The Savoyard Dynasty

The House of Savoy goes back ten centuries to a feudal family that ruled the southwestern Alpine region still known by that name but now a part of France. The family gradually extended its control over the mountains and eventually moved itself into the warmer and more attractive plains of northern Italy. It settled in the upper reaches of the Po River valley, a region much wealthier and more populous than the family’s original possessions. This region, known as Piedmont, became its main base of operations and the backbone of its strength.

To the rulers of Piedmont, Italy was an artichoke to be swallowed leaf by leaf, little by little. Through a series of diplomatic maneuvers, clever political deals, opportune marriages, and alliances with other states, the House of Savoy added to its territories. Its purpose, critics say, was the selfish one of aggrandizing the family’s wealth, power, and prestige.

The criticism is doubtless right. But in the nineteenth century dynastic ambition was overtaken and absorbed into a far vaster force: the surge of nationalism that swept Italy and called irresistibly for the unification of all Italians under a single independent government. The great Italian statesman, Cavour, took advantage of the nationalist movement much as Bismarck did in unifying Germany.

National unity at last

The House of Savoy saw the wave of nationalistic fervor coming and rode it in. Piedmont took the leadership in the wars that brought the other Italian states, one by one, into the fold. The rulers of Piedmont emerged supreme in the struggle for Italian unity and independence that took place in the years 1848–70 and that the Italians call the “Risorgimento”—resurrection.

There were other forces contending for leadership, forces that were republican rather than monarchic, and decentralizing rather than centralizing. They went back in their traditions to the free cities of the Middle Ages. Put Piedmont, more than any other state in Italy, had already at hand some of the trappings of a modern nation: a bureaucracy, an army, a financial structure, and a system of foreign alliances.

The victory of 1870 gave Italy a single government ruling from the Alps to Sicily. It was a centralized government. It was a monarchy. And, anxious to telescope into a few decades the process of unification that in other countries had taken centuries, it was reluctant to take account of differing traditions and ideals in the different parts of the new kingdom.

The weakness of the party system

The Italian monarchy, like that of England, was a constitutional monarchy. That is, the king was the ruler only in name. Actual power rested in the hands of a prime minister and cabinet selected from and responsible to the majority of the popularly elected parliament.

As a whole the system worked according to pattern. The three successive kings kept their noses out of politics most of the time. The parliament and cabinet were supreme. Free elections were carried out at regular intervals—with universal manhood suffrage after 1912. Governments were founded cm parliamentary majorities and accordingly went out of office when parliament voted against them.

If Italian democracy worked so well, why, it will be asked, was it doomed in 1922? The answer is that Italy did not develop the kind of stable and strong political parties that are needed to make parliamentary institutions function in a crisis. In the political life of prefascist Italy personal relationships were more important than group ideals or programs of cooperative action.

This isn’t to say that there were no parties at all in Italy before World War I, because there were. The best organized was the Socialized party. It had a program and it acted as a unit, in parliament and in the country. It behaved in the way we expect political parties to behave in England or the United States. It grew steadily in strength and became the spokesman of a majority of the city workers and large numbers of handless peasants.

The other “parties,” however, were really more like informal groups. A number of representatives would rally around a particular leader according to personality, circumstances, and political profit. They might shift their allegiance overnight for relatively petty reasons. Parliamentary majorities built up out of such unstable groups meant unsteady governments, frequently changed and unable to take vigorous stands or carry out long-range policies.

The lack of local self-government

A second reason for political instability was the absence of any real local self-government. In the United States we think of local government as the foundation of our democratic system. In a way, local city, county, and state governments are the training grounds of democracy. There the average American feels himself closest to the responsibilities of citizenship.

The mayors of Italian cities were elected locally after 1896. But under the centralized government at Rome the city and provincial governments could be changed at will. The practice of throwing out elected mayors became quite common between 1910 and 1922. Sometimes there were good reasons for it, sometimes bad; but the net result was to weaken faith in democracy at the grass roots.

The consequences of economic change

Italy made considerable, economic progress between 1870 and 1914. Such established industries as silk and cotton were expanded. New ones were created, such as the chemical, mechanical, and automobile industries. This industrial expansion led not only to the employment of great numbers of workers but also to a flourishing international trade which linked Italy to the rest of the world.

There was one serious shortcoming. Italy had scant supplies of raw materials. It had silk, sulphur, zinc, and mercury but practically nothing else: a little iron ore, no coal, no copper, no oil, no cotton.

Under these circumstances Italy had two alternatives. One was to import certain raw and partly processed materials. Among these imports could be cotton and wool, which serve to employ great numbers of workers, and steel, which could be profitably manufactured into such finished products off high commercial value as automobiles.

The other alternative was to build up within Italy all the basic industries that are found in a modern industrial state, including a steel industry. This could only be done by importing all the coal, iron ore, and other necessary raw materials, and erecting high tariff barriers against the competition of more efficiently produced foreign products.

Italy followed both alternatives in part. The most important result was an artificially created and artificially supported iron and steel industry. Around it and the related heavy industries grew up an industrialist class that looked upon the government as its agent in defending interests that did not always coincide with the interests of the state.

Mass emigration

During the decades before World War I millions of Italians left the country to settle either in other parts of Europe or overseas. They went chiefly because the population was increasing faster than the economic development of the country. There wasn’t enough work and food to go around. The lure of empty spaces, of adventure, and of a better life was irresistible, especially for the peasants in crowded southern Italy.

From progressive and industrialized northern Italy went hundreds of thousands of people who had a little money saved up or who had valuable technical skills. They settled largely in France, California, Argentina, and Brazil. From the more backward areas of southern Italy went millions of peasants, with little or no money and little or no education, but with stout hearts and an eagerness to work. They settled in eastern United States and in many other parts of the world.

The two groups together were one of the greatest reasons for Italy’s fair degree of economic prosperity by 1914. Their departure eased the rising population pressure, and thereat sums of money they sent back home provided revenue to build up the Italian economy. Some of them made their pile and retired to the old country. Many more stayed to become citizens and raise families in their adopted homelands.