In September 1919, the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio gathered a force of 2,000 mutinous troops from the Royal Italian Army, along with hundreds of other volunteers, and stormed the city of Fiume, on the Adriatic coast, which had been contested territory since the end of World War I. D’Annunzio had served as a fighter pilot in the war, and his daring feats had turned him into one of the most famous people in Europe. An ultranationalist, he had long wanted “Mother Italy” to seize all the territories that he believed rightly belonged to her. In 1911, he had zealously supported Italy’s invasion of Libya, an imperialist adventure whose savagery stoked outrage across the Muslim world. In Fiume, he saw a chance to realize his dream of rejuvenating Italy through war.
D’Annunzio’s forces were met with no resistance; British, French, and U.S. forces withdrew to avoid a confrontation. After installing himself as il duce of the “Italian Regency of Carnaro,” D’Annunzio established a fiefdom shaped by outrageous political rhetoric and gestures. He introduced the stiff-armed salute that Adolf Hitler would later adopt. D’Annunzio and his cadres dressed in black uniforms adorned with a skull-and-crossbones insignia. They spoke obsessively of martyrdom, sacrifice, and death. Hitler and Benito Mussolini, obscure figures at the time, were keen students of the pseudo-religious speeches that D’Annunzio delivered daily from his balcony before retiring to the company of a large, rotating group of sexual partners.
D’Annunzio constructed an elaborate cult of personality around himself and cast his occupation in mythic terms. A group claiming to represent the women of Fiume presented him with a dagger, declaring, “To you . . . chosen by God to radiate the light of renewed liberty through the world . . . [we] offer this holy dagger . . . so you may carve the word ‘victory’ in the living flesh of our enemies.” His so-called foreign minister proclaimed Fiume to be a “magic crucible in which the magma boils” and that might “produce the