D’Annunzio’s Fiume venture was not only an episode of usual nationalism, but also a generational revolt against liberalism, diplomacy and conventions
On the morning of September 12 1919, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italian author, poet, journalist, politician and Great War hero inspired by nationalist furore, entered Fiume (present-day Rijeka) with a group of renegade Italian officers and soldiers. They were greeted with joy by the local Italian population who wanted their city to become part of Italy, in stark contrast to the Italian and other Allied governments at the time, which were seeking to give Fiume to the newly-founded Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later known as Yugoslavia. While waiting for an eventual annexation, D’Annunzio and his colleagues remained in charge of the Adriatic port city until they were defeated by Italian regular forces in December 1920 and subsequently forced to leave. Although this event may seem like one of the many footnotes of history, it actually had a significant impact on the contemporary world that should not be underestimated.
D’Annunzio’s Fiume escapade has attracted differing historical judgements. Croatian historians regard the enterprise as an act of Italian usurpation, whereas Italians are split between those who see it as a prelude to Fascism and those who highlight the distinctions between the poet’s Fiume administration and Mussolini’s dictatorship. It is true that D’Annunzio and his entourage introduced certain rituals and slogans that were later copied by Benito Mussolini’s Fascists and other far-right organizations during the interwar period (e.g. public speeches from balconies, blackshirts, the Roman salute), but on a deeper level matters are far more complex.
The takeover of the Fiume did start as a nationalist endeavor as it was planned by Italian nationalists in order to strike a blow against the international community by presenting the city’s incorporation into Italy as a fait accompli that would lead to an anti-parliamentary revolution in the country. Thousands of people headed to Fiume to join D’Annunzio, mostly war veterans or deserting soldiers who were excited by what seemed like a patriotic uprising. The poet-soldier’s occupation also saw the arrival of bohemians, artists, adventurers, fugitives, homosexuals, dandies and reformers of every type. In essence, the contested city welcomed anyone who wanted to dethrone the bourgeoisie who sent the youth to war and afterwards expected that there would be business as usual.
Some of these people were part of D’Annunzio’s governing administration. There was Léon Kochnitsky, a Belgian poet who headed the Foreign Affairs department; Harukichi Shimoi, an Italophile from Japan who acted as a diplomat and tried to teach karate to the Fiuman volunteers; and last but not least Guido Keller, a former war aviator known in Fiume for being a nudist, a vegetarian and a prankster, who was in charge of a ministry that organized acts of piracy. He was also the founder of the Yoga ‘Union of Free Spirits’, an association which held discussions open to all on the abolition of money and free love among other subjects. It even had a magazine with a swastika on the headline, as it was an ancient symbol of rebirth. The term ‘Yoga’ derived from the Sanskrit yui, meaning ‘to unite’. This association wanted to unite the archaic and the future in order to avoid a petty and decadent modernity. It professed the cult of individualism and spiritualism and advocated a society run by a warrior aristocracy, capable of creating a community dedicated to beauty and upholding new moral values.
On that note, as historical evidence and academic research demonstrate, far from being a proto-fascist regime, D’Annunzio’s Fiume and its inhabitants experienced a festive atmosphere resembling the subversive spirit of the late 1960s. The radical youths who joined the enterprise attempted to create new ways of living as well as an alternative, Dionysian society that would dismantle the liberal bourgeois status quo. For the poetthe Fiuman cause represented the channeling of the struggle against a miserable reality and perpetuated the passion of courage and rebelliousness. As a result, his ‘legionnaires’ felt authorized to be transgressive and thus they dedicated a significant amount of their time to drug use, nudism, sexual orgies and homosexual practices. Even the local clergy participated in this defiance of established authority when the city’s convent of Capuchin monks asked the Catholic Church for reforms such as the abolition of chastity.
D’Annunzio’s Fiume was also the centre of a project spearheaded by Kochnitsky to form the League of Fiume, an anti-League of Nations that was supposed “to rally the forces of all oppressed peoples, nations, races, etc… into a compact formation” in order “to fight and triumph over the oppressors and imperialists.” The Fiuman foreign emissaries thus made contact with representatives of various downtrodden nationalities, including Turks, Egyptians, and even Irish. In fact, the poet was prepared to provide military assistance to the Irish Republic Army (IRA) fighting the British. He and his colleagues even had good relations with the Russian Bolsheviks. It began after a ship carrying weapons and ammunition destined for the counter-revolutionary armies in Russia was hijacked by members of a marittime workers’ union who eventually docked in Fiume. The Bolshevik leader Lenin labelled D’Annunzio as the only true revolutionary in Italy and his government was the sole entity that recognized the existence of the insurrectionary city-state. Even though the Fiume League plans remained on paper, it was an early form of resistance and objection towards the world order imposed by financial elites which falsely promised and simultaneously negated the principle of national self-determination. Moreover, the proposed League was a forerunner of the anti-globalization movement and post-WW2 Third-Worldism.
During the enterprise there was a bid to combine individualism with communitarianism in a new socio-political order, culminating with the writing of the Carta del Carnaro (Carnaro Charter). This document was co-authored by D’Annunzio and Alceste De Ambris, a revolutionary syndicalist, and was proclaimed in September 1920 as the constitution of the Carnaro Regency (the name given to the Fiume city-state). It was an advanced charter for its time, since it entailed direct democracy, gender equality, universal suffrage, municipal autonomy, free primary education, the possibility for minorities to learn their language in school, welfare programs and the right to private property restricted by its social usefulness. Moreover, workers were divided into ten corporations — i.e. structures in which employees could safeguard their rights and make decisions on their productive life. This is a stark contrast to the corporations of Fascist Italy, which regimented the proletariat and enforced a systematic control of the means of production. The Carnaro Charter was also unique because music was made a key governing principle and state-subsidised orchestras were due to be established in every municipality.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Charter was meant to guarantee peaceful inter-ethnic coexistence, local Croats suffered constant intimidation and many were forced to leave because D’Annunzio’s soldiers persecuted anyone who was regarded as disloyal to the cause of Fiume. It is clear that the poet believed that Italian culture would become dominant in the city, but for its intrinsic force, and not through a top-down imposition. The Italian Fascists would prove to be far worse as they banned Slavic languages and tried to eradicate their historical memory. Furthermore, while D’Annunzio did have a political hatred of Croatians who wanted Fiume to become part of Yugoslavia, the proposed Fiume League comprised Croats and other Balkan nationalities which did not wish to be ruled by a Serbian-dominated Yugoslav kingdom.
In the aftermath of the enterprise, D’Annunzio retired to a villa on the shores of lake Garda, where he died in 1938. Fiume was turned into a free state, before being finally annexed by Italy in 1924. At the end of World War Two it was liberated by Yugoslav communist partisans and subsequently ceded to Yugoslavia. According to the historian Giordano Bruno Guerri, the Fiume venture was not only an episode of usual nationalism, but also a generational revolt against liberalism, traditional diplomacy and established conventions. It also introduced the liturgy of mass politics (imitated by Mussolini) and libertarian characteristics, such as sexual freedom, which reemerged later. What should be noted is that although many of D’Annunzio’s followers became fascists, others, like De Ambris, were antifascists. Even the fact that today Rijeka is one of the most progressive cities in Croatia can be considered as an example of the poet’s legacy. The story of D’Annunzio’s Fiume venture deserves to be studied as it was an event that brought about the world we see today.