I find it perfectly fitting that some states have declared a state of emergency for Christmas. Because for me, Christmas has always been a disaster to be avoided. Usually, I escaped by traveling to countries as devoid of Christmas as possible. This year, that’s not an option.
This year, we can only travel in memory. The last exciting Christmas was in 1989, thanks to the Romanians who, unlike the East Germans, put on a real revolution.
Yes, that’s the way to enjoy Christmas!
But today, we travel back in time even further, exactly one hundred years, to 24 December 1920. On that day, in order to avoid Christmas service and dinner at Grandma’s, some Italians started a small war. Against other Italians. In order not to accidentally break a piece of Italy in the process, they carried out the fighting on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. In a city that is now called Rijeka and is located in Croatia. At the time, the city was called Fiume and was located in, well, that was precisely the point of contention.
But first, a flashback: World War I. Italy was neutral because people were more enthusiastic about soccer than world politics. Only one poet and writer, Gabriele D’Annunzio, made flaming appeals for Italy to enter the war against Austria-Hungary. For one, because he considered life without war adventures hardly worth living. On the other hand, because Austria-Hungary had a few fillets on the eastern Adriatic, which D’Annunzio was eager to Italianize. After all, due to unfavorable geography, Italy did not yet have enough coastline.
The Italian king finally relented, and in 1915 Italy entered the war on the side of the Entente. D’Annunzio, who was not as young as he felt, but 52 years old, had no desire for the grueling mountain war. Instead, he sailed submarines into Austro-Hungarian ports and left cheeky messages in bottles. Then he trained as a pilot, flew behind enemy lines, even as far as Vienna in August 1918, where he dropped not bombs, but leaflets with his poems. That made the Austrians surrender, and D’Annunzio was a hero.
Italy was rewarded with South Tyrol and Istria and the assurance that at least one Italian restaurant would open in every town in Germany and Austria. But Rijeka, the pearl of the Adriatic, which the Italians call Fiume, was withheld from them and given a strange neutral status, similar to that of Danzig.
The people of Rijeka/Fiume didn’t really care, because they had already had a special status in the Habsburg Empire since 1779 and had gotten used to it. But D’Annunzio was furious: “What do we want with Trieste and all that stuff? The best čevapčići are in Rijeka!”
The Arditi, Italian stormtroopers, were furious as well, seeing themselves deprived of part of their hard-won victory. They elected D’Annunzio, already walking on a cane, as their leader and proposed the capture of Fiume.
That was in 1919. Because the people of Rijeka had read in the newspaper that the World War was over, they were not prepared at all. D’Annunzio was able to take the city on 12 September 1919 with about 2500 irregular forces.
But then came the big shock: Italy no longer wanted Fiume.
At least not in this way. Italy, always a stronghold of legality, insisted on respect for international law and preferred taking the path of negotiations in the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, as well as with the newly formed Yugoslavia.
Now would have been the time to apologize (“Sorry, it was a snap reaction!”), return Fiume/Rijeka, go home and write books. But the little campaign had gone to the little man’s head. When Italy made it clear that D’Annunzio had no support to expect and even imposed a naval blockade on the friendly little town, D’Annunzio proclaimed a state of his own: The Italian Regency in the Kvarner Bay or, after the Italian name of the bay, the Italian Regency of Carnaro.
This republic is often seen as a blueprint for fascism. And indeed, if you watch the video above, you will recognize several aesthetic features that Mussolini and Hitler adopted later. In Carnaro there was a cult of leadership with daily speeches and parades. Prohibition of opposition. Corporations instead of parties. Organization of the people in mass organizations, as far as one can speak of masses in a small town. And whenever their leader marched past, the people had to shout “eia, eia, alala”.
On the other hand, anarcho-syndicalists, socialists, Dadaists, nudists, symbolists, futurists, as well as followers of yoga, cocaine, free love and verism gathered in Fiume. But also militarists and proto-fascists.
The newspaper “La Testa di Ferro – Giornale del Fiumanesimo” defined Fiumism on every front page: “An Italian Fiume – city of new life – liberation of all oppressed peoples, classes, individuals – spiritual instead of formal discipline – annihilation of all hegemonies, dogmas, conservatisms and parasitisms – the face of everything new -” and in a touch of self-irony “few words, many actions.”
The wild commune lived on smuggling and piracy. In between, there were orgies and torchlight processions. There was more happening in the small port town than in Babylon Berlin!
Only Italy couldn’t laugh about any of this. In November 1920, Italy and Yugoslavia concluded the Treaty of Rapallo, according to which Fiume was to become an independent free state. D’Annunzio overreacted once again and declared war on Italy on 20 December 1920. Pretty brave for a city-state with 2500 soldiers.
And so it came to the “Bloody Christmas” of 1920, when Italian soldiers fought against former Italian soldiers. It started just in time for 24 December, and by 29 December Italy had taken the small republic. About 60 people had died in the fighting. And all of that because a writer had wanted to put his work on the big stage.
What happened to D’Annunzio? He fled from Fiume, oddly enough to the country he had just declared war on. There, he tried, apparently not lacking in self-confidence, to get a mandate from the king to form a government, thus forestalling Mussolini. But Mussolini had not only copied the fascist aesthetic from D’Annunzio, he had also learned that you simply have to create facts. In October 1922, Mussolini marched on Rome and took power.
D’Annunzio pandered to Mussolini, was richly rewarded financially, elevated to nobility, and given an extremely pompous villa. Yes, the amphitheater and the mausoleum on the hill are also part of it. And yes, that is a ship in the forest: the battleship Puglia. A stark contrast to the modest retirement home of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the real hero of Italian history.
To this day, a university and the airport in Brescia are named after D’Annunzio. Fascism doesn’t seem to ruin one’s reputation too much in Italy.
And what happened to Fiume? The Free State was founded, but already in March 1922, Italian fascists took control over it with a coup d’état. Basically, that was the trial run for the march on Rome. In January 1924, Italy formally annexed the city. In the end, the little war for Christmas turned out to have been a silly waste of lives.
Living in Rijeka in the 20th century, one could successively hold six different passports, without leaving the city once: those of Austria-Hungary, the Carnaro Republic, the Free State of Fiume, Italy (followed by German occupation), Yugoslavia and Croatia. This is just one reason why I find Rijeka a suitable choice for European Capital of Culture 2020. Unfortunately, the Corona pandemic intervened, but someday I will catch up on the visit. It’s better to explore capitals of culture before or after the hustle and bustle anyway.
Merry Christmas! Even if it is unlikely to be as interesting as it was a hundred years ago in Fiume.
So, this was the first episode in the new series “One hundred years ago …”. It was one of dozens of examples I could have picked to show that World War I did not end in November 1918. In fact, it continued in many places for several years. Sure, it was not the trench warfare anymore, but armed conflicts in “postwar” Europe cost more than 4 million lives and changed the map of the world until today.
Foolishly, I promised to deliver a new episode every month, but in January 1921 not so much seems to have happened. If you have any suggestions or ideas, let me know! If not, then let yourself be surprised by what I will dig up.
And if you learned something new, I appreciate your support for this blog. Thank you very much!