Following World War I, Italy’s failure to win territories in the eastern Adriatic provoked profound feelings of national frustration. Italian army officers calculated that an attack on Rijeka would be enormously popular with the Italian public, and chose flamboyant poet, orator and decorated war hero Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863–1938) to lead the enterprise.

D’Annunzio marched into Rijeka on September 12, 1919, at the head of 297 volunteers – whose numbers were soon swelled by patriotic adventurers. He immediately declared Italy’s annexation of Rijeka, a deed that the Italian government in Rome, suspicious of the radical d’Annunzio, disowned. By September 1920, d’Annunzio – who now styled himself “Il Commandante” – had established Rijeka as an independent state entitled the Reggenza del Carnaro, or “Regency of the Kvarner”, which he hoped to use as a base from which to topple the Italian government and establish a dictatorship. The enterprise attracted all kinds of ex-soldiers and political idealists from Italy and beyond. D’Annunzio’s court was copiously provisioned with both cocaine and courtesans, providing these adventurous souls with added inducements to stick around.

Under d’Annunzio, political life in Rijeka became an experiment in totalitarian theory from which fellow Italian nationalist Benito Mussolini was to borrow freely. D’Annunzio’s main innovation was the establishment of a corporate state, ostensibly based on the Italian medieval guild system, in which electoral democracy was suspended and replaced by nine “corporations” – each corresponding to a different group of professions – by which the populace could be organized and controlled. The Regency was also a proving ground for fascism’s love of spectacle, with d’Annunzio mounting bombastic parades and carefully choreographed mass meetings.

Pressured by the Western allies to bring d’Annunzio to heel, Italian forces began a bombardment of the city on Christmas Eve, 1920. D’Annunzio surrendered four days later, finally leaving town on January 18, thereby ending one of twentieth-century history’s more bizarre episodes.

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