The birth of the Italian Republic (officially on June 2, 1946) is a key event of Italian contemporary history. Until 1946, Italy was officially a monarchy ruled by the House of Savoy, kings of Italy since the Risorgimento (and previously of Sardinia). However, Benito Mussolini, enjoying the support of the monarchy, imposed fascism after the October 28, 1922 March on Rome, eventually engaging Italy in World War II alongside Nazi Germany. In 1946, Italy became a republic after the results of a popular referendum. Monarchists advanced suspicions of fraud that were never proved. A Constituent assembly was elected at the same time.
The Italian referendum was intended only to determine whether the Head of State should come from a family dynasty or be elected by popular vote. The Head of State, in either case, would appoint members of the government, but not govern personally.
Democracy was not a new concept in Italian politics. The Kingdom of Piedmont had become a constitutional monarchy with the liberalizing reforms of King Carlo Alberto's famous Statuto Albertino in 1848. Suffrage, initially limited to select citizens, was gradually expanded; in 1911, the government of Giovanni Giolitti introduced universal suffrage for male citizens. In this period, the provisions of the Statuto were often not observed, however. Instead, the elected Chamber and the Head of Government took major roles. At the beginning of the 20th century, many observers thought that, by comparison to other countries, Italy was developing in the direction of a modern democracy. Essential issues that needed to be resolved included the relationship of the Kingdom with the Roman Catholic Church.
A crisis arose in Italian society as a result of the First World War, social inequalities, and the consequent tension between Marxist and other left-wing parties on one side and conservative liberals on the other. This crisis led to the advent of Fascism, which destroyed freedoms and civil rights and established a dictatorship, breaking the continuity of the still fragile new parliamentary tradition. The support of the ruling elite and especially the monarchy was crucial for the seizure of power by Benito Mussolini. After the March on Rome, King Victor Emmanuel III refused to sign a decree to declare a state of siege, and asked Mussolini to form a new government. The King's decisions were made in accordance with the Statuto, but in opposition to the parliamentary practices of the Italian liberal state.
After the invasion of Italy by Allied forces in 1943, Italy and its government were split in two. Mussolini's Grand Fascist Council, with the co-operation of the King, overthrew Mussolini and established a new government headed by Pietro Badoglio. Nazi Germany, concerned with the new government's intentions to negotiate peace with the Allies, invaded and occupied Northern Italy. German paratroopers rescued Mussolini from the hilltop hotel in which he had been imprisoned by the new government. Under pressure from Adolf Hitler, Mussolini established the Italian Social Republic to administer the German-occupied territory. Mussolini declared that the monarchy had been overthrown, and began to establish the apparatus of the new state. The Italian Social Republic was headquartered in the town of Salò, and is commonly known as the Republic of Salò.
Southern Italy, meanwhile, was nominally under the control of the new legitimist government of Badoglio, continuing as the Kingdom of Italy. Rome descended into chaos as fighting erupted between Mussolini loyalists and supporters of the new government, as well as leftist opponents of fascism who emerged from hiding. The King and the Badoglio government left Rome to seek the protection of the Allied forces that occupied the South. With half of Italian territory occupied by the Germans and the rest by the Allies, the restoration of civil rights was abandoned due to the complete disorder in the courntry. The pre-Fascist-era parties had been disbanded, had only clandestine limited activity and had become out of touch with the population. Consequently, the relationships between these parties, and the balance of power was left to be decided at a later, quieter time. Some political forces organized the Resistance and received a strong popular consensus, but it was impossible to determine what they represented without an election, which could not be held because of the chaotic situation. Almost all the Resistance was anti-monarchist. A temporary alliance between them and the Badoglio government was created by the decision of Palmiro Togliatti, secretary of the Italian Communist Party, to postpone the problem of the state organisation and focus all efforts on the struggle against Hitler's puppet state in the North.
At the end of the war, Italy was a severely damaged country, with innumerable victims, a destroyed economy, and a desperate general condition. The defeat left the country deprived of the Empire it had fought for in the past two decades, and occupied by foreign soldiers. For some years after 1945, internal, politically-motivated fighting continued.
The emergence of political forces to replace fascism could not occur until the internal conflict ended and elections could be held. After fighting had died down, a few months were needed before attention could be given to institutional matters. The first important question regarded the royal family, blamed by many for the fascist regime, the war, and the defeat.
Republican traditions in Italy traditionally hark back to the Roman Republic but remained largely theoretical, as in the Conclusion of Machiavelli's Il Principe. The struggle for a Republican Italy independent of foreign powers had been started by Giuseppe Mazzini in the 19th century. The movement Giustizia e Libertà, which continued the traditional Mazzinian ideology, was the second important force during the resistance. It posed the question of the form of the state as a fundamental precondition to developing any further agreements with the other parties. Giustizia e Libertà joined the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (CLN). The various competing political factions agreed that a popular referendum would be held to determine the future choice of Head of State.
His few acts were however generally seen, ex post facto, as correct and responsible. He repeatedly calmed the population by declaring that he would accept the election results. He did, in the event, accept the results with magnanimity: in his final farewell speech he invited Italians to loyally serve the Patria, absolving them from their loyalty to the crown.
Maria José's internal and international relationships (she had had contacts with leftist parties and former enemies since the beginning of the war) were supposed to have been of some potential importance at the right moment. But she was not able to produce the expected consensus around the Quirinal. Respected as the wife of an esteemed man, she was in fact the symbol of the uncertain, irresolute, ambiguous tendency of the Savoy dynasty to be open to any possibly safe compromise.
A decree by Vittorio Emanuele, issued as a lieutenant of the government (decreto legge luogotenenziale 25 giugno 1944, n. 151) during Ivanoe Bonomi’s time in office as prime minister, prescribed that a constitutional assembly be organized after the war to draft a constitution and to choose a form for the state.
The institutional debate was accelerated in the spring of 1946.
The political campaign for the referendum was framed by incidents, especially in northern Italy, where monarchists were fought by both republicans and post-fascists of the Italian Social Republic. Following a second decree (decreto legge luogotenenziale 16 marzo 1946, n. 98), during the government of De Gasperi, a referendum was held on June 2 and June 3, 1946. (June 2 later was named as a national holiday). The question was as simple as possible: Republic or Monarchy (see ballot-paper above).
Following Italian law, the results were checked by the Corte di Cassazione (the highest judicial Court at that time), as expected. But the Cassazione was unable to declare the final result until June 16, about three days after the government had already declared that De Gasperi was the provisional Head of State.
The table of results shows some relevant differences in the different parts of Italy, and this was object of several interpretations. At first sight, the peninsula seemed to be drastically cut in two areas: the North for the republic (with 66.2%), the South for the monarchy (with 63.8%), as if they were two different, respectively homogeneous countries.
The strong result of Venezia Tridentina, in which the republic was supported by 85 per cent of voters, has been seen as an effect of the nationalistic internal politics of fascism, which had always denied autonomy and any cultural concession to the inhabitants of the region. The German-speaking inhabitants of that area had different customs from other parts of the country. At the same time, others have attributed this overwhelming majority to a notable presence of fascists and post-fascists in the region. These elements opposed the Crown because Vittorio Emmanuele had deposed Mussolini and because it had entered into a separate peace with the Allies and declared war on Germany.
Monarchists were suspicious about the result of the vote in this region due to the absence of Alpini, a popular corps of the Italian army traditionally enrolled in this region. These soldiers had suffered heavy casualties during the war, and many of the survivors had been captured or had refused to come back during the two campaigns in the Soviet Union.
However, some sociologists and statisticians have also argued (and the argument was made in public speeches by political leaders at the time) that educated people supported the republic, while illiterate people supported the monarchy.
It was perhaps the different history of the two areas between 1943 and 1946 that could explain the regional differences in the referendum results: after the armistice, the King had escaped to southern Italy, already occupied by American and British troops. With the so-called "kingdom of South", a sort of protectorate, hostilities had ended, and people in those regions benefited from a relatively peaceful situation.
In northern regions, on the contrary, the presence of Nazi troops, the post-fascist Italian Social Republic, partisans, disbanded troops from the Italian army, and foreign troops advancing, resulted in a chaotic war against Germans and Salò puppet state forces. Many northern Italians felt betrayed and abandoned by the King, whose erratic behaviour immediately before and after the armistice prevented the possibility of an organized military resistance and condemned half of the country to German occupation. Also, more than 650,000 Italian soldiers were captured and interned in Germany when they refused to adhere to the Republic of Salò and many Italians considered the King's and his government's irresoluteness responsible of their fate.
The highest percentage of null votes was recorded in Valle d'Aosta, historically one of the principal territories of the House of Savoy.
Some analysts have suggested that allowing women to vote (a demand that had been put forward since a long time by the left-wing parties and also supported by all parties of the Constituent Assembly) may have resulted in increased support for the republic.
On the morning of June 4, Pope Pius XII was informed by Carabinieri that monarchy had won. Also, It seems clear that Alcide De Gasperi wrote to Falcone Lucifero, Ministro della Real Casa (a sort of secretary of the King), that while minister Romita was optimistic for a republican victory, he himself didn't believe they would have won. On the morning of June 5, a significant numbers of votes for the republic unexpectedly arrived, which suddenly changed the situation.
The monarchists presented numerous judicial complaints, and it seems possible that some of them were not examined.
Monarchists estimated that about three million votes, a decisive amount, had been lost.
In 1938, the royal palace (the Quirinale) issued no objection to anti-Jewish racial laws. These laws were very unpopular amongst Italians because Jews participated in Italian society at every level, and their persecution was seen as an unreasonable, external imposition with no reference in national feelings. Moreover, many Jewish officers of the army committed suicide before being dismissed (so as to die in uniform). This undermined the military class’s support for the Crown and fascism.
Trouble had also been caused during World War II by Princess Maria José’s political activity. Without official support by her father-in-law, the King, she undertook her own negotiations with the Allies in 1943, in order to secure a separate peace for Italy. Her diplomatic work, less secret than expected, was considered as treasonous by some monarchists, who saw it as evidence of general weakness, indecision, irresolution of the Crown. The Crown was perceived as being not completely with fascism and was not completely against it. The Real Casa was sending youth to combat Americans, British and Canadians, and, at the same time, was negotiating peace with them. Despite the enthusiasm of anti-fascists for the courageous princess, Maria José made the dynasty appear to be incoherent, and taking an inappropriate role in national affairs.
The reputation of the Crown was further impaired by the Brindisi episode, when the royal family fled Rome in secrecy to seek safety in the town of Brindisi, Puglia, just a few hours after the armistice. Rome was effectively abandoned by the government, the Pope was left without protection, and the Italian army in Rome disbanded.
The abolition of the exile followed an extensive political and juridical discussion that lasted several decades.