8

The Era of Giolitti and World War I, 1900–1918

When Vittorio Emanuele III inherited the throne on the violent death of his father in 1900, he assumed the position as head of state that he would hold through two world wars and the Fascist era. Loyal to his country, he failed at several critical points to provide leadership; in fact, he was not widely admired by Italians, and his failures would eventually doom the House of Savoy to oblivion. Political leadership in the first half of the twentieth century in fact was exercised most decisively by two men: Giovanni Giolitti, five-time prime minister, and Benito Mussolini, “Il Duce” of the Fascist state. Giolitti addressed Italy’s profound problems with a series of progressive reforms in the era he dominated (1900–1914), but his reputation for cynical manipulation and his habit of stepping down in the face of conflict ultimately undermined his reputation. In the wake of post–World War I malaise and political strife, Mussolini offered himself as savior from Bolshevism and vanguard of a new era, and, once he was named prime minister, consolidated his power through a series of authoritarian measures. Because the Giolittian era ended in Fascist dictatorship, historians have long debated the merits of this period and the politician who dominated it: Was this as historian A. William Salomone argued, a period of “Italian democracy in the making”?

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