Italians in Fiume cheering D’Annunzio in September 1919
There murmur swarming through my drowsy head
In this vast furnace of a summer day
Relentless verses clamoring to be said,
As beetles round a putrid carcass play.
One doesn’t often run into a Fascist poet although Ezra Pound was considered one. Usually poets tend to be dreamers of leftish persuasion – not Fascists.
Yet the “John the Baptist” of Italian fascism was a poet – Gabriele D’Annunzio. His was the model on which Benito Mussolini would later build the full Fascist state.
D’Annunzio was born in the Abruzzi region of Italy in March 1863 as the bastard child of a wealthy landowner. His mother’s name was Rapagnetta and it was his surname until he was adopted by a retired wealthy uncle Antonio D’Annunzio, who sent him to a fine private school to continue his education. It was there, at 16, he published his first book of poetry. Favorable enthusiastic reviews brought him into public view.
From 1889 to 1910 he occupied a prominent place in Italian literature. The first world war would transform D’Annunzio from an Italian literary giant to a war hero to a Fascist.
D’Annunzio was an Irredentist – an Italian nationalist who believed his country must take it’s “rightful place” in Europe and the world; who believed that adjoining territories, especially in what is now Slovenia and Croatia were really “unredeemed Italy”. With the coming of war D’Annunzio supported joining the allied cause against Germany and Austria. He assumed that once victorious, Italy would receive the lands across the Adriatic as compensation – especially the city of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia) which had a large Italian population.
Mussolini too supported joining the war for which he was drummed out of the Italian Socialist Party. When war came, both of them joined the military.
D’Annunzio (left) with a fellow officer
D’Annunzio had taken a flight with Wilbur Wright in 1908 – he was in love with aviation. He joined the newly formed Italian flying corps, winning fame as a fighter pilot and losing an eye. On 9 August 1918, as commander of the 87th fighter squadron “La Serenissima”, he organized one of the great feats of the war, leading 9 planes in a 700-mile round trip to drop propaganda leaflets on Vienna.
Italy was on the winning side – but got nothing at Versailles. Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of “self determination” created the new Kingdom of the Croats, Slovenes and Serbs – Yugolaavia. Fiume was outside of Italian territory. Italians, especially D’Annunzio were enraged.
On September 12, 1919 the poet and now war hero led 2,600 military men and Irredentists into a seizure of the city and the expulsion of the allied forces occupying it The same day he announced that he was annexing the city to the Kingdom of Italy. He was enthusiastically cheered by thousands of Italians in the streets.
There was only one problem. Italy refused and blockaded the city with naval forces, demanding that D’Annunzio surrender the city.
Instead he proclaimed the city independent, calling it the “Italian Regency of Carnaro” (the city was on the Gulf of Carnaro) under a constitution foreshadowing much of the later Italian Fascist system.
He called himself Il Duce.
“D’Annunzio is often seen as a precursor of the ideals and techniques of Italian fascism. His own explicit political ideals emerged in Fiume. The constitution established a corporatist state, with nine corporations to represent the different sectors of the economy, where membership was mandatory, plus a tenth corporation devised by D’Annunzio, to represent the “superior” individuals – intellectuals, poets, “supermen”. One of the fundamental “principles” of the new state was “music”.
“Virtually the entire ritual of Fascism was invented by D’Annunzio during his occupation of Fiume and his leadership of the Italian Regency of Carnaro.. These included the balcony address, the Roman salute, the cries of “Eia, eia, eia! Alala!”, the dramatic and rhetorical dialogue with the crowd, the use of religious symbols in new secular settings.It also included his method of government in Fiume, the economics of the corporate state; large emotive nationalistic public rituals; black shirted followers, the Arditi, with their disciplined, bestial responses and strong arm repression of dissent. He was even said to have originated the practice of forcibly dosing opponents with large amounts of castor oil.”
He finally surrendered the city in 1920 after bombardment by the Italian navy.
D’Annunzio returned to Italy where he was as popular as Mussolini but never ran for office as a Fascist although he had great influence on the policies of Mussolini.
In 1922 shortly before the March on Rome he was pushed or fell from a window in his home; although there is no definitive proof, it was considered an effort by Mussolini supporters to kill him because of his popularity. By the time he recovered Mussolini had been appointed Prime Minister by the King. At this point he essentially retired from politics although he wrote several letters to Mussolini begging him not to join the Axis with Hitler.
Mussolini saw to it that D’Annunzio received a generous monthly stipend for the rest of his life. When asked about the payments Mussolini is reported to have said “If you have a bad tooth you have two choices – you pull it out – or you fill it with gold.”
D’Annunzio died of a stroke at his home in 1938 and was given a state funeral by Mussolini.
Today his poetry and novels are largely forgotten – but Fascism lives on.