In April, 1915, the Italians signed a treaty with the French and British, agreeing to enter the war in May. They were moved first and foremost by their own passionate attachment to democracy and their own love for civilization, as the French and British understood it. They realized that the German militaristic state and the methods it sanctioned would destroy all that they held most dear. While there were some considerable number of people in Italy who had doubts as to the way in which the general cause could be best advanced, there were very few outside of those bought with German money who differed upon the question of Italy's real interests.
In the next place, Italy had for centuries been oppressed by Austria, and the Italians had come to hate and distrust her to an extraordinary degree. Was she not the firm ally of the new Germany, committed to all Germany's schemes, and her accomplice in the very worst of her plots? Had not Austria opened the issue of the war by the extraordinarily severe ultimatum to Serbia? Was it not Austria who pushed the issue to war; who refused all compromises and declined to negotiate? Possibly the Kaiser and the Germans urged the Austrians on, but the Austrians at any rate yielded.
There had been a treaty called the Triple Alliance between Italy, Austria, and Germany, which had provided for mutual assistance between the three under certain circumstances. Many have therefore believed the German statements that the Italians broke the Triple Alliance and therefore themselves tore up a treaty by refusing to join the Germans and Austrians at the outbreak of the war. Nothing was further from the truth. The Italians had always declared from the very beginning that the Triple Alliance should never cover a war begun by the Austrians and Germans, and they had always insisted upon their right to reserve action in any dispute which the Austrians might have with Serbia. The very situation out of which the war grew was one which the Italians had foreseen at the time the treaty was signed; they had given notice then and since that they would not consider themselves bound by the treaty in any war growing out of a quarrel between Austria and one of the Balkan States.
Moreover, Austria still controlled a considerable section of territory in which the bulk of the people were Italians—Italy Unredeemed, Italia Irredenta. These Italians were most anxious to join United Italy and their compatriots were eager to free them from Austrian domination. Their freedom would add to the new Italy the last territory which belonged to her.
It was also true that this same territory contained the military defenses of Italy. The Austrians, when driven from Italy in 1866, had insisted upon retaining the military frontiers in their own hands, thus leaving Italy helpless before an Austrian assault. This was one reason why the great attack of 1917 was so successful. The strong position, the offensive position as we call it, the Austrians had always held. One reason, therefore, for Italy's entering the war was a desire to get possession of a frontier upon which she had some real chance to defend herself.
The shaded area is the territory the Italians desired to win.
Nor was there much doubt in the minds of a majority of Italians in 1915 that, if Italy was to fight at all, she must join before the British and French were beaten. She had not moved at the very outset of the war because her army was not ready and because she rendered the Allies from the beginning a really tremendous service by declaring her neutrality and thus freeing the French from the necessity of guarding their own rear. If the Italians had joined the Germans and had attacked France in the south at the same time the Germans moved in the north, the position of the French would have been indeed desperate.
By the spring of 1915, however, it was reasonably clear that the Allies could not win the war in a hurry, that long preparation might be necessary, that cooperation and unity among Germany's enemies would be essential to victory. The Italians therefore did not propose to wait until the British and French were flat on their faces before coming to their aid. It would then be too late. The great object which Italy herself had at heart would have been lost. They must act promptly and vigorously if the war was to be saved.