Primary Documents - Italian Entry into the War, 23 May 1915
Having declared a policy of neutrality at the outset of the war on 2 August 1914, the Italian government was eventually persuaded to enter the war on the side of the Allies in May 1915.
Italy's decision to enter the war was largely driven by the terms of the secret 1915 Treaty of London under which she had been promised large territorial gains at the close of the war at Austria-Hungary's expense.
On 23 May 1915, the day Italy joined the war, the Italian Prime Minister, Antonio Salandra, issued the following declaration of support for the Allies.
I address myself to Italy and to the civilized world in order to show not by violent words, but by exact facts and documents, how the fury of our enemies has vainly attempted to diminish the high moral and political dignity of the cause which our arms will make prevail.
I shall speak with the calm of which the King of Italy has given a noble example, when he called his land and sea forces to arms. I shall speak with the respect due to my position and to the place in which I speak.
I can afford to ignore the insults written in Imperial, Royal, and Archducal proclamations. Since I speak from the Capitol, and represent in this solemn hour the people and the Government of Italy, I, a modest citizen, feel that I am far nobler than the head of the house of the Hapsburgs.
The commonplace statesmen who, in rash frivolity of mind and mistaken in all their calculations, set fire last July to the whole of Europe and even to their own hearths and homes, have now noticed their fresh colossal mistake, and in the Parliaments of Budapest and Berlin have poured forth brutal invective of Italy and her Government with the obvious design of securing the forgiveness of their fellow citizens and intoxicating them with cruel visions of hatred and blood.
The German Chancellor said he was imbued not with hatred, but with anger, and he spoke the truth, because he reasoned badly, as is usually the case in fits of rage. I could not, even if I chose, imitate their language. An atavistic throwback to primitive barbarism is more difficult for us who have twenty centuries behind us more than they have.
The fundamental thesis of the statesmen of Central Europe is to be found in the words "treason and surprise on the part of Italy toward her faithful allies." It would be easy to ask if he has any right to speak of alliance and respect for treaties who, representing with infinitely less genius, but with equal moral indifference, the tradition of Frederick the Great and Bismarck proclaimed that necessity knows no law, and consented to his country trampling under foot and burying at the bottom of the ocean all the documents and all the customs of civilization and international law.
But that would be too easy an argument. Let us examine, on the contrary, positively and calmly, if our former allies are entitled to say that they were betrayed and surprised by us.
Our aspirations had long been known, as was also our judgment on the act of criminal madness by which they shook the world and robbed the alliance itself of its closest raison d'etre. The "Green Book" prepared by Baron Sonnino, with whom it is the pride of my life to stand united in entire harmony in this solemn hour after thirty years of friendship, shows the long, difficult, and useless negotiations that took place between December and May.
But it is not true, as has been asserted without a shadow of foundation, that the Ministry reconstituted last November made a change in the direction of our international policy. The Italian Government, whose policy has never changed, severely condemned, at the very moment when it learned of it, the aggression of Austria against Serbia, and foresaw the consequences of that aggression, consequences which had not been foreseen by those who had premeditated the stroke with such lack of conscience.
In effect, Austria, in consequence of the terms in which her note was couched, and in consequence of the things demanded, which, while of little effect against the Pan-Serbian danger, were profoundly offensive to Serbia, and indirectly so to Russia, had clearly shown that she wished to provoke war.
Hence we declared to von Flotow that, in consequence of this procedure on the part of Austria and in consequence of the defensive and conservative character of the Triple Alliance Treaty, Italy was under no obligation to assist Austria if, as the result of this demarche, she found herself at war with Russia, because any European war would in such an event be the consequence of the act of provocation and aggression committed by Austria.
The Italian Government on July 27th and 28th emphasized in clear and unmistakable language to Berlin and Vienna the question of the cession of the Italian provinces subject to Austria, and we declared that if we did not obtain adequate compensation the Triple Alliance would have been irreparably broken. Impartial history will say that Austria, having found Italy in July, 1913, and in October, 1913, hostile to her intentions of aggression against Serbia, attempted last summer, in agreement with Germany, the method of surprise and the fait accompli.
The horrible crime of Sarajevo was exploited as a pretext a month after it happened - this was proved by the refusal of Austria to accept the very extensive offers of Serbia - nor at the moment of the general conflagration would Austria have been satisfied with the unconditional acceptance of the ultimatum.
Count Berchtold on July 3rst declared to the Duke of Avarna that, if there had been a possibility of mediation being exercised, it could not have interrupted hostilities, which had already begun with Serbia. This was the mediation for which Great Britain and Italy were working. In any case, Count Berchtold was not disposed to accept mediation tending to weaken the conditions indicated in the Austrian note, which, naturally, would have been increased at the end of the war.
If, moreover, Serbia had decided meanwhile to accept the aforementioned note in its entirety, declaring herself ready to agree to the conditions imposed on her, that would not have persuaded Austria to cease hostilities. It is not true, as Count Tisza declared, that Austria did not undertake to make territorial acquisitions to the detriment of Serbia, who, moreover, by accepting all the conditions imposed upon her, would have become a subject State.
The Austrian Ambassador, Herr Merey von Kapos-Mere, on July 30th, stated to the Marquis di San Giuliano that Austria could not make a binding declaration on this subject, because she could not foresee whether, during the war, she might not be obliged, against her will, to keep Serbian territory.
On July 29th Count Berchtold stated to the Duke of Avarna that he was not inclined to enter into any engagement concerning the eventual conduct of Austria in the case of a conflict with Serbia.
Where is, then, the treason, the iniquity, the surprise, if, after nine months of vain efforts to reach an honourable understanding which recognized in equitable measure our rights and our liberties, we resumed liberty of action? The truth is that Austria and Germany believed until the last days that they had to deal with an Italy weak, blustering, but not acting, capable of trying blackmail, but not enforcing by arms her good right, with an Italy which could be paralyzed by spending a few millions, and which by dealings which she could not avow was placing herself between the country and the Government.
I will not deny the benefits of the alliance; benefits, however, not one-sided, but accruing to all the contracting parties, and perhaps not more to us than to the others. The continued suspicions and the aggressive intentions of Austria against Italy are notorious and are authentically proved.
The Chief of the General Staff, Baron Conrad von Holtzendorff, always maintained that war against Italy was inevitable, either on the question of the irredentist provinces or from jealousy, that Italy intended to aggrandize herself as soon as she was prepared, and meanwhile opposed everything that Austria wished to undertake in the Balkans, and consequently it was necessary to humiliate her in order that Austria might have her hands free, and he deplored that Italy had not been attacked in 1907.
Even the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs recognized that in the military party the opinion was prevalent that Italy must be suppressed by war because from the Kingdom of Italy came the attractive force of the Italian provinces of the empire, and consequently by a victory over the kingdom and its political annihilation all hope for the irredentists would cease.
We see now on the basis of documents how our allies aided us in the Libyan undertaking. The operations brilliantly begun by the Duke of the Abruzzi against the Turkish torpedo boats encountered at Preveza were stopped by Austria in a sudden and absolute manner.
Count Aehrenthal on October 1st informed our Ambassador at Vienna that our operations had made a painful impression upon him and that he could not allow them to be continued. It was urgently necessary, he said, to put an end to them and to give orders to prevent them from being renewed, either in Adriatic or in Ionian waters.
The following day the German Ambassador at Vienna, in a still more threatening manner, confidentially informed our Ambassador that Count Aehrenthal had requested him to telegraph to his Government to give the Italian Government to understand that if it continued its naval operations in the Adriatic and in the Ionian Seas it would have to deal directly with Austria-Hungary.
And it was not only in the Adriatic and in the Ionian Seas that Austria paralyzed our actions. On November 5th Count Aehrenthal informed the Duke of Avarna that he had learned that Italian warships had been reported off Salonika, where they had used electric searchlights - and declared that our action on the Ottoman coasts of European Turkey, as well as on the Aegean Islands, could not have been allowed either by Austria-Hungary or by Germany, because it was contrary to the Triple Alliance Treaty.
In March, 1912, Count Berchtold, who had in the meantime succeeded Count Aehrenthal, declared to the German Ambassador in Vienna that, in regard to our operations against the coasts of European Turkey and the Aegean Islands, he adhered to the point of view of Count Aehrenthal, according to which these operations were considered by the Austro-Hungarian Government contrary to the engagement entered into by us by Article VII. of the Triple Alliance Treaty.
As for our operations against the Dardanelles, he considered it opposed, first, to the promise made by us not to proceed to any act which might endanger the status quo in the Balkans, and, secondly, to the spirit of the same treaty, which was based on the maintenance of the status quo.
Afterward, when our squadron at the entrance to the Dardanelles was bombarded by Fort Kumkalessi and replied, damaging that fort, Count Berchtold complained of what had happened, considering it contrary to the promises we had made, and declared that if the Italian Government desired to resume its liberty of action, the Austro-Hungarian Government could have done the same.
He added that lie could not have allowed us to undertake in the future similar operations or operations in any way opposed to this point of view. In the same way our projected occupation of Chios was prevented. It is superfluous to remark how many lives of Italian soldiers and how many millions were sacrificed through the persistent vetoing of our actions against Turkey, who knew that she was protected by our allies against all attacks on her vital parts.
We were bitterly reproached for not having accepted the offers made toward the end of May, but were these offers made in good faith? Certain documents indicate that they were not. Franz Josef said that Italy was regarding the patrimony of his house with greedy eyes. Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg said that the aim of these concessions was to purchase our neutrality, and, therefore, gentlemen, you may applaud us for not having accepted them.
Moreover, these concessions, even in their last and belated edition, in no way responded to the objectives of Italian policy, which are, first, the defence of Italianism, the greatest of our duties; secondly, a secure military frontier, replacing that which was imposed upon us in 1866, by which all the gates of Italy are open to our adversaries; thirdly, a strategical situation in the Adriatic less dangerous and unfortunate than that which we have, and of which you have seen the effects in the last few days. All these essential advantages were substantially denied us.
To our minimum demand for the granting of independence to Trieste the reply was to offer Trieste administrative autonomy. Also the question of fulfilling the promises was very important. We were told not to doubt that they would be fulfilled, because we should have Germany's guarantee, but if at the end of the war Germany had not been able to keep it, what would our position have been? And in any case, after this agreement, the Triple Alliance would have been renewed, but in much less favourable conditions, for there would have been one sovereign State and two subject States.
On the day when one of the clauses of the treaty was not fulfilled, or on the day when the municipal autonomy of Trieste was violated by an imperial decree or by a lieutenant's orders, to whom should we have addressed ourselves? To our common superior - to Germany? I do not wish to speak of Germany to you without admiration and respect. I am the Italian Prime Minister, not the German Chancellor, and I do not lose my head. But with all respect for the learned, powerful, and great Germany, an admirable example of organization and resistance, in the name of Italy I declare for no subjection and no protectorate over any one.
The dream of a universal hegemony is shattered. The world has risen. The peace and civilization of future humanity must be founded on respect for existing national autonomies. Among these Germany will have to sit as an equal, and not as a master.
But a more remarkable example of the unmeasured pride with which the directors of German policy regard other nations is given in the picture which Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg drew of the Italian political world.
I do not know if it was the intention of this man, blinded by rage, personally to insult my colleagues and me. If that was the case, I should not mention it. We are men whose life you know, men who have served the State to an advanced age, men of spotless renown, men who have given the lives of their children for their country.
The information on which this judgment was based is attributed by the German Chancellor to him whom he calls the best judge of Italian affairs. Perhaps he alludes to Prince von Billow, with the brotherly desire to shoulder responsibilities upon him. Now, I do not wish you to entertain an erroneous idea of Prince von Billow's intentions. I believe that he had sympathies for Italy, and did all he could to bring about an agreement.
But how great and how numerous were the mistakes he made in translating his good intentions into action! He thought that Italy could be diverted from her path by a few millions ill-spent and by the influence of a few persons who have lost touch with the soul of the nation - by contact, attempted, but, I hope, not accomplished, with certain politicians.
The effect was the contrary. An immense outburst of indignation was kindled throughout Italy, and not among the populace, but among the noblest and most educated classes and among all the youth of the country, which is ready to shed its blood for the nation.
This outburst of indignation was kindled as the result of the suspicion that a foreign Ambassador was interfering between the Italian Government, the Parliament, and the country.
In the blaze thus kindled internal discussions melted away, and the whole nation was joined in a wonderful moral union, which will prove our greatest source of strength in the severe struggle which faces us, and which must lead us by our own virtue, and not by benevolent concessions from others, to the accomplishment of the highest destinies of the country.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
By 1918 the percentage of women to men working in Britain had risen to 37% from 24% at the start of the war.
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