Sunday, 17 July 2011

'Here we'll stay wonderfully': d'Annunzio and Fiume

The Treaty of Versailles was drafted to decide the fate of the defeated nations and contested territories left in the wake of the end of the First World War.
From its first publication it was contentious with even representatives from the victorious powers concerned over how effective it would be in settling the affairs that had caused the war.
Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, who had commanded the British forces in the Middle East during the First World War said:

"After the 'war to end all wars' they seem determined to create a peace that will end all peace..."

One of the most controversial results of the Treaty was the fate of Fiume, a seaport on the Adriatic coast, which was due to be awarded to Yugoslavia as a part of the post-war negotiations.
This caused a great deal of resentment among many Italians.
Fiume was seen as largely Venetian in terms of culture and history and boasted an Italian population that made up 88% of its entire citizenry.
Various Nationalist voices, such as Marinetti and Mussolini, spoke out against this decision but one vowed to act.
Gabriele d'Annunzio promised to take Fiume for Italy.
A poet, politician and adventurer, d'Annunzio had long been a controversial and well-known figure in Italy.
52 years old when the War started d'Annunzio insisted upon enlisting and became renowned for his daredevil antics and fearless actions.
He became such a thorn in the side of the Austrian army that a bounty was placed on his head. He responded by entering the harbour of Bakar in a motorboat and leaving behind rubber capsules containing mocking lyrical messages in indelible ink.
d'Annuzio later explained away this escapade as an attempt to raise Italian spirits.
He also undertook the famous 'Flight Over Vienna' where he lead 9 planes on a 700 mile round trip to drop propaganda leaflets of his own creation onto the Austrian capital.
It was during this flight that he adopted the war cry of 'Eja! Eja! Eja! Alala!' which was said to be the cry that Achilles used to spur on his horses.
This cry was also heard often on d'Annuzio's march on Fiume.
Starting out on September 12th 1919 with a band of 287 veterans and the slogan 'Fiume or Death!', by the time he arrived at Fiume it was at the head of an army 1,000 strong.
Determined to avoid unnecessary conflict d'Annunzio demanded to see General Pittaluga, the Commander of the Italian forces in Fiume, and explained his intention to claim the city for Italy and refuse to surrender it to Yugoslavia.
The Commander explained that he had direct orders to fire upon d'Annunzio's army if they attempted to enter the city to which d'Annunzio responded by pointing at his chest, covered with medals he had won during his service in the War, and declared:

"Fire first on this!"

General Pittaluga's eyes filled with tears and he replied:

"Great poet! I do not wish to be the cause of spilling Italian blood. I am honoured to meet you for the first time. May your dream be fulfilled!".

The two men embraced and entered Fiume together.
d'Annuzio immediately sent word to Rome to inform the Prime Minister of his success and his desire to offer the city of Fiume back to Italy.
However there was one, small problem with d'Annunzio's offer.
Italy didn't want Fiume.
They had negotiated other gains from the Versailles Treaty and happily relinquished all claims to the city. All that d'Annuzio's actions could do was jeopardise Italy's other holdings.
The Prime Minister refused to accept d'Annunzio's offer and declared the warrior poet 'a fool'.
Furious, d'Annuzio refused now to surrender Fiume to Yugoslavia OR Italy.
Christening the city the 'Italian Regency of Camaro' he began to develop the idea of forming his own autonomous state where he would lead as 'il Duce'.
He drafted a Constitution that declared that music was the central principle of the State and attempted to form a 'League of Oppressed Nations' as a counterpoint to the newly-formed League of Nations.
The parliament, or Council of the Best, was encouraged to avoid needless chatter, with sessions held with 'notably concise brevity'.
Italy responded to this by blockading the city and attempting to starve out the insurgents but for 15 months d'Annunzio managed to maintain his grip on power.
He formed a force called the 'Uscochi', named after a band of local pirates that had traditionally preyed on Venetian and Ottoman vessels coming into Fiume.
d'Annunzio's Uscochi captured ships and stole coal, arms, meat, coffee, ammunition and even army horses in daring raids all over Italy.
With these successes Fiume began to appear a viable outpost for some of Europe's outsider elements.
Artists, bohemians, adventurers, anarchists, fugitives and occultists began to show up at Fiume in droves every day.
Every day began with d'Annunzio reading manifestos or poetry from his balcony and would end with a concert and firework display.
Eventually the Italian government lost patience and tightened the blockade.
d'Annuzio responded the only way he knew how.
On November the 12th 1920 he declared war on Italy.
The Italian army mobilised and began operations on the 24th of December 1920.
d'Annunzio called it 'The Christmas of Blood' as 20,000 Italian troops began to move against his own 2,000 over the next five days.
Eventually an Italian warship began to bombard the city and d'Annuzio surrendered.
He said:

'I cannot impose on this heroic city its ruin and certain destruction.'

He was allowed to retire to his home on Lake Garda and later proved to be a huge influence on Benito Mussolini who adopted d'Annunzio's title of 'il Duce', his use of the Roman salute and his habit of speaking to his public from a balcony.
He didn't bother with the fireworks. Although they were to come...

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