In 1882 the Kingdom of Italy signed a Triple Alliance with the Empires of Germany and Austria, designed by the German Chancellor Bismarck to isolate France. It was always questionable how far this alliance served Italian interests, for although Italy had reason to be grateful to Germany, she had a longstanding hostility to Austria, and her feelings towards France were ambivalent. Italy had not been a unified nation since Roman times, and for a century and a half until the mid-19th century it had essentially been a backyard of Austria. The Austrian Empire incorporated Venice and Milan, and most of the petty states to the south were linked to Autria. The central territories were ruled by the Pope, and ruled extremely badly. Only the little kingdom of Savoy-Sardinia retained any indpendence.
In 1859 the French Emperor, Napoleon III, had joined with savoy in a war against Austria, and had driven them from Milan, but had then reneged on his promises and signed a treaty leaving the Austrians still in control of Venice. 1860-61 had seen Garibaldi's campaigns in Sicily and Naples, leading to the creation of an Italian kingdom under Victor Emmanuel III of Savoy, but Rome was still held by French troops, who had been sent there in 1849 to restore the Pope and expel the revolutionaries under Garibaldi and Mazzini. In 1866 Bismarck had organised a defeat of Austria which resulted in Venice being given to Italy, and then in 1870 the defeat of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian war had led to French withdrawal from Rome and the proclamation of the city as the capital of Italy. But the Pope refused to recognise the Italian state, and for the next half-century remained in self-imposed imprisonment in the Vatican.
The new Italy soon went in for imperial adventures in east Africa, and managed to establish footholds in Eritrea and Somalia, but in 1896 was by the Ethiopians at Adowa, a humiliation which rankled for a long time. In 1911, Italy declared war on the Turkish Empire, mostly for the sake of taking Tripoli (modern Libya). In fact, only the coastal strip was ever really occupied, and there followed 20 years of savage fighting to try to stamp out resistance, in the course of which perhaps 100,000 naives were killed. The occupation of Somalia was equally savage. Both these colonial adventures were denounced in the British press, though it could be argued that Italy's only crime was anachronism: the time for brutal colonial adventures of this kind was over. The Italian government hoped for mass emigration to these colonies, but failed: almost all emigrants preferring to go to America. The Italian Socialist party, which was strong and militant always opposed colonial adventures: notably one young firebrand who rose to edit the Socialist newspaper, “Avanti!”. His name was Benito Mussolini.
When war broke out in 1914, Germany could hardly have been surprised that Italy refused to honour the Triple Alliance, but instead announced neutrality. Pope Benedict XV denounced the war as “useless slaughter” (thus earning the contempt of Kipling). The Italian Socialists also bitterly the opposed war, but Mussolini from the start demanded war against Germany and Austria. He left the party and instead started his own newspaper; “Il Popolo d’Italia”.
In 1915 Mussolini's call was met when Italy was lured into the war on the British and French side by the Treaty of London, which held out promises of eventual gains from the Austrians of the Trento, the port of Trieste and the Dalmatian coast. Mussolini at once joined up, and was promoted to corporal, but in June 1917 he was severely wounded in a grenade training exercise and was invalided out.
Italy was ill-prepared for the war: soldiers' food and pay were grossly inadequate, generalship was poor and discipline harsh, with numerous executions. There was little enthusiasm for the fight: one German officer recorded that Italian soldiers tended to surrender at first opportunity. His name was Rommel. But surrender didn’t do them much good: the Italian government made no attempt to facilitate food supplies to prisoner-of-war camps, so that perhaps 100,000 Italian soldiers died of hunger.
There was fierce fighting in the Alps, where the Austrians benefitted from a new 4-wheel drive mountain transport invented by Porsche. In October 1917 Italy suffered a disastrous defeat at Caporetto: about 10,000 troops died, 300,000 were wounded, and 400,000 simply disappeared, presumably they deserted and went home. Austrian forces advanced down into the Veneto, but reinforcements arrived from Britain and France, the front was stabilised, and as Austria collapsed in November 1918, the Italians were able to advance into enemy territory.
Italy was represented at Versailles by the Prime Minister, Orlando, who expected major gains as a reward for his country's contribution to victory, especially in recognition of her 600,000 dead. But Orlando found himself very much junior partner of the "Big Three" (Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau) and his claims were not taken seriously. France did not trust Italy, and considered her own interests best served by the creation of a powerful new state, Yugoslavia, across the Adriatic. Italy was given the port of Trieste and the Trento (the region north of Lake Garda, whose population was divided between German-speakers and Italian-speakers), and in addition Rhodes and the Dodecanese islands were obtained from Turkey; but the Italians were frustrated in their hopes of also gaining Fiume on the Dalmatian coast, where the population was clearly Croat. Italy was opposed to a strong Yugoslavia, did not gain control of Albania (a new country, independent only in 1913; violent and chaotic); wanted bases on the mainland of Turkey, and resented new territories being given to Greece. Orlando walked out of the conference in disgust in April 1919, then returned a month later, but still got no more, and resigned as Prime Minister.
In September 1919 the romantic author and poseur D’Annunzio led a private army which seized control of Fiume and set up his own government there. After 15 months of confusion, Italy and Yugoslavia agreed to accept Fiume as a “free state”, and D’Annunzio returned to Italy a hero.
Like other countries, Italian industry had experienced a major economic boom from war production, mostly benefitting the industrial north of the country, though it had to be paid for with huge war debts and massive inflation: and now the end of hostilities brought depression and unemployment. In the south, peasant soldiers returned to deprivation and poverty. All looked set up for trouble. Many Socialists hoped for revolution on Russian lines, and they ignored or disregarded their firebrand ex-colleague who now started up his own movement: Benito Mussolini!
Adolf Hitler, musing on these events a few years later, thought that one of the chief failings of German diplomacy had been to ally with the untrustworthy Italians rather than with Britain - ironic, in view of his own diplomacy!