Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Why Is the Italian Front So Neglected in Histories of the Great War?

Italian Memorial at Trieste (Detail)

By Nicola Labanca, University of Sienna 

In the best general and international histories, references to the Italian-Austrian Front in the First World War are rare and often inaccurate. The responsibility for this neglect lies not only on the shoulders of international historians nor can it be explained only by the language barrier. The roots of the problem are not only global but also local. 

One reason was that, from very early on, there was both in Italy and in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, little of the institutional support the war effort enjoyed elsewhere. This was not a popular war, as it was initially elsewhere, and thus was easily forgotten. The Empire dissolved in 1918 and 1919, and in Italy the rise of the fascist regime in the long run obscured rather than deepened the memory of Italian participation in the Great War. 

For 20 years the Italian dictatorship permitted the erection of imposing war memorials and helped construct myths about the war, but the public and private memories of war did not coincide. Later, during the Cold War, when Italy and Austria become democracies, nationalist prejudices and language barriers between Italians and Austrians for a long time prevented a dialogue either among historians or in the general public. After the end of the Cold War, two decades of national revival in former Eastern bloc countries did not help, nor did the Yugoslav civil wars. All these factors made it difficult to study and interpret the war effort of the Hapsburg Empire. In a word, national particularities—Italian and Austrian—obscured our understanding of the Italian-Austrian Front in the Great War. 

Front Line on the Carso Sector

Another reason was the imbalance between the two sides. An ancient empire faced a young nation-state, which defeated it. Vienna fought on at least three fronts (Eastern/Russian, southwestern/Italian and southern/Balkan) while Rome, the last of the Great Powers, focused almost entirely on its Alpine-Carso front; their war efforts were clearly very different. Nonetheless, they faced common challenges and sometimes found similar solutions. It is clearly time to go beyond old national hostilities in our understanding of a war whose hardships both populations shared. A history of the Italian fronts is essential in creating a more comprehensive and global interpretation of the history of the First World War. The Western Front has dominated discussion long enough, though its decisive position in the outcome of the war is not in doubt. Much about the Great War becomes clearer once we shift our attention south and east to the Italian-Austrian frontier.

. . . The Italian Front was a theater very different from that of the other major sectors: the armies were different, their war aims and strategies were different, the topography was completely different from the Eastern and Western Fronts. To a number of foreign military observers (and later to military historians) this created a peculiar situation, sometimes difficult to understand. Stereotypes or prejudices about national character stood in for considered analysis, or some concluded the Italian Front was simply insignificant. This was a major error, since developments on this front directly contributed to decide the outcome of the war.

(Ed. Note: The views expressed here are strictly those of the author.)

Source:  The Cambridge History of the First World War, 2014

1 comment:

  1. Good points.

    I would emphasize some of the challenges. The language barrier is not insignificant. And Austria-Hungary's war is routinely slighted in coverage.