Italy before World War I was a unified state. But a century before that it was a state that was divided and it was under King Victor Emmanuel II who was the king of Sardinia that the state was united. It became a unified state on March 17th 1861. Two people played a very important role in this unification. One was Giuseppe Garibaldi and the other was Count Camillo Benso di Cavour. Garibaldi was a soldier and an Italian patriot and he led many military campaigns and brought many small states under Italy. He was called the “Hero of the Two Worlds” for he even conducted expeditions in Europe and South America. While the soldier brought many small states under Italy the process and the procedures of unification was done by Count Camillo who was the chief minister of King Emmanuel I. For a decade after these incidents Rome remained under the Papacy and it became a part of Italy in 1870 which can be considered as the date of final unification. However from 1929, the Vatican City has been independent.

Italy at the beginning of the 20th Century

King Victor Emmanuel II ruled over unified Italy till 1878. Then his son Umberto ascended the throne and began to rule the country. Italy began to colonise in South Africa. It was a period of advancement and at the same there was a renaissance of sorts. Macroni invented the radio telegraph and Lumiere brothers were screening some of the earliest films.  Poet Giosuè Carducci got the Nobel Laureate. Maria Montessori established her first Casa Dei Bambini. Her teaching philosophy and principle of education is still followed in all parts of the world. Ernestina Prola was the first woman to get a driving license. A massive earthquake hit Italy, centred at the Strait of Messina and killed 20,000 people. Amidst all this something untoward happened at the palace too, at the turn of century, 1900, Umbreto was assassinated. His son Victor Emanuel III ascended the throne. Giovanni Giolitti took over as the Prime minister in 1930 and governed the state. In 1911, Italy defeated the Ottoman Empire and took control of Rhodes archipelago and Libya after a yearlong war. After the war the Libyans were a target of cruel treatment by the Italians. The refugees were not given food and many died. The war and its aftermath brought down the popularity of Giolitti and the Italian Socialist Party. Benito Mussolini headed the anti-war revolution and he called for violence to bring the government down. Giolitti tried to revive his popularity by becoming pro-clericalism but he could not hold on and from then it was the time of Benito Mussolini.

Involvement in WWI

The World war lasted from 1914 to 1918. By then the six major powers of Europe were divided into two alliances. On one side was Triple Entente and the alliance was between Britain, France and Russia. The Triple Alliance was on the other side and the countries in this alliance were Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy. Though Italy was in the Triple Alliance, it did not declare war until August 1914. Those few days Italy remained neutral. Britain and France were trying to get Italy on to their side. Also Italy felt that while the Triple Entente was defensive, it was Austria-Hungary that had started the war. Italy did not feel obligated to join the war. Italy also did not like the fact that it was not informed before the attack on Serbia. It was in such a situation that in 1915 Britain invited Italy for a pact called the London Pact where Italy promised to fight with the Triple Entente in return for large areas of land. In 1917 Austria-Hungary with the support attack Italy but Italy easily beat them back as they had support of the Allies. The war between Italy and Austria-Hungary was mostly trench warfare and by the autumn 1918, the soldiers of Austria-Hungary were exhausted and were willing to negotiate during the Battle of Vittirio Veneto. The result of these negotiations was Austrian-Italian Armistice of Vila Giusti which was signed on November 3rd 1918. As the war was cut short Italy could occupy Tyrol and captured lakhs of Austro-Hungary soldiers.

Political Developments: Domestic

After the unification of Italy, there was a slow decline of feudalism. Though there was crack down on feudal lords, it cannot be said that small farmers became land owner. There were hundreds of landless people. Industrialisation came to Italy as well.  With this democratic rule came to stay in Italy. Rome was restored as the capital of Italy. There was a pattern to the internal politics and this pattern recurred for many decades.

  • Governments were in power for very short periods, not more than three periods.
  • But the same names, new coalitions and cabinets were formed and again dissolved.
  • The main politicians to remain in power formed strange alliances and changed their policies.
  • This even meant that both the right and left members were present in the cabinet.

This kind of a system started in 1876 by Agostino Depretis. Crispi and then Giovanni Giolitti also followed the political system in which ‘being in power’ was the sole purpose of politics. From 1891 to 1921 Giolitti came and lost power five times. He kept shifting coalitions because of which he came back to power. During the premiership of Giolitti, he brought in a few reforms which were progressive. He introduced a progressive income tax. In 1911 universal suffrage for men and a national act was introduced. When the World War I broke out Victor Emmanuel II was the ruler but the power was with the prime minister. At the outbreak of war Antonio Salandra was the prime minister. It was with the consultation with his cabinet and the monarch that they stayed neutral in the WWI during the initial days. Then though they had allied with the Austria-Hungary, they joined Britain for the war.

Political Developments: Foreign

Till 1871 Italy was on the process of unification. It was complete once Rome and Venice was added. Since then there was a clear foreign policy. Like the internal politics there were no fixed alliances. The new state of Italy was watching the growth of the European powers and wanted to align with the most powerful ones. At the same time Italy had colonies in Africa. In fact Italy was as involved as other powers in Tunisia. Italy had shares as Britain and France in the finances from Tunisia. In fact Italy had the best share and it was easy for Italy to become the most powerful colonial power in Tunisia. To stop this Britain and France struck a deal and with a coup in 1881 took control over Tunisia. This had a great impact on the foreign policy of Italy. Italy changed the stance of non-alignment and the government of Agostina Depretis started negotiations with Austria and Germany and the Triple Alliance was formed in May 1882. The three nations agreed that they would support each other if any was attacked. At the same time they agreed to be neutral if the any of three declared war. This alliance was a huge success for Italy because it stopped Austria’s claim on Venice and approval of Italy capturing Rome. Italy had been developing the coast of Eritrea. Soon it moved to its neighbour and signed a treaty with Ethiopia. Soon after this, Italy declared that Ethiopia was an Italian protectorate.  There was a war where Italy was completely crushed by Ethiopia. In the 20th Century Italy focused on Libya and stationed troops there by 1911. In 1912 war with Turkey was declared. The Turks without much resistance agreed to cede Libya to Italy. But the local tribesmen of Libya were never happy with Italians in their country and never allowed Italy to have a peaceful tenure in their country.

Economic policies and changes

The foreign policies of Italy affected the economic policies of the country. Till 1881 Italy was getting a major share from the finances of Tunisia. After the coup by Britain and France there was a drop in income. As a result of the coup and Triple Alliance, Italy stopped trade with France. In 188 Crispi repudiated a commercial treaty with France. The result of this was more harmful for Italy than France. France had taken 40% of Italy’s exports. Now that stopped, so the economy took a further dip. France could always find supplies from other countries, so the loss was for Italy. The unification broke the feudal system in the country but this did not ensure that small farmers got land. There were many landless farmers. The plots grew smaller and this affected the production as well. Mezzadria was a farm sharing system that was adopted in Italy during this time. The land was taken from the owners and the tenants kept a major share of the profit. This was mostly seen in Central Italy. Though land ownership was the yardstick for wealth, people of South Italy did not believe in it and they invested in state bonds. By changing the alliance in World War I Italy became successful in the war but became a poor and weakened country. The economy of Italy revived only after the Second World War.

Social policies and changes


Risorgimento which meant revival or resurgence was the watchword of Italian unification. It was a political and social movement and this was the central to the Italy that developed after that, till Fascism took over. Italian nationalism was controlled by political activists and intellectual who were mostly in exile. Italian irredentism was another change seen after Italian Unification. It advocated Italians and other nationals who were willing to become Italians. This movement planned to extend its borders through consensus. This movement saw a natural death after WWI.  Feudalism disappeared from Italy after the unification. There were no specific social policies that were dominant till World War I as the leaders were shifting policies to remain in power. Fascism was against liberalism. Mussolini the chief exponent of Fascism shifted his stand as well. He believed that community should not relate to class but to nation, but, he did not advocate the socialism of Marx. Though Fascism was a nationalist movement, under Mussolini it took the colour of dictatorship.


Consequences of WWI 


Years before the World War I Italy allied itself with Germany and Austria. But when the war started Italy was neutral and then joined the Triple Entente after signing the London Pact. In the London Pact it was agreed that if Italy joins Britain and France they would give Istria, Dalmatia, and Tyrol which were large section of the Adriatic Sea region. But after the war the spirit of the pact was not kept up and Italy did not get all that was promised. In the war many thousands of Italians were killed wounded and crippled for life. The war affected the economy very badly as it had spent more on war than the money spent in the previous 50  years. High inflation and high unemployment was rampant in Italy after the WWI. The Treaty of Versailles which was signed between the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance and Italy and Germany was given a raw deal. The people of Italy were very upset that there was so much of loss of life and money and there were no gains from the war. The government was looked upon as a weak and having no pride in the country. It was called “mutilated victory (Vittoria mutilata) and this became the propaganda for Fascism and the rise of Benito Mussolini.  Mussolini took the national fervour to a new high. When World War II was brewing up, Italy decided to stay with Germany. Though Italy again suffered losses, the governments thereafter brought Italy back on its feet. Today Italy is a country that is very progressive and economically forward. Italy was the first one to initiate the European Union.