October 1914

The different faces of interventionism

By Alessandro Salvador

"War is a blazing imposition of courage, energy and intelligence to all. Compulsory school of ambition and heroism; fullness of life and the highest freedom in their dedication to the homeland."

(Filippo Tommaso Marinetti) 

At the outbreak of the war in 1914, Italy found itself in a situation of uncertainty. Since 1882, the country had been linked to Germany and Austria-Hungary via the Triple Alliance. This purely defensive pact was renewed in 1912, but did not in any way bind Italy to go to war alongside the central empires. For this reason and because no evident advantages could be seen from entering into the war on the side of the allies, neutrality prevailed. This was supported by the former head of government, Giovanni Giolitti, and by most of the Italian social and political scene at the time. Even the Socialists and Catholics took a position of neutrality; the former on the basis of the ideals of internationalism, and the latter for reasons of pacifism, as clearly expressed by Pope Benedict XV.

In this panorama, where neutrality appeared to dominate unchallenged, dissenting voices of the so-called interventionists emerged, who favoured a war against the central empires. The reasons for interventionism were numerous, and several people supported it. 

A heterogeneous group of politicians, journalists and intellectuals founded the first nucleus of the interventionist movement: writers such as Gabriele D’Annunzio, artists, such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the Futurists, who became the “megaphones of war enthusiasm”. They represented technique and heroism in their art, beauty and exaltation of action. For the Futurists, war represented population cleansing.

On a practical level, interventionism gave a special voice to the desire to complete the Resurgence and reunite Italy with the so-called "unredeemed lands", i.e. Trentino and Venezia Giulia. Among the irredentists, there were both fervent nationalists, such as Scipio Slataper, who wanted Italy to follow an aggressive and imperialist policy, and the democrats, such as Cesare Battisti. The nationalists were the more aggressive interventionist component of the movement. They saw in war not only the possibility to complete the resurgence process with the conquest of redeemed lands, but also a means by which Italy could impose its power. In their vision, objectives of war had to bring Italian domination to the Adriatic and the Balkans and launch an expansion policy toward Asia and Africa. Their positions were echoed in the world of culture. 

The nationalistic position was even cautiously welcomed by the liberal conservatives, represented by the Head of Government, Antonio Salandra, and by the Foreign Minister, Sidney Sonnino. They saw the conflict as an opportunity to unite the nation under a common goal and strengthen the image and the power of the monarchy. At the same time, they were aware that a defeat could irreparably jeopardise the image of Italy.

The motivation of the revolutionary trade unionists, such as Filippo Corridoni, on the other hand, was quite different. For them, war would have caused an apocalyptic upheaval in the existing political and social structures, thereby favouring the birth of a new social order on the rubble of the old world. Following his initial neutrality, Benito Mussolini, director of the Socialist newspaper Avanti, began to subscribe to these ideas. His conversion to interventionism and his ferocious criticism of the lack of action by socialist neutralism led to his expulsion from the party and to his dismissal as director of the Socialist newspaper. 

Lastly, moderate positions were taken by the reformist socialists, such as Leonida Bissolati and Ivanoe Bonomi, and by Republican Democrats like Gaetano Salvemini. They saw the war as an essential step toward a new European order. Although far from the apocalyptic aspirations of the revolutionary trade unionists, they believed it was their duty to promote a crusade against anachronistic and despotic power systems, such as the central empires. Only by eliminating these faults on the European scene would it be possible to inaugurate a new era, characterised by the self-determination of the people and by international cooperation. The latter objectives also characterised Catholic interventionism, represented by young militants of the Democratic League, such as Eligio Cacciaguerra and Giuseppe Donati. Don Luigi Sturzo was another interventionist, who saw war as a possibility to emancipate Italian politics from Giolitti’s transformism.

Prisoners of War

By Matthias Egger

Between August 1914 and November 1918 the Central Powers and the Allies mobilised about 71.5 million men. Of these, several million - the figures vary from seven to nine million - became prisoners of war, that means that about one in eight men mobilised during the First World War fell "into the hands of the enemy" Whilst on the South-Eastern Front a total of between "only" 217,000 and 291,000 military personnel suffered this fate, the figures for the South-Western Front were somewhat lower (770,000 to 1,000,000) whilst for the Western Front (about 1.500.000) they were significantly higher. Compared with those for the Eastern Front (about 5,300,000), these figures appear to be relatively low. Especially Austria-Hungary and Russia were confronted with the "Prisoner of War" phenomenon. The Habsburg Monarchy was not only the third largest detaining power, but it also found that about 2.8 million of the Austrians and Hungarians taking part in the war fell into the hands of the Allies, that means that one out of three men serving in the Austro-Hungarian army, fell "into the hands of the enemy" during the course of the war. So it must be said that the matter of Prisoners of War during the First World War was truly a mass phenomenon (Jochen Oltmer).

In spite of the vast number of different individual experiences we can determine certain general characteristics of what it was to be a prisoner of war during the First World War, which we will go into here below.

During the First World War, hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war were exposed to extreme climatic conditions. So in Russia it was not only that numerous camps had been established along the Trans-Siberian Railway and in Turkestan, but also that tens of thousands of prisoners of war had to work in Arctic regions e.g.along the so-called Kirov Railway. For its part, the Ottoman Empire created numerous prisoner of war camps between Constantinople and Mosul during the war. Whilst in summer prisoners of war were plagued with heat, drought and sandstorms, in Winter they suffered from the cold in internment camps like Kastamonu in the north of modern-day Turkey. Prisoners of war were also exposed to extreme weather conditions in Austria-Hungary. You only have to think how it must have been for Russian prisoners of war originating from the Central Asian steppes when they had to work on a Tyrolean mountain farm, orcarry supplies to Austro-Hungarian positions along the Dolomite front..

In order to accommodate the huge number of prisoners of war, the datainig powers erected large-scale camps, called concentration camps in the language of the day. For example, in the winter of 1915/16 some 3,070 prisoners of war were interned in the Eger "Mannschaftslager" or camp for rank and file (Böhmen), about 8,500 in the Wieselburg camp (Lower Austria) and about 11,750 in the Kenyermezö camp (Hungary). At the same time, in the Eastern Siberian Nikolsk Ussurijski camp (Primorskaja Administrative Division) there were 57 officers and 16,235 men, in the Krasnojarsk camp (Jenissejsk Administrative Division) about 2,450 officers and 10,615 men and in the Kokand camp (Turkestan) almost 6,000 prisoners of war. The mere concentration of several thousand people in a confined space, together with extreme climatic conditions, deficient hygiene and nourishment represented a severe health hazard for the prisoners of war. In Siberia and Turkestan as well as in Central and Eastern Europe this combination of factors lead to hundreds of thousands of prisoners succumbing to epidemics (typhoid, cholera, etc).

This brings us to a further hallmark: prisoners of war, especiallyrank and file , suffered great hardship in many places. This fact is well illustrated by the memoirs of Hans Kiene, an Austro-Hungarian reserve officer detained in Tashkent. Hewrote that the rank and file prisoners " mostly tightly-packed together in camps and plagued by typhoid epidemics, were destitute in the face of the organisational incompetence of the Russian commanders". An unknown Russian prisoner of war tried (in vain) over and over again to enlighten his relatives by means of a coded message on the dismal situation in an Austro-Hungarian camp: "New comrades arrive every day, Peter Tifnikov for example [in Russian "Tif" = "Typhoid"], Iwan Ponossow [in Russian "Ponos" = "Diarrhea"] and G. Olodow [in Russian "Golod" = "Hunger"] are now here, and they will be allowed to stay in our camp until peace is declared." Even though under international law the detaining power was obliged to take appropriate care of prisoners of war, their day-today survival often depended on support from their home country. Therefore, during the course of the war the major European powers, with the exception of Italy, found themselves having to implement relief measures to assist their prisoners of war in enemy territory. This support contributed considerably to an improvement in the living conditions of prisoners of war.

But their situation also improved with the start of enlistment for work - under the terms of international law - (though officers were specifically excluded under the Hague Conventions of 1907), as a result of which the camps began to empty. Early in 1915 Germany and the Habsburg Empire had already started to put prisoners of war to work on a large scale. By the spring of 1915 between 60 and 70 per cent of prisoners of war interned in Austria-Hungary had already been put to work outside the camps, at least on a part-time basis. At first they were employed in agriculture and industry as well as in expanding infrastructures. In Russia employment also started on a large scale in the summer/autumn of 1915, but the "systematic employment of all prisoners of war did not take place in Russia […] until the spring of 1916." (Reinhard Nachtigal) This hesitant start is reflected in the figures. Whilst in May 1915 barely 100,000 prisoners of war were put to work in Russia, in September there were at least 550,000. In March 1916 there were about 610,000, in December of the same year 1.1 million and eventually in early 1917 there were 1.6 million. Likewise during the course of the First World War prisoners of war were put to work on a large scale in France, and Italy.

Although the Hague Convention (1907) stated that the work of prisoners of war should "not be in any way related to the war effort" almost all the countries involved in the war enlisted prisoners of war for military tasks. At the beginning of 1917 in Austria-Hungary alone 295,000 prisoners of war are believed to have been performing tasks for the "army in the field". In France in 1917 40% "of all prisoners of war employed" had to work for the army (Bernard Delpal), whilst in Russia over 100,000 prisoners of war are believed to have been employed as trench workers at the front and in the staging areas. As these examples demonstrate, prisoners of war were extremely important not only for the war economy in general, but also directly for the maintenance of the fronts.

Finally, a feature of prisoners of war during the First World War was that for hundreds of thousands of them captivity did not end with the armistice.For those prisoners of war interned in Italy and Great Britain their return home began relatively soon, during the course of 1919. The Italian Government started to repatriate Austro-Hungarian prisoners even before the signing of the Treaty of St. Germain. France however did not begin to release German prisoners of war until "immediately after the signing of the Protocol for the Enactment of the Versailles Treaty on the 20th January 1920". It was in the east however where the confinement of prisoners of war lasted longest. Although hostilities had already ceased by December 1917, the protracted peace negotiations and the outbreak of civil war in Russia stood in the way of a swift return of German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war. For their part, Vienna and Berlin delayed the return of Russian prisoners of war since in the meantime they had become an integral part of the war economy in both countries. Hence it was not until 1920 that the last Russian prisoners of war returned to Russia, whilst the repatriation of former Austro-Hungarian and German prisoners of war from Soviet Russia was not officially completed until 1922.

Further reading:

Egger, Matthias. "Kriegsgefangene”. In “Katastrophenjahre. Der Erste Weltkrieg und Tirol” (Prisoners of War. In the years of Disaster. The First World War and the Tyrol) published by Hermann J. W. Kuprian and Oswald Überegger , pages 439-460. Innsbruck: Universitätsverlag Wagner, 2014.

Gorgolini, Luca. I dannati dell'Asinara. L'odissea dei progionieri austro-ungarici nella Prima guerra mondiale. Turin: UTET Libreria, 2011..

Jones, Heather. Violence against Prisoners of War in the First World War. Britain, France and Germany, 1914-1920 published by Jay Winter, Studies in Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Moritz, Verena and Hannes Leidinger. “Zwischen Nutzen und Bedrohung. Die Russischen Kriegsgefangenen in Österreich (1914-1921)", (Between Utility and Threat. Russian Prisoners of War in Austria, 1914-1921), published by Wolfram Funk and others, "Militärgeschichte und Wehrwissenschaften" (Military History and Science). Bonn: Bernard & Graefe Verlag, 2005.

Nachtigal, Reinhard. "Rußland und seine österreichisch-ungarischen Kriegsgefangenen (1914-1918)" (Russia and their Austro-Hungarian Prisoners of War 1914-1918). Remshalden Verlag Bernhard Albert Greiner, 2003.

Oltmer, Jochen, publisher. "Kriegsgefangene im Europa des Ersten Weltkriegs" (Prisoners of War in Europe in the First World War. Published by Stig Förster, Bernhard R. Kroener and Bernd Wegner, "Krieg in der Geschichte" (War in History). Paderborn [and others]: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2006.

Procacci, Giovanna. Soldati e prigonieri italiani nella grande Guerra. Rome: Editori Rinuiti, 1993.

Rachamimov, Alon. POWs and the Great War. Captivity on the Eastern Front, The Legacy of the Great War. Oxford, and others: Berg, 2002.

Tortato, Alessandro. La Prigionia di Guerra in Italia 1915-1919. Milan: Mursia, 2004.