To what extent was Austria the main obstacle to the unification of Italy in the period 1815-1849?
In the period immediately after the Vienna settlement in 1815 and up to the widespread revolutions throughout Europe and especially Italy in 1848 and 1849, the prospect of a united Italy seemed almost a distant dream. There were a range of obstacles in between progress to a unified state. These included the outright strength of foreign powers and in particular of Austria in suppressing revolution and thereafter its ability to recover quickly. Also the parochial nature of the society, the lack of a universally accepted leader, the failure to coordinate activity and the lack of popular support were all obstacles to a united Italian state in this period. However, the domination of the peninsula by Austria was the single most important factor because without its strength the restored monarchs would have fell permanently and the lack of foreign influence could have united the new governments.
The influence and domination of the Italian peninsula by Austria along with its immense military advantage was a key obstacle to the unification of Italy in the period 1815-1849. Firstly, the Vienna Settlement in 1815 increased Austrian power over Italy and the reactionary Restored Monarchs were heavily influenced by Austria. This meant that the middle-class officials in the governments and the law courts were dismissed and replaced by the non-noble families which were uninterested in any form of Italian unity. The Austrian chancellor Metternich had a totally negative and reactionary approach meaning that he was strongly opposed to nationalism and had no intention of allowing nationalist ideas to undermine Austrian control. This meant that there was little chance for nationalists to work for a united Italy as they would be immediately suppressed and crushed. The military supremacy of the Austrians was evident in the revolutions of 1820 and 1831. In 1821 the Austrians crushed the revolution in Naples led by General Pepe and also defeated the Turin Rebels who had tried to defend the constitution granted by Charles Albert. This was particularly significant in that the Austrians could easily defeat any revolutionary activity and liberal progress meaning that there was no opportunity for states to unite and coordinate interests to fight for unity. Similarly in 1831 in Modena and the Papal States provisional governments were unsuccessful due to Austrian military power in suppressing the uprisings. The Austrian army was extremely well led and organised and the extent of this is evident in its ability to suppress the more widespread revolutions between 1848 and 1849. Revolutions had spread from Palermo throughout mainland Italy and other serious disturbances were occurring in 1848 as a result of the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the King of Piedmont granting constitutions. However Austria quickly recovered from its weakened situation and by June of 1848 reinforcements had arrived from Austria and in July Charles Albert’s army was defeated by the Austrians at Custoza. The newly formed provisional government in Tuscany was also crushed by Austrians once they had defeated Charles Albert at Novara as they now had a free army. This proved that if the Italian revolutionaries wanted to unite Italy then they would need a considerable military force in order to pose a threat to the Austrians. Otherwise it was clear that Austria would simply suppress all revolutionary activity it disliked or which posed a threat to its control over the peninsula. In retrospect it is evident that even with a less parochial society and with a united aim the Italian revolutionaries could not mount a real threat due to the lack of experience and resources available. Therefore Austrian military might was overwhelming and hence is a more significant factor as an obstacle to unification. If there was no Austrian influence then it would have meant that the revolutions would have succeeded and more liberal governments in power would have had a greater chance in unifying the state. The Austrians were also able to recover quickly by staying in the Quadrilateral Fortresses and gaining more forces which meant that they were more prepared for each attack and this was another weakness of the Italian revolutionaries This reinforces that Austrian was the main obstacle to Italian unification.
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The lack of a universally accepted leader and hence the different political ideas between the leaders was another obstacle to a united Italian state in the period 1815-1849. This is particularly important because the natural leaders were unwilling to work together and each had a different ideology and a different way of uniting Italy. Mazzini who had founded Young Italy believed in a unitary, republican state through revolutionary methods. However, it was clear that revolutionary methods would not work due to the lack of a unified army and due to the parochial nature of society. Therefore, Mazzini was idealistic and unpractical in his ideas. The extent to which the revolutionaries were divided is evident in Mazzini’s dislike of Nicola Fabrizi, the leader of the Italian Legion. The Italian Legion was designed to be the military wing of the Young Italy movement and thus it can be seen that even though Mazzini and Fabrizi were ideologically similar they still wouldn’t cooperate. On the other hand Gioberti proposed an Italian confederation which would have the Pope as its president. Being a Papal Federalist he opposed the ideals of Young Italy and Mazzini. The effect of having such divided groups and leaders meant that the Italian nationalists could never agree and therefore could never present a united front against the huge military might of Austria, making their success unlikely. Furthermore, there existed the Piedmontese Monarchists including Charles Albert who was considered a prospective candidate. However, he showed particular leadership weakness in that he refused to accept volunteers from other states in his army nor would he accept to work with other revolutionary groups unless they first declared their loyalty to the Piedmontese royal family. Another Piedmontese Monarchist was Balbo who supported the idea that Piedmont was the only state that could possibly beat Austria militarily. Balbo was slightly different in his views from the other Piedmontese Monarchists as seen in his writing in 1844 “On the Hopes of Italy”. He saw the future of Italy being best ensured by the creation of an Italian Confederation where the Pope would play a role, though in which Piedmont would be the most important state in bringing a united Italy into existence. This meant that there were differences not only in the separate groups but also within these groups and hence reinforcing the fact that poor leadership and varied aims were critical factors in the wider context. If we look deeper we can see that someone like D’Azelgio, being a liberal conservative believed in peaceful reform and modernisation compared to Mazzini who believed in popular revolution through propaganda and insurrection. In addition the secret societies after 1815 such as the Carbonari and the Sublime Perfect Masters failed to communicate and unite actions due to their emphasis on secrecy. This meant that they were small and scattered making there effect lesser. The Carbonari were badly co-ordinated and failed to cooperate. There existed differences within the Carbonari itself in that some were Italian nationalists whereas others wanted to liberate just there part of Italy. In contrast the Sublime Perfect Masters led by Buonarotti had socialist views and were based around the radical revolutionary Jacobin movement in France during the 1790s. Also Pope Pius XI who was elected in 1846 was considered by many to have liberal sympathies and was therefore seen as a suitable leader by the Papal Federalists such as Gioberti. However, the Pope had only been perceived as a liberal due to his Motu Proprio which allegedly blessed Italy. He also released political prisoners and introduced government and legal reforms. However it soon became apparent that he was not willing to go to war with Austria and this was confirmed by his allocution which said that he was no longer willing to become the head of an Italian federation of states. This again showed that the Pope had a different interest and could not be relied on as a nationalist leader as many perceived him. Therefore their aims and objectives contradicted with that of the Carbonari and hence this underpins the fact that the failure of the provisional governments in working together was dependant on the lack of a universally accepted leader and common political ideals. In order for the provisional governments to work together there needed to be a sense of common objective and therefore the dependence of these factors on one another. This factor is particularly important in that if it had not existed, i.e. had there been a united front then there would be a greater conviction and a sense of unity from the outset making Austrian influence more difficult. Nevertheless this factor is less important as an obstacle to the unification of Italy in comparison to Austrian military might because even if there had been a universally accepted leader the experience and sheer strength of the Austrian forces would have been the deciding factor. Also, with an accepted leader it was unlikely that other dependant factors such as the cooperation between revolutionaries and the parochial nature of the society would be defeated.
Cooperation between the major revolutions and in turn the parochial nature of the society was most definitely an obstacle which prevented all round success. Firstly, the purpose of revolutionary activity was different and hence the aims of the various divisions within Italy were different. For example, in the 1820 revolutions in Naples the cause of revolutionary activity was because of King Ferdinand increasing the Church’s power to censor books, newspapers and magazines and hence angering the middle class because freedom of speech was made impossible. In contrast the Sicilians were revolting due to the King’s failure to grant them independence and neglecting the Island. There was a similar contrast in aims in the 1848-1849 revolutions where Sicilians and the Neapolitans were essentially at war against each other since Sicily wanted independence from Naples and did exactly that once the provisional government had taken over in 1848. Therefore they were only interested in liberty for themselves and were not concerned with national unity. In Milan the revolutionaries wanted to get rid of the Austrians and there were tobacco riots in order to reduce the Austrian state monopolies to go bankrupt. In the case of Charles Albert he refused to accept outside forces into his army and this showed that he was only interested in extending the power of Piedmont. Therefore, from the broader picture in this period it can be seen that there were slight differences in the intentions of different states and their respective leaders. Where the revolutions had been successful the provisional governments had not cooperated, for example in Naples and Sicily where the Neapolitan provisional government tried to withdraw the independence that was declared to Sicily in 1848-1849 reinforcing personal interest ahead of cooperation and unity. Also, the provisional governments failed to take effective action, lacked resources and experience meaning that none of the states which gained independence- Sicily, Lombardy and Venetia were able to retain it. This was similar to what had happened in the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century where many of the rulers had expected to be defeated. This gave the revolutionaries an early advance which they failed to take advantage of by cooperating in united action. The revolutions were weakened by being local affairs such as in Sicily and concerned with only limited areas. There was little communication between the revolutionaries in the different states and even less co-operation. In the 1831-1833 revolutions the revolutionary government in Bologna refused to send help to Modena. Many of the revolutions elsewhere relied heavily on a network of small groups of revolutionaries set up by the Carbonari and other secret societies. These units were isolated and aims differed from one place to another. Another interesting factor which depended on the cooperation of the revolutionaries was that the movements were mainly middle-class affairs and popular interest was not encouraged by the revolutionary leaders. The division of the revolutionaries on domestic policies was also important because Liberals believed only in granting a constitution by the ruler whereas the radicals disagreed and wanted the eventual formation of an Italian republic. It can be seen that this was a more important factor than having a universally accepted national leader because if the provisional governments had cooperated then there was no need for a national leader because a unified Italy would almost naturally emerge by means of common interest and nationalist ideals. The parochial nature of society and the failure of the provisional governments to unite in their actions were inter-dependant. This is because it is the nature of the society which caused the provisional governments to act in their own interests such as that in Sicily in 1848. It can be seen that for these reason although this was a key factor it was by no means the most important as an obstacle to Italian nationalism.
Another important factor which is inter-related with parochialism is the weakness and in some cases lack of popular support. The governments that emerged temporarily during the revolutionary chaos were inexperienced and weak. They made very little attempt to gain the popular support of the masses. The apathy of the masses was another key feature of these revolutions. Considering that a prime cause of the revolts was the economic distress and hardship caused by the harvest failures of 1846-47, the largely liberal provisional governments could have easily mobilised popular support by assisting the people. In most cases the peasants found little or no improvement in their lives. As a result, the restored rulers were often welcomed back by their subjects. When the Pope returned to Rome in 1850, the citizens cheered him through the streets. In any case, for most people local loyalties dominated. Linguistic and cultural divisions, compounded by natural obstacles like the Apennine Mountains. Despite the Risorgimento, there was little sense of nationhood amongst most ordinary Italians and this meant that there was no real sense of popular support. This was not so much of an important factor because even if they were able to build up popular support it would have been extremely difficult to overcome the military strength of Austria and the cooperation of the provisional governments.
In conclusion it can be seen that Austrian military strength and domination over the Italian peninsula was definitely the main obstacle to the unification of Italy in the period 1815-1849. Although the other factors were important in ensuring that the overall effort of the revolutionaries was more united and in turn greater, it was always clear that without the military capabilities and resources of the Austrians there was no way that the revolutionaries could be successful. The overall effort for a united Italy was weak in many different ways and although the lack of a universal leader was definitely the next single most important factor after Austrian power it was only an element to a certain extent. Therefore without Austrian intervention there would have been more liberal provisional governments which would have had a greater chance of working together to form a united Italy.