On April 19, 1919, the Saturday before Easter, tense and complicated negotiations begin at the Paris peace conference over Italy’s claims to territory in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Italians must somehow be mollified, wrote Britain’s foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, and the only question is how to mollify them at the smallest cost to mankind. Italy had agreed to enter World War I in the spring of 1915 after the Entente promised to fulfill its national dream and give it undisputed control over the land around its northeastern border, including the Tyrol region, where many Italians then lived under Austro-Hungarian control. When the actual Treaty of London—which committed Italy to join the war on the side of the Allies—was drawn up in April 1915, however, the Allies had thrown in far more territory from Austria-Hungary, including parts of Dalmatia and numerous islands along the Adriatic coast, as well as the Albanian port city of Vlore (Italian: Valona) and territory from the Ottoman Empire. The Italian delegation in Paris, led by Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando and Sidney Sonnino, Italy’s foreign minister, had argued from the beginning of the conference that they considered the Treaty of London to be a solemn, binding agreement that should dictate the terms of the peace.
For their part, the British and French by 1919 deeply regretted making such promises. They felt that Italy had done little to contribute to the Allied victory: its army had delayed and then bungled their attack on Austria-Hungary, its ships had not honored their promise to patrol the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas and its government had repeatedly asked the other Allies for resources that it then refused to put into the war effort. A British diplomat reported from the conference that the delegates’ attitude toward Italy has been one of supreme contempt up to now and now it is one of extreme annoyance. They all say that the signal for an armistice was the signal for Italy to begin the fight.
The formation in December 1918 of a Yugoslav state caused more strain between Italy and its allies at the peace conference. Britain and France supported this new state, and wanted Italy to see that its former claims on South Slav territory and Dalmatia no longer made sense. The Italian government, driven by public opinion among its people, was unwilling to give up these claims, and was firmly opposed to recognition of the new Yugoslav state at the peace conference. Britain and France reluctantly obliged, and were prepared to honor the Treaty of London, although they resented it. The American president, Woodrow Wilson, however, felt differently. He proclaimed that the United States would recognize no such secret treaties (though he had been shown the Treaty of London during the war, he claimed not to remember having seen it) and held fast to his professed dedication to the self-determination of the Yugoslavs, refusing to bend to many of Italy’s demands, including, most sensationally, its claims on Fiume, a small port city on the Adriatic Sea, where Slavs slightly outnumbered the Italian inhabitants.
The negotiations that opened April 19 were intended to last six days. Orlando and Sonnino held firm, warning the other delegates of the possibility of civil war in Italy if their demands were not met and pointing to the escalating conflicts between the radicalizing Socialist Party and the nationalist right with their armed fasci di combattimenti. Resistance to the Italian claims was fierce, led by Wilson, who wrote a statement arguing that the Treaty of London must be set aside and reminding Italy that it should be satisfied with receiving the territory of the Trentino and the Tyrol, where the majority of the population was Italian.
On April 24, the day after Wilson’s statement was published, the Italian delegation left Paris and returned to Rome, where they were met with a frenzied demonstration of patriotism and anti-Americanism. This incident threatened the entire conference, as the German delegation was about to arrive in Paris to receive their terms. The Italians did not return to the negotiations until May 5, joining the deliberations with Germany late; in the final Treaty of Versailles, signed in June, they nonetheless received a permanent seat on the League of Nations, the Tyrol and a share of the German reparations.
Many Italians were bitterly disappointed with their post-war lot, however, and conflict continued over Fiume and other territories in the Adriatic. In September 1919, the poet, playwright and rabid nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio—who had coined the phrase mutilated victory in reference to the peace negotiations in Paris—and his supporters seized Fiume. They remained there some 15 months in complete defiance of the Italian government before Italy and Yugoslavia finally reached an agreement in November 1920, settling the boundaries between the two countries and making Fiume a free state. Benito Mussolini, the future fascist dictator, watched and waited during this period, learning much from D’Annunzio’s charismatic example.