Victor Emmanuel III

Victor Emmanuel III (1869-1947) was king of Italy from 1900 to 1946. He contributed to the liquidation of the Italian monarchy.

Victor Emmanuel was born on Nov. 11, 1869, in Naples. After his father, Umberto I, was assassinated in 1900, Victor Emmanuel succeeded to the throne. His lifelong preference for matters martial had been set by military training and army service. But the political circumstances of his time prevented him from asserting a commanding personality in either war or peace.

In 1896 Victor Emmanuel married Princes Elena of Montenegro. They had five children, among whom were Umberto, the last legal king of Italy, and Mafalda, whose death in 1944 at the Buchenwald concentration camp enrolled her among the list of victims of that Fascist holocaust her father had helped to unleash upon Europe.

In Italy, as in other countries of Europe, the impact of World War I produced unforeseen shifts in the political spectrum. Particularly important were certain defections from the ranks of the Italian Socialist party. On the left arose a number of splinter factions, some of whom sympathized with the Russian Bolsheviks, but who were slow to form an Italian Communist party. To the right emerged the figure of Benito Mussolini, once a prominent Socialist journalist, now the leader of a band of middle-class ultranationalist bravos called Fascists. While the Fascists loudly supported the Italian claims to territory given to Yugoslavia after the war and vented their ire on striking workers, the left supported and led the strikers and, inspired by the revolutionary leader Antonio Gramsci, encouraged occupation of factories in the leading industrial center of Turin.

Frightened by working-class militancy, the old political establishment veered sharply right and looked on with satisfaction while the Fascists stepped up their punitive raids against labor and Socialist politicians. Yet by the time Mussolini's rabble assembled for its "March on Rome, " the tide of labor militancy had already begun to recede. On the eve of the march (Oct. 28, 1922) the government decided to proclaim martial law against the Fascist threat. But when asked to sign the decree, Victor Emmanuel refused. At this moment, the King occupied the crucial position later held by Paul von Hindenburg in Germany; in both cases the results were the same—the admission to the governing circles of Fascist dictators whose "temporary" rule during the pseudo-emergency would "restore order" and teach conformity to the rebellious left. Needless to say, the emergency never ended, at least not until 20 years of fascism had brought upon the Italian people the horrors of war and foreign occupation.

For the King, the rest was anticlimax. As head of state, he signed the decrees that deprived his countrymen of their liberties and that destroyed the parliamentary system. His only other opportunity to act independently came after Mussolini's downfall, when he handed over the reins of government to the conservative marshal Pietro Badoglio rather than to a representative of the joint anti-Fascist resistance. This was in 1943; the following year Victor Emmanuel, while retaining his title, handed over what was left of the royal power to his son. In May 1946 he abdicated, but the monarchy outlasted him by less than a month. He died in exile in Egypt on Dec. 28, 1947. His career demonstrates that he never really came to terms with democracy and that in his few moments of meaningful political choice he preferred to deal with the representatives of savage reaction rather than concede an inch to the demands of the people.


Further Reading on Victor Emmanuel III

Discussions of Victor Emmanuel's reign are found in John M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (1967); Denis Mack Smith, Italy: A Modern History (rev. ed. 1969); and A. William Salomone, Italy from the Risorgimento to Fascism (1970).