Italy: the First World War, official lies and the imperialist slaughterhouse

We republish this article, originally written in November 2018 by the Italian Marxists of Rivoluzione, to expose the hypocrisy of the official celebrations for the centenary of the end of the First World War. The pageantry of so-called National Unity and Armed Forces Day on 4 November is intended to distort the real reasons Italy entered the imperialist slaughterhouse, which had everything to do with the imperialist interests of Italian capitalism.


On 4 November 2017, the President of the Italian Republic Mattarella opened celebrations for the so-called “Day of National Unity and the Armed Forces” with the following words:

“On this day, in which we remember the unity of Italy and we honour the Armed Forces, my thoughts go to all those who sacrificed themselves on the Altar of the Fatherland and our freedom for the construction of a democratic and united state.”

Established in 1919 to celebrate Italy’s military victory in the First World War, the national holiday of 4 November has always been used to promote nationalist sentiments among the masses, exploiting the memory of 600,000 dead Italian soldiers.

For our part, we believe that the underlying reasons for that war and its consequences; the specific aims of Italian participation; the attitude of the bosses and the reaction of the workers and peasants who were sent to fight, have all been shrouded in mysticism. It is necessary to dispel the patriotic smokescreen that surrounds the celebrations of 4 November.

Who wanted the First World War?

Institutional propaganda defines the First World War as the completion of the “Risorgimento” (the process leading to Italian unification), emphasising that the end of the War meant the passage of Trento and Trieste to the Kingdom of Italy. This view abandons any general analysis of the reasons for the conflict and hides the nature and extent of the annexations enshrined in the Versailles peace treaty of 1919.

The First World War was nothing less than the “imperialist slaughterhouse”, as described by Lenin. The exponential growth of German capitalism from the last quarter of the nineteenth century led it to seek a new partition of the world (specifically, its markets and raw materials) to the detriment mainly of British and French imperialism, dominant until then but in relative decline. This was the central contradiction around which a complex chain of conflicts orbited, starting in the Balkans, where nationalist sentiments were manipulated, one against each other by the great powers to pursue their own interests.

Despite Italy being a secondary imperialist power, the Italian bourgeoisie took part in the war in the name of profit and colonial expansion. Official propaganda, of course, referred to great ideals of democracy, such as the struggle against the Kaiser’s authoritarianism, and the completion of “Risorgimento”.

In fact, the War turned out to be a powerful boon for the bourgeoisie. Thanks to the explosion of government contracts, the capital of the steel companies like ILVA increased from 30 to 300 million liras; Breda from 14 to 110 million, and of Ansaldo from 30 to 500 million. FIAT, which produced vehicles, engines, machine guns and explosives, increased its capital from 17 to 200 million liras, while its reserve fund rose from 1.5 to 92 million.

The average profit rates declared by major capitalist enterprises, which were at about 4 percent on the eve of the conflict, doubled to 8 percent by 1917; and, in sectors directly involved in war production such as automobiles, by as much as 31 percent.

The war accelerated the formation of large monopolistic groups and the interpenetration between industry and the banks. The Italian government assisted this process of centralisation of big capital by establishing a regime of ‘Industrial Mobilisation’, which subjected the military-related establishments, called auxiliaries, to military jurisdiction. With militarised factories, the right to strike was suspended. The minimum duration of the working day was 10 hours.

War and the socialist movement

Until the 1912 congress, the Socialist International committed itself to preventing the outbreak of world war by means of a general strike and mass uprising. When put to the test, however, first the German Social Democracy and then the French Socialist Party capitulated each to their own bourgeoisie. These parties voted for the war credits and pledged to freeze the class struggle in the name of national unity.

Italy WW1 2 Image public domainThe first victims of chemical weapons during the “Great War” / Image: public domain

The International miserably collapsed, reduced to tatters and historical infamy. Sporadic minorities, together with the Russian socialists, the Serbs and the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), maintained opposition to the imperialist war. It was from these forces the initiative arose to convene internationalist conferences of socialists who were against the war, in neutral Switzerland.

Lenin’s Russian Bolsheviks formed the “Zimmerwald left” with the perspective of turning the imperialist war into a civil war between the classes. The PSI held a more hesitant position, expressed in the motto “Neither adhere to [the war], nor sabotage [it]”. This compromise formula kept the reformist wing from bending openly to the government and the left, and the maximalist wing from committing itself to a strategy for the overthrow of the war by revolutionary means.

On the extreme left of the PSI emerged the Intransigent Faction, dominated by the figure of Amadeo Bordiga. This group, still scarcely organised during the war, was to play a decisive role in the birth of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921.

The Russian Revolution exposes secret treaties

Secret diplomacy is an indispensable weapon in the hands of a landowning minority, obliged to deceive the majority of the people to make it serve its interests” (L. Trotsky, Izvestjia, 28 November 1917).

The Bolsheviks did not limit themselves to clarifying their theoretical opposition to the war, but were committed to exposing the real reasons for the conflict. In fact, after the October 1917 Russian revolution, when Trotsky entered the offices of the former Foreign Ministry along with Bolshevik sailors, he found the archives of secret diplomacy by the Entente powers (France, Great Britain, Russia and Italy). In the following weeks, accompanied by a brief introduction written by Trotsky himself, the most important documents were published by the Izvestija, the newspaper of the Soviet government, and by Pravda, the Communist Party (Bolshevik) newspaper.

In relation to Italy, the Bolsheviks published the Treaty of London, signed by the government of Rome on 26 April 1915. In this treaty, Italy committed to entering the war alongside the Entente which, in case of victory, promised to grant Italy the territories of Trentino, South Tyrol, Trieste, the province of Gorizia and Gradisca and the whole of Istria (Article 4), part of Dalmatia and the Adriatic islands (Article 5), and Valona (Article 7), in addition to territorial compensation in Africa in exchange for the renunciation of war reparations.

Thus, Italy was able to annex the South Tyrol territory, subject to Habsburg reign since the 14th century, where a German dialect was spoken, and other territories where the Italian-speaking population was a minority, such as Istria (38 percent) and Gorizia (36 percent). As for Dalmatia, where the Italian population was not even 3 percent, the Italian government compensated for the lack of Italians with bombastic rhetoric about the “legacy” of Venice.

These annexations, therefore, were made in contempt of the principle of self-determination promised by US President Woodrow Wilson’s “14 points”. These were buried by the conference of Versailles. The subsequent forced Italianisation of the German and Slavic peoples living in those territories originated precisely from the desire of Italian imperialism to expand its influence, particularly in the Balkans.

Violence and removal of state nationalism

Since 1949, 4 November is no longer “Victory Day”. This change was due to a linguistic camouflage necessary in post-WW2 Republican Italy (avoiding association with the monarchy and the fascist regime). But the substance of the state celebrations never changed. The first official report on the catastrophic Italian defeat in the battle of Caporetto (November 1917) was published only 50 years later, in 1967. In 1964, the show “Bella ciao” on the antimilitarist songs of the First World War, presented at the Spoleto festival, aroused the protests of various military veterans’ associations, a formal interrogation in parliament and the indictment for “contempt of the armed forces”. In the following year, the record edition of the show erased the hardest verse of the well-known song “Gorizia” (“Traitors officer lords / you wished war / butchers of sold meat / this war shall teach us to punish”).

The real facts have always been avoided in order not to spoil this tale of war as a struggle for freedom with soldiers-martyrs capable to “sacrifice themselves on the Altar of the Fatherland”. For at least half a century, 350 thousand trials and 210 thousand convictions handed down by the military tribunals were kept hidden to the public. Workers and peasants were sent to the trenches to fight for objectives that they rightly did not feel as their own. They stubbornly resisted in every way: 400 thousand were reported to the military tribunals, 470 thousand – mostly emigrants – were renitent.

The General Staff was brutal in the repression: the Cadorna ban on 28 July 1915 introduced postal censorship, with severe punishment for those who had provided “news different from those that are brought to the attention of the public by the government or army commands” or were guilty of “denigration of war operations”. When the desperation of trench life and bayonet assaults pushed many thousands of soldiers to self-harm – in the hope of being sent home – the Ministry of War organised special hospitals for self-harm, strictly isolated from families and controlled by the Kingdom’s Carabinieri (the military police).

Medical conferences were organised to allow doctors to recognise and report all suspicious cases. To soldiers who drilled their eardrums with nails, crushed themselves under large stones or provoked abscesses with subcutaneous injections, the officers responded with court-martials.

Italy WW1 3 Image public domainExecution of a defector / Image: public domain

The peak of violence against workers and peasants in uniform was reached after the catastrophic defeat of Caporetto in November 1917. We agree with Valiani, according to which the route of Caporetto was “the only moment in which, during the war, a revolutionary movement would have been objectively possible in Italy” (L. Valiani, “Il PSI dal 1900 al 1918”, Rivista Storica Italiana, 1963, No. 2). All those who were taken prisoner, about 300 thousand soldiers, were considered as suspected deserters (and therefore Bolsheviks). On their return home, they found internment camps and interrogations. In Gossolengo, 30 thousand were amassed in 4 square kilometres. Benito Mussolini [at that time still a relatively secondary figure, an ardent nationalist and supporter of Italy’s participation in the war] openly supported the military General Staff with an article on Il Popolo d’Italia, 9th December 1918. Only the PSI denounced this violence and demanded the immediate release of all former prisoners of war by organizing the League of family members of prisoners.

The dreaded spectre of Bolshevism was beginning to materialise. The government suddenly decided to streamline the formalities and free the ex-prisoners. They were convinced by the warnings that Turati, leader of the reformist wing of the PSI, had shared with minister Orlando and were summarised as follows: “Such idiotic rage unleashed on those unfortunates is a supreme ignominy and it creates precisely that Bolshevism that these measures would want to repress.” (Letter to Kuliscioff, 8th December 1918). Thus, the bourgeoisie was not alone in fearing revolutionary eruptions as a result of the war and had wise counsellors in the reformist left. Already after Caporetto, Turati came out openly for “national unity”.

Bolshevik witch-hunt

The ruling classes feared the contagion of socialist and anarchist ideas since the beginning of the conflict. This fear materialised with the workers’ revolt that erupted in Turin, for bread and an end to the war, between 22 and 28 August 1917 and was drowned in blood. However, the October Revolution in Russia and the audacious internationalist policy of the Soviet government led by Lenin threw the bourgeois governments, bosses and generals into a panic. Millions of exploited people realised that a socialist revolution would put an end to the war and start a new era in human history.

In March 1918, fearful of the contagion of “unhealthy ideas”, General Diaz, at the head of the Supreme Command, proposed the deportation to Libya of anyone who had returned from Russia. Moreover, when they entered Italy, the Austro-Hungarian soldiers from Trentino and Giulia, who had been taken prisoners in Russia, suffered an ideological “quarantine”.

Those most suspected of Bolshevism and the hundreds enlisted in the Red Army were sent to the terrible detention camp of Asinara. But the wave did not stop. A song titled ‘Neva’ (set to the tune of the Italian patriotic song, ‘La Leggenda del Piave’), which saluted Lenin as the liberator of the world, quickly spread from a military hospital.

The fear of the Bolshevik revolution spreading steered the actions of the government even after the war. Italy participated in the war of intervention by 14 foreign powers against Soviet Russia. The counter-revolutionary forces were defeated thanks to the audacious internationalist policy of the Bolsheviks and the organisation of the Red Army.

No anniversary celebration is politically neutral, and 4 November has always been an instrument of the ruling class to isolate and uproot every challenge to its power.

Before the rise of fascism, several socialist municipalities erected monuments to those killed in the war, with inscriptions that would be very radical by today’s standards. In Tolentino, a tombstone destroyed by the fascists in 1922 carried the inscription:

“May the sanctity of liberated work displace and kill forever the bloody ghost of war for us and for all the peoples of the world / This is our hope and our curse against those who the war wanted and still dream of.”

In that spirit, and to remember those who did not return from the front, we renew today our commitment to the struggle for the emancipation of the working class and to internationalism.

Originally published in Italian (4 November 2018)

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