Giovanni Giolitti

The Italian statesman Giovanni Giolitti (1842-1928) enacted an extensive program of constructive social legislation. He has been criticized for his manipulation of Italian political factions.

Born on Oct. 27, 1842, at Mondovi in Piedmont, Giovanni Giolitti was the son of mountain peasants. Finishing his juridical studies at the University of Turin in 1861, he entered government service, specializing in financial administration. In 1882 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. In 1889-1890 he served as minister of treasury. In 1892 he first became prime minister. His government, consisting mainly of the representatives of the left, lasted 18 months. It ended with Giolitti's resignation because of his involvement in the enormous scandal of the Bank of Rome.

In 1897 Giolitti resumed his political career. Between 1901 and 1903 he was minister of the interior. In 1903 he organized his second Cabinet, which lasted until 1905. In May 1906 he became prime minister for the third time, but now for a full 3-year term. He gave priority to economic problems, organized public works on a large scale, and, having adopted much of the program of the Socialists, promoted a policy of significant reforms which included legislation on public health, housing, work conditions, woman and child labor, workers' disability, and old-age pensions.

In 1911 Giolitti formed his last prewar government, but it became increasingly difficult for him to maintain the balance in his parliamentary coalition. In the midst of growing domestic difficulties, in October 1911 he involved Italy in a war with Turkey. However, this conflict did not mitigate the mounting conflicts inside the country. Therefore, for fear of a revolution, Giolitti made further concessions to the lower classes, including the enactment of almost universal manhood suffrage. Following the general elections in October and November 1913, the parliamentary majority set up by Giolitti from heterogeneous elements proved to be excessively difficult to handle. Therefore, although having won the election in March 1914, he chose to resign once more.

After the outbreak of World War I, Giolitti became a spokesman of the political neutrality of Italy. But after the disaster of Caporetto he pleaded for an all-out effort in the defense of the country. In the difficult postwar situation Giolitti's long political experience seemed to promise that he would be able to check the threatening anarchy. In 1920 he organized his fifth Cabinet, which lasted until the following year. He stopped the wave of strikes and the occupation of factories in August and September 1920 by promising to enact reforms demanded by the workers. But his actions satisfied neither the industrialists nor the Socialists. Moreover, he incurred the disfavor of Nationalists because of the Treaty of Rapallo in 1920, which dealt a terrible blow to Italian aspirations on the Dalmatian coast. He antagonized the Church by his tax policy and the big landowners by his proposal for agrarian reform.

Giolitti granted his silent approval to the Fascists, and he supported Benito Mussolini. But after 1924 he openly attacked Fascist policies. Giolitti died on July 17, 1928, in Cavour in Piedmont.

Giolitti is a most controversial figure. Severely criticized, he has also been defended as a great statesman. He was an expert at manipulating party combinations, and his enemies contemptuously called his tactics the "Giolittian manner." But this method of government, which he had inherited from his predecessors, proved to be the only workable one in Italy at that time. His constructive social legislation gave the Italians a period of real advance and prosperity. His role as a liberal statesman can be properly assessed only against a background of the totalitarian state that then emerged.


Further Reading on Giovanni Giolitti

Much material on Giolitti's life and political activities is in his autobiography, Memoirs of My Life, translated by Edward Storer (1923). There is no biography of Giolitti in English. A. William Salomone, Italy in the Giolittian Era: Italian Democracy in the Making, 1900-1914 (1945; 2d ed. 1960), contains an exhaustive study of Giolitti's political activities before World War I. George Terhune Peck, Giovanni Giolitti and the Fall of Italian Democracy, 1919-1922 (1945), deals with Giolitti's postwar activities.

Additional Biography Sources

Peck, George Terhune, Giovanni Giolitti and the fall of Italian democracy, 1919-192, 1942.