February 03, 2013

Italy and the First World War

In 1924, Miroslav Skalajkovic, the former political head of the Serb Foreign Ministry, said of the Italian invasion of Tripoli in 1911, 'all subsequent events [including the First World War] are nothing more than the evolution of that first aggression'.

Both Norman Stone and Chris Clark argue that the Italian invasion of Libya was the starting gun for the first world war. The reason is that the First World War started in the Balkans- as everyone knows. A Serb assassin's bullet was its first real shot. The roots of that moment though go back to Italy. Italy's invasion of Libya demonstrated the weakness of the Ottoman authorities- furthermore they demonstrated that Britain, Turkey's great power guarantor, no longer insisted upon Turkish independence. Sir Edward Grey, then the British Foreign Secretary, encouraged the Italians to attack Libya. What's interesting about this attack is that it starts the chain of events leading to World War One- because the Balkan states saw the Italian victory as the announcement that they too could start to prey on Turkey. It also was the first moment at which Arab nationalism- in the resistance to Italian forces- becomes an important factor in global affairs.

Its worth thinking about the Italian invasion though. The First World War partly came out of the weaknesses of the European power system- and in particular its two weakest states. The policy of Britain and France was effectively in 1914 that Austria had no right to exert its influence over Serbia after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The Italian invasion was a consequence of the presumed weakness of the sick man of Europe. And this presumed weakness lent Italian and Russian policy makers a sense of urgency: if they did not strike quickly then another power would seize what they wanted. In 1912 for example during the Balkan war, Russia became terrified that Bulgaria might seize Constantinople- the long term Russian ambition. Russian policy makers during the period just before World War One were seeking to recreate the Balkans as an arena of little brother Slav states that they could sponsor- as opposed to independent actors.

Weakness and fear were main drivers in what happened in World War One. Clark disagrees with the thesis that Germany sponsored the war because of a terror about Russian power- the thesis that Stone supports. But paranoia is to be found in all European states: there were German generals who were scared about Russia, Britain feared Russian incursions on its Asiatic empire, France of course feared Germany and feared that Russia might in the end not need a French alliance for its ambitions to be fulfilled. The coming power of Russia destablised the European balance of power- but it is the interraction between that fear and the weakness of other powers that drives the action in World War One. The weakness of Austria and the Ottomans presented the opportunity for people to realise their fears of conquest: Russian or German domination in Vienna and Constantinople would it was feared lead to the enslavement of Europe to either Berlin or St Petersburg.

This helps explain I think something which I'd not thought about but which Clark points out is a paradox. The First World War began about the Balkans and its first subsidiary wars happened in Libya and in the Balkans but it was on the Western and Eastern Fronts that the war happened. The war did not take place between Italy and Serbia, Austria and Turkey but between Russia, France, Britain and Germany.