As Vanda Wilcox shows, Mussolini made quite an entrance at the Lausanne Conference – but what was his agenda?
Vanda is Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at John Cabot University.
When Benito Mussolini seized power with the March on Rome in October 1922 most Italians’ focus was on domestic rather than on foreign affairs. Yet almost immediately the new prime minister had to turn his attention to international diplomacy, as the Lausanne Conference opened less than a month later. This would be Italian fascism’s first formal appearance on the international stage, and Mussolini viewed it as a theatrical occasion as much as anything else. But rather than the first act of fascist foreign policy, it might be more accurate to see Italy’s position at Lausanne as the epilogue to the Liberal era.
The Italian diplomatic delegation at Lausanne had a very different style and set of objectives to those of their new political leader. While he took the opportunity to posture and throw his weight around in public, the professional diplomats got on with their work quietly and quite effectively. Italian goals for the conference had not changed with the fall of the liberal government: there had been no time for a new set of specifically fascist objectives to be drawn up. Away from the spotlight, and from Mussolini’s diva behaviour, all the hard work was going on behind the scenes.
At Lausanne, Italy had three goals: securing permanent sovereignty over the Dodecanese (including the island of Castellorizo); acquiring advantageous economic concessions; and receiving parity of treatment with France and Britain, to illustrate Italy’s great power status. The Dodecanese (Aegean) islands had been occupied by Italy since 1912, and the Allies had promised to approve full sovereignty in the 1915 Treaty of London. Given the extreme disappointment felt by nationalists in 1919 when Italy was granted neither Fiume nor Dalmatia, this territorial acquisition was seen as crucial.
Prospects for economic expansion were also important: in the period 1917-1920 Italy had hoped for a sphere of influence in Anatolia. Since this was now clearly off the table, a beneficial economic position was seen as the minimum acceptable substitute. Finally the issue of parity with France and Britain, the hardest objective to define with precision, was perhaps the most important to the new government.
It was with this in mind that Mussolini planned his own role in the conference. Leaving Rome late at night on 17 November 1922, accompanied by his staff, some trusted journalists and a small group of hangers-on, the new prime minister took the train not to Lausanne itself but to the lakeside village of Territet, a suburb of nearby Montreux. There he waited. He issued a farcical statement that he preferred to avoid the press, and settled down to hold a series of press conferences. In this way Mussolini obliged Poincaré and Curzon to come to him for a stage-managed appearance, rather than him going to meet them.
On the morning of 19 November, the two men duly arrived at Mussolini’s hotel where he was delighted to graciously welcome them. The three men met again the following morning in Lausanne itself: Poincaré and Curzon arrived for a 10am meeting but Mussolini deliberately kept them waiting for more than twenty minutes and eventually had to be fetched by a secretary.
After this piece of childish manoeuvring – which of course absolutely infuriated his supposed allies – he stayed in Switzerland just two more days, giving several interviews and making a solitary speech at the conference. Mussolini did not return to Lausanne himself, even to sign the finalised agreement the following year. But he considered that this brief trip had already achieved one of Italy’s core goals by demonstrating parity of status with France and Britain (or, more bluntly, hogging the limelight). He telegraphed in triumph to the king, Vittorio Emanuele III:
I insisted that the meeting took place at Territet rather than at Lausanne so that it was clear that the Allied Ministers were coming to meet the head of Your Majesty’s government in a different location from that where the Conference would be held.MUSSOLINI TO VITTORIO EMANUELE III
Crucial here is the insight that Mussolini’s most important audience for this playacting was domestic. Not until the early 1930s would foreign policy assume a leading role in fascist priorities.
In reality, Italy’s status among its peers was displayed in less dramatic ways in the day-to-day work of the conference. In its position as chair of the committee for the capitulations – a role held by the former ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Camillo Garroni – Italy was able to shape important aspects of the final Treaty. Behind the scenes, an important role was also played by Salvatore Contarini, the new secretary general of the foreign ministry. Contarini promoted a conciliatory approach towards Britain and to Italy’s new neighbour Yugoslavia, creating some continuity between the policies of the post-war years and the new fascist leadership into 1923.
Another important figure was Giulio Cesare Montagna, minister plenipotentiary in Athens, who had the almost impossible task of running the sub-committee on minority rights. He won praise from American junior diplomat Joseph C. Grew who wrote, ‘Montagna is an excellent Chairman, stating the case with the utmost tactfulness to both sides and often bringing them together by his adroit way of handling an issue.' He also skilfully brought Greek and Turkish delegates back together on several occasions, and worked hard to smooth over the interruption of the conference in February 1923, helping convert a rupture into simply a pause. But these unassuming diplomatic achievements were not very interesting to Mussolini, whose preference was always for style over substance.
In July 1923 when the treaty was signed, Mussolini claimed it as a success for fascism: the Aegean islands were secured and Italy was treated equally with France and Britain. The extent to which it emboldened him can be seen by his conduct in the Corfù crisis just a month later. The curtain had fallen on Italy’s adherence to the diplomatic norms of the Liberal era.
 Joseph C. Grew, Turbulent Era. A Diplomatic Record of Forty Years, 1914-1945 (2 vols., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), 1: 519-20.