaction the country was forced back into the conflict on both sides, the Italian Social Republic forces fighting with the Nazis in the north and the Italian Co-Belligerent forces fighting with the Allies in the south. To the extent that ill-will towards the monarchy did arise in the Italian military, this was almost invariably the cause. Even some of those who put loyalty to the King first still felt very bad about suddenly being called upon to fight their former allies alongside those who had previously been their enemies and who had stripped Italy of all its pre-war possessions, even those gained long before the Fascists came to power. This was one of the major blunders of the Allies which went a long way to damaging the monarchy and destabilizing Italy. The Allies, trying to cling to their “unconditional surrender and nothing else will be accepted” strategy basically gave Italians who wanted to end the war absolutely no encouragement and every reason to go on fighting. Yet, with every passing day, the German grip on Italy grew stronger and so the need for some level of at least cooperation from the Italians became more and more imperative. The result was a situation that benefited no one.

Another problem caused by the Germans and their Salo puppet state was that it provided a huge shot in the arm to all the most anti-monarchy elements in Italy. It attracted the most diehard Fascists as well as attracting even more leftist opposition. Communist partisan guerillas were rampant and could count on strong backing from the Soviet Union. Inevitably, some aid from the western Allies to other non-communist partisans found their way into communist hands. So, while anti-monarchy elements gained a stranglehold on northern Italy thanks to the state of affairs caused by Germany, in the rest of the country, short-sighted Allied policies did nothing to bolster the monarchy which was the best defense against a communist takeover of Italy. Were it not for this confused situation and the Allied occupation there may well have never been a referendum at all. Finally, Mussolini inadvertently helped the monarchy by the previously discussed efforts of him to keep the Royal Family out of the war as much as possible. He did this because he did not want them to share any of the glory but, as it turned out, it meant that they could not be blamed for the ultimate defeat and most of the military remained loyal to the monarchy. This is evidenced by the efforts taken to keep as many members of the armed forces as possible from participating in the referendum by its republican organizers.

Did the war play a major part in the downfall of the Italian monarchy? Undoubtedly, and if Italy had stayed out of the war the monarchy would likely still be here. However, I don’t think the war doomed the Italian monarchy. Those who wanted King Vittorio Emanuele III to abdicate, which he proved reluctant to do, was mostly because he had been too long associated with the Fascists rather than the war, though it was certainly unpopular, particularly after all hope of victory was lost. If the Allied Control Commission had not been so unrealistic in their demands on the Italian government, things might have been very different -but of course they would not have been there in the first place were it not for the war. It is also true that the part played by the Allies in the lead-up to the referendum is often exaggerated, after a certain point (certainly after the first post-Fascist elections brought so many communists to power) they took a “hands-off” attitude, refusing to hinder or help either side. They certainly did harm the monarchist cause overall, but probably not as much as some (seeking a convenient scapegoat) like to think. The war did not doom the Kingdom of Italy but losing the war certainly made the fall of the monarchy possible and probable yet not inevitable.

If Italy had stayed out of the war, the monarchy would almost certainly have survived. There were too many monarchists in high places to make abolition of the monarchy in any way easy. If Italy had won the war, the monarchy would probably have survived, even with Mussolini triumphant, it was still too interwoven with the fabric of society and the regime to get rid out without trouble and a great deal of embarrassment. If, upon exiting the war, Germany had stayed out of Italy, it certainly would have made the retention of the monarchy more likely. If the Allies had enacted a coherent policy towards the Kingdom of Italy which was seeking an armistice, the monarchy could have survived. If Italy had been given some tangible benefit for joining the Allied cause, the monarchy might have been saved. It, of course, also goes without saying that if the Allies had behaved differently and if the referendum had been conducted fairly and by impartial authorities the monarchy could have been saved. I dislike saying so but if King Vittorio Emanuele III had abdicated and left the country at the time of the defeat, it may also have made preserving the monarchy easier. As it was, the Fascist era and World War II managed to at least make possible the downfall of one of the oldest Royal Families in the world so that, for the first time in over a thousand years, there was no patch of ground over which a Savoy reigned.

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