Italian propaganda during World War I
Italian propaganda during World War I was mainly directed against Austria-Hungary. It developed slowly until the great Italian defeat at the battle of Caporetto in 1917. This defeat, which left parts of Italy under enemy occupation, provoked an ideological shift aimed at boosting morale and mobilizing the nation against an enemy invasion.
Austria-Hungary became the early front runner in terms of effective propaganda techniques between the two sides. Austria-Hungary desired to affirm to the Italian’s the strength of the Central Powers and how Italy was on the losing side of World War I. First the Austria-Hungarians attacked the Italians pride and their political and military leaders. The Austria-Hungarians would attack Italy for being in this war for purely imperialistic means. They blamed the Italian government’s desires to claim Trento and Trieste as their true war aims and that their leaders were sacrificing Italian blood for their own greedy interests. To further disgrace the Italian’s, not only had this been the goal of the war but they were failing to achieve their true goals. The goal of these leaflets was not to embarrass the Italian soldiers, but to convince them that their government was betraying their true interests.
Austria-Hungary also spread propaganda against Italy’s allies, specifically the British. During the final years of the war, the British had become almost entirely focused on the German Front of the war and had begun to withdraw assistance from the Italian Front. This caused some anxiety between the Italians and British which Austria-Hungary planned to take full advantage of. Austria-Hungary spread propaganda that portrayed the British as having even greater imperialistic goals for the war and the Italians were just another means of achieving those ends. They argued that the British had already been given opportunities to end the war with the Central Powers, but were holding out in order to gain more territory and political influence. Prime Minister Lloyd George had not helped their stance either, having gone on record stating, “if necessary Italy’s war aims will be abandoned without consideration.” In addition, the Austria-Hungarians cited that if the Italians continued to borrow supplies and resources from the British then their post-war debt would only continue to rise, forcing the Italians to pay the British for continuing a war that should have already been over.
Italian propaganda against Austria-Hungary
In order to strike back against Austria-Hungarian propaganda Italy, along with representatives from other Allies of World War I, were forced to meet and come up with propaganda techniques against Austria-Hungary. The Padua Commission was a military-civilian agency, formed in 1918 to coordinate a propaganda offensive, led mostly by the Italians. This late war Commission designed and put into action the Italian led Allied propaganda campaign against Austria-Hungary. While Italy had been attempting to spread propaganda through Austria-Hungary, their previous efforts had been fairly ineffective and a new propaganda front was needed. One of the major leaders in the commission was an Italian delegate named Ugo Ojetti. Ojetti worked together with the Yugoslav Committee and came up with a plan to appeal to the minority groups within Austria-Hungary and to encourage a desire to create independent nations for these minority groups, specifically the idea of an independent Yugoslavia. The plan included the spread of pamphlets, manifestos, and flyers to promote this idea of an independent Yugoslavia. The hopes for this appeal was to cause the Austria-Hungarian troops to become so demoralized that they would leave the Austria-Hungarian military and either surrender to Italian troops or begin fighting Austria-Hungary from within its borders.
Appeal to minority groups
Between May 15, 1918 and early November 1918, around 60 million copies of 643 different manifestos and almost 2 million copies of 80 news sheets were spread over Austria-Hungary by the Italian propaganda movement as a result of the Padua Commission. The amount of propaganda spread in this time frame was three times greater than the amount of propaganda spread over Germany by the British throughout the entire war. Austria-Hungary immediately took note of this new campaign and grew concerned over the disturbances that may be caused, not only on the front lines but domestically as well. Austria-Hungary was forced to divert some of its attention from acting as a proponent of propaganda to establishing defenses and anti-propaganda campaigns. Immediately following the initiation of Italy’s propaganda campaign pro-independence leaflets were finding their ways to the front lines. Cases were quickly arising where soldiers would then bring these leaflets home and share them with their household or community.
The majority of these leaflets were aimed at Croats, Slovenes, and Serbs to rise against the Habsburg monarchy and establish their own, independent nation. One leaflet targeting Slovenes and Croats specifically stated, “The decisive battle has begun. Either justice will conquer and the sun of freedom for all nations will shine, or the coarse, brutal force of German militaristic barbarism will conquer, which would signify: further slavery. At this greatest moment it is the duty of every Serb, Croat and Slovene not only not to fight on the Austrian side, but to thrust their bayonets into Magyar and German chests.” On the battle field Austria-Hungarian soldiers began to surrender themselves to the Italian military, carrying these pamphlets with them in hopes of better treatment. While soldiers brought these pamphlets with them when they surrendered the majority of them stated that they surrendered due to hunger and lack of supplies rather than for the reasons intended, seeing the propaganda as an opportunity to abscond. The Austria-Hungary military pursued a tough anti-propaganda campaign by holding massive investigations into discovered propaganda. The moment even a single pamphlet of propaganda was found, the military would create harsh interrogations to discover where this propaganda was found, why the soldier had it, how many of these pamphlets were in the area, and other investigative questions.
In response to Austria-Hungary’s attacks on Italy’s ally Great Britain, Italy created a series of propaganda designed to attack Germany. During the military stagnation between Italian and Austria-Hungarian troops the only time any land was gained by either side was when Germany supplied Austria-Hungary with troops, causing a slight advancement of Central Power troops. Once Germany began their tumble leading to their loss these troops were pulled from Austria-Hungary, which caused the Italians to reply with similar tactics to Austria-Hungary’s anti-British campaign. The Italians were quick to spread news from the front, displaying the Germans as being obliterated by the British, French, and Americans on the western front. Pro-allied publications from within the Central Powers were being spread by Italian propagandists stating, “’an awful abyss yawns under the feet of the German people’, and that Habsburg soldiers ought to break their own chains immediately if they were not to suffer the same dismal fate.”
In addition to this spread of dread across Austria-Hungary, the Italians wanted to continue encouraging Austria-Hungarian minority groups to join their cause. The Italians proclaimed that the Allied Powers were advocates of freedom, liberty, and justice. The Yugoslav Committee would praise how the Italians treated their prisoners of war and how the Italians were being incredibly supportive of the formation of an independent Yugoslavia. While there may have been some truth to these claims, the majority of the manifestos proclaiming Italy’s determination to assist in the creation of an independent Yugoslavia, were stretching the truth and overplaying Italy’s desire to create an independent Yugoslavia. The formation of an ally in an independent Yugoslavia was hoped for, but in terms of Italy’s war aims it was not seen as a necessary goal.
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- Cornwall, Mark. The Undermining of Austria-Hungary: The Battle for Hearts and Minds. London: Macmillan, 2000.
- Courriol, Marie-France. "Looking Back on the Myth of the Great War: Anti-rhetoric, War Culture and Film in Fascist Italy." Media, War and Conflict, 7, 3 (2014): 342–64.
- Row, Thomas. "Mobilizing the Nation: Italian Propaganda in the Great War." The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, 24, Design, Culture, Identity: The Wolfsonian Collection (2002): 141–169.