Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Sinking of the Gustloff

In January 1945 the Second World War in Europe was entering its final months and the Third Reich was tottering on the brink of military disaster. The vast multitudes of the Soviet Red army stood poised on Germany's eastern frontiers, eager to avenge the atrocities committed against their countrymen by the Germans during the previous long years of fighting. News of Soviet massacres, exaggerated by Nazi propaganda, prompted a mass-exodus with millions of Germans leaving their homes in the easternmost provinces of the Reich and fleeing westwards as the Red Army began its relentless advance onto German soil. Thousands of these refugees would die in the attempt, killed by the attacking Soviet forces or freezing to death in the harsh Baltic Winter. Many made the journey overland while others took the seaward routes, cramming onto the ships which had suddenly become beacons of hope and salvation.

One of those ships was the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, the Nazis' dream ship which had been originally built to transport German workers on the holiday of a lifetime but was now being used to evacuate military personnel and civilians from the threatened eastern territories. On January 30th 1945, while sailing dangerously overcrowded with more than 10,000 people on board, the Gustloff was torpedoed and sunk by a Soviet submarine, resulting in by far the single-greatest loss of life in any maritime disaster in history. At least 6000 people were lost according to the most conservative estimates but the death toll could have been as high as over 9000 considering that many passengers went undocumented in the rush to board. The tragedy of the Gustloff's sinking, a legitimate act of war despite the civilian loss, has been largely lost to history amidst the overall chaos of the war and the subsequent Soviet attempts to cover it up but it remains nonetheless one of the most emotive and tragic stories to emerge from the conflict.

Background: The East Prussian Offensive

Ever since their defeat at Stalingrad in the Winter of 1942-1943, German forces on the Eastern Front had been on the defensive, struggling to hold back the growing power of the Soviet forces whilst themselves running increasingly low on fuel, weapons and adequate manpower. By the Autumn of 1944 the German armies had been almost totally pushed out of Soviet territory and the forward troops of the Red Army were probing across the border into East Prussia, the easternmost province of the old German Empire. In November the Germans regained an element of control over the situation and pushed the Soviets back to the frontier, uncovering evidence of a massacre in the process. German cinema audiences were soon subjected to the horrific images of the dead victims of Nemmersdorf, an East Prussian village which had borne the brunt of the Soviet troops' lust for revenge. Josef Goebbels' Nazi Propaganda Ministry had hoped that showing these images would stiffen the people's resolve to resist the impending Soviet invasion; posters and graffiti went up on walls in the towns and villages of East Prussia compelling the population to stay and fight for their families, their property and their homeland. The population had other ideas, however, for the vast majority now wanted to flee and be as far away from the Soviets as possible when they arrived.

When it became clear to the Nazi leadership that their efforts to persuade the population to stay put with propaganda had backfired spectacularly, they next resorted to forbidding any evacuation of civilians. The Nazi Party official in charge of East Prussia, Gauleiter Erich Koch declared that anybody trying to leave would be shot as a traiter for undermining the morale of the military and the population. No amount of government intimidation could override the people's fears, however, and soon the civil services in East Prussia were overwhelmed with people desperate to escape, paralysing the Nazi administration. On January 12th 1945, the Red Army began its offensive into East Prussia, aiming to isolate it from the rest of Germany before capturing the provincial capital, Königsberg. The Soviets enjoyed total superiority over the Germans in ever military aspect and their advance was inevitably rapid, prompting the province's 2.5 million German residents to abandon their homes and head westwards, using horse-drawn carts and improvised vehicles to carry their possessions. The official ban on leaving was not lifted until January 20th but by then the situation was out of Gauleiter Koch's control. He, along with a number of other Nazi functionaries, was one of the first to save his own skin, abandoning his people to their fate.

A refugee column in East Prussia

The official evacuation efforts were disordered and chaotic, with the actions of the local Nazis leaders ranging from grossly irresponsible to downright inhuman; a number of refugees recall witnessing the massacre of some 5000 prisoners from the Stutthof concentration camp, who were marched to the coast by their SS guards who then shot them. Retreating German army units already clogged the roads and bridges, making the civilian evacuation even more difficult that it would otherwise have been. Those who hesitated or decided to stay behind risked being overtaken by the advancing Soviets and subjected to brutal treatment at their hands. Many German women were raped, murdered or packed off to labour camps in Siberia after coming into contact with Red Army troops, whose behaviour was condoned if not actively encouraged by their commanders. The Winter weather was unforgiving to those who refugees who fled on foot and it claimed the lives of many children and elderly people. Others were (slightly) luckier and managed to get a seat on one of the special refugee trains, the last of which departed from Königsberg on January 22nd. These trains were overcrowded and the wagons, which had once been used to transport Jews to the concentration camps, offered no more protection from the bitter cold.

On January 23rd, Soviet forces reached the Baltic coast near the city of Elbing, cutting off what was left of German-held East Prussia from the western provinces. Königsberg was now surrounded and its under-strength garrison of old men and boys recieved a direct order from Adolf Hitler that the city be defended to the last man, dooming them to a long and bloody battle that would last until April 9th. For the thousands of civilians that were still trapped in East Prussia, there remained only two routes to the west: either by ship from the port of Pillau near Königsberg or on foot over the frozen waters of the Frisches Haff, a freshwater lagoon located where the River Pregel and the various branches of the River Vistula met the Baltic Sea between Königsberg and Danzig. The thousands of refugees who made the journey across the Haff were hoping to reach the ports of Danzig and Gotenhafen, where German warships and merchant vessels were preparing to transport civilians and military personnel to the west as part of Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz's mass-evacuation plan, codenamed Operation Hannibal. Many did not make it and died after falling through the ice or being picked-off by Soviet aircraft. More people were killed as they fled along the Nehrung, the long and narrow spit of land that separated the Haff from the Baltic Sea itself.

"There were more refugees than you could count, and we attacked them from our planes. On the Haff, on the sandbar of the Nehrung close to Königsberg, it was just a massacre. God knows how many people were killed. Tens of thousands of people were crossing the ice; it was impossible to miss them. The Germans got back what they had done to us. That is why they could not expect any sympathy from us."

(Yuri Chuchrikov, Soviet Air Force pilot)

The Voyage of Hope

For those refugees lucky enough to catch a boat from Pillau or make it across the frozen Haff, one of the vessels waiting for them at Gotenhafen was the MV Wilhelm Gustloff. She had been constructed in 1937 as a purpose-built cruise liner for the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF) to be used by its subsidiary organisation, Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude, KdF). The ship, named after the assassinated former leader of the Swiss Nazi Party, was intended to provide cultural and recreational opportunities for German workers, such as cruises and holidays, and also to serve as a handy public relations tool for the Third Reich. She had served as the flagship of the KdF cruise fleet until mid-1939 when she was requisitioned by the military in order to transport the men of the Condor Legion home from Spain, where they had been aiding Franco's victorious forces in the civil war there.

From the outbreak of war until November 1940 the Gustloff served as a hospital ship. She was then refitted as a floating barracks and permanently moored at the Polish port of Gdynia, which had been annexed by Nazi Germany and renamed Gotenhafen. She remained for the next four years serving as accomodation for the cadets of the 2nd Submarine Training Division. In January 1945 she was ordered to bring her thousand U-boat cadets to the port of Kiel in the north German province of Schleswig-Holstein, far to the west, where they were urgently needed for submarine duty. The opportunity was taken to have the ship take part in Operation Hannibal, allowing her to bring refugees and other military personnel along as well.

"Gotenhafen had 240,000 inhabitants, and then came 120,000 more. Every one of them, without exception, whether they were children or adults, they all looked to be at the very end of their tether. It was a hard thing to see."

(Helmut Engler, Hitler Youth port assistant at Gotenhafen)

As more and more refugees flooded into Gotenhafen in late-January there was an inevitable rush to get aboard the Gustloff and the other ships before they departed. The port was a restricted military area and the Wehrmacht had absolute priority according to official rules; civilians could only be taken if there happened to be the room on board. Nobody could get on the ships without a pass and this rule was strictly enforced at first, meaning that those who fitted into privileged categories (such as Nazi Party members) found it a lot easier to get past security than ordinary civilians. The military authorities soon became overwhelmed by the sheer number of refugees, however, and many were ultimately allowed to cram themselves aboard the Gustloff without any form of checking. The ship was only designed to carry around 1,800 passengers and crew but on this occasion the full crew complement and passenger list amounted to a total of 6050 people on board. This total does not include the people that embarked without being recorded so the real number is likely to have been considerably if not much higher. Later research carried out during the 1980s and 1990s by Heinz Schön, who had served as a crewman on the ship and survived the sinking, concluded that the total number of people aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff for her voyage to Kiel was a whopping 10,582. This consisted of 173 crewmen, 918 officers and men of the 2nd Submarine Training Division, 373 female naval auxiliaries, 162 wounded soldiers, and 8,956 civilians, 4000 of whom were children.

Friedrich Petersen

At 12:30pm on January 30th 1945 the Wilhelm Gustloff raised anchor and left harbour for the first time in over four years. The people on board, cold, hungry and crammed in though they were, began to relax and take solace in the fact that only the short voyage to Kiel remained between them and safety. The atmosphere on the ship's bridge was not quite so contented as the four captains (three civilian, one military) fretted over the shortage of lifeboats and wondered how well the Gustloff would perform after such a long time away from the open sea. There was also much discussion among them regarding the threat posed by Soviet submarines, which had been breaking through into the Baltic Sea more frequently over the previous months but so far they had not made a significant impression on the German shipping lanes. The Gustloff's captains were of course aware of the danger presented by submarines but that did not deter them from leaving Gotenhafen without an adequate naval escort; she was accompanied on the journey by only a single torpedo boat, the Löwe.

The submarine dilemma then presented the problem of which route the Gustloff should take. The military captain on the bridge, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn of the 2nd Submarine Training Division, argued that the ship should stay in the shallower waters close to the coast where she would be safe from submarines. The senior civilian captain Friedrich Petersen, a 67-year-old Merchant Marine officer and former prisoner-of-war, did not agree. He was far more concerned about the danger posed by mines and it could not be guaranteed that the waters near the coast were mine-free. In the end Petersen overruled Zahn and opted for a route further away from the coast known as Emergency Route 58, which was in deeper waters but offered a shorter journey time and, more importantly, was regularly swept clear of mines by the German navy. The Gustloff subsequently set off along this faster and apparently safer route, the 10,000 people on board unaware of the danger lurking in the waters ahead.

As night fell on January 30th, the Soviet submarine S-13 was on a lone patrol in the Baltic around the area of Emergency Route 58. Based at the Finnish port of Hangö, she had been at sea since January 11th but had so far not encountered a single German vessel. This was a matter of serious concern for the sub's rather wayward commander, Alexander Marinesko, who was desperate to redeem himself after a recent run-in with his superiors. S-13 had been scheduled to go to sea on January 2nd but the mission was delayed because Marinesko had gone missing for several days. When he eventually reappeared it was revealed that he had been on a New Year drinking spree in Hangö and had spent time with a Swedish woman. As far as the Soviet Union was concerned, going AWOL and fraternising with foreigners were both treasonable offences and carried the most severe of punishments. Marinesko only managed to avoid a court-martial (which would almost certainly have meant a death sentence) because there was no other man on-hand to replace him and every submarine available was needed to disrupt the German evacuations. When Marinesko finally did manage to sober up and make it to sea he knew full well that he had to put in an impressive performance in order to get back into his bosses' good books. If he were to come home without having scored a kill, his future would be very uncertain indeed.

Alexander Marinesko

Back aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, Captain Petersen was troubled by a mysterious radio message which spoke of a German minesweeper convoy in the vicinity (there was no such convoy in the area at the time and the origin of the message remains a mystery). As he was understandably keen to prevent the possibility of a collision in the darkness, Petersen decided to switch on the ship's red and green navigation lights. The Gustloff was now lit up like a Christmas tree, making her very easy to spot in the night. The lights were switched off again an hour later but by then it was too late. S-13 had spotted the Gustloff at around 6pm and was taking up pursuit. The submarine managed to avoid being discovered by the Löwe thanks to a stroke of good fortune; the escort ship's submarine detection equipment had broken down in the cold weather.

After almost three weeks of looking at nothing but empty sea, the crew of S-13 could not believe their luck when they found what appeared to be a large transport vessel. The Soviet submarine was not fast enough to keep up with its speedy target underwater, however, so Marinesko took the decision to surface in order to increase speed. Bringing a submarine to the surface in potentially hostile waters was (and still is) a very risky thing to do but on this occasion the move paid off and by 8pm S-13 had caught up with the Gustloff. Marinesko next decided upon a daring manoeuvre in which S-13 would sail right round the target and attack it from the landward (port) side. The reasoning for this was that it would reduce the likelihood of the submarine being spotted by the ship's lookouts, whose attention would be primarily focused in the opposite direction, or by any escort ships that may or may not be in the area.

"When he looked through his periscope, Marinesko could see that it was big and that it was not a warship. But he could not tell what it was carrying: wood, or weapons, or people. How could he tell that? He was simply pursuing a big transport ship. That was all. He was following his orders to sink large warships and freighters, and that is what he did."

(Viktor Germanov, biographer of Alexander Marinesko)

As far as the established rules of warfare were concerned, the Wilhelm Gustloff was a perfectly legitimate target and would still have been a legitimate target even if the Soviets had known about the enormous number of refugees on board. The ship had been fitted with anti-aircraft guns and was transporting combat troops to a location from which they could commit hostile acts against both the Soviet Union and the Western Allies (the United States, the British Empire and France). Despite having wounded men on board, the Gustloff was not marked as a hospital ship and no notification of her operating as a hospital ship had been given, facts which meant that she ultimately had no protection under international law.

The Wilhelm Gustloff at sea before the outbreak of war

As S-13 silently stalked its prey, the oblivious passengers aboard the Gustloff sat and listened as the familiar but increasingly forboding voice of their Führer crackled over the ship's tannoy system. It was exactly twelve years since Adolf Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany (January 30th 1933) and the Propaganda Ministry was broadcasting his traditional speech which always marked the anniversary of the Nazis' rise to power. Hitlers words were nothing new and similar speeches from himself and other leading figures in the regime had already been made since the tide of war turned against him in order to shore up public support for the crumbling war effort. He called upon the German people to be steadfast, to hold out and to resist the enemy forces encroaching upon their homelands and to fight on until Germany ultimately prevails over its foes.

The Sinking

Shortly after 9pm on January 30th 1945, just minutes after the conclusion of Hitler's speech, S-13 was in position to launch her torpedoes at the Wilhelm Gustloff, which by now was passing the Stolpe Bank located roughly nineteen miles off the coast between the East Pomeranian towns of Großendorf and Leba. At 9:16pm Marinesko gave the order to fire four torpedoes, which were inscribed with the dedicational messages: "For Stalin", "For Motherland", "For Soviet people" and "For Leningrad". "For Stalin"got jammed in its launch tube and had to be hastily disarmed by the crew before it had the chance to blow the submarine to pieces. The other three all launched without a hitch, however, and all found their target, exploding along the Gustloff's port side. "For Motherland" struck just aft of the bows and destroyed the crew living quarters. "For Soviet people" hit amidships directly under the ship's swimming pool where the 373 female naval auxiliaries were billeted, killing nearly all of them almost instantly. "For Leningrad" scored the critical hit, exploding aft of amidships in the area of the engine room, cutting off power to the ship and plunging the packed interiors into darkness for a few moments until the emergency lights came on. Within seconds of the three impacts, people on the Gustloff's lower decks were already dead or dying. Many off-duty crew members, whose experience and seamanship would have undoubtedly been crucial for saving lives, were sealed in the damaged forward section when the ship's watertight compartments were closed from the bridge.

Soon after being hit, the Gustloff took on a list to port and settled rapidly by the head, triggering mass panic and crowd crushes on board as the thousands of passengers all tried to make their way to the top deck where the lifeboats were located, jamming vital corridors and stairways in the process. Extra lifeboats had been put on board the ship at Gotenhafen as a precautionary measure but there was still nowhere near enough for the exceptionally high number of passengers. The problem was further compounded when the surviving crew tried to prepare the lifeboats only to find that the davits and pulleys had frozen up in the bitter Winter temperatures (between -10 and -18°C), making them almost impossible to move. Meanwhile, those passengers who couldn't reach the top deck instead headed for the lower promenade deck where they hoped to smash out the windows and climb into the lifeboats as they were being lowered. What they did not realise, however, was that the promenade windows were made of shatterproof safety glass. Hundreds of people soon found themselves trapped, unable to break out and escape from the rapidly sinking ship.

Map showing the evacuation route and the site of the sinking

Back on deck, the combination of partly-immobilised lifeboats, the lack of trained crew members and the speed at which the Gustloff was going down led to a complete breakdown of order and the situation quickly degenerated into an every-man-for-himself affair. Although there were isolated acts of heroism, many of the officers, crewmen and military personnel quickly disregarded any responsibility that they may have had for the welfare of the civilian passengers and instead focused on saving themselves and those closest to them; one lifeboat left the ship occupied by only twelve sailors while another, fully-occupied, was crushed in the water after one of the frozen anti-aircraft guns broke free from its deck mounting and fell onto it. The increasing list to port eventually made it totally impossible to launch lifeboats at all and the multitudes on deck could only resort to clinging on for dear life.  

"Beside me, a woman was hanging on, and next to her, two children, and next to them, a man. He was the only uniformed man I had seen on board with a swastika armband. The woman kept screaming at him, "Finish it! Finish it!". Then he took out his pistol, still holding on with one hand, and first he shot the two little girls, and then his wife. And then he held the pistol to his own temple and it did not go off; he had run out of bullets. He yelled at me, "Give me your pistol!" and I shouted back, "I haven't got one!". And then he let go, and slid after his dead wife and children across the icy snow-covered deck, and over the side."

(Heinz Schön, trainee purser aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff)

Within an hour minutes of the torpedo attack, the Wilhelm Gustloff had keeled over completely and was lying on her port side in the water. She then took her final plunge and sank bow-first with her lights still blazing and thousands of people still trapped inside. Because so few of the lifeboats had been launched successfully, most of the people who had managed to escape from the ship's interior ended up being thrown from the deck into the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea, which were normally around 4°C at that time of year and dotted with ice floes. Many of those people died, the adults succumbing after just a few minutes to the effects of exposure while the children drowned due to ill-fitting lifejackets which caused them to float in the water upside-down. The especially cold air temperature meant that the lucky few fortunate enough to be in the lifeboats and rafts did not have a particularly easy night either. The only blessing was that the first rescue ships arrived on the scene mercifully quickly, although even that was still too late for a great many of the victims.

Death Toll and Aftermath

Although estimates regarding the actual death toll very widely, it is unanimously agreed that the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff resulted in what was and still is by some distance the greatest loss of life in any shipping disaster in history. Heinz Schön's subsequent research concluded that the number of people who died was 9343, an amount which is nearly three times higher than the combined total of those lost aboard RMS Titanic (British ocean liner sunk in 1912 by an iceberg; 1514 dead), RMS Lusitania (British ocean liner sunk in 1915 by a German submarine; 1198 dead) and USS Arizona (American battleship sunk in 1941 by Japanese aircraft during the attack on Pearl Harbor; 1177 dead). This death toll was recently verified by the Discovery Channel documentary series Unsolved History which undertook a detailed computer analysis of the sinking based upon Schön's overall passenger total of around 10,600, using eyewitness accounts of passenger densities around the ship and calculating the possible escape routes that could be utilised by those passengers in the time that it took for the ship to sink.

Along with Schön, just under 1250 other people survived the sinking and were later picked up by the Löwe and other various ships which bravely put themselves at risk of attack in order to stop and rescue people from the water. All four of the Gustloff's captains managed to survive but Friedrich Petersen was never brought to account either for prematurely abandoning his vessel or for his role in the events leading up to the sinking. An offcial naval inquiry into the causes of the sinking was subsequetly begun but it focused only, and somewhat unfairly, on the actions of Wilhelm Zahn. His degree of resposibility was never resolved, however, due to the collapse of Nazi Germany and the conclusion of the Second World War in Europe, which happened barely three months after the sinking in early-May 1945. In any case, neither Petersen nor Zahn ever went to sea again; Petersen died shortly after the war while the bitter Zahn spent the rest of his life as a salesman.

Porthole salvaged from the wreck

Following the successful attack on the Wilhelm Gustloff, S-13 remained on patrol in the Baltic and continued to hunt for other targets. On February 10th she torpedoed and sank another German evacuation vessel, the SS General von Steuben, which was carrying wounded soldiers and refugees. Almost 4000 people were killed. Upon his return to base, Marinesko was left smarting when he found out that he would not be awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union for his efforts as his superiors still considered him to be unreliable and had initially refused to believe that he had been responsible for the two sinkings. When a delegation of staff officers arrived in Hangö to present Marinesko with the Order of the Red Banner, he petulantly refused the award by ordering S-13 to submerge. He made his feelings even more abundantly clear when he deliberately failed to attack any German ships during his next mission (April 20th - May 13th 1945). Marinesko was eventually removed from his submarine command in September 1945 and demoted to shore duties. Two months later he was discharged from the Soviet navy altogether, after which his life quickly degenerated into a downward spiral of alcoholism and crime, including a two-year spell in a prison camp as punishment for a petty theft. His reputation had recovered somewhat before he died of cancer in Leningrad in 1963 and he was posthumously made a Hero of the Soviet Union in May 1990.

The wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff still lies where it landed in 144 feet of water approximately 19 miles off the East Pomeranian coast, which was trasferred from Germany to Poland after the war. The exact location was quickly discovered after the war by the Soviet authorities, who subsequently paid a number of visits to the wreck in the hope of finding any looted treasure (There was considerable speculation that the ship might have been carrying pieces of the famous Amber Room, which the Germans had stolen from the Tsarskoye Selo palace complex near Leningrad) or military equipment that would help them in justifying the sinking of the ship. They then dynamited the central portion of the wreck to cover their tracks, leaving only the bow and stern sections reasonably intact. Although certain items from it have been salvaged over the years, the wreck today is a designated war grave and is appropriately protected. Diving expeditions can only go ahead with the expressed permission of the Polish Maritime Office which is based at Gdynia, the port from which, nearly seventy years ago, the Gustloff and her thousands of passengers had set out on their ill-fated final voyage.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Struggle for Italian Unification

Giuseppe Garibaldi meets Victor Emmanuel II at Teano (1860)

The 19th Century was the era which saw the rise of popular nationalism in Europe. The old multi-national empires of Austria and Turkey creaked under the pressure as the various ethnic minority groups within their borders pushed for greater autonomy and ultimately independence. Nationalism was not just about small parts of large countries breaking away, however; it also led to examples of many small nations joining together to form larger ones. The unification of the Italian Peninsula under the rule of the House of Savoy is one of the two great examples of the latter phenomenon (the other being the unification of Germany, which occurred at roughly the same time) as it saw the joining together of almost all the Italian peoples of southern Europe into a single nation-state. In Italy the process of unification was and still is referred to as il Risorgimento, meaning "the Resurgence".

The important thing to remember about the unification of Italy, however, is that the process was driven not by popular revolution, as one might expect considering what was going in in Europe at the time, but by the conservative Savoy establishment who, after quite a number of false-starts, began a successful campaign of expansion and annexation throughout the peninsula. The involvement of Revolutionary and later Napoleonic France in the region laid the foundations for romantic nationalism in Italy but that feeling was suppressed by Napoleon's victorious enemies who were mostly opposed to unification and therefore restored the pre-war status quo for their own benefit. In the end it was Italian statesman, rather than ordinary Italians, who brought about "unification from above" as a necessary means of preserving their own positions and warding off the threat of revolution.  


Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476AD, the Italian Peninsula gradually developed into a complex patchwork of small kingdoms, duchies and city states that were often ruled or influenced by more powerful neighbouring states. This situation persevered until the time of the European Renaissance but began to show its age once modern nation-states began popping up during the Early Modern period. Italians had already begun to show their resentment of foreign domination and the fact that their states had long been the site of messy confrontations between the surrounding powers such as Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and France. The author Francesco Petreca, writing in the 14th Century, stated in his work Italia Mia that "the ancient valor in Italian hearts is not yet dead", and that feeling was later echoed more strongly by later writers; four verses from Italia Mia were quoted in Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, which looked for a political leader who would some day unite Italy.

As the centuries went on the idea of someday creating an Italian nation-state continued to be fostered and developed in certain circles, particularly among the emerging liberal intelligensia in the 18th Century. Despite this, the idea of unification continued to be opposed by various authorities who had a vested interest in keeping the peninsula politically divided. The Austrian Habsburgs were keen to preserve their influence in the north (The famous Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metternich stated that the word "Italy" itself was nothing more than "a geographic expression".) while the Spanish House of Bourbon had junior monarchs installed in Parma, Naples and Sicily. There was also opposition from the Catholic Church: the Pope directly controlled the central part of the peninsula and it was clear that he would not relinquish his lands voluntarily for fear that doing so would diminish the Church's power and leave Italy's Catholics open to persecution.

As previously mentioned, the first real foundations of popular nationhood in the Italian Peninsula were laid in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries when the ideas and principles of the French Revolution began to filter in. It was taken a step further when the soon-to-be French Emperor Napoleon conquered the peninsula, annexing some parts to France and unifying the rest into two compliant Italian states under the universal laws of the Napoleonic Code: the Kingdom of Italy in the north, ruled by Napoleon's viceroy (and stepson) Eugène de Beauharnais, and the Kingdom of Naples in the south, ruled by his top general Joachim Murat. When the French Empire began to crumble after 1812, both Murat and de Beauharnais attempted to save their positions by appealing to the Italians' newfound sense of nationalism, calling upon them to resist the "occupying" forces of Habsburg Austria. De Beauharnais even went so far as to directly appeal to the Habsburgs for the right to succeed Napoleon as King of Italy, a request which the Habsburgs flatly and unsurprisingly rejected.

Italian States in 1816

Following the conclusion of the 1815 Congress of Vienna, at which the victorious coalition powers (the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria and Prussia) dismantled and dismembered the former French Empire, the political make-up of the Italian Peninsula was restored largely to its pre-Napoleonic state. This was done largely for the benefit of the great powers themselves, who were keen to maintain their influence or direct rule in the region. By the end of 1816 the area of what is now Italy consisted of the following political entities:

  • The Papal States were a collection of territories in the central part of the Italian Peninsula that were under the direct control of the Roman Catholic Church. The contiguous Papal lands included the regions of Latium (Lazio), Marche, Umbria and Romagna while to the south there was also the exclaves of Pontecorvo and Benevento which were located within the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Pope was absolute ruler of the Papal States and resided in the city of Rome, which served as the his capital. Other major settlements included Civitavecchia, Perugia, Ferrara and Bologna.
  • The Kingdom of Sardinia, also known informally as Piedmont or Piedmont-Sardinia, was the collective name given to the Italian territories ruled by the House of Savoy. It consisted of the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea and the regions of Piedmont, Aosta, Savoy, Liguria and Nice in the northwestern part of the Italian mainland. The Savoy monarchs had moved their capital to the port city of Cagliari in Sardinia since 1800 in order to be safe from Napoleon's armies but in 1815 they returned to their old capital city of Turin in Piedmont. The old port of Genoa on the Italian Riviera served as a vital hub for the kingdom's international trade and overseas military exploits.
  • The Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia was an Austrian-dominated state established in the northeastern part of the Italian Peninsula by the victorious powers who recognised the claims made to the area by the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. The Kingdom roughly approximated the territory once covered by the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice, which had both been conquered by the French in the 1790s and subsequently assimilated into the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. The Austrian Emperor ruled Lombardy-Venetia as King in name but he appointed viceroys to rule on his behalf. Milan and Venice were the joint capital cities while other major settlements included the cities of Verona, Udine, Bergamo and Brescia.
  • The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was the largest and wealthiest of the pre-unification Italian states. It covered the entire southern half of the Italian Peninsula as well the neighbouring island of Sicily, giving it a highly favourable position in both Italy and the Mediterranean. The Two Sicilies were founded in 1816 when the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of Sicily were formally united into a single realm ruled by the House of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, a junior branch of the Spanish House of Bourbon. The Bourbon King exercised absolute power from his capital city, Naples while the Catholic Church also wielded great influence, owning roughly half the land in the predominantly-agricultural kingdom.  
  • The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was situated in north-central Italy, bordering the Papal States and was ruled by a junior branch of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. The grand duchy had been absorbed into Napoleon's empire but was re-established and restored to Habsburg rule in 1815; Napoleon himself had spent his first period of exile (1814-1815) on the Tuscan-ruled island of Elba which was situated just off the coast. The Tuscan capital was the cultured city of Florence, with other major settlements including Pisa, Livorno and Siena.
  • The Duchy of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla was a small state centred on the city of Parma in northern Italy. The Duchy of Parma had been long-contested between the Habsburgs and the Spanish Bourbons seized by Napoleon in 1808. In 1814 it was re-established under the rule of Napoleon's estranged second wife, the Habsburg Princess Marie Louise of Austria. Following the death of Marie Louise in 1847, the duchy was restored to the House of Bourbon-Parma who ruled as constitutional monarchs.
  • The Duchy of Modena and Reggio was a small northern state ruled by the House of Austria-Este, who claimed descent from the Habsburgs. Modena had also been annexed by Napoleon and subsequently re-established after his downfall.
  • The Duchy of Lucca was a small territory centred on the city of Lucca in northern Italy. It was created by the victorious powers in 1815 and granted to the House of Bourbon-Parma as compensation for their loss of the Duchy of Parma to Marie Louise of Austria. When the dynasty returned to Parma in 1847, Lucca was abandoned and subsequently annexed by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
  • The Duchy of Massa and Carrara was a small joint territory in northern Italy, consisting of the Duchy of Massa and the Principality of Carrara. It was ruled by the Malaspina family until 1826 when it was annexed by the Duchy of Modena under the terms of marriage between Duke Ercole III of Modena and the Malaspina heiress Maria Teresa.
  • The Republic of Cospaia was a small independent territory on the border of Tuscany and Papal States that only existed due to a mistake in a land sale agreement made by Pope Eugene IV to the Florentine Republic in the 15th Century. A small strip of land had been erroneously left unmentioned in the treaty and the people who lived there jumped at the chance to proclaim their independence. Despite a successful period as a centre of tobacco production, Cospaia had degenerated into little more than a smugglers' den by the 19th Century. In 1826 the territory was partitioned between Tuscany and the Papal States.
  • The Republic of San Marino was and still is a tiny state of just 24 square miles in central Italy, surrounded entirely by the Papal-controlled regions of Romagna and Marche. San Marino would later go on to serve as a refuge for those who had been persecuted due to their support for Italian unification, which is why its request to be left out of the unification process was ultimately granted. The republic remains independent to this day. Its constitution, first enacted in 1600, is the oldest constitution in the world that is still in effect.

There was also a number of ethnically Italian areas that were located outside the area encompassed by the states mentioned above. Many ethnic Italians lived in the southern parts of Switzerland while more lived to the northeast within the boundaries of the Austrian Empire. The Alpine region of Tyrol and the area around the city of Trieste on the Adriatic coast, which were part of the Austrian Empire but had high Italian populations, would go on to be particularly contentious. They would not become part of the unified Italian state until after the collapse of Austria at the end of the First World War.

Early Revolutionary Activity (1820-1830)

Despite the efforts of the great powers and the various Italian state authorities to suppress nationalist feeling after the fall of Napoleon, it still did not go away altogether. There were a number of nationalist movements, however, and they could not agree on what direction the unification process ought to take. Catholic groups argued for a confederacy of states under the leadership of the Pope but the left-wing revolutionaries wanted a republic based upon the principles of the French Revolution - "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity". One such revolutionary group which rose to prominence in the early 19th Century was the Carbonari (meaning "coal burners"), a secret organisation originating from southern Italy which then spread its influence throughout the peninsula. The Carbonari were so feared by the conservative establishment that most of the Italian states passed laws condemning those who attended their meetings to death.

It was the Carbonari who were responsible for the bulk of nationalist unrest in the 1820s. In 1820 there was a revolt in Spain over disputes regarding that country's recently-established constitution and this inspired the Carbonari to attempt a similar uprising against the King of Spain's cousin, Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies. Guglielmo Pepe, a Two Sicilies army commander and secret member of the Carbonari, led his own regiment against King Ferdinand and swiftly conquered the Neapolitan (mainland) half of the kingdom. Ferdinand at first gave in to the rebel troops' demands for a new constitution but his position was ultimately saved when the Austrians, always on the lookout for a revolution to prevent, intervened. The rebels did not have the popular support needed to resist the Austrian attack and were crushed, allowing Ferdinand to return to Naples and restore order. The new constitution was subsequently abolished and the persecution of revolutionary groups in the Two Sicilies was stepped up a gear.

Map of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (1816-1861)

Just a year later in 1821, revolution broke out again, this time in Savoy-controlled Piedmont. This time the ringleader was the aristocratic Santorre, Count of Santarosa, who wanted to remove Austrian influence from the Italian Peninsula and see it unified under Savoy rule. The trouble began in Alessandria, where rebel troops adopted the green, white and red tricolore of the old Cisalpine Republic (a former puppet state established in northern Italy by the French before Napoleon's reorganisation) as their unification banner. King Charles Felix of Sardinia was out of the country so Santarosa instead went after the King's son and regent, Prince Charles Albert. Like his Bourbon counterpart in Naples, the Prince initially agreed to a new constitution to appease the revolutionaries but went back on his promise as soon as his father returned and duly called upon the Austrians to resolve the matter by force. Santarosa was defeated and forced into exile in Paris.

Things quietened down for a while after the 1821 uprising; it was not until 1830 that the nationalist drive found momentum again. It was encouraged by two factors; the first was the machinations of the Duke of Modena, Francis IV, who aspired to expand his territory and become the sole ruler of northern Italy. He had declared back in 1826 that he would not take action against anyone who subverted opposition to Italian unification, an announcement which suddenly gave new impetus to the revolutionary movements. The second factor was the revolution of July 1830 in France. The senior line of the French Bourbon monarchy, which had been restored to power after Napoleon's downfall, was overthrown by the mob for a second time and replaced with a more accountable regime known led by the Orléanist King Louis-Philippe. Louis-Philippe courted Italian revolutionaries such as Ciro Menotti, another Carbonari member, by promising to intervene militarily if their efforts were threatened by Austrian force.

Louis-Philippe did not keep his promise to the Italians; he was for too concerned with holding on to his throne to risk aggravating Austria. Menotti's planned uprising in Modena went ahead without French support but it foundered when Francis IV withdrew his support for the Carbonari and called in the Austrians to help him reconquer the duchy. Menotti was arrested and executed in May 1831. Other uprisings which had occurred at the same time in the Papal States (where revolutionaries had wrested control of every major town and city from Pope Gregory XVI with the exception of Rome) and the Duchy of Parma were dealt with just as forcefully throughout the Spring of 1831. The Austrian chancellor Metternich subsequently reaffirmed Austria's opposition to Italian unification and announced that any French intervention in the affairs of the peninsula would not be tolerated. This menacing statement of intent from Austria put Louis-Philippe firmly in his place and he would not try to influence matters again. He even took great pains to appease Vienna by arresting any Italian patriots that he could find in France.

Renewed Attempts at Revolution (1848-1849)

1848 was a year of revolutions in Europe and the Italian states, their political stability already shaken by nationalist feeling, were no exception. The people's anger was directed primarily at the Austrians, who were still refusing to even contemplate relaxing its stranglehold on the north; the trouble began in Austrian territory on January 5th when the people of Lombardy staged an impromptu civil disobedience strike, denying tax revenue to the Austrian authorities by refusing to buy tobacco or play the state lottery. Within a few days there was also trouble at the opposite end of the peninsula as the Two Sicilies rose up in open revolt. King Ferdinand II caved in to the pressure just as his grandfather had done back in 1821 and granted new liberal constitutions, based upon the French Charter of 1830, for both Sicily and Naples. This still wasn't enough to prevent a full-blown revolution in Sicily, however, and the island proclaimed its independence under the rule of the local politician  Ruggeru Sèttimu on April 13th 1848.

By February 1848 the disturbances had spread to the central part of the peninsula. In Tuscany it was mostly non-violent but nonetheless significant enough to oblige Grand Duke Ferdinand IV to grant his people a constitution too. Even Pope Pius IX got in on the act by granting a constitution to the Papal States on February 21st, a development which came as something of a surprise considering the papacy's traditionally stubborn opposition to any kind of political reform. Two days later came another extraordinary development as the French overthrew Louis-Philippe's "July Monarchy" and established the Second Republic. This threw the whole international situation into a cocked hat as France entered another period of political instability and it became unclear what course of action the new republican government would take in regard to the Italian question. France eventually settled down following the election of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, a former Carbonari member and nephew of the former Emperor, as the country's first ever President in December 1848.

On March 18th 1848 the situation in Lomabardy-Venetia degenerated into open revolt as crowds rioted in Milan and Venice. By March 22nd the Austrian garrison had been expelled from Milan and an effort by the Austrian general Josef Radetzky to retake the city by force was undone by mass-desertions and popular support for the rebels. Those rebels could not hold out indefinitely against the might of the Habsburgs, however, so they went appealing for assistance to Charles Albert of Savoy, who was now the King of Sardinia. Charles Albert took a calculated risk in going to war against Austria; the Savoys risked losing everything by doing so but he made the decision that it was the right time to expel the Austrians and unify Italy under his rule without having to pander to the demands of radical revolutionaries. It turned out to be a poor decision as the Savoy army were decisively defeated by Radetzky at the Battle of Custoza on July 24th. Charles Albert quickly moved to save his skin and agreed to armistice by which the Austrians retook control of most of Lombardy-Venetia. The city of Venice remained independent under the rule of Daniele Manin, who proclaimed his territory as the Republic of San Marco.

At around the time of the conclusion of the Austro-Sardinian war, the new constitutions that had been secured throughout Italy began coming into effect. A political earthquake followed as the various Italian monarchs inevitably came into conflict with their newly-empowered ministers. At first it was the ministers who had the upper-hand and many monarchs were forced to flee from their capitals; even Pope Pius IX was chased out of Rome. The Holy Father, disguised as an ordinary priest, abandoned the city in November following the assassination of his chief minister Pellegrino Rossi and an uprising of liberals demanding social reforms and war with Austria. As Pius took up residence in exile in Naples, Italian patriots under the command of the revolutionary general Giuseppe Garibaldi moved into Rome and take control until elections could be held. In February 1849 the power vacuum in Rome was filled when the Constitutional Assembly voted to overturn the temporal authority of the Pope - which was written off in a contemporary speech by the Roman priest Abbé Arduini as "a historical lie, a political imposture, and a religious immorality" - and establish the Roman Republic under the leadership of the radical politicians Carlo Armellini, Giuseppe Mazzini and Aurelio Saffi. An "Italian Legion" was established under Garibaldi's leadership and quickly began drawing in recruits from all over the peninsula.

Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1866

The establishment of the Roman Republic shocked the great powers of Europe but they barely had time to catch their breath before they had to comprehend yet another foolhardy attempt by Charles Albert of Savoy to force his will on Austria. He was defeated yet again by Radetzky, this time at the Battle of Novara on March 23rd 1849, and the defeat destroyed his reputation for good, not to mention the fact that it put the Savoys' grandiose ambitions for a united Italy on hold for a further decade. A humiliated Charles Albert formally abdicated as King of Sardinia straight after the battle and fled to Portugal in a desperate bid to avoid a republican revolution in Piedmont. His son became King as Victor Emmanuel II but the House of Savoy continued to totter on the brink as it seemed to most observers that they might yet go the same way as Pope Pius IX. The Prussian Marxist philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote:

"...that, after this defeat, a revolution and proclamation of a republic in Turin is expected, arises from the fact that the attempt is being made to prevent it by the abdication of Charles Albert in favour of his eldest son."

Despite Engels' optimistic predictions, a Piedmontese revolution did not happen in the end and Victor Emmanuel II's regime regained its stability. The new King ended the war with Austria with a formal peace treaty on August 9th but was obliged to hand over an indemnity of 65 million francs as compensation for his father's ill-advised bellicosity. By then the Austrians had also crushed a popular rebellion at Brescia in Lombardy, which had broken out on the same day as the battle at Novora.

The intervening period between Novora and the Habsburg-Savoy peace treaty also saw the demise of the Roman Republic which, despite all the revolutionary hype, ultimately existed for just six months. In April 1849 President Bonaparte of France dispatched an expeditionary force to Rome under the command of Charles Oudinot. When this army landed at Civitavecchia it soon set tongues wagging all over Europe as people speculated over what the French might be up to. Bonaparte insisted that his troops were only going to be acting as mediators between Pius IX, who had been allowed to retain his position as spiritual head of the Catholic Church, and the republican regime but it soon became clear that France wanted a full restoration of the Pope's former powers. Rome capitulated to Oudinot's forces on June 29th after a two-month siege and the republic collapsed, allowing for the re-establishment of the Papal States. Mazzini, Garibaldi and the other Roman revolutionaries fled into exile, with Garibaldi moving across the Atlantic to New York City where he would remain for the next decade.

As far as the 1848 revolutionary movement in Italy was concerned, the fall of the Roman Republic marked the beginning of the end. At around the same time in Naples, Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies. stubbornly bickered with his ministers over how far the pre-agreed constitutional reforms should go, leading to political deadlock and rioting in the streets. Eventually he lost patience, ordered the army to dissolve the national parliament and went back to ruling the mainland part of his kingdom as an absolute monarch. The Bourbon King next targeted Sèttimu's rogue regime in Sicily, sending his navy and an army of 20,000 men to subdue the island and bring it back under his control, a feat which he eventually accomplished after a brutal nine-month campaign. The Sicilians may have been subdued but Ferdinand II's merciless approach to the task greatly damaged not only his own reputation but also the reputation of the House of Bourbon-Two Sicilies in general; he became particularly resented for his decision to have his fleet bombard the city of Messina for eight hours even though the inhabitants had already surrendered, killing many civilians and earning him the derisive nickname "King Bomb".

So, just like the abortive uprisings that had taken place in the 1820s and 1830s, the Italian revolutions on 1848-1849 achieved no lasting change as the intervention of foreign powers once again ensured the preservation of the old order. The French restoration of the Pope was followed swiftly by Austrian restorations of the other deposed monarchs in central Italy. Venice was besieged and forced to surrender on August 24th 1849, bringing an end to the San Marco Republic, while many revolutionaries and pro-independence campaigners in Lombardy-Venetia were rounded up and hanged at Belfiore near Mantua in a series of mass executions overseen by the general Radetzky in 1853. In France, meanwhile, President Bonaparte initiated a coup d'état against his own National Assembly in December 1851 and subsequently assumed dictatorial powers. Exactly one year later he formally dissolved the Second Republic and founded the Second French Empire with himself as Emperor Napoleon III; France's first President had, is it would turn out, become its last monarch. He would remain closely involved in the process of Italian unification, which finally got underway properly in the late 1850s.

The War of 1859

Despite their several pastings incurred at the hands of the Austrians in battle, the Savoys of Piedmont-Sardinia had not entirely abandoned their dream of one day ruling the whole of Italy. The man who made that dream a practical reality was Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, who became the President of Victor Emmanuel II's council of ministers (i.e. Prime Minister) in 1852. Like his royal bosses, Cavour harboured expansionist ambitions but, unlike them, was intelligent enough to realise that Piedmont-Sardinia was not strong enough to take on Austria single-handedly and would need outside help, ideally from Napoleon III's newly-established French Empire. He tried to court both the French and the British as allies by siding with them against the Russians in the Crimean War (1853-1856) but was unsuccessful; the Congress of Paris which followed the conclusion of the conflict made no mention of the Italian situation. The one good thing to come out of the Crimean War from the Italian point-of-view was that the Austrians had tried to maintain an uneasy balance between both sides during the course of it and had subsequently been left diplomatically isolated and vulnerable in its aftermath.

The key turning point came on January 14th 1858 when an Italian nationalist by the name of Felice Orsini made a failed attempt on the life of Napoleon III. Whilst in prison awaiting the guillotine, Orsini wrote to his would-be victim, the Emperor, appealing for him to commit to the cause of Italian nationalism and unification. This plea struck a chord with Napoleon and he later agreed to a meeting with Cavour at the spa town of Plombières in eastern France. There the two men formed a pact for a joint war against Austria from which, if victorious, Piedmont-Sardinia would annex Lombardy-Venetia as well as the duchies of Parma and Modena. France, on the other hand, would stand to gain the provinces of Savoy and Nice from Piedmont-Sardinia in exchange for providing them with military assistance. It was also agreed that Piedmont-Sardinia would initiate war by deliberately inciting rebellion in the Austrian territories, thereby making Austria the aggressor and giving the French the justification to intervene against them.

Map of the Italian Peninsula at the beginning of 1859, showing the Papal States in red, Lombardy-Venetia in blue, the Savoy lands of Piedmont-Sardinia in peach and the Two Sicilies in yellow. Tuscany, Modena and Parma are shown collectively in green.

The plan was a straightforward one but neither Napoleon nor Cavour had accounted for the oblivious Austrians, who were surprisingly patient in dealing with the trouble that the Piedmontese were stirring up in Lombardy. No matter what Cavour tried, Austria simply would not take the hint and declare war. In March 1859, with still no sign of war forthcoming, a desperate Cavour gave up and ordered the Piedmontese armies to mobilise despite the fact that he could not risk going to war without the guarantee of French support, which Napoleon would not give if Piedmont-Sardinia was the aggressive power. In the end it was the Austrians who unwittingly resolved the dilemma by issuing an ultimatum to Cavour demanding immediate demobilisation. Cavour conveniently rejected the ultimatum and Austria declared war on April 29th, paving the way for the French to honour the Pact of Plombières and come to the aid of Piedmont-Sardinia.

The war was short, only two-and-a-half months, and was inevitably a disaster for Austria. Her armies marched into Piedmont but they were disorganised and unable to secure the Alpine passes before the arrival of the French army and were pushed back. On June 4th Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II personally led their Franco-Piedmontese forces to victory at the Battle of Magenta and shortly afterwards entered Milan in triumph. The Austrians subsequently withdrew from most of Lombardy but their battered army, with the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph at its head, made a last stand at Solferino in June 24th. After a particularly bloody encounter, they were beaten again and forced to retreat into their fortresses on the border with Venetia.

At this point Napoleon III, having witnessed the carnage of Solferino first-hand, wanted to cut and run; he still feared for his position back home in France and was concerned about the potential cost of conquering Venetia and what might happen if he inadvertently helped Piedmont-Sardinia to become too powerful. On July 11th the French Emperor secretly met with his Austrian counterpart Franz Joseph at Villafranca in an effort to negotiate honourable terms. Franz Joseph would keep Venetia but he agreed to cede Lombardy to the French who would then immediately pass it on to Piedmont-Sardinia (the Austrians were too proud to consider handing the territory to Piedmont-Sardinia directly). Austrian influence in central Italy and the Papal States was to be ended and the former monarchs of Tuscany, Modena, and Parma - who had been ousted following the outbreak of war - were to be restored. The big loser was to be Napoleon himself, for he had not fully honoured his terms agreed with Cavour and therefore would not gain Savoy or Nice.

When the Piedmontese learned of Napoleon's treachery they were understandably less than pleased. Cavour demanded that the war be continued but Victor Emmanuel II agreed with the Emperor that the best thing to do would be to make peace while they had the advantage. Lacking support from either his King or the French, Cavour had no choice but to resign from office. A peace treaty was signed with Austria in November 1859, after which Lombardy was annexed, but the full terms of the agreement made between Napoleon and Franz Joseph at Villafranca could not be seen through as Piedmontese forces also occupied the central Italian duchies as well as the Papal Legations (the northernmost region of the Papal States), all of which had expelled their monarchs and were now ruled by revolutionary regimes committed to the cause of unification. The Piedmontese would not withdraw these troops and the Austrians were in no position to try and force them to, while the French were no longer willing to get involved in the matter. After nearly half a century of wars and failed revolutions, the point had finally been reached where the old order could not be restored; the genie of Risorgimento was at last out of the bottle.

Map of the Italian Peninsula in 1860 following the the annexations of Lombardy and the United Provinces of Central Italy (Tuscany, Modena, Parma and the Papal Legations) by Piedmont-Sardinia and the handover of the Nice and Savoy provinces to France.

Buoyed by the prospect of becoming part of a united Italian state, the territories occupied by the Piedmontese came together in December 1859 to form the United Provinces of Central Italy, a short-lived client state that was created solely to prevent the return of their monarchs and ease the process of annexation by Piedmont-Sardinia. Referendums were held on the issue in March 1860 in Tuscany, Modena, Parma and the Legations; every single one returned a landslide result in favour of annexation. By the end of March the annexations were complete and a triumphant Cavour had returned to power as Prime Minister of a greatly-expanded Kingdom of Sardinia. French acquiescence to the expansion was gained when Cavour agreed to honour the original agreement with Napoleon III and transferred sovereignty of Nice and Savoy in a gesture of goodwill to the Emperor.

The Founding of a Kingdom (1860-1861)

By the Summer of 1860 there remained only five states on the Italian Peninsula: Piedmont-Sardinia, Venetia, the Papal States, the tiny Republic of San Marino and the Two Sicilies. The House of Savoy now dominated the north but there is little to suggest at this point that either Cavour or Victor Emmanuel II were planning to expand their territory any further; the central and southern areas ruled by Pope Pius IX and the Bourbon-Two Sicilies, Italian though they were, were relatively poor in comparison to the wealthier north and annexing them would seemingly provide more burden than benefit. Events quickly took on a momentum of their own, however, as the tide of nationalism overwhelmed the remaining leaders and handed the Savoys the keys to a united Italian state.

Francis II of the Two Sicilies, the son of "King Bomb" Ferdinand II, had occupied his throne for barely a year. He had a well-organised army of 150,000 men at his disposal but the popularity of his dynasty had been somewhat soured by his father's harsh put-down of the 1848 Sicilian independence movement. He was also left considerably weakened by the loss of his Swiss mercenaries, who were recalled to their homeland when its government passed a new law forbidding Swiss men to serve in foreign armies (the only exception from this law was the Papal Swiss Guard, which still exists today). This sudden development left Francis with only his native Italian troops, who were not well-known for their reliability or discipline; the Bourbon monarchy was vulnerable and it presented a golden opportunity for the Risorgimento movement. In April 1860 uprisings erupted in the Sicilian cities of Messina and Palermo, continuing the island's tradition of opposing rule from the mainland.

These initial Sicilian disturbances were at first suppressed by troops loyal to Francis II but the situation suddenly changed when Giuseppe Garibaldi unexpectedly returned from his self-imposed exile in the United States. Garibaldi, a native of Nice, had reacted badly to the fact that his home city had been given away to the French and thus returned to Europe with the intention of bringing it back under Savoy control. His plans were not supported by Cavour, who feared with some justification that attempting to retake Nice would spark a war with Napoleon III and jeopardise everything that Piedmont-Sardinia had gained. To avoid this eventuality, Cavour instead persuaded Garibaldi to take his men south and assist the Sicilian rebels. Garibaldi agreed and set sail from Genoa on May 6th 1860 with his small volunteer army known as I Mille - "The Thousand". He made landfall on Sicily five days later.

Garibaldi's expedition sets sail for Sicily

Once he had landed, Garibaldi immediately began attracting bands of revolutionaries and nationalists to his side. Within three days he had swelled his army to over 4000 strong and defeated a Bourbon army at Calatafimi; legend has it that Garibaldi charged headlong into battle after speaking the immortal words: "Here we make Italy, or we die." On May 14th he declared himself ruler of Sicily on the behalf of Victor Emmanuel II. On May 27th his army reached Palermo, the largest city on the island, and began siege operations which prompted a mass uprising and street fighting in the city itself. The Bourbon authorities sent an army of 25,000 across from the mainland but when they arrived their guns fired over the heads of Garibaldi's besieging troops and blasted Palermo almost to total destruction; their orders had been not to break the siege, which they could have done with ease considering their overwhelming numerical advantage, but to punish the "insurgent" citizens. A golden opportunity to crush Garibaldi's rebels had been squandered. Eventually the British intervened and mediated a cease-fire which led to the withdrawal of the Bourbon army and the surrender of what remained of Palermo to Garibaldi.

The seizure of Palermo turned Garibaldi into a national hero overnight and his fame spread yet further. The same could not be said for Francis II, however, as the defeat triggered an almost total collapse of confidence in the Bourbon government and made its weaknesses clear for all to see. A mood of ill-feeling prevailed at the King's court in Naples as Francis gave up hope of recapturing Sicily and tried desperately to limit the damage before Garibaldi had the chance to bring his army across to the mainland. He summoned his ministers and offered to recall the national parliament and restore the 1848 constitution but by then it was too late. Six weeks after the capture of Palermo, Garibaldi attacked Messina. The city, which guarded the narrow straits separating Sicily from the Italian mainland, lasted barely a week before surrendering. The rebels then wasted no time in crossing the straits, avoiding the Neapolitan fleet which had come to intercept them. Having wrested the Kingdom of Sicily away from Francis II, Garibaldi was now on the mainland and looked set to do the same with the Kingdom of Naples.

The first town encountered by Garibaldi on Neapolitan territory was Reggio Calabria but a fight was not required as the men of the garrison quickly surrendered. The revolution quickly spread northwards as military resistance collapsed and the population greeted Garibaldi with open arms. Soon whole regions in the south were offering themselves up for annexation by Piedmont-Sardinia, transferring their loyalty from Francis II to Victor Emmanuel II. By September 5th Garibaldi had almost reached Salerno and a state of siege was declared just up the road in Naples. The following day Francis II left the city along with the 4000 troops that were still loyal to him and planned to make a final stand to the north on the River Volturno. Garibaldi arrived in Naples by train on September 7th 1860 and was given a hero's welcome by the population. The Bourbon King was still not beaten, however, and it would take more than Garibaldi's ragtag volunteer bands to flush out his best soldiers from their remaining strongholds. The professional army of Piedmont-Sardinia would be required to complete the task that Garibaldi had begun.

At this point, having witnessed the lightning-fast advance of Garibaldi's rebels, the Piedmontese were more than willing to help crush Francis II once and for all but there was a problem. In order to get to Naples the Piedmontese would have to traverse the Papal States, which still stretched right across the peninsula despite the earlier loss of the Legations. The situation threatened to trigger an international crisis as Garibaldi made it clear that he intended to proclaim a unified Italy from Rome regardless of what the Church thought. Pope Pius IX responded by threatening to excommunicate anybody who supported Piedmontese annexation of his territory. Money for the Papal armies began pouring in from Catholics worldwide who feared that the loss of the Pope's temporal authority could destabilise the Church. The standoff was only temporarily resolved when Napoleon III intervened and thrashed out a compromise with Cavour by which Piedmont-Sardinia could annex the Two Sicilies and the papal regions of Umbria and Marche but had to leave Rome and the surrounding region of Latium intact under the rule of the Pope.

With the international situation now stabilised by Napoleon III's blessing, the Piedmontese dispatched two army corps to the frontier with the Papal States with orders to march through to the south and attack Francis II's forces in northern Naples. The Papal army, led by the French exile Louis Lamoricière, attempted to block the advance but it was quickly defeated and forced to retreat to the coastal fortress of Ancona, where it surrendered on September 29th. Ten days later King Victor Emmanuel II arrived and took personal command of his army, which could now continue its southward march unopposed. The arrival of Victor Emmanuel helped to strengthen the relationship between the Piedmontese and Garibaldi's rebel army. Despite his revolutionary and republican sympathies, Garibaldi found the King to be a far more acceptable leader than Cavour, whom he distrusted due to his role in the handover of Nice to the French.

Once Victor Emmanuel had arrived on Neapolitan territory, Garibaldi immediately relinquished power and the command of his forces to him. On October 26th the two men met at Teano, where Garibaldi famously shook the King's hand and greeted him for the first time as King of Italy; Garibaldi had thus sacrificed his republican vision for the sake of unity and stability under the Savoy monarchy, a goal which was now tantilisingly close to becoming a reality. After accompanying Victor Emmanuel into Naples, Garibaldi went into retirement on the island of Capera off the coast of Sardinia.

Map of the Italian Peninsula in the Spring of 1861 following the Piedmontese conquest of the Two Sicilies and most of the Papal States. The newly-proclaimed Kingdom of Italy now encompassed the entire peninsula with the exception of Venetia and the region of Latium around Rome.

With Garibaldi gone, the job of finishing off Francis II was left to Victor Emmanuel. His forces made rapid progress, forcing Francis to pull his army back from their line on the River Volturno and take refuge in the coastal fortress of Gaeta, eighty kilometres north of Naples. He held out there courageously for three months, his bravery bolstered by the support of his wife Marie Sophie of Bavaria. The writing was on the wall, however, and it soon became clear that Francis' European allies were not willing to provide supplies or military support to help him hold on to his crown. Still he continued to resist even after the onset of disease in the garrison and the withdrawal of the French fleet, which had until then been on station to protect the town from a seaborne attack. It was not until February 13th 1861 that Gaeta finally surrendered and all organised Neapolitan resistance ceased. As his former kingdoms were annexed by Piedmont-Sardinia, Francis II and his wife began their new lives as deposed exiles, perennially wandering between France, Bavaria and Austria. Francis died in 1894 while Marie Sophie lived on until 1925.

The deposition of Francis II and the annexation of his territories made the proclamation of a unified Italy possible despite the fact that the regions of Venetia and Latium still remained outside of Piedmontese control. On February 18th 1861, just five days after the fall of Gaeta, Victor Emmanuel II summoned representatives from all his territories to attend a parliament in Turin. One month later, on March 17th, this parliament formally declared Victor Emmanuel II as King of a united Italy. Piedmont-Sardinia henceforth became known as the Kingdom of Italy and the new state's government was simply a continuation of the Savoy administration and institutions. Cavour, the man who had proved to be the real driving force behind the Risorgimento process, lived just long enough to see the near-completion of his goal to unify the peninsula; he fell ill and died barely three months after the founding of the Italian kingdom. His alleged last words were, "Italy is made. All is safe". Other leaders in Europe were not quite so optimistic; Napoleon III reacted to the news of Cavour's death with the words, "The driver has fallen from the box; now we must see if the horses will bolt or go back to the stable". Conservative politicians within Italy itself, meanwhile, began to fear that the new state might now re-fragment or fall victim to the revolutionary machinations of their more radical colleagues:

"Who now is going to be the counterweight to Mazzini and Garibaldi? Who now can keep the revolution safe indoors like some domesticated hyena?"
(Massimo d'Azeglio, former Prime Minister of Piedmont-Sardinia)

The Roman Question (1861-1865)

When the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in March 1861, it was also declared that Rome would be the new capital even though that city was still under Papal rule and was thus not part of the new state. The Italian government also faced the problem of radical politicians like Mazzini who did not accept the monarchical rule of the House of Savoy and continued to push for revolution and republicanism. To ward off this threat, they continued to push for the annexation of the remaining Italian territories that were outside of their control: namely Rome, Latium and Venetia (San Marino had been exempted from the new state at its own request as a gesture of thanks for the shelter it had given to pro-unification figures in the past). The issue of annexing what remained of the Papal States was still a very delicate one which provoked mistrust and hostility from Catholics around the world. It had also been made a whole lot more difficult by the fact that Napoleon III had dispatched another sizable French garrison to Rome to serve as additional protection for Pope Pius IX.

Victor Emmanuel II was perfectly aware of the political issues that would inevitably arise from an attack on Rome but Garibaldi was in favour of doing so as he believed that it would have popular support. The Italian government ignored him, however, and his frustration over the lack of progress caused him to come out of retirement and organise another expedition on his own initiative. In June 1862 Garibaldi landed once again on the shore of Sicily and began recruiting men for his new campaign under the slogan "Roma o Morte" ("Rome or Death"). 2000 men were quickly signed up but Garibaldi's plan his a snag when the garrison of Messina, which remained loyal to Victor Emmanuel, refused to let him pass through the city on his way to the mainland. This forced him to take a detour southwards to Catania and make the crossing from there. On August 14th he landed at Melito and declared that he would either enter Rome as victor or die at the foot of its walls.

Victor Emmanuel II, first King of Italy (1861-1878)

Although he was now on the mainland, Garibaldi and his expedition still did not have the support of either the King or the government; indeed the government, which remained determined to acquire Rome through more peaceful means, was quite disapproving. A division of the Italian army was sent south with the task of dealing with the unwanted volunteer force and the two sides met at Aspromonte on August 28th. Garibaldi expressly forbade his men from opening fire on their fellow Italians but the commander of the regular force was not quite so curteous; many of the volunteers were killed or wounded in the ensuing one-sided fight, including Garibaldi himself. The man who had contributed so much to the cause of unification now found himself a prisoner of the country that he had helped to create. He was kept for short time in an honourable confinement at Varignano, a prison near La Spezia on the Italian Riviera, until his injuries had healed, at which point he was released and allowed to return to his island retreat at Caprera.

With Garibaldi now once again pacified, the government was free to pursue a less-violent resolution to the Roman Question. Victor Emmanuel II and his ministers approached Napoleon III in the hope of securing the removal of French troops from Rome. On September 15th 1864 the French and Italians agreed to and signed the September Convention; Napoleon III agreed that he would withdraw his garrison from Rome within the next two years in order to give Pius IX enough time to build up his own forces to a level adequate enough to guarantee the security of his territory. The Italians agreed to recognise the existing frontiers of (what was left of) the Papal States and relocate their capital city from Turin to Florence, the former capital of Tuscany. The agreement to move the seat of government caused so much unrest in Turin that Victor Emmanuel had to depart quickly and unceremoniously for his new capital. In December 1866 the last French troops departed from Rome.

The Gaining of Venetia (1866)

By the mid 1860s the almost-complete process of Italian unification had stalled. Rome remained under Papal control, a situation which the Italians were obliged under the terms of the September Convention to accept, and Austria still kept its hold on Venetia. The solution to this dilemma for the Italians came in the form of another campaign of unification that was well-underway on the other side of the Alps. Ever since the fall of Napoleon's French Empire in 1815, the Austrian Empire had been locked in a political struggle with the Kingdom of Prussia for dominance over the German states in Central Europe. In 1866 that struggle degenerated into all-out war and provided Italy with the opportunity to seize Venetia while the Austrians were pre-occupied with the Prussians and their German allies in the north. Austria attempted to persuade Italy to remain neutral by offering to relinquish Venetia but the Italians, who had every reason to dislike and distrust the Austrians, had already opted instead to ally themselves with Prussia.

On April 8th 1866, some two months before the outbreak of the Austro-Prussian War, the Italian Prime Minister, Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora formally brokered an alliance with his Prussian counterpart, Otto von Bismarck, with Bismarck agreeing to support Italy's claim to Venetia. Italy declared war against Austria on June 20th, after which La Marmora resigned in order to assume a command in the army. With the outbreak of hostilities, Victor Emmanuel II quickly led the main Italian army on a march into Venetia while Garibaldi, now fully-reconciled with the government, once again came out of retirement and led another army into the Austrian Alpine province of Tyrol, which had a large Italian population. Things did not go according to plan for the Italians as the Austrian forces that opposed them proved to be far stronger than they had anticipated. On June 24th La Marmora's army was defeated by a numerically-inferior Austrian army at Custoza near the Venetian city of Verona while the Italian navy, the Regia Marina, was decisively beaten on July 20th by its Austrian counterpart off the island of Lissa in the Adriatic Sea. Garibaldi's men, known as "The Hunters of the Alps", were more fortunate; they defeated the Austrians at Bezzecca on July 21st and came close to capturing the city of Trent.

The Battle of Custoza

Despite Italy's poor showing in the war, the encounters between Prussia and Austria to the north proved to be decisive as the Prussians came out on top and secured their position as the leading authority over the German states. On July 27th Bismarck, having decided that all his personal goals had been achieved, signed an Armistice with the Austrians and brought an end to the fighting. The Italian armies stood down on August 12th and Garibaldi was obliged to abandon his successful campaign in Tyrol. He did so willingly but resigned his command immediately afterwards, sending his superiors a telegram which simply read "I obey". A formal peace treaty was signed in Vienna on October 12th and the defeated Austrians were forced to give up Venetia. They agreed but, just as they had done with Lombardy in 1859, they refused to relinquish territory directly to Italy. Emperor Franz Joseph instead handed control of Venetia to Napoleon III as a sign of gratitude for French non-intervention in the conflict. The Emperor then duly transferred it to Victor Emmanuel II on October 19th in the hope that it would deter the Italians from someday trying to take back Savoy and Nice.

In order for the Italian annexation of Venetia to be recognised, a referendum was required to be held according to the terms agreed to in the Vienna peace treaty. The referendum was held in the region on October 21st-22nd and produced a suspiciously high result in favour of annexation by the Kingdom of Italy, leading many to imply that Italian military pressure was used to influence the vote. The end result was 99.99% in favour, meaning that only around seventy of the 642,000 votes cast were against. Independence advocates who were in favour of re-establishing the old pre-Napoleonic Venetian Republic felt betrayed by what they saw as the suppression of their argument and rigging of the referendum by the unification movement. The Austrians also refused to accept the result but the Italians went in regardless and formally annexed the region, with Victor Emmanuel II receiving an emphatic welcome upon his entry into Venice.

The Capture of Rome (1867-1871)

Following the annexation of Venetia in 1866, the nationalist movement spearheaded by Garibaldi still agitated for the acquisition of Rome; they argued incessantly that, with Rome being the historical centre of the peninsula, the process of unification could never be complete until it was taken. In 1867 Garibaldi made another attempt to capture Rome but his volunteers were beaten at Mentana by Pius IX's Papal army, which was supported by French auxiliaries. At around the same time another small group of about seventy revolutionaries, led by the brothers Enrico and Giovanni Cairoli, had attempted their own assault on Rome. They initially succeeded in capturing a number of key locations within the city but in the end they too were defeated after being surrounded by Papal troops at Villa Glori on October 23rd. Enrico Cairoli was killed in that battle while Giovanni lingered on for two more years before finally succumbing to his injuries. In the face of this renewed Italian aggression, Napoleon III responded by re-installing the French garrison in Rome to protect the Pope.

With Pius IX once again under French protection there was little that the Italians could do but wait until a more favourable international situation arose. The opportunity finally came in July 1870 when the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) broke out. Napoleon III, faced with invasion by Prussia and the other German states, immediately withdrew his garrison from Rome for the final time so that its troops might be better used in the defence of France. Public demonstrations immediately erupted in cities across Italy as the people demanded that the government make a move to annex Rome immediately. The government remained cautious, however, and instead followed the progress of the war in France. On September 1st Napoleon III and his army of 120,000 men, having botched an attempt to relieve the besieged city of Metz, surrendered to the Prussians following their entrapment and defeat at the Battle of Sedan. When news of the Emperor's capture reached Paris, the French Second Empire immediately collapsed and was replaced by the Third Republic which resolved to continue the war even as the German armies laid siege to the capital. On January 18th 1871 the Germans proclaimed the foundation of their own unified nation-state, the German Empire, at the Palace of Versailles.

The developments of the Franco-Prussian War were ideal for the Italians and made any plans to capture Rome far more likely to succeed. France had been decisively beaten and the Emperor, the Pope's primary protector, was gone. Napoleon's Catholic empire had been replaced by a secular republic which hardly cared for the plight of Pius IX and was nevertheless distracted by the continuation of the war. Italy also had little to fear from the new German Empire, which was dominated by the Protestant Prussian aristocracy and keen, at least for the time-being, to pursue a conciliatory foreign policy and avoid getting involved in other countries' problems. With the road clear, the Italians made their move; Victor Emmanuel II dispatched Count Gustavo Ponza di San Martino to Rome with a proposal that allowed for the effective annexation of Rome by Italy under the guise of providing protection to the Pope. This plan was deliberately created in order to allow Pius IX to save face but the following extract from Raffaele di Cesare's The Last Days of Papal Rome (1909) shows that Pius was still less than willing to co-operate:

"The Pope’s reception of San Martino (10 September 1870) was unfriendly. Pius IX allowed violent outbursts to escape him. Throwing the King’s letter upon the table he exclaimed, "Fine loyalty! You are all a set of vipers, of whited sepulchres, and wanting in faith." He was perhaps alluding to other letters received from the King. After, growing calmer, he exclaimed: "I am no prophet, nor son of a prophet, but I tell you, you will never enter Rome!" San Martino was so mortified that he left the next day."

Pope Pius IX

Pius IX, desperate to cling on to what was left of his earthly power in the Italian Peninsula, had thrown the gauntlet down for Victor Emmanuel II but the simple fact was that, without foreign support, he was never going to able to resist the will of the Kingdom of Italy for long. On September 11th 1870, the day after Pius' harsh rebuttal of San Martino, Italian troops commanded by General Raffaele Cadorna crossed the border into Latium and advanced slowly towards Rome. The Italians still hoped to somehow bring the Pope to the negotiating table and secure a peaceful entry into the city but that had still not happened by the time Cadorna's army arrived in September 19th and found their way blocked by the imposing city walls. A short siege ensued during which Pius IX forced his troops to put up token resistance despite the inevitability of defeat.

The city walls of Rome had defended the city ever since they were built by the Roman Emperor Aurelius in the 3rd Century but they took barely a day to crumble in the face of relentless Italian cannon shot. Following a three-hour bombardment on September 20th, the walls were breached at the Porta Pia and the Italian Royal Army marched into the heart of Rome along the Via Pia, which was subsequently renamed the Via XX Settembre in honour of the victory. Only forty-nine Italian soldiers and four officers died in the battle to take the city, along with nineteen Papal troops. Rome and Latium were formally annexed by the Kingdom of Italy following a referendum on October 2nd, the results of which were ratified by decree seven days later.

Of course, the Italians fully intended to make Rome their capital after they had captured it but there was first the task of reconciliation with Pius IX and the Church. This task took longer than expected to accomplish as Pius strove to make his new masters' lives as difficult as possible. The government tried to placate him by drafting a compromise which allowed the papacy to maintain control of the Leonine City but Pius turned this down on the grounds that he would have to recognise Italian authority over the rest of his former domain, which he steadfastly refused to do. Pius instead took up residence in the Vatican and declared himself a prisoner there (although in practice he was not restricted from coming and going), beginning a political standoff between the papacy and the Italian government that would persist for more than half a century. In July 1871 Victor Emmanuel II and the government relocated from Florence and Rome at last became the capital of Italy.

Aftermath of Unification

As previously mentioned, the conquest of Rome did not fully complete il Risorgimento as there were still Italian-populated areas outside Italy itself. A new breed of nationalist opinion known as irredentism sprung up in Italy during the post-unification and called for the annexation of all those areas: the Austrian provinces of Tyrol, Istria and Dalmatia. Following Austria's collapse at the end of the First World War, those areas were finally added to the Kingdom of Italy, which had initially been an Austrian and German ally before the war but had subsequently switched sides.

Pope Pius IX remained in his self-imposed imprisonment at the Vatican for the rest of his pontificate. He died there in February 1878 as the longest-reigning elected Pope in the history of the Catholic Church (32 years). In 1929 the dispute between Italy and the papacy over the status of Rome was finally resolved when the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty with the Church. The treaty created a new independent state in the heart of Rome, the Vatican City, which the Pope would rule as head of state.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, a small amount of Italian territory in Istria and Dalmatia gained after the previous war was lost to neighbouring Yugoslavia in what turned out to be the last exchange of land in the history of the Italian state. Irredentism quickly died out as there were so few ethnic Italians left in those areas anyway after the war and there was thus no significant opposition to their loss. The period after the war also saw the end of the Savoy monarchy, which had been tainted by its co-operation with Mussolini's fascist regime, as a referendum held in 1946 produced a decisive result in favour of changing the constitution and establishing an Italian Republic, which came into effect on July 13th 1946.