Birth of the Italian Republic

The birth of Italian republic (officially on June 2, 1946) is a highly controversial historical passage in Italy, where suspects of fraud are advanced by monarchists, but it also identifies a part of the national history extremely rich in events, consequences, causes and effects that make it an alone-standing moment. It was really a (mainly) pacific revolution, from which effects little differs now the current political structure of the state.

Italy was a monarchy ruled by the House of Savoy (kings of Italy and, previously, of Sardinia) until 1946, when it became a republic after the results of a popular referendum. Together with the referendum, a Constituent assembly was elected to provide the State with a new Constitution, but when speaking of the birth of the republic, it is common use to primarily refer to the referendum.

Table of contents
1 Before the referendum
2 The referendum
3 The results
4 The accusation of corrupted vote
5 Reason for a defeat
6 Savoy descendants in exile

Before the referendum

A common misunderstanding, also due to the contemporary presence of a political election, might lead to erroneously consider that this referendum was, somehow, against fascism, or that it was proposing a new form of government. Effectively, voters had to express their preference between two forms of state, therefore indirectly choosing the required level of democracy and even more indirectly a form of government. The argument is not really related with fascism, and the immediate contraposition monarchy-democracy (apart from propaganda) is usually considered improper, given that countries do exist, with a monarchic form of state, where notable democracies were successfully developed (with the famous example of the United Kingdom).

Italian referendum was meant to "merely" determine whether the Head of State, the one who names the government (but does not govern personally), had to come from a familiar dynasty or from an electoral result, a popular vote, and the referendum in itself was a democratic tool used under a monarchy. At the same time, at a different level, Italians were called to express their preferences for the deputies that would have written the constitution; this election had indeed a political meaning (even if not formally), and allowed the compilation of a chart of proportional representativity of the parties. This too was obviously a democratic instrument in use.

The country, indeed, wasn't new at all to a concept of democracy. It had already been introduced a century before, with Charles Albert's reforms and by his famous statute. A certain popular representation had been introduced by widening, little by little, the electoral base, but still a given social status (income) was required to vote - this was later abolished - and only men could vote. At the beginning of 20th century, main Italian parties included leftist and labour parties of marxist inspiration, and many authors find that, in comparison with other comparable countries at that time, Italy was going in the direction of a modern democracy and the popular feeling was quite comfortable with the social schemes that preceded the 1920s' changes. Only some questions about the relationships with the Vatican needed to be solved, but this wasn't really an urgency. Besides, monarchy was at that time a common form of state, in use in many western European countries. Savoy were slightly oriented toward liberal politics and the murder of Humbert I of Savoy by the anarchist Bresci (1900) was considered an extreme isolated case of violent opposition.

As notorious, the advent of Fascism had deleted many of the freedoms and most civic rights, installing a dictatorship and breaking the continuity of the parliamentar tradition (this is why it is considered a revolution). The position of a common man toward the authority was then simply of submission, with a dubbed respect owed to the fascist new institutions in addition to the ordinary one traditionally owed to the King; the parity among citizens, and between the individual and his society, was very far. The end of fascism opened a way to a potential restoration of the situation of "before 1922", as a first reaction. Subsequent governments were in fact working to restore a liberal climate and to abolish what was product or effect of the dictatorship. But it has to be recalled that even if fascism had practically come to an end in 1943, a war was still going on, this time against Germany, and in the northern regions the presence of the RSI (a nazi-fascist self-proclaimed republic) was causing a civil war (whose effects were to finally end in republican era).

In such a situation, civic rights, freedom and other political instances were postponed to the cruel emergency of governing in a complete disorder, with half of the territory occupied by Germans and the remnant by the (new) allies. Also, the identification of new political forces was not easy, since the pre-fascist parties had disbanded during the regime, or were in clandestine limited activity, and however they missed a contact with the population they had to represent. Consequently, the relationships among these forces, and the balance of respective weights were left aside for later, quieter times. Actually, some forces organised the Resistance and received a certain popular consensus, but it was impossible to determine what they did practically represent if not with an electoral session that the situation could not consent. And pre-fascist proportions could not be better descriptive, also considering that some parties had been created (in clandestinity), some other could have disappeared.

At the end of the war, Italy, one of the losers, was a severely damaged country, with innumerable victims, a destroyed economy, and quite desperate general conditions. The dictatorial experience had left the country deprived of the Empire it had fought for in the last two decades, and with foreign soldiers of many armies in its territory; for some years after 1945, still weapons would have been used for political reasons. The political forces that would have replaced fascism were not ready to establish the necessary relationships, and waited for electoral results at a date that was an unforeseeable before the end of the war.

And after this, a few months were needed to let war powders sufficiently fall down, in order to be able to give attention to institutional matters. The first important question regarded the royal family, accused by many of being the real cause for the regime, for the war and for the defeat.

The republican tradition in Italy had been started by Giuseppe Mazzini, really a long time before, but it immediately found a general consensus among the new forces. The Italian Republican Party, that continued the traditional Mazzinian ideology, was one of the most important ones during the resistance, and posed the question of the form of the state as a fundamental condition to develop further agreements with the other parties, then united in the CLN, Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale. It was then agreed that a popular referendum would have been the best way to decide, and the old king was asked to decline all his powers on his son Humbert.

The King, Victor Emmanuel III, was too compromised with the recent history, therefore with his abdication his son Humbert II was called to run the challenge. It has been said that the abdication had been imposed by opponents, but the royal house too had an interest in the manoeuvre. It was convenient for it, in fact, to have a really popular sovereign "on stage" at the crucial moment. Effectively Humbert was reserved a special delicate attention by common people, together with his wife Maria José, and his figure could not perhaps be more contrasting with that of his father's (physically too). Young, elegant, cultivated, as much as his father was old, rough and unknown for any particular activity (apart from his collection of coins - 114,000 items), Humbert received a collective affection at the moment of his crowning, even if his wife (a foreigner) was a little kept at distance. He was commonly called Il Re di Maggio (the King of May), with reference to his brief rule - 40 days.

His few acts (none of which unimportant) were however generally seen, ex post, as extremely correct and responsible. He repeatedly calmed the population by declaring that he honestly would have accepted the results (as he effectively did: with coherence, he accepted the discussed results and in his final farewell speech he invited Italians to loyally serve the Patria, solving them from the vows to the crown).

Also Maria José's internal and international relationships (she had had contacts with leftist parties and former enemies since the beginning of the war) were supposed of some potential importance at the right moment. But her figure was not going to produce the expected consensus around the Quirinal. Respected as the wife of an esteemed man, she was in fact the symbol of the uncertain, irresolute, ambiguous tendency of Savoy dynasty, open at 360° to any possible safe compromise, but 360° is also equal to 0°.

The referendum

The original ballot paper

A Victor Emanuel's decree, issued as the lieutenant (decreto legge luogotenenziale 25 giugno 1944, n. 151) and during the government of Bonomi, prescribed that a constitutional assembly had to be organised after the war to draft a constitution and to choose a form for the state.

The spring of 1946 would have seen the acceleration of the institutional debate.

The political campaign recorded some incidents, especially in northern Italy, where monarchists were fought by both republicans and post-fascists of the RSI.

Following the second decree (decreto legge luogotenenziale 16 marzo 1946, n. 98), during the government of De Gasperi, the referendum was held on June 2 and 3, 1946 (since then, June 2 is a national holiday). The question was as simple as possible: Republic -- Monarchy (see ballot-paper above).

As a matter of fact, the situation in Italy was quite dramatic. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, ruled by the socialist Giuseppe Romita, had organised an accessory police corps (Polizia Ausiliaria) which was later discussed because of its discretional enrollment procedures.

Following Italian law, the results were checked by the Corte di Cassazione (the highest judicial Court at that time), as expected. But the Cassazione was able to declare the final result only on June 16, no less than three days after the government had already declared that De Gasperi was the provisional Head of State.

The results

As obvious, the referendum was closed with the choice for the republican form of state. On the proportions among numbers, instead, some considerations do appply.

Effectively, the table of results shows some relevant differences in the different parts of the State, and this was object of several interpretations. It is quite singular, at a first sight, that the peninsula seemed to be drastically cut in two areas: the North for the republic (with 66.2%), the South for the monarchy (with 63.8%), as if they were two different, respectively homogeneous countries.

The strong result of Trentino, in which republic was chosen by 85% voters, has been seen as an effect of the nationalistic internal politics of fascism, that had always denied autonomy and any cultural concession to inhabitants, who really feel more German-minded rather than Italians and do live differently from the rest of the population. At the same time, completely on another point of view, this overwhelming majority has been attributed to a notable presence of fascists and post-fascists (RSI - self-declared as a republic) in the region. These would have opposed the Crown mostly because it had fired off Mussolini and because it had suddenly turned uspide-down, after the armistice, continuing the war this time against the previously allied Germany. The monarchists' suspicions about an irregular vote in this region were justified (not perhaps with the expected elegance) with the absence of Alpini, a popular corps of the Italian army whose soldiers were traditionally enrolled in this region and had been massively killed, captured or however lost during the two campaigns in Russia. Correctly it has been noted that there should have been probably a reason if many Alpini (thousands) disbanded and refused to come back, preferring to hide in the vast Russian countryland where they started a new clandestine life (they are popularly known as the Girasoli, sunflowers).

However, sociologists and statisticians tried to underline borders of geographical differences in social or cultural fields that would have brought - just to say it briefly and directly - ignorants to prefer monarchy and cultivated people to prefer republic. Even if in current times this could appear as quite childish or in some manner rough, at that time the argument was sustained in public speeches too by "important" political leaders. Really, the difference in education and social status could only be identified between rural and metropolitan areas, being the general conditions (and illiterate percentages) quite similar across the country, certainly not capable of producing such diverse proportions.

It was perhaps the different history of the two areas between 1943 and 1946, that could explain the case: after the armistice, the king had escaped to southern Italy, already occupied by American and English troops. With the so-called "kingdom of South", a sort of protectorate, hostilities had ended, and people in those regions could enjoy a relatively peaceful time.

In northern regions, on the contrary, the presence of nazi troops (slowly retiring), post-fascist RSI, partisans, disbanded troops from the Italian army, foreign troops advancing, caused the situation to evolve into a chaotic war against Germans and a civil war among different Italian forces. In this climate, the Italian soldiers were sometimes against partisans (and vice-versa), sometimes against Germans, while the Carabinieri remained solidly loyal to the respect of hierarchical orders. The factual anarchy could not avoid that personal revenges too could take place within the confusion.

The highest percentage of null votes was recorded in Valle d'Aosta, historically one of the principal territories of Savoyard domain.

An effect of women's presence, voting for the first time, has been by some analysts indicated as a slight tendence toward republic. This point is followed by monarchists, who say that women were allowed to vote under a strong pressure by leftist parties, convinced that the equations monarchy=war, republic=peace would have caught their attention. It is true instead that in the first half of the century feminism reached its most evident successes all over western countries, in most of which women were already allowed to vote. Their admittance to the cabin was more a physiological evolution of the woman's condition, rather than a political issue.

The accusation of corrupted vote

As probably known, the results of the referendum were object of a deep protest by monarchists. They stressed that for a series of reasons these results were not true, had been falsely reported or interpreted.

Their position is essentially summarised in these points:

  • Many prisoners of war were still abroad in their prisons and weren't able to vote, this lack sensibly altering the results.
  • Part of the Eastern provinces (mainly referred to Trieste, Gorizia and Bolzano) had not already re-joined Italy, and their vote too had been lost.
  • Violence during the electoral campaign had heavily damaged a correct monarchist propaganda (to this violence, the above mentioned Polizia Ausiliaria is accused of having heavily contributed).
  • Statistic studies would demonstrate that the number of voters recorded by Romita was greatly higher than the number of possible electors (actually, in the general disorder, there was a truly serious problem in anagraphic recordings and the presumed proportion of people using false identity documents was relevant).
  • The first results arriving from the scrutiny (lasted a few days), were giving a completely different indication, with monarchy in heavy advantage.

On this late point, and on some facts that by close or by far were related to it, some notes might be appropriated.

Effectively, in the morning of June 4, Pope Pius XII was informed by Carabinieri that monarchy had won, and in the night it seems cleared that Alcide De Gasperi wrote to Falcone Lucifero, Ministro della Real Casa (a sort of secretary of the King), that while minister Romita was optimist for a republican victory, he himself didn't believe they would have won. On the morning of June 5, instead, a relevant amount of votes for the republic unexpectedly arrived, thus suddenly changing the situation.

It is also true that monarchists presented lots of judicial complaints: protesters assume that no one of them was examined, but actually the possibility that some of them really were not examined, seems to be concrete.

Concisely, monarchists estimated that some 3 millions votes had been lost and stressed that this number was higher than the difference between respective votes.

Reason for a defeat

The figure of Victor Emmanuel, generally considered too weak for the events he had to control, had very little popularity.

In 1938, when racial laws were issued, no word was heard from the Quirinale commenting the perhaps most impopular laws ever written, while many were sure that something would have been done or said. Jews were deep inside the Italian society at many levels, and their persecution was seen as unreasonable, an external imposition with no reference in national feelings. Moreover, many Jewish officers of the army suicided before being dismissed (so to die in the uniform), and this had immediately reduced the consensus of the military class to the crown and to fascism.

A certain trouble had also been caused during WWII by the political activity of princess Maria José, who had started on her own separate treaties with enemies in 1943, in order to find a separate peace for Italy (this activity was officially not sponsored by her father-in-law). Her diplomatic work (less secret than expected, in the reality) was considered as a sort of treason by some monarchists, who read in this opening an evidence of general weakness, indecision, irresolution of the Crown, which was not completely with Fascism and was not completely against it. The Real Casa was sending youth to combat Americans and English and on the other side was discussing with them. Despite the interested enthusiasm of anti-fascists for the corageous princess, and perhaps beyond her intentions, Maria José made the dynasty appear in all its insufficient, incoherent, inappropriate role.

This look was brought to an even worse reputation of the crown (if possible), by the Salerno's episode, when the royal family left Rome in a hurry to secretly reach the safer town in Campania, just a few hours after the armistice. Rome was left alone (with the Pope without protection), the army disbanded.

Of course, a monarchy does not fall because of lack of elegance, or not only, but the facts, as comprehensible by the still rural majority of citizens, had an uncomfortable appearance and probably had a weight in the voting cabin.

Curiously, the tendency to irresolution, typical of the Savoyards, left Italy far after the monarchs: when prof. Enrico De Nicola was privately asked if he would have accepted to become the chief of the state, as a preliminar test to verify his eventual appoval, his answer was longing to arrive, despite the many solicitations. In the meanwhile, political life was obviously at a stall. Finally, since De Nicola had started giving half-answers, sometimes contradictorily, Giulio Andreotti wrote him: "Eccellenza, decida di decidere se accetta di accettare..." (your excellence, please, can you decide to decide whether you can accept to accept...).

Savoy descendants in exile

The new republican constitution was released together with a group of minor dispositions, the 13th of which prescribed that the male descendants of the Savoy family have to stay in perpetual exile. This disposition was abolished in October 2002, and Victor Emmanuel entered Italy with his family in the following December, for a short formal visit to the Pope.

The abolition of the exile follows a deep political and juridical discussion which lasted several decades.

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