Italy: A country fit for a king?

Italy, with its continual political upheaval (another election next March), might have benefitted from the stability a monarchy can provide. The brave partisans, who got rid of both king and dictator, turned to socialism and embraced failure. Vittorio Emanuele III now has a new, but still awkward, place of rest

Vittorio Emanuele III
Tim Hedges
On 23 December 2017 09:02

The interment of two important wartime figures this month has rather brought to mind Europe’s troubled past. They were both kings, both forgotten in recent times, but will be remembered in quite different ways.

The first is King Michael of Romania. He was six years old when he first became king, his father renouncing his right to the throne following a sex scandal. The country was run by a regency council but that was deposed by Michael’s father Carol who returned from exile and took the kingship.

Michael was relegated to heir apparent, the only instance I can think of where a father has followed his son on to the throne. However Carol was deposed in 1940 and Michael, aged 19, became king again.

He will be remembered for one great thing. Romania had a military government at the time, led by Ion Antonescu, who sided with Germany in the war. Michael led a coup against his own government in 1944 and switched Romania’s allegiance to the Allies.

In December 1947 Michael was forced to abdicate by the new Communist regime. He was exiled to Switzerland and died this month.

A different story will be told of the other, a reburial. King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy came to the throne in 1900, aged 30, on the assassination of his father. He led Italy on the allied side during the First World War and had been called The Victorious King. Only 5ft tall, the people adored him.

In 1922 Mussolini came to power and Victor Emmanuel installed him as Prime Minister, despite Mussolini lacking a parliamentary majority. The best that can be said of the King was that he turned a blind eye to Mussolini’s excesses; in fact he probably regarded Il Duce as a necessary bulwark against anarchy and communism.

In 1943, when Mussolini fell from grace, Victor Emmanuel dismissed him from office, abandoned his own claims to be Emperor of Ethiopia and King of Albania and decided to rule as a constitutional monarch. It was too late. People associated him with fascism and with defeat.

His daughter Mafalda, married off to a German princeling, died in Buchenwald in 1944.

After the war the people wanted a referendum on the monarchy, and to save the institution Victor Emmanuel, knowing himself unpopular, abdicated.

The referendum went 52-48 in favour of abolishing the monarchy and his son, Umberto II, reigned for only a month, the last king of Italy. Victor Emmanuel died in exile in 1947 and was buried in Alexandria, Egypt.

It says much of the mixed emotions about the man and the institution of monarchy that President Mattarella allowed him back, but refused to let him be buried in the Pantheon with other kings, and had his body flown quietly to Italy by night. He now lies next to his wife in a monastery in Piedmont, home of the House of Savoy.

The distinction between fascists and partisans (largely communist) is still active in Italy today. I know an old lady who campaigned to get her fascist brother, killed in the war, to be buried in hallowed ground, something not allowed by the church. At the same time there are still shrines to Mussolini, more popular than you may think.

War changes everything. Michael of Romania, after the fall of the communist regime, returned to his country and a million people are said to have heard him speak from his hotel room. The new government felt he was too popular and booted him out again.

Italy, with its continual political upheaval (another election next March), might have benefitted from the stability a monarchy can provide. The brave partisans, who got rid of both king and dictator, turned to socialism and embraced failure. Near where I live there is a via Lenin, a via Gagarin but no Piazza Vittorio Emanuele III.

Victor Emmanuel’s grandson, Victor Emmanuel of Savoy, has been investigated for corruption and for pimping and has served time in gaol. His great grandson, Emanuele Filiberto, has been on reality television and in an advert for olives (‘make you feel like a king’).

The marchesa Tiziana Frescobaldi said of her distant relative ‘This was not a king of any great substance; perhaps he was in a situation bigger than himself, which he could not manage’. A fitting tribute to a monarch who, 70 years after his death, has returned to his homeland in secret, by night.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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