LA NEUTRALITÁ ITALIANA (1914), L'INTERVENTO (1915): RICORDI E PENSIERI. By ANTONIO SALANDRA. Milano: Mondatori, 1928--30, 2 vols., pp. 478, 386.

"THE Italian Government will employ all its efforts to preserve the peace; and, in case of war, it will begin by adopting a waiting attitude and will finally join the camp toward which victory will incline."[i] This shrewd prophecy, made in 1912 by M. Poincaré to the Russian Ambassador in Paris, was precisely realized in 1914--15. It was an easy logical inference from the secret engagements, hardly reconcilable with one another, which Italy had entered into on the one hand with the Central Powers, and on the other with France in 1902 and with Russia in 1909. It seemed to sum up the policy of sacro egoismo, to use Signor Salandra's later phrase.

But did Italy really use the terrible struggle of her engulfed neighbors to extort, "by blackmail" as Count Berchtold said, the best possible bargain for her own selfish interests by secretly bidding up one group of Powers against the other? Was she pushed into the war by Italian public opinion, or by the nationalist newspapers, or by pressure and bribes from the Powers opposed to Germany and Austria? Or was she deliberately led in by a resolute ministry, perhaps against the wishes of the parliamentary majority if not of the Italian people, at a moment carefully selected so as to give widest realization to Italy's national aspirations? And could Austria, by making more timely and more generous concessions, as urged by Germany, have held Italy to her own side, or at least have prevented her from going over to the side of the enemy?

These questions and many others are greatly illumined, if not absolutely settled, by Signor Salandra, the Prime Minister from March 1914 to June 1916. His memoirs in many respects resemble Sir Edward Grey's "Twenty-five Years." Like Grey, he is charmingly disarming in his admission that he may have made mistakes and in his effort to present events as they seemed to him at the time they occurred rather than to justify his actions in the light of later developments. He insists frequently that he is not writing an apologia but a contribution to history. Like Grey also, he is generously free from personal rancor and post-war vindictiveness. He rejected in 1914 "the legend that the war had the character of the defense of the democracies against imperialist militarism," put forward as propaganda by Italians who urged immediate intervention on the side of France; and he condemns as lacking in moral and juridical force the clause in the Treaty of Versailles which makes Germany and her allies alone responsible.[ii]

Salandra's two volumes, taken as a whole, deal mainly with three topics: his Cabinet's immediate declaration of neutrality; its eight months' work of moulding public opinion, of making ready the woefully deficient army, and of negotiating secretly with both groups of Powers to secure the fullest possible realization of Italy's aspirations; and, finally, the internal Cabinet crisis of May 1915, after which Italy at last abandoned neutrality and entered the war.

Though Italy and Austria had been allied for more than thirty years the long-standing hostility between them had increased rather than diminished in the opening years of the new century. The mutual hatreds arising from the wars of the Risorgimento still lived and were further inflamed by Austria's unsympathetic treatment of her Italian subjects, by the failure of Hapsburgs to return Italian royal visits, by Italy's flirtation with France and Russia, by the Libyan War, and above all by rival ambitions in Albania, the Adriatic, and other parts of the Near East. To prevent these Balkan rivalries from disrupting the Triple Alliance, the two Powers had adopted in 1887 as part of the Treaty of Alliance the famous Article VII. This provided that if either Power found it necessary to modify the status quo in the Balkans "by a temporary or permanent occupation, this occupation shall take place only after a previous agreement between the two Powers, based upon the principle of a reciprocal compensation for every advantage, territorial or other, which either of them might obtain beyond the present status quo." These were the two essential points: a previous agreement and reciprocal compensation.

In 1914, however, Count Berchtold, and still more his intransigent ambassador in Rome, Mérey, were convinced that Italy would disapprove their plan for destroying once and for all the menace to the very existence of the Dual Monarchy arising from the Greater Serbia propaganda and the Sarajevo assassination. They even feared that if they divulged their plan to Italy beforehand Rome would let hints of it leak out at Belgrade and St. Petersburg, and so thwart its success. They therefore failed to observe the "previous agreement" stipulation in Article VII.

On the afternoon of Thursday, July 23, slightly before the fatal ultimatum was handed in at Belgrade, an Austrian official announced to the Consulta in Rome that Austria was making demands on Serbia as a result of the judicial inquiry at Sarajevo, and was insisting on a reply within forty-eight hours, "for we cannot tolerate the habitual procrastinations of the Belgrade Cabinet." What these demands were was not indicated; they would be published next day. It happened that San Giuliano, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Flotow, the German Ambassador to Italy, had left the capital because of the heat and sickness, and had sought coolness and repose at Fiuggi. Here San Giuliano learned by telephone of the Austrian communication, and at once begged Salandra to come there for a conference. Salandra came. Next morning, July 24, while he was conversing with San Giuliano and Flotow, a telephone call from the Consulta announced that the Austrian official had brought the text of the ultimatum. It was read over the telephone and written down, sentence by sentence, by a secretary. The three men turned pale as they listened. They had visions of an imminent catastrophe. When Flotow said that until that moment he himself did not know the text of the ultimatum, adding "Vraiment, c'est un peu fort!" the two Italians doubted whether he was telling the truth. But documents published later, as Salandra justly recognizes, show that Flotow was in fact telling the truth. So great had been Austria's precautions, even toward the ambassador of her own German ally.

San Giuliano and Salandra, after long conversation with Flotow, decided at once upon the attitude they would adopt. That same day they telegraphed to their sovereign, and to the Italian ambassadors in Vienna and Berlin, that Austria, according to the spirit of the Triple Alliance, had no right to take such a step at Belgrade without previous agreement with Italy; that the ultimatum by its terms and its tone was an act of aggression and provocation toward Serbia and indirectly towards Russia; and therefore, if it resulted in a European war the casus foederis did not arise and Italy was not bound to aid Austria. But at the same time they added significantly that this "does not exclude the possibility that it might suit us to take part in a possible war whenever this should correspond with our vital interests."[iii]

In a supplementary telegram to Victor Emmanuel the same day they sought his approval of their policy for the moment: no casus foederis obligation to Austria; not even diplomatic support until Berchtold accepted Italy's interpretation of Article VII concerning reciprocal compensation; hands free in both directions; and the securing of compensation in case of a possible, "but not probable," participation in a general war, a participation to be decided freely, pro or con, in due time. During the following days they did their best to avert a general conflagration. They accepted with alacrity all of Sir Edward Grey's proposals for preserving peace. They made an excellent proposal of their own, which unfortunately was submerged in the precipitate course of events.

At the same time they were weighing the pros and cons of joining one side or the other in case of war, and concluded that the dangers and uncertainties in either direction were too great. Moreover, Austria, in spite of urging from Germany, had hesitated to accept Italy's interpretation of Article VII. Italy had declared that the only satisfactory compensation would be a cession of some of the irredentist regions still under Austrian rule, such as the Trentino. But Berchtold stubbornly refused to consider for a moment giving up an inch of the Hapsburg heritage.

Accordingly on July 31, as Austria had already declared war on Serbia, the Italian Cabinet virtually decided on neutrality, though the decision was not published until the following day. During the Cabinet meeting, Barrère, the able French Ambassador in Rome, passed in a note urgently requesting a word with San Giuliano. The latter left the meeting for a moment and gave Barrère a reassuring hint, if not a definite statement. This enabled the French, who ordered general mobilization next day, to shift their troops from the Alpine frontier to the north for use against Germany.

Salandra's adoption of neutrality had at first the approval of the great majority of the Italian people, stunned and confused as they were by the appalling events. Hardly a soul wanted to take up arms in support of the detested Austrians, now guilty of an aggression against Serbia without previous agreement with Italy and followed by such terrible consequences. But during the next weeks and months the Italian people, unenlightened by the closemouthed Cabinet which preferred secret action to public talk, gradually divided into three groups as to the policy which they thought the Cabinet ought to follow.

The Absolute Neutralists wished to adhere permanently and unconditionally to the policy of peace. They were comprised mainly of the official Socialists and the Vatican Roman Catholics, alike in having international ideals and affiliations though otherwise at opposite poles.

Opposed to the Absolute Neutralists were the Interventionists, who believed that Italy should take advantage of the opportunity to join the Allied side and complete the work of the Risorgimento by routing Austria and thereby getting all of the Trentino, Trieste, Dalmatia, the domination of the Adriatic, and even further advantages. This group was made up of Republicans and Freemasons who by tradition were sympathetic with France; of Nationalists, more numerous among the professors, students, and educated classes than among the illiterate masses; and of the Reformed Socialists, together with a small fraction soon led by Mussolini, which split off in September from the official Socialists and were more inspired by nationalism than internationalism.

Between these two groups were the Conditional Neutralists, who believed, as proved to be the case, that Austria, as a bribe to keep Italy neutral, would eventually be willing to grant "something," even if not everything which the Interventionists claimed. They preferred to get something in this way rather than to run the frightful risk and cost of descending into the arena. Only in case it proved impossible to get "something" would they be willing eventually to abandon neutrality. This group was made up of bankers and industrialists who had borrowed heavily from Germany and feared devastating economic losses; of many Roman Catholic patriots who disliked Republican France but were not close adherents of Vatican policy; and of a great many members of Parliament and officeholders, political opponents of Salandra, who owed their position to his predecessor, Giolitti, and looked for Giolitti's early return to power. In fact, these Conditional Neutralists were often known as Giolittians, especially after the publication of Giolitti's famous letter on January 24, 1915, urging the possibility of getting "something" (parecchio) with the aid of Count Bülow, who had recently come on a special mission to Rome. The aims of each of these three groups was ardently championed in their respective newspapers,[iv] and frequently gave rise to serious demonstrations. The suppression of these and the preservation of public order was one of the many difficult tasks to which the Salandra Cabinet had to address itself.

Meanwhile, during the summer of 1914 the Prime Minister and San Giuliano pursued in secret their purposes, little influenced by public opinion and not even always consulting their colleagues very fully. They were both convinced, and their conviction was shared by Cadorna, the Chief of Staff, that for the time being it would be suicidal for Italy to intervene, because of the deplorably deficient state of the Italian army. A considerable part of the forces were still in Africa, and it soon became painfully clear that, even for the rest of the army in Italy, the munitions and other supplies used up in the Libyan War had never been properly replaced. The work of refurnishing and enlarging the army would take months, and this made it impossible for Italy to enter the war before the spring of 1915. Otherwise Northern Italy would run the risk of being overrun by Austrian troops and the Italian army would have to withdraw from the frontier. Better an active neutrality than an inactive war.

While devoting themselves to the prime task of preparing the army, the two men did not fail to sound out secretly the diplomatic possibilities, being careful not to tie their hands in either direction. On August 11, while the German armies were sweeping through Belgium, they made the sibylline declaration in London: "The Italian Government, out of loyalty to Austria and Germany, desires eagerly to maintain a scrupulous and impartial neutrality; but, in view of the dangers which may derive to Italy from a change of equilibrium in the Balkans, in the Adriatic, in the Mediterranean, and in Europe in general . . . it believes it possible that it ought to decide to participate in the war along with England, France and Russia."[v] To Poincaré this sounded like a bid to have the English and French fleets destroy the Austrian navy in the Adriatic.[vi] But for various reasons no formal negotiations for intervention resulted immediately from the Italian declaration. England and France deemed it wiser not to press Italy too strongly for the time being. At St. Petersburg, however, Sazonov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, was full of zeal and projects (at first) for securing Italy's aid to relieve the Austrian pressure on the Russian and Serbian armies. But he was gradually restrained from London and Paris. Formal negotiations for Italy's intervention did not begin until March 4, 1915, when she presented at London the detailed proposal which became the basis for the Treaty of London.

In the negotiations with Austria, Berchtold grudgingly consented to accept Italy's interpretation of Article VII, as San Giuliano was informed on August 1. But this did not result in any immediate active steps to give the interpretation a practical application by defining the precise compensation which Italy should receive. Both parties preferred to let the subject drop for the time being, Berchtold because he foresaw that Italy would demand far more than he would be willing to concede, and Italy because she feared that the thorny question might lead to a diplomatic rupture before the Italian army was ready.

Salandra seems to have been convinced, and quite rightly, that Austria would never grant -- unless completely defeated -- all that he was determined Italy should receive to fulfil all her national aspirations. The Battle of the Marne convinced him that France and her allies would ultimately win, since the German strategic plan had failed, and with the continuance of the war the advantages would be increasingly on the side of the greater sea-power and man-power of Germany's enemies. Therefore he must secure from the future victors full promises of the rewards which Italy would receive in compensation for the risks and costs which she would incur by taking up arms against the Central Powers. With this in view he drew up a detailed statement of Italy's conditions, and sent it on September 25 to his ambassador in St. Petersburg for his comments, but not for presentation to Russia and the other Allies until later. Salandra does not mention this in his memoirs, but we know of it from the Bolshevists who partially deciphered it later and published it.[vii] It is interesting because it foreshadows very closely, even at this early date just after the Marne, the program of demands which was formally presented at London on March 4, 1915, and which in turn was eventually embodied with slight modifications in the Treaty of London of April 26. When in due season he had the assent of the Allied Powers to these conditions safely in his pocket, when the army was finally ready, and when winter snows no longer made operations in the Alps impossible, he would intervene on the winning side, even though the war might still be a long one. Such was his plan. But would he be able to carry it out? Could he overcome the opposition of the Absolute Neutralists and the Giolittians who were strongly entrenched in the legislature?

Salandra was not unaware of the parliamentary difficulty, and took steps to meet it. In October he reorganized his Cabinet, replacing several weak men by stronger ones. At San Giuliano's death after long illness, he himself took over temporarily the foreign portfolio, and issued a declaration which gave comfort to all groups in the country: to the Neutralists and Giolittians by saying, "Our policy will be tomorrow what it was yesterday," and to the Interventionists by adding, "but this does not exclude, in need, readiness for action; free from preconceptions, prejudice and sentiment, we must have no other thought than exclusive and unlimited devotion to our country, to sacro egoismo for Italy." He then persuaded an old and tried friend to accept the Foreign Office. Sidney Sonnino, the Protestant son of a Jewish banker and a Scotch mother, was greatly respected for his ability, patriotism and wealth as well as for his wide experience and European connections. But because of his extreme reticence he was no more popular with members of the legislature than with journalists and the public. In July 1914 he had been inclined to side with Germany as the probable victor; but in November he was thoroughly in accord with the program of his chief.

At the opening of the Chamber of Deputies in December the Prime Minister was enthusiastically applauded when he spoke of the necessity of protecting Italy's vital interests and securing her just aspirations. But a couple of days later Giolitti caused even more of a sensation by stating that on August 9, 1913 (in reality on July 9) he and San Giuliano had prevented Austria from attacking Serbia by issuing a clear warning that such an unprovoked attack would be regarded as releasing Italy from the obligations of the Alliance. His statement, aside from some errors of fact, was something of an exaggeration, which may explain in part Salandra's astonishing statement that up to that moment neither he nor any of his Cabinet had ever known a thing about this welcome precedent of 1913 for the attitude adopted in 1914. Giolitti has stated in his memoirs that his only purpose in making this revelation was to strengthen unity of feeling in Italy and justify her in the eyes of Europe, by showing that Austria had received due warning from him in 1913 of what she might expect from her action after Sarajevo. But many of Giolitti's party followers interpreted his action as a hint that he was about to open the parliamentary battle with a view of returning to power and securing "something" from Austria.

In these circumstances, and in view of Austria's extension of power in the Balkans, Salandra and Sonnino deemed it wise on December 9 to reopen negotiations with Austria in regard to Italy's due compensation under Article VII. Prince von Bülow also appeared on a special mission in Rome, where he had many influential friends, hoping to bring about an agreement between Salandra and Berchtold which would at least keep Italy neutral. He was followed by Mathias Erzberger, who represented the Roman Catholic Party in Germany and was in close touch with the Vatican. It soon appeared that it would be possible to get "something," but not at all everything which was comprised in Italy's "just aspirations." Under pressure from Germany, and with the advance of the Russians toward Przemyśl, Austria finally was willing to concede the Trentino, though she would not hear of giving up Trieste, "one of the lungs of the Dual Monarchy." But there then arose a conflict as to when effective occupation of the ceded territories should take place. Italy insisted on immediate occupation, fearing that if the Central Powers should ultimately be victorious they would not carry out the agreement, and that if they should be vanquished the victors would feel under no obligation to do anything for a country which had kept itself in a safe neutrality while they themselves were fighting a life and death struggle. Though Austria made a few further eleventh hour concessions they were not taken seriously by Salandra. He had already secured promises of far more from the Allied Powers.

Italy's formal negotiations with the other camp began on March 4, 1915, with Salandra's presentation at London of a detailed program. He was very insistent on absolute secrecy, and chose London rather than Paris or St. Petersburg because, as he says, the reputation of the British Foreign Office and its head was a guarantee against any "leak." Probably also he fixed on London because England had no direct interests contrary to Italy's, whereas France and Russia had very lively interests in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, especially on behalf of the Jugoslavs. Salandra's program provided for: an Italian declaration of war on Austria and a mutual agreement not to make a separate peace; an immediate military and naval convention, with the coöperation of an Anglo-French fleet in the destruction of the Austrian navy; Italy's acquisition of the irredentist regions, and also a suitable part of Germany's African colonies and of Turkey, if the latter were to be carved up; a fifty million lira loan from England; the exclusion of the Pope from the peace conference; and, above all, absolute secrecy in the negotiations. After strong objections from Sazonov, and with some modifications, notably in regard to Trieste, and after Italy had given her promise to enter the war within a month after signing, this program was accepted and embodied in the secret Treaty of London signed on April 26.

Meanwhile the excitement in the country had been growing by leaps and bounds. All sorts of rumors were afloat. The feverish military preparations, the gradual calling up of soldiers by classes, and the shifting of troops to the north looked like war. On the other hand, it was known that Bülow was securing greater and greater concessions for Italy from Austria, which it was hoped would lead to a satisfactory settlement. The Socialists talked of a general strike to prevent war, but Gabriel D'Annunzio came from Paris and in a fiery speech at Quarto, commemorating the great deeds of the Garibaldians, he exhorted his countrymen to complete by war the glorious work which Garibaldi had been forced to leave unfinished. The military situation abroad added to the excitement and uncertainty. The Dardanelles had been bombarded, but the landing operation looked very dubious. The Russians, who had advanced so successfully in the early spring against the Austrian fortresses and the Carpathians, had then been disastrously defeated and thrown back.

Amid all this excitement the Salandra Cabinet found itself in a predicament. Sazonov, who a few months before had strongly opposed Italy's entrance into the war at all, was now most urgent that she should begin to fight as soon as possible to relieve the pressure on the Russian armies. By the Treaty of London Italy was obligated to declare war within a month after the date of signing, i.e., before May 26. But the Italian General Staff wanted as long a respite as possible to perfect its final preparations. Parliament was to meet on May 12. Salandra postponed it until May 20, in order to give the military men more time and so that he might clear up the parliamentary problem with which he was faced.

The Cabinet could not declare war without calling together the legislature and securing its approval of the necessary war expenditures. But it seemed likely that the majority were opposed to war. Giolitti had come to Rome for the session, enthusiastically received by his supporters, but insulted and threatened by the Interventionists. Some three hundred deputies had called upon him or left their cards, indicating even more clearly that the majority in the Chamber shared his disapproval of entering the war. In an audience with the King the veteran leader set forth at length all the dangers and disadvantages of an Interventionist policy.

Under these difficult circumstances Salandra adopted the King's suggestion of having a talk with Giolitti, but got from him nothing except a repetition of the fears and arguments he had already expressed at the Quirinal. Salandra asserts in his memoirs that Giolitti had been completely informed of the diplomatic situation. But Giolitti has asserted with equal emphasis that he was told nothing of the Treaty of London. However this may be, Salandra concluded from the interview that he could not count on having a majority on May 20 to approve the policy he had entered upon. Therefore on May 13 he and his Cabinet tendered their resignations.

The King then summoned in turn several eminent leaders: Manfredi and Marcora, the Presidents of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies; Giolitti, many times Prime Minister; Carcano, a member of Salandra's own Cabinet; and Boselli, the oldest among the deputies. One and all refused the task of forming a ministry. Thereupon, on May 16, the King declined to accept the resignation of the Salandra Cabinet. By its resignation it had strengthened its hands. The next day Giolitti departed to his home, "considering that his mission was finished." When Parliament met on May 20 it approved almost unanimously the Government's proposals. General mobilization was ordered on May 22, and the declaration of war was handed to Austria at Vienna the next day.

Salandra protests in several passages that he did not " bargain " and bid up the two groups of Powers against each other. But one who follows the story chronologically, instead of topically as he treats it, gets the impression that he doth protest too much. And certainly to the Powers with whom he was negotiating secretly, who could not know what he was saying to the opposite camp, his procedure looked like bargaining. He nevertheless acted with undoubted skill in the most difficult circumstances and solely with an eye to Italy's highest interests as he saw them.

[i] René Marchand: "Un Livre Noir." Paris: 1922, Vol. I, p. 365.

[ii] Salandra, Vol. I, pp. 138, 194 ff.

[iii] Salandra, Vol. I, p. 77.

[iv]Cf. Gabriel Maugain: "L'Opinion Italienne et L'Intervention de L'Italie dans la Guerre Actuelle." Paris: Champion, 1916. Giuseppe Bruccolero: "Dal Conflitto Europeo alla Guerra Nostra: Diario di un Giornalisto." Roma: Italia 1915.

[v] Salandra, Vol. II, p. 152.

[vi] Raymond Poincaré: "Au Service de la France." Paris: Plon, 1928. Vol. V, p. 78 ff.

[vii] "L'Intervento dell'Italia nei Documenti Segreti dell'Intesa." Roma: Rassegna Internazionale, 1923, p. 49 ff.

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  • SIDNEY B. FAY, Professor of History, Harvard University; author of "Origins of the World War" and other works
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