Fiume. Gabriele d'Annunzio among his troops in captured Rijeka. Albania was an element of Italy's bigger imperial policy to turn the Mediterranean into an Italian inner sea.



Italian annexationist plans towards Albania were not a plan of itself, but an element of Mussolini's bigger Balkan policy. Albania's place in that game was determined not by its importance as a state, but its potential possibility to be used as a key to open the borders of Greece and Yugoslavia at the right moment. That is why it is proper to recall, in the context of the Albanian question in the Italian policy, two adventurous actions Mussolini staged in the early 1920's on the Greek island of Corfu, and in the Yugoslav port of Rijeka. Those actions constituted a typical political diversion, and their common denominator was the imperative to build bridgeheads, from which the Kulturträgers clad in black shirts of fascism were supposed to enter the Balkans.

The struggle for Rijeka started very early, before Mussolini came to power in Italy. In September 1919 a famous Italian writer and dramatist led the troops, which reportedly "mutinied" against the Italian government, to Rijeka and proclaimed himself the dictator of the city he seized. As Gabriele d'Annunzio declared the incorporation of Rijeka, renamed Fiume, to Italy, he expected that this adventurous enterprise would bring a lasting success. However, under the pressure of other Entente powers (Treaty of Rapallo, 1920) Italy had to disarm the so-called "rebels" and recognize the Free City Rijeka. D'Annunzio, after a short clash, in which he lost several men, deserted his supporters and fled to France. This way Rijeka, removed from the jurisdiction of both Italy and Yugoslavia, remained a free city until 1924 when, following d'Annunzio's example, Benito Mussolini spread his hand for it. But before it happened the Italian fascism played another of its Balkan cards, as it attempted to seize the Greek island of Corfu.

On 27 August 1923 in Greece, near the town of Yannina, unidentified individuals assaulted the car, which carried several members of the international commission established for the delimitation of the Greco-Albanian border. Four Italians were killed: General Enrico Tellini, two officers of his staff, and his driver. This incident was immediately exploited by Mussolini, who in retaliation decided to seize the island of Corfu (Kerkyra), located across the end-point of the Albano-Greek borderline on the land, and partly protruding with its rocky massif towards the Albanian coastline. Already on 28 August the Italian ambassador in Athens paid a sudden visit at the Greek Foreign Office and handed over to the representatives of the Greek government a vigorous protest, as well as an ultimatum, which in its letter and spirit very much resembled the ultimatum presented to Serbia by Austro-Hungary at the eve of the First World War. Through its envoy Mussolini's government demanded an immediate investigation with the participation of Italian authorities into the case, the arrest of the perpetrators, their execution, and payment of 50 million lire in damages. Besides, the Greek navy had to lower the ensigns and salute the Italian flag. As it could be expected, the Greek government agreed to pay the damages and apologize before Italy in the way not violating Greece's national honour, but refused to accept those conditions, which were in direct violation of its honour, as well as were clearly incompatible with its state sovereignty.

Mussolini's government, seeking any pretext to undertake military action, deemed such an answer for unequivocal rejection of the ultimatum. On 31 August the Italian fleet bombarded Corfu; it concentrated the fire of its guns on the old castle, which was since long demilitarized and served as a shelter for the refugees from Asia Minor. In result of the bombardment were killed 20 adults and 16 children, and over 80 people were wounded. There were no soldiers among the victims. After several hours of bombardment, Italian infantry troops landed on Corfu. The island was occupied, and Mussolini handed over to king Victor Emmanuel III the pompous report from Admiral Emilio Solari - the commander of the fleet, which carried out the landing. Simultaneously he announced, that Italy would not relinquish Corfu until the Greek government fulfilled all the conditions stated in the ultimatum of 28 August.

When Mussolini decided to send his troops to Corfu, he expected that he would manage to put Europe before faits accomplis, and keep the island in possession of Italy. And the prey was valuable indeed. Corfu's strategic position could later furnish to the Italian fascism an opportunity to grasp control over the Adriatic, and first of all to invade Albania. Now the problem was that although Mussolini had achieved an immediate success in the military operation, fortunate to the Italians, he was not able to support it with equally successful diplomatic achievements. He misjudged what would be the British position in this case. Benito Mussolini calculated that London would be interested in gaining Italy's support for the British policy of isolating and weakening France in connection with the tensions that arose in the Ruhr Basin, and so it would not oppose the Italian annexation of Corfu. And that was a painful miscalculation. It turned that the British government was not only afraid of a stronger France's position, but it was also jealous about growing Italian influence in the Mediterranean region. Therefore, as soon as the Greek government filed at the League of Nations a complaint regarding the occupation of Corfu, it immediately gained more than favourable British support.

The London's stance forced the Italian diplomacy to action and to desperate efforts to extricate Italy from an extremely difficult situation, in which it found itself as a result of Mussolini's inconsiderate policy. As he did not want to submit to the "disgraceful procedure" of talks in the League of Nations, which could undermine domestic and international authority of the Italian dictator, Mussolini considered the merits of withdrawal from the League of Nations. Yet at that moment with an unexpected aid to Italy came France, which saw a chance to drive a wedge between Great Britain and Italy, and encourage a rapprochement between Paris and Rome. Both the French diplomacy and the media started advising Greece to withdraw the case of Corfu from the forum of the League of Nations, and establish a direct dialogue with Italy for a peaceful and "mutually satisfactory" solution of the problem. This time Mussolini properly understood the message of the French diplomacy, and he immediately expressed his gratitude to Paris for its friendly mediation. It was underlined in the communiqué, which was issued by the official Italian press agency on dictator's personal order, and which announced closer relations between Italy and France, as well as further fruitful co-operation of "both Latin sisters" initiated in the Corfu affair.

This France's unexpected aid to the aggressive policy of the fascist Italy inclined London to soften and elasticize its own position in the case of Corfu. Although it did not withdraw the support from the Greeks in case of their hand-over of the Corfu affair to the League of Nations, His Majesty's Government simultaneously made it clear to Rome, through the contacts behind the scenes, that it had no hostile plans towards Italy, and its representatives would not firmly act against the Italians, if they decided to solve the problem peacefully. This was a clear gesture inviting Mussolini to "save face", and at that moment he did not desire anything else. No wonder that he decided to exploit that favourable to him atmosphere. Since then the developments went fast and in the way favourable to Italy.

The Corfu case was dropped from the League of Nations agenda, and handed over to the Conference of Ambassadors whose plenipotentiary commission was investigating into the disputable questions of the Greco-Albanian delimitation. Behind the scenes of the Conference of Ambassadors was prepared a seemingly compromise, but in fact favourable to Italy, resolution, which became the basis for the note presented to the Greek government. The conditions to exhaust the conflict, listed in that note, provided for Greece's apologies for the incident at Yannina to the member countries of the Conference of Ambassadors, and for financial compensation to the Italians; the sum of the compensation was lower than that demanded previously by Rome. The governments of both Italy and Greece agreed to accept those conditions. The conflict was solved. On 27 September Italian troops relinquished Corfu. This way Mussolini's adventurous expedition to the Greek island located off the shores of Albania, despite certain diplomatic success, ended up in a political fiasco.

Nevertheless the Corfu affair did not make Mussolini more sober. Having his Greek card beaten, he pulled out of the sleeve the Yugoslav card again. Rijeka found itself again in sight of Rome's imperial ambitions. The banner slogan of the Italian fascism - mare nostrum - which heralded the idea of Italy's unquestioned supremacy in the Adriatic basin, and later also in the whole Mediterranean, was reanimated once again. This time it had to mobilize chauvinistic and imperial moods of millions of Italians not against Greece or Albania, but against Yugoslavia. As early as in April 1923 a high ranking Italian fascist, one of the "quadriumvires" ruling in Italy, Cesare Maria de Vecchi, gave in Turin a grand speech, in which he called upon annexation of substantial parts of Yugoslavia, and in the first place her Adriatic coasts. After the withdrawal of the Italian troops from Corfu, the fascist press more and more often demanded annexation of Dalmatia, and especially Rijeka - that much coveted Fiume. The Italo-Yugoslav relations strained by hours. Any day one could expect the outbreak of an open conflict. The savage anti-Yugoslav campaign of the Italian media was accompanied by the concentration of the Italian troops on the Yugoslav frontier, as well as in the ports of the southern part of the Italian "boot". In this atmosphere on 16 September 1923 Italian secret services in Rijeka staged a coup d'état, to support which Mussolini sent regular military troops, and units of "black shirts".

Yugoslavia appealed to her ally, France, in hope that she would come with a diplomatic, and if necessary - also military, aid. Those hopes were hollow. France, engaged completely in the conflict caused by the occupation of the Ruhr Basin, did not want to hamper her relations with Italy in name of defence of alien to her Rijeka. Great Britain assumed a similar position, and for the same reason. Protracted talks and diplomatic manoeuvres had started. Mussolini, having the previous experience, was not in a hurry to legitimize his aggression, but he did not intend to let the prey he had already swallowed go. Eventually lone Yugoslavia, having in perspective a military conflict with Italy, on 12 January 1924 agreed to recognize the incorporation of Rijeka into Italy. The official international recognition of this annexation took place on 24 February 1924. Rijeka, on this occasion renamed officially and extraordinarily pompously into Fiume, became an integral part of Italy. This way was made the first step on the way to the fascist conquest of Europe. The world did not know yet, that more steps were soon to come.

The experience Mussolini gained during the political and military confrontation with Greece and Yugoslavia convinced him, that any global success in that region was out of question without seizure of a bridgehead, which constituted the Albanian key to the Balkan gates. Occupation of Corfu, which had to be lifted, and only a partial success in Rijeka, did not negate that truth, but contrary - emphasized it extraordinarily strongly and finally. That is why towards the end of 1920's Italy's attention was concentrated again on Albania.