15 JUNE, 1916: A Very Dangerous Drug

A month or so back (14 May 1916: Bad Hand? All In!), I wrote about the Austro-Hungarian Army’s Trentino Offensive on the Italian Front.  My focus then was on Austrian chief of staff Conrad’s fatally optimistic (and typical) decision to exploit respite elsewhere for one more grand attack rather than for the reconstruction and recovery the Austro-Hungarian war effort so desperately needed.  I did also mention that the initial success of the offensive – which had caught the Italian Army off guard and forced a retreat into Italian territory – triggered the resignation of Italy’s beleaguered Salandra government on 12 June.  Three days later, on 15 June, the appointment of veteran Liberal politician Paolo Boselli as prime minister of a new coalition reflected an extraordinary and ultimately momentous shift in the Italian political landscape.  Let’s talk about that.

Since the country’s formation in the 1860s, two decades of Fascism aside, Italian politics have been a byword for instability.  Coalition governments have come and gone with bewildering frequency, plagued by bipolar divisions between left- and right-wing factions, while the industrialised north and the agricultural, less developed south have behaved like separate, often mutually hostile nations. This familiar pattern had been reflected in furiously divided attitudes to the outbreak of war in August 1914, to Italian intervention on the Allied side the following May, and to subsequent Italian conduct of its war against Austria-Hungary.

By the spring of 1916, Italy was in the grip of rampant industrial unrest from the left, fuelled by the usual antagonism between those working or dying for a war and those profiting from it, while its government faced furious criticism from the right for its conduct of a war that had so far brought only repeated military failure and heavy casualties.  Food shortages in the north meanwhile bred resentment of the well-fed south, which in turn resented its loss of lives to a ‘northern’ war, and everyone was learning to resent Allied failure to provide the promised military or economic aid.  Basically, Italy was a cauldron of bickering discontent, still locked into a fundamental debate about its commitment to war… until Trentino.

Trentino transformed the popular and political mood in Italy.  The spectre of invasion shoved aside internal divisions, unleashing the one thing common to all strains of Italian political and popular thinking – patriotism – and with it an outburst of universal nationalism and belligerence comparable with the those in Britain, France or Germany at the height of war fever in August 1914.

Nationalism, as the twentieth century demonstrated to spine-chilling and murderous effect, can be a powerful and very dangerous force, apt to promote appalling human behaviour, catastrophic geopolitical chauvinism and chaotic socioeconomic chain reactions. First though, and usually by exploiting fear of a dangerous common enemy, it creates an understandably attractive illusion of national unity.  In the wake of Trentino the whole of Italy appeared united in determination to drive out the invader, and that noisy illusion brought Boselli to power.

A political ‘fixer’ in his mid-seventies,  Boselli’s career dated back to the national struggle for independence of the 1860s, and he had emerged from semi-retirement in August 1914 as a committed supporter of intervention alongside the Entente powers.  His strong association with both the war effort and the golden age of national unity made him an obvious candidate to replace Salandra, and maintenance of both were his priorities on entering office.

What a fine, upstanding symbol of national unity he makes... shame about the cabinet.
What a fine, upstanding symbol of national unity he makes… shame about the cabinet.

While the Italian Army was thrown into a sixth offensive on the River Isonzo, by way of satisfying the national thirst for action, Boselli attempted to seize the moment by appointing a large cabinet designed to keep all sides on board the unity bandwagon.  It included the leaders of the pro-War, moderate socialist faction (Bisoletti) and of the church party, along with staunchly pro-War interior minister Orlando, while the aggressively expansionist (and hugely unpopular) Sonnino, representing the extreme nationalism of the political right, kept his post as foreign minister.  It didn’t work.

The illusion of Italian national unity soon faded.  Under Boselli’s largely inert leadership, the cabinet turned into a cockpit for the usual disputes and the influential Sonnino retained effective control of a war effort that again lost momentum after failure of the sixth Isonzo offensive in August.  Italy’s war also remained subject to remote control by its allies, who demanded and got a belated declaration of war against Germany in August, a move that worsened the country’s economic woes and increased the danger of German intervention on the Italian Front.

Meanwhile left and centre political elements railed against Sonnino’s conduct of the war, the right blamed Boselli for failure to censor an increasingly hostile press or suppress a new wave of strikes, and the serious food shortages that followed 1916’s poor harvest fuelled rising popular discontent.   It is a measure of Italy’s rapid return to the political paralysis of internal conflict that the old man clung to office until a combination of economic chaos and military defeat finally saw him replaced by Orlando in October 1917.

On the surface, Boselli’s government changed nothing.  Italian politics and Italy’s conduct of the War staggered along the same old path with barely a pause to drink in the nectar of nationalist unity. But once experienced, the illusion of tribal togetherness against a common foe takes some shifting from the psyche, and while the fervour of August 1914 (or June 1916) could be absorbed into the political orthodoxies of long-established nations like Britain and France, it could warp the basic fabric of younger, less socially integrated or secure states like Germany or Italy.  Through the pain and disappointment of the next few years, to the end of the War and the peace that followed, Italian politics carried the imprint of June 1916, and recovery of national unity became a guiding principle for many Italians.

Boselli, who stayed alive until 1932, was a case in point.  He retained his parliamentary seat until 1921, when he moved to the upper house and took on the role of spokesman for a rising political leader whose brand of aggressive nationalism was designed to bind all Italians to a struggle against the rest of the world – Benito Mussolini.  Boselli was, as the world knows all too well, not alone.

So although there may not be much reason to commemorate Italy’s change of government a century ago, it seems to me we could do worse than pause to remember the mass psychology behind it, particularly at a time when nationalism’s illusions are poised to wreak havoc in Britain.

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