Italian plans for the Eastern Adriatic

This is an extract from a chapter ‘Italian plans for the Eastern Adriatic’ that will be publishing in 2017 as part of a book ´The First World War in the Balkans´

‘Italy is a land which draws the breath of life from the sea. Her two lungs are the Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic…if you take the Adriatic from Italy she will be isolated and die…without possession of Dalmatia and the Curzolarias , the Adriatic will never be a sea upon which Italy can feel herself safe’

Italy’s Admiral di Revel explains Italian claims New York Times- 14 April 1918


The metaphysical muse — Carlo Carra


The Metaphysical Muse (figure 1), a sombre painting by the Italian Futurist artist Carlo Carrà during the First World War, reveals the social background to Italy’s wartime goal of securing strategic supremacy on the Eastern Adriatic. Painted in a mental hospital where the artist worked, the starkly drawn symbols represents Italy’s schizophrenic state on the eve of entering the First World War. In the foreground is a map of the Eastern Adriatic, with a rifle target on the bottom left corner. The map is focused on the heart of the Adriatic, Istria. According to reports from Rome in the New York Times: ‘Istria in foreign possession is a knife poised at Italy’s breast ’. Lying on the crossroads of the Balkan Peninsula, Central Europe and the Mediterranean, the Eastern Adriatic became the object of the Entente’s purchase of Italy’s services in the First World War. Carrà’s cluttered, mezzo-cubist image also represents obstacles to Italian unification, such as unbalanced industrial development, the anti-Risorgimento Vatican and the unresolved irredentism issue, all toxic tendencies that additionally led Italy to join the war to improve its vulnerable geopolitical position on the Adriatic basin. In the same months as the Sarajevo shots, Italy experienced violent revolutionary outbreaks known as ‘Red Week’. Road and bridges were blocked, railway stations demolished and phone wires cut. Numerous churches were sacked and local republics were set up. Towns like Ravenna on the Western Adriatic were cut off. The ‘Settimana Rossa’ required ‘ten thousand troops to restore order’ . The defensive nature of Italy’s adhesion to the Triple Alliance as well as social instability meant that Italy was the only great European power that declared neutrality in 1914.Less than a few months into the war, the Italian foreign minister San Gulianno noted that:

‘Italy’s major interest, and that the one most threatened, is in the Adriatic. We have no interest in other fields of the actual conflict, such as the independence of Belgium…Our enemy is Austro-Hungary and not Germany. ’

During the First World War, the maritime outposts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would take a disproportional geopolitical significance that involved lobbying from the British Establishment and personal interventions from President Wilson. The ‘scramble for the Adriatic ’ developed between the Entente powers and the Central powers through their respective proxies the Italians and the South-Slavs. Jumping into the Entente ship in the spring of 1915, Italy launched its ‘fourth war of independence’ aiming to unify the socially divided country, ‘liberating’ the almost 800 000 irredemed Italians and securing dominance on the Adriatic. The Entente internationally legitimised Italian territorial aspirations by promising them large parts of the Eastern Adriatic through the secret treaty of London in 1915 (figure 2). Large parts of the Austrian littoral including Trieste, Istria and Dalmatia were given to Italy in order to get ‘one million bayonets ’ to switch sides and fight the Central powers.


Territory promised to Italy by the Entente in 1915. It included South Tyrol, the Austrian littoral, Dalmatia and the Albanian port of Valona.

Three years before the outbreak of the First World War, the British journalist and regional expert Robert Seton-Watson had highlighted the relevance of the Habsburg Empire’s Adriatic outlet. In his book, the British commentator prophetically claimed that:

‘The whole Eastern Adriatic coast still remains an unsolved equation in the arithmetic of Europe and its solution depends upon the course of events among the South Slavs.

According to the historian Larry Wolf, Seton-Watson’s book ‘defined the South Slav question and challenged the legitimacy of the Hapsburg monarchy just as the Eastern Question challenged that of the Ottoman Empire’. Seton-Watson, just like the British government, initially supported the Danube monarchy, seeing it as a stabilizing factor in international relations:

‘The disruption of the dual monarchy would be an event equal in its far reaching consequences to the French revolution, and involving beyond all questions a general European war, of which none can foretell the issue but which might perhaps deal a fatal blow to European civilisation ’

Seton-Watson’s peacetime campaign would continue and intensify during the First World War. He became the main advocate of South Slav unity in co-operation with Italy, based on the early Risorgimento Mazzinian principles of an Italo-Slav brotherhood. Apart from Seton-Watson, bridging East and West through the Adriatic basin involved the former British attaché to Montenegro Sir Arthur Evans and the Times foreign editor Henry Wickham Steed. The Treaty of London in the long term severely damages their Gladstonian inspired liberal idea of an East-West alliance. The Adriatic was to serve as an interlocking bond between the Italians and South Slavs on a pro-liberal, anti-German platform that together with ‘Serbia guarded the gates of the gate in the east and our position in the Mediterranean and the Middle East’. Together with the Yugoslav committee that was based in London during the war, Seton-Watson engaged in energetic lobbying committee to press for a unified south-Slav state that together with Italy was to act as a shield against Pan-German expansionism and thus cut the Adriatic knot:

‘Our pledge to Italy is not in any way an insurmountable obstacle. For the Asia Minor claims which she is at this very moment pressing so keenly upon her allies might very well form the basis of a bargain. Her claim to the purely Slav province of Dalmatia would have to be abandoned and with it all attempts to keep Croats and Serbs artificially apart: but on the other hand complete naval supremacy in the Adriatic could be assured to her without any infringement of the principle of nationality, and the result would be that close of alliance between the Italians and the Yugoslavs which is so pre-eminently a British interest. ’

The reframed and revitalised liberal brotherhood of nations would replace papist, conservative and authoritarian Austria. The Slav-Italian alliance would act as chief barrier to Germanic expansionism. Italian plans for the Eastern Adriatic, legitimised by the Treaty of London, drove a wedge between the prospects of an Italy-Slav, anti-Germanic shield. The Eastern Adriatic became caught up in a tangle of transnational battles, war and diplomacy that became one of the most intractable problems of the Versailles peace conference and would cause geopolitical problems beyond the First World War.
Despite the historic claims of Italy, large parts of the Eastern Adriatic were ethnographically and linguistically Croatian and Slovene. The last Austrian census in 1910 reveals a clear majority in Dalmatia and a more balanced picture slightly in favour of the South Slavs in the Austrian littoral . Only Trieste, Western Istria and Zadar had an Italian majority. Italy’s claims for the Eastern Adriatic rested partially on historic and cultural arguments. The notion of jus primis ocupantis went back to antiquity. The provinces had all been part of Roman Empire, with several emperors being born there including Diocletian, whose palace at Split even in 1914 seemed to stand as an architecturally enduring imprint of the Italian civilità. During the early modern period, the centuries-long dominance of the Venetian empire on the Eastern Adriatic gave major coastal cities like Zadar, Trogir and Korčula a distinct imprint of il Serenissima.

Yet the Eastern Adriatic since the fall of the Roman Empire had been the junction of Europe’s three largest people, Italian, German and Slav, all with historic claims to the region. In the Middle Ages, Dante’s Inferno rhapsodised that the Eastern Adriatic was: ‘where Italy bathes her boundaries ’. Dalmatia, the ‘firstborn province ’ of Venice, had a special place in the Italian consciousness, having been romanticised as an exotic paradise by the Venetian dramatist Carlo Goldoni . In 1910, Trieste had a bigger Slovene population than Ljubljana. One of Slovenia’s greatest novelists Ivan Cankar famously stated that: ‘If Ljubljana was the heart of the Slovenes, Trieste was its lungs.’ Having been under Habsburg control since the 14th century, the largest Austrian port still had a thriving German community in organised in the Schillerverein and saw Trieste as their ‘bridge to the Adriatic’.

Since the mid-19th century, the Italian unification movement had led to regular wars between Austria and the nascent Apennine state. Under the leadership of the house of Savoy, Italy had pecked at the Austrian eagle’s territory throughout the 19th century, taking Lombardy in 1859 and Veneto in 1866 in what Italian historiography would call the second and third wars of independence. Use of South-Slav troops to quell pro-unification risings in Italy meant that strong antipathy had developed between South Slavs and Italians as can be seen by the negative portrayal of the Croats in Giusti’s Risorgimento poem Sant’ Ambrogio. The First World War as a prolongation of the Risorgimento can be seen in an image drawn at the time of Italy’s entry into the war. The caption reads: ‘After centuries of martyrdom, Italy breaks her chains’ (figure 3). It demonstrates how the ‘fourth war of independence’ would finally complete Italian unity. It shows the Italian king Victor Emanuel III leading a successful cavalry charge of Italian army through the Austrian border to rescue the irredemed provinces Trieste, Dalmatia, Istria and Trent. The dashingly romantic scene is observed by Garibaldi and other historical figures who fought for Italian unification. Italian plans for the Eastern Adriatic in the First World War were presented as a natural finale of the revolutionary ripples of the emancipatory Risorgimento. The movement for unity had been scuttled by the Austrian navy off shores of Vis in 1866 as the Austrians in a rare wartime victory halted the Italian advance. In negotiations about transferring the Eastern Adriatic to Italian hands in 1915, the Italian ambassador refers to 1866 as the key date as recalled by the British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey:

He spoke most strongly of the claim of Italy to the coast of Dalmatia and the islands. He said that for six centuries it had belonged to Venice and, till 1866, was Italian by nationality. If, since that date, the Italian element had been weakened, it was owing to the deliberate policy of Austria in introducing a Slav element .

Since then, Italian influence in the Eastern Adriatic parts of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy would decrease. Austria forbade its Slav citizens to study in Italy, introduced a more liberal constitution in 1867 and founded a Croatian language university in Zagreb in 1874. As more south Slavs became educated in their mother tongue, the Slavic rebirth intensified culturally as well as politically. As the 19th century wore on, the number of Italian controlled municipalities in Dalmatia went from 84 in 1861 to 1 in 1914. In 1909, Italian was replaced by Croatian as an official language, leading many Italians to fear for the future of Italian culture on the Eastern Adriatic. The Zadar born professor of Italian at University College London outlined the reasons for Italy’s intervention in an article written in 1915:

“The reasons of the present Italian war, as well as the open affirmation of Italian aspirations and rights, are deeply rooted in those ‘sacrifices’ of the new and not yet completed nation, as well as in the long and indescribable sufferings of the Italians on the eastern shore of the Adriatic – and more especially of the Italians of Dalmatia – through the iniquitous denationalising policy pursued by Austria.”

The rest of the article will appear when the book is published

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