19 May 2018

Vittorio Orlando - politician

Prime minister humiliated at First World War peace talks

Vittorio Orlando's reputation lay in
tatters following Paris peace talks
Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, the Italian prime minister best known for being humiliated by his supposed allies at the Paris peace talks following the First World War, was born on this day in 1860 in Palermo.

Elected to the Chamber of Deputies for the first time in 1897, Orlando had held a number of positions in government and became prime minister in 1917 following Italy’s disastrous defeat to the Austro-Hungarian army at Caporetto, which saw 40,000 Italian soldiers killed or wounded and 265,000 captured. The government of Orlando’s predecessor, Paolo Boselli, collapsed as a result.

Orlando, who had been a supporter of Italy’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies, rebuilt shattered Italian morale and the military victory at Vittorio Veneto, which ended the war on the Italian front and contributed to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, saw him hailed as Italy’s ‘premier of victory’.

However, his reputation was left in tatters when he and Sidney Sonnino, his half-Welsh foreign secretary, when to Paris to participate in peace talks but left humiliated after the territorial gains they were promised in return for entering the war on the side of Britain, France and the United States were not delivered.

Orlando’s ability to negotiate was not helped by his complete lack of English, while his bargaining position was undermined also by disagreements with Sonnino over what they wanted. As a result, Orlando was no match for US president Woodrow Wilson, British premier David Lloyd George and French prime minister Georges Clemenceau.

Orlando, second left, with Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace talks
Orlando, second left, with Lloyd George, Clemenceau,
and Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace talks
He failed to secure either of Italy’s main objectives at the peace talks, namely control of the Dalmatian peninsula and the annexation of the coastal city of Rijeka, known in Italian as Fiume, suffered a nervous collapse, for which he was mocked by Clemenceau in particular, and stormed out of the talks before their conclusion.

Orlando resigned as prime minister just days before the Treaty of Versailles to which he was supposed to have been a signatory.  Years later he spoke of his pride at having nothing to do with what was finally agreed but at the time he was seen as a failure.

The damage to national morale and pride was considerable.  Some historians believe Orlando’s humiliation was a key factor in Mussolini being able to harness so much public support and sweep to power.

Orlando’s backing for Mussolini - at the start of the Fascist regime, at least - enabled him to cling to his political career and in 1919 he was elected president of the Chamber of Deputies.  But he could not countenance the murder by the Fascists of the socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti in 1924 and quit politics in 1925.

He returned in 1944 after the fall of Mussolini and became speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. But he failed in his bid to be elected president of the Italian Republic in 1948, defeated in the vote by Luigi Einaudi.  He died four years later.

Sidney Sonnino disagreed with Orlando's approach to the talks
Sidney Sonnino disagreed with
Orlando's approach to the talks
The son of a Sicilian gentleman landowner, Orlando was a controversial figure even before the debacle of Paris.  Highly intelligent - he wrote extensively on legal and judicial issues - he was dogged throughout his career by accusations that had connections with the Sicilian Mafia.

His association with the mobster Frank Coppola, who was deported back to Sicily in 1948 after a criminal career in the United States, did not help, nor did a speech he made in the Italian senate in 1925 in response to rumours doing the rounds, in which he teased his audience by speaking about the Sicilian origins of the word mafia to mean a person of loyalty, honour, compassion and generosity of spirit and declaring himself “a proud mafioso”.

The Mafia pentito - state witness - Tommaso Buscetta once claimed in court that Orlando genuinely was a member of the Sicilian Mafia, although he was never investigated.

Looking across Partinico towards the Gulf of Castellammare
Looking across Partinico towards the Gulf of Castellammare
Travel tip:

Partinico, the town which Orlando represented when he was elected to the Italian parliament in 1897, is situated about 37km (23 miles) west of Palermo, on the way to Castellammare del Golfo. Home to almost 32,000 people today, it has long held political significance and was a stopover for Giuseppe Garibaldi during his march on Palermo.

The Duomo of Serravalle at Vittorio Veneto
The Duomo of Serravalle at Vittorio Veneto
Travel tip:

Vittorio Veneto is a town of some 28,000 people in the Province of Treviso, in Veneto, situated between the Piave and Livenza rivers at the foot of the mountain region known as the Prealpi.  It was formed from the joining of the communities of Serravalle and Ceneda in 1866 and named Vittorio in honour of Victor Emmanuel II.  The Veneto suffix was added in 1923 to commemorate the decisive battle.

Also on this day:

1946: The birth of actor Michele Placido

1979: The birth of Italian football great Andrea Pirlo


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