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Red Week

Red Week

Italy 1914


Red Week (or, in Italian, Settimana Rossa) was the popular term eventually used for the violent uprising that occurred across Italy after a general strike in the city of Ancona on 7 June 1914 resulted in the killing of three demonstrators by the police. For years, workers had become increasingly vocal about miserable working conditions, poor wages, and police coercion. As a result of the Red Week activities—in which rioters destroyed shops and tore apart telegraph lines and railroad tracks—many communities declared themselves independent communes, while other regions proclaimed themselves independent republics. More than 100,000 soldiers were brought in before order was restored.


  • 1894: Thousands of unemployed American workers—a group named "Coxey's Army" for their leader, Jacob S. Coxey—march on Washington, D.C. A number of such marches on the capital occurred during this period of economic challenges, but Coxey's march was only one to actually reach its destination.
  • 1899: Start of the Second Anglo-Boer War, often known simply as the Boer War.
  • 1904: The ten-hour workday is established in France.
  • 1911: Turkish-Italian War sees the first use of aircraft as an offensive weapon. Italian victory results in the annexation of Libya.
  • 1914: On 28 June in the town of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinates Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and wife, Sophie. In the weeks that follow, Austria declares war on Serbia, and Germany on Russia and France, while Great Britain responds by declaring war on Germany. By the beginning of August, the lines are drawn, with the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, and Japan) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey).
  • 1914: On the Western Front, the first battles of the Marne and Ypres establish a line that will more or less hold for the next four years. Exuberance is still high on both sides but will dissipate as thousands of German, French, and British soldiers sacrifice their lives in battles over a few miles of barbed wire and mud. The Eastern Front is a different story: a German victory over Russia at Tannenberg in August sets the stage for a war in which Russia will enjoy little success, and will eventually descend into chaos that paves the way for the 1917 revolutions.
  • 1914: Official opening of the Panama Canal.
  • 1914: U.S. Congress passes the Clayton Antitrust Act, and establishes the Federal Trade Commission.
  • 1914: Intervening in Mexico's civil war to protect American financial assets and other U.S. interests, U.S. Marines occupy the city of Veracruz.
  • 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.
  • 1920: League of Nations, based in Geneva, holds its first meetings.
  • 1924: V. I. Lenin dies, and thus begins a struggle for succession from which Stalin will emerge five years later as the undisputed leader of the Communist Party, and of the Soviet Union.

Event and Its Context

The Giolitti Period

The events leading up to Red Week in Italy can be traced to the leadership of the progressive liberal Giovanni Giolitti, who first entered the Italian parliament in 1882. Later, Giolitti held the position of minister of finance from 1889 to 1890 and was appointed premier at five various times between 1892 and 1921. Historians sometimes call this era in Italian political history the Giolitti period.

Under Giolitti's dominant leadership, Italy experienced political, social, and economic modernization; workers experienced dramatic increases in real income, and the economy expanded at an unprecedented pace. According to government statistics, Italy's rate of industrial growth during this time was 87 percent, and workers' wages grew by more than 25 percent, despite new employee benefits such as a shortened workday and the introduction of a guaranteed day of rest. However, Italian historians often criticize Giolitti for political corruption, including such activities as interfering with and controlling the electoral process, tolerating trade protectionism, dominating the organizations of coalitions, and creating a near-total parliamentary dictatorship.

On the other hand, some of the same historians who find fault with Giolitti's methods also applaud him as the architect of modern Italy. One of the more important accomplishments of his tenure was the introduction of a number of protective and social labor legislation reforms. The right of workers to strike for higher wages was recognized; changes in electoral law greatly increased male suffrage; members of the Roman Catholic clergy were drawn into Italy's political life; and the first major legislation on behalf of the economically depressed South was passed. For the first time, the labor movement could openly organize, bargain, and strike in an atmosphere of freedom without fear of government suppression.

But for the all the good Giolitti introduced, the Italian worker still suffered under poor working and living conditions. As the country experienced prosperous times, the division between the wealthy land-and business-owners and the poverty-stricken laborers grew. In addition, industrialization was concentrated in the North, leaving the southern section mostly agricultural, with few hopes for prosperity. Despite the progress made, Italy still suffered from governmental policies that hindered economic growth.

Workers realized that they had a common interest in fighting for a better life. For this reason, as industrialization grew rapidly in the late nineteenth century, by the 1880s trade unions appeared as an outgrowth of existing mutual aid organizations. However, in spite of the newly formed unions, workers found themselves powerless against employers who would resort to force to keep their workers in line. Workers were therefore readily inclined to go out on strike and to support sympathy strikes with fellow workers in order to win economic concessions.

Tensions: Workers and Government

The strikes caused additional tensions between the Italian government and the labor movement. A local strike against the high cost of living would bring the police, who frequently used excessive force, including bloodshed and arrests, to control and disperse the protesting workers. Sympathy strikes would then result in protest to police brutality. The strikes left the protestors with a hatred for the wealthy in power. In 1904 an Italian syndicalist theory emerged; the most militant strike leaders thought the workers should not strike against the capitalists but rather take over the factories, operate them, and remove the capitalists all together. Without strong leadership, little was done to carry out this plan, but the idea was planted in the minds of Italian workers.

Three Worker Factions

During the next 10 years, three major forces dominated the Italian worker movement: (1) reformist social democracy, which believed that Giolitti's social welfare legislation was the best course for the working class and supported by the General Confederation of Labor (CGL), which was established in 1906 (similar to the unions in England, Germany, and the United States); (2) syndicalism, which appealed to the revolutionary workers, who modeled themselves after their French counterparts who voiced their opinions for social revolution and urged workers to aid other workers in the form of sympathy and solidarity strikes; and (3) revolutionary socialism, which shared some syndicalist notions but insisted on the necessity of parliamentary political action. Worker attitudes in this period can best be described as reformist but conservative in nature, with an active minority of revolutionary syndicalists.

When the Socialist Party Congress met in 1912, the revolutionary socialists were able to gain control of the party. Benito Mussolini was its chief spokesman, through the official socialist daily newspaper Avanti! The control of the Socialist Party by the revolutionaries created serious labor relations problems with the trade union movement, which was controlled by the reformists and which resisted revolutionary attempts to create general strikes and dictate union policy. However, the use of the strike as a weapon of political pressure and demonstration purposes gained support from many worker groups. The period between 1912 and 1914 saw innumerable local demonstration strikes. For example, the revolutionary railway union demanded an increase in wages, but the government and workers eventually agreed to compromise. These local general demonstration strikes culminated in the national general strike of June 1914 that came to be known as Red Week.

The 1914 Socialist Party Congress held at Ancona in April 1914 (two months before Red Week) consolidated the predominance of the revolutionaries in the party. With war looming over all of Europe, a strong resolution was adopted attacking militarism and urging antimilitarist activity and propaganda both on a national and an international level.

The Beginning of Red Week

At the same time, the moderate conservative premier, Antonio Salandra, was forming a new government (after Giolitti temporarily lost his premiership), and various radicals vocally resisted taxation, demanded wage increases, and opposed militarism. At the beginning of June 1914, tensions, which had been increasing since 1911, were extremely high between capital and labor. Plans were made by worker organizations throughout the country to use Sunday, 7 June 1914, which was Italy's National Day, to demonstrate against militarism (including the special punishment battalions in the army), against the government, for the release of Augusto Masetti (who was imprisoned for defying his colonel), and for a better quality of life.

The government, now headed by Salandra, moved to prohibit the demonstration planned for the east-central coastal city of Ancona (within the region of Marche) by anarchists (persons believing in a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority), syndicalists (persons believing that ownership and control of the means of industrial production and distribution should be transferred to workers' unions), and republicans (persons believing in a republican form of government). The CGL, which was officially aligned with the Socialist Party of Italy (PSI), sanctioned the strike. Anarchists and the anarchosyndicalist trade union Italian Workers Union (USI, or Union Sindacale Italiana, founded in 1912 by Italian anarchist militant Ettore Bonometti) led the strike.

Prime Minister Salandra sent troops against the demonstrations but did not deter the workers, headed by veteran revolutionaries Enrico Malatesta and Pietro Nenni, from proceeding. Malatesta wanted to use this general strike to popularize the idea of an armed insurrection. Incited by antimilitants like Mussolini, then editor of a socialist newspaper in the northern city of Milan, in the Lombardy region, the strikers and rebels provoked gunfire from the police; three workers were killed.

Spreading Strike

The Ancona shootings ignited the growing resentment of the working class. The news immediately precipitated general insurrectionary incidents and strikes throughout the country. Rebels held Ancona for 10 days, and as a result, roadblocks went up in all the big cities. In the regions of Marche (in the east-central part of Italy) and Emilia-Romagna (north of Marche), rebellious landless laborers confronted strikebreakers hired by local landowners. Bologna was taken over by dissidents. Ancona and nearby towns proclaimed themselves independent communes; other areas, particularly in the north-central region of Emilia-Romagna and the adjoining southeast area of Marche, established autonomous republican governments. The cities of Ferrara and Ravenna (both located in Emilia-Romagna) surrendered to the rebels.

The syndicalists saw the strike as an occasion to launch the social revolution. Eventually, more than 100,000 soldiers were called into action before order was restored. The mass uprising, initiated by a local strike, came to be known as Italy's Red Week.


In spite of its widespread support, the Red Week general strike lacked national coordination. Consequently, though the government acted hesitantly when confronted with the strike—apparently it hoped the strike would end on its own—the organized leadership of the workers' movement took no offensive actions toward transforming the general strike into a full-scale rebellion in key industrial cities. The government was never in danger of losing overall authority, although it did lose control of parts of central Italy for a short time. There were also no signs of mass defections of soldiers. The lack of direction of the general strike showed plainly, after a few days, that it was going nowhere. The strike had expressed the workers' protest against the shootings at Ancona. The movement soon collapsed after the Italian Socialist Party's union wing called off the strike, but it took 10,000 troops to regain control of Ancona.

By early July 1914 Italy—despite its alliance with Germany and Austria—was so preoccupied with trying to remain neutral in the face of impending war in Europe that the problems of its laborers were temporarily shelved. The real importance of the June general strike came a month and a half later with the outbreak of World War I. The PSI demanded Italian neutrality, especially opposing the country' commitment to the Triple Alliance (the defensive union of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy). It even threatened to call a general antiwar strike should the government intervene on the side of Austria-Hungary. The events of Red Week showed the government that the PSI's commitment to an antiwar strike was substantial. Nonetheless, when Italy finally entered the war on the side of the Triple Entente (France, England, and Russia) in May 1915, no efforts were made to call a general strike against the war despite the opposition of the PSI.

Key Players

Bonometti, Ettore (1872-1961): Bonometti was an Italian anarchist militant who was imprisoned several times between 1892 and April 1895, then forced into exile in France, England, and Switzerland. He was eventually allowed to return to Italy but was held under house arrest. However, he used his home for secret antifascist activities and the recruitment of fighters for the underground partisan movement. In 1912 he helped found the anarcho-syndicalist trade union, Unione Syndicale Italiana (USI).

Giolitti, Giovanni (1842-1928): Giolitti graduated from the law school at the University of Turin in 1861 and was first elected to parliament in 1882. He recognized the workers' right to strike during his first term as prime minister (1892-1893) but was forced to resign after being implicated in a banking scandal. He returned as prime minister four times: 1903-1905, 1906-1909, 1911-1914, and 1920-1921. He used corruption and manipulation to influence government members and elections. He introduced laws for a national insurance act and for universal male suffrage. From 1911 to 1912 Giolitti waged a war with the Ottoman Empire that resulted in the annexation of Libya, Rhodes, and the Dodecanese Islands. In his last term as prime minister he faced economic problems, including severe inflation. Violence from the Fascist Party, led by Benito Mussolini, increased. In 1920 Giolitti formed the National Bloc, a coalition of Liberals, Democrats, Catholics, and fascists designed to defeat the socialists. In 1921 the National Bloc's coalition disintegrated, and Giolitti lost his majority in parliament.

Malatesta, Enrico (1853-1932): Malatesta was an importantItalian anarchist militant and thinker, and a member of the Naples branch of the International Working Men's Association (IWMA). In 1873 he began to spread internationalist propaganda. He was imprisoned many times for his revolutionary activities and repeatedly forced into exile to avoid imprisonment. In 1876 he helped develop a theory of anarchist communism, and the next year took part in the short-lived uprising of Benevento in the Neapolitan mountains. He published the first serious anarchist newspaper in Italy, La Questione Sociale in Florence in 1883-1884, and resumed its publication in Argentina (1885-1889) and again in the United States (c. 1900). He opposed the Marxists at the London International Socialist Conference of 1896. He edited Umanità nova Milan/Rome (1920-1921) and Pensiero e Volontà (1924-1926). He spent the last years of his life held in house arrest by the fascist government.

Mussolini, Benito (1883-1945): Mussolini became an Italian schoolmaster in 1901. He moved to Switzerland the next year but, unable to find a permanent job, was arrested for vagrancy and later expelled and returned to Italy to perform military service. Mussolini joined the staff of a newspaper in the Austrian town of Trento in 1908. He was jailed for his opposition to Italy's war in Libya (1911-1912). Soon after, he was named editor of Avanti!, the Socialist Party newspaper in Milan. When World War I began in 1914, he first denounced it as "imperialist" but soon reversed himself and called for Italy's entry on the Allied side. Expelled from the Socialist Party, he started his own Milan newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia (The People of Italy), which later became the voice of the fascist movement. He was the premier-dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943 and the founder and leader of Italian fascism. He attempted to create an Italian empire in alliance with Hitler's Germany. The defeat of Italy in World War II led to his downfall.

Nenni, Pietro (1891-1980): Nenni was a political agitator by the age of 17. While he was editor of Avanti! in 1926, the fascists exiled him. He became secretary-general of the Italian Socialist Party in 1944 and served as vice premier in the Wasperi coalition cabinet (1945-1946) and foreign minister (1946-1947). In 1963 Nenni became deputy prime minister of a coalition government that included social democrats and socialists. He succeeded in his longstanding aim of uniting the two groups as the United Socialist Party in 1966, but in the 1968 elections the socialists withdrew from the coalition. He became foreign minister in a new coalition from December 1968.

See also: Strike Wave, Italy.



Goodstein, Phil H. The Theory of the General Strike from the French Revolution to Poland. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs, 1984.

Horowitz, Daniel L. The Italian Labor Movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Neufeld, Maurice F. Italy: School for Awakening Countries. Ithaca, NY: Cayuga Press, 1961.

Roberts, David D. The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.


Hacken, Richard. "Salandra, Antonio, Premier (1853-1931)."Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University [cited 7 February 2003]. <>

"Labor Uprising in Italy 1914." [cited 7 February2003]. <>

"Towards a History of Anarchist Anti-imperialism." Flag [cited 7 February 2003]. http://

—William Arthur Atkins

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