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The Border Campaign

Enda O’Doherty

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, by Mark Thompson, Faber and Faber, 454 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0571223336

It can occasionally happen that a journalist, in the course of his professional duties, may be required to utter a small untruth, or acquiesce in one already broadcast. It was in such a mildly compromising situation that I found myself, on a sunny spring day half a dozen years ago, sitting down to lunch in the home of the Slovenian winegrower Marjan Simčič as a member of what had been introduced to him as a party of Irish wine experts. Keen to have the conversation turn away, if only momentarily, from questions of acidity, structure and tannic grip, I seized my opportunity when our host mentioned that the wine we were drinking came from the vineyard that could be seen abutting the end of his garden and that therefore, in one sense, it was not a Slovenian wine at all – since at the end of the garden was Italy. Ah, we had not realised the border was so close, or indeed that its presence could be so little of an obstacle to running a business. Oh no, the border was not a problem, Mr Simčič replied, and really never had been. Local people took little account of borders and their absurdities. Indeed, he told us, there were some old folk still alive thereabouts who could boast that they had been born in Austria, gone to school in Italy, married in Yugoslavia, and would soon no doubt be buried in Slovenia – and all without leaving the parish.

In 2004, a year after my visit to the vineyards of Goriśka Brda, Slovenia was one of eight formerly “eastern European” nations to join the EU. On May 1st, accession day, journalists from the European press, on the lookout for a good angle and an “iconic” image, descended on the twin cities of Gorizia/Nova Gorica to take photographs of people queueing at a rather modest fence which was presumably to be represented to readers as a kind of miniature Berlin Wall. The locals, who had been accustomed to passing at will through a nearby crossing point for many years, were highly amused. Slovenes had long been able to go shopping for consumer goods in Italy or Austria, while Italians crossed the border for cheap petrol or dentistry or to throw away their money at the casino in Nova Gorica. By the early 2000s, some young Slovenes were even crossing to Italy to go to college, though there was always, I was told, a slight risk of some unpleasantness – that one’s car, for example, might be spray-painted “SCHIAVI” (slaves/Slavs), a reminder from the nationally-minded youth of Trieste or Gorizia that whatever changes politics might bring, their eastern neighbours should remember that they were not born of the great race of Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian and not get too big for their boots.

Mark Thompson’s history of Italy’s experience in the First World War, a largely untold story in the Anglo-Saxon cultural sphere, recalls a time when the delineation of Italy’s northeastern borders, and their extension as far as (or further than) could reasonably be justified, was a matter of great moment and one for which politicians and generals seemed willing to consider almost any sacrifice. Italy had been unified in the 1860s and 70s under the leadership, some would say domination, of the northwestern state of Piedmont, whose monarch, Victor Emmanuel, became king of Italy. The main political role, however, was played by the Piedmontese, and later Italian, prime minister, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour. If Cavour was the architect of unification it must be said he was a somewhat accidental one: the main purpose of his policy had been to strengthen Piedmont and see it dominate northern Italy; indeed as late as 1856 he had dismissed the Venetian patriot Daniele Manin as a fool for his gabbling about l’unità d’Italia ed altre corbellerie (the unity of Italy and other nonsense). Nevertheless, through a combination of the intrigues of foreign powers, some fortuitous and even surprising military events and Cavour’s own formidable political skills, this astute conservative liberal, who spoke Italian with difficulty (his everyday language was Piedmontese and his language of culture French), found himself the first prime minister of the unified state. Neither he nor Victor Emmanuel were by any means alone in their linguistic deficit: it has been estimated that Italian (that is to say the Tuscan/Florentine dialect that was to become the standard language) was in 1860 spoken by some 2.5 per cent of the new state’s citizens – if indeed “citizens” is the appropriate word: Italian unification had been effected by a tiny elite and political Italy continued to be run by one. The franchise was confined to men who could read and write and who paid at least forty lire a year in direct taxes – less than 2 per cent of the population. Parliament, though containing persons who called themselves liberals and conservatives, democrats, clericals and monarchists, men of “the left” and of “the right”, lacked any proper party system. With most deputies quite susceptible to bribery, manipulation and threats, managing the chamber posed few problems for smooth operators like Cavour, or his successors Dupretis, Crispi and Giolitti. And if a government fell apart, well it would not be so difficult to put another one together.

The capture of Rome (from the pope) in 1870, coming on top of the exodus of the Austrians from first Lombardy then the Veneto, had represented for many the successful culmination of the process of unification. For others, however, it was a case of a lot done, a lot more to do. The demarcation line between Italy and Austria in the northeast, along the line of the Isonzo (Soča) river, was, according to the great patriot and military leader Giuseppe Garibaldi, “an ugly border”; others professed to find it devoid of logic, “irrational and capricious”. Garibaldi hoped to see it moved another 150 kilometres east, (which would however have taken into Italy many hundreds of thousands of Slovenes and Croats). Further to the north, the obvious and natural frontier seemed to be the crown of the Alps at the Brenner Pass. But this would have taken from the Austrians not just the culturally Italian province of Trento but the almost wholly Austrian (and German-speaking) one of Alto Adige (Südtirol).

In 1882, however, Italy appeared to place on hold its remaining claims on the northeast when it entered into the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, a foreign policy orientation that would remain in place until it suddenly shifted position again in 1915. Alliance with Austria did not however entail the total abandonment of aspirations for territorial aggrandisement. There were elements in modern bourgeois liberal Italy who seemed to be fatally drawn to dreams of emulating imperial Rome: the Catholic liberal Stefano Jacini spoke of a “mania for expansion”, leading the country into “an enormous armament quite disproportionate to our resources”. Armament led to war, and war, normally, to defeat: at the battle of Adua in 1896 Ethiopian forces killed six thousand Italians in a day. In 1911 Rome informed the Ottoman Empire that “the general exigencies of civilisation” obliged it to occupy Libya. The Turks backed down, and also ceded Rhodes and the Dodecanese. The Libyan Arab tribesmen were another matter: they could not be conclusively defeated and Italy’s North African adventure soon became bogged down in the sand. As Bismarck had once observed, the Italians seemed to have a large appetite but very poor teeth.

Analysts have attributed the new state’s expansionism not just to its Ancient Roman complex but also to a deep-seated existential insecurity: how could the nation be great if it was not – as much evidence suggested – really a nation at all? The imperialists’ answer was that a sense of belonging would be forged through war as Italy’s disparate regional elements absorbed a sense of pride and fraternity from the experience of fighting (being compelled to fight) for the nation which they henceforth constituted. Feelings of non-belonging and resentment of the capital and its representatives were particularly acute in the South. As the governor of Naples, Luigi Farini, wrote in 1860:

In seven million inhabitants [of the South] there are not a hundred who want a united Italy. Nor are there any Liberals to speak of ... What can you possibly build out of stuff like this! ... If only our accursed civilisation did not forbid floggings, cutting out people’s tongues, and noyades [drownings]. Then something would happen.

Giovanni Giolitti, five times prime minister between 1892 and 1921, was not an instinctual imperialist but he had – driven by the conviction that he must outflank his critics – been the prime mover in the Libyan debacle. Nationalist opinion despised Giolitti’s concern with what they called Italietta (little Italy) and its trivial problems – like “the balance of trade deficit, agricultural tariffs, tax collecting, the unruly banking sector, the plight of peasant farmers, the tyranny of absentee landlords, rural emigration, and the use of martial law against strikers in Italy’s giddily expanding cities”. What would certainly be more exciting than these dreary matters was war, and to Antonio Salandra, Italy’s prime minister in 1914, and his foreign minister, Sidney Sonnino, it was also quite clear that the country’s participation on the winning side in the coming conflict could bring it significant territorial gains, if not directly from the fighting then certainly from the postwar settlement and carve-up. All that remained to figure was which side was likely to win.

After considerable delay and the maintenance over many months of twin-track negotiations with both Vienna and London, Salandra and Sonnino, influenced perhaps by news of Russian victories in March 1915 in the Carpathians, decided to back the Entente (Britain, France and Russia) rather than the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria). On April 26th the Treaty of London was signed. In return for committing its resources to fight the enemies of the Entente, Italy would receive after the war Trentino, south Tyrol, the cities of Trieste and Gorizia, the Istrian peninsula, Dalmatia (the eastern Adriatic coast, today in Croatia) down as far as Trogir, near Spalato (Split), and most of the islands running south to Dubrovnik. These territories were home to 230,000 German-speaking Austrians and up to 750,000 Slovenes and Croats – as well as 650,000 Italians. As a general rule, Italians were concentrated in the towns and Slavs and Germans dominated the hinterlands.

Salandra instructed Italy’s regional governors to prepare reports for him on people’s attitudes to the coming conflict. The findings were that most people thought going to war could be justified only if the homeland was under attack. Business leaders, with the exception of the large northern industrialists, were against fighting. The governor of Naples reckoned that ninety per cent of all social classes were anti-war. Peasants, whose sons were most susceptible to the draft, regarded it as a calamity, like famine or plague; only the intelligentsia was in favour.

Gabriele D’Annunzio became, after the death of Verdi in 1901 and until the emergence of Mussolini, the world’s most famous Italian. A poet and dramatist, dandy and womaniser, literary genius and preening fool, he was also a mystical nationalist and warmonger. In the early hours of April 24th, 1915, Italian customs officers fired on Austrian reservists who were burning a bridge over the river Judrio. A few hours later the first Italian casualty was brought back across the river on a farmer’s cart. On the following day, D’Annunzio delivered a speech in the high style:

Our vigil is ended. Our exultation begins ... The cannon roars. The earth smokes ... Companions, can it be true? We are fighting with arms, we are waging our war, the blood is spurting from the veins of Italy! We are the last to join this struggle and already the first are meeting with glory ... The slaughter begins, the destruction begins ... All these people, who yesterday thronged in the streets and squares, loudly demanding war, are full of veins, full of blood; and that blood begins to flow ... We have no other value but that of our blood to be shed.

There were, of course, those in the pro-war party who scoffed at this kind of thing. For them, the pursuit of the national interest was less a matter of mysticism than of cold calculation, while war was not a sacrament but a science. Given the course of hostilities so far, the balance of forces in the field, Britain’s power of naval blockade and Austria’s inability to fight a war on three fronts, a breakthrough on the line of the Isonzo river might, they felt, be expected fairly quickly. The Italian army would then press into the Slovenian interior before wheeling north towards Graz and Vienna. Events over the next three years were to demonstrate just how mistaken these would-be realists were. In fact the crazed D’Annunzio, with his visions of blood spurting from the martyred body of Italy, turned out to be more prescient.

Of the armies involved in the conflict, Austria’s was neither the most modern nor the most efficient, reflecting no doubt the still largely pre-industrial empire from which it emerged. Still, at the start of the conflict it outgunned Italy, most crucially in machineguns. Ethnically, it reflected the diversity of the empire: only a quarter of the infantry were Austro-German, 18 per cent were Hungarian, 13 per cent Czech and the rest Poles, Croats, Slovenes, Serbs, Romanians, Slovaks, Ruthenes, Bosniaks, Jews and even Italians. The language of command was of course German, but officers were also expected to learn the language of their troops within three years of joining a regiment. This, however, would have had little effect in the First World War since most of the professional army’s officers were wiped out in the first year of fighting, to be replaced by “civilians in uniform”. Reservists who replaced fallen officers were often unable to communicate with their men, who in the Italian theatre were predominantly Slovenes, Croats and Bosniaks.

The Austrian chief of staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, was a confident, charming and gifted man with considerable intellectual ability but very little practical experience of war. He was a Social Darwinist, holding that the struggle for existence was the principle that governed all historical events. He was ultimately pessimistic about the fate of the Habsburg Empire but believed that if it was to go down it should go down fighting. He hated and feared the Serbs and despised the Italians (his mistress excepted). Italy, however, he loved, “in the way”, Thompson writes, “that British colonialists loved India, with a delicious sense of entitlement”.

As a young man, on the train to Trieste, he suddenly saw – as one still does, approaching from the north or east – the Adriatic spread below. ‘The world lay open before me. I was filled with a sense of joy and freedom.’

His Italian opposite number, General Luigi Cadorna, was equally inexperienced in war and equally confident of his strategic gifts. The key to success, he believed, was resources and sacrifice. And he was prepared to fight the politicians for those resources and commit his men to that sacrifice. There would be few big breakthroughs, just a grinding struggle, which Italy however was eventually bound to win, for Austria could not compete in terms of either manpower or matériel. He was a more austere figure than Conrad, a soldier not an intellectual, who felt ill at ease in Rome and happier, as he said, “at the front” – by which he meant his staff headquarters in Udine, some thirty kilometres in fact from the front line.

What Cadorno’s theories of frontal attack on the enemy meant in practice is described by the junior officer Renato di Stolfo, writing of a small engagement during what became known as the First Battle of the Isonzo. Thompson writes:

The men rest for a few hours, trying to dry out. At noon, they form a line, dropping to one knee while the officers stand with sabres drawn. The regimental colours flutter freely. Silence. Then a trumpet sounds, the men bellow ‘Savoy!’[the name of the royal house] as from one throat, the band strikes up the Royal March. Carrying knapsacks that weigh 35 kilograms, the men attack up the steep slope, in the teeth of accurate fire from positions that the Italians cannot see. An officer brandishing his sabre in his right hand has to use his left hand to stop the scabbard from tripping him up. The men are too heavily laden to move quickly. Renato remembered the scene as a vision of the end of an era: ‘In a whirl of death and glory, within a few moments, the epic Garibaldian style of warfare is crushed and consigned to the shadows of history!’ The regimental music turns discordant, then fades. The officers are bowled down by machine-gun fire while the men crawl for cover on hands and knees. The battle is lost before it begins. The Italians present such a magnificent target, they are bound to fail. A second attack, a few hours later, is aborted when the bombardment falls short, hitting their own line. The afternoon peters out in another rainstorm.

The practice of numbering the battles of the Isonzo (one to twelve, from June/July 1915 to October/November 1917), originated with the Austrians but was later taken up by the Italians, who can scarcely have realised that this would soon draw attention to their extreme immobility and lack of progress. Thompson gives a more than adequate account of each battle, and the detail will certainly be of interest to military history buffs. Others may find that there is a fair degree of repetition in the account – a sad necessity it must be said as there was a fair degree of repetition in the events: Austrian positions well dug in on high ground; repeated Italian infantry assaults uphill, torrential rain, men unable to penetrate barbed wire defences and mown down by machinegun fire, a strong point eventually taken after sustaining great losses, only to be given up again shortly after a savage Austrian counter-attack.

Thompson does not go quite so far as to say that Cadorno learned nothing from these repeated defeats or stalemates – but there is no doubt that he was a reluctant learner: while he devoted some thought to the problem of dealing with quick and successful Austrian counter-attacks, he was convinced that there was little wrong with his essential strategy of wearing down the enemy: the Austrians, in spite of the superior positions the geography of the front had given them, were not strong and would become weaker. In the meantime, his men should just do their duty.

Armed with this simple soldier’s view, it is not surprising that the general had little patience with politicians’ concerns about morale on the home front, or indeed the valiant attempts of journalists to massage it with improbable tales of heroism and imminent victory. Lieutenant Ugo Ojetti, a middle-aged art historian who had volunteered for work at Cadorno’s headquarters, devised a sophisticated scheme whereby propaganda material would contain elements of genuine information about the purpose of particular military actions and would further be tailored for particular regional audiences. While still untrue, it would strive to become more believable. This was too much for Cadorno, who simply wanted journalists to reproduce his communiqués verbatim; Ujetti was removed from his post and put in charge of the photographic library. (This did not prevent him winning the Bronze Medal for Military Valour for entering Gorizia, shortly after the troops, in August 1916; those who were a little nearer the action speculated that he would next be awarded the silver medal – for the nerve he had shown in accepting the bronze.)

When the press realised that Cadorno wanted to ban all journalists from the front, the leading newspapers petitioned successfully for access in large groups under military escort in a controlled environment in which the Supreme Command would be able to vet all copy. Milan’s Corriere della Sera, Italy’s newspaper of record, which at this point sold 600,000 copies a day, “became a parallel ministry of information, propaganda and intelligence. It saw itself, and was seen by the government and the Supreme Command, as part and parcel of the war effort.” There was nothing particularly Italian about this: Britain’s Lord Northcliffe had asked General Haig to let him know if The Times printed anything he didn’t like. Individual Italian journalists, Thompson writes, believed nothing was more important than winning the war, and so day after day they wrote comforting lies. Soldiers on the other hand, whether officers or enlisted men, tended when home on leave to tell the truth, though this could be dangerous for them; some journalists at the front kept their public and private accounts of events (literally) in separate boxes. It would be anachronistic, Thompson suggests, to condemn them for their failure to subscribe to the modern notion that “the public has a right to know”.

Even though the general drift of events was on the whole to favour the Entente (the stalling of the German offensive in France, the effects of the British blockade, the stirrings of nationalist disaffection in Austria-Hungary, the arrival of the Americans) this did not make the war any more popular. At the front, the wisdom of dying obediently and cheerfully “for Trento and Trieste” was beginning to be questioned. At the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo, in May/June 1917, 10,000 prisoners were taken. It was rumoured that three regiments, with their officers and equipment, had surrendered without fighting. Cadorno privately confessed his wish that the Austrian commander in the field would have them flogged.

Things were difficult on the home front too. The prime minister was warned that the rural population in the areas nearest the fighting was broadly against the war, with women being particularly outspoken, in some cases openly expressing a wish for an Austrian victory. In a school near Mantua, a teacher set her class the essay topic “For Italy to win, we must resist to the end.” Many of the children took issue with the title; one boy wrote that the officers (“the ones who give orders”) were

not yet tired of killing the poor people who aren’t guilty of anything. To make it a just war, they should 1. send all those who want war to the front, because if they want it they should fight it. 2. send the rich people who give money for war bonds. 3. send the poor men home. Then it would be a just war!

The patriotic teacher reported her class to the military police.

Addressing the puzzle of Cadorno’s enormous prestige during the war – given the meagre results of his generalship – the antifascist politician and diplomat Count Carlo Sforza later wrote: “The Italian middle classes wanted to believe that a harsh mask and hermetic silence were the sure signs of genius, and that brutality was energy.” One way in which the general demonstrated that brutality was in his frequent recourse to decimation, the use of terror and the execution of rank and file soldiers by lottery in situations where discipline was thought to be fraying. Just as brutal as Cadorno, though markedly less silent, was the decadent genius Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of the artistic movement known as Futurism. Unlike D’Annunzio, Marinetti did not venerate the Italian and Roman past (indeed he called for the filling in of the canals in order to build a new industrial and militarised Venice). But he did venerate war and was invited to the front by General Luigi Capello, where he gave pep talks to the men before the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo and declaimed long poems like “The Pope’s Aeroplane” and “The Song of the Pederasts”. War, for Marinetti, was itself a poem, “the world’s only hygiene” and “the culminating and perfect synthesis of progress (aggressive velocity + violent simplification)”.

Losses were high through all the battles on the Italian front, and not just in combat: on one day alone, December 13th, 1916, known as White Friday, some 10,000 soldiers died in avalanches. After the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo in October 1917 (also called the Battle of Caporetto), when a German army penetrated the Italian lines, forcing Cadorno’s men into a confused retreat, an Austrian military bulletin noted that every square kilometre the enemy had gained in the course of the previous eleven battles had been paid for with the lives of 5,400 men. In the confusion following the rout of Caporetto most enlisted men were separated from their officers and many seemed to think the war was over. When thousands of them, singing the Internationale, flocked around a car taking Cadorno back to his headquarters in Udine, his deputy, General Porro, muttered: “Why doesn’t someone shoot them?” It does not seem to have occurred to him that they might shoot him.

The Germans and Austrians took 300,000 Italian prisoners after Caporetto, who joined the 200,000 or more already in camps throughout the empire. Uniquely among the Entente powers, the Italians refused to take responsibility for sending food to their men in captivity (the Central Powers claimed they were unable to feed prisoners due to the Allied naval blockade). Those who allowed themselves to be taken by the enemy were to be regarded as cowards, “sinners against the Fatherland, the Spirit, and Heaven”, said D’Annunzio. As a result of this policy more than 100,000 Italian soldiers died in captivity – a rate nine times worse than for Habsburg prisoners in Italy.

Just as it was a German intervention on behalf of its Austrian ally that had broken the stalemate, so now it was a French and British one that saved Italy from total humiliation and went on to turn the tide in its favour. The first step was to get rid of Cadorno (prime minister Salandro had already fallen, to be replaced first by Paolo Boselli and then Vittorio Emanuele Orlando). The blow was struck at a meeting in Rapallo attended by the generals William Robertson and Ferdinand Foch. The British said they were prepared to commit troops and to entrust them to the bravery of their Italian comrades – but not to the abilities of their commanders. General Porro tried to speak; General Foch told him to shut up. Cadorno, the British and French agreed, must go immediately. He was replaced by General Armando Diaz, a humane and competent Neapolitan who had risen through the ranks and who now set about rebuilding morale.

At the end of 1917, the allies transferred significant resources to Italy in the form of munitions, shipping, extra loans and 130,000 French and 110,000 British troops to act as a strategic reserve. British soldiers arriving from France and Flanders were greeted with extravagant hospitality. Gunner Alfred Finnigan, who died in 2005, remembered the “absolute joy” of seeing the Mediterranean and the sun in December. As the Italian army was being reinforced, so the Austrians were weakening, increasingly compromised by loss of personnel, lack of arms and munitions and the disaffection of soldiers from the empire’s subject nationalities. In June 1918 the Italians won a decisive victory in the Battle of Solstice (according to the Piedmontese anti-fascist Ferruccio Parri “the only proper national battle of which our country can truly be proud”). As Austria and Germany began to explore the possibilities of a negotiated peace, the Italians realised they were running out of time: a unilateral Austrian withdrawal would do nothing for the country’s territorial claims at the peace conference; the army would have to win some ground itself. The blow was struck on October 24th on the River Piave by an Italian and British army that was far superior to its adversary in men, supplies and munitions. By the end of the month units of the Eight Army had occupied Vittorio Veneto, sixteen kilometres further east. Aware that their new emperor, Karl, was suing for peace, many Austrian regiments had already deserted and gone home; those that remained began to burn their ammunition dumps while some half-starved units surrendered. It was all over.

On November 3rd both Trento and Trieste were liberated. General Petitti di Roreto, who would be Trieste’s first Italian governor, addressed cheering crowds in the city: “From today,” he cried, “our dead are dead no longer!” Italy’s territorial claims were just one of many elements that poisoned the Versailles peace conference that began in January 1919. The terms promised Italy by the London Treaty conflicted with American president Woodrow Wilson’s ideas on national self-determination, in so far as they ignored the wishes of German-Austrian, Slovene and Croat minorities. If this were not bad enough, Italy had also been promised most of the eastern Adriatic coast. At the conference, she was prepared to argue her case using arguments cut from any cloth: the Brenner Pass was “the natural frontier God has given [Italy]”; behind Trieste and the Carso plateau the border must, for reasons of security, reach forty kilometres inland; the port of Fiume (Rijeka) must be ceded on the grounds of the right to self-determination of its Italian population, while possession of Dalmatia was strategically necessary as Italy must be able to control the Adriatic. The antics of the Italian negotiators at Versailles, and particularly of prime minister Orlando, made even the stuffed shirt Wilson cuss.

In the end settlement of Italy’s borders had to await a special conference at Rapallo in 1920. Wilson’s Democrats had lost the 1920 presidential election and the new nation of Yugoslavia knew it would simply have to settle with Italy for what it could get. The terms were advantageous to Italy, bringing its eastern border half-way to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana and enclosing 750,000 non-Italians in the newly expanded state. Italians had paid a high price for their gains. The three nineteenth century wars of independence had cost fewer than 10,000 lives. Italy’s border campaign of 1915-1918 had claimed the lives of 689,000 soldiers, with another million wounded and 600,000 civilians who died from the collateral damage of war. In all, three times as many Italians died in the First World War as in the Second. Economically, the conflict had cost one hundred and forty-eight billion lire, or a sum equivalent to all government spending between 1861 and 1913.

Even before the Fascist takeover in 1922, Trieste, Thompson writes, had already “become a laboratory of proto-fascist misrule”. In 1920 a mob burned down the city’s Slovene cultural centre. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Slovenes and Croats suspected of political opposition were interned, war veterans were planted on the conquered territories, place names, even family names, were forcibly Italianised and school reforms planned to “denationalise the racial minorities”. (The same policies were applied to the Greeks on the Dodecanese Islands, the German-speaking Austrians in Alto Adige/Südtirol and even the small French-speaking community in Aosta; later, the need for accommodation with the German and Austrian Nazis eased the plight of the Austrian minority.) After the Second World War Italy was to lose almost all the territories it had gained in 1920. The strip of land around the Bay of Trieste was administered as a neutralised free city until 1954, when it was finally divided between Italy and Yugoslavia, the city itself staying with Italy. The anniversary of that settlement is still celebrated each year in Trieste’s impressive Piazza Unità d’Italia by a colourful assortment of splendidly dressed militari and paramilitari proclaiming yet again l’Italianità di Trieste.

Trieste in the twentieth century seemed to boast (or suffer from) that excess of patriotism which is common in disputed frontier cities. A Habsburg possession from the fourteenth century, it thrived as the empire’s main commercial port, and, after Venice was lost in 1866, its naval headquarters. It was a prosperous, cosmopolitan and intellectual city (“Trieste was the crack through which modernism seeped into Italy”), with Italian, Austrian, Jewish, Greek, Serbian and Slovene communities all participating in its official and commercial life. Numerically, Italians dominated in the city itself, with Slovenes preponderant in the suburbs. The expansion of the Slovene community, encouraged by the Austrians, and the emergence of a Slovene middle class, greatly bothered the younger and more intellectual generation of Triestines, who feared they might be seeing the first waves of an ocean that would drown Italian identity (Italianità). Cultural chauvinism could indeed be found on both sides, but tended to more spectacular flights on the Italian.

James Joyce, a Trieste resident from 1905 to 1915 and again briefly after the war, observed his city’s politics with interest, interpreting it partially through an Irish prism. Thus he was sympathetic to Italians’ ambition to shake off Austrian rule (as he was broadly sympathetic to the Sinn Féin programme in Ireland). Yet he was as drawn to socialism as to nationalism (and in Trieste socialism was not overly nationalist) and somewhat sceptical of Italians’ grand claims for the greatness of their culture. At bottom, he was much enamoured of Trieste’s cosmopolitanism and mourned its loss when he returned to a much depressed city in 1919. He was also inclined to be something of an enemy of chauvinism and cultural terrorism. John McCourt, in his superb account of Joyce’s Trieste years The Years of Bloom, quotes the sentiments of one Attilio Tamaro, a student of Joyce, about his Slavic neighbours:

It remains to be noted that the Slavs who immigrated into Julian Venetia have not succeeded in forming even an elementary civilization of their own ... they have no civilization as they have no history. On the other hand the Italians of the Julian Region may pride themselves on a most noble history, both as regards their splendid municipal record and the contribution of soldiers, statesmen, artists and scientists to the greatness of Venice and Italy ...

McCourt fancies he hears an echo of these wonderfully assured sentiments in the anti-British rant of Joyce’s Citizen in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses:

Their syphilisation, you mean, says the citizen. To hell with them! The curse of a goodfornothing God light sideways on the bloody thicklugged sons of whores’ gets! No music and no art and no literature worthy of the name. Any civilisation they have they stole from us. Tonguetied sons of bastards’ ghosts.

Coming up to one hundred years later, Trieste seems to be finally emerging from the torpor to which its peripheral position in postwar Italy condemned it. The Slovenes still live in the suburbs and some of them vote for Slovene political parties to assert their right to their national and cultural identity. The provincial parliament of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia writes its name in four languages (Italian, German, Slovene and Friulian). A joint Italian-Slovenian commission has published an agreed text sketching out the two countries’ common history – so perhaps there is a respect for diversity that was once absent. On the other hand there is support in Trieste and the surrounding area for the populist and xenophobic Lega Nord, as there once was for the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano. As for the Austrians, they are welcome everywhere. In the nearby resort town of Grado, motorists approaching from the north across the causeway are greeted by a large sign welcoming them to “Mitteleuropas Sommerstrand”. In the hotels and restaurants there are photographs of the old emperor Franz Josef and his beautiful wife Sissi.

Mark Thompson has produced a history of the conduct of the First World War on the Italian front which is comprehensive, judicious and often beautifully written. It is a view primarily from an Italian rather than an Austrian point of view though as is perhaps obvious it is not particularly sympathetic to Italian war aims. It is even conceivable that some will find it anti-Italian, but it is not in any sense anti the baffled, conscripted infantryman and manages also to preserve a sympathy and respect for the patriotic junior officer. It is unsparing, however, in its judgment of Italy’s military and political ruling class, possibly the most incompetent, vicious and stupid in Europe at this time (and there was some competition). The White War is not a horrific book but a profoundly sad one: Thompson does not dwell on the physical horror – the injuries and disfigurements, the effects of poison gas, the shell shock, the lice and the rats, the stumps of human meat left littering the mud of no man’s land. What he has produced rather is a sober and devastating account of the greed, folly, shortsightedness and contempt for humanity of just one section of Europe’s ruling class, that closely related group which bears collective responsibility for unleashing the horrific war which was to become the original sin of the twentieth century, clearing away for so many the hope or illusion of peaceful progress and morally paving the way for the abundant evil which was to follow.


Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.

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