King Umberto I and Queen Margherita (then Prince and Princess of course) on November 11, 1869. In his youth he learned all about his grandfather leading the way for the creation of the unified Kingdom of Italy, the colonial expansions under his father and the desire for Italy to take her place among the great powers of Europe. Duty was stressed, respect for the constitutional monarchy set down by his ancestors and a proper respect for the ancient House of Savoy that he would one day lead. In those days, when radical liberals often had control of the government, one thing that everyone agreed on was the driving ambition for Italy to live up to her past glories and achieve greatness. Responsibility for the continued rise of Italy and the survival and embellishment of the Savoy dynasty was placed on the young Prince of Naples. In an effort to ensure an infusion of new blood into the Royal Family, in 1896 he was married to Princess Elena of Montenegro. In time, five healthy children would follow.
Italian politics had always been contentious in the extreme and the Prince of Naples saw just how far this could go when his father was assassinated on July 29, 1900, bringing him to the throne of Italy as King Vittorio Emanuele III. It was quite a change. King Umberto I had been a strong, even fierce-looking monarch who played an active role in government, supporting certain endeavors and never leaving much doubt as to where he stood. Vittorio Emanuele III, on the other hand, was quite short (and both at home and abroad many people made a good deal of sport about his size) and he took a more detached role from politics. He respected the Italian constitution and was to learn that royal intervention could have severe repercussions. One of these lessons, he learned early, with the onset of World War I. His father had brought Italy into alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary (which was not very popular in Italy) but Italy initially stayed out of the war. However, when Britain and France offered Italy considerable financial support and extensive new territories to be taken from the Germans and Austrians, King Vittorio Emanuele III intervened to take Italy into war on the Allied side.
In his personal life, the King was known as a very devoted husband, a bit of a “neat freak”, very frugal and a coin collector. Despite what detractors have said, he was committed to the rule of law, constitutional monarchy and he was courageous. During World War I he had set up his headquarters very near the front, visited the front lines numerous times and took an active interest in the welfare of his soldiers. However, the crisis was building and within the framework of the Italian constitution there was little the king could do on his own, there had to be a capable government to work with and the government was rapidly breaking down. Radical socialists were calling for the overthrow of the monarchy, an international communist revolution and the destruction of everything Italian history and culture stood for. On the other side, the fascists of Mussolini were calling for nationalism, authoritarian government but also professing loyalty to the Kingdom of Italy and pledging to restore the values and strength of Italian family life and the glory of ancient Rome. The King, ultimately, had to choose between these two groups and his only real choice was the fascists.
We must also remember how the King was criticized for pushing for Italy to join the Allies in World War I and this probably influenced his decision to some extent to summon Mussolini to Rome and ask him to form a government. Despite his earlier opposition to all traditional authority, Mussolini never moved against the King and even after establishing his dictatorship he maintained the monarchy after reducing the parliament to powerlessness. The King did question some fascist actions but could not ignore the fact that the new Duce was (so far) loyal. Support for the King remained high and government offices began displaying two portraits; one of the King and one of Mussolini. On patriotic occasions two songs would be played; the Royal March (the official national anthem) and then Giovinezza (the unofficial national anthem) which was the song of the National Fascist Party. However, despite this show of dual loyalties there was no doubt that power was being exercised by Mussolini, not the King.
After a border incident Mussolini ordered the invasion of Ethiopia and within seven months the African country was conquered and King Victor Emmanuel III became Emperor of Ethiopia. When the victory was announced, he made no comment but obviously the public could not but be moved by the fact that for the first time in so many centuries there was again an Emperor in Rome. In 1939 Victor Emmanuel also became King of Albania following the annexation of that country which had, in fact, long been occupied by Italy as a protectorate. The year previously Mussolini, by now allied to Nazi Germany, passed new racial laws in Italy which were fairly unpopular. Some since have accused the King of being silent on this issue but that is not the case. He expressed deep misgivings to Mussolini on the subject, shaming him for following in the footsteps of Germany but, of course, there was nothing he could do about it with Mussolini at the height of his power.
When Mussolini decided to enter World War II the King, list most of the military high command, had grave misgivings about Italian preparedness but, as a constitutional monarch, he had to go along with his government and issue the declaration of war in 1940. For a brief time the Kingdom of Italy reached its peak in terms of territory, controlling all of east Africa, the formerly Italian areas of France, all of the Adriatic coast and most of Greece but reverses came quickly and as losses mounted the popularity of the King declined as well as that of the fascists. By 1943 enough members of the Fascist Grand Council no longer supported Mussolini that the King was able to act and after the council voted against Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel III summoned him to the palace and, with the support of the government and the army, he dismissed Mussolini and placed him under arrest. The King appointed Marshal Pietro Badoglio as Prime Minister, renounced his titles as Emperor of Ethiopia and King of Albania and began negotiations with the Allies for an armistice.
King Umberto II. Victor Emmanuel III retired to Egypt but the monarchy still did not survive a highly irregular referendum. Only a year later the former King died in Alexandria and was buried in St Catherine’s Cathedral.
In retrospect, probably the most accurate thing that has been widely said about King Victor Emmanuel III was that he was unlucky. He reigned during the peak of power for the Kingdom of Italy as well as the time of her darkest devastation. He was a good man, a responsible man, a devoted husband and father, who was forced to make some very tough decisions. It is an immense injustice that he was held to blame for things which were far beyond his control and punished for crimes he never committed. His people and his country were his paramount concerns and it was thanks largely to him that Italy survived World War II and if anyone is quick to be critical of some of the hard choices he had to make, they would do well to ask themselves first what they would have done if faced with the same alternatives.