Thursday, 23 November 2017

The unification of Italy, part 1.

Image result for Italy-1815
In the post-Napoleonic settlement, Italy continued to be divided in a mosaic of petty states. The kingdom of Naples and Sicily (known as the “Two Sicilies”) was restored in the south, as was Papal rule in Emilia and Romagna. In the north, the ancient republics of Genoa and Venice were simply abolished; Genoa being given to the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and Venice to the Austrian Empire. North of the Papal States lay a collection of petty kingdoms and duchies: Tuscany, Parma and the like. In actual fact, almost all of Italy was dominated by the Austrians, who ruled Venice and Milan directly and dominated most of the smaller states through relatives or dependents on the Habsburg imperial family. Only Piedmont in the north-west, with its capital at Turin, could claim to be fully independent.
In 1848 most of the cities of Italy were convulsed by revolution. The Austrians were driven from Milan and Venice and the Pope Pius IX, who had initially appeared to be a liberal, fled from Rome. King Charles Albert of Piedmont tried to seize the initiative by declaring war on Austria. But everywhere the revolutions failed. The Austrian army reoccupied the lost cities, and the unfortunate Charles Albert, defeated, abdicated the throne. In the south, King Ferdinand II shelled Palermo into submission (a feat that earned him the nickname of “King Bomba”), and then dismissed and imprisoned the liberal ministers whom he had only recently appointed. Gladstone, on a visit to Naples, memorably denounced his conduct as “A negation of God erected into a system of government”. Meanwhile a French army of 30,000 men, supported by Austrian and Neapolitan troops, was sent to restore Rome to the dubious benefits of Papal rule. Leading the defence of the city was Garibaldi.
Guiseppe Garibaldi was born in Nice (then part of Sardinia-Savoy) in 1807. He had qualified as a naval captain, but in 1834 had been sentenced to death in absentia for his part in a nationalist insurrection and had fled to South America. There he had learned to be a brilliant guerrilla commander in the civil wars in Uruguay before returning to Italy. It was in South America that he first dressed his followers in the famous red shirts, obtained from a company that supplied slaughterhouses. In 1849 he won the admiration of liberals throughout Europe for his defence on the Roman Republic against overwhelming force, before being obliged to withdraw in July. For months he evaded the Austrian forces before escaping overseas, though those of his followers who were captured by the Austrians were shot, and his beloved wife Anita died in the marshes near Ravenna. Garibaldi never forgave the Austrians. For the next few years Garibaldi was treated as a hero in Britain and the U.S.A., but the dream of Italian unity was still no more than a dream in the minds of idealistic republicans. Then in 1859 a new opportunity in Italy presented itself.

We shall probably never know why the French Emperor, Napoleon III, decided to sign a treaty committing himself to war with Austria, on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont and his brilliant, Machiavellian Prime Minister, Count Cavour. Quite probably the Emperor was psychologically a prisoner of the name he had inherited from his famous uncle.  After the French monarchy was overthrown in the revolution of 1848 he had been elected President of the Republic for no visible reason other than his name, and then a few years later had staged a coup and proclaimed himself Emperor.  But ten years after his election, he had failed to do anything “Napoleonic”, unless joining with Britain in the Crimean War is deemed to count. So why not intervene in Italy? This was where his great uncle had first made his name, fighting and defeating the Austrians back in the 1790s. In his younger days Louis Napoleon had been associated with republican Italian societies like the Carbonari, but so far his only intervention there had been to send a French army to reclaim Rome for the Papacy in 1849. Then in 1858 he was lucky to survive a bomb thrown in the street by an Italian extremist named Orsini. But despite this he met secretly with Cavour at Plombieres that summer, and, without the French foreign minister being informed, they plotted for war in Italy. Some means would be found of provoking a war between Austria and Piedmont, following which 200,000 French troops would intervene to drive the Austrians from Milan and Venice. This secret treaty was made to resemble some deal from an earlier century by the additional provisos that Savoy and Nice would be handed over to France, and King Victor Emmanuel’s 16-year-old daughter Clotilde would be given in marriage to Napoleon’s cousin, who was 19 years her senior and rejoiced in the strange nickname of “Plon-plon”. (The unfortunate Clotilde was labelled by cynics “The first casualty of the war”. The marriage was not a great success)
   Yet no sooner had Cavour begun to engineer a confrontation with Austria than the Emperor got cold feet and tried to renege on his promises by suggesting that the dispute should be solved by international arbitration. Cavour was in despair, but the situation was saved by the Austrians, who not only insisted on punishing the Piedmontese but then moved their troops so slowly that they had failed to crush them before the French armies had crossed the Alps. The Emperor accompanied his armies as nominal commander-in-chief, but once more revealed his un-Napoleonic side by looking on appalled by the slaughter and the suffering of the wounded as the Austrians were defeated in the bloody battles of Magenta and Solferino in June 1859. Garibaldi meanwhile led a guerrilla campaign along the Alpine foothills that successfully outflanked the Austrians, driving them from Brescia and Bergamo. The superstitious peasant soldiers of the Austrian army feared him greatly.
  But Louis Napoleon, much shaken by his experience of battle, now signed a separate treaty with the Austrians at Villafranca. King Victor Emmanuel gained Milan for Piedmont, but the Austrians were left in possession of Venice. Many Italian nationalists regarded this as outright betrayal. On the other hand, it is clear that neither Cavour nor Napoleon was thinking in terms of Italian unification: the Catholic Church in France would never have accepted any loss of the Pope’s temporal power; the Russians and Prussians were deeply hostile to what had happened, and even Queen Victoria was alarmed at what looked like a major extension of French power’

   Under the terms of the Plombieres agreement, a plebiscite was now held in Nice, and to the surprise of absolutely nobody it was announced that there had been a large majority in favour of a transfer to French rule. Garibaldi was furious at the handing over of his native city and he had not forgiven the French for crushing the Roman Republic a decade earlier. He seriously contemplated a war against the French to recover Nice, but was persuaded by his friends to look elsewhere. Next year an opportunity presented itself.

(To be continued)

Thursday, 16 November 2017

For My Grandfather: Respectable and Not-Respectable

Something which tends to be ignored or overlooked in modern socio-political discussion is the profound division in late-Victorian times between the respectable and not-respectable working classes. The respectable working classes (which meant primarily, though not exclusively, the skilled workers), clung obsessively to their status, and were always painfully aware that they could so easily slip from it. Districts of cities, and even individual streets, would be dismissed as definitely not-respectable. My grandparents lived in Keighley, in Yorkshire, in a part of the town that was respectable working-class, but if I dressed scruffily my grandmother would say I looked like "A top-o'-town kid"; that being where the poor Irish lived. Certain types of behaviour from children would lead to a family's respectable status being called into question; such things as spitting, swearing or, far worse, getting in trouble with the law or giving birth to illegitimate children being definitely low-class. Boys from respectable backgrounds read books and worked hard at school instead of playing games in the street, and joined the Scouts or the Boys' Brigade; but joining the army was definitely not for the respectable; army pay being too low to attract anyone except unskilled workers, farm labourers from the countryside, and of course the Irish. The respectable working classes attended church or chapel on Sundays, dressed in their best clothes for the occasion. Getting drunk in public was irredeemably not-respectable; and the skilled workers were the backbone of the Temperance or Prohibition movements. It was difficult for children from the not-respectable classes to break free from the stigma, though schools tried hard (often by means of brutal punishments) to outlaw non-respectable behaviour. But for a youth to be taken on to be trained for a skilled craft, he had to be "spoken for" by a family member or friend, and those from non-respectable families simply did not have these contacts.  
   Karl Marx famously dismissed the unrespectable working classes as the "Lumpenproletariat", useless from a revolutionary viewpoint because they had no economic muscle and could not be educated in socialist ideas. It was to the skilled working classes that he looked; and indeed until very late in the 19th century only the skilled workers were formed into Trades Unions. One of the great political shifts in British history occurred in the twenty years before the First World War, as the Trades Unions were taken over by socialists and the working classes transferred their allegiance from the Liberals to the new Labour Party.

(The finest book on the question of working-class respectability is Robert Roberts's autobiography, "The Classic Slum", about his upbringing in Salford before the First World War. Kellow Chesney's "The Victorian Underworld" is a splendid read, and Arthur Morrison's novel "A Child of the Jago" shows the obstacles facing a boy brought up in a semi-criminal slum)


My grandfather and grandmother came from the respectable working class. I wrote this poem in my granfather's memory:- 

I never knew him
he died when I was five
but I have his watch and chain,
silver, made by a local firm 
in Keighley, where he lived his entire life,
"Presented to Thomas Midgley
on his 21st birthday
Oct. 25th 1903"

He was, I'm told
a man of the highest moral standards;
he disapproved of pubs
and scruffy dress;
he played the piccolo in the town orchestra,
he had a windup gramophone
and some good books
(Dickens, Walter Scott, Dumas),
he was an early member of the
Independent Labour Party,
he knew Philip Snowden,
the first-ever Labour Chancellor,
and he read the "Daily Herald"
the Trades Union paper 
(now defunct)

His wife, my grandmother, was
a mill-worker, very houseproud,
and a vegetarian (unusual in those days).
Before getting married they
saved up for years
in order to buy good furniture.

He would have described himself as
proud to be
working-class, Yorkshire, 
and respectable.
Do people like him exist today?

I found a recent picture of his house
(terraced, outside loo, near the railway)
It looked sadly run-down.

The watch runs erratically.
Nowadays it would be valued
solely by its bullion content.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Royal Cousins at War

In the decades before the First World War, the monarchs of Europe were all closely related to each other, but this did not necessarily mean they held each other in high esteem: often quite the opposite.    King Edward VII of England always had a low opinion of his nephew, the Kaiser William II of Germany. After enduring his presence at Cowes Week for the yachting, he dismissed him as "Nothing but a nuisance", lacking "the feelings of a gentleman". He also commented, "Trust him? Never! He is false, utterly false!" The Kaiser's opinion of Edward was no more polite: "You can never believe what a Satan he is", William complained, after Edward worked hard to improve relations with France: "He's utterly a Satan!" When Edward died in 1910, William attended the state funeral, but commented, "No-one will miss him except the French and the Jews". 
   Russian opinions of the Kaiser were little better. Tsar Alexander III referred to him as "A rascally young fop", Nicholas II said, "He was never sincere, never for a moment", and the Tsarina Alexandra neatly summed him up thus: "He thinks himself a superman, but is little more than a clown". 
   Edward VII had a low opinion of the abilities of Nicholas, who was the nephew of his wife. He assessed the Tsar as being, "Weak as water, deplorably unsophisticated, immature and reactionary".
   Kaiser William attempted to overwhelm Nicholas with his bumptious personality; but never really grasped that foreign affairs were no longer determined by monarchs acting as individuals. On the occasion of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, William urged Nicholas to "Defend Europe from the great Yellow Peril!", and attributed his own political problems to "Socialists in the Reichstag, egged on by the Jews; fit to be hanged!" When the two met at Bjorko in July 1905, they signed a Russo-German military alliance, in clear contradiction to both their countries' existing treaties, only to find it promptly rejected by their respective ministries!
   Tsar Nicholas dismissed the British as "Yids" (by which one presumes he meant that they behaved like Jews; Nicholas being strongly antisemitic), but he was on friendly personal terms with his cousin, George V. They closely resembled each other physically; their mothers being sisters. (George is on the right here)    
Image result for Nicholas-II-and-George-V
However, this amity did not prevent George from vetoing the suggestion that Nicholas and his family should be given refuge in Britain after the Russian revolution; a veto that was to have tragic consequences.
   The Kaiser grossly overestimated George's political influence. After he had received a friendly letter from George V as the crisis of 1914 escalated, William apparently believed the King of England would intervene to stop the outbreak of war between their countries; and when Britain did declare war on Germany in August, he blamed the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey: "The dirty bastard! He's made his own King a liar!"
   Neither William II, Nicholas II or George V was particularly intelligent, and none was a suitable leader for a major country in the 20th century. But whereas William attempted to dominate events in Europe, and Nicholas was dedicated to maintaining the Tsarist autocracy (and in consequence both overacted their chosen roles), George knew perfectly well that he was only a figurehead for a Parliamentary government, and throughout the many crises of his reign always behaved with the strictest constitutional propriety. In consequence he was the only one of the three to keep his throne.