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Podcast: Italy 1946 (History Corner #4)

In this month’s entry to the History Corner, Mathew Nicolson, takes us back to a very significant Italian referendum in 1946. Tainted by decades of association with Mussolini’s fascist regime, the Italian monarchy’s future was put to a popular referendum which saw the Italian people vote by 54% to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic.

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Hello and welcome to another volume of the Europe Elects History Corner. After a short break last month, we are back to talk about a very exciting vote held in Italy, 75 years ago. So find somewhere comfortable, grab a cup of tea – I would recommend Yorkshire – and listen on to learn about Italy’s constitutional clash of 1946.

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Almost exactly a year after the end of the Second World War in Europe, the continent was still in a process of rebuilding both its shattered infrastructure and political institutions. An election in Czechoslovakia at the end of May 1946 brought the Communist Party to power as part of a coalition government; Romania’s wartime leader Ion Antonescu was executed for war crimes and treason; a referendum in civil-war ridden Greece overwhelmingly approved maintaining the Greek monarchy, and, in Italy, voters also went to the polls to determine the future of their own monarchy.

From the unification of Italy in 1861, the country had been ruled by the House of Savoy, formerly the ruling family of the Kingdom of Sardinia. They ruled as constitutional monarchs, with most power exercised by the elected Parliament and Prime Minister. During the 20th century, Italy’s monarch was Victor Emmanuel III, who acceded to the throne in 1900 at the age of 30. During Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, which came to power in 1922 with the support of Victor Emmanuel III and remained in power for twenty years, the King was relegated to a ceremonial, figurehead role.

The monarchy’s association with the fascist dictatorship severely damaged its postwar reputation and popularity. During the war, the Italian Resistance had been dominated by anti-monarchists, creating a political climate after the war in which the monarchy’s future was in question. Victor Emmanuel III had relinquished his powers in 1944 to his son, crown Prince Umberto, after Rome fell to the Allied Powers, though remained monarch in name. During this period, Italy existed in a state of constitutional flux, with the government operating in effect beyond the original constitution but without yet a new, formalised system of government.

Initially, it was not clear that the monarchy’s fate would be decided by a popular referendum. The transitional unity government had sole authority to legislate, operating alongside a Consultative Assembly with purely advisory powers. The Communist Party, Socialist Party and the liberal Party of Action, all republican members of the unity government, argued this principle should extend to a constituent assembly once it was elected, believing they could more easily secure a republican majority in the Assembly than through a referendum. For the same reason, conservative parties sought a referendum.

Ultimately, the referendum came as the result of a compromise. Parties on the right had proposed an electoral law for the constituent assembly which included compulsory voting, a measure fiercely opposed by the left, and the Communists in particular. It was agreed that in exchange for removing the provision for compulsory voting, the issue of the monarchy would then be settled by a referendum.

The referendum was organised by the transitional, national unity government led by one of the founding fathers of the European Union, Alcide De Gasperi. This government consisted of Christian Democrats, Communists, Liberals, Socialists and Social Democrats – notably excluding any right-wing or conservative parties. Even within the Christian Democrats, the most right-leaning party in the coalition, an internal survey had shown 60% of members were in favour of a republic, with just 17% supporting the monarchy.

The government set the referendum date for 2 June, to be held on the same day as elections to a constituent assembly. Voters would be asked a very simple question: ‘Republic or Monarchy?’ Just days after this announcement, Victor Emmanuel III announced his intention to abdicate fully in favour of Umberto, hoping that a younger, more popular King untainted by associations with the fascist regime might dull republican sentiment ahead of the referendum. Umberto was crowned Umberto II on 9 May, less than a month before the referendum was held, and his father left Italy.

During the campaign, there were a few instances of monarchist campaigners being attacked in the north of Italy, an indication of how strong opinion was in that region. But otherwise, the referendum was held relatively peacefully, ensuring the result would be a generally credible indication of Italian’s views.

Provisional results were announced by Italy’s supreme court on 10 June declaring a victory for the republicans, though final results were delayed until 18 June. To prevent a period of unrest, the government took the controversial decision, on the basis of these preliminary results, to declare a republic, appointing Prime Minister De Gasperi as provisional head of state.

The final results published a week later confirmed the provisional declaration. On an 89% turnout, 54.3% of voters backed a republic, with 45.7% supporting the continuation of the monarchy. Beneath these headline figures, however, was a notable geographic split. With the exception of a handful of districts, a republic was endorsed by a majority of voters in the north of Italy, while voters in the south overwhelmingly supported the monarchy, in both cases by almost two-thirds.

Upon the declaration of a republic, Umberto II’s month-long reign was announced at an end. Umberto initially refused to recognise the legitimacy of the referendum, citing unsubstantiated claims of vote rigging. For a brief moment there appeared to be a risk of return to civil war. Umberto’s supporters advocated establishing an alternative government in his power-base of Naples in the south, hoping to gain the army’s support. Umberto ultimately rejected such suggestions, stating that ‘my house united Italy. I will not divide it.’ He subsequently left Italy in the same manner as his father.

The night after the result was announced violence broke out in Naples, which had voted by almost 80% in favour of the monarchy, as 10,000 organised monarchists reportedly stormed the Naples City Hall, smashed windows and raised the House of Savoy over the building, going on to attack the offices of a republican newspaper. The group was then dispersed by police after trying to set fire to the communist Party’s local headquarters. This was largely the extent of post-referendum violence – far from the rival government and civil war envisaged by some of the monarchy’s more militant supporters.

De Gasperi would serve as provisional head of state for two weeks, at which point the newly-elected constituent assembly, by an 80% vote, elected Enrico De Nicola of the Italian Liberal Party as the longer-term provisional head of state. The Italian Parliament would go on to elect fellow liberal Luigi Einaudi for a full term as President of the Republic in 1948. The Italian Presidency continues as an indirectly elected position to this day.

The 1946 referendum is sometimes considered to be part of a wider revolutionary process of constitutional reform in Italy after the Second World War, bringing down and replacing the system of government that had, in one form or another, been in place for 80 years – or even a full century, if counting back to the Kingdom of Sardinia. It marked part of a new political era for Italy as it emerged from the shadow of fascism.

The divisions between north and south revealed in these results also presaged regional divisions that would become significant in the development of Italian politics and society in the republican era.

While King Victor Emmanuel III has gone down in history as a highly controversial figure, compromised by his role in establishing and maintaining Mussolini’s regime, his son Umberto is often referred to as Re di Maggio, or the May King, in light of his very short tenure. Umberto would never again return to Italy, barred by the 1948 constitution from even setting foot in the country he had once briefly ruled, and lived the rest of his life in exile in Portugal.

As his health declined in 1983, Italy’s then President, socialist Sandro Pertini, hoped to arrange a final return visit, but this did not come to pass. Umberto died in Geneva and was buried in his family’s historic burial place in Savoy, now part of France, without any representative from the Italian government at his funeral. The constitutional provision barring entry to Italy for any male members of the House of Savoy was only rescinded in 2002, while the remains of Victor Emmanuel III would be repatriated to Italy from France in 2017.

The 2nd June, the Festa della Repubblica – or ‘Republic Day’ – is now celebrated as a major public holiday in Italy, featuring a parade of the armed forces and the laying of a laurel wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Rome by, appropriately, the President of the Italian Republic.


A couple comments.

The unity government did not exclude right-wing parties: the Christian Democrats a right-wing or centre-right party and the liberals were the heirs of the “historical right” parties. Only the fascists were excluded, for obvious reasons, while the monarchists were not organised in a party yet. Several ministers were decidedly right-wing, most notably Scelba.

De Nicola was elected head of state (and later president of the first consitutional court) because he was a monarchist, as a concession to those who were afraid of radical changes.