THE FIUME ADVENTURE

fiumeadventure
“It is not possible to root out desire, to fight passion is to sin against life.” -Gabriele d’Annunzio
Fiume is a city located on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. It is also the key port in the north of the Quarnaro Bay, which separates the Istra peninsula from the eastern coast of the Adriatic. Today this city bears the name Rijeka and belongs to Croatia, however in the first years after the First World War it was a topic of heated discussions. Before the war the city was part of the so called “Transleithania” – lands of the Hungarian crown which were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

After the end of the war, with the collapse of the Empire, the city fell in the hands of the Yugoslavian Committee. Then, when on November 4th, 1918 the Italian cruiser “Emanuele Filiberto” had entered the harbor, control over the city falls to the Italian National Council. France and England also send their forces to establish allied control.

The fate of the city became one of the most controversial topics during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Both sides, Italy and and Yugoslavs were part of a heated debate as to whom the city belongs. Italians pointed to the fact that they were the majority population. Indeed, according to the official 1910 census 24,212 Italians, 15,687 Yugoslavs, 6,493 Hungarians and 3,383 other nationals lived in Fiume. Opponents objected that while there was indeed an Italian majority in the city, all surrounding territories were populated by Slavs. Both sides argued how the land was rightfully theirs, utilized various arguments of historic and economic nature, talked about “national interests” and called for justice. One of the issues was the secret 1915 London agreement which layed out the conditions for Italy to join the war. In it Italy made no claims for Fiume. However, nobody had expected the total collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another important factor was the principle position of the US president Woodrow Wilson, who insisted on Fiume becoming part of the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Regardless, the situation was at a standstill. It even came down to the Italian delegation of Prime Minister Orlando leaving the Paris Peace Conference in protest, but returned after persuasion from the Allies.

A rather peculiar solution was proposed by the Italian poet and author Gabriele D’Annunzio. On September 12th, 1919 he led 40 vehicles with volunteers to Fiume. As the New York Times wrote, when the “army” of 2,300 people departed in a column from Ronchi, the commander of the Italian garrison in Fiume, general Pittaluga with a detachment of gunners at his back declared that he must fulfill his duty. However after the Poet replied, that if the general is going to shoot “his own brothers” then he’d have to shoot D’Annunzio first, Pittaluga exclaimed “Viva Fiume!” and joins D’Annunzio. Then when the militia entered the city some of the inhabitants and sailors joined them as well and the allied garrison was locked in the barracks. D’Annunzio proclaimed the city joining Italy, presenting the government with fait accompli. But the Italian government of Prime Minister Nitti had instead established a land and sea blockade of Fiume. Thus D’Annunzio became the absolute master of the city.

The Poet’s biography in of itself deserves a separate story, much needed to understand his action. We’ll restrict ourselves to a brief retelling of the most interesting moments. Being a big celebrity prone to shocking his audience D’Annunzio led a luxurious and lavish lifestyle in Italy: he had his own entourage, there was a great collection of statues and tapestries in his villa and, of course, the author never had a shortage of women. Naturally, Gabriele amassed exorbitant debts. To get rid of them the Poet agreed to do a tour with public lectures across Latin America, proposed by the Argentine millionaire Giovanni Del Guzzo, who in return would take care of D’Annunzio’s creditors. Agreeing, D’Annunzio fled from Del Guzzo to Paris, where his literary triumph continued. In France he lived it up with an even greater flare, having an entire harem in his home. When the war began, the famous writer, who was already over 50, finally sides with the irredentists, using his popularity as a means of pressuring the government. Even during the war D’Annunzio does not betray his lifestyle. Wile hundreds of thousands of soldiers die, the Poet, holding the opinion of his superiors to little regard, satisfies his own ego. He conducts risky raids, first on torpedo boats, and then after becoming an aviator, in between his flights continues to live in his luxurious palace. To his credit it is worth noting that he waged war successfully – in August of 1918 he made the first air raid on the capital of the enemy state of Vienna. The author meets the end of the war in the rank of lieutenant colonel, a lost eye as a result of an unsuccessful landing, and with a foreboding anticipation of “the stench of peaceful life“. The ideal candidate to lead the Fiume adventure.

Taking control of an entire city D’Annunzio has no plans of stopping. More and more Arditi flock under his wing and soon their numbers reach 11,000. After several planes deserted to Fiume the Italian government had to take out of commission its entire fleet to avoid this in the future. This army did not lack weapons, as the crew of gunship with artillery, 30 thousand rifles and ammo on board, all meant for Russian Admiral Kolchak, mutinied and changed course for the Poet’s domain. In November D’Annunzio with a force of a thousand volunteers on board of 4 destroyer ships arranges another sortie – to Zara (now Zadar), a local Italian commander joins him. Zadar was later taken by Italian regular army. The Poet has plans to take Split and invade Montenegro. A year after Zara the Poet expands his domain, taking over the islands in the Kvarner Gulf and several villages to the east of Fiume.

One of D’Annunzio’s first orders was the introduction of food cards. However as the city was under siege, surrounded by mountainous terrain with no place to grow food and no banks or factories working in the city, piracy becomes Fiume’s new major industry after its capture by the Poet. Some weeks after its takeover the Arditi seize a ship with provisions headed for Pola and steer it back home. Such instances repeat in the future. For instance in April 1920 with the help of motor boats a steamship with provisions is captured and after being unloaded let go. It should be remembered that the Poet payed his soldiers, and piracy was one of the ways of getting the funds. In the same month Fiume is gripped by a general strike caused by a decrease in rations. The Poet himself, however, lived in luxury. When he’s not busy renaming streets, hotels and restaurants, he works on creating new liquor, feasts at banquets and the piano is played in his house.

Not everything was as smooth for the rest of the city. After its capture D’Annunzio produces a proclamation declaring a martial law in Fiume and threatens the death penalty to all who oppose “Fiume’s Cause“. Then the poet holds elections for the city council under the watchful eye of the troops. The entire populace is called upon to fulfill their patriotic duty – vote. However to limit the participation of the slavic citizens on election day the bridge separating the suburb of Sussak where they were a majority was raised. Moreover only one political force was allowed to participate in the elections, Unione Nazionale, so if anyone wanted to vote differently they had to write in the candidate’s name by hand. As a result the Italian annexationists get 6,999 votes out of 7,150. But D’Annunzio has a hard relationship even with this loyal National Council. First the council protests the Poet, standing in support of the Italian government, then they change their mind, allowing his forces to stay in the city until its unification with Italy. This question was to be addressed in a plebiscite in late December. To ensure the desired outcome the Arditi take control of the ballot boxes, and the Poet declares that he will not leave the city, until he achieves his goal and annulled the results of the vote. There are differences in the army as well, particularly between the Carabinieri and the Arditi. In May 1920 when a squad of the former along with their commander attempted to leave the city they were met with Arditi machine gun fire on the border – this grew into an hour long confrontation until general Ceccherini had arrived to resolve the matter. In the end 12 people were killed and 50 wounded. The end of summer and beginning of autumn of 1920 marked another break between D’Annunzio and the council, resulting with the dismissal of the latter on the grounds of proclaiming Fiume’s independence and the adoption of the “Italian Regency of Carnaro” constitution. A provisional government was formed where, of course, none other but Gabriel D’Annunzio himself became the Prime Minister. In the end, after the Poet’s declarations the national council had to once again assemble and express a vote of confidence for the new government.

D’Annunzio’s opposition was very active. The dissatisfied with the high indemnity imposed by him on the business community in order to pay his troops, they organized around Riccardo Zanella, a former Fiume MP to the Hungarian parliament, who was championing the idea of an independent Fiume under Italian protectorate. Faced with D’Annunzio he was forced to leave the city and act from Trieste. During the mentioned plebiscite Zanella and his supporters spread leaflets and manifests calling to support the proposals of the Italian government, which was met with repressions, searches and arrests from the Arditi. Later the conspirators were hoping to bribe D’Annunzio’s soldiers to overthrow him, but their plan was uncovered. Socialists were also in opposition to the new regime. In their manifesto printed in the official party newspaper Avanti they called D’Annunzio a “mad despot” and blamed the Arditi for bringing hunger, imprisonment and torture.

While D’Annunzio’s men beat up political opponents in Trieste and kidnap generals that caused dissatisfaction, others, like general Ceccherini, having received the post of the Poet’s commander in chief, join him voluntarily. One of the author-aventurer’s comrades was another adventurer – captain Luigi Rizzo, war hero who had sunk the Hungarian super-dreadnought “St. Istvan” with a torpedo boat. The Poet appointed him admiral. An Italian “Patriot senator” Casagrande joins him as well, having abandoned for this his newly wed wife in Nice. The grateful Poet appointed him commander of aviation. Another public figure, the Belgian Leon Kohnitsky, assigned by the Poet to be the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, organized the “Anti-League of Nations“. The government was headed by Alceste De Ambris, a former member of the anarcho-syndicalist trade union in the Italian syndicalist union, who was expelled from it for supporting Italy joining the First World War, afterwards becoming one of the founders of the Fascist movement and co-author of the first fascist manifesto along with the father of Futurism Filippo Marinetti. All in all the city is visited by many guests. For instance during Fiume’s anniversary celebration an American delegation was present with senators and judges, among the guests of honor were the great tenor of the time Enriko Caruso, who became the star of the evening, and Giovanni Caproni, famous aircraft designer and veteran of Salvator Palladino’s Garibaldi movement.

After the city’s declaration of independence De Ambris along with D’Annunzio wrote the constitution of the “Italian Regency of Carnaro“. Let’s look at its unique aspects. It is most known for the special role it gives to music, which was declared a “social and religious institution”. Every village of the province had to have an acting choir and orchestra, subsidized by the state, and in Fiume itself a concert hall with at least 10 thousand seats was to be built. The education system also had to pay attention to music, with choir practice and by creating a number of art schools. Another institution of higher education was to be a University free of interference from the law. All in all the goal of education had to be the exaltation of Latin culture, Italian was declared the primary language of education, however it should be noted that in every commune primary education had to be conducted in the language of the majority residents.

In general, the constitution could be said to have been progressive for its time in regards to rights and freedoms. In addition to various guarantees for non-Italians (which looks fairly strange on the background goals of the Poet’s adventure), such civil rights were introduced as women’s suffrage and equality before the law of everyone regardless of race, sex, language and faith. There were rules about a referendum on popular initiative, recall of elected MPs by the voters and etc. The State guaranteed to all citizens, male and female, primary education in healthy schools with physical education classes in public schools under the open sky, minimal wage jobs, benefits and pensions. Property was regarded as a social function for which one needs to take responsibility. Convicted under the law or tax evaders were deprived of civil rights, since according to the constitution only those who strengthened the wealth and power of the state were regarded as full citizens. The port and railways were nationalized.

An important feature of the Fiume constitution was also that it was the first attempt to establish a corporate state in practice. Everyone depending on their occupation had to be a member of one of the ten corporations. Each corporation has its own number and represents in itself a particular class of society. The first – wage workers, peasants and small craftsmen; second – managers and technicians; third – financial officers; fourth – owners of enterprises; fifth – utility workers; sixth represented the intellectuals: teachers, students, people of art; seventh was comprised of people in liberal professions; eighth included workers in cooperatives; ninth – sailors. The most interesting was the tenth corporation which had no official name and consisted of “the mysterious forces of progress and adventure“, people of the future, a kind of elite. This system of corporations affected virtually all branches of power: they form one of the houses of parliament, elect certain ministerial posts, have courts dedicated to sort out labor disputes, representing all corporations except for the tenth, thus providing, according to the authors, the harmonious functioning of society.

Let’s take a closer look at the relation of powers which were to be established by the constitution. Their particular feature was a clear separation of functions. The Parliament consisted of two houses: Council of Senators and Council of “Provvisori“. The first were elected by universal secret ballot for a period of ten years under the quote of one senator per thousand inhabitants. The Senate were to meet once a year for a short session and pass laws and decrees regarding  the criminal and civil codes, police, defense, secondary education, art, relations between the communes and the state, appoint ministers of defense, interior and justice. The “Provvisori” was to consist of 60 delegates and proportionately represent all corporations (except the tenth) in more or less equal proportions, and just as the senate have well-defined powers within the scope of economic management, labor relations, appointment of Ministers of Economy and Labor. Once a year both houses were to sit together forming the Grand National Council called “Arengo del Carnaro” which handled foreign relations and financial policy, higher education and constitutional reforms. Joined meetings also were to appoint ministers of foreign affairs, finances, education, noting that the foreign affairs minister was also the Prime Minister. All seven ministers were elected for one year. Every seven years the “Arengo” assembles for a special session – to discuss constitutional reforms even though those could take place at any time if that were the desire of a third of the populace.

Communes would have considerable autonomy. They handled primary education, appointed communal judges and police, could collect taxes, enforce the laws and handle all affairs beyond the competence of local branches of the legislative, executive and judicial powers. Communes could also pass local laws approved by the province and enter into agreements with each other with approval of central government. The armed forces  were milita in nature and during peace time  there is no regular army but regular exercises were to take place. Everyone were obliged to serve: men in the armed forces while women in hospitals and factories.

However this whole system of checks and balances and the complex distribution of power loses all meaning if the national council decides to appoint the Commandant. This position was inspired by the dictators of the Roman republic. When the state is in danger one person is given all power: legislative, executive and military. “Arengo” defines the period for which a dictator is appointed, “whilst not forgetting that in the Roman republic dictatorship lasted for 6 months“. At the end of the dictatorial period the national council can leave the Commandant in office, appoint a different person as Commandant or even punish him. However until that point the dictator’s power was absolute.

While D’Annunzio was the ruler of Fiume the Great Powers did not stop arguing about the status of the city. In the end this question was left to be decided immediately by Italy and Yugoslavia, whose efforts lead to a compromise. Fiume was supposed to be come a free city under Italian protectorate. The Italian government sent the Poet’s forces an ultimatum, demanding they abandon the city and return to their units. In responce D’Annunzio declared war on Italy on December 1st, 1920. After heavy fighting, on December 29th the regular forces occupy the city and the Poet, first declaring his readiness to die, departed on an airplane. Thus ended the adventure which lasted for 15 months.

It is difficult to give a clear assessment of D’Annunzio’s regime based purely on its constitution without paying heed to the context in which it was signed. Being the real power in the city the Poet was not hesitant to prove that might makes right, repressing all opposition and annulling results of the plebiscites when they were not in his favor. To understand the ideology of the regime one must add another piece to the puzzle. D’Annunzio declared his mission to be saving Italy from the socialists. The Poet believed in the greatness of national spirit, which in his opinion communism kills. According to this view the Belgian Leon Kohnitsky, who became Secretary of Foreign Affairs, together with the Poet-adventurer, started organizing the “Anti-League of Nations” which was to include “all the oppressed peoples” and a conference was called which was attended by invited delegates from Egypt, India, Turkey, Ireland, Hungary and Persia. Critics sarcastically noted that this league could’ve been attended by surviving Young Turks, successful in eliminating the Greeks, Syrians, Armenians and Arabs; exiled Egyptian Pasha; some Brahmans with their love for the lower castes and “untouchables“; and the oppressed people of Montenegro would have been represented by the former King Nicholas and his thirty pro-german sons.

Could the socialists have declared D’Annunzio in their proclamation anything but a “mad despot“? He was much closer to the Fascists of that era. In fact this relationship was not kept secret. At the first Fascist congress in Milan in the spring of 1919, before the capture of Fiume by D’Annunzio, Benito Mussolini in his speech proclaimed “we cannot remain deaf to the struggle for Fiume.” After its takeover the Fascist leader states his solidarity with the Poet: “Fiume is the rebellion of the great proletarian woman (Italy) against the new holy alliance of the world plutocracy. Proletarian! Socialists are selling themselves to Nitti and the big banks!” The official newspaper of the Fascist movement, Popolo d’Italia prints the slogan “Fiume or death!

Regarding the constitution itself, the laws such as women’s suffrage are well in line with the Fascist demands of 1919, however they never went through with that, while the concept of the corporate state was not only adopted by the Fascists but realized into practice. It should be noted however, that the corporate harmony brought by Fascists with equal representation of both capitalist and working interests in practice worked against the latter. Class collaboration is the most that national-syndicalism of De Ambrisa could offer with the Poet’s blessing, while in Italy itself, unification with which they longed for so much, a revolution was brewing with demands for total worker’s control over the enterprises. The constitution, a kind of “fascism with a human face“, in practice could prove to be a useless scrap of paper at a mere whim of D’Annunzio. However the adventure came to an end before any conclusions could be made regarding its application in practice, and the Poet himself after his retirement was surrounded by great honor and luxury in the Fascist regime until his death.

Original article “Italian Regency of Carnaro: city-state ruled by the poet D’Annunzio
Source: “Tolkovatel” [Толкователь]
Translated by Alexander Slavros

3 thoughts on “THE FIUME ADVENTURE”

  1. At the beggining i found this D’Annunzio fella quite impressive but by the end he seemed to be a bit of a bellend. . . A swasbuckler and dashing ladies man ill grant you. Perhaps even a warrior poet! But still a bellend. He appears to have had no sense of duty to the people he was leading.

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