How Rijeka became the world's first fascist state

Jonathan Bousfield looks at how Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio turned Rijeka into his own political stage.

Gabriele D'Annunzio
© Arhiva PPMPH
By Jonathan Bousfield
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Rijeka’s most prominent anniversary of 2019 is also one of the most difficult to handle. September 12 will see the centenary of the entry into the city of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian poet, aviator and nationalist ideologue whose 17-month reign over the city provided Italian Fascism with much of its inspiration.

Present-day Rijeka’s reputation as the most open and tolerant of Croatia’s cities is a tradition sustained, to a certain extent, by memories of the human tragedies that have rent the city in the past. D’Annunzio’s escapade in particular tore the city’s cosmopolitan fabric apart, setting Italians and Croats against each other and laying the foundations for further ruptures in World War II. Given such a traumatic twentieth century, it’s not surprising that the anti-fascist spirit of today’s Rijeka is regarded a something to be celebrated.

D’Annunzio himself was more famous as an aesthete and playboy until World War I turned him into a man of action. He campaigned vigorously for Italy’s entry into the conflict on the side of the Entente (France, great Britain and Russia), and found something of a new vocation as the tub-thumping nationalist orator who could hypnotize a willing crowd.  Having volunteered for the services at the age of 52 and taken part in several daring airborne and naval missions, D’Annunzio became a talismanic figure for nationalist Italians once the war ended.

Even though the city of Rijeka, or Fiume in Italian, had never been promised to Italy in the secret treaties signed with the Entente powers, the city became a tantalizing symbol of unfulfilled national destiny for an Italian public exhausted by over three years of war.

The city was a typically mixed-up product of the Habsburg Empire (to which it had belonged ever since the fifteenth century), boasting a largely Italian-speaking city centre, Croatian-speaking suburbs, and substantial numbers of German- and Hungarian-speaking businessmen and bureaucrats.

The question of national identity was made more complex by the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, when Rijeka was earmarked for inclusion in the nascent Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (subsequently Yugoslavia). Rijeka’s Italian-speakers rose up in an attempt to prevent the Yugoslavs from taking control. Entente peacekeepers occupied the city, pending the deliberations of the international peace conference convened at Versailles in January 1919. Fearing that the conference would definitively award the city to the Yugoslavs, however, Italian nationalists within the city began to plan a takeover that would present the international community with a fait accompli. They needed a figurehead, and the flamboyant D’Annunzio seemed to fit the bill.

D’Annunzio drove into the city on September 12 1919 at the head of 300 volunteers. He was greeted with jubilation by Italian sections of the populace, and a mixture of bemusement and fear by everyone else.   D’Annunzio immediately declared Rijeka’s union with Italy. The Italian government in Rome disowned such a union, fearful of the radical energies that D’Annunzio seemed to embody.

For D’Annunzio and his followers, the Rijeka enterprise was the first step in an anti-parliamentary revolution that would sweep through Italy itself. Post-war Italy was in deep crisis, troubled by left-wing strikes and right-wing calls for order. Soldiers returning from the front felt that they had risked their lives for a corrupt parliamentary elite that was incapable of addressing the country’s problems. Calls for authoritarian leadership were widespread – D’Annunzio seemed to be the personification of these desires.

Thousands of people flocked to Rijeka to be at his side. Most of them were war veterans or deserting soldiers (the average age was 22 and a half), keen to share the excitement of what seemed like a patriotic revolution. Others were political tourists of a rather disturbing kind.  Both Futurist poet F. T. Marinetti and Fascist leader Benito Mussolini beat a path to Rijeka in autumn 1919, eager to discover just how soon D’Annunzio planned to export his uprising to Italy proper. Both left disappointed: D’Annunzio was wary of collaborating with people whose political ideas seemed even more marginal and preposterous than his own

As we now know it was Mussolini, not D’Annunzio, who took control of Italy three years later. Indeed Mussolini ended up stealing most of D’Annunzio’ ideas. The aesthetics of Italian Fascism were taken directly from the poet’s short-lived regime in Rijeka. D’Annunzio’s love of uniforms, parades, and set-piece speeches proved that radical right-wing politics worked far better as a spectacle with audience participation than a string of manifestoes.

The idea that D’Annunzio’s Rijeka was a radical social experiment as well as a political uprising played well in the popular imagination. Futurist and war-veteran Mario Carli called D’Annunzio’s Rijeka a “work of art”, a living example of “futurist theatre”.  The city had a racy reputation; it offered free love, freedom from bourgeois constraints, and a (more legendary than real) supply of cheap cocaine.

Judging by the memoirs of Giovanni Comisso, a war veteran and writer who was also bisexual, the city was full of intellectual encounters, outlandish personalities and erotic possibilities. Together with Guido Keller, a dashing pilot who kept an eagle as a pet, Comisso established Yoga, an absurdist avant-garde movement that floated all kinds of utopian ideas.

“Immorality both natural and unnatural was rife” was how Rijeka resident and chronicler J. N. MacDonald described the new social climate. “Modesty compels me to draw a veil over much of the depravity which accompanied the poet’s regime”.

Subsequent historians have paid too much attention to the cult of D’Annunzio, the cocaine-snorting, bed-hopping egomaniac who never really cared much for Rjieka and simply saw it as a platform for his own fame. The freewheeling society he presided over has been over-romantically portrayed as a 17-month-long fiesta, an art performance in the tradition of the Italian avant-garde, or an anarchic exercise in anti-globalist protest, with D’Annunzio the jolly pirate giving the finger to the liberal elite.

In fact the whole escapade is a warning about the dangers of populism, and the way in which libertarians of both left and right so often end up donning a uniform and joining someone else’s parade. The D’Annunzio administration was a revolving door for ideological oddballs, kept in power by the large number of young men roaming the streets, people who could always be relied upon to cheer the loudest whenever the leader staged a rally.

December 1919 saw Rijeka’s citizens vote for a compromise solution that would have secured Rijeka’s independence as a free city and the departure of D’Annunzio and his followers at the same time. A shocked D’Annunzio annulled the vote, and organized an open-air ‘plebiscite’ of his own supporters to legitimize the continuation of his rule.

Local Croats suffered constant intimidation. D’Annunzio’s followers proclaimed the death penalty for anyone disloyal to the “cause of Fiume”, causing most prominent Croats to leave. The offices of Croatian newspaper Primorske Novine were smashed up. Croatian society regrouped in the suburb of Sušak, just south of the centre: the Riječina river became a new border, cutting the city in two.

For D’Annunzio, the Croats were simply a culturally inferior people who lacked history, and therefore had no real right to rule over the eastern shores of the Adriatic.  He also professed the lazy anti-Semitism of the salon radical, calling the recently-formed League of Nations an institution created to “further the interests of international banking Jews”.  The idea that Italian nationalism defined itself through disdain for others was typically D’Annunzian, and typically Fascist.

D’Annunzio’s rule over Rijeka collapsed towards the end of 1920, more as a result of internal apathy than the Italian army’s half-hearted attempt at a blockade. The Italian navy bombarded the city during the so-called Bloody Christmas of 1920, and D’Annunzio agreed to leave peacefully two weeks later. Rijeka was designated a “free city” before being swallowed by Fascist Italy in 1924. D’Annunzio himself retired to Lake Garda, half-hoping that the people of Italy would summon him to power when the time was right. The invitation never came.

However the D’Annunzio playbook never seems to go out of fashion. Marching into disputed territory on the pretense of defending the local population; using coup tactics in order to pre-empt peaceful negotiations; manipulating plebiscites to make it look as if extreme courses of action have a democratic mandate; the use of extravagant behavior to signal contempt for the “establishment”; calling out the falsehoods of liberal democracy in order to construct even bigger lies; all of these are as familiar today as they were to the Europeans of the inter-war years.

Maybe we are only now entering the truly D’Annunzian times: politicians flout notoriety and shamelessness as a way of building popular support, manipulative half-truths are applauded more heartily than complicated explanations, and the megaphone of social media makes mob orators of us all.

Rijeka will mark the centenary with a D’Annunzio-themed exhibition at the Museum of Maritime History. The display will devote specific attention to the female half of Rijeka’s population - the women who supported, opposed, or simply endured the D’Annunzio period – thereby moving the narrative away from the self-styled men of destiny who stood at D’Annunzio’s side and wrote memoirs about it afterwards. Presenting D’Annunzio’s legacy in a museum will be one way of teasing out the true nature of his short-lived regime, and discarding the myths.

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