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When World War I broke out in August 1914, Italy declared neutrality. Although nominally allied with the German Empire and the Empire of Austria-Hungary in the Triple Alliance, the Kingdom of Italy did not join the Central Powers; in fact, Germany and Austria-Hungary had taken the offensive while the Triple Alliance was supposed to be a defensive alliance. Moreover, the Triple Alliance recognized that both Italy and Austria-Hungary were interested in the Balkans and required both to consult each other before changing the status quo and to provide compensation for whatever advantage in that area: Austria-Hungary did consult Germany but not Italy before issuing the ultimatum to Serbia, and refused any compensation before the end of the war. The Allies made a counter-offer in which Italy would receive a slice of Austria and a slice of the Ottoman Empire after the defeat of Austria-Hungary. This was formalised by the Treaty of London. In 1915, Italy entered the war joining the Triple Entente (i.e. the Allies).
Public and elite opinion was split on the wisdom of the war, for the nation was very poorly prepared, the army was not well trained, and there was too small an industrial and financial base. However, the country gave a fundamental contribution to the victory of the conflict as one of the "Big Four" top Allied powers. A handful of leaders made the basic decisions, notably Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and especially the two foreign ministers Antonio di San Giuliano and Sidney Sonnino. They optimistically expected that victory would bring new territories and new glory, thus closing some of Italy's internal conflicts. Under the Peace Treaties of Saint-Germain, Rapallo and Rome, Italy gained a permanent seat in the League of Nations's executive council and obtained most of the promised territories, but not Dalmatia (except Zara), allowing nationalists to define the victory as "mutilated"; that sentiment led to the rise of the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini in 1922.
The Italian leadership was inexperienced, unfamiliar with international affairs, and often quite ill. Forces outside the government played minor roles. The business and financial communities wanted peace, but they were ignored in the decision-making. Likewise intellectuals and foreign policy experts, as well as nationalistic pressure groups, were ignored. The King had nominal power over war and peace, but he had severe psychiatric problems in 1914, and in any case he turned over all major issues to his cabinet. Prime Minister Antonio Salandra took office in March 1914, had little experience in foreign affairs, and had no talent or taste for statecraft. The decision for war was in the hands of Foreign Minister Antonio di San Giuliano, an experienced diplomat, cynical and cautious. He was in poor health and died in October 1914. He was replaced by Sidney Sonnino, who maneuvered to join the Allies primarily to gain territory. Tommaso Tittoni, the ambassador to France, was often consulted; he also pled for joining the Allies. Civilian politicians marginalized the generals; the chief of staff died on July 1, and he was finally replaced by General Luigi Cadorna in late July. Cadorna exaggerated the Italian Army's capabilities to the unsuspecting civilians, while working hard to remove its weaknesses. All of the leaders distrusted Austria, and were eager to take control of the Austrian province of Trentino-Alto-Adige in the Alps, and the Austrian city of Trieste. They all distrusted the Ottoman Empire, and were proud that Italy had recently seized control of the Ottoman holdings in Libya. Italy, Austria and Serbia were all contending for control of Albania.
Italy was a formal member of the Triple Alliance, alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary. However it also maintained good relations with France and Russia. The other countries understood this duality, and did not expect Italy to join in the war in 1914. Its treaty obligations did not require it to join with Germany and Austria, and it saw very little to gain from doing so. Public opinion wanted peace, and the leadership in Rome realized how poorly prepared the nation was in contrast to the powerhouses at war. By late 1914, however, Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino decided that major territorial gains were possible by joining the Allies, and would help calm extremely serious internal dissension, by bringing glory to the victorious army, as well as satisfying popular feeling by freeing Italian-speaking territories from Austrian rule. There were also new patronage opportunities and political victories for the politicians. They planned to argue, plausibly, that these results would be the triumph it climax of "Risorgimento" (that is, Italian unification). In December 1914 Sonnino opened negotiations in Vienna, asking for territorial compensation in return for remaining neutral. These talks were designed to conceal the government's true intentions from the Italian public opinion, and from the countries at war. In March 1915 Sonnino began serious negotiations with London and France. They had an exaggerated opinion of what Italy could contribute, not realizing it would be a very expensive drain on Allied money, manpower and munitions. The Treaty of London was signed on 26 April 1915 and Italy declared war against Austria-Hungary on 23 May 1915. Salandra boasted that the Pact of London was "the greatest, if not the first completely spontaneous act of foreign policy executed by Italy since the Risorgimento."
From the standpoint of its erstwhile allies, Italy's recent success in occupying Libya as a result of the Italo-Turkish War had sparked tension with its Triple Alliance allies, who had been seeking closer relations with the Ottoman Empire. Germans reacted to Italy's aggression by singing anti-Italian songs. Italy's relations with France remained tense: France still felt betrayed by Italy's refusal to help in the Franco-Prussian War back in 1870. Italy's relations with Great Britain had been impaired by constant Italian demands for more recognition in the international stage following its occupation of Libya and its demands that other nations accept its spheres of influence in Eastern Africa and the Mediterranean Sea.
In the Mediterranean, Italy's relations with Greece were aggravated when Italy occupied the Greek-populated Dodecanese Islands, including Rhodes, from 1912 to 1914. These islands had been formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Italy and Greece were also in open rivalry over the desire to occupy Albania. King Victor Emmanuel III himself was uneasy about Italy pursuing distant colonial adventures and said that Italy should prepare to take back Italian-populated land from Austria-Hungary as the "completion of the Risorgimento". This idea put Italy at odds with Austria-Hungary.
Freemasonry was an influential semi-secret force in Italian politics with a strong presence among professionals and the middle class across Italy, as well as among the leadership in parliament, public administration, and the army. The two main organization were the Grand Orient and the Grand Lodge of Italy. They had 25,000 members in 500 or more lodges. Freemasons took on the challenge of mobilizing the press, public opinion, and the leading political parties in support of Italy's joining the war as an ally of France and Great Britain. In 1914-15 they temporarily dropped their traditional pacifistic rhetoric and adopted the objectives of the nationalists. Freemasonry had historically promoted cosmopolitan universal values, and by 1917 onwards they reverted to their internationalist stance and pressed for the creation of a League of Nations to promote a new post-war universal order based upon the peaceful coexistence of independent and democratic nations.
A major hindrance to Italy's decision on what to do about the war was the political instability throughout Italy in 1914. After the formation of the government of Prime Minister Salandra in March 1914, the government attempted to win the support of nationalists and moved to the political right.
At the same time, the left became more repulsed by the government after the killing of three anti-militarist demonstrators in June. Many elements of the left including syndicalists, republicans and anarchists protested against this and the Italian Socialist Party declared a general strike in Italy. The protests that ensued became known as "Red Week", as leftists rioted and various acts of civil disobedience occurred in major cities and small towns such as seizing railway stations, cutting telephone wires and burning tax-registers. However, only two days later the strike was officially called off, though the civil strife continued.
Militarist nationalists and anti-militarist leftists fought on the streets until the Italian Royal Army forcefully restored calm after having used thousands of men to put down the various protesting forces. Following the invasion of Serbia by Austria-Hungary in 1914, World War I broke out as Germany and Austria stood opposed to Serbia, Russia, France and Britain. Despite Italy's official alliance to Germany and membership in the Triple Alliance, it remained neutral, claiming that the Triple Alliance was only for defensive purposes.
Society was divided over the war: Italian socialists generally opposed the war and supported pacificism, while nationalists militantly supported the war. Long-time nationalists Gabriele D'Annunzio and Luigi Federzoni and a Marxist journalist once praised by Lenin, now a new convert to nationalist sentiment, Benito Mussolini, demanded that Italy join the war. For nationalists, Italy had to maintain its alliance with Germany and Austria in order to gain colonial territories at the expense of France. For the liberals, the war presented Italy a long-awaited opportunity to use an alliance with the Entente to gain territories from Austria-Hungary, which had long been part of Italian patriotic aims since unification. Luigi Federzoni emphasized the need to join the war and warned of continued disunity if it did not:
Italy has awaited this since 1866 her truly national war, in order to feel unified at last, renewed by the unanimous action and identical sacrifice of all her sons. Today, while Italy still wavers before the necessity imposed by history, the name of Garibaldi, resanctified by blood, rises again to warn her that she will not be able to defeat the revolution save by fighting and winning her national war.
-- Luigi Federzoni, 1915 
Mussolini used his new newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia and his strong oratorical skills to urge nationalists and patriotic revolutionary leftists to join the Allies: "Enough of Libya, and on to Trento and Trieste". Mussolini argued that it was in the interests of all socialists to join the war to tear down the aristocratic Hohenzollern dynasty of Germany because it was the enemy of all European workers. Mussolini and other nationalists warned the Italian government that Italy must join the war or face revolution and called for violence against pacifists and neutralists.Left-wing nationalism also erupted in Southern Italy as socialist and nationalist Giuseppe De Felice Giuffrida saw joining the war as essential to relieving southern Italy of the rising cost of bread which had caused riots in the south, and advocated a "war of revolution".
There was no good reason for Italy to risk the horrors and expenses of war -- it joined it for new territories that would make the government look good and dissolve the intense internal disharmony. The strategy was to bargain for the best possible offer in terms of both territorial gains and coverage of Italian financial and military weaknesses.
By August 1914 Russia was eager for Italia's entry into the war, expecting it would open a new front that would paralyze any Austrian offensive. Russia had nothing to give Italy, so there were no results. Rome refused to make a commitment, and there was a pause when Foreign Minister San Giuliano died in October. His replacement Sonnino planned to join the winning side in order to gain new territory. At first he expected the Central Powers to win, but the war looked more like a long one, so it was not necessary to hurry and join in. Austria had too little to offer and was showing its military weakness. Berlin pressured Vienna to make more territorial concessions to Rome, but it was too little, too late as Sonnino turned to the Allies. They were more than willing to promise large territorial spoils taken from Austria and Turkey. Italy's very long coastline made it exposed to the vastly superior power of the Allied navies. Public opinion was divided and Sonnino used that to mislead the cabinet. By February 1915 he was negotiating with both sides, but had decided that the Allies were making the better offer. He ignored the poor state of the Italian military, expecting that Britain and France would do all the fighting that was necessary. The Italian treasury could not fund a war, but again there were promises of money and munitions from London and Paris. In April 1915 Italy signed the London Pact with Britain and France. The pact ensured Italy the right to attain all Italian-populated lands it wanted from Austria-Hungary, as well as concessions in the Balkan Peninsula and suitable compensation for any territory gained by the Allies from Germany in Africa. Italy declared war a month later and invaded Austria from the south.
The reaction in Italy was divided: former Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti was furious over Italy's decision to go to war against its two long-time former allies. Giolitti claimed that Italy would fail in the war, predicting high numbers of mutinies, Austro-Hungarian occupation of even more Italian territory. He warned that the failure would produce a catastrophic rebellion that would destroy the liberal-democratic monarchy and the liberal-democratic secular institutions of the state. Sonnino made the decision and ignored Giolitti's dire predictions, which came horribly true.
One major result was that Italian nationalism was greatly strengthened and became a major force at both elite and popular levels until 1945, when popular democracy became a much more important force.