This Day In History: May 5

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On May 5, 1919, the delegation from Italy—led by Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando and Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino—announce that they will return to the Versailles Peace Conference in Paris, France, after leaving abruptly 11 days earlier during contentious negotiations over the territory Italy would receive after the First World War.

Italy’s entrance into World War I on the side of Britain, France and Russia in May 1915 had been based on the Treaty of London, signed the previous month, in which the Allies promised Italy post-war control over a good deal of territory. This included the land along Italy’s border with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, stretching from Trentino through the South Tyrol to the city of Trieste (an area of historic dispute between Italy and Austria); parts of Dalmatia and numerous islands along Austria-Hungary’s Adriatic coast; the Albanian port city of Vlore (Italian: Valona) and a central protectorate in Albania; and territory from the Ottoman Empire. When Orlando and Sonnino arrived in Paris in 1919, they regarded the Treaty of London as a solemn and binding agreement, and expected its terms to be carried out and Italy to be rewarded for its participation alongside the victorious Allies.

The leaders of Britain and France, for their part, deeply regretted making such promises; they viewed Italy with annoyance, feeling the Italians had botched their attacks on Austria-Hungary during the war, failed to honor their naval promises and repeatedly asked for resources which they then failed to put towards the war effort. The American president, Woodrow Wilson, felt even more strongly that Italy’s demands could not be met, as they violated the self-determination of other nationalities—particularly South Slav or Yugoslav peoples—living in the territories in question.

Negotiations over Italy’s demands, planned to last six days, opened on April 19, 1919, in Paris. Tensions flared immediately, as Orlando and Sonnino held firm in the face of fierce resistance from the other leaders, warning of civil war in Italy—driven by an increasingly radical movement of right-wing nationalists—if the country did not receive what it had been promised. On April 23, Wilson published 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. A day later, Orlando and Sonnino left Paris and returned to Rome, where they were met with a frenzied demonstration of patriotism and anti-Americanism. In a speech before the Italian parliament, Orlando urged his people to stay calm and stated that Italy’s claims were based on such high and solemn reasons of right and justice that they ought to be recognized in their integrity. The rabid nationalists, led by the charismatic poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio, held meetings throughout the country, bitterly disparaging the Allied leaders—especially Wilson—and hinting at war if Italy’s demands were not met.

In Paris, the Italian departure threatened the entire conference, as the delegation from Germany was scheduled to arrive soon to receive their terms. The secretariat of the conference began combing the draft of the German treaty to remove all references to Italy, even as the Italian government and the other Allies struggled to find a way for Italy to return to the negotiations. After a delegation from Austria was invited to Paris and slated to arrive in the middle of May, the Italians realized their position was worsening. Meanwhile, Wilson and the U.S. were promising Italy a much-needed $25 million credit; Britain and France believed this offer would free them from their obligations in the Treaty of London, and hopes of a better compromise were beginning to fade for Orlando and his compatriots. On May 5, it was announced that Orlando and Sonnino were returning to Paris and the secretariat began to add the Italian references back in to the German treaty by hand.

In the final Treaty of Versailles, signed in June, Italy 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, a port city in Croatia in which Italians made up the largest single population, and other territories in the Adriatic. In the fall of 1919, D’Annunzio and his supporters seized control of Fiume, occupying it for 15 months in defiance of the Italian government and making interminable nationalist speeches. Resentment of Britain, France and the United States continued to simmer, along with wounded Italian pride and ambitious dreams of future greatness—all emotions that would later be harnessed to devastating effect by the fascist leader Benito Mussolini.