Late afternoon 12 September 1919. At Hotel Europa in the city of Fiume (Rijeka) on the Kvarner Gulf in what is now Croatia, the gigantic lieutenant Guido Keller shakes life into the dwarf-like, exhausted, severely feverish poet Gabriele D’Annunzio with the words: “Commandante, the National Council has chosen You to be the city’s Regent!
This is the beginning of one of history’s most remarkable utopian experiments – the only state to introduce syndicalism as a regime, but which also has the dubious honour of having given Mussolini the inspiration for Fascism’s outward mannerisms. D’Annunzio was Italy’s foremost poet at the time. Long undervalued, he has today regained his standing in his homeland. Abroad he remains at best unknown, at worst denigrated. He was unquestionably an elitist typical of his time and a romanticizer of violence. But in contrast to other such people, he was prepared to expose himself to danger.
D’Annunzio was born in 1863. Apart from his literary talent and audacity, he exerted a magical attraction on women. And yet he was far from being an Adonis. Preserved uniforms that he wore are child-sized. His poetry with its dark predictions about something large and wicked that must come earned him the title Il Vate, “the prophet”.
From France, where he fled his creditors, he could return before Italy’s entry into the First World War in 1915 and advocate “the Latin war” against the German barbarians. He was 52 years old, but got the right to take part in the operations he wanted to. On his way back from an air attack in 1916, he lost an eye. He still set off across the Adriatic Sea in February 1918 in the company of 29 volunteers in three motor-torpedo boats, entered the Austrian fleet’s base at Bakar and torpedoed a ship. During the journey he composed a poem that he published in the newspaperCorriere della Sera. It begins: “We are thirty sharing the same destiny And thirty-one with death!” The chorus was a “Roman” cheer that he had invented: Éja, éja, éja alalà! In August 1918, he flew over Vienna and threw down leaflets.
Before the world war, the coastal city on the Adriatic that was then called Fiume, but is today called Rijeka, had belonged to Austria-Hungary. Most of the population spoke a dialect of Italian. In the peace of 1919, the city is, however, assigned to Yugoslavia. Dalmatia, too, which Italy had been promised for joining in the war, is passed to Yugoslavia – minus the little town of Zara, now Zadar, which remains an independent free state.
Pending the handover to Yugoslavia, Fiume was occupied by French forces. On 25 August 1919, an Italian grenadier battalion that was there is withdrawn to Ronchi in Italy. The fury among the lower-ranking officers is extreme. They contact D’Annunzio in Venice. The peace has forced him to return to poetry and eroticism as pastimes. His departure is set for 11 September. Despite influenza and a 39-degree fever, Il Vate, renamed Il Commandante by his new friends, leaves in secret for Ronchi clad in the ostentatious uniform to which he was entitled, having been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the Novara lancers in the closing stages of the war. At daybreak, the officers line up the battalion and offer – as is usual in military coups – for those who do not want to take part to leave the troop. Wrapped in a white soldier’s cape and followed by a total of 196 grenadiers on trucks, Il Commandanteleads the convoy to the border in his open Fiat. The elite unit, theArditi, which was sent out to intercept the march, attaches itself to it, practically enough equipped with heavy weapons and armoured vehicles. The Italian general who had been given the thankless task of guarding the border is forced to experience how D’Annunzio opens his cape and, with a gesture borrowed from Napoleon, invites the soldiers to open fire on his medal-bedecked chest. The mutiny spreads. At 11.45 on 12 September 1919, D’Annunzio marches into Fiume at the head of 2,500 soldiers, makes for the hotel and falls into a feverish sleep.
To understand what happens next one has to know something about Italian nationalism. In Italy nationalism had remained liberal or left-oriented in the spirit of the hero of freedom, Garibaldi, based on memories from the war of liberation of 1859–1870. The Pope subsequently did not recognize the state’s existence, and the ecclesiastical right was pacifist and anti-national. Most socialists were, of course, also pacifists, but the syndicalists and the extreme-left socialists, led by a certain Mussolini, had in 1915 taken a stand for war against the reactionary German empire. Volunteers to the elite troops, theArditi, included anarchists and syndicalists as often as ordinary thugs. The Arditiwear black shirts and fezes with tassels. They have skull-and-crossbone flags, daggers and the anthemGiovinezza, “youth”, as well as the battle cry A noi! “to us”. D’Annunzio is their hero, and they constitute the majority of the legionnaires who joined the march. Their ceremonies are taken over byIl Vate’s regime.
As to the details of what happened in Fiume after that, reports vary radically. The poet comes on foot towards the evening and from the balcony of the Governor’s palace, which becomes the government building for Il Commandante, gives a fiery speech, of the kind with which he will rule his realm from then on. He has the occupying forces’ flags lowered, but praises French and American democratic idols such as Victor Hugo, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman.
A liturgy that will later be used by less sympathy-inspiring rulers begins to be formulated. Battle songs such asGaribaldi’s Hymn, the Piave March andGiovinezza raise the mood. The people reply with a jubilant “yes!” ora noi to the speaker’s leading questions. Il Vate, who has become Il Commandante to his troops, later becomes Il Duce, “the leader”. The word had emerged in several contexts in revolutionary left-wing movements in Italy, but it is here that it becomes an established title for the one, idolized commander. While he was in exile in France, D’Annunzio had worked on silent-film scripts. In the 1914 epic Cabiria, about Rome’s war with Carthage, he had had the Romans salute in the ancient fashion with an outstretched right hand. Now, thissaluto romano is introduced as a symbol of freedom in Fiume. What the gesture will come to stand for elsewhere the prophet is unable to anticipate. Already early on, far-reaching civic rights are proclaimed. Democratic municipal elections are held. Women get the right to vote, which at that time exists in only a few places and would have to wait another quarter of a century in Italy itself. Divorce is allowed. Before all other states they recognize the Soviet regime, and Lenin is said to have hailed D’Annunzio as a great revolutionary. D’Annunzio’s position remains that Fiume is to be annexed by Italy, but Italy persistently refuses to accept the gift, primarily through fear that the Allies would cut off all necessary supplies or even go to war on Yugoslavia’s side, to some extent also out of anger and envy against the troublesome prophet. It is not just the Nitti government that finds it hard to deal with D’Annunzio’s successes in Fiume. In spring 1919, Mussolini in Milan, together with the syndicalists Bianchi and De Ambris, as well as the slightly mad futurist poet Marinetti, has started a new, radical nationalist movement, Fascism, with the leader’s newspaper Popolo d’Italia as its mouthpiece. D’Annunzio’s conquest of Fiume is a shock for this group. They are compelled to pretend to approve of the action, even though it competes with their own activities. Mussolini tries in the newspaper to exploit the situation in Fiume for his own ends, without committing himself to this risky enterprise or helping it to achieve excessively great success.
Consequently, already on 16 September, the disappointed prophet sends a furious letter to Il Popolo d’Italia. “You are quaking with fear!” writes D’Annunzio, and goes on to describe eloquently how Mussolini is cravenly grovelling to Nitti: “Wake up! And be ashamed!” What does one do with such a letter to the editor from a hero who one’s followers worship? It takes a few days of tinkering with photomontages before the letter can be presented and printed in copied handwriting with all the negative viewpoints cut out, so that only the apparently friendly opening and appeals for support are left. And in response, the newspaper starts a collection to benefit the legionnaires in Fiume. Large sums flow in and disappear. They are presumably misappropriated by Mussolini and used for his own movement. Meanwhile, adventurers, madmen and volunteers flock to Fiume. Allegations of sexual orgies and cocaine use in the city may, of course, be true, but they scarcely have to be. The freedom for homosexuals, which is also usually put in the debits column, would today be seen more as a positive thing. Quite clearly there prevails, especially in the early days, a sort of carnival atmosphere among the legionnaires and the rest, a bit like descriptions of the May revolt in Paris in 1968. The lack of food and fuel among the population and of weapons, footwear and winter clothing among the legionnaires is remedied through piracy. Volunteers board passing ships or hijack them in Trieste harbour. The French troops’ stores are confiscated. The syndicalist veteran Alceste De Ambris travels to Fiume as Mussolini’s envoy, but changes sides and sees greater chances of realizing his utopian plans in the prophet’s realm. In spring 1920, he becomes head of the local government.
Italy’s refusal to annex Fiume makes the question of the form of government even more pressing. The solution is a “regency”. With the dual aim of bringing order to governance and having a programme to offer to Italy, De Ambris elaborated a constitution, called La Carta Del Carnaro. This was worked on by D’Annunzio and passed on 8 September 1920. The state’s flag was adorned by the constellation of the Great Bear and the mottoQuis contra nos?“Who can stand against us?”
A lot of bad things have been said about the Carnaro constitution by people who have not read it. Especially in De Ambris’ simpler form it is a brilliant intellectual and democratic experiment. D’Annunzio’s version is more of its time and hard to understand, but with its mystifications and vaguenesses perhaps also more propagandistically useful. After having guaranteed universal suffrage for men and women, and far-reaching freedoms and rights, a form of government is laid down with highly independent municipalities, as well as a bicameral parliament. Power is shared between the house of representatives, which is elected in the usual way, and the economic council, which is elected by members of the trade unions, the “corporations”. This is real syndicalism – the only state that has tried it. A more far-reaching democracy than ordinary parliamentarism involves. There is also an attempt to unite utopia with private enterprise, with talk of a corporation of employers. D’Annunzio and De Ambris also worked on a plan for a “march on Rome”. The legionnaires are to be taken by ship from Fiume to Italy to take power and install the Carnaro constitution. They seek support among the Fascists, but are met with doubts and impracticable counterproposals. Mussolini has already entered into a secret alliance with the Italian government. At the same time, it is probably the Carnaro constitution with its left-wing profile that seals the state of Fiume’s rapidly approaching fate. The army’s leadership and the establishment around the throne do not view with anything like the same enthusiasm the syndicalist-radical utopia that could only be made through the actual capture of Fiume. Nevertheless, celebrities such as the inventor Marconi and the conductor Toscanini make the journey to Fiume and express their support. But, in November 1920, Italy enters into an accord with the great powers that Fiume is to be an international free state with Yugoslavian harbour rights. Italy gets Zara. The next shock for Fiume came with a leader article inIl Poplo d’Italia in which Mussolini declared his satisfaction with this.
The Italian government finally dares to give the army its marching orders. The attack is begun on Christmas Eve 1920. Il Commandantesuccessfully organizes the defence on land with 4,000 highly motivated, battle-hardened legionnaires. But they cannot stop the Italian fleet from steaming into the harbour on Boxing Day, and even shelling D’Annunzio’s office in the government building. When the fleet continues to bombard the city, D’Annunzio decides for the sake of the civilian population to capitulate on 29 December 1920. This brings “Christmas of Blood” to an end. Likewise Il Vate’s15-month regime in Fiume.
D’Annunzio’s “lyrical dictatorship” has been defamed and misinterpreted. It was rather a “centre extremism”. Mussolini’s followers soon take over the Roman salute, songs, costumes, ceremonies and the word “corporation”, at the same time as D’Annunzio is portrayed as no more than a scatterbrain. After the Fascist takeover of power, Mussolini begins to claim that he supported D’Annunzio devotedly, as well as holding Fiume up as an early expression of the ultra-right ideas that the Fascists now began to adopt. This makes Fiume and D’Annunzio impossible after the fall of Mussolini. D’Annunzio stays on for a few days for the burial of the fallen, before he leaves Fiume. De Ambris comes to fight at the head of the syndicalist groups against his former allies among the Fascists, before he has to escape to France. Fiume goes to meet a sad fate. The chaos that is said to have reigned under D’Annunzio’s regime seems in actual fact to have come afterwards. Mussolini annexes the area in 1924, without being met with any significant protests. After the Second World War, the city passes to Yugoslavia and is emptied of Italians. Around 58,000 flee. The rest, and it is unclear how many, are murdered by Croatian partisans.
D’Annunzio’s subsequent fate in Italy is also a sad one. In August 1922, a mysterious episode occurs. D’Annunzio plans a coup d’état to introduce the Carnaro constitution in Italy. The old arch-enemy Nitti is to provide political support. Mussolini is to bring in his storm troops locally. This was to transform him into a head of the militia in Il Vate’srealm. On the other hand, he cannot say no. That would leave him totally excluded. A meeting about the case is to take place in Tuscany. But, on the night of the meeting, Nitti learns that it is all a set-up. Il Vate has tumbled out through a window of his villa at Lake Garda and hovers unconscious between life and death. Everything points to Mussolini having arranged the fall. With Il Vate out of the fight, the way is open for the Fascists’ ownDuce to march to Rome and take power at the end of October 1922.
It is only after this that D’Annunzio becomes the toothless little old man we can see on newsreels. It does, however, take time for this picture to become public. Hemingway, who admired D’Annunzio, still hopes a year later that his idol will be able to depose and replace Mussolini.
Mussolini decides to make Il Vateinto a harmless relic: “With a rotten tooth, you either pull it out, or then you fill it with gold!” The villa at Lake Garda is enlarged into a monumental residence. Here there is an amphitheatre and sculpture park, a little swimming pool for the torpedo boat from Bakar, a cupola in which the hero’s airplane hovers together with, built into the mountainside, the front half of an armoured cruiser. In a land where few people read books, the most fantastic of writer’s homes was created by a regime that wanted to forget the author at any price.
The ageing prophet’s pronouncement on Hitler is devastating: “Flecked with paint and with the painter’s brush sticking out of his Nazi nose!” Hitler embodies everything Il Vateopposed of German expansionism and lack of culture. To see Italy, from 1937 on, associate itself with this abomination is a shock.
D’Annunzio dies in March 1938. The nervous local police chief, responsible for keeping an eye on the bothersome poet prince, gives Mussolini the news over the telephone with the words: “It is my painful duty to give you a piece of good news.” All the same, Il Vate’sfuneral becomes a magnificent manifestation from the Fascist government’s side. The one who walks closest to the coffin is Mussolini. There are flags, drawn daggers, and salutes from the cruiser in the garden.
Göran Hägg is a Swedish writer, commentator, critic and associate professor of comparative literature.