On 29 July 1900, the king of Italy, Umberto I, was assassinated. The throne passed to his 30-year-old son, who, as Victor Emmanuel III, would reign until 1946, a period which saw both world wars and the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini’s fascists.
Born in Naples on 11 November 1869, the future king was so short, the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, nicknamed him the dwarf, and, in private, Mussolini called him the ‘little sardine’. He ruled over an Italy that had been in existence as a unified nation only since 1871. Despite unification, Italy was a deeply-fragmented society, steeped in poverty and corruption, and ruled over by a succession of weak coalition governments. But, as a figurehead king, Victor Emmanuel III chose to ignore the affairs of state, preferring instead to focus on his vast collection of coins.
World War One
With the outbreak of war in July 1914, Italy initially adopted a position of neutrality despite having been in alliance, the Triple Alliance, with Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire since 1882. Victor Emmanuel favoured participation in the war, partly as a means of enhancing Italy’s reputation on the international stage. Italy duly entered the war in May 1915, not as allies of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but on the side of the Triple Entente allies – France, Russia and Great Britain.
After 1918, Victor Emmanuel again retired to the sidelines as Italy struggled to cope with the post-war instabilities of demobilization, unemployment and inflation. Socialists, communists, anarchists and the newly-formed fascists fought on the streets and on the farms in a vicious cycle of ever-increasing violence.
In October 1922, with the country on the verge of civil war, the rising star of Italy’s right, Benito Mussolini, led the fascist March on Rome, demanding to form a new government. At first, Victor Emmanuel resisted but then, fearing outright anarchy, bowed to Mussolini’s persistence.
The murder of a leading socialist politician and outspoken critic of the fascists, Giacomo Matteotti, in June 1924 almost caused Mussolini’s downfall. Many suspected Mussolini’s involvement and demanded that the king remove Mussolini from power. Ignoring the national outcry, Victor Emmanuel, more fearful of a socialist takeover, threw his support behind the fascists. Mussolini survived.
For the next 18 years, Victor Emmanuel watched without undue concern as Mussolini ruled the country. Following Italy’s successful invasions of Ethiopia (1935-36) and Albania (1939), Victor Emmanuel was made emperor of the former and the king of the latter. Having never visited either, he renounced both titles in 1943. (On hearing of Italy’s victory in Ethiopia, the king wept with joy).
(Pictured, Victor Emmanuel III in 1936).
World War Two
Victor Emmanuel opposed Italy’s entry into the Second World War but was unable to prevent Mussolini from declaring war on France and Great Britain in June 1940. Three years later, on 24 July 1943, with Italy staring defeat in the face, the Italian Fascist Grand Council voted 19 to 8 (with three abstentions) in favour of a resolution to have Mussolini removed from power.
The following day, Mussolini kept his fortnightly meeting with the king, believing that the vote the previous evening was neither constitutional nor binding. He was much mistaken. Almost apologetically, Victor Emmanuel III dismissed the 59-year-old dictator: ‘My dear Duce, it’s no longer any good. Italy has gone to bits… The soldiers don’t want to fight any more… At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy.’
With Mussolini now arrested and held in captivity, Victor Emmanuel signed the armistice with the Allies on 8 September. A month later, having fled to the town of Brindisi, he declared war on Italy’s former allies, Germany.
The king’s daughter, Princess Mafalda, married a prominent Nazi. When her husband fell out with the Nazi regime, he was arrested and Malfalda was interned in Buchenwald concentration camp, where she died on 27 August 1944.
On 9 May 1946, a year following the end of the war, Victor Emmanuel was forced to abdicate and leave Italy. He moved to Egypt. He named his son as his successor, Umberto II, three weeks ahead of a national referendum to decide on whether Italy should maintain its monarchy. On 2 June, the nation voted 54.3 per cent in favour of becoming a republic. After 85 years, the Kingdom of Italy was at an end.
Victor Emmanuel III died in exile in Egypt on 28 December 1947, aged 78. His son, Umberto II, died in Switzerland in 1983. (Benito Mussolini, meanwhile, was executed by Italian partisans on 28 April 1945).