The country soon found itself at the mercy of the revolutionary elements. The prime minister had promised much in the way of social reforms, and that he would cleanse the political life of the country.
When fresh bank scandals were revealed and the guilty were still allowed to go unpunished, it became evident that not merely had the premier repudiated his word, but that the government was losing its control of the situation.
The economic condition of the country, most particularly in the south, was deplorable. To please the agrarians, the government increased the duty on the cheaper grades of cereals, at a time when thousands were faced with starvation.
Towards the end of 1897 food riots broke out in the south of Italy, as the result of the increase in the price of bread. These continued intermittently throughout the autumn and early winter.
By January they had spread all over the south of Italy and Sicily. The disturbances were readily suppressed by armed force, not without some loss of life.
Though the movement was not revolutionary in its origin, it gathered strength from the fact that the Socialists and Republicans made use of the general dissatisfaction to further their interests.
The premier’s feeble policy and his apparent indifference in the face of grave events hastened the growth of the vast army of malcontents. Slowly the movement spread northward.
In April there was a general strike near Bologna, then at Ravenna and Parma; in each case accompanied by serious disturbances and clashes between the civilians and the police.
The unrest throughout the country had grown to vast proportions. The subversive elements had already gained the upper hand in the northern districts, centring around Milan.
It seems improbable that there was any carefully framed revolutionary plot. A Milanese Radical Deputy had spoken of “the vote and the carbine” as the weapons of the people, but no steps were taken to organise or arm them.
The Socialists were in the vanguard and actively spread the discontent. At Milan, there was much real distress and poverty, though no active outbreak would have resulted had the authorities acted with firmness and moderation.
On 7 May, a great crowd gathered to protest against the killing, on the previous day, of two workmen in a scuffle with the police. The crowd was in an ugly mood. It was soon joined by groups of workmen and factory girls. Some employers closed their factories.
The demonstrators now paraded the streets. Suddenly in the Corso Venezia, a platoon of cavalry charged the crowd at a gallop. Though it was evident that the outbreak had not been planned, the pent-up fury of the mob burst forth.
Barricades were thrown up; some of the demonstrators climbed to the rooftops and threw tiles and other missiles down on the police.
The troops, having received no further instructions, looked on idly while the crowd continued its labours of barricade building.
The mob was, for the most part, unarmed and without leadership, yet the government, hearing of the outbreak, hastily despatched considerable reinforcements to Milan, and proceeded to suppress the “revolution” with ruthless violence.
For two days the mob was hunted down by the soldiery and the police. Over one hundred persons were killed and several hundred wounded.
The government tried in vain to fix the responsibility and find a scapegoat. Socialist, Republican, and clerical leaders were brought into court, but the evidence against them collapsed.
It would appear that the real responsibility lay with the government, which by its laxity and weakness had allowed the movement to get underway, and then repressed it with undue brutality.
Though the authorities were unable to attach any blame for the riots at Milan to the Socialists, the more conservative elements of the population, the rich and the well-to-do, who had paid little heed to the outbreaks in the south of Italy, aroused by the outburst at Milan, loudly clamoured for repressive measures.
Railway servants and all public employees were mobilised on a military basis. Two-thirds of the Catholic societies, many of them purely philanthropic, were dissolved on the grounds of their being anti-dynastic.
Republican associations were outlawed, newspapers were suspended, schoolmasters dismissed for discussing socialism out of school hours. The military court at Milan passed outrageous sentences on trumped-up charges.
“Two well-known journalists were sentenced to six and four years’ imprisonment respectively, for continually attacking the institutions and authorities, exaggerating the sufferings of the people, and thus embittering the hatred of classes and creating the environment from which the disorders sprang.
A Catholic journalist was sentenced to three years for attacking the monarchy and institutions with subtle irony, sowing class hatred between peasants and landlords and turning many of the clergy from their natural work of pacification.
Nor were the condemnations confined to Milan. Throughout Italy, on one charge or another, wholesale arrests were made. But a reaction soon set in against the arbitrary procedure of these courts. Petitions were widely circulated throughout Italy demanding the release of the prisoners.
Before the end of the year, over 2,700 prisoners were released, and within three years all those condemned at this time in connection with the events of those fateful May days were released by royal amnesty.
A bold programme of social reform followed, which in reality amounted to little more than a policy of non-interference on the part of the government, in the struggle between capital and labour, won wide support.
The right to strike, the right to hold public meetings, the freedom of the press, were conceded to the delight of the Socialists.
Adapted from Greater Italy (1917), by William K Wallace. Published under a Creative Commons license. Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.