How Secure was Liberal Italy in 1914?

In 1914, Italy was in a delicate position, with the advances that had been made at risk of being undermined by the mounting problems that the country was facing. As the beginning of the First World War approached, the divisions between the North and the South of Italy and its many local regions were widening. The Liberal government was facing increasing opposition from both the Left and the Right, who aimed to take advantage of the fact that the Liberal’s could not even decide on issues between themselves, and accompanied by a weak industrial and economical situation, security looked a long way off for Italy.

It is arguable that Italy was in a more secure position in 1914 than is commonly accepted, and that the obvious problems the country was facing were in fact not particularly serious and completely manageable. Even if the people of Italy had negative feelings towards the government, the state had existed for 50 years. For a new country this was quite an achievement, and some people were of the opinion that the state was now in a position to develop. The Liberals had sponsored education for the masses, and slowly a more educated Italy was being formed. The government was able to display propaganda at schools to make children more aware of their plans to have a united Italy. It is fair to say that the potential lack of unity was because of the Italian public’s feelings, and so consequently if the next generation of people were in favour of a new Italian era then it would be possible to eradicate the problems caused by the divisions between the people. The government believed that if people from a young age felt that a united Italy was a possibility, any attempts in the future to make it a reality would not seem farfetched to a large proportion of the masses. As well as this, the growing levels of literacy meant Italy’s labourers were now better educated and more effective and had led to a more urbanised country, and a more economically advanced Italy was becoming a possibility. This was shown by the fact that a national economy had been formed, linked by roads and railways and making interaction between all areas of the country possible.

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This growing unity even meant that the Italian language had become a lingua franca. This was a language used for communication between people of different mother tongues, and was therefore spoken by people in the army and towns when trading. Ultimately, this evolved to approximately six or seven million people speaking the language, and it was hoped that eventually all Italians would speak the language. And the advancement did not stop at a potentially common language spoken by the whole country, with institutions such as Trade Unions being set up. This showed that there was more care for the average Italian workers, and that the old days where employers could treat their employees pretty much how they wanted were dying out. Standards were being introduced, there was backing for those who were being unfairly treated, and probably most of all this reflected how the greater good of the population was becoming more and more important. Italy was moving away from the country that it used to be, and was looking towards a brighter future, especially with other institutions such as national newspapers, Catholic Action – who were an organisation trying to encourage a Catholic influence in society, and the Carabinieri – who were the military police, becoming more popular and more widely regarded and respected.

Despite these growing signs of Italian Unity, Italy’s condition was still largely insecure and the problems that the country faced were potentially extremely damaging to the prospect of a completely united Italy. Possibly the most important of these problems was that the divides between North and South were extremely large, along with the divides between the local areas found throughout Italy. It is true that Nation states are extremely rare, and in 1914 Italy was certainly not one of these. The North of Italy was far more economically advanced than the South, and the bridge between them was growing. The opening of the first Fiat factory in Turin in 1899 signalled that Northern Italy was advancing and may be able to compete with the rest of Europe, but with problems such as locational factors, it seemed unlikely that Southern Italy would be able to catch up with the North.

The opening of the Brenner Pass in 1867 had reinforced this, as although the whole of Italy since it now linked to the economic markets of Europe, it was far more beneficial to the North and allowed further increases in the condition of the North Italian economic situation. Instead of improving the situation, the removal of the internal trading tariffs by the government in fact worsened the position. The South was now able to purchase more advanced products from the North instead of the less advanced products made by the South, potentially putting the few businesses in the South out of business. In conjunction with the North-South divide, there were also many more divisions throughout the country in the form of local communities. Due to the fact that Italy had not long been unified, people still felt only loyalty to their region and not to the country as a whole. This is known as parochialism, and was certainly a problem that if not removed would stop Italy from advancing at any stage in the near future,

Following Italy’s unification, a constitutional government was formed like that of Great Britain’s. This then begs the question, why was Italy so politically unstable? The answer – Italy was unable to form democratic traditions because of the corruption found within the political parties. These corrupt politicians bribed the voters to vote for their parties, and once in power, used their position for personal gain. They were not interested in solving the mounting social and economic problems that the country was facing, and until someone with the intention of solving Italy’s problem came in to power, there was no way Italy would be able to move forward.

This is best illustrated by the fact that 0.01% of the population on the South owned 50% or the land. Normal Italian people were not being given a fair chance to better both themselves of the country as a whole. This possibly explains the belief that many Italians were idle, prone to riot and disorder and vulnerable to forces hostile to the regime. It is impossible to expect the masses to be enthusiastic towards the politicians goals of a united Italy when they were being treated so unfairly themselves. Accompanied by this, despite the governments efforts to raise literacy levels through education, 70% of Italians could not read or write. It would take a huge amount of effort and money that the country simply didn’t have to overturn this, but it was an investment that needed to be made. Without a competent workforce, Italy would not be able to improve economically, meaning it had no way to match the other major powers in Europe or even just improve the country from it’s present position.

With few natural resources, it was going to be very difficult for Italy to advance economically. A large amount of labourers worked in agriculture, and even this industry faced problems. Italy had little fertile land, and accompanied with a difficult terrain, yields were low. This is backed up by the fact that yields in Italy were as low as 9 hectolitres, compared to 19 in France and 25 in Britain. Although the difficult landscape that caused these low figures was unchangeable, it was having a massive effect on the Italian economy and risking the country’s security as a whole. Few of these labourers that worked in agriculture even owned the land they worked on and were often unemployed. This left a huge amount of disgruntled Italians, and so it was no surprise that large amounts of the population chose to emigrate to the USA in search of the “American Dream”.

As the 20th Century began, it wasn’t only the Liberal government’s own weaknesses that were a risk. The Liberal’s now faced challenges from political opposition on both the left and the right, and so now had to fight off these threats as well as working on their own party. On the left there was the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and the CGL, whilst on the right there was Nationalism and Futurism. Many people agreed with the views of the PSI, and this was reinforced by the 20% of the vote that they had in 1913. Vast amounts of the population lived in extremely poor conditions, and felt that the PSI offered them a chance to improve their standards of living and work (through the Trade Unions). On the other side, both the Nationalists and the Futurists were growing. The Nationalists felt that Italy had lost all sense of pride, and vowed to increase unity, authority and military action throughout the country. The Futurists also wanted an increase in national unity, but also felt modernisation and cultural advancement were important themes. With all of these different views and ambitions for the future, it was going to be hard for anybody to set about improving Italy in a way that was beneficial for all. The conflicting ideas meant it was difficult for the public to decide on what was best to better Italy. Leading on from this, an unstable government had been a key aspect of Italy since its unification. The Liberals were unable to keep a Prime Minister, and with the make up of the government continually changing it was difficult for anybody to set about securing Italy’s future.

To conclude, Italy’s condition in 1914 was clearly insecure, and there was a long way to go for Italy to become the Nation that many wanted it to be. Whether it be the weak and problematic government, the divides between North and South as well as individual local regions, the growing political opposition or Italy’s weak industrial and economic position, Italy had a long way to go before it was “secure”. Coupled with a resentful Church, high death rates and weak workforce the future of Italy was by no way certain, and would take a lot to bring the security that the vast amount of the Italian population desired.


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