Fiume 1919: 100th Anniversary of the First Duce’s March

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On October 18th, the New York Times commemorated the 100th anniversary of Italian poet warrior Gabriel D’Annunzio’s march on the city of Fiume, on the northeast coast of the Adriatic (present-day Rjeka, Croatia), with an article by Tara Isabella Burton, entitled, The Sex-Crazed Poet Strongman Who (Briefly) Built an Empire. Burton is a contributing editor at The American Interest, columnist for the Religious News Service and author of the novel, The Social Creature. It is an interesting piece, worth reading but tends to play up the more salacious aspects of both D’Annunzio and the political experiment he engendered at Fiume to the detriment of examining the greater complexity of both.

Most Americans have probably never heard of D’Annunzio but a hundred years ago he was arguably the most famous Italian in the world. Burton gives us some sense of this but really doesn’t import what a force of nature he was. D’Annunzio was born in 1863 in the township of Pescara, in the region of Abruzzo. He was the son of Francesco Paolo Rapagnetta D’Annunzio, who became the town’s mayor as well as being a prominent landowner and wine merchant. Francesco had originally been born plain Rapagnetta, the maiden name of his single mother but at age 13 had been adopted by his rich uncle, Antonio D’Annunzio. Francesco took Luisa de Benedictis for his wife. Gabriele’s precocious talent was recognized by his parents early and he was sent to school at the Liceo Cicognini in Prato. He published his first verse while still there at age 16. By his thirties, D’Annunzio was Italy’s best-known poet, most acclaimed novelist and dramatist.

Always controversial, he was accused of plagiarism and the Catholic Church placed his works on the Index of Prohibited Books. In 1883, he married Maria Hardouin di Gallese and fathered three sons with her but they divorced in 1891. Three years later, D’Annunzio began an affair with Eleonora Duse, one of the greatest actresses of the time and an international celebrity in her own right. Duse lavished inspiration and money on D’ Annunzio for nine years, until she could take no more of his infidelities and excesses. He wrote to her trying to explain: “The imperious needs of a violent, carnal life, of pleasure, of physical risk, of happiness have kept me from you. Can you cry shame on me for these needs of mine? “To which Duse replied: “Do not speak to me of the imperious ‘reason’ of your ‘carnal’ life, of your thirst for ‘joyous existence.’ I am tired of hearing these words. I have heard you repeat them for years now. I can neither entirely go along with your philosophy nor entirely understand it. What love can find which is worthy or profound if it lives only for pleasure?”

Burton informs us that D’Annunzio was “heavily influenced” by Friedrich Nietzsche but he borrowed selectively from the German philosopher. He had no use for Nietzsche’s radical uncertainty and undermining of the assumptions of Western philosophy. What interested D’Annunzio was Nietzsche’s concept of the superman, living life on his own terms, abjuring the ideas of Christian morality or any inhibition on the individual’s “will to power.” D’ Annunzio saw himself as such a figure and his novels often included characters that were transparent incantations of the author. He also detested socialism because for him the masses were meant to be led not emancipated.

As Burton points out, D’Annunzio was also a key instigator of Italy’s late entrance into World War I. While politicians like prime minster Antonio Salandra and foreign ministers Antonino di San Giuliano and later, Sidney Sonnino, maneuvered in secret to see which side would offer Italy the best deal (they eventually chose the Allies), D’Annunzio’s charisma and rhetorical skills were employed to whip up the war enthusiasm of the reluctant Italian people. He performed this role to a tee. While still living in France to escape his numerous Italian creditors, D’Annunzio received a letter inviting him to speak on May 5, 1915 at the unveiling of a monument dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi and his “Thousand” at the seaside district near Genoa, where the heroes had set sail to conquer Sicily in 1860. Borrowing the motif of the Sermon on the Mount, D’Annunzio intoned:

“O blessed are they that have, for they have more to give, they can burn more brightly. Blessed are the twenty-three-year-olds, pure of mind, well-tempered in body with courageous mothers. Blessed are they who, waiting with confidence, do not dissipate their strength but guard it in the discipline of the warrior. Blessed are they who disdain sterile love-affairs to be virgins for this first and last love. Blessed are the young who hunger and thirst for glory, for they shall be sated. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall have splendid blood to wipe away, radiant to bind up.”

During the war, the comparatively elderly D’Annunzio (he was 52 when Italy entered the war) was allowed to function as a sort of military free agent, fighting with whoever and wherever his fancy and chance to increase his fame took him. In February 1918, serving with the Royal Italian Navy, he took part in the daring, if militarily irrelevant, raid on the Austro-Hungarian harbor of Bakar, which nonetheless raised the morale of the Italian people after the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Caporetto only a few months earlier. The climax of D’Annunzio’s World War I career was, as Burton tells us, when, as commander of the 87th “La Serenissima” Fighter Squadron, D’Annunzio led a propaganda leaflet drop on Vienna itself.

As Burton notes, D’Annunzio was a nationalist and irredentist or believer that Austrian and Yugoslav territory containing ethnic Italian populations should be annexed to the motherland. A major reason Italy decided to join the Allies is that Britain and France promised far more territorial concessions than the Central Powers, albeit a promise they never intended to keep. When the betrayal became evident during the redrawing of the European map after the war, it infuriated nationalists like D’Annunzio and the socialist turned fascist, Benito Mussolini. This outrage is what precipitated the march on Fiume, which as Burton writes, was a city with an Italian majority, though also a sizable Croatian population.

Burton tells us that, “On Sept. 12, 1919, flanked by a few black-clad former army buddies, known as “arditi,” d’Annunzio marched on the city — over the exasperated objections of the Italian government” but this summary glosses over a lot of important details. According to Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s 2013, Gabriel D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War, D’Annunzio assumed the leadership of 186 mutineers from the Italian Army, driving at the head of them in a red Fiat so full of flowers one observer mistook it for a hearse (D’Annunzio loved flowers). The army had orders to stop D’Annunzio by shooting him dead if necessary. But as he progressed towards Fiume, the soldiers, many of whom were sympathetic with his goal, either gave way or joined him. By the time he entered the city his following was some 2,000 strong. And the “Arditi” (Italian for “Daring”) were not just D’Annunzio’s “army buddies,” they were the elite of the elite of the Italian Army, picked men, specially trained to break the stalemate of trench warfare. They were inspired by the earlier developed Austrian and German “storm trooper” units.

Similarly, Burton writes that:

“D’Annunzio’s strange, chaotic 15-month rule over the city began. He mandated daily poetry readings, regular concerts and constant fireworks. Soldiers were commanded to celebrate not with the vulgar “hip, hip, hurrah,” but rather the Greek battle cry of Achilles in The Iliad: “Eia eia alalà!” A constitution established an anarcho-syndicalist, corporatist state, in which one of the corporations was designed to represent the superior Übermensch. (D’Annunzio was heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche.)”

But there is more to this part of the story as well. Historian Michael Ledeen fills out the picture more in his 1977 book, The First Duce: D’Annuinzio at Fiume. According to Ledeen:

“The Constitution of Fiume (la Carta del Carnaro) [D’Annunzio proclaimed his “state” as the “Italian Regency of Carnaro in 1920] constituted a major contribution to political theory, for it blended both radical elements of the “new politics” and the quasi-religious qualities of D’Annunzio’s eloquent rhetoric into a unique political document. The Carta del Carnaro provided for the complete equality of women, total toleration of both religion and atheism and a thoroughgoing system of social security, medical insurance and old-age care. Furthermore, it provided for a constant change in political leadership in order to both protect against an entrenched bureaucracy and to guarantee a constant infusion of new elements into the government of the city.”

Although the Regency of Carnaro probably was “chaotic” and an attraction for “misfits and miscreants,” as Burton says, it also pointed to a transformative kind of state very different from the totalitarian one later created by Mussolini. As Ledeen points out:

“Fiume virtually defies attempts to classify it as a phenomenon of either the political Right or Left. One of the most brilliant aspects of D’Annunzio’s politics was his ability to enlist the passionate support of the most diverse elements of the political world. The government of Fiume had American journalists and poets, Belgian writers, Italian businessmen, in addition to representatives of radical trade unions, anarchist groups and the armed forces. Fiume was one of the first governments to arrive at a form of “consensus politics” and D’Annunzio managed to convince all these apparently conflicting forces that it served their best interests.”

D’Annunzio was a lot of things, including a warmonger and a rake, but he was not a fascist. As Ledeen notes, while he created a political style that was later successfully emulated by Mussolini, “there was no inevitable causal chain that led from Fiume to the March on Rome three years later…to look at the Fiuman adventure solely in the context of fascism distorts D’Annunzio’s importance and, in the end, distorts fascism as well.” Ledeen identifies two reason why such an analysis is incorrect. First, D’Annunzio’s Fiume was by no means a triumph of conservative nationalist forces. Conservatives has an instinctual distrust of mass movements, while D’Annunzio led a dynamic and even revolutionary popular movement. Moreover, his vision was much broader than that of the nationalists, as evidenced by his quixotic attempt to create a “League of Oppressed Nations.” Second, as Ledeen puts it so well, insofar as the Fiuman “state” had a “clear political color, it was red, not black.” The “Carta of Carnaro” was inspired by anarcho-syndicalism, not reactionary nationalism and, as Ledeen notes, Lenin himself recognized that D’Annunzio might well have been recruited by the international left, had Italian socialists been more imaginative.

After his ejection from Fiume by the regular Italian army in 1920, D’Annunzio was displaced by the more cynical and opportunistic Mussolini. D’Annunzio was seriously injured when he fell out of a window on August 13, 1922; subsequently a meeting he had planned for “national pacification,” which would have included Mussolini was cancelled. The incident was never explained and is considered by some historians as an assassination attempt. Despite D’Annunzio’s retreat from public life after this event, the Mussolini still found it necessary to regularly dole out funds to him as a bribe for not re-entering the political arena. When asked about this by a close friend, Mussolini purportedly stated: “When you have a rotten tooth you have two possibilities open to you: either you pull the tooth or you fill it with gold. With D’Annunzio I have chosen for the latter treatment.”

In his last years, D’Annunzio did everything he could to forestall the growing relationship between Mussolini and Hitler. In 1934, he tried to disrupt the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini after their first meeting, even writing a satirical pamphlet about the German dictator. Less than a year before his death on March 1, 1938, D’Annunzio met with the Mussolini at the Verona train station to convince him to leave the Axis alliance. In 1944, after his regime had crumbled, Mussolini admitted to having made a mistake in not following his advice.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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