The background to one of the reasons why Italy entered the First World War concerns their internal politics and civil unrest. Antonio Salandra became Prime Minister in March 1914 much to the surprise of many of the deputies who still saw Giolitti as the ‘natural ‘ Prime Minister. Salandra as a Liberal was pushed even further towards conservatism, as the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavaro (CGL) began a general strike on June 14th, 1914, after three anti-militarist demonstrators were killed. This strike had been the most widespread movement of popular protest since 1898, lasting a week and it took thousands of troops to restore law and order. This strike became known as ‘Red Week’. Salandra realised that the ‘Red Threat’ – Communism had become a reality; this realisation however, was soon pushed to the side as Europe fell into war.
In August 1914 Europe and its great powers went to war. Austria, being a member of the Triple Alliance (Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy) had declared war on Serbia. This action would inevitably draw in the draw in the Triple Entente (France, Britain, and Russia) as Serbia was allied with Russia, thus, starting war in Europe. Both Alliances had been preparing for war, each hungry for power. Even though Italy was part of the Triple Alliance, she refused to take action, claiming that Austria had broken the terms of the Treaty by declaring war without consulting Italy. Italy, then declared itself ‘neutral’. Although a great majority of Italians welcomed this decision, neutrality did not solve Italy’s problems concerning its relationship with Europe. Italy found itself in a difficult situation by remaining neutral. The was could have war results; on the one hand if Austria-Hungary and Germany won, it could be possible that they would choose to seek revenge on the country that had turned its back as soon as it was needed, Italy. On the other hand if the Entente won they would have no reason to grant Italy any of the Austrian territory that she so desired. Italy, in many ways had been split down the middle regarding the consequences of joining or not joining the war. However, it soon became clear that entering the First World War was inevitable.
By the 9th of September 1914 it seemed as if the Entente would win due to the victory at Marne. This victory gave Italy an incentive to join the war on the side of the Entente. However, there was a potential advantage in joining the other side. If the Triple Alliance was losing it was then possible that Austria-Hungary and Germany would now offer Italy more territory in order to secure another major power to their side and increase their chances of winning. The negotiations began with Italy to persuade them to enter the war, which boiled down to Italy taking sides with whoever had the most to offer. Salandra believed that ‘the monarchy and our institutions would not survive the conclusion of a European peace from which Italy did not emerge politically and territorially strengthened’. Germany wanted the Triple Alliance to offer Italy a large amount of Austrian territory but the Austrians refused to do so. In contrast, the Entente had offered not just Trentino and the Isonzo but also Trieste, South Tyrol, Istria and just under half of Dalmatia. Therefore, with Italy having so much to gain from the Entente this lead to Italy signing the Treaty of London. Consequently, on May 4th 1915 Italy condemned the Triple Alliance and entered the First World War three weeks later. Salandra expected, if all went to plan, that Italy would finally become united as a result of being a nation at war, and his position as Prime Minister would become firmly established.
So, not only was Italy’s entrance to the First World War political but it could possibly, as Salandra hoped, help to solve Italy’s domestic problems regarding unification and the ‘Red Threat’. However, the domestic situation was not as easily solves by war as Salandra had hoped because public opinion counted for a great deal and the majority of the Italian public did not want to go to war. The opposition to the war was consisted of The Socialist Party, (the only one in Western Europe which had not abandons its internationalist principles however, it was now seen as unpatriotic), and most Catholics, including Pope Benedict XV did not wish to get involved as Austria was a Catholic country. Another significant majority who were against war were the Southern Italians, many of whom had no opinion on Trent or Trieste and perceived ‘war simply as a disaster, like drought, famine or plague’. Businessmen (those who were not steel makers and ship builders) were especially opposed to war, particularly with the recent uprising and strike, as a nation at war could lead to State governed industry. Yet, even though all of the above were against Italy joining the First World War, they regarded it as inevitable.
Even though the majority of Italy was opposed to entering the war it was the minority that were heard. Mussolini, who had been a Socialist, radically quit his job as editor of Avanti and started up a new rival paper the Popolo d’Italia, which was pledged to war and revolution and he became the mouth piece for all Interventionists. Although the pro-war groups were very small, they used force to achieve their goal such as the Nationalists and irredentists who formed armed bands to attack Austria and countless university students coursed riots through out northern Italy in support of the war. The result was that, in a sense, so the minority was heard over the majority, which put Salandra in the position of being able to make the decision he wanted to without feeling uncomfortable.
Salandra’s need to secure his place as Prime Minister was a crucial influence in Italy joining the war. As many people still believed that Giolitti should have been Prime Minister instead of Salandra, he needed to prove them wrong and undermine Giolitti at the same time. The political tension was extreme as Giolitti as he believed that Italy should remain neutral and if that was not possible then Italy should side with Austria-Hungary and Germany rather than the Triple Entente. Giolitti painted a very negative picture o what joining the war would mean for Italy – mutiny and the end of the Monarchy. Salandra used Giolliti’s criticisms to call his bluff and handed in his resignation on May 13th. Consequently, the King Victor Emmanuel asked Giolitti to form a new government, he declined as he could not as it would have undermined Italy and the King, to go back on the Treaty of London with the Entente. So, on the 16th May, the King called back Salandra as Prime Minister. Therefore, Salandra’s position as Prime Minister was confirmed to Giolitti and well as the rest of government
All of the above contribute to the fact that Italy entering the war was inevitable rather than an option. Many people would argue that Italy joining the Entente and entering the First World War was in fact due to the long-standing campaign of the Liberals to make Italy great by gaining more territory. This leads me to believe that even though it was unavoidable for Italy to be a part of the First World War, joining and in particular, who with, was very much related to the domestic situation and Salandra’s views on how best to solve the problems of governing a unified Italy. Salandra entered the war because he saw it as a way to solve Italy’s social and political problems as well as his own. He had many things to consider but mostly the reaction of the other leading powers in Europe and this lead to the importance of Sonnino as he played a vital part in the negotiations. As well as achieving greater power outside of Italy, Salandra wished to unify the divide between the north and the south of Italy and this was one of the main liberal aims. However, one of the most crucial reasons why Italy entered the First World War was the international repercussions if she had stayed neutral – either way she could have gained an enemy depending on the outcome of the war. Italy was, in effect, playing a game of poker not knowing what cards the other players held, all Italy could do was guess who had the best hand and hope that she would come up trumps too.