In Italy, as in other countries, the home front was extremely complex and varied. It has not been entirely historiographically investigated, and is still subject to different interpretations by scholars. In fact it is so multifaceted that it is only possible to provide a basic outline here. The necessary prerequisite is that the Italian home front developed in different stages and in particular ways, in relation to the social and political realities of a country where for some time there had been a very active network of associations, with different purposes and natures, but where the liberal establishment was the bearer of an elitist culture that not only traditionally cut out the masses from sharing the political choices, but also showed scant concern for seeking a popular consensus. This was a country led to war by an over-riding political decision by the government and the crown, in the belief that they could count on the patriotic feeling of the bourgeoisie and the lower middle class, without the approval of the parliamentary majority and with the total distrust of the lower classes.

The First Phase of Government Action

In the first phase of the conflict the government refrained from intervening directly in support of the welfare of the soldiers and searching for a mass consensus for the war. The Prime Minister Antonio Salandra (1853-1931) counted on the mobilization of the bourgeois classes and indirect action. With a public appeal on 29 May 1915, he addressed "all the good citizens of Italy" and in particular all the parliamentarians because the citizenry, as "a single family", should mobilize to meet the needs of the conflict. He then went on to explain that the country did not need volunteers to go into battle, but patriotic energy to support the domestic front, inextricably linking the theme of propaganda with that of assistance.[1] To explain this choice not to intervene directly, some historians have emphasized the widespread belief in the brevity of the war, others have pointed to the tradition of paying scant attention to basic needs by a leadership still in tune with an elitist culture, yet others have highlighted the rulers’ conviction of being able to count on the process of nation building which had been started in the fifty years of national unity. Certainly, government action was very conditioned by a 19th-century liberal view initially not concerned with forms of state intervention, both in terms of a modern concept of public assistance centred on the rulers’ responsibility to the ruled, and the need to involve the mass of the population. It is true that there was no shortage of campaigns that called for mass mobilization, such as those for war loans, the collection of iron and scrap, and mass ceremonies for the ritual oaths,[2] but it is also true that the Italian rulers managed the difficult phase of war by making extensive use of coercion. "Exceptional" decrees that reduced civil liberties were immediately issued, the military were left in charge of vital sectors such as industrial mobilization, the censorship of letters and the maintenance of public order, while workers in the war industries were also subject to military discipline.

Moreover, it was decided that the poorest would be made to bear the costs of the war: the indirect tax burden, rather than the direct one, was raised, thus causing massive inflation that had a serious impact on the incomes of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie. The deterioration in the living conditions of farmers and workers, affected by requisition, labour exploitation and malnutrition, combined with the increase in the human losses of the war of conquest managed by Luigi Cadorna (1850-1928), brought a large part of the population from a substantial non-involvement to protest and revolt.[3] The protagonists of these episodes were mostly women, in the countryside, where they were also forced to take on the work of the men at the front, and in the factories, where they represented the new labour force of the war. The measures in support of the mass of the population were very tardy, limited, and directed at specific categories. Even the granting of subsidies to poor families of combatants proved to be less than what was required and was often carried out in accordance with unjust criteria based on patronage. Apart from these provisions, support for the country at war was largely left to both the new war voluntarism and the organizations that traditionally work in the care sector: religious bodies, mutual aid societies and women's associations. The government decided not to assign any specific role even to existing facilities such as public institutions of assistance and charity, renewed and secularized since the reform of 1890.[4] The extraordinary patriotic response of the bourgeois classes led to the multiplication of civil organization committees, especially in the big cities and in central and northern Italy. It was also envisaged that they could become charities and that municipal administrations could collect an extraordinary contribution from the citizens for public assistance. But, regarding the management of these funds, conflicting decrees were issued, which highlighted the institutional difficulties in manoeuvring between private initiative and state control. These committees, as the months passed, came to cover a wide range of interventions: assistance to the population, raising money for the war, relying on women in need of work to produce apparel for the military, information offices, help for the maimed and disabled, and propaganda on the reasons for the war and national claims. In 1916, they united in the National Federation of Committees, based in Milan. It was able to benefit from a conception of assistance, with democratic and modernizing traits, which had developed since the beginning of the century in the Lombardy area. This new view proposed the transition from a charitable dimension to one based on the idea of citizens’ rights.[5]

The Role of the Associations

In considering what happened on the home front, it is crucial to bear in mind the interconnections between the activites of civilian organization committees that arose because of the conflict, government decisions, and the presence and development of a significant network of associations with different purposes already active in the country: those concerned with offering assistance (mainly Catholic and female), the patriotic and irredentist ones (national associations, gymnastic-sports ones, and those for young people), and the mutual aid and workers’ associations. Among women's groups offering assistance, even before Italy’s entry into the war, and often outside the interventionist camp, there was mobilization in view of the possible future needs of war: the training of nurses, assistance for families, support for refugees, etc. The female bourgeois sphere also made a series of initiatives later, showing great creativity and organizational skills.[6]

The Catholic world expressed a great diversity of positions regarding the conflict, and the positions of the Pope, which culminated in the well-known invocation of August 1917 against the "senseless slaughter", aroused bewilderment and uncertainty. However, the Catholic groups effectively utilized the widespread distribution of the parishes and the religious assistance charities in the country in order to create a comprehensive care and comfort intervention, which played an essential role in the re-consolidation of civil society around the war effort.[7] Within this context, the work of the Union of Catholic Women of Italy was particularly significant.[8] In the aftermath of Caporetto, there was an accentuation of nationalism, even among Catholics, which was often harsh and anti-democratic in tone.

The workers’ associations, opposed to the conflict, like almost all the popular classes, found themselves, from the beginning, having to come to terms with the special laws which constrained civil liberties and the activities of the Central Committee of Industrial Mobilization, which weakened their effectiveness.

Patriotic and irredentist associations immediately assumed an enthusiastically pro-war position, offering their own contributions in propaganda and in more concrete areas, but above all by providing a large number of their members as volunteers for the front. The Trento e Trieste (Trent and Trieste) and Dante Alighieri associations were especially important. The latter, in particular, active since its inception in political actions in the unredeemed lands, directed, with the country’s entry into the war, many of the irredentists coming from Austrian-ruled territories that led it to carry out intense propaganda both inside and outside the peninsula.[9] Early and intense patriotic enthusiasm was expressed by the very limited sector of Mazzinian, republican, irredentist, and socialist-reformist women. The outlines of feminine interventionism having been developed, the end of 1914 witnessed the founding of the National Female Committee for Italian Intervention that would later absorb almost all of Italian suffragist feminism and would merge with the Anti-German League of the physician Luigi Bossi (1859-1919), which was a manifestation of an aggressive and sectarian patriotism. As for the youth associations and youth groups active within the various national societies, they played a central role in the patriotic mobilization of the "radiant May". The many departures for the front emptied these groups, which made their voices heard at times, in relation to the course of the war, leaving the youngest to play an active role, like the boys of Sursum corda or the secular nationalist Boy Scouts.[10] The institutions variously made use of this basic voluntarism, expressing distrust towards the most aggressive and violent groups and relying on the bourgeois sectors considered more trustworthy. The "ladies", close to the country’s ruling class, were entrusted with most of the management of some vital areas, such as the allocation of subsidies or the distribution of work in the apparel sector for women in need, and even the recruitment of women workers.

The Necessities of War and New State Interventionism

Between the summer of 1916 and the beginning of 1917, in the face of the evident discontent expressed by the popular classes, there was a growing realization of the need to give the war a “social content”[11] by reforming the welfare and insurance systems and considering the subject of a popular consensus. Measures in favour of the disabled and the families of the fallen were, therefore, adopted. In April 1917, compulsory insurance was introduced for accidents, disability, and old age for all workers active in the plants requisitioned by the government for war production. In the same year, compulsory insurance against accidents at work for farmers was established. These measures represented the transition from a voluntary to a mandatory system. There were other measures which, however, did not manage to establish a solid structure of interventions, thus highlighting “the inability of the liberal ruling class to find a more wide-ranging solution to social problems”.[12] The new state intervention, in the social context, which began to develop in 1916,[13] while reorganizing the state-society relationship in ways that went beyond the old liberal state and anticipated the future post-war welfare state, ended up being structured in ways that reflected the old Bismarckian model: paternalistic measures, from above and guided by considerations of social control.

The process of expanding public intervention, common to all the countries at war, appeared, in Italy, to be less attentive to the needs of the population and less intense, as evidenced by the lack of attention that was paid, at least until the end of 1917, to the problem of the food supply, as well as the persistent inclination to rely on basic bourgeois voluntarism. Men and women considered more loyal to the "cause" were entrusted with tasks of considerable importance for the management and control of the society at war, sometimes even without any real skills. Nevertheless, in 1916 the government of Paolo Boselli (1838-1932) began to create the first organization responsible for coordinating the disordered proliferation of voluntary initiatives to support the population. The management of the new body was entrusted to the Republican Ubaldo Comandini (1869-1925), appointed as a minister without portfolio of civilian assistance and also, after a few months, of internal propaganda. This was the first step towards the structuring of a modern system of war-time propaganda.

In August 1917, Comandini organized the Federated Charities of Support and Propaganda which united the Federation of the Committees of Civilian Organizations, the CNDI and the old nationalist associations. It was a project undertaken to coordinate the activities of the new and old groups, as well as to direct, in accordance with institutional approval, basic spontaneity. But this was a particularly difficult undertaking, not only because of the inclination of many leaders of the Federation to consider themselves the only interpreters of the needs of the country at war, but also because of the difficulty of centrally managing the thousands of local situations. Moreover, the innovative effort of a care plan with modern political characteristics, which was put into action primarily in Lombardy (partly, also, in the areas of Venice and Bologna) was not fully realized. In February 1918, the newly formed General Commissariat for Civilian Assistance and Domestic Propaganda was also entrusted to Comandini.

Meanwhile, in 1917 the government put in place a series of measures to support the combatants and their families, such as the National Committee for the Protection and Care of War Orphans, the National Organization for the Protection and Care of War Invalids, and the National Organization for Combatants, following the setting up of the Ministry of Assistance for Military Personnel and War Pensions. These were initiatives that had two purposes, social and propagandistic, which were accompanied by the progressive focus of state action more specifically directed at highlighting the morality and nobility of its war effort, against an enemy presented as vicious, unfair and inhuman. Thus, although propaganda in Italy continued to be a phenomenon which was equally "horizontal" and "vertical",[14] it was in this area, from the end of 1917, that the state spent most of its financial resources, creating a leap in quality which some authors defined as Copernican.

1917 and the Defeat of Caporetto

1917 was a turning point: the American intervention "globalized" the conflict, while the Bolshevik revolution and Vladimir Lenin’s (1870-1924) growing popularity were offset at the end of the year by the spread of the myth of the American President. The broadening of horizons to mass cultures and reality, had disturbing social repercussions which greatly worried the Italian Liberal leadership. What has been called a "third front" in addition to the military and economic ones was opened: that of propaganda and mass politics. The battle moved on to a more ideological plane.[15] In Italy, the protests increased, culminating in the big strike in Turin in August, which led to violent clashes and dozens of victims. A fanatical hatred of the German enemy and the seeking out of internal dissidence also developed. In early October, the Boselli government issued a decree by which even the slightest expression of distrust about the conduct of war was a crime. Finally, on the one hand, the defeat of Caporetto ended up catalyzing and confirming the worst fears of the ruling class conscious of the lack of mass support. On the other hand it transformed the Italian war from offensive to defensive, or rather pushed the oligarchic-authoritarian mark of the country’s military adventure into the background and, instead, spread an awareness of the need to defend the homeland in danger. And it was in this atmosphere that state control over the economy and society was extended even further: press censorship was intensified, thus perpetuating a system of organized disinformation, which ended up magnifying suspicions, tensions, and flights into the irrational. There was also greater control over the post, which involved nearly 4 billion letters sent between the country and the war front, but also those between civilians.[16] At the same time, a more modern and rational program of economic policy and procurement was started, control was extended to cover financial and trade relations with foreign countries, and, above all, consideration was given to the problem of popular support and that of the army. On the military plane, there was a change from an offensive war strategy to a defensive one, while as regards the soldiers the coercive model wanted by Cadorna was replaced by a policy of consensus more suited to a mass society and capable of achieving the "tireless work of reabsorbing the proletariat in the nation".[17] The High Command, with a circular of January 1918, organized the so-called P service, a propaganda, assistance and surveillance service aimed at combatants, through which it committed itself to meeting their needs by limiting their discontent, even going so far as to present the possibility of land grants to the peasant soldiers. The complex organization that developed with this service, which made use of propagandists with undoubted communication skills, ended up linking the home and military fronts: leave was granted as a prize, and the most praiseworthy combatants were indicated to the assistance committees so that the latter could give the families reward subsidies.

To support and convince the soldiers, approaches and rallying cries were adopted, which some historians have considered so modern as to achieve a real overturning of habits and cultures: a substantial revolution that has been explained by the intense actions of care and mass propaganda carried out in Italy by American workers, through structures like the Red Cross and the YMCA. These bodies, in collaboration with Italian structures and thanks to the great resources available, organized sports events, concerts, theatre performances, film screenings, sent out millions of postcards, sent a large number of gift packs, and combined a commitment to take into account the combatants’ real needs with the use of propaganda techniques similar to those utilized in advertising. In this way they supported the soldiers’ morale and, through the fascinating figure of Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), spread the watchwords of the new American society: justice, freedom, democracy, and equality of opportunity.[18] An "American myth" came into being, which the Italian rulers did not hesitate to use as a formidable antidote to the feared social subversion. A decided change of pace was also achieved in support of the home front, again extensively sustained by American action: suffice it to mention that the American Red Cross spent most of its funds, that is, 65 percent, on "civilian affairs", that is, on welfare schemes whose political implications can easily be identified: refugee camps in invaded areas, orphanages, distribution of food and clothing, monetary prizes for poor families of deserving soldiers, economic cookers, and workshops. There were also lectures and film screenings in the streets of Italian cities, put on in order to win over large sections of the population which were distrustful and worried, to convince them of the necessity of the conflict, the advent of a just and secure peace and, on balance, the superiority of the American model.[19] It was a commitment which was flanked by that of the Italian institutions: the Commissariat managed by Comandini starting in February 1918 also made use of tools such as film screenings, theatre performances, exhibitions of photographs of war, the organization of hundreds of conferences, articles in provincial newspapers, and brochures.[20] The purpose of this effort was to mobilize consciences in support of the country at war, essentially setting their own good reasons against those of an enemy to whom the most vile actions and aims were attributed. Using what were at the time the most up-to-date techniques, a real process of "construction of the enemy" took place, which was crucial in order to motivate and sustain the population in such a long and devastating war.

War-Time Propaganda and the “culture of war”

In many countries at war, as in Italy, the passing months led to very high appreciation of a "beautiful death" and the heroism of war, and the demonization of the enemy,[21] both "internal" and "external", identified, above all, in the Germans and defined as criminal, savage, repulsive, subhuman, and inferior on biological grounds. An apocalyptic crescendo of insults aiming at a form of "animalization" of the adversary took place, often carried out using pseudo-scientific reasons, and accompanied by frightening rumours, irrational beliefs, and growing social tensions.

A few years ago, especially in France, a historiographic discussion started about this special mass state of mind with Manichean overtones, called "war culture",[22] consisting of a form of sacralization of the nation and identification with it, that induced a deep hatred of the enemy, from which an extraordinary violence between combatants, against prisoners and against civilians sprung.

According to some scholars, the fundamental reasons for such a widespread feeling should be sought in an aggressive and extreme patriotism from below, which actually developed in the stages prior to the conflict and was not induced by propaganda or any form of coercion. Other historians, instead, have focused on the logic of collective hysteria induced by the growth of the horrors of war; others, finally, have emphasized the unusual ability to manipulate the new war propaganda and its ability to present itself as a real “set of actions of war”. Particular emphasis has been placed on the ability of governments to use and amplify the particular state of mind induced by the tension of war, provoking extreme beliefs and behaviours in order to stimulate resistance to the enemy, induce patriotism, and create a form of political management of the new mass society.[23]

Certainly, after the events of Caporetto a real "hunt for the defeatist" was unleashed in Italy: there were more and more mythical-religious projections, superstitious forms, apocalyptic fears and messianic expectations that triggered tensions which were highly destructive for the social fabric. Mistrust and informing became more and more common, while the relinquishing of the critical spirit threatened the gains of the civil society: individual rights, civic values and the idea of equality between the sexes were undermined. The war became a crusade of good against evil, making it impossible, unlike in other countries, to reach a conciliatory solution once the conflict was over. The form of patriotic remobilization of the bourgeoisie that occurred in the course of 1917 was accompanied by an exacerbation of the different positions: there was news of subversive plots from many sides, and the cult of violent action spread. While interventionist women intensified patriotic and anti-German propaganda, by incorporating the most extremist slogans and also demanding obligatory civil mobilization for the female population, there was a process of alignment with the watchwords of an extreme patriotism, even among female welfare workers, as well as a new inclination to conduct propaganda campaigns, often with fanatical overtones. The upheaval of war also led to an anxious yearning for change and the desire to overcome parliamentary democracy in order to arrive at ways of direct participation in public power that were expressed in the principle of organic representation, the antecedent of representation by categories of the future corporate society.[24]


Government action and that of the many committees which operated during the war underwent a significant evolution in the course of the conflict, putting in place propaganda that used the ways and watchwords that marked a real leap in quality. According to some scholars, in fact, it was precisely on this occasion that the themes and techniques of communication and conviction that reappear in the following decades, up to our own times, were developed. And yet this intervention does not appear to result in a single outcome.

If the new concern for the soldiers that developed after Caporetto attained, according to some historians, a substantial success, a more critical judgment is given to the action within the country. The organization of the home front in Italy did not achieve the solidarity reached by other countries: there was never the total unity of purpose among all the political forces, like the French union sacrée: the socialists always remained excluded, as were the Giolittians and some of the Catholics, especially after the Pope’s call for an end to the "senseless slaughter". Nor was there total cohesion even among the interventionists.

There were many consequences that followed the government’s repressive intervention (an uncompromising implementation of the “state of exception” and the decision to make the popular classes bear the brunt of the costs of the war) with a policy of consensus that had very modern traits. The difficulty in or lack of commitment to solving the real needs of the population, that is, the inability to keep assistance and propaganda in concert, increased the discontent of the popular classes and even aroused that of the middle class, which was progressively affected by the inflationary spiral.

The action of the American emissaries in the peninsula, accompanied by real support for basic needs, was undoubtedly effective, thanks, partially, to the reference to the "Wilsonian myth". For many months, the American President was hailed as the interpreter of a more just and egalitarian future society. Hence, the crisis of his image was a bitter disappointment, which did not erase the idealization of an overseas land, a place of prosperity and justice, but certainly favoured the suspension of the process of demobilization of the culture of war that instead occurred in many other countries in the aftermath of the conflict. This circumstance helped to spread the myth of the "mutilated victory" and prepared fertile ground for the future totalitarian state, which would resume both the liberticidal regulations adopted during the war, and the great attention paid to the issue of propaganda, making both of central importance in building the Fascist regime.

Beatrice Pisa, Sapienza University of Rome

Section Editor: Nicola Labanca

Translator: Noor Giovanni Mazhar