I

IT IS impossible to understand the age-long need which has always determined the general lines of Italian policy without taking account of the two principal factors which still govern Italy's present and future--the growth of her population and her geographical position in the Mediterranean.

In 1881 Italy's population was a little over 28 millions; in 1921 it had risen to 40 millions in Italy itself and about 8 millions abroad. Thus in forty years it has increased more than seventy per cent. The area of Italy is 310,000 square kilometers; that of the United States 9,400,000--or more than 30 times as much. Consequently Italy has 129 inhabitants per square kilometer while the United States has only 11. France--to take a European example which in history and geography more closely resembles Italy--with a population of 39 millions, has an area of 551,000 square kilometers; in other words, she has a smaller population but almost double the territory, and only 70 inhabitants per square kilometer. In spite of this, French colonial possessions extend over 12 million square kilometers and contain 50 million subjects, without counting Syria. On the other hand, Italy's colonial possessions have an area of only two million square kilometers and contain only one and a half million subjects. France is immensely rich in raw materials--iron, coal, phosphates--both at home and overseas; Italy proper and the Italian colonies lack them almost entirely. If the comparison be made with England, Italy is ten times as badly off.

This disadvantageous position entails many unfortunate consequences for Italy. The first is that she finds herself unable to provide her population with food, and that as far as concerns raw materials such as iron, coal, cotton, phosphates, and to a certain extent wheat, she is in bondage to foreign lands. This economic dependence inevitably leads to political dependence. Secondly, Italy cannot give employment to her growing population nor can she balance needed imports by developing her own industries; for, in facing foreign competition, these industries labor under an initial disadvantage resulting from the absence of raw materials and proper colonial markets. But the most terrible consequence of all is the forced emigration. For over thirty years hundreds of thousands of Italians have left their country annually; in 1913 the number was almost a million. A stream of young blood flows uninterruptedly from the open veins of Italy and spreads itself over the world, adding to the power and wealth of foreign competitors and soon becoming irrevocably lost to Italy. Thus Italy is being stifled by the poverty of her homeland and by her lack of colonial possessions; she is compelled to scatter her strength; a priori, she is not only disadvantageously placed in the field of international competition but is forced into a position of economic and political dependency. She is, in short, faced with this major dilemma: either she must conquer a position for herself proportionate to her needs and the possessions of others, which implies colonies which can offer suitable land to her children and proper raw materials to her industries; or else she must forever renounce her position as a great power, even as an independent power, and thus subject herself to continued emigration and accept a subordinate international status.

Now let us consider the second factor governing Italy's development--her geographical position in the Mediterranean. Italy is the only European nation which is exclusively Mediterranean. The major development of the other great Mediterranean nations, France and Spain, is on the coasts of the free Atlantic. England does not touch the Mediterranean, nor does Germany. The interests of Italy, on the other hand, are wholly in the Mediterranean; in fact she has no other means of communication with the outside world. Her territorial frontiers are insignificant in comparison with her coast lines; and ranged along the former stand the Alps, across which travel is difficult and expensive. Four-fifths of Italy's commerce is carried on--and cannot but be carried on--by sea. Her imports and exports, her means of emigration and expansion, her power and her freedom are on the sea; her future, her very life itself, is on the sea. Her destiny is inseparably linked with the equilibrium of the Mediterranean. The problem of the Mediterranean, together with that of her colonial expansion, is therefore the great, the capital historic problem for the Italy of today. There enter into it, as factors of a single problem, the problem of liberty, the problem of security, the national problem and the colonial problem.

II

Viewed thus in its fourfold aspect, how does this greatest of Italian problems stand today?

From the point of view of liberty, England, though not really a Mediterranean power, holds Gibraltar and Suez, the two great Mediterranean ports, controls its central straits by her possession of Malta, and could, if she wished, cut Italy off completely from communication with the outside world, could starve and stifle her in a closed sea. She would have her at her mercy without firing a single shot.

From the point of view of security, Italy is compressed east, west and south by a semicircle of formidable naval bases--by France with Toulon, Corsica and Biserta--by England with Malta--by Greece with the Canal of Corfu--by Jugoslavia with Cattaro and Sebenico.

From the national point of view, there still are preserved along the entire Mediterranean coast the traces and traditions of Imperial Rome, of Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi, Ragusa, and of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily; and hundreds of thousands of Italians, greatly outnumbering the children of any other European race, are scattered along the basin of the Mediterranean. But in Dalmatia they are Jugoslav subjects; in Constantinople and Smyrna they do business under Turkish sovereignty; in Syria they are under a French "mandate;" in Palestine and Egypt (50,000 in Egypt alone) they are under an English protectorate; over 150,000 in Algeria and Morocco have been forcibly denationalized by the systematic absorption of France; while over 100,000 more are desperately defending their nationality against this same absorption in Tunis, which owes its fertility and prosperity entirely to their labors.

Finally, from the colonial point of view, the Italian peninsula, projecting from Europe towards Africa, occupies the exact geographic center of the Mediterranean--the Mediterranean which Rome once dominated, which she united beneath her laws and sealed indelibly with her imperial imprint. Tunis, populated with Italians, is only a few hours' journey from Sicily. Vast and fertile Anatolia, rich in wheat and cotton and lumber and minerals, with a population not over three per square kilometer, in a rudimentary state of civilization, lies only three days distant from the Italian peninsula where the Italian people, one of the oldest and most civilized in the world, with an enterprising expansionist instinct, is being stifled by the poverty and insufficiency of its national territory. And yet, from Tangiers to Alexandria, the entire African coast of the Mediterranean, with the exception of the great Libyan desert, belongs either to France or to England. Italy, the Mediterranean nation par excellence, is virtually excluded from the control of the Mediterranean; she is imprisoned and besieged in her own ocean.

The reasons for this absurd--and from now on intolerable--situation are to be found in Italy's own past. It must first of all be remembered that it was only after centuries of dissension and servitude that Italy became a single state and only a little over a half-century ago that she became a European power; in other words, she arrived at the international feast when the big world plums, and especially the Mediterranean plums, had been already grabbed up by the older, better established powers. And, secondly, one must take into account the inevitable lack of experience of a newly formed state and its indifference to anything outside its own borders, absorbed, as it must always be at first, in strengthening its internal political, economic and spiritual forces. Thus in 1881 the Italian Government did not know enough to forestall, as it undoubtedly could have done, the French conquest of Tunis, and in 1882 it did not know enough to grasp the importance of the English invitation to participate in the occupation of Egypt. A third reason may be found in the unsatisfactory results of the war of liberation, which had left both the ethnic and geographic unity of Italy dangerously incomplete. As a result of this, Italy found herself limited in her actions by the existence of two different but equally serious obstacles. On the one hand, across the iniquitous northern and eastern boundaries, through the wide-opened gates of Trentino and Friuli, lay the perennial menace of Austrian invasion, paralyzing Italy's freedom of action and forbidding her any real political liberty, much less any attempt at overseas expansion. As proof of this it is enough to remember the proposed aggression of the Austro-Hungarian general staff at the time of the Libyan War. On the other hand, the silent but passionate longing for Italian lands and Italian brothers still in foreign servitude concentrated her every aspiration in a bitter Irredentism and so contributed to paralyze Italy's will--and her power of expansion.

III

To overcome these threefold obstacles, Italy needed to accomplish three things: to grow and to establish herself so firmly in her own estimation as to build up the determination and the power for her necessary expansion; to assert, especially against Austria, the indispensable premises of her national unity and strategical security--that is to say, her moral liberty and her political freedom; and to shatter the pre-existing international balance of power in order to acquire in the world and particularly in the Mediterranean a position in keeping with her needs.

The first of these conditions--essentially a subjective one--was speedily accomplished, and the meagre but hard won African colonies were both its reward and measure. The contrast between the feeble national will and lack of popular enthusiasm which paralyzed the conduct of the Ethiopian War for Eritrea, undertaken and directed by the solitary intelligence of Francesco Crispi, and the young fervor of enthusiasm and pride which only fifteen years later marked the declaration, the waging and the winning of the Turkish War for the conquest of Libya, show very clearly the rapid subjective development of Italy.

The European conflagration of 1914 offered her unexpectedly an opportunity to attain the two essentially objective aims. The international equilibrium from which Italy suffered was suddenly upset. It was a decisive moment in her history. She had to choose between the tremendous peril and sacrifice of intervention, with its possibilities of greater power, and a fainthearted neutrality, which meant resignation to her own inferiority. Between mortal risk and quiet resignation Italy, inspired by her expansionist instinct, did not hesitate; she chose the path of peril and sacrifice for the sake of the future. Thus inspired, Italy of her own free will entered the tremendous war; for this she endured, she fought, she won. In Italy--as indeed in other Entente countries--the reasons of justice and right and humanity for which the war against Germany was fought were a purely popular ethical myth. Even though the irredentist reasons of Trentino and Trieste were real motives, yet they were but partial, in some ways prejudicial, ones. In truth, although Italy entered the war to combat the German attempt at hegemony and to wrest her historic frontiers and the control of the Adriatic from Austria, Italy's traditional instinct really aimed to secure the indispensable modicum of security and freedom for Mediterranean expansion.

It was for this reason that in the fundamental pact of alliance --the Treaty of London of April, 1915--Baron Sonnino stipulated for Italian colonial compensations in Africa in the event of a Franco-English partition of the German colonies, and for a corresponding zone in Southern Anatolia in the event of Allied acquisitions in the Levant. It was also for this reason that, later on, when he got wind of the complete plan of a tripartite partition of the Ottoman Empire (disloyally concluded in 1916 between France, Russia, and England without the knowledge of Italy who had been fighting for more than a year by their side,) he forced the Allies to reopen the question and to give an adequate share to Italy. The new treaty was discussed in April, 1917, between Sonnino, Ribot and Lloyd George at Saint Jean de Maurienne--from which it took its name--and was concluded and signed in London in August of the same year. While leaving Constantinople and the Caucasus, Armenia and part of the Anatolian coast of the Black Sea to Russia, Syria and Cilicia to France, and Mesopotamia and the protectorate over Arabia to England, this treaty assigned to Italy southwestern Anatolia, the whole Vilayet of Aidin with Smyrna, the whole Vilayet of Konia with Adalia and a small part of the Vilayet of Adana. Palestine was to be internationalized under the collective control of the great allies. But this very treaty contained the poison which was later to weaken it. The new clauses regarding Italy depended upon Russian ratification; such ratification, doubtful enough in April, 1917, when the revolution in Russia was beginning, became manifestly unobtainable by the following August when the revolution was turning to Bolshevism. Shortly afterwards the Bolshevik catastrophe and the peace of Brest-Litovsk eliminated Russia simultaneously from among the belligerents and from among the great European powers. In any event this collapse (which, contrary to the terms of the original treaty, left Italy to face alone the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) should have given her an added rather than a lesser claim upon Allied gratitude. Instead, even before the war was over, the Allies hastened to avail themselves of the pretext of the absence of Russia's signature to denounce the Treaty of Saint Jean de Maurienne. This was particularly true of Mr. Lloyd George who wanted at all cost to give Smyrna and western Anatolia to Greece, already selected by him as the vassal and the instrument of England's eastern policy.

Greece, indeed, guided by Venizelos who had been brought back to Athens by French bayonets, did after three years of equivocal neutrality and when Allied victory was no longer in doubt finally take the field. And in her few months of frontier warfare against the Bulgars she may perhaps have lost 500 men --or less than a thousandth part of Italy's losses. But Venizelos knew how to flatter President Wilson by standing as the champion of the principle of nationality, of "the rights of small nations;" he knew how to flatter France by posing on the one hand as the enemy of the "boche" Constantine, and on the other as an obstacle to Italian expansion; and above all he found grace in English eyes by offering himself as a political mercenary of England against the Turks and as a tool of British hegemony in the Levant. Thus it came about that in the spring of 1919 Lloyd George, taking advantage of the weakness and temporary absence of Orlando and violating the Treaty of Saint Jean de Maurienne and the Armistice of Mudros, was able to arrange that Smyrna and the surrounding neighborhood be given to Greece. This was done with the full consent of Wilson, who, absolutely ignorant of European and Mediterranean affairs, blindly allowed himself to be governed by idealistic impulses and natural prejudices, and with the approbation of Clemenceau, who was only too delighted to be able to "jouer un mauvais tour a l'Italie." The Greeks occupied Smyrna and by sack and massacre provoked the first Turkish resistance, which later developed into the great victorious Kemalist reaction.

In order not to be left out of everything, Italy thereupon occupied Scala Nova to the south of Smyrna, Sokia in the valley of the Meander, and Adalia on the coast of Anatolia, whence detachments were sent into the interior as far as Konia. These troops were everywhere acclaimed by the Turks as liberators. But the Allies protested even against this occupation, and Tittoni, who succeeded Sonnino as head of the Italian delegation at Paris, had to exert all his eloquence in defending it. Not satisfied with having deprived Italy of Smyrna--the biggest city, the greatest port, the center of all the railroads--Lloyd George forced her to present the Dodecanese islands to Greece, who had never possessed them. They had been acquired by Italy in the Libyan War prior to the Great War, and were definitely promised her in the Treaty of London. Tittoni was weak enough to promise to cede them over to Greece in the accord concluded with Venizelos in 1919--which has since been denounced (1922). At the same time the original outright partition of the Ottoman Empire among the victors was changed by the Wilsonian formula into "mandates;" England was given a "mandate" over Mesopotamia and Palestine, France a "mandate" over Syria and Cilicia. Italy, deprived of Smyrna, should at least have been given a "mandate" over most of Anatolia.

IV

We now reach the spring of 1920 and the Conference of San Remo where the peace with Turkey, embodied later on in the Treaty of Sèvres, was drawn up. This treaty gave Greece Smyrna and all of the extensive region of Aivali and Ephesus; it gave France the mandate over Syria, and England that over Mesopotamia and Palestine; Italy alone was given nothing. Every one of her political acquisitions had disappeared. The Tripartite Agreement between Nitti, Lloyd George and Millerand conceded a "privileged economic zone" to Italy (corresponding to the cession of Cilicia to France) including the Vilayet of Konia and the greater part of the Vilayet of Brusa--a zone without ports or independent railroads, without either geographic or economic autonomy and very difficult of access. Greece, on the other hand, received directions from the Entente, in spite of the opposition of Italy, to crush the Kemalist resistance by armed force and to impose upon Turkey the execution of the Treaty of Sèvres. This absurd commission, which as Italy had foreseen was quite out of proportion to the military and economic strength of the Greeks, uselessly prolonged a dreadful and bloody war, brought about the fall of Venizelos and ended in the catastrophe of September, 1922, which was not only a Greek defeat but also an Allied defeat, a defeat of the West by the East.

As a result the Turks--whom Italy alone of the victorious powers had always treated in a friendly manner--to whom Italy had held open the ports of Adalia and Scala Nova at a time when the Anglo-Greeks and Franco-Armenians of Cilicia were besieging them in the Sea of Marmora, the Black Sea and the Aegean--whom Italy alone had managed to have recognized as belligerents and admitted to the London Convention of March, 1921--these very Turks obstinately refused to accept the Tripartite Accord, which guaranteed victorious Italy her last small advantage in the Levant. And thus it came about that the Turks, encouraged by the growth of Pan-Islamic solidarity, their alliance with the Soviet and the evident dissension within the Entente produced by the Franklin-Bouillon peace, little by little began to forget their benefactors and included even Italy in their growing anti-western xenophobia. This occurred just as Italy was withdrawing her troops from Konia and Adalia and finally to the Meander. So that at Lausanne not only was the Tripartite Accord no longer mentioned but the Turkish delegates demanded the total abolition of the capitulations--the diplomatic protection of foreign citizens in Turkey. This protection is of special concern to Italy since her subjects in Turkey greatly outnumber those of any other great power. Today the Turks are even asking for the return of the little island of Castelorizo, which is victorious Italy's only remaining acquisition in the Mediterranean. Even in Africa (if we except part of British Somaliland, promised Italy but not yet turned over to her,) she has not obtained from France or England, despite the Treaty of London, any compensation for the partition between these two powers of the whole German Colonial Empire.

V

In spite of victory, then, Italy's position in the Mediterranean has changed for the worse. It has changed for the worse as far as her liberty is concerned, for England has not only retained Gibraltar and Suez and strengthened her strategic control of the latter by acquiring the coast of Palestine and the great fortifications of Haifa, but at Chanak and Gallipoli she has laid hold of the Dardanelles, the third great Mediterranean port--and heaven only knows when she will let go! Italy's position has been adversely affected from the point of view of security, because the naval bases of the eastern coast of the Adriatic are no longer in the hands of Austria, which at least belonged to a political alliance hostile to the Franco-English group, but are now under the control of Jugoslavia and Greece, satellites respectively of France and England. Italy's position is worse, too, from the national point of view, for the Italians of Syria and Palestine have passed under the control of France and England, and the Italians in Turkey have lost even their capitulatory protection. Her position is also more unfavorable from the colonial point of view as she has had to reconquer Tripoli and Cyrenaica by force of arms and because the disproportion to her needs increases with the growth of her population. And, finally, her position grows more and more unsatisfactory from the point of view of a Mediterranean balance of power; for the new French acquisition of Syria and the new British acquisitions of Palestine and Mesopotamia are not balanced by any corresponding gains for Italy and have in consequence rendered the former Mediterranean status still more unfair and intolerable. This has been due partly to the greed and intemperance of others, but also to the innate weakness of Italian policy resulting from the profound depression which existed in Italy during the four years following the Great War, and particularly in 1920 and 1921.

But today Italy's internal condition (which is the really decisive factor) has undergone a radical and definitive change. Once more Italy has become conscious of her national and international strength. She has realized that her victory was unjustly mutilated and that it is her right to retrieve it. She is again fully conscious of her vital need for expansion and she is deliberately determined to satisfy it. The political security given by the possession of her natural frontiers and the virtual satisfaction of her irredentist claims, which the war has given, are today finally recognized as the long awaited stepping-stone to the solution of the great problem of the Mediterranean. Her external problem is the same today as before the war: either to expand in the Mediterranean or to resign herself to being stifled in it. But subjectively it has been solved, and solved forever; Italy will not allow herself to be stifled--and this inevitably means that she will expand. The problem is thus reversed. Its solution is no longer up to Italy but to the other great Mediterranean powers; they will either make room for Italy in the Mediterranean or she will make it for herself--in spite of them --against their wishes if need be.

Indeed, one has only to consider the last sixty years of Italian history to be sure of the future. Sixty years ago Italy did not even exist politically; she was but a mass of small communities, more or less subject to a foreign power. Today she is a great national state, victorious in the greatest war of history and fully conscious of her own strength. Two formidable historic powers --the temporal dominion of the Popes and the Austro-Hungarian Empire--have stood in her path and attempted to bar her way. Italy has overthrown them one after the other. If any other power should insist upon barring her way today, Italy will sooner or later know how to force it aside also.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now