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Kingdom of Italy - Political Developments

The chief social and political events in the history of Italy from 1870 to 1914 were connected either with problems which grew out of the Industrial Revolution and therefore were common to all countries in a like stage of industrial development, or with problems which were incidental to the manner in which the peninsula was politically unified and were accordingly more or less peculiar to Italy. To the latter category belonged various administrative and governmental problems and likewise those involved in the curious new relations between the national Italian kingdom and the papacy.

From 1870 to 1876 the destinies of the Italian kingdom were presided over by a group of statesmen from the "Right" - a group whose chief electoral strength lay in Piedmont, Lombardy, and Tuscany, and whose main achievement had been the completion of national unification during the stormy days from 1859 to 1870. It was this group which ruthlessly imposed and collected taxes, reorganized the army and navy (1875) on a basis of compulsory military service, and betrayed again and again a latent hostility to democracy.

For a whole decade after 1876, with two short interruptions, the premiership was controlled by Agostino Depretis (1813-1887), The Rigime the leader of the Left. Under him the Sicilians and of the Left Neapolitans were favored at the expense of the Northern Italians, and the suffrage was radically extended (1882). Nevertheless Depretis proved himself as ardent a nationalist and as warm a friend of the industrial class as Cavour. He maintained the large army and strengthened the navy; he completed the railway system and leased it out to private operating companies;1 he formed the Triple Alliance Depretis, of Italy with Germany and Austria-Hungary (1882); l876-1887 and he initiated a colonial policy by the occupation of Massawa in Africa. His predecessors had made Italy a nation; he would make it a Great Power. Depretis practiced political corruption unparalleled in the history of the monarchy and inaugurated a system of government by factions arid sectional interests which long disgraced Italy.

The policies of Depretis were carried forward after his death (1887) by Francesco Crispi (1819-1901), a proud self-centered Sicilian who had once been a companion-in-arms of Garibaldi. Militarism was confirmed. The Triple l887-1896 Alliance was renewed. Imperialism was vigorously prosecuted in Eritrea and Somaliland. Dictatorial methods were employed to make public revenue and expenditures balance and to crush opposition whether from Clericals or from Socialists and Republicans. It was an ironical and tragic commentary on Crispi's policies that his downfall was occasioned by the decisive defeat which the Italian colonial troops suffered at the hands of the Abyssinians at Adowa (1896).

King Humbert, who had succeeded his remarkable father, Victor Emmanuel II, in 1878 and who had loyally supported both Depretis and Crispi, was assassinated (1900) by an Anarchist.

The passing of Crispi and King Humbert marked almost a new era in Italian politics. The new king, Victor Emmanuel III, was enlightened, amiable, and democratically-minded; and the statesmen who ments in served under him frankly accepted the more liberal policy that the country demanded.

The year 1903 marked a turning-point in the history of Italy. Up to this time the benefits of national existence had been but vaguely sensed by the majority of the Italian people. National unity, achieved by foreign aid, had failed to arouse the Italians to a realisation of their obligations in the realm of world politics. Concerned with domestic dissensions, the despised, silent, subservient partner of the Triple Alliance, Italy, had wallowed in a slough of political despondency. The history of the ensuing decade of Italian public affairs was largely that of one man, Giovanni Giolitti, "the dictator." To estimate fairly the capacity and character of a man who, by the use or rather abuse of power, was able to control the destiny of a great people through a long period of years, requires patient analysis. Few men have experienced such marked tokens of loyalty and public favour; few have been accused of such baseness, corruption, and crime.

As the Minister of the Interior appoints the Prefects and other local officials who are in a position to exercise absolute control over all elections, he is able to create for himself a personal following of Deputies who owe their election to the support given to them by the Government "machine." During the three General Elections which took place in 1904, 1909, 1913, Giolitti was each time in power. He saw to it that only docile candidates were elected. Bribery, corruption, and coercion, were resorted to when needed to secure the desired results. Within a few years he succeeded in breaking down completely the already feeble barriers of political parties; and thus freed from the trammels of party allegiance or political programmes, Giolitti was in a position to rule Italy as befitted his fancy. His despotism was, however, enlightened. His methods were simple. He endeavored to satisfy, in so far as possible, every one.

To satisfy the masses he reduced the length of the period of service of conscripts, and at the same tune increased the effectives of the army and navy to satisfy the upper classes. His maxim of government was to grant immediately every demand which was made upon him by insistent public clamour; to give way to all active currents of public opinion.

It is true that any reduction in armaments was steadfastly opposed and that colonial failure in Abyssinia was more than compensated for by success in a war against Turkey and in the accompanying occupation of Tripoli and Cyrenaica (1911-1912). It is also true that the interests of the industrial class were zealously safeguarded by means of protective tariffs and governmental bounties. Parallel with the growth of Italian commerce and industry from the close of the nineteenth century went new and increasing efforts on the part of the government to guarantee a minimum of comfort to the growing industrial proletariat.

In the general election of 1913 - the first under universal manhood suffrage - professed Clericals won 35 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, a gain of 14, besides securing from some 200 Moderate Monarchist members promises to oppose Anti-Clerical legislation. Middle-class Anti-Clerical Republicanism of the type championed in the first half of the nineteenth century by Mazzini and Garibaldi, despite its temporary eclipse by the success of the Monarchists in unifying the nation, had subsequently remained a political tradition with many Freemasons and other intellectual radicals. These Republicans sought any opportunity to embarrass the monarchy and to pave the way for the establishment of an Italian Republic.

In the elections of 1913 they lost six seats but still retained seventeen. In spite of chronic factional disputes and a virtual split of the Socialist party into the two groups of Marxists and Reformists, Socialism grew steadily in Italy. The election of 1913 returned 78 Socialists to the Chamber, a noteworthy gain for them, under universal manhood suffrage, of 37 seats. Dangerous to the government, disquieting to the Clericals, and a source of dissension to the Socialists was the comparatively rapid development among the industrial proletarians of revolutionary Syndicalism, with its strikes and violence and repugnance to governmental authority.




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