Birth of the Italian Republic

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The birth of the Italian Republic (officially on June 2, 1946) is a key event of Italian contemporary history. Until 1946, Italy was a monarchy ruled by the House of Savoy (kings of Italy and, previously, of Sardinia). In 1946, after the results of a popular referendum, it became a republic. A monarchist minority advanced suspicions of fraud but the referendum is generally considered fair. A Constituent assembly was elected at the same time to prepare a new constitution for the Republic. This article is about the Referendum on the form of State.


Before the referendum

The Italian referendum was meant only to determine whether the Head of State were to come from a family dynasty, or be elected by popular vote. The Head of State, in either case, would appoint members of the government, but not govern personally.

Democracy was not a new concept in Italian politics. Italy had become a liberal State with the reforms of king Carlo Alberto and his famous Statuto Albertino in 1848. Suffrage, initially limited to select citizens, was gradually expanded. In 1911, the government of Giovanni Giolitti introduced universal suffrage for male citizens. In this period, the provisions of the Statuto were often not observed. Instead, the elected Chamber and the Head of Government took major roles. At the beginning of 20th century, many observers thought that, in comparison to other countries, Italy was developing in the direction of a modern democracy. The only issues that needed to be resolved were the relationships with the Roman Catholic Church.

A crisis arose in Italian society as a result of the First World War, social inequalities, and the consequent tension between Marxist and left-wing parties on one side and conservative liberals on the other. This crisis led to the advent of Fascism, which destroyed freedoms and civil rights, and establishing a dictatorship. Fascism broke the continuity of the parliamentary tradition. The support of ruling elite and especially Italian monarchy was crucial for the seizure of power by Benito Mussolini. After the March on Rome, the King Vittorio Emmanuele III refused to sign a decree to declare a state of siege, and asked Mussolini to form a new government. This King's decisions were taken in accordance with the Statuto, but in contrast with the parliamentary practice of Italian liberal state.

After the invasion of Italy by Allied forces in 1943, Italy and its government were split in two. Mussolini's Grand Fascist Council, with the co-operation of the King, overthrew Mussolini and established a new government under Pietro Badoglio. Nazi Germany, concerned about the new government's intentions to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies, invaded and occupied Northern Italy. German paratroopers rescued Mussolini from the hilltop hotel in which he had been imprisoned by the new government. Under pressure from Adolf Hitler, Mussolini established the Italian Social Republic to administer the German-occupied territory. Mussolini declared that the monarchy had been overthrown, and began to establish the apparatus of the new state. The Italian Social Republic was headquartered in the town of at Salò, and is commonly known as the Republic of Salò.

Southern Italy was nominally under the control of the new government of Badoglio, continuing as the Kingdom of Italy. Rome descended into chaos as fighting erupted between Mussolini loyalists and supporters of the new government, as well as leftist opponents of fascism who emerged from hiding. The King and the Badoglio government left Rome to seek the protection of the Allied forces that occupied the South. With half of Italian territory occupied by the Germans and the remnant by the Allies, the restoration of civil rights was postponed due the complete disorder of the situation. The pre-Fascist-era parties had disbanded during the regime or were in clandestine limited activity and had become out of touch with the population they had to represent. Consequently, the relationship between these parties, and the balance of power was left to be decided at a later, quieter time. Some political forces organized the Resistance and received a certain popular consensus, but it was impossible to determine what they represented without an electoral session that the situation could not allow. Almost all the forces of the Resistance were antimonarchists. A temporary alliance between them and the Badoglio government was allowed by the decision of Palmiro Togliatti, secretary of the Italian Communist Party, to postpone the problem of the form of State and concentrate all the efforts on the struggle against the Mussolini puppet regime in Salò.

Victor Emmanuel III
Victor Emmanuel III

At the end of the war, Italy, was a severely damaged country, with innumerable victims, a destroyed economy, and a desperate general condition. The defeat left the country deprived of the Empire it had fought for in the past two decades, and occupied by foreign soldiers of many armies. For some years after 1945, internal, politically-motivated fighting continued.

The emergence of political forces to replace fascism could not occur until the internal warring came to an end and elections could be held. After fighting had died down, a few months more were needed before attention could be given to institutional matters. The first important question regarded the royal family, considered by many as being the real cause for the fascist regime, the war, and the defeat.

The republican tradition in Italy had been started by Giuseppe Mazzini in the 19th century, but it immediately found a general consensus among the new political forces. The movement Giustizia e Libertà, that continued the traditional Mazzinian ideology, was the second important force during the resistance. It posed the question of the form of the state as a fundamental precondition to developing any further agreements with the other parties. Giustizia e Libertà joined the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (CLN). The various competing political factions agreed that a popular referendum would be held to determine the future choice of Head of State.

The King was asked to pass all his powers to his son Humbert. King Vittorio Emmanuelle III was too compromised by the recent history, particularly his acquiescence to Mussolini’s demand to that the government be handed over to the Fascists. With his abdication, his son Humbert II became Head of State. It has been said that the abdication had been imposed by opponents, but the royal house, too, had an interest in the manoeuver. It was convenient for it, in fact, to have a popular sovereign "on stage" at that crucial moment. Effectively, Humbert was more acceptable to the Italian people: he and his wife Maria José were young, elegant and cultivated, and presented a stark contrast to the old, rough Vittorio Emmanuele, who was unknown for any particular activity, apart from his collection of coins (114,000 items). Humbert was well-received by the people from the moment of his crowning, even if his wife (a foreigner) was kept at some distance. He was commonly called Il Re di Maggio (the King of May), with reference to his brief rule - 40 days.

His few acts (none of which were unimportant) were however generally seen, ex post, as correct and responsible. He repeatedly calmed the population by declaring that he would accept the election results. He did, in the event, accept the results with magnanimity: in his final farewell speech he invited Italians to loyally serve the Patria, absolving them from their loyalty to the crown.

Maria José's internal and international relationships (she had had contacts with leftist parties and former enemies since the beginning of the war) were supposed to have been of some potential importance at the right moment. But she was not able to produce the expected consensus around the Quirinal. Respected as the wife of an esteemed man, she was in fact the symbol of the uncertain, irresolute, ambiguous tendency of the Savoy dynasty to be open to any possibly safe compromise.

The referendum

Missing image
The original ballot paper

A decree by Vittorio Emmanuele, issued as a lieutenant of the government (decreto legge luogotenenziale 25 giugno 1944, n. 151) during Ivanoe Bonomi’s time in office as prime minister, prescribed that a constitutional assembly be organized after the war to draft a constitution and to choose a form for the state.

The institutional debate was accelerated in the spring of 1946.

  • On 1 March, the government of Alcide De Gasperi gave its approval for the definitive scope of the referendum to be Repubblica vs. Monarchia.
  • On 12 March, the government called together the electors to meet on the 2nd of June, for the referendum and the election of the Constituent assembly.
  • On 18 March, the King (now formally the lieutenant) issued the decrees together with a letter in which he anticipated his intention of abdicating in favor of his son Humbert II (who was named lieutenant general); the date for abdication being the anniversary of the Allied forces’ entry into Rome.
  • On 25 April, at the congress of Democrazia Cristiana, Attilio Piccioni revealed that, after an internal investigation, the opinion of the members of the party was 60% in favour of the republic, 17% in favour of the monarchy, and 23% undecided.
  • On 9 May, Victor Emmanuel left Italy from Naples by ship, after a long meeting with Humbert.
  • On 10 May, early in the morning, Humbert made a public announcement and became the King of Italy. That afternoon, the government censured Admiral Raffaele de Courten who had set aside a battle cruiser for Vittorio Emmanuele's exile that was supposed to be used to bring home Italian prisoners. It was also decided that the traditional institutional formula by which any decree or sentence was released in the name of "XXX, King of Italy, by God's grace and the nation's will", would be reduced to the simpler "XXX, King of Italy". Taking effect on the day the Humbert became king, this act did not present a warm welcome for the new king, especially since the government had not given him advance notice of its intention. A posteriori, this gesture of opposition to the new king also seems unnecessary given that the king's main powers were "frozen" until the referendum.

The political campaign for the referendum was framed by incidents, especially in northern Italy, where monarchists were fought by both republicans and post-fascists of the Italian Social Republic. Following a second decree (decreto legge luogotenenziale 16 marzo 1946, n. 98), during the government of De Gasperi, a referendum was held on June 2 and June 3, 1946. (June 2 later was named as a national holiday). The question was as simple as possible: Republic or Monarchy (see ballot-paper above).

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, headed by the socialist Giuseppe Romita, had organised an accessory police corps (Polizia Ausiliaria), which was later embroiled in controversy due to its discretionary enrollment procedures.

Following Italian law, the results were checked by the Corte di Cassazione (the highest judicial Court at that time), as expected. But the Cassazione was unable to declare the final result until June 16, about three days after the government had already declared that De Gasperi was the provisional Head of State.

The results

The referendum resulted in a republican form of state being adopted, with 54.3% in favour of this option and 45.7% against. The results should be reviewed with some caution.

The table of results shows some relevant differences in the different parts of Italy, and this was object of several interpretations. At first sight, the peninsula seemed to be drastically cut in two areas: the North for the republic (with 66.2%), the South for the monarchy (with 63.8%), as if they were two different, respectively homogeneous countries.

The strong result of Trentino, in which the republic was supported by 85 per cent of voters, has been seen as an effect of the nationalistic internal politics of fascism, which had always denied autonomy and any cultural concession to the inhabitants of the region. The German-speaking inhabitants of that area had different customs from other parts of the country. At the same time, others have attributed this overwhelming majority to a notable presence of fascists and post-fascists in the region. The elements opposed the Crown because Vittorio Emmanuele had deposed Mussolini and because it had entered into a separate peace with the Allies and declared war on Germany.

The monarchists, however, were suspicious about the irregular vote in this region. Their suspicions were justified by the absence of Alpini, a popular corps of the Italian army traditionally enrolled in this region. These soldiers had suffered heavy casualties during the war, and many of the survivors had been captured or had refused to come back during the two campaigns in the Soviet Union.

However, some sociologists and statisticians have also argued (and the argument was made in public speeches political leaders at the time) that educated people supported the republic, while illiterate people supported the monarchy. However, the general conditions and rates of illiteracy were similar across the regions of the country at the time, and therefore do not appear to explain the wider variations in support.

It was perhaps the different history of the two areas between 1943 and 1946 that could explain the regional differences in the referendum results: after the armistice, the King had escaped to southern Italy, already occupied by American and British troops. With the so-called "kingdom of South", a sort of protectorate, hostilities had ended, and people in those regions benefited from a relatively peaceful situation.

In northern regions, on the contrary, the presence of Nazi troops, the post-fascist Italian Social Republic, partisans, disbanded troops from the Italian army, and foreign troops advancing, resulted in a chaotic war against Germans and Salò puppet state forces. Many northern Italians felt betrayed and abandoned by the King, whose erratic behaviour immediataly before and after the armistice prevented the possibility of an organized military resistance and condemned half of the country to German occupation. Also, more than 650,000 Italian soldiers were captured and interned in Germany when they refused to adhere to the Republic of Salò and many Italians considered the King and his government irresoluteness responsible of their fate.

The highest percentage of null votes was recorded in Valle d'Aosta, historically one of the principal territories of Savoyard domain.

Some analysts have suggested that allowing women to vote may have resulted in increased support for the republic. Monarchists have argued that that women were allowed to vote because of strong pressure by left-wing parties.

The accusation of corrupted vote

The results of the referendum were strongly contested by monarchists. They argued that these results were not true, had been falsely reported or interpreted for a variety of reasons:

  • Many prisoners of war were still abroad in prison and were not able to vote.
  • Part of the eastern provinces (Trieste, Gorizia and Bolzano) had not yet been reintegrated into Italy, and therefore had not been included in the vote.
  • Violence during the electoral campaign had impaired the monarchist campaign. The Polizia Ausiliaria were accused of having heavily contributed to this violence).
  • Statistical studies would demonstrate that the number of voters recorded was greatly higher than the number of possible electors. In the general disorder, there appear to have been significant numbers of voters using false identity documents.
  • The first results arriving from the count, which lasted a few days, indicated that the monarchy option had heavy advantage.

On the morning of June 4, Pope Pius XII was informed by Carabinieri that monarchy had won. Also, It seems clear that Alcide De Gasperi wrote to Falcone Lucifero, Ministro della Real Casa (a sort of secretary of the King), that while minister Romita was optimist for a republican victory, he himself didn't believe they would have won. On the morning of June 5, a significant numbers of votes for the republic unexpectedly arrived, which suddenly changed the situation.

The monarchists presented numerous judicial complaints, and it seems possible that some of them were not examined.

Monarchists estimated that about three million votes had been lost. This number was greater than the difference between the republican and monarchist options.

Reason for a defeat

Vittorio Emmanuele was generally considered to be too weak for the events he had to control, and as a result, was very unpopular.

In 1938, the royal palace (the Quirinale) issued no objection to anti-Jewish racial laws. These laws were very unpopular amongst Italians because Jews participated in Italian society at many levels, and their persecution was seen as an unreasonable, external imposition with no reference in national feelings. Moreover, many Jewish officers of the army committed suicide before being dismissed (so as to die in uniform). This undermined the military class’s support for the Crown and fascism.

Trouble had also been caused during World War II by Princess Maria José’s political activity. Without official support by her father-in-law, the King, she undertook her own negotiations with the Allies in 1943, in order to secure a separate peace for Italy. Her diplomatic work, less secret than expected, was considered as treason by some monarchists, who saw it as evidence of general weakness, indecision, irresolution of the Crown. The Crown was perceived as being not completely with fascism and was not completely against it. The Real Casa was sending youth to combat Americans, British and Canadians, and, at the same time, was negotiating peace with them. Despite the enthusiasm of anti-fascists for the courageous princess, Maria José made the dynasty appear to be incoherent, and taking an inappropriate role in national affairs.

The reputation of the Crown was further impaired by the Brindisi episode, when the royal family fled Rome in secrecy to seek safety in the town of Brindisi, Puglia, just a few hours after the armistice. Rome was effectively abandoned by the government, the Pope was left without protection, and the Italian army in Rome disbanded.

Savoy descendants in exile

The new republican constitution was released together with a group of minor dispositions, the 13th of which prescribed that the male descendants of the Savoy family have to stay in perpetual exile. This disposition was abolished in October 2002, and Vittorio Emmanuele entered Italy with his family in the following December, for a short formal visit to the Pope.

The abolition of the exile followed an extensive political and juridical discussion that lasted several della Repubblica Italiana


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