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Decisions Within March 26, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

Victor Emmanuel III

History takes place between societies, within societies and among groups of individuals. Historians have proved quite competent at measuring these interactions. But what happens when history takes place strictly within a single human heart, in a place where there are no records, no archives or scholars with searchlights, when one decision changes the track of history? There is nothing more impenetrable in our records, not least because even if the individual in question does decide to put on record what he or she thought there is no guarantee that they or their memory can be trusted. A trifling example though one that was to have enormous consequences for European and then world history.  27 October 1922 Mussolini’s Black Shirts began their march on Rome. That very night the Italian cabinet gathered and decided on martial law, an act that was initially backed by King Victor Emmanuel III, and an act that would have smashed all Mussolini’s pretensions. However, the next morning when Facta (the then Prime Minister) arrived at the palace to have his monarch sign the act of martial law VEIII had changed his mind. The King stated by way of explanation that ‘martial law would lead to civil war’, something that was probably untrue, though which may have reflected a sincere belief. Italian historians have argued for the last ninety years about why VEIII shifted his position and have come up with various interpretations. But the consequences, at least, were clear. Within a week Europe’s first fascist was in power and a path that would lead through Nuremburg and onto the Sicily landings, the wreck of the Italian empire, Stalingrad and Auschwitz had been opened.  VEIII may have spent the whole night wondering about the question, though knowing something of that least impressive of all Italian monarchs, he was more likely suffering from indigestion or the loss of a trifling piece from his coin collection. Perhaps that is where we have to look for the origin of his decision…

Of course, these ‘decisions within’ work far better in societies where men or women have dictatorial powers and where indigestion can really make a difference. An example from English history. By 1587 Elizabeth I wanted Mary Queen of Scots dead but was reluctant to take the step: killing a ‘royal sister’ was no joke, the chain of being could easily have come crashing down, bringing Elizabeth with it. Her parliament, her royal courtiers and her privy council though had no such scruples. Mary was a threat to Elizabeth and to Protestant England, Mary had (almost certainly) plotted against the queen. Elizabeth, then, undertook a series of bizarre acts that are obscure to posterity because they were acted out strictly within the compass of her mind. She gave her trusted secretary William Davidson a signed death warrant for Mary but told him not to use it. William, confused, took this to the privy council and they immediately sent the order for Mary’s death. Elizabeth on hearing of Mary’s execution was furious. She had WD thrown in prison, though his salary was paid throughout his time there, and the poor man was locked up for two years. Had Elizabeth deliberately chosen a scapegoat and allowed him to be beaten for her own reluctance to spill royal blood: a who-will-rid-me-of-this-turbulent-priest moment?  Or had Elizabeth given him the warrant truly expecting him not to use it? Again historians argue and again no one will ever know because Elizabeth refused any considered comment. There is no question though that two years later, enjoying the sun on the Thames, Elizabeth would have been satisfied that Mary had gone…

Even were we able to excavate into the body or brains of Elizabeth or Victor Emmanuel III there would be no easy answer for the questions posed above. Human beings are not just complex, they are opaque, their motives hidden, all too often, from themselves: and how much more true this is in the case of a subtle but instinctive thinker like Elizabeth. The chances are that even if someone had held a pistol to VEIII’s head or a musket to Elizabeth’s temple and insisted on an answer the jumble of words that came out would have been at best an approximation to their own motives. Beach is reminded of the hopelessly difficult question of why Hitler did not roll up the BEF at Dunkirk. Other examples of private and now lost decisions: drbeachcombing At yahooDOT com