Italy joined an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1882, but on the outbreak of the war last year it deserted its allies and remained neutral. The Italian government claimed that the alliance obliged them only to help Austria-Hungary and Germany if they were attacked; as they had started the war, Italy was under no obligation to come to their aid.
Despite its alliance with Austria-Hungary, Italy has never been close to the Habsburg Empire. Italian leaders have long felt that the border between the two countries was unfairly drawn, leaving much territory they see as naturally Italian under the rule of the Austro-Hungarians. This hostility what inclined the Italian leaders last year to keep their country neutral, together with a fear that joining Germany and Austria-Hungary would mean allying with the war’s losing side.
Since then Italy has been engaged in secret negotiations with both the Allies and with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Italy wants Austro-Hungarian territory and the negotiations are like a bidding war, with the Allies offering territory to entice Italy into the war while Germany and Austria-Hungary make counter-offers to keep Italy neutral. The Allies can afford to be much more generous with Austria-Hungary’s territory than Austria-Hungary itself can, but going with the Allied offer means that Italy will have to fight for its gains.
With the situation on the Eastern Front not going so well and with Germany especially keen to keep Italy out of the war, Austria-Hungary’s leaders now make their most generous offer yet to the Italians. They promise territorial concessions in the Trentino region while further east they will withdraw to the Isonzo river. They are not prepared to give Italy the port of Trieste, but they are offering to grant the city autonomy. They also offer to discuss further territorial adjustments.
Antonio Salandra and Sidney Sonnino, Italy’s prime minister and foreign minister respectively, reject Austria-Hungary’s offer. They claim that the proposal is inadequate and also insufficiently detailed. But the real reason is that their territorial appetites have grown. They now want to bring the whole of the Trentino and South Tyrol into the Italian state, as well as to absorb Trieste and the Istrian peninsula. They also crave territories along the Dalmatian coast from which Italian power could be projected into the Balkans.
Salandra and Sonnino’s ambitions cannot be achieved without war. This does not concern them. A string of defeats mean that Austria-Hungary is clearly on its last legs, so Italy’s attacking it should put an end to the Habsburg Empire once and for all. Salandra also believes that this short victorious war will make him the undisputed master of Italian politics.
“Italy’s having a hard time holding them” ( @ThisDayInWWI )
The map of the Austro-Italian border area came from a website that has mysteriously disappeared.
Antonio Salandra (Wikipedia)