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Italy In 1890S - 1900S
Italy In 1890S - 1900S
Only thirty years after the Piedmontese army marched into Rome to unite Italy under one government, the country suddenly found itself on the brink of the twentieth century and a rapidly changing world. The twentieth century would mark the beginning of great changes throughout Europe, and Italy would not be left untouched. What set the stage for these changes, though, were the years just prior to, and directly after 1900.
The decade before 1900 can be thought of in terms of its government leaders, most notably, Francesco Crispi. Crispi attempted to lead Italy with administrative reforms and expansion abroad. The 1890s, however, also marked a time of great crisis, as riots over the prices of food grew increasingly common, and government oppression became more and more blatant. It was not uncommon for the prime ministers of the time to issue decrees without parliament by claiming royal authority, or to dissolve opposition parties. Even the end of the Sicilian fasci movement, which carried out strikes and opposition demonstrations, came when Crispi sent the military in on one of their strikes, imprisoning all of their leaders.
Crispi’s attempts to turn Italy into a world power through colonialism failed as well. In the 1890s, the Italian government’s various attempts at turning nearby African nation Ethiopia into a colony were met with heavy losses and crushing defeats. Although Italy did manage to conquer Libya, it did not help very much. Libya’s annexation in 1896 lowered living conditions for the lower class and increased prices across the nation. Libya was a veritable economic sinkhole for Italy, even as peasants from the South emigrated in large numbers to seek work there. With the atmosphere of discontent present in Italy at the time, this did not bode well for the country’s leaders and politicians. Italians had the impression that their government was bumbling and ineffectual, and that it was keeping Italy from realizing her potential.
When the final major political conflict of the nineteenth century came, then, Italy was ripe for change. The conflict arose between monarchists and constitutionalists, and brought the country to a boiling point. Elections were held in 1900, and brought an end to the era of Crispi. Illiberal ideals were swept aside in favor of a liberal government. This, in conjunction with the assassination of Umberto I by an anarchist, and his subsequent replacement by Victor Emmanuel III, a constitutionalist, ensured the end of monarchal rule in Italy. This era, leading up to the beginning of the First World War, is most commonly associated with Giovanni Giolitti.
Giolitti represented a compromise between the power-holding bourgeois and the discontent working-class masses of Italy. He sought to lower popular discontent with social reform and public works. He was successful to a point: Italy’s infrastructure improved; illiteracy and serious illness, along with violence, declined; suffrage was increased. However, Giolitti’s compromise position between the bourgeois and the masses alienated many. Though, by allowing the creation of trade unions and employing a non-interference policy with regards to strikes and labor movements, Giolitti enjoyed the solid support of radicals, he earned the resentment of both the middle class and the Catholics.
In addition, the Giolitti government’s treatment of the south left much to be desired. Mainly agricultural, the south did not enjoy the economic boom that characterized much of Giolitti’s era because of an on-going tariff war with France, one of southern Italy’s main markets. Often the rights given to those in the north, where industry was booming and money being made (due, not in small part, to the founding of Fiat), took precedence over injustices in the south. The Italian government held positivist philosophy dear, even then, and explained southern Italy’s backwardness with racist claims of its people’s inferiority. Southern politicians clamored for tax relief and government aid, but were often met with indifference. Even the nominal attempts at tax relief that were made were rendered ineffectual by the beginning of World War I. This atmosphere led to a vast emigration from southern Italy to the United States, from which many Italians returned within a few years with new experiences and new values.
The increase in wealth and middle class power led to the defeat of Giolitti and his coalition in the elections of 1914, and conservatives assumed power. World War I was just over the horizon, waiting to change everything yet again.
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