History of the World Crisis

Lecture 4: 
Italy’s Intervention in the War

Translated by Juan R. Fajardo, 1998

(Delivered to the “Gonzales Prada” People’s University,
at the Peruvian Student Federation hall, Lima, on July 16, 1923.)


During my lectures I do not forget that this course is, above all, a people’s course, a popularization course. I try to always use simple and clear language, and not complicated and technical language. But, with everything, in speaking about political, economic, social topics one cannot dispense with certain terms which perhaps may not be understandable to all. I use technical terminology the least I can, but in many cases I have to use it, albeit always with parsimony.

My wish is that this class shall be accessible not only to the initiated in social sciences and economic sciences, but to all workers with an attentive and studious spirit. Therefore, when I use an obscure lexicon, when I use terms unusual in the vernacular, I do so with great moderation. And I try that these periods of my lessons turn out to be, in the worst of cases, transitory parentheses, the understanding of which not be indispensable for following and taking in the course’s general ideas. I think this foreword is useful, on the one hand, so that those initiated into the social and economic sciences understand why, in many cases, I do not resort to technical terminology which would allow greater conciseness in the presentation of ideas and in commenting upon phenomena; and, on the other hand, why, despite my will, I cannot in many cases use popular and basic language.

I must also remind the uninitiated that these are courses and not a speech. Perforce they must sometimes seem a bit dry.

In previous lectures -first in examining the mentality of both belligerent groups, and then, in examining the conduct of the socialist parties and syndical organizations- we established the character of the world war.

We have seen why its most profound commentators have called it total war. Total war, that is, war of nations, war of peoples, and not war of armies. Adrian Tilgher reaches the following conclusion: “Total war has been defeated by those governments which knew how to carry it out with the proper mentality, giving it ends capable of becoming myths, emotional states, passions, and popular feelings -in this regard, no one has contributed to strengthening the countries of the Entente in the unshakable belief in the justness of their cause and the in the aim of continuing the war until final victory, than Wilson, with his Quaker-Democratic preaching. On the other hand, he who has carried out total war with a mentality of diplomatic or relative war has been defeated (Russia, Austria, Germany) or has greatly risked being so (Italy).”

This conclusion by Adrian Tilgher defines very well the principal meaning of the United States’ intervention, as well as the physiognomy of the Italian war. Because of this, to me it has seemed opportune to cite it upon beginning tonight’s class, in which we will, to begin with, deal with the Italian intervention and the North American intervention.

Italy intervened in the war more due to economic reasons than due to diplomatic and political reasons. Its soil did not permit it to feed but barely two-thirds of its population with its own agricultural produce.

Italy had to import wheat and other products indispensable to a third of its population, and at the same time, had to export manufactured goods -the merchandise, the products of its labor and its industry- in sufficient proportion so as to pay for that wheat and for those foodstuffs and raw materials which it lacked. Consequently, Italy was at the mercy, as it is today as well, of the power which held dominion over the seas. In short, its imports and its exports, indispensable to its life, depended on England.

Italy lacked freedom of action. Its neutrality was impossible. Italy could not -like Switzerland, like Holland- be a spectator to the war. Its role in European politics was too great for it not to be dragged along once a continental war broke out. Not having placed itself on the side of the Austro-Hungarians, it was inevitable that Italy place itself on the side of the Allies. Italy was truly a prisoner of the Allied nations.

These circumstances led Italy to intervention. The diplomatic reasons were comparatively fewer. They probably would not have sufficed to force Italy into intervention. But they sufficed, of course, for interventionist elements to create a public opinion current favorable toward war. In Italy, the interventionist elements were of two kinds. The ones, were inspired by nationalist and revanchist ideals, and saw in the war the occasion to bring the unrecovered territories of Trent and Trieste back into the Italian nation. Further, they saw in the war an easy and glorious military adventure destined to enlarge Italy’s position in Europe and the world. The other interventionist elements were inspired by democratic ideals, analogous to those later sponsored by Wilson, and saw in the war a crusade against Prussian militarism and for peoples’ liberty. The Italian government kept the ideals of the nationalists in mind when it arranged for Italy’s intervention in the war.

A secret pact was signed in London between the Allies and Italy. This pact -this notorious London Pact, later published by the Bolsheviks- established that part which Italy would receive from the fruits of victory. This pact, in short, lessened Italy’s entry into the war. Italy did not intervene in the war in the name of a great ideal, nor in the name of a great myth, but in the name of a national interest. But that was the hidden truth of things. The official truth was another. According to the official truth, Italy fought for the freedom of weak peoples, etc. In short, for internal use the reasons of the democratic interventionists were adopted, and the fundamental reason was kept quiet: the need in which Italy was in, or found itself in, of intervening in the contest out of the impossibility of remaining neutral. That is why Adrian Tilgher says that, in the beginning, the Italian war was conducted with a mentality of relative war, of diplomatic war. The consequences of this policy soon made themselves felt.

During the first phase of the Italian war, there was in Italy a strong pro-neutrality current of public opinion. The socialists were not the only ones averse to the war. So were the Giolittians -Giolitti and his partisans- that is, a large bourgeois group. It was the existence of just this pro-neutrality nucleus of bourgeois opinion which allowed the socialists to act with greater freedom, with greater efficacy, within a less asphyxiatingly belligerent martial atmosphere than socialists of the other warring countries. The socialists took advantage of this division in the bourgeois front to affirm the pacifist desires of the proletariat.

The “sacred union”, the fusion of all the parties into one, the National Defense Party, was not complete in Italy. The Italian people did not perceive the war unanimously. More than any military cause, it was these political causes, these psychological causes, which caused the defeat at Caporetto, the Italian troops’ disastrous retreat before the Austro-Hungarian offensive. We have the proof of this in the second phase of the Italian war.

After Caporetto, there was a reaction in politics, in Italian public opinion. The people began to truly feel the need to commit all its resources to the war.

The Giolittian neutralists joined the “sacred union.” From that moment on, it was no longer just the Italian army, backed by an interventionist government and an interventionist public opinion current, which fought against the Austro-Germans. For Italy, the war ceased to be a relative war. It started to be total war.

Superficial commentators attributed the Caporetto defeat to exclusively military causes; they then attributed military causes to the Italian reaction as well. They over-exaggerated the importance of the troops and the military resources sent from France to the Italian front. But the objective and documented history of the Italian war shows that these reinforcements were, in fact, very limited and, more than to numerically strengthen the Italian army, were meant to strengthen it morally. Indeed, it turns out that Italy, in exchange for the French reinforcements it received, sent some Italian reinforcements to France.

There was an exchange of troops between the Italian front and the French front. All this was of secondary importance in the reorganization of the Italian front. The Italian reaction was not a military reaction; it was a moral reaction, a political reaction.

While the Italian political front was weak, the military front was weak as well. Once the political front began being strong, so too did the military front begin to be strong. Because, in this aspect of the world war, as in its other great aspects, the political factors, the moral factors, the psychological factors, had greater importance than the military factors.

We find confirmation of this thesis in examining the efficacy of the American intervention. The United States did not only contribute a valuable moral and political confluence to the Allies.

Wilson’s speeches and proclamations weakened the German front more than the North American soldiers and more than the American -that is, North American- war material.

So say the documents of the German defeat. Such is established by several authoritative books, from among which I will point out Francisco Nitti’s book, “Europe Without Peace,” as it is one of the better known. Wilson’s speeches and proclamations deeply undermined the Austro-German front. Wilson spoke of the German people as of a fraternal people. Wilson said: “We do not wage war against the German people, but against Prussian militarism.” Wilson promised the German people a peace without annexations nor indemnizations.

This propaganda, which resounded the world over, creating a large volume of opinion favorable to the Allied cause, resounded in Germany and Austria as well. The German people felt that the war was no longer a war of national defense. Naturally, Austria was moved much more than Germany by the Wilsonian propaganda. In Bohemia, in Hungary, in all the peoples brought into the Austro-Hungarian Empire by force, the Wilsonian propaganda stimulated the old ideals of national independence.

The effects of this weakening of the German political front and of the Austrian political front necessarily had to become evident following the first military loss. And so it was. While the German government and the Austrian government could keep the hope of victory alive, they were also able to keep their people’s allegiance in the war. As soon as that hope began to disappear things changed.

The German government and the Austrian government lost control of the masses, undermined by Wilsonian propaganda.

The Italians’ offensive in the Piave encountered an enemy little-disposed to fight to the end. Entire divisions of Czechoslovaks capitulated. The Austrian front came undone. This military and moral disaster immediately resounded in the German front. The German front was - the vigorous German* offensive notwithstanding - militarily intact. But, the German front was, instead, politically and morally broken and ready to yield.

There are documents which describe Germany’s emotional state in the days preceding the capitulation. Among those documents, I shall cite Ludendorff’s Memoirs, Hindenburg’s Memoirs, and the Memoirs of Erzberger, the leader of the German Catholic Center, who was murdered by a nationalist, for his adherence to the Revolution and to the German Republic and to the Versailles peace. Ludendorff, like Hindenburg, and like Erzberger, informs us that the Kaiser, considering only of the military aspect of the situation, until the last moment held out the hope of a reaction from the German army which would allow the attainment of peace under the best conditions.

The Kaiser thought: “Our military front has not been broken.” Those who surrounded him knew that military front, apparently impregnable to the enemy, had been won by his political propaganda. It had not yet been broken materially; but it was morally nullified. That military front was not ready to obey its generalissimos and its government. In the trenches, revolution was germinating.

Up to now, the pan-Germanist Germans, the nationalist Germans, proudly affirm: “Germany was not defeated militarily.” It’s that those pan-Germanists, those nationalists, hold the old concept of relative war, of military war, of diplomatic war. They do not see in the final picture of the war but what the Kaiser saw then: the German military front intact.

Their error is the same as the error of the superficial commentators who saw in the Italian defeat at Caporetto only the military causes, and who later saw only military causes in the reorganization of the Italian front. Those nationalists, those pan-Germanists, are impervious to the new concept of total war.

It matters little that the defeat of Germany was not a military defeat. In total war defeat cannot be a military defeat instead of a defeat which is, at once, political, moral, ideological, because in total war military factors are subordinate to political, moral, and ideological factors. In total war defeat is not called military defeat, though it not stop being such; it is simply called defeat. Defeat, without an adjective, because its only definition is total defeat.

The great critics of the world war are, therefore, not military critics. They are not the generalissimos of victory, nor the generalissimos of defeat. They are not Foch nor Hindenburg, not Diaz nor Ludendorff. The great critics of the world war are philosophers, politicians, sociologists. For the first time, victory has been a matter of ideological strategy and not of military strategy. From this point of view - vast and panoramic - it can thus be said that the generalissimo of victory was Wilson. And, this idea summarizes the value of the United States’ intervention in the war.

We will not at this time make an examination of the Wilsonian program; nor will we at this time make a critique of the illusion the League of Nations. In accordance with this course’s program, which brings together the large aspects of the world crisis with a certain chronological arbitrariness -necessary for a better panoramic appreciation- we shall leave these things for the class related to the Versailles peace.

My aim in this class has been only that of quickly establishing the value of the United States’ intervention as a factor in the Allies’ victory.

The ideology of the American intervention, Wilson’s ideology, requires a separate examination. And, this specific examination must be connected with an examination of the Versailles peace and of its economic and political consequences.

Today, we shall dedicate those minutes which we have left to that other transcendental phenomenon of the war: the Russian revolution and the Russian defeat. We shall take a look at the preliminaries and at the Social-Democratic phase of the Russian Revolution. We shall see how Kerensky’s government was arrived at.

In the previous lecture, in revealing the conduct of the socialist parties in the warring countries, I told which had been position of the Russian socialists toward the conflagration.

In Russia, the majority of the labor and socialist movement was opposed to the war. The group headed by Plekhanov did not believe that victory would strengthen Tsarism; but the socialist and sydicalist majority understood that it had to fight on two fronts: against German imperialism and against Tsarism.

Many Russian socialists were loyal to the declaration of the Stuttgart Congress, which laid out the duty of toward the war thusly: work for peace and take advantage of the economic and political consequences of the war to agitate the people and hasten the downfall of the capitalist order.

The Tsarist government, needless to say, carried out the war with the criterion of relative war, of military war, of diplomatic war. The Russian war could not count on the solid adherence of the Russian people. The internal political front was, in Russia, weaker than in any other warring country. For these reasons, Russia was, without a doubt, the first to be defeated.

Within the Russian bourgeoisie there were democratic and pacifist elements irreconcilable with Tsarism. And, within the Tsar’s court there were Germanophile conspirators who plotted in favor of Germany. All these circumstances made defeat and the Russian revolution inevitable.

An interesting document from the days preceding the Revolution is Maurice Paleologue’s book, “The Russia of the Tsars During the Great War”. Maurice Paleologue was the ambassador of France to the Tsar. He was a close observer of the fall of Russian absolutism. He attended this spectacle from an stage-side box.

The pages of Maurice Paleologue’s book describe the official Russian atmosphere of the period of revolutionary incubation. Tsarism’s men foresaw the crisis. The diplomatic representatives of the Allied powers felt it as well. And the efforts of one and the other went, not toward preventing it, because it would have been in vain, but toward channeling it into the shape least damaging to their respective interests.

The Allied ambassadors in Petrograd worked with the pro-Allied members of the Tsarist regime and with the pro-Allied elements of Russian democracy and Social Democracy.

Paleologue tells us how Miliukoff, the leader of the Kadets, and other leaders of Russian democracy, ate at his table.

The Tsarist regime lacked the moral authority and the political capacity to ably carry out the business of the war. A Germanophilic clique intrigued near the Tsarina. The Tsarina, of a mystical and fanatical temperament, was ruled by the monk, Rasputin - by that strange figure, around whom so many legends were woven and so many fantasies contrived.

The army was in morally and materially disastrous conditions. Its supply, munitions, and transport services functioned chaotically. Discontent spread among the soldiers. The Tsar, and imbecile and medieval character, did not allow nor perceive the nearness of the catastrophe.

In this situation the murder of the monk, Rasputin - favorite of the Tsarina, the Black Pope of Tsarism - took place. The Tsar ordered the imprisonment of Prince Dimitri, accused of Rasputin’s murder. There then began a conflict between the Tsar and the pro-Allied personages in the Court who, clear-sightedly, foresaw the dangers and threats of the future. The nobility demanded Prince Dimitri’s freedom. The Tsar refused, saying: “A murder is always a murder.”

Those were days of great anxiety for the Russian aristocracy, which threw the responsibility for the situation upon the Tsarina. Some relatives of the Tsar dared ask for the distancing of the Tsarina from the Court.

The Tsar resolved to adopt a medievaly gentlemanly and exalted attitude. He thought that everyone conspired against the Tsarina because she was a foreigner and a woman. He decided to cover the Tsarina’s responsibilities with his own responsibility. The fate of the Russian Empire was in the hands of this stupid and sick man. The Tsarina, deluded and delirious, dialogued with Rasputin’s spirit and took up its inspirations.

The monk Rasputin, through the Tsarina, inspired the Tsar of All the Russias from beyond the grave. There was hardly anyone in Russia who did not realize that a political and social crisis necessarily had to explode from one moment to the next.

It is worth telling a strange anecdote of the Russian court. Paleologue, the French ambassador, and his secretary were invited to lunch on the 10th of January, 1917, the year of the Revolution, at Grand Duchess Maria Pawlova’s palace. Paleologue and his secretary ascended the palace’s magnificent stairway. Upon entering the grand hall they found in it but a lady-in-waiting to the Grand Duchess: Miss Olive. Miss Olve, standing before the hall’s window, pensively contemplated the view of the Neva, in which the Cathedeal of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and the walls of the Fortress, the State’s prison, stood out. Paleologue courteously interrupted Miss Olive: “I have just surprised, if not your thoughts, then the direction of your thoughts. It seems to me that you very intently gze upon the prison.” She answered: “Yes, I contemplated the prison. In days such as these one cannot keep from looking at it.” And later added, turning to the secretary: “Mr. de Chambrun, when I am there, ahead, on the straw of the dungeons, will you come see me?”

The young lady-in-waiting -probably an avid and horrified reader of the history of the French Revolution - foresaw that the same fate as that of the French nobility of the eighteenth century was reserved for the Russian nobility, and that she, like other beautiful and elegant and fine ladies-in-waiting, in other times, was destined to a tragic and somber residence in a dungeon of some gloomy Bastille.

The days of the Russian autocracy were numbered. The aristocracy and the bourgeoisie worked so the fall of Tsarism would not be their fall as well. The Allied representatives worked so that the transition from the Tsarist regime to a new regime did not bring a period of anarchy and disorder which would render Russia useless as an allied power. Indirectly, the aristocracy divorced from the Tsar, the bourgeoisie, and the Allied ambassadors did nothing other than hasten the revolution. Interested in channeling the revolution, in avoiding spill-overs, and in limiting its magnitude, they all contributed to increase the revolution’s seeds. And, the revolution came. Power was briefly in the hands of a prince of the pro-Allied aristocracy.

But, the people’s action made it pass immediately into the hands of men closer to the masses’ revolutionary ideals. Kerensky’s coalition government was built upon the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks. Kerensky was an anemic figure of Russian revolutionism. Afraid of the revolution, fearful of its extreme consequences, he did not want that his government be exclusively worker, exclusively proletarian, exclusively socialist. He thus made a coalition government of the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks with the Kadets and the liberals.

In this indecisive atmosphere, in this vacillating situation, in this structurally precarious and provisional order, the Bolshevik Revolution was germinated, bit by bit.

In the next class we will see how this great event - toward which turns the gaze of all of the universal proletariat, which, above all divisions and all disagreements of doctrine, sees in the Russian Revolution, humanity’s first step toward an order of brotherhood, peace, and justice - was prepared, and how it occurred


* The word “German” appears here in the original, but it seems likely that it was meant to read “Italian.” -Trans.

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