Thursday, June 23, 2011

Monarch Profile: King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy

The future monarch, who would become known to his people as “the little one” was born Vittorio Emanuele in Naples, Italy to 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.

The King had picked the winners but most of the consequences were still disastrous. Casualties were extremely heavy, allied support had to be called in to stave off defeat and national pride was wounded as a result. Still, the King might have been praised if Italy had emerged better off after the victory when all the promised spoils were delivered. Unfortunately, almost none were forthcoming. Aside from some gains in the Austrian Tyrol region, Italy was given none of the territories she had been promised and this led to outrage, directed against the other Allied powers, the government and, to some extent, the King himself. To further demonstrate the danger of becoming involved in politics, Vittorio Emanuele III survived two assassination attempts and watched as increasingly radical factions took hold in the country and threatened to destroy all the House of Savoy had built with civil war. The dashed hopes for national expansion and the increasing chaos in the country from the First World War to the early 20’s would have a major impact on the most controversial period of history for the Kingdom of Italy as a whole.

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.

Critics, since that time, have claimed that Vittorio Emanuele III did not need to make that choice. They argue that if he had mobilized the army (which was staunchly royalist) he could have stopped the fascist “March on Rome” and kept Mussolini out of power. There are two major problems with that argument. First, it would have meant Italian soldiers shooting down Italian civilians in the streets. It would likely have sparked a civil war, exactly what the King wished to avoid at any cost, and destroyed the Italian nation. The second problem is that, even if the fascists could have bee suppressed, that still would not solve the political problem. It would have effectively forced all power to go to the radical socialists as there was no other major force to oppose them and Italy would have gone down the nightmarish road of republican Spain. The Savoy monarchy would have been destroyed and Italy would have become a communist satellite in southern Europe. The King knew that many of the fascists were revolutionary in temperament and that Mussolini himself had once been a radical leftist who opposed the monarchy, however, he had no choice but to work with the man who was the only one available to save the situation.

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.

For a time, things got better. The threat of civil war was ended, law and order were restored and a stable government was established. As the saying went, the trains started running on time. In 1929 the people of Italy and Catholics around the world rejoiced at the ending of the stand-off between Church and State in Italy when the Lateran Treaty was signed between Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. The Church recognized the Kingdom of Italy and the Italian government recognized Vatican City as a sovereign state. Catholicism became the official religion of Italy and the past unpleasantness resulting from Italian unification and the occupation of Rome was finally consigned to the past. The Church gave support to the King, Italian clerics swore allegiance for the first time to the King of Italy and Mussolini was praised, in the words of the world press as “the man who gave God back to Italy and Italy back to God”. Italy also intervened in Spain to support the nationalist faction (which had the support of Churchmen and monarchists) against the Soviet-backed republicans, resulting ultimately in the victory of General Franco and the nationalists.

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.

The King was willing to take any action to save his country from the disastrous war but the Germans were not about to tolerate the loss of their primary European ally and German troops were soon pouring down the Italian peninsula armed with orders from Hitler to depose and arrest Victor Emmanuel III. The King and the government were forced to leave Rome and join the Allied armies advancing from the south. To drive the Germans out of Italy the King formally joined the Allied powers and declared war on Germany. However, chaos prevailed with most of the country under German control and Mussolini leading a puppet republic in the north. It is worth remembering that Mussolini said his greatest mistake had been in not abolishing the monarchy when he had the power to do so. But the damage had been done and King Victor Emmanuel III turned power over to his son in 1944. This did not have the desired effect and in 1946 he abdicated in favor of his son who became 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.


  1. A man who cared for Italy and the italians, he was the co-ruler and a pupet-king in his own kingdom, with an agnostic with stupid illusions of restoring the Roman Empire usurping his right to govern italy.

    It is sad that he is considerated a criminal, when he couldn't do anything to stop Mussolini, and is more unfair that after trying to save his country the Americans hosted an referendum to abolish the monarchy without asking it opinion to the italian monarchist.

    Viva il Re!!!


  2. I always thought he married Elena of Montenegro not to infuse new blood but because he couldn't find a Catholic princess of a reigning house to marry him. It was not for nothing that the Austrian Emperor would never to go to the "Italian" capital of Rome for state visits or that VEIII own's aunt Princess Napoleon did not go the funeral of her father "The Uniter" VEII. Many Catholic noble families even in Rome itself shunned the Savoys (king or no) regarding them as ursupers or worse (even the confiscated "royal" Qurinial Palace itself was built and lived in by the Popes which is one reason VEII hated being forced to live there) until the Peace Treaty with the Vatican.

  3. Is there a question in there somewhere? It's no secret the Austrians were not going to be on the best terms with the Italians no matter what the religious situation was. There were some Catholics who supported them and some that opposed them (though not openly so). Just because a suitable wife is not found among the Catholic houses does NOT mean the Savoys were being shunned. They were on very good terms with the certain members of the Spanish Royal Family, certain members of the French Royal Family (and I say "certain members" because in each case about half the family hated the other half themselves) and certain members of the Portuguese Royal Family, it all depended on the opinions of each. And yes, there was the White nobility with the King and the Black nobility with the Pope, but that didn't matter much as the Roman nobility pretty much lived in their own little world and the Kingdom of Italy's base of support was not the elite of Rome and never would be.

  4. I'm not a fascist, but I must admit, I've always had a soft spot for Mussolini: his views on the state aren't to different from ours. I disown his means. I disown his government. But I respect the man.

    1. He began a traitor and he died a traitor, but that being said, I still have more positive things to say about him than most people do who just follow the crowd and condemn without thinking. I think his model of corporate organization sounded very good (he never really enacted it though), I like his very 'Roman' vision and classic style, I like his effort to restore national pride and I'm glad he finally solved the problem with the Church. There was plenty, very plenty, wrong with him but he was far and away from being one of the worst dictators of his time.

  5. Yes, I understand. Revolutions are almost failures, but despite his ant-monarchist views, and despite his atheism, he didn't overthrow the king, and he gave the Vatican independence, and despite his being a fascist, one of his mistresses was Jewish. His efforts to censor the film industry were impressive to say the least, and I think that unlike some other dictators, like Stalin, or Qaddafi, Mussolini at least had actual convictions, even if the wrong ones. As a monarchist, I can't support fascism or falangism, but I'd take Mussolini and Franco over Stalin Lenin and Azana any day of the week. And let's not forget that Italian Fascists and corporatists ultimately wanted the same thing I do: a strong, unified government with authority and power, and that they also had a system of free education, and even free-medicine, things Hobbes himself believed in. Still, I see your point: he betrayed his kingdom, even if he kept the king as a puppet, and for that I disown him.


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