At the end of World War I, the city of Fiume (Croatian Rijeka) became a major source of international tension, and events there in 1919 and 1920 marked an important moment in the emergence of Italian fascism. Fiume, a major seaport and industrial center in western Croatia, had a population of 50,000 in 1919, of whom Italians formed a plurality, followed by Croatians and Hungarians. In 1915 Italy had entered the war in exchange for concessions specified in the secret Treaty of London (1915). As a victorious power, Italy expected as a matter of right to expand at the expense of the now-dismembered Habsburg Empire. Italians assumed that military victory would result in the annexation of Fiume and northern Dalmatia, allowing Italy to dominate the Adriatic. At the peace conference, however, the Great Powers regarded Italian contributions to victory as undeserving of significant recognition. Furthermore, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson viewed the secret treaty as invalid and at odds with the democratic principles of his new diplomacy.
On the Italian political right, the failure to gain Fiume was symbolic of the illegitimacy of the Liberal regime. Despite the years of slaughter in the trenches and of hardship behind the lines, Italy emerged with "empty hands" and a "mutilated victory." The bitter disappointment of nationalists and patriotic veterans focused on Fiume. Here was a predominantly Italian city just beyond the border that had been paid for in copious Italian blood. Furthermore, its assignment to newly created Yugoslavia rather than Italy seemed hypocritical in view of Wilson's principle of self-determination. The majority of Fiume's inhabitants were Italian, and the local government had declared its desire for the city to be annexed to Italy.
In this inflamed context, the poet and ardent expansionist Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863–1938) took the decisive initiative. Placing himself at the head of a volunteer army of patriots and war veterans, D'Annunzio marched on Fiume, entering the city on the morning of 12 September 1919. Unable to dictate events through military force, D'Annunzio and his band of 2,500 "Legionnaires" succeeded because no attempt was made to stop them. Disloyal troops sympathetic to the poet were hopeful both of staking Italian claims to Dalmatia and of overthrowing Liberal prime minister Francesco Saverio Nitti. They did not, therefore, obey orders to arrest the Legionnaires. Instead the army allowed D'Annunzio to seize the town unopposed. In the heady early days of the adventure it was thought that Fiume might be the prelude to a second march on Rome itself to overthrow the state.
In the occupied city, D'Annunzio established a charismatic personal dictatorship that established much of the rhetoric, tactics, and choreography that Benito Mussolini adopted on a much larger stage when he marched on Rome in 1922 and inaugurated Fascist rule. At Fiume, D'Annunzio pioneered a demagogic mass populism. Speaking to crowds of Italians, D'Annunzio promised to redeem Italian national greatness. He also called for new wars, initiated a cult of youth, and adopted fire as the symbol of the newly proclaimed City of the Holocaust that would set a decadent nation alight in a blaze of purification. At the same time he exploited the ethnic tensions of the largely middle-class Italian majority against the working-class minorities of Croatians and Hungarians. Gathering full power into his hands, the "Commander" imposed his new order from on high and sacralized his rule as that of a secular messiah.
At the same time that Fiume marked a local triumph for the subversive political Right against the Liberal state, D'Annunzio borrowed "revolutionary" symbols from the political arsenal of the Left, briefly giving his movement unprecedented élan. From the French Revolution he appropriated the idea of a new calendar, with his march into Fiume as the beginning of the Year I. He appointed the former revolutionary syndicalist Alceste De Ambris to the task of producing a dazzling new constitution for the city. Drafted but never implemented, the constitution, the Carta del Carnaro, promised direct democracy, a republic with equal rights for women, universal suffrage, and corporate institutions to regulate production.
D'Annunzio's rule increasingly invoked the rhetoric of the Left as he struggled to maintain the ardor of his followers while difficulties mounted. Unwilling to test the loyalty of the army in a direct assault on D'Annunzio's outpost, the Liberal leadership decided to blockade the rebel city. As enthusiasm for D'Annunzio waned, the poet devised no practical strategy for survival. As the months passed, supplies of food and fuel ran low; the economy collapsed; citizens deserted the cause and departed; divisions deepened among the leaders; and strikes and demonstrations erupted. By late 1920 Giovanni Giolitti, who succeeded Nitti as prime minister, felt that the balance of power had shifted. In December he ordered the fleet to bombard Fiume and evict the Legionnaires.
De Felice, Renzo. D'Annunzio politico, 1918–1938. Rome, 1978.
Gentile, Emilio. The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy. Translated by Keith Botsford. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.
Ledeen, Michael A. Annunzio: The First Duce. New Brunswick, N.J., 2002.
Frank M. Snowden