16 OCTOBER, 1914: Greed Kills

I think I’ve already mentioned this in an another context, and if I haven’t it’s time I did: once all the European nations known as ‘great powers’ had hastened to war in August 1914, and initial fighting on the three main fronts proved indecisive, strategists on both sides set about hunting for an edge by cultivating allies among the continent’s smaller powers.

In what was essentially a beauty contest, diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and Austria-Hungary (small countries generally knew better than to make alliances with Russia) worked to tempt neutral governments with promises to fulfil their territorial ambitions or to protect them from powerful enemies.  The biggest prizes on offer in 1914 were the Ottoman Empire, a former great power on the slide, and Italy, a would-be great power noisily and aggressively on the up. The Ottoman regime in Turkey was swiftly seduced into dependence on Berlin, but Italy played it canny during the War’s opening months and refused to be drawn into the conflict. The principal architect of Italy’s caution was a Sicilian nobleman, conservative foreign minister the Marquis di San Giuliano.  His death, a hundred years ago today, has been seen as a fatal turning point in the history of southern Europe.

Giuliano had been in his job since 1910, even then a very long time in Italian politics. He had inherited Italy’s diplomatic position as the partner of Germany and Austria in what was known as the Triple Alliance, and had overseen a policy of keeping Germany friendly while doing his best to obstruct all Austrian attempts at southward territorial expansion. Relations between Austria and Italy were extremely rocky by 1914, with both powers looking to gain influence in the Balkans and both claiming control over the hilly regions to the north of Venice.

It came as no real surprise to the rest of Europe when, on the outbreak of war in August, Giuliano refused to join the fighting alongside the Central Powers.  TheTriple Alliance only committed Italy to war in the event of an attack on its partners, and Guiliano had no trouble depicting the Austrian invasion of Serbia as an aggressive act. Increasingly sick, he spent the remaining weeks of his life playing diplomatic poker with the two belligerent power blocs, convincing them that Italy was biddable either way and securing promises of territorial gain from Berlin and London, while arguing at home that economic and military reform were needed before Italy was ready to fight a war.

Tug of world war...
Tug of world war…

And there’s the rub. Giuliano was cautious but fully committed to the idea of war, and as such he reflected the prevailing mood among contemporary Italians.

Italy was a young kingdom, fully unified as recently as 1870. Most of its ruling classes, most of its intellectual influences and most ordinary citizens shared the view that it belonged among the great powers of Europe. Expansion into Austria, the Balkans and North Africa was seen as essential to securing the country’s rightful status in terms of prestige and socioeconomic development. Better yet, it could be justified by Italy’s youthful vigour when compared to the crumbling, anachronistic empires that currently controlled those areas. Under these circumstances the outbreak of a general war in Europe, especially one that seemed likely to at least destabilise the Austro-Hungarian Empire, could only be seen as an opportunity. Broadly speaking, Italy’s governing classes were hell-bent on joining the War and profiting from it

Giuliano’s aims were no less warlike, but were founded on pragmatism. He worked to ensure that Italy joined the War when it was ready, joined when the fighting was easier, joined the winning side and received territorial rewards in the aftermath. After his death, passion, populism and greed gradually replaced his Realpolitik at the heart of Italian foreign policy, and the kingdom of Italy joined the War on the Allied side seven months later.

After a ghastly three-year campaign against the Austrians to the north. Italy did end up on the winning side and did gain territory at the end of the War, but at a material, socioeconomic and political cost that far exceeded anything the policy-makers of 1914 would have considered acceptable.  A little more of the restraint exercised by the smooth-talking, gout-ridden Sicilian in the summer and early autumn of 1914, and we might all have been spared the angry, volatile rogue Italy of the post-War era.

There you go; not a lot of people know that.

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