Modern history


Italy Leaves

ON APRIL 20, nine days before the Belgian ultimatum, Frances Stevenson was at the window of Lloyd George’s flat in the Rue Nitot looking across to Wilson’s house to see whether an emergency meeting of the Council of Four was still going on. It was Easter Sunday, a lovely spring day, and Lloyd George had promised her a picnic. “Suddenly Orlando appeared at the window, leaned on the bar which runs across it, & put his head in his hands. I thought it looked as though he was crying, but could not believe it possible until I saw him take out his handkerchief & wipe his eyes and cheeks.” Beside her, Lloyd George’s valet exclaimed, “What have they been doing to the poor old gentleman?”

Inside Wilson’s office, Clemenceau looked on coldly. The British were frozen with horror; Hankey said he would have spanked his own son for such a disgraceful display of emotion. The only person to make a move was Wilson, who went over to console the Italian prime minister, a particularly generous gesture given the animosity between the Americans and the Italians by this point.1

The most serious dispute to break out among the Allies at the Peace Conference had just reached an acute stage. This could not have happened at a worse time: with the German delegates about to arrive in Paris, it was essential that the peacemakers present a united front. Although Italy’s demands at the conference covered three vast regions—Africa, the Middle East and Europe—it was the port of Fiume, in the Adriatic, that caused the problem. The quarrel was over territory but it was also over principle, since the Italians wanted what they had been promised under the old diplomacy, while the Americans stood firm on the new. And it was a clash of personalities, between Wilson and the Italians, especially Sonnino, their foreign minister. The question was whether the peace meant sharing the loot, as the Americans said contemptuously, or drawing borders based on ethnic lines. The territories Italy wanted had either been promised it by Britain and France under the secret Treaty of London (which Wilson loathed) or were inhabited largely by Slavs (which violated the principle of self-determination), or both.

Orlando had hoped to avoid a confrontation. A product of the murky world of Italian politics, with its deals, arrangements and doling out of patronage, he was a Sicilian by birth and a lawyer by training who had always found that difficulties could be papered over with the right words. A short, square man, much given to gesturing, he took a straightforward pride in both his country and his family. In Paris, he boasted to a table of Americans that he had produced three children in thirty-one months; impossible, he said, to do it any faster. Nicolson wrote him off, unfairly, as “a white, weak, flabby man,” but Orlando had held his country together when it faced defeat.2

The war had been a tremendous strain for a society already divided between the prosperous, industrializing north and the agrarian, tradition-bound south. The great promise of the unification of the 1860s had not yet been realized. Italy’s economy had grown slowly and its brief forays into foreign affairs had been embarrassing or, in the case of its defeat by the Ethiopians at Aduwa (Adwa) in 1896, humiliating. Like Germany, another new nation, Italy had a political system with many enemies: Catholics whose church had not accepted the new state, radical socialists who despaired of reform within the existing structures, and right-wing nationalists who longed to replace the corrupt and boring status quo.

In the war, Italy, the poorest of the Great Powers, spent money it did not have. By 1919 it owed its allies the equivalent of £700 million ($3.5 billion) and wartime inflation was higher than in any country except Russia. On the Austro-Hungarian front, Italian soldiers, badly led and ill equipped, had been slaughtered as they fought uphill into the Alps. The army had collapsed at Caporetto in 1917; Italians blamed their generals but also the system. Over half a million men had died by 1918 and as many more were seriously wounded. What had it all been for? Already a phrase that was to become a commonplace—“the mutilated victory”—was being heard in Italy, and so was talk of revolution.

Liberals and moderate socialists withdrew their support from the government, appalled at what they saw as its profound cynicism, and Orlando increasingly had to rely on the nationalist right. He badly needed a triumph, or the appearance of one, in Paris. If Sonnino and his conservative friends were going to insist on the letter of the Treaty of London, then they were going to have to have it. If some nationalists wanted even more territory than Italy had been promised on the eastern side of the Adriatic, Fiume for example, then he would have to produce that as well. It was Orlando who came up with the formula that excited the nationalists and so infuriated Italy’s allies: “the Treaty of London plus Fiume.” He was as much surprised as anyone when Fiume became a matter of life and death to Italian nationalists and a sticking point for Wilson.3

Sonnino, the other strong figure in the Italian delegation, stood behind the Treaty of London (after all, he had negotiated it) but he had little interest in Fiume. “He was apprehensive,” in Lloyd George’s opinion, “lest Italy should sacrifice bigger things in the frenzy for this trivial claim.” He was to take the full blame, however, for Italy’s disastrous diplomacy in Paris. Orlando got off lightly, partly because, unlike Sonnino, he did not speak English well; most of the Americans and British did not understand what he was saying. And, as Lloyd George said, “he had an attractive and amiable personality which made him an extremely pleasant man to do business with.” Lloyd George also asserted, quite mistakenly, that “there was no fundamental difference of outlook or principle between him and President Wilson.” Orlando was “exceedingly popular” with the Americans as well. “If Orlando were here I think I could do something,” House wrote to Wilson, “but Sonnino is hopeless.” 4

In 1919 Sidney Sonnino was in his early seventies. With a shock of white hair, a large drooping mustache, deep-set eyes under beetling eyebrows, and a severe expression, he looked the very image of an old-style European statesman. In fact, he was something more: a Protestant in a largely Catholic country, an intellectual who wrote with passion about Dante’s Beatrice, and a brilliant polemicist. Born in Egypt to an Italian Jewish businessman and his Welsh wife, Sonnino was an outsider who moved into the heart of Italian politics. An old-fashioned liberal, he moved rightward over the years. He believed in helping the masses, but not in trusting them to help themselves. Before the war he served twice, briefly, as prime minister, gaining a grudging respect even from his enemies as an honest and disinterested politician. In 1914 he became foreign minister.

“Dour, rigid and intractable,” in Lloyd George’s words, he spoke badly and made few friends in Paris. He took pride—to the point of obsession, said a man who was by no means an enemy—in not being like others: “When, as a young diplomat before the war, I used to see him fairly often in his beautiful solitary house near the Trajan Forum, I could not help being unpleasantly struck by this guileless superiority complex of which he was the first victim.” Yet there was another side to Sonnino. He had loved deeply and unsuccessfully when he was young. “Who can and who should love this nonentity lacking all physical and moral attraction?” he wrote in his diary. “What I would not give for a bit of affection! Only affection can assuage this black fever that consumes me, that makes me hateful to myself, that renders me incapable of every serious and prolonged enterprise.” When the negotiations in Paris went badly, he confided to his secretary that he felt physically sick.5

Sonnino’s view of international relations was Bismarckian: he believed that nations were motivated by what another Italian foreign minister had called “sacred egoism” and that politics was above all about power. As an Italian nationalist, Sonnino wanted security for his country; that meant land, alliances, deals, the acquisition of friends against possible enemies. Clemenceau once reproached him for “remaining too faithful to the Italian method of which the grand master was Machiavelli and not presenting clear solutions.”6 Sonnino did not trust talk of principles or morality or openness in international relations, and he failed to grasp that others did.

When the war broke out, Italy was allied to its old enemy Austria-Hungary and to Germany. Under the terms of the Triple Alliance, however, Italy was only obliged to defend its allies if they were attacked first. The Italians used the fact that Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia as reason to remain neutral. There was little enthusiasm in Italy at that stage for entering a conflict that seemed to have little to do with Italy’s interests. Sonnino, along with a small minority of his compatriots, inclined toward the Central Powers. He assumed that they would win, a reasonable enough assumption and, in any case, he preferred a Europe dominated by conservative powers. Most Italians, however, were for neutrality. It was only as the war dragged on that the great division opened up between those who kept to neutrality, mostly conservatives but also part of the radical left, and the increasing numbers who argued for intervention on the Allied side. The second group was a strange mix—liberals and republicans, but also socialists and rabid nationalists—and it was going to fall apart over Italy’s war aims. After much deliberation, Sonnino decided that intervention on the Allied side was Italy’s best option.

He changed his mind because it was the sensible thing to do. In 1915, when he started negotiations, the Allies appeared to be doing quite well. Moreover, they were prepared to offer Italy a better deal than the Central Powers, mainly because what Italy wanted was Austro-Hungarian territory. The Allies, for their part, were anxious to break the deadlock of the Western Front by attacking the enemy elsewhere. Italy’s entry would shift the naval balance in the Mediterranean decisively in their favor and an attack by the Italian army against Austria-Hungary promised to inflict severe damage on the weaker partner in the Central Powers.

Sonnino did not want to see Austria-Hungary utterly defeated; indeed, he never imagined that it might disappear altogether. He felt no particular animosity to the Central Powers; he joined the Allies because that seemed the best way to get the territory that Italy needed. Sonnino always took care to distinguish Italy’s war from the more general one. As he said in 1917: “If a lasting peace is to be assured, it is necessary that Italy obtain secure national frontiers—an indispensable condition for her full independence.” In 1918, shortly after Wilson had announced his Fourteen Points, Sonnino said pointedly that “an underhand campaign of foreign propaganda has attempted to insinuate that Italian aspirations are inspired by conceptions of imperialism, of anti-democracy, of anti-nationalism, etc. This is all absolutely false.” On the contrary, Italy’s claims on Austrian territory were solidly based on “ethnography and legitimate defence by land and sea.” Italians, he said, looked forward to good relations with their neighbors.7

During the war the European Allies, always willing to give away territory that was not theirs, promised the completion of Italy’s national dream, as the popular slogan in Italy had it, from Trento to Trieste, across the vulnerable northeastern border that Austria-Hungary had menaced since Italy’s birth. But in 1915, when the Treaty of London was drawn up, the British and the French threw in more: islands and a stretch of Dalmatia along Austria-Hungary’s Adriatic coast; the port of Vlorë in Albania (Italian: Valona) as well as a protectorate over central Albania; the Dodecanese islands along the coast of Asia Minor; and shares of the Ottoman empire if it disappeared. (This caused a certain amount of difficulty at the Peace Conference, because Lloyd George had also promised part of the same territory, around Smyrna, to Greece.) Italy would have the same rights as Britain and France in the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea. To Sonnino the Treaty of London represented a solemn agreement; for Britain and France by 1919 it had become an embarrassment.

The British and the French felt, rightly or wrongly, that Italy had not contributed much to the Allied victory. Italy’s armies had delayed their attack on Austria-Hungary, and then made a mess of it. Italian ships had rarely ventured out of port, despite repeated promises to patrol the Mediterranean and Adriatic. The Italian government had squeezed resources out of its hard-pressed allies which it had then refused to use in the war effort. As Clemenceau put it, “the Italians met him with a magnifique coup de chapeau of the seventeenth century type, and then held out the hat for alms at the end of the bow.” The attitude to Italy in Paris, the British ambassador reported, “has been one of supreme contempt up to now and now it is one of extreme annoyance. They all say that the signal for an armistice was the signal for Italy to begin to fight.” 8

Having bribed Italy to join the war with the promise of territory, Britain and France were outraged when their new ally continued to show what Lloyd George called “that huxtering spirit.” When Italian armies moved rapidly at the end of the war to occupy all the territory, and more, that Italy had been promised around the Adriatic, Pichon, the French foreign minister, complained at length to the British ambassador that the Italian troops were deliberately provoking trouble with the local Slav population. “They would relish bloodshed as it would enable them to keep hold of territory which would certainly not be given to them by any Treaty of Peace.” 9

The likelihood, indeed by December 1918 the certainty, that Serbia would form some sort of state with the South Slav peoples of Austria-Hungary, was a fresh source of strain between Italy and its allies. Britain and France, for their own reasons, were sympathetic to the new state. Surely Italy could see that in the changed circumstances it no longer made sense to claim South Slav territory. After all, the promises had been based on the assumption that Austria-Hungary would still exist at the end of the war. It had made sense to deprive an enemy of its ports and naval bases. It did not make sense now to do the same to a friendly nation. “Every effort should be made,” the British War Cabinet concluded, “to persuade Italy to take up a reasonable attitude on these questions.” Clemenceau talked several times to Orlando to try to persuade him to give up the Treaty of London. 10

The Italian government was not prepared to do so. Public opinion in Italy would have made it difficult. While liberals, faithful to the spirit of the great Giuseppe Mazzini, had hoped for the liberation of oppressed peoples, especially those under the tyranny of Italy’s own former oppressor, most Italians saw the Croats and Slovenes as enemies who had fought loyally for Austria-Hungary and would probably do so again given the chance. When Italian forces moved in to occupy Croatia and Slovenia at the end of the war, they acted more as conquerors than as liberators. And were the Serbs any more trustworthy? General Pietro Badoglio, second-in-command of the Italian army, warned his government that the Croats and Slovenes, who were cleverer than the Serbs, would end up dominating them. Consequently he drew up an elaborate plan, which Sonnino and Orlando approved in December 1918, to destroy Yugoslavia and cement Italian control over the eastern side of the Adriatic by stirring up conflict among the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and between peasants and their landlords. In Bosnia, Badoglio suggested, religious divisions could be used. He already had agents in place. Even ordinary Italian soldiers could do their bit by seducing the “susceptible” local women. 11

The Italian navy had much the same attitude. It was furious when the Habsburg emperor, in one of his last acts, turned over his Adriatic navy and the huge naval base at Pula (Italian: Pola) to a provisional Yugoslav committee. The following day an Italian torpedo boat darted into Pula and sank the dreadnought Viribus Unitis, the pride of the Austrian navy, killing its Yugoslav captain and crew. After strenuous Italian objections, the remainder of the fleet was surrendered to the Allies, and Italian forces occupied Pula. The next months saw increasing friction between the Italian navy and the Allies, especially the Americans, over the Italian treatment of the local Slavs. The Italians defended themselves in a lengthy memorandum which argued that nature had played a cruel trick on Italy; while the western side of the Adriatic had few harbors and no natural defenses, “a wonderful advanced barrier of reefs and islands” protected the other side. “On the east, the sea is clear and deep and mines can be used with difficulty; on the west, the waters are muddy and shallow and seem made on purpose to favour the terribly insidious work of submarine weapons.” It was quite simply a necessity for Italy to get that territory on the eastern side.12

The nationalists had still more arguments. Italy could not leave scattered Italian communities to the mercies of the Slavs. The press carried alarming, and untrue, stories of Italian women and children being murdered in the cities of Istria and along the Dalmatian coast. “Yugoslav oppression cuts the throats of the Italian population in Dalmatia and terrorizes them.” Learned professors asserted that “what in Dalmatia is not Italian is barbaric!” The Italian military commander in Dalmatia was kinder: “This population is fundamentally good, good as simple and primitive people are. But the simple and primitive peoples are also extremely sensitive and suspicious and violent in their impulses.” Italy’s civilizing mission was clear. Italian newspapers ran photographs of local peasants going to church with the explanation that they were on their way to pay homage to the commander of the Italian forces, or of queues for food which, it was said, were Slavs lining up to demand that Italy stay.13

As 1918 came to an end, in Rome, Genoa and Naples enthusiastic crowds turned out on pro-Dalmatia days. The American ambassador believed that the government was behind the demonstrations. Sonnino said firmly, the ambassador reported, that Italy must put its safety in the Adriatic above all else and that meant controlling territory, not protection by a League of Nations. “Even the police required that people whom they protected should shut their doors in the evening so as at least to keep out intruders until the police could be summoned.” Sonnino, like Orlando, thought Wilson’s ideas foolish. “Is it possible to change the world from a room, through the actions of some diplomats? Go to the Balkans and try an experiment with the Fourteen Points.” 14

The Italian government did its best to bring its allies around to its way of thinking. In London in December 1918, Orlando told the British and the French that the Yugoslavs were carrying out “a veritable persecution” of Italians; Italian soldiers were being attacked, Italian women molested for wearing the Italian colors. He was firmly opposed to recognizing the new Yugoslav state. Britain and France reluctantly acquiesced. They felt obliged to respect the Treaty of London, but they did so resentfully. As Robert Cecil wrote to Britain’s ambassador in Italy, “the fact is that the greediness of Italian foreign policy in all directions is leading Italy into serious difficulties. . . . The Yugoslavs have claimed far more than is their just due, but Sonnino’s stubbornness and the extravagant nature of Italy’s claims have had as a result that it is now literally true that Italy has not a friend in Europe except ourselves, and she is doing her best to make her isolation complete.”15

That left the Americans. Wilson may have been shaky on some of the details of Italy’s claims (apparently he thought at first that Trieste was a German city), but he knew where he stood on principles. He had made it clear that the United States was not bound by secret agreements. (The American president had been shown the Treaty of London during the war, although he later persuaded himself that he had never seen it.) His legal experts argued, and he agreed, that when Italy had sought armistices with the Central Powers on the basis of the Fourteen Points, it had implicitly accepted that these superseded the Treaty of London. The Fourteen Points had promised that “a readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.” That would give Italy part of what it wanted on its northeast frontier but not much of Istria and none of Dalmatia. In the armistice negotiations, Orlando tried unsuccessfully to get on record an Italian reservation to the effect that Italy’s frontiers must also take into account security needs. The Italians later claimed that their reservation had been noted; the Americans insisted that it had not.16

Orlando and Sonnino nevertheless awaited Wilson’s arrival in Europe with considerable optimism. House encouraged them to think of the United States as a friend and, as Wilson’s representative, he allowed the armistice with Austria-Hungary to be drawn up in such a way that Italian troops would be occupying all the territory promised under the Treaty of London. He advised Sonnino on negotiating techniques. If Italy waited to present its demands until Britain and France had gained what they wanted, it would be hard for the Peace Conference to refuse. “I did this,” House confided to his diary, “in a spirit of sheer devilry. I shall enjoy being present when Sonnino and Orlando make their argument based upon the British and French claims.” The Italians were also receiving misleading advice from Baron Macchi di Cellere, their ambassador in Washington, a man with an extraordinary capacity to ignore the facts, who assured them that Wilson was sympathetic to Italy and its aims. “A good man,” Orlando admitted, “but absolutely inferior to the task and . . . the reason why we Italians went to the Conference in complete ignorance of Wilson’s real sentiments.” The American ambassador in Rome reported, “Baron Sonnino knows about America so little that it might almost be termed nothing and I do not believe that he is greatly in accord with what is our master motive.”17

Wilson was inclined to be suspicious of the Italians, who, as he saw it, had gone into the war in a spirit of “cold-blooded calculation.” One of the first things he did on arriving in Paris in December 1918 was to send for a copy of the Treaty of London. He met Sonnino and Orlando for the first time a few days before Christmas and had a long discussion of Italy’s claims in the Adriatic. The Italians thought the meeting went well. The British ambassador, who talked to Wilson the following day, had a different impression: “He is very anti-Italian. . . . He was sick to death of Orlando and Sonnino and all their ways and he particularly did not want to have any conversation with them.” With the delay in starting the Peace Conference, Wilson agreed to pay a state visit to Rome. This, sadly, only deepened the misunderstandings.18

He was received by enormous and enthusiastic crowds. “I had the impression of finding myself among real friends,” Wilson observed. He concluded, mistakenly, that the people of Italy were behind his program. “The President said,” reported his doctor, “that he felt the people of the country were primarily interested in bringing about a peace which would insure them against another war, such as they had just gone through. He felt that they had hit upon the league of nations idea as the means to the end desired.” Four months later, when his relations with the Italian government were at their worst, he was to appeal directly to the Italian people.

For his part, Orlando persisted in his optimism. “I believe in Wilson and his ideas,” he cheerfully told a friend. “I accept Wilsonianism in as much as it includes the rights and the interests of Italy.” Sonnino was more suspicious. Wilson returned the feeling; Sonnino was, he concluded, “as slippery as an eel or an Italian.” On January 13, Wilson informed Orlando that he had decided the Treaty of London was no longer valid. There the matter stood for some weeks, while the Supreme Council busied itself with the League of Nations and such difficult issues as whether the Bolsheviks should be invited to Paris.19

The Italian delegation settled in to the luxurious Hôtel Edward VII, near the Opéra. Only one delegate had been allowed to bring his wife, perhaps because he was very recently married. There was one telephone, and delegates needed Orlando’s permission to use it. The delegation itself mirrored the political divisions in the government. “A little bit of Rome transported to Paris with all its attendant faults, alas” was the way one of the younger members described it. “Lack of organization, a prevalence of parliamentary alchemy (present and future) in the choice of staff, gossip and backbiting.”20

It was not, it was widely agreed, a strong or effective delegation. As Macchi di Cellere, now brought over from Washington to lend his dubious assistance, explained grandly to an American, “Italy has no propaganda of her own; she is too old a country and too proud a race.” Few of its members developed the informal contacts with other delegations that the British and the Americans did. Among the delegation’s leaders, Antonio Salandra, a former prime minister, worried mainly about his health, while Orlando was affable but distracted. Sonnino remained aloof and secretive, guarding information even when it might have helped his fellow delegates. In his spare time he went for solitary walks. He refused to lobby on Italy’s behalf: “To resort to such methods would be to sink to the level of the small nations which went around begging territory from world opinion.” His relations with Orlando worsened as the months went on. There were furious scenes in which the normally controlled Sonnino went purple with rage.21

Divided among themselves, the Italians were also mistrustful of their allies. “They considered,” said a British diplomat, “they were not being treated as equals by the other Powers; they were attacked and criticized on all sides; they were told what was good for them, but not taken into real discussions.” Wilson, sniffed Sonnino, was a specie di clergyman, the United States, in Macchi di Cellere’s word, a “usurer” which wanted to dictate the peace. Toward the end of January, Wickham Steed reported that Wilson had had “a stormy interview” with Sonnino, “who seems to have lost his temper and to have gone to the length of telling Wilson not to meddle in European affairs but to stick to his American last.” 22

Among the Europeans, the Italians got on best with the British. Orlando admired Lloyd George: “His Celtic blood made him like us Mediterraneans in cleverness.” And there was little to divide their two countries. That was not the case with France. Italy owed its unification to France, but there was a feeling that France had exacted a high price when it took Nice and Savoy. Both countries aspired to be Mediterranean powers, and before the war they had clashed over Tunisia and Morocco. Italy had joined the Triple Alliance partly to find allies against France. As for those measurements which so preoccupied the world’s statesmen, Italy lagged behind France in steel, coal and population production.

1. Woodrow Wilson’s triumphal arrival in Paris before the start of the Peace Conference. His promise to establish a League of Nations to end war and to allow self-determination for nations raised tremendous expectations in Europe and farther afield, but disillusionment soon followed.

2. Georges Clemenceau (center) and David Lloyd George (right ), prime ministers of France and Britain, walk past a guard of honor. (The gentleman with them may be Lord Beaverbrook.) Both men had held their countries together during the war. They came to the peace negotiations with much public support but also a heavy burden of expectations.

3. David Lloyd George (center) and the British empire delegation, which caused him considerable trouble at the Peace Conference. General Jan Smuts, the influential South African foreign minister, is second from the left. Lloyd George is flanked by Arthur Balfour, his foreign secretary ( left), and the dyspeptic Billy Hughes of Australia (right). Winston Churchill is to the right of the table, and Henry Wilson, Lloyd George’s cynical military adviser, stands behind his left shoulder.

4. The seating plan at the Peace Conference. Thirty-two countries, from belligerents to neutrals, were invited to send delegates to Paris. The full Peace Conference met only eight times, which led to much grumbling from the smaller powers.

5. The real work of the conference was undertaken by special commissions and committees or by these four men and their advisers. From left to right: David Lloyd George (Britain),Vittorio Orlando (Italy), Georges Clemenceau (France) and Woodrow Wilson (United States). Until March they met, along with their foreign ministers and two Japanese delegates ( Japan was included among the Great Powers as a courtesy), as the Supreme Council or Council of Ten.

6. The race between peacemaking and revolution. While some commentators, then and since, have argued that the peacemakers were moved primarily by a fear of Russian Bolshevism, this is an oversimplification.The peacemakers were concerned about the spread of anarchy and about economic collapse in the center of Europe, but they also had considerable faith in their own ability to set the world right.

7. Woodrow and Edith Wilson at the races at St. Cloud. Although the Peace Conference was hard work, there was also time for relaxation.

8. Georges Clemenceau, the radical gadfly turned Father of Victory. Aged seventy-seven, he was the oldest of the Big Four. Although he recovered from an assassination attempt partway through the Peace Conference, some felt that he was never the same again.

9. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, French commander-in-chief and Supreme Allied Commander. He attacked Clemenceau for compromising too much on the German terms and in particular for accepting an Anglo-American guarantee to come to France’s defense against a future German attack instead of holding out for French control of German territories west of the Rhine.

10. An artist’s impression of the crowds waiting outside the French Foreign Ministry at the Quai d’Orsay to catch a glimpse of the peacemakers.

11. The peacemakers’ chauffeurs.

12. When Woodrow Wilson returned in March 1919 from his brief trip to the United States, and David Lloyd George came back from London, it was decided to speed up the work of the Peace Conference by scrapping the Council of Ten in favor of a smaller and more informal group.The Council of Four, as it was known, generally met in Wilson’s study. From left to right: Orlando, Lloyd George, Clemenceau,Wilson.

13. The peacemakers were besieged by petitioners. One of the more glamorous was Queen Marie of Rumania, who arrived in Paris with a large entourage, a huge wardrobe and demands for about half of Hungary.

14. Among the many peoples who looked to the Peace Conference to redress their grievances were the Poles, whose country had been carved up by its neighbors at the end of the eighteenth century.The collapse of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary by 1918 gave Poland its chance. Ignace Paderewski, the great pianist who became the newborn country’s first prime minister, did much to win it support from the powers.

15. While Paderewski worked in Paris, General Józef PiƗsudski struggled in Warsaw to re-create the Polish state and build a Polish army. Though his territorial ambitions did not extend as far as those of some Polish patriots, he nevertheless seized parts of southern Lithuania and moved eastward into Byelorussia and Ukraine, thereby clashing with the Bolsheviks.

16. Béla Kun, the Hungarian communist whose seizure of power in Budapest in March 1919 caused alarm in Paris. General Smuts, sent by the peacemakers on a fact-finding mission, concluded that Kun was unlikely to survive in office for long. In August 1919, the Hungarian was forced to flee as his enemies plotted against him and Hungary’s neighbors Czechoslovakia and Rumania started to seize Hungarian territory.

17. The Arab delegation to the Peace Conference: Prince Feisal (front ), who hoped for an independent Arab state under his family’s rule, and, to his left,T. E. Lawrence in the Arab headdress that so infuriated the French. In spite of their wartime promises, neither the British nor the French were prepared to relinquish control of the Middle East, and the Arabs came to regard the Peace Conference as yet another betrayal by the Western powers.

18. The Italian prime minister,Vittorio Orlando, with stick in hand, leaves the Peace Conference. In April 1919, the Italians reached an impasse with their allies over Italy’s claims in the Adriatic, in particular to the port of Fiume (Rijeka).Wilson refused to give way. The Italian walkout threatened the whole conference, because the Germans were about to be summoned to receive their terms.

19. Fiume, a small port at the head of the Adriatic where Slavs slightly outnumbered Italians, became a major nationalist issue in Italy. Having seized the city in September 1919, the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio remained there for fifteen months, defying his own government and making interminable nationalist speeches. Mussolini, the future Italian dictator, learned much from his example.

20. Eleutherios Venizelos, the Greek prime minister, who dreamed of a Greater Greece incorporating much of the old Ottoman empire. His enormous charm won him much support in Paris, especially from Lloyd George. As a result, Greece gained the European remnants of the Ottoman empire in Thrace and was allowed to send an army to occupy the largely Greek port of Smyrna (Izmir) on the coast of Asia Minor.

21. The peacemakers drew up a punitive treaty with the Ottoman empire, signed at Sèvres in 1921, but overlooked the awakening force of Turkish nationalism, which had by now found a leader in the distinguished general Kemal Atatürk.

22. Turkish crowds cheer the capture of Smyrna from the Greeks in 1922, which marked the end of Venizelos’s dreams and of the Greek presence in what became modern Turkey.

23. Lord Curzon, foreign secretary after September 1919, watched Lloyd George’s support for Greek ambitions with consternation and later had to negotiate a new treaty with the Turks to replace the collapsed Treaty of Sèvres.

24. The Turkish delegation to Lausanne in 1922–23. General Ismet, walking stick in hand, was Atatürk’s trusted representative; he drove Curzon to distraction with his refusal to budge from his negotiating position.A treaty was eventually signed in 1923 that left Turkey in its present form.

25. The Peace Conference drew up treaties with the defeated powers of Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Ottoman Turkey, but that with Germany proved difficult. Because of disagreements among the Allies, what was to have been a preliminary meeting before negotiating with the enemy gradually turned into the Peace Conference proper. The German terms were not ready until May 1919. Count Ulrich Brockdorff-Rantzau (third from right) was Germany’s foreign minister and leader of its delegation.The Germans never forgave the Allies for simply imposing their terms and declining to negotiate seriously.

26. An enormous protest demonstration in Berlin.The Germans were horrified by the peace terms, which they saw as a betrayal of a pledge they felt they had received from the Allies at the time of the armistice: that the peace would be negotiated on the basis of Wilson’s new diplomacy, with no unjust retribution.The banner demands “Only the Fourteen Points,” a reference to Wilson’s famous speech.

27. The peacemakers made only a few minor changes in the terms in response to German objections and comments.They also gave the German government a deadline for signing, which plunged Germany into a political crisis. In Paris, Allied preparations for either the signing of the treaty or a resumption of the war went ahead. Here, French soldiers move furniture at the great palace at Versailles in preparation for the signing.

28. On June 23, 1919, shortly before the Allied deadline expired, the German government finally agreed to sign.The ceremony was scheduled for June 28 and there was a scramble for tickets. Some of those who could not get into the Hall of Mirrors were forced to peer through the windows.

29. The scene inside the Hall of Mirrors as the Treaty of Versailles was signed. The location had great significance for the French because it was here that the new nation of Germany had been proclaimed after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71.

“Throughout the whole of my negotiations with the Italians,” Lloyd George recalled, “I found that their foreign policy was largely influenced by a compound mixture of jealousy, rivalry, resentment, but more particularly, fear of France.”23 For France it was not so much a matter of fear (although there was some concern over the Italian birthrate) but of condescension tinged with contempt.

In December 1918, after the Allied meetings in London, Orlando and Sonnino had traveled to Paris with Clemenceau. “We did not see them a single time in the course of the long journey,” reported Clemenceau’s aide, “and, at the Gare du Nord, they disappeared without taking leave of M. Clemenceau, who was not only quite astonished but even quite offended.” Clemenceau had a grudging respect for Sonnino but little use for Orlando: “all things to all men, very Italian.”24

The collapse of Austria-Hungary opened up fresh areas for rivalry as France and Italy competed for influence in the center of Europe. In the Adriatic, France was torn between befriending Yugoslavia and keeping on reasonable terms with Italy. “I am so bored with Adriatic matters,” wrote a French diplomat. “All the same we shouldn’t abandon the Yugoslavs. They are as unreasonable as these others, but they are weak. How stupid they are in Rome!” As Clemenceau said wearily one day, much to Orlando’s indignation, “My god, my god! Italy or Yugoslavia? The blonde or the brunette?” By April 1919 Clemenceau had gone firmly for the brunette. He was furious that the Italians had not supported France over the Saar or the issue of trying Germans for war crimes. He also took for granted that he had room to maneuver because, in the end, Italy would have to remain friendly to France.25

Orlando and Sonnino, suspicious of their allies, hostile to their Yugoslav neighbor and caught in an uneasy alliance which neither dared break for fear of bringing their government down, plowed on. Like a bomb with a slow-burning fuse, the official Italian memorandum went to the Peace Conference on February 7. It is an interesting document which, although it scarcely mentions the Treaty of London, repeats its provisions virtually unchanged, decked out this time in the ill-fitting clothes of the new diplomacy. “The Italian claims,” it started, “show such a spirit of justice, right-fulness, and moderation that they come entirely within the principles enunciated and approved by President Wilson and should therefore be recognised and approved by everybody.” Italy’s demands were based almost entirely on self-determination, for Italians of course; the few small instances where it claimed land inhabited by other peoples were solely to make secure borders.26

Orlando and Sonnino concentrated, to the dismay of their own colonialists, on Europe. The Italian Colonial Ministry had thrown itself enthusiastically into preparing grand schemes, particularly for Africa. For Italian nationalists, the “year of shame” of 1896, with the defeat at Aduwa, could be wiped out only by conquest. Britain and France must stand aside, the colonial minister, Gaspare Colosimo, urged his government, and allow Italy to have exclusive influence over Ethiopia. Furthermore, in order to cement Italy’s control over the routes from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean into Ethiopia, Britain should add its share of Somalia to the piece already in Italian hands and hand over the northeast part of Kenya. France should relinquish its tiny piece of Somalia, as well as the railway from the port of Djibouti into Addis Ababa. Colosimo also dreamed of a Libya enlarged by territory from British-run Egypt and from French possessions and, if the Portuguese colonies went begging, of acquiring Angola as well. Just before the end of the war he sent a memorandum to Balfour and House outlining these goals. The wording was carefully chosen to sound Wilsonian; the impact, however, was to leave an impression of Italian greed.27

Orlando and Sonnino were not prepared to push the African claims strongly in Paris and it is unlikely that Britain and France would have paid much attention. They briskly divided up the German colonies without consulting Italy and, as for handing over their own territory to Italy, each country expressed itself perfectly willing to do so as long as the other did. The Italians were left with yet another grievance and yet another frustrated dream. 28 Mussolini subsequently found that useful.

In Europe, the only one of Italy’s claims that was settled easily was for a piece of Austria-Hungary south of the Brenner Pass, the South Tyrol and below that the Trentino. The Trentino, which was largely Italian-speaking, was not a problem, but the Tyrol was overwhelmingly German. The Tyrolese protested at the partition of a province with a long history of self-government. So did the government of the new state of Austria: “It is actually the Tyrol, till now, except Switzerland, the most burning centre of liberty and resistance to all foreign domination, which will be sacrificed to strategic considerations, as an offering on the altar of militarism.” The Italians argued that Italy could be safe only if it held the land sloping up to the Brenner Pass. “Any other boundary to the south would merely be an artificial amputation entailing the upkeep of expensive armaments contrary to the principles by which Peace should be inspired.” Wilson, perhaps to show the Italians that he could be reasonable, let them know before the Peace Conference opened that he would not object to the change in Italy’s northern frontier. His fellow peacemakers acquiesced. Lloyd George briefly worried about the Tyrol, according to House, because he had once been on holiday there and it was one of the few parts of the continent he knew well. Wilson later regretted that he had handed over so many German-speaking Tyrolese—250,000 of them, to Italian rule. So did they, especially after 1922, when the Fascists decided to make them Italian. Suddenly, schools and government offices were run in Italian; children could not be given names that “offended Italian sentiment.” It was only in the vastly changed Italy and Europe of the 1970s that the Tyrol finally regained some of its old autonomy.29

Wilson was prepared to accept an injustice to the Germans of the Tyrol but he would not accept Italy’s claims where they ran up against those of the Yugoslavs. Outside the cities, the population along the eastern side of the Adriatic was almost entirely Slav: about 750,000 Croats, Slovenes, Serbs and Bosnians. Nevertheless, the Italians wanted to move the old border with Austria-Hungary between fifty and one hundred kilometers east into what is today Slovenia and Croatia, and south down the Dalmatian coast toward Split (Italian: Spalato). The result would take in the whole of the Istrian peninsula, including the naval base at Pula and Austria-Hungary’s two major ports of Trieste and Fiume, with their railway links to central Europe; several key islands at the northeast end of the Adriatic; and chunks of Dalmatia around the cities of Zadar (Italian: Zara) and Šibenik (Italian: Sebenico). Italy also wanted Albania’s port of Vlorë in the south. With these gains, Italy would dominate the Adriatic, and the new state of Yugoslavia would be left with a short coast, no decent port and only one railway line between the sea and the interior. This was precisely what Italy intended.

The Italians did not, of course, use that argument in Paris. They talked of strategic needs and they called on history. “The whole of Dalmatia was united to Italy in the centuries of Rome and Venice, for its own good fortune and the world’s peace.” They pointed to the Venetian lions, the Catholic churches, the Roman columns dotting the piazzas along the coast, the persistence of the Italian language despite Austrian oppression. They talked of the fearful injustice if Italians were made subject to “semi-barbaric” Slavs.30

Disturbing stories, however, were reaching Paris: tales of deportations of Slav nationalists, of arbitrary arrests, of Slav newspapers closed down and Yugoslav railway lines cut. A British officer sent a furious note to Balfour: “Dalmatia was being starved and the Italians only supplied food to those who signed a declaration of loyalty to Italy.” Hoover, in charge of the Allied relief effort, reported that the Italian authorities were holding up food shipments in Trieste and that on February 22 they had suddenly stopped all communications to the interior. “This not only isolates the Jugo-Slavs but cuts off the principal railway into Austria and CzechoSlovakia.” Wilson agreed with Hoover’s conclusion that “the stoppage of American foodstuffs to starving people cannot be used as a political weapon” and accepted his recommendation that the United States retaliate by withholding aid to Italy. The issue poisoned Italian-American relations for the rest of the Peace Conference.31

Initially the Americans, with support from the British and French, encouraged Italy and Yugoslavia to work out their own border. The Yugoslavs were more than willing, they said, to compromise. Perhaps Wilson could arbitrate any areas of disagreement. The Italian delegation was appalled. Orlando confided to an American that “though the Southern Slav proposal embarrassed him horribly, he could not find a good reason for refusing it.” In an interview with Wilson, he “moaned and wept, said that the Southern Slavs had taken him by the throat, but finally promised to give a reply as soon as he had been able to consult the King and his colleagues in Rome.” When Wilson was on his way back to the United States in February, the Italians rejected his arbitration, claiming that they had done so only because the Yugoslavs, “in a brutal manner,” had published the proposal prematurely. 32

It was clear from the moment the Peace Conference opened that the Italians were in no mood to compromise with the Yugoslavs or anyone else. They refused to let anything affecting Italy’s borders go to committees of experts. Clemenceau complained after a meeting in March: “This afternoon Orlando inflicted on us an interminable discourse to lay out Italy’s demands and to indicate which frontiers he thought were necessary and just.” And then “we had to submit to a second speech, no less boring from Sonnino.” The covenant of the League of Nations and the German peace terms were worked out with scarcely a murmur from the Italians. (Orlando later argued, unconvincingly, that this was because Italy felt excluded. 33)

Italy’s tactics were irritating, transparent and frequently inept. It opposed Yugoslavia’s claims to territory from Bulgaria and Hungary and supported Rumania over the Banat. It sold arms to Hungary, and even signed a secret agreement with the government of the despised Béla Kun. Foolishly, Sonnino pushed Greece closer to Yugoslavia by refusing to consider Greek claims in Albania and by trying to hang on to the predominantly Greek Dodecanese islands along the coast of Asia Minor, which it had been occupying since the end of the Balkan wars. Sonnino petulantly refused to receive Venizelos when the Greek prime minister asked for an appointment. On committees the Italians were invariably anti-Yugoslav and doggedly uncooperative. If pressed, they usually claimed that their government had not given them instructions. Eyre Crowe from the British Foreign Office remonstrated with an Italian diplomat, who said merely, “You would not talk to us alone when we came to London in December, and you will not talk to us or make arrangements with us in Paris, and consequently we are not going to express any opinions on these questions.”34

When the Italian demands finally came up for decision in April, the other powers were markedly less sympathetic. Bismarck’s famous remark that Italy’s appetite was invariably bigger than its teeth was quoted appreciatively. “The Italians,” wrote Balfour wearily, “must somehow be mollified, and the only question is how to mollify them at the smallest cost to mankind.” By now, the Italian delegates were desperate. Orlando was convinced, or so he said, that a secret society had pledged to kill him if he returned to Italy without Dalmatia. The nationalist press was campaigning ferociously for Italian control of the Adriatic, and politics was moving out of the council chambers onto the streets. The rapidly growing Socialist party, now dominated by radicals, sent out its squads, and the nationalist right its fasci di combattimenti. When Leonida Bissolati, a prominent opponent of Italy’s demands, tried to speak at a huge League of Nations rally in La Scala in Milan, rabid nationalists, including Mussolini, were in the audience. An Italian journalist reported on a scene that was to become increasingly familiar:

Then, at a given moment, as if an invisible baton had given the signal, the infernal symphony began. Squeaks, shrieks, whistles, grumbles, nearly human, and all the thinkable counterfeits of the wild pack’s howling made up the bulk of the sound wave; but a human, nay, a patriotic cry became distinguishable now and then and ruled the inarticulate mass with the rhythm of a brutal march. They said: “Croati no! Croati no!” meaning that they wanted no friendship with Croats or Yugoslavs; and they meant too that Bissolati was a Croat.35

Fiume above all came to stand for both the Italian nationalist program and the determination of Wilson to resist it. It was an unlikely place to have caused such a crisis. Not particularly beautiful or distinguished, Fiume was a busy little port that had acted before the war as Hungary’s outlet to the Adriatic. The population, as was so typical in central Europe, was mixed, with a small number of Hungarians, a prosperous Italian middle class and a largely Croat working class. In Fiume itself, Italians were in a slight majority but, if its suburbs of Sušak were added in, the Croats were. Before the war, the local Italians may have talked sentimentally of Italy and grumbled at the Hungarian authorities, but it was only in 1918 that reunification with the motherland became a real possibility. Gangs of young men calling themselves the giovani fiumani suddenly appeared in the cafés, demanding that their orchestras play the Italian national anthem every fifteen minutes and forcing all the customers to stand up. 36

Like so much of what was to happen in Fiume in the next two years, the events of that period at the end of the war became a matter of legend in Italy. Heroic volunteers—christened the Argonauts—braved Austrian gunfire, it was said, as they sped across the waters in fast boats to Venice to bring the Italian navy to Fiume’s rescue. The facts, as reported by the American ambassador, that five young men from Fiume had chugged across in a commandeered tugboat and that the Italian navy had fired on them by mistake, were conveniently ignored. The Italian military who now occupied Fiume under the armistice agreements were determined that it should remain Italian. Diplomatic negotiations were irrelevant, said an admiral; “such discussions were merely debates of diplomats and political men; . . . Fiume was Italian and would remain so; . . . no intermeddling could in any way damage Italian rights.” 37

There was a practical reason for Italy’s sudden attachment to Fiume. “It will be very difficult,” one of the Italian delegates in Paris explained frankly, “for us to keep up the commerce of Trieste unless we control Fiume and are able to divert its trade to Trieste.” It was as a symbol, though, that Fiume, “the jewel of the Adriatic,” was important to Italian nationalists. “Why they have set their hearts on a little town of 50,000 people, with little more than half of them Italians, is a mystery to me,” wrote House in his diary. In April 1919, when the uproar over Fiume was at its height, Orlando remarked pensively to House that it would have been better if Italy’s demands could have been settled right at the end of the war: “Fiume never would have been injected into the terms by the Italians.”38

Public opinion often fastens itself to trivial objects. In Italy in 1919 it also received a prod from an extraordinary figure—Gabriele D’Annunzio— who made Fiume his cause. He was short, bald, ugly and immensely charming. When he spoke to crowds, his oratory wove them into a single obedient mass. “Will you sacrifice your lives?” he would ask, and they would shout back “Yes!” That was what he expected. He was a leader, a duce before Mussolini; a superman, in the words of Nietzsche, with whom of course he agreed. D’Annunzio was also a great poet, playwright and filmmaker. His physical courage, his contempt for ordinary politicians and his devout nationalism spoke to his countrymen. His flouting of convention, his sense of drama and his passionate love affairs made him a romantic hero throughout Europe. Even at sixteen, when to sell his first book of verse he started the rumor that he was dead, he understood publicity. His life fed the legend: his mistress, the actress Eleonora Duse, waiting on the shore with a great purple robe as he emerged naked from his evening swim; the study, cluttered with beautiful and exotic objects, where the artist held his séances; the sudden flights from his creditors.

When Italy entered the war, D’Annunzio, then fifty-two, joined a cavalry regiment. He fought, however, where and as he pleased, at the front, in submarines and in the air. (He also took leave whenever it suited him.) He lost an eye but won medals for bravery. His most celebrated exploit came in August 1918, when he swooped over Vienna in his plane, filling the skies with leaflets in the Italian colors calling on Austria to surrender. In a war with few individual heroes, he stood out. Italy needed heroes.

D’Annunzio took up Italy’s claims with enthusiasm. It was he who coined the phrase “the mutilated victory” and in January 1919 he published an inflammatory “Letter to the Dalmatians” in Mussolini’s newspaper. The letter castigated the Allies, the “enfeebling transatlantic purgatives offered by Dr. Wilson” and the “transalpine surgery of Dr. Clemenceau,” and boasted of Italy’s valor during the war. “And what peace will in the end be imposed on us, poor little ones of Christ? A Gallic peace? A British peace? A star-spangled peace? Then no! Enough. Victorious Italy—the most victorious of all the nations—victorious over herself and over the enemy—will have on the Alps and over her sea the Pax Romana, the sole peace that is fitting.”39 (Although his writings were on the Vatican’s Index, D’Annunzio reveled in Catholic imagery.)

While the clamor for Fiume and the rest of Italy’s demands in the Adriatic mounted in Italy, the Peace Conference was preoccupied with other matters. Between February 14 and March 14, Wilson was back in the United States. Orlando too went home, where he made a bland speech to the Italian parliament that gave the impression that all was well in Paris. (When he mentioned Fiume, his audience rose to their feet with a cry of “Viva Fiume!”40) It was not until April, when tensions were still running high over the German terms, that the peacemakers got down to dealing with the borders between Italy and Yugoslavia.

At a meeting of the Council of Four on April 3, Lloyd George asked the Italians to explain their position on the Adriatic. Orlando did so at great length with the familiar arguments. He rejected a proposal to make Fiume a free state under the League of Nations. When the Yugoslavs were invited to present their views that afternoon, Orlando said stiffly that he would not attend because he did not care to deal with enemy nations. Over the next weeks, a series of private meetings between the Italians and their allies produced little but bad feeling. Rumors circulated that Orlando was thinking of walking out of the Peace Conference. On April 13, as the Council of Four tried to decide when to invite the German delegates to come to Paris, Orlando demanded that the Italian questions be settled first. “Italian public opinion is very excitable. I am doing what I can to calm it; but the consequences of a disappointment of this kind would be very grave.” His government would probably fall if he could not report progress. His audience was sympathetic but unmoved. As Lloyd George said, “I am convinced that it is in the general interest to summon the German delegates straightaway and thus to prepare ourselves to negotiate with the only enemy state which is still standing.” Wilson’s suggestion, which was accepted, was to put off the summons to the Germans for a couple of days. In the meantime he undertook to have discussions with the Italians. Orlando accepted grudgingly. He was very bitter at what he saw as a betrayal by Clemenceau and especially Lloyd George, whom he described to House as a “slippery prestidigitator” and not a gentleman.41

Lloyd George and Clemenceau were equally annoyed. “I told Orlando,” said Clemenceau, “that he thought I was the sainted King Stanislas of Poland who, when he was bitten by a dog, not only pardoned the animal but gave him a chunk of cheese in addition. Well, my name is Georges, not Stanislas. I am not giving cheese to the boys who scampered away from Caporetto. I shall live up to our treaty pledge, and in addition I shall convey a frank expression of my profound contempt. But I shall give no extras.” Clemenceau privately asked the Italians to back down.42 The Italians reiterated that the Treaty of London must be kept.

Wilson, not surprisingly, failed to produce a compromise. With his experts reminding him of his remark on the way over to Europe—“Tell me what’s right and I’ll fight for it”—he was digging in his heels. He repeatedly assured those close to him that he was not going to let the Italians get Fiume. When Baker, who saw him almost every evening, reported that he had told an Italian delegate that if Italy chose to leave the conference over Fiume, then the United States would feel under no obligation to continue its economic aid, Wilson replied: “That is exactly what you should have said.”43

A meeting on April 14 between Wilson and Orlando was, according to the Italians, “very stormy.” Wilson described it to House as one of the worst experiences of his life, comparable to the time when he had had to listen to the mother of a student he had expelled from Princeton tell him that her son was about to have an operation and would probably die. Wilson gave Orlando a memorandum in which he said he had made the German peace on the basis of the Fourteen Points and that he could not now make the peace with Austria on a different one. Orlando told his delegation that the memorandum left no room for discussion.44

On April 19, the Saturday before Easter, what were to be six solid days of discussions began. The Italians, almost at once, talked of Passion Week. “I am indeed a new Christ,” said Orlando, “and must suffer my passion for the salvation of my country.” He threatened to leave, whatever the consequences. “I understand the tragic solemnity of this moment. Italy will suffer from this decision. For her, it is only a question of choosing between two deaths.” Lloyd George asked: “On account of Fiume? On account of a city where there are 24,000 Italians and where, if you count the population of the suburbs, the Italian majority is very doubtful?” He begged the Italians to think of what would happen if the Americans responded by pulling out. “I do not know how Europe can get back on its feet if the United States does not stay with us and help us to oil the machinery.” 45

Wilson urged the Italians to think in new terms. “In America there is disgust with the old order of things; but not only in America: the whole world is weary of it.” The Italians were unmoved. As Sonnino told Wilson, “after a war requiring such enormous sacrifices, in which Italy has had 500,000 killed and 900,000 disabled, it is not conceivable that we should return to a worse situation than before the war; certain islands on the Dalmatian coast were conceded to us even by Austria-Hungary to secure our neutrality. You would not even grant us these; that could not be explained to the Italian people.” He regretted negotiating Italy’s entry into the war on the Allied side. “For my part, I see my death in all this—I mean my moral death. I have ruined my country whilst believing that I was doing my duty.”46

Orlando warned of civil wars in Italy. “What will happen in the country?” asked Sonnino. “We shall have, not Russian bolshevism, but anarchy.” These were not idle threats, given the reports coming in from Italy: of strikes, marches, riots, buildings sacked, demonstrators killed, violent clashes between left and right. The rumors from Paris were inflaming the situation: Orlando was giving way; the Allies had decided to build up Yugoslavia as an anti-Bolshevik power; Wilson was determined to keep Dalmatia out of Italian hands; Fiume was to be a free port. Cables came back from Italy, exhorting the delegation to stand firm .47

Standing firm was all that Orlando and Sonnino could do at this point. They had put themselves into a position where any compromise would look like a major concession. Lloyd George and Clemenceau did their best to bridge the gap between the Italians and the Americans: they were prepared to give Italy the islands but not the mainland of Dalmatia; Fiume and perhaps all the cities on the Dalmatian coast could be free cities; Italy could be compensated in Asia Minor; maybe it could even have Fiume if a new port could be built for Yugoslavia somewhere else. Wilson agreed reluctantly to their attempts: “I don’t much like to make a compromise with people who aren’t reasonable. They will always believe that, by persisting in their claims, they will be able to obtain more.” After a fruitless errand to the Italians with yet another set of proposals, Hankey confided to his diary: “We have now reached an impasse. The Italians say they won’t sign the German Treaty unless they are promised Fiume and the whole Treaty of London. No one will give them Fiume, and President Wilson won’t give them Dalmatia, which, he says, would contravene the ethnical principle.” The Italians remained “absolutely inflexible.” And now the Yugoslavs, who had been quietly watching the crisis develop, warned that they would fight if Italy got Fiume or the Dalmatian coast.48

Time was running out. The Germans were due to arrive on April 25 to receive their peace terms, and by now the Italians were not the only ones threatening to withdraw. The Japanese, usually so quiet, were pressing their claim to the former German possessions in China and were making one last attempt to get a clause on racial equality written into the covenant of the League of Nations. Japan’s delegates, with their usual politeness, hinted that they might also be unable to sign the German treaty. Belgium was angry that its demands for reparations had not been met. The last thing Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau wanted was the Germans to see the Allies quarreling among themselves.49

Everyone was showing the strain. In the seclusion of the Edward VII, the Italians accused each other of weakening. On Easter Sunday Orlando had his fit of weeping. Wilson looked haggard and his voice shook. Clemenceau was especially sarcastic and rude to the Italians. Even Lloyd George seemed nervous. Sonnino no longer bothered to conceal his dislike of Wilson; he told Lloyd George and Clemenceau, “Now President Wilson, after ignoring and violating his own Fourteen Points, wants to restore their virginity by applying them vigorously where they refer to Italy.”50

The charge stung because it had some truth. Wilson had compromised his principle of self-determination over the Tyrol and the Polish Corridor. The week after Easter he reread his Fourteen Points and thought again about the new diplomacy he had hoped to bring the world. Issues, he reiterated, ought to be decided on the basis of facts. He went over the maps and the statistics with his experts. The ethnic mix did not entitle Italy to Fiume or Dalmatia: the Italian people were not being told the truth by their own government. Wilson now remembered, and misinterpreted, his trip to Italy four months previously. He had been deeply impressed by the crowds that had greeted him; they were, he was convinced, behind him. He resolved to make a direct appeal to the Italian people.51

On April 21 he showed Lloyd George and Clemenceau a statement that he had typed out himself. In clear and direct language it explained why the Treaty of London must be set aside. He reminded the Italians of how much their country was already gaining. “Her lines are extended to the great walls which are her natural defense.” Italy had a chance to reach out in friendship to the new nation across the Adriatic. He called on the Italians to work with him to build a new order based on the rights of peoples and the right of the world to peace. Lloyd George and Clemenceau were impressed but cautious. Publication, Lloyd George remarked, “could indeed produce a helpful impression in Italy, but only after a certain period of time. For the moment, we must expect madness.” With Clemenceau’s support, he persuaded Wilson to wait while he made one final attempt to talk to the Italian delegation. When this failed too, Wilson sent his statement to the newspapers on the afternoon of April 23.52

When a special edition of Le Temps arrived at the Edward VII, there was intense indignation but no surprise. The Italians had known of the existence of Wilson’s statement for a couple of days and had been contemplating their withdrawal from the conference for even longer. Orlando decided to return to Italy the following day. After a meeting of the Council of Four, at which he and Wilson spoke stiffly but politely to each other, he left to catch his train. Sonnino followed a couple of days later. “Well,” said Lloyd George, “the fat is in the fire at last!”53

The Italian papers carried Wilson’s statement beside Orlando’s reply, the latter usually set in larger type. Cheering crowds welcomed Orlando’s train as it passed. In Rome, the church bells rang out on his arrival, while overhead airplanes scattered patriotic pamphlets and demonstrators chanted, “Viva Orlando! Viva Fiume! Viva l’Italia!” The Italian government placed a guard around the American embassy. Walls throughout Italy were daubed with demands for the annexation of Fiume and caricatures of Wilson in an Austrian helmet. In Turin, students forced the owner of the President Wilson Café to take down his sign; they went up and down the Corso Wilson, renamed in honor of the president’s recent visit, covering the street signs with new ones saying Corso Fiume. In Fiume itself, young Italians shouted, bizarrely, “Down with Wilson! Down with redskins!” The nationalist press demanded the immediate annexation of Fiume and Dalmatia.54

In a speech to the Italian parliament which started with a plea for “calm and serenity,” Orlando blamed the situation on his allies and insisted: “Italy firmly believes before everything else that the whole complex of her claims is based on such high and solemn reasons of right and justice that they ought to be recognised in their integrity.” His government won a vote of confidence, 382 votes to 40. Nationalists, the fascists prominent among them, held mass meetings throughout the country. D’Annunzio was in his element, savaging the Allied treachery and mocking Wilson, the “Croatified Quaker,” with “his long equine face,” his mouth “of thirty-two false teeth.” This was not a human being but an ugly puppet. Italy must not give in to criminal intrigues. “Down there, on the roads of Istria, on the roads of Dalmatia,” cried D’Annunzio, “do you not hear the footsteps of a marching army?”55

The peacemakers watched with concern. The Belgians were threatening not to sign the German treaty and there was also a serious crisis over Japan’s demands. The German delegates were arriving on April 29 and their terms had not been finalized. More worrying, could a Peace Conference in disarray force them to sign a treaty? “Chaos,” said the headline in a Paris newspaper. “The various delegations,” reported an American journalist, “are holding meetings to consider what shall be done, as it is suddenly being recognized that the very existence of the Peace Conference is threatened.” The conference secretariat started going through the draft treaty with Germany to remove all references to Italy. In a plenary session, the delegate from Panama placed a black scarf on Orlando’s empty chair. It was removed by a Portuguese delegate, who said it was too early for mourning.56

Behind the scenes both the Italian government and the Allies were looking for a way for Italy to come back. The Italians were shaken that the other powers seemed prepared to carry on without them. Clemenceau added pressure when he announced that the Austrian delegates had been invited to come to Paris by the middle of May. The members of the Italian delegation who remained in Paris sent Orlando urgent warnings that Italy’s position was deteriorating rapidly. The United States was holding up a badly needed credit of $25 million. Britain and France were saying his withdrawal freed them from their obligation to respect the Treaty of London. They had gone ahead and divided up the African colonies. Only Lloyd George was hinting at a possible compromise.57

On May 5, the Italians announced that Orlando and Sonnino were returning. “Orlando looks very white and worn and says very little and without much pep,” reported the American Seymour. “He looks ten years older. Sonnino is unchanged in appearance and preserves some truculence of manner, but is not aggressive.”58 The secretariat set about adding the words “Italy” and “Italian” by hand to the German terms.

The issue that had caused the rupture was still, however, a long way from being settled. Wilson was cool to any further negotiations with the Italians. “It is curious,” he said, “how utterly incapable these Italians are of taking any position on principle & sticking to it.” One faint hope, which House promoted, was that the Italians and the Yugoslavs might cut through the difficulties by dealing directly with each other. On May 16, the two sides came to House’s suite at the Crillon, and, in a type of negotiation that became commonplace in the 1990s, sat in separate rooms while the Americans dashed back and forth between them. When Clemenceau asked Orlando the next day what had happened, his answer was gloomy: “Nothing. It is impossible.” The fact that House was trying to bridge the Italian and American positions may have contributed to Wilson’s growing antipathy to his old friend.59

The main part of the Peace Conference wound down in an atmosphere of mutual irritation. Wilson inveighed to Baker about the greedy Italians. The French complained that Italy was now trying to take over Austrian railways that French money had paid for. Clemenceau shouted: “France will resent it. She will not forget it. I don’t expect fairness from you.” When several French soldiers were lynched by nationalist mobs in Fiume, he loudly denounced the “peuple d’assassins” at the Council of Four. The Italians reserved their main venom for Wilson. When an assistant remarked to Sonnino, “Wilson seems affable this morning,” his superior replied, “Who knows what new offers, what new blackmail have been contrived?” Orlando had become convinced, he said in his memoirs, that “Wilson had his own personal engagement with the Yugoslavs; what it was I don’t know but there it was.” The Italian press carried stories that Wilson had been bribed by the Yugoslavs or that he had a Yugoslav mistress. Sonnino and others believed rather that he was in the grip of American financial interests who wanted to develop the Adriatic for themselves, perhaps using the Red Cross as their cover.60

Before Wilson finally left for home at the end of June after signing the Versailles treaty, the Italians backed down very slightly by not insisting on quite all the territory promised them by the Treaty of London. But on Fiume they were as obstinate as before. Orlando and Sonnino were playing a dangerous game. Their main opponent, Wilson, would probably be out of office in eighteen months. On the other hand, Italian democracy might not last that long. As Orlando told Lloyd George, “I must have a solution. Otherwise I will have a crisis in parliament or in the streets in Italy.” Lloyd George asked, “And if not, who do you see taking your place?” Orlando replied, “Perhaps D’Annunzio.”61

On June 19 the Orlando government finally fell, but Sonnino and two others stayed on to sign the Treaty of Versailles on Italy’s behalf. Orlando in later years took pride in the fact that he was not a signatory; in fact, he argued, Wilson had effectively excluded him from the Peace Conference with his appeal to the people of Italy. Although Italy had taken little part in drawing up the treaty, it did not do badly: it had a permanent seat on the League of Nations council, the Tyrol and a share in the reparations from Germany. That was not the view in Italy, however. As the British ambassador wrote to a friend: “They are I am sorry to say very sore and depressed here. Not less perhaps because they feel that their own representatives have in many ways mismanaged things.”62

The government of Francesco Nitti, which succeeded Orlando’s, was preoccupied with Italy’s internal problems. Where it could settle outstanding foreign issues, it was more than willing to do so. The new foreign minister, Tommaso Tittoni, met Venizelos and worked out an agreement between Italy and Greece over Albania and the Dodecanese. There was even some movement on the Adriatic. In August 1919, Tittoni agreed with Lloyd George and Clemenceau that Fiume should become a neutral city under the League and that the whole of Dalmatia should go to Yugoslavia. The proposal was sent off to Wilson, by now back in the United States, but before an answer could come back, D’Annunzio decided to settle the matter his own way.

Various groups, some in the military, as well as veterans’ associations, fascists and anarchists, had been plotting more or less openly all summer to seize Fiume. D’Annunzio, who was engrossed in a new love affair, was finally persuaded to lead them. On the evening of September 11 (chosen because he thought the number eleven lucky), he set off with about two hundred men. The next day, as the soldiers sent to stop him joined his force, he marched triumphantly into Fiume. The Italian military command withdrew without a murmur, the other Allied forces more reluctantly. The city, at least the Italian parts, went wild. That evening D’Annunzio made the first of his dramatic speeches from the balcony of the governor’s palace.

For the next fifteen months, Fiume was caught up in a mad carnival of ceremonies, spectacles, balls and parties. The town’s buildings were covered with flags and banners, its gardens ransacked for flowers to throw at the parades. In a fever of nationalism and revolution, fueled by drink and drugs, priests demanded the right to marry and young women stayed out all night. The city reverberated, said observers, with the sounds of love-making. A hospital was set aside to treat venereal diseases.63 Volunteers and the merely curious from all over Italy and Europe dodged the ineffectual Allied blockade: E.F.T. Marinetti, the Futurist artist; the young Arturo Toscanini, with his orchestra; Guglielmo Marconi, the developer of the wireless; opposition politicians from Rome; gangsters and prostitutes; war aces with their planes; and Mussolini. Modern pirates on commandeered boats darted in and out of Fiume to seize supplies up and down the Adriatic. Armed men wandered the streets in uniforms of their own design. “Some had beards, and had shaved their heads completely,” reported Osbert Sitwell. “Others had cultivated huge tufts of hair, half a foot long, waving out of their foreheads, and wore, balanced on the very back of the skull, a black fez.” Most alarmingly for the Italian government, many of its own officers, from war heroes to distinguished generals, threw their lot in with D’Annunzio.64

D’Annunzio’s oratory reached new heights. Fiume was sacred, the city of liberty, from which he would lead a crusade, to liberate first Dalmatia, then Italy, and finally the world. He made contacts with the Bolsheviks, with Egyptian nationalists, with Croats unhappy with the new Yugoslavia, and with Sinn Fein. Wild rumors, some of them true, came out of Fiume, of assassins dispatched to kill Nitti and Tittoni. And in Italy there were equally disturbing reports of planned military coups and armed uprisings. By the summer of 1921, large sections of northern Italy had become virtually ungovernable as fascist squads battled their left-wing and democratic enemies.65

It was an appalling and embarrassing situation for the Italian government, which desperately tried to find a resolution that did not further enrage either nationalist opinion at home or its allies abroad. Nitti tried to starve D’Annunzio out by putting an embargo on Fiume, though the terms allowed the Italian Red Cross to bring in basic supplies.66 Mussolini watched and waited.

Discussions with Italy’s allies produced ever more complex proposals but little else. From Washington, Wilson firmly ruled out any solution that gave Italy control of Fiume. Lloyd George pointed out acerbically that the United States was still trying to crack the whip in Europe but refusing to take any responsibility. Britain and France hesitated to put too much pressure on Italy. “There you have a country,” said Clemenceau to Lloyd George, “where the King counts for nothing, where the army does not obey orders, where you have 180 Socialists on one side, & 120 men belonging to the Pope on the other!”67

Finally, in November 1920, Italy and Yugoslavia managed against all odds to reach an agreement. A new Italian government (Nitti had fallen in June) under the tough old realist Giovanni Giolitti wanted to restore order at home and extricate the country from damaging foreign adventures. Italy pulled its troops out of Albania, which helped to ease tensions with the Yugoslavs. For its part, the government in Belgrade badly needed to revive Yugoslavia’s trade, something that could not be done as long as the Italians were being obstructive in the Adriatic ports. When the November presidential elections in the United States put a Republican into the White House, the Yugoslavs gave up any hope of a miraculous intervention by the Americans.68 Shortly thereafter, Italian and Yugoslav delegates met at Rapallo and an astonished world learned that a treaty had been drawn up which settled the frontiers between their two countries. Italy gained virtually the whole of the Istrian peninsula, Zadar (the only town with an Italian majority on the Dalmatian coast) and a few small and insignificant islands in the Adriatic. Yugoslavia got the rest, while Fiume became a free state linked to Italy by a strip of land.

Many Italian nationalists, including Mussolini, saw the treaty as a triumph because it had, after all, kept Fiume out of Slav hands. In Yugoslavia, Croats and Slovenes complained that yet again their interests had been sacrificed by the Serbs. In Fiume itself, D’Annunzio withdrew into an embittered seclusion from which he emerged at intervals to insist that he would die rather than leave. On December 1, 1920, he declared war on Italy. The Italian military were finally stirred to action. On Christmas Eve their guns opened fire. When a shell narrowly missed him, D’Annunzio hastily negotiated a surrender, denounced the Italian people for their cowardice and “Christmas gluttony” and slunk back to Italy.69

Two years later, Mussolini showed how well he had learned the lessons of Fiume. He marched on Rome, and Italian democracy, weakened by the war and by the widespread disappointment with the “mutilated victory,” gave way with scarcely a murmur. In January 1924, Mussolini annexed Fiume to Italy; in 1940, he did his best to wipe the hated Yugoslavia off the map. In 1945, the lines moved again and most of Istria, with the exception of Trieste, went to the reconstituted Yugoslavia. Some 300,000 Italians fled west into Italy. Fiume is now Rijeka and only the older generation still remember any Italian.

D’Annunzio lived on in his usual style at state expense. He was, the new duce complained, like a rotten tooth which had to be yanked out or plugged with gold. He played little further role in public life, preferring life on his estate with his magic, his women and his cocaine. He disapproved of Italy’s growing friendship with Germany and died in 1938 in mysterious circumstances. A young German woman from the Tyrol who had worked as his assistant and mistress left the house abruptly and was next heard of working in the office of Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. 70

Sonnino, whose stubbornness had threatened to destroy the Paris Peace Conference, never replied to his critics and never spoke publicly again in Italy. He died at the end of 1922; his only request to the state he had served for so long was to be buried in a sarcophagus cemented into a cliff below his beloved house on the coast of Tuscany.71 Orlando outlived almost everyone and went on to play a part in the overthrow of the fascists in 1944. He died, a revered senator, in the democratic Italy of 1952.

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