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Italy: the travails of a weak power in a great-power conflict

For discussion of issues relating to that great war
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Italy: the travails of a weak power in a great-power conflict

Post by cape_royds » Thu Aug 11, 2016 9:42 pm

This thread spawns from the Allied Offensive of 1916 thread. It's an interesting separate line of discussion.
Tubby wrote:Any insight into why Italy switched allies from one world war to the next?
Weaker powers often find themselves in a dangerous situation in the midst of a struggle between great powers. Italy in the world wars is a good example of the problems. Rumania, in both world wars, is also a good example. Indeed, the travails of Rumania will need to be discussed in the context of the 1916 Allied offensives.

Narratives from the great-power perspective tend to treat the war aims of minor powers in a sardonic, or even openly mocking, fashion. From the perspective of a century later, one can try to analyze things a bit differently.

Italy had joined the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary in order to get the Germanic powers to guarantee the borders of the recently established Italian nation-state. Remember that Italy's emergence had come partly at the expense of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Since Austria-Hungary depended on the German alliance, Italy could get some security for itself by relying on the Germans to impose a check on the Austrians.

One might ask, "if late 19th-cent. Italy feared Habsburg revanchism, then why didn't they just make an alliance with France or Britain?"

The answer is, "they wanted to, but couldn't." After the 1871 war, France is focused on its own national integrity, and only wants strong allies that can help fight Germany. The last thing France wanted was an alliance with a power that was too weak to offer much help, but which would extend France's liabilities. As for the British, at the time they were reluctant even to make an alliance with France, let alone with Italy.

But Italy had definitely not signed up to the Triple Alliance for the sake of advancing Prussian hegemony. Italy would not be the first target of that hegemony, nevertheless in the long-term a German hegemony could spell the end of real Italian independence. Italy was hoping for an indefinite continuation of the European balance of power.

In 1914 the Italians were correct in their interpretation of their treaty obligations. The Austrians had started the war with Serbia, and the Germans had started the war with France. Italy was not obliged to join them in those wars.

So that brings us to the next question, "why did Italy join the Entente in 1915?"

1. Economic Pressure. Italy heavily depends on imports to drive its own industrialization (remember that at the time Italy was a "developing country"). The British adopted a policy of freezing the imports of neutral countries to help prevent "leakage" of their blockade against Germany. Thus the adoption of neutrality in the war immediately drove Italy into an economic recession.

2. Geopolitical Fear. After the Central Powers failed to knock out France in 1914, and since there was no sign of a negotiated end to the war, in 1915 Italy found itself in an unexpected and perilous geopolitical position. The war was escalating, and the demands of the combatant powers were rising, rather than moderating. Somebody was going to win this war, and when it's over, they won't be very nice. Weak neutrals are going to get bossed around afterwards, by whoever wins. So safety does not lie in neutrality. The only safety lies in correctly choosing the side that is going to win.

In 1915, regarding the aggregate resources available to the two warring coalitions, it seemed more likely that the Entente would eventually prevail.

3. Inducements. The Entente was in a position to outbid the Central Powers. Austria-Hungary did offer some concessions to Italy, at German insistence. But Britain, France and Russia could offer more: Illyria and chunks of the Turkish empire.

But it is important to note that reason #3 is the last and least of the reasons why Italy joined the Entente. It was, however, the reason given the most publicity by Italian politicians.

Why? Not hard to understand. If you were an Italian politician, could you go to your people and say, "Hey everybody, go get killed because your fine government is scared shitless of what our world might look like, if we don't participate on the winning side!" Or how about this slogan: "Hey everybody, you can either get killed at the front, or languish in unemployment, because our heroic new allies have been blackmailing us!"

No. It's not surprising that in 1915, Italian politicians are all up on their little hind legs, yapping about the redemption of Trieste or Fiume. Irredentism was given prominence because it was the only positive war aim that an Italian politicians could offer their people.

Of course, the lashback at war's end promptly brought down the liberal regime. There is a price to be paid for lying to the citizenry in that flagrant a manner.

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Post by Jobar » Thu Aug 11, 2016 10:13 pm

Sounds like a reasonable analysis.

Would you agree that Italy's switch before the second war was mainly because of the shared political philosophy between Mussolini and Hitler?

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Post by cape_royds » Fri Aug 12, 2016 2:44 am

[quote=""Jobar""]Sounds like a reasonable analysis.

Would you agree that Italy's switch before the second war was mainly because of the shared political philosophy between Mussolini and Hitler?[/quote]

I'm not expert on interwar diplomacy. This is just my thinking on a question I only looked at briefly during an undergrad course in IR, twenty years ago (seems like yesterday...).

Until the mid-1930's, Fascist Italy had tolerably good relations with France and Britain. For example, Mussolini at first openly opposed the union of Germany and Austria (i.e. the "Stresa Front" of 1935). Mussolini had also earlier tried to resurrect the idea of a "concert of Europe" with his proposed Four Power Pact in 1933.

While approving of the fascist "regeneration" of the German nation internally, it seems clear that Mussolini was aware of the possible foreign policy consequences of the re-emergence of Germany as a great power.

It is more the case that the British and French were reluctant to ally with Italy, rather than the other way around. The Anglo-French attitude towards an Italian alliance against Germany is analogous to their attitude towards an alliance with the USSR against Germany (e.g. the stillborn Franco-Soviet Pact, 1935). Both Russia and Italy, at different times, expressed some willingness to revive the Entente. Ironically, the British and French felt reasonably confident that, even in an open armed conflict, they could counter Germany themselves, without needing to make the sorts of ugly compromises which would be entailed by forming a bigger alliance.

I think the first open breach of Mussolini with the Anglo-French came with the Italy's invasion of Abyssinia. The economic sanctions hurt Italy and drove them closer to the central European trading system which Schacht was arranging at the time.

After that, and also because of the Spanish Civil War, relations between Italy and Germany grew warmer through the mid and late '30's. Hitler was aware of the importance of Italy's flip on the Austrian issue--his gratitude for it was genuine, and adhered to right to very end.

Nevertheless, when the major war broke out in Sept. 1939, Italy remained neutral, despite the "Pact of Steel" made just a few months earlier. Mussolini abortively tried to mediate during the final crisis over the Danzig Corridor.

Italy did not enter the war until the outcome appeared foregone (June 1940). The Italian declaration came only after the Anglo-French main armies had been practically annihilated.

The case, at that point, perhaps wasn't too different from the "geopolitical fear" that Italy faced in 1915. In both 1914 and in 1939, Italy had been content with the European balance of power. But once the war got serious, and it was clear that there would be a lasting alteration to European affairs, there was a perceived imperative to join what seemed to be the side likeliest to win.

After the tide turned, compromise peace with the Allies was impossible for Mussolini himself, since the Allied War aims, from Feb. 1943, explicitly called for "unconditional surrender." The end of the Fascist regime was one of the specific Allied demands. That led to the political split between Mussolini loyalists and the mostly aristocratic officer corps. The latter launched a coup d'état after the defeat in Sicily (Sept. 1943). The new Italian government was able to reach a separate compromise peace, over Soviet objections, while a Fascist rump state remained under German protection in the north ("Salo Republic").

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