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11-08-2015, 17:48

Vittorio Orlando (1860-1952)

Vittorio Orlando served as Italy's prime minister during the final year of the war, then represented his country at the Paris Peace Conference. As a wartime leader, he firmed up the Italian war effort and kept his country fighting following the military disaster at Caporetto in October 1917. At the ensuing peace conference, however, Orlando played a less successful role. He found himself overshadowed by his determined foreign minister, Sidney Sonnino, and Orlando's moderate stance toward obtaining territorial acquisitions for his country collided with Italian popular opinion as well. The Italian desire for sweeping territorial gains on the eastern shore of the Adriatic clashed with the determined views of President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's desire to award territory claimed by Italy to the new state of Yugoslavia illustrated the intractable problems faced by postwar leaders in trying to redraw the map of eastern and southern Europe. Orlando's failure embittered postwar Italian political life as fervent nationalists pointed to Italy's "mutilated victory." Orlando was a Sicilian, bom in Palermo on May 19, 1860. Trained as a lawyer, he served in the Chamber of Deputies from 1897 into the years of World War I. Orlando made a name for himself as a versatile government minister, holding the posts of minister of education and minister of justice before 1914. Shortly after the outbreak of the war, he became minister of justice once again; then, in June 1916, he took over the powerful position of minister of the interior. He had been a supporter of Italy's entrance into the war in May 1915, and, with the interior portfolio and its responsibility for domestic security, he now stood as a pillar of the country's wartime government. Nonetheless, the presence of a large number of deputies opposed to the war helped persuade Orlando to crack down only in a measured way on antiwar demonstrations and other forms of domestic dissent. So too did his own conviction that civil liberties should be respected even in wartime. In October 1917, Orlando's moment came. With newly arrived German troops taking the lead, the armies of the Central Powers crashed through the apparently immovable battlefront along the Isonzo River and penetrated northeastern Italy. Their speedy advance threatened to capture Venice and. beyond that, to knock Italy from the war. In these perilous circumstances, Orlando took over as prime minister on October 30, 1917. Orlando bolstered the fragile situation in a number of ways. His voice helped persuade King Victor Emmanuel II to replace General Luigi Cadoma, the army's commander and the military figure most responsible for the fiasco at Caporetto. Cadoma also had long resisted effective control of the military by civilian authority. The new Italian commander, Armando Diaz, was younger, more optimistic, and more inclined to work with Italy's political leaders. Orlando also got Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George to provide six French and five British divisions to help the Italians hold on. Despite his earlier reservations, Orlando also struck sharply at domestic opponents of the war, imprisoning, for example, a number of leading Socialists. But Orlando found Diaz a trying subordinate. Only with extreme difficulty did the Italian prime minister get his leading general to take the offensive in the closing weeks of the war. The need for Italy to attack was pressing: its failure at Caporetto had undercut Rome's diplomatic position at any future peace conference. Refusing to follow the call of Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the supreme Allied military commander, to join in the final offensive against the Central Powers threatened to make the damage irreparable. Orlando, perhaps fearing the political effects of a bloody and ineffective offensive, vacillated. But he finally pushed Diaz forward. The only victorious Italian offensive action of the war, the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, came in late October and early November 1918. At Versailles, Orlando found himself at loggerheads with the American president when he pressed Italy's claims to territory along the northeastern shore of the Adriatic. In fact, Orlando was inchned toward compromise on territorial issues. But Sonnino, the director of foreign policy throughout the war, remained wedded to gains promised Italy in the Treaty of London in April 1915. And vocal Italian nationalists demanded even more, notably the port city of Fiume. In contrast, Wilson favored claims of the new state of Yugoslavia; its chief ethnic group, the Serbs, had fought with far greater success and effectiveness than Italy. In a dramatic gesture, Orlando and Sonnino left the peace negotiations in late April 1919. But within ten days they were compelled to return: the other victorious powers ignored Italy's gesture of defiance and simply went on with the conference. In the end, Orlando's efforts to win a glorious settlement for Italy failed. The prime minister was the first to pay the price: his government fell on June 19, 1919. The bitterness resulting from Italy's treatment at the peace conference paved the way for the rise of Benito Mussolini and his Fascist party. Orlando himself was a quiet ally of Mussolini until the nationalist demagogue established a full-fledged dictatorship after 1924. Orlando then went into political retirement, reappearing briefly after World War II to lead Italy's constituent assembly. He died in Rome on December 1, 1952.