Victor Emmanuel III ruled the Kingdom of Italy from July 29, 1900, to May 9, 1946. A hesitant and indecisive ruler, Victor Emmanuel’s reign was plagued by political violence and instability. His inaction allowed for the rise of Italian Fascism and his support for Benito Mussolini tainted the image of the Italian monarchy to the point that it led to its eventual abolishment.
Born on November 11, 1869, Victor Emmanuel (born Vittorio Emanuele Ferdinando Maria Gennaro di Savoia) was the only legitimate child of Umberto I of Italy. As a child, he spent most of his time out of the public eye, suffering physical disabilities that forced him to wear orthopedic instruments that strengthened his legs. These disabilities may have stunted his growth as Victor Emmanuel stood just over five feet tall in adulthood. Due to his solitary childhood, Victor Emmanuel had a reputation for being shy and reserved. Despite his reserved nature, he still received the traditional military upbringing expected of his family.
On July 29, 1900, an Italian anarchist assassinated his father. Victor Emmanuel assumed the throne as Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. His father left him mostly unprepared for the position and Victor Emmanuel had a well-known disdain for the stresses of politics. However, the kingdom’s constitution, the Statuto Albertino, provided him considerable power for a constitutional monarch. Despite this power, Victor Emmanuel stayed out of Italy’s politics, only interfering on a handful of occasions as the nation suffered from periodic political instability.
Upon the outbreak of World War I, Italy initially remained neutral. Most of the government opposed entering the war, but Victor Emmanuel ignored their protests. He hoped to gain territory from Austria-Hungary, but corruption and disorganization led the Italian Army into defeat. Following the war, Italy suffered from an economic depression that led to a rise of more political instability and extremism. During this tumultuous time, the fast-growing Fascist party and its leader Benito Mussolini saw an opportunity to seize power.
On October 24, 1922, Mussolini announced that the Fascists would march on Rome with the intent to “take by the throat our miserable ruling class.” The prime minister and the cabinet feared a Fascist coup was imminent. At the time, Victor Emmanuel was away at his vacation home in Tuscany, hoping that the crisis would resolve itself without his participation. After more news of the fascist mobilization, the Italian government sent a telegram pleading for the king’s return. Eight hours after receiving the telegram, Victor Emmanuel departed from Tuscany and returned to Rome on October 27. The king’s explanation for his delay was that no one expressed to him the urgency of the situation. Victor Emmanuel ordered to defend Rome at all costs and had the prime minister draw up orders to proclaim martial law.
An emergency session of the cabinet took place and with unanimous agreement they prepared the proclamation. The last step needed was Victor Emmanuel’s signature. However, the prime minister never received a summons to meet with the king. In an unprecedented move, the king overruled his cabinet and prevented the enactment of martial law. The king later gave many explanations for his inaction but much of his reasoning was flawed by unfounded or outright false beliefs. To show disapproval of the king’s decision, the prime minister and his government resigned. Claiming he was trying to prevent a civil war, Victor Emmanuel appointed Benito Mussolini as prime minister.
The king met Mussolini during World War I and was also a reader of Mussolini’s newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia. He saw Mussolini as a strong figure who could impose order over Italy and bring an end to the constant political crises. The king disapproved of Mussolini’s violent tactics, but he appreciated the patriotism displayed by the Blackshirts. Despite the king’s appreciation for his new prime minister, Mussolini privately despised the king.
As Mussolini’s power grew, Victor Emmanuel did nothing to stop it. Even as the fascists assassinated political rivals and made all other political parties illegal in Italy. The king did step in once when Mussolini attempted to add the fasces symbol to the flag. Victor Emmanuel saw the addition as disrespectful to his family and refused to sign the law. During this time, Italy also expanded its territory by occupying Ethiopia and Albania where Victor Emmanuel usurped the titles of Emperor of Ethiopia and King of the Albanians.
In 1939, Mussolini was ready to follow Germany into war, but Victor Emmanuel blocked Mussolini. The king did not believe Italy was ready to fight a war and wanted to wait and see which side was favorable for victory. The king and Mussolini argued over the matter well into 1940. Mussolini was adamant that Germany would win the war and that it was an opportune time for Italy to make gains in Europe and become the dominant power in the Mediterranean. On June 1, 1940, Victor Emmanuel gave Mussolini permission to enter the war. However, 10 days elapsed before Italy’s official declaration of war because Victor Emmanuel refused to give Mussolini supreme command of the military. The two eventually compromised with Mussolini gaining operational command powers, but with supreme command remaining with the king.
Mussolini’s poor command hampered the Italian war effort. The Italian invasion of France failed, and the armies in North Africa and Greece experienced terrible losses. With failures piling up, the popularity of the Fascist regime dwindled. Even with growing doubts about Mussolini’s competence and numerous pleas to dismiss him, the king continued to support Mussolini. Following the Invasion of Sicily and the first allied bombing of Rome, Victor Emmanuel and other fascists leaders knew it was time to get rid of Mussolini.
On July 25, 1943, the Grand Council of Fascism voted to return Victor Emmanuel’s full constitutional powers. Victor Emmanuel met with Mussolini for one last time in which he dismissed Mussolini from his position and had him arrested as he exited the royal residence. The king decided to continue the war as part of the Axis powers but secretly began negotiations with the allies using the Vatican as a go between.
After sending numerous messages, negotiations with the Allies began in Lisbon, Portugal. Many of the king’s demands were unrealistic. He wanted to retain the monarchy, have his colonial empire restored, and have the allies promise not to invade Italy. This last demand contradicted the Allied war plan to draw as many Germans into Italy as possible to move troops from Russia and Normandy. The Allies were willing to let Victor Emmanuel keep his monarchy, but they rejected all his other demands.
On September 8, 1943, Victor Emmanuel announced the armistice with the Allies. The German troops present in Italy quickly turned into an occupying force. Victor Emmanuel fled Rome, fearing a German advance. On September 23, German forces freed Mussolini and created a German puppet state called the Italian Social Republic in now occupied northern Italy. With Italy split in two, the Allies asked for the king to formally declare war on Germany. For some time, Victor Emmanuel refused, citing that the Italian parliament needed to sanction such a declaration, even though he did not ask for parliament to sanction any of his previous war declarations. However, after much pressure, Victor Emmanuel declared war on Germany on October 8, 1943.
The Allied forces were reluctant to work with Victor Emmanuel and his government. Both Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed that Victor Emmanuel was problematic, but neither saw an alternative figure for the Italian people to rally around. They believed that in time Victor Emmanuel may have to go, but it would be best for the Italian people to make that decision. Public opinion for the king continued to fade. His years of support for Mussolini tainted his image. Some monarchists hoped that Victor Emmanuel would abdicate to bring some credibility back to the monarchy, but refused and instead offered a compromise.
On April 10, 1944, Victor Emmanuel transferred most of his powers to his son Crown Prince Umberto. Following the liberation of Rome, Victor Emmanuel transferred the remainder of his powers to Umberto but did not give up his title of king. Instead, Victor Emmanuel named his son Lieutenant General of the Realm. For the remainder of the war, Victor Emmanuel lived at Villa Maria Pia at Posillipo. He stayed out of the public eye and, according to his diary, was visited by his son only three times.
Following the Allied victory and liberation of northern Italy, the Italian government started to put itself back together. However, anti-monarchist sentiment continued to grow. Many blamed the royal family for the years of political instability, allowing the rise of fascism, and the terrors faced by the country. In 1946, the Italian government decided to hold a referendum to determine if Italy would become a republic. On May 9, 1946, three weeks before the referendum, Victor Emmanuel abdicated his throne in hopes of bolstering monarchist support and allowing his dynasty to remain in power. Umberto ascended to the throne as King Umberto II of Italy. The June 2 referendum resulted in 52 percent of the country favoring a republic. Some days later the republic was declared, and Umberto’s 34-day reign came to an end.
As part of the referendum, all male members of the House of Savoy were exiled from Italy. Victor Emmanuel fled to Egypt. He would die of pulmonary congestion a little over a year and a half later on December 28, 1947. He was interred at St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt until his remains were repatriated to the Sanctuary of Vicoforte in Northern Italy on December 17, 2017.
Victor Emmanuel III lived for 78 years. His indecisiveness and unwillingness to act caused political unrest and profound harm to the Italian people. His obsession with maintaining power made him indifferent to whose side he was on so long as he ended up on the winning side. In the end, the years of playing turncoat caught up to him. His kingdom was gone, his family in exile, and his legacy forever stained by the dark mark of fascism.