In 1919-1920 Gabriele d’Annunzio occupied the Adriatic port of Fiume—now the Yugoslav city Rijeka—for twenty months. It is easy and tempting now to dismiss this episode as meaningless buffoonery, a grotesque Italian operatic demonstration, a hysterical and almost bloodless heroic-comic show staged by a demented Art Nouveau poet, one more sign of the perennial impotence of Italian governments. Michael Ledeen, a perceptive young American historian who knows more about modern Italian history than all living Italian historians with the exception of two (Rosario Romeo and Renzo de Felice), has a different view. He considers the Fiume adventure the harbinger of things to come. He sees in it the sinister seeds of other, more catastrophic left-wing and right-wing mass movements, based mainly on primitive emotions whipped up by a magnetic man haranguing crowds from a balcony and staging mass spectacles. The city under d’Annunzio, he writes, “was a highly revealing and suggestive model for much of the West today, a microcosm of the modern political world.”
The poet-hero-leader was called Duce by his followers. He personally preferred the title of Comandante, the man in charge, a virile military and naval term. Duce was an archaic and vaguely pretentious word, slightly ridiculous, more fitting for the hero of a nineteenth-century medieval novel or a Verdi libretto. Garibaldi had been called Duce when he conquered Sicily with one thousand volunteers in 1860. He too had moved officially against the will of the government and had been followed by, among others, many deserters from the regular army.
D’Annunzio was not Garibaldi. The general was a great guerrilla leader, almost illiterate, very handsome, blond, blue-eyed, long-haired, and bearded. He had been compared to Jesus Christ or a Greek god, and many thought he actually looked like a lion. Scores of young people died by his command, under his very eyes. D’Annunzio was a tiny man, fifty-six years old in 1919 but looking older, as bald as an egg, with rotten teeth and bad breath. His military competence was nil. All he had done in the war was take part in the death-defying actions of a few men—more publicity and psychological stunts than real military enterprises. The poet did not even possess the impressive and statuesque presence of a later Duce, Benito Mussolini, not to mention his political intuition and cynical knowledge of human nature.
But d’Annunzio had to a greater degree than Garibaldi or Mussolini an uncanny capacity to excite vast crowds, to play with their emotions. He had a melodious voice of great beauty and range of expression (from rhapsody to irony and sarcasm, from the noble and patriotic to gross obscene invective). His language was always poetic, often enriched with sonorous and rare words which the crowds loved although they did not always understand them. Above all he made each listener (with the exception of a very few who preserved a critical faculty and a sense of humor) feel he or she was caught up in a grand cause, pledging his or her life, if necessary, not for the future of a second-rate formerly Hungarian port inhabited by a substantial number of Italians and by people of other breeds who preferred to think of themselves as Italian, but for Italy, for all oppressed people everywhere, for all “humanity.” He was above all a great showman.
D’Annunzio’s politics were an emotional and intuitive minestrone of the extreme right and the extreme left. Marxist historians have described him as the “John the Baptist of Italian fascism.” Ledeen admits “there is much truth in this label, for without d’Annunzio the Fascist seizure of power would most likely not have taken place.” Perhaps (as I think) it would have taken place anyway, but without the stirring liturgy, rituals, and symbolism he had devised, including (in Ledeen’s words) “the balcony address, the Roman salute, the cries of aia, aia, aia, alala.” (The Roman straight-arm salute came from a silent movie version of Quo Vadis made in Italy before the war; “aia, aia, aia, alala” was a d’Annunzian invention to take the place of the “hip, hip, hip, hoorah”s of the despised Anglo-Saxon imperialists and plutocrats; the word “alala” is an obsolete and forgotten hunting cry related to the French “hallali” and the English “tallyho,” presumably derived from an Arab cry and brought to Europe by the crusaders.) Ledeen also finds influential d’Annunzio’s “dramatic dialogues with the crowd, the use of religious symbols in a new secular setting, the eulogies of the martyrs, and the employment of their relics in political ceremonies.”
In Fiume one can see far more than the advancing shadow of fascism. There were present, Ledeen points out, “many of the developments we consider novel and unsettling today,” including “clergymen abandoning the cloth in favor of marriage and secular activities; women demanding an equitable status in a male-dominated society; youth calling for the elimination of the old and corrupt political leadership; military men calling for a democratic army; artists suggesting that aesthetics should be the proper basis for political decisions; poets demanding a beautiful world instead of a utilitarian one; minorities clamoring for their fair share of political power.” Ledeen could have added the widespread use of drugs, uninhibited sex, the occasional flaunting of homosexual proclivities, nudism, the bizarre hairdos and whiskers intended to show disdain for bourgeois conventions. (Some legionari shaved their heads and let their beards grow, some shaved their beards and let their hair grow.) There were interesting experiments in dress since each man could invent a uniform for himself. Il Comandante, a cavalry officer, wore an Alpine officer’s hat, the open coat of an Ardito—a member of the daredevil shock troops—and the insignia of various corps. (Montgomery later followed his example without knowing it.)
Perhaps the spirit of the legionari was best represented by Guido Keller, a much decorated war ace, one of the poet’s closest collaborators. Keller, Ledeen writes, “would often walk naked along the beach,…and when he grew tired of city life in Fiume, he went to the countryside, where he slept in a huge haystack in the open air and ate fruits and nuts gathered from trees and bushes nearby. He had a pet eagle…and his love for practical jokes and acts of piracy found a kindred spirit in the comandante.” It was Keller who, to demonstrate his contempt for inept parliamentary democracy, flew one day over the Italian Chamber of Deputies and dropped a chamber pot on it.
How it all started is easy to tell. When the war broke out in 1914, Italy was tied to Germany and Austria by a defensive alliance. While arguing to their allies that Italy was not legally obliged to join them at war, Italian politicians secretly felt out the French and British about the possible territorial concessions that would be Italy’s rewards for fighting on the Anglo-French side. The Italians advanced a variety of strategic, ethnic, and historical claims to the territories they sought, pointing out, for example, that many Italians were forced to live under Austro-Hungarian rule on the Adriatic coast. An agreement of sorts was reached, one later known as the secret London Pact. Italy entered the war in 1915. The secret pact was published by Lenin in 1917. There was an immediate reaction on the part of the left in France and Great Britain; the promises made to Italy were said to contradict the official democratic ideals of the Allies. Opposition was strongest in the United States. Woodrow Wilson, at Versailles, found that the most stubborn opposition to his ideas of peace and to the creation of the League of Nations came from Clemenceau and Lloyd George. In order to placate Wilson, they encouraged him to refuse the Italian claims.
Wilson did not like the Italians. As Ledeen explains, “Most Americans, Wilson included, believed that Italians were untrustworthy and morally corrupt, that if they did not have criminal tendencies they were, at best, congenital liars.” He adds in a footnote: “Articles on Italian immigrants had titles like ‘The Scum of the Earth.’ ” The president’s dislike of the Italians had presumably also old religious roots. Italians represented almost everything the son of a Presbyterian minister of Scotch Irish descent had been taught to despise. “He believed that the entirety of the Adriatic coast, with the exception of Trieste, should be part of the new nation of Yugoslavia.” Italians were convinced in those years that Wilson must be under the influence of a beautiful Yugoslav mistress.
The Adriatic coast was among the territories promised Italy at London. A column of volunteers was organized to save Fiume first of all and d’Annunzio was elected their leader. They occupied the city with no difficulties, were acclaimed as liberators. Twenty months later the regular Italian army captured Fiume after firing a few shots; the volunteers were disbanded and d’Annunzio retreated to his villa on Lake Garda. A fabulous pension was paid to him by the government. After 1922 Mussolini contemptuously said of him: “He is like a bad tooth. You either pull it out or fill it with gold.” (Mussolini made very few bon mots. The only other one known is about the Garibaldi family: “They are like potatoes. The best is underground.”)
D’Annunzio (with the help of his chef de cabinet, an anarcho-syndicalist, Alceste de Ambris) drafted a constitution that remains an interesting document for students of twentieth-century political ideas. It blended radical elements and the quasi-religious qualities of d’Annunzio’s rhetoric, Ledeen writes. “It provided for the complete equality of women, total toleration of religion and atheism, and a thoroughgoing system of social security, medical insurance, and old-age care, in addition to a method of direct democracy….” It was perhaps unique in calling for a synthesis of politics and art in government. One critic described the “Carta del Carnaro” as a kind of Napoleonic Code rewritten by Ezra Pound.
What was perhaps more worthy of study than its confusion of socialistic and nationalistic ideas was the collective emotional tension it depended on, the demented red hot enthusiasm its promoters tried to provoke among Fiumans. The Fiume adventure was one of the many and diverse symptoms of a common disease, the reaction of people who see themselves as representing ancient, proud, and glorious civilizations that have been victimized by the modern industrialized powers, rich, powerful, ruthless, and contemptuous. One of the old countries, Japan, patiently imitated the modern imperial nations and tried to beat them at their own game. Others went into xenophobic frenzies, as the Chinese Boxers did, or emotional orgies as did the Fiume legionari, the fascists, the Nazis, and many others, in order to find in unreason, theatrical displays, pseudoreligious rites, totalitarian regimes, and bloody holocausts a consolation and compensation for their impotence. D’Annunzio, who shed little blood in Fiume, called it “La città olocausto.”
June 15, 1978