Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Caporetto: The battle that changed Italy

The dawn of October 24th, 1917, started with huge explosion sounds. A bombardment by the Austro-Hungarian artillery in the Caporetto area (Kobarid in Slovenian) starts the 12th Battle of Isonzo. The attack, lead by German special troops -"Sturmtruppen"- , quickly breaks the front and threatens to isolate the 3rd Italian Army defending it, forcing the enemy to withdraw in total disarray. The fleeing troops are overwhelmed with panic and they cannot hold a proper resistance anymore. Only at the Piave River, 100 km away from the place where the offensive started, and the last defense line before Venice, the front is finally established after the Germans and Austro-Hungarians have stretched their supply lines for too long. In only 15 days, German and Austro-Hungarian armies achieve one of the greatest victories in the war, causing more than 30,000 casualties to the Italians, and making 275,000 prisoners.

During the battle, a young German captain, Erwin Rommel, stands out when leading a 250 men company to the Mount Matajur, capturing more than 9,000 prisoners and thus receiving the greatest German medal, Pour le Mérite.

A demoralized army

The day before the battle, the Italian soldiers formed a tired, demoralized army. Since May 1915, Italy had launched up to eleven offensives at the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovenian), with minimal territorial gains at a terrible cost (around half of the 600,000 Italians fallen in combat during the Great War died at the Isonzo). The area is particularly easy to defend, because of its high cliffs and passes behind a wide water flow which usually floods.

Despite all that, the Italian High Command chose this place to launch their attacks, mainly because it offered the best chances for territorial expansion. The great losses, together with the harsh discipline imposed by the officers, the long duration of this endless war, and the unpopularity of an offensive war, made an antiwar national feeling arise in the country.

A victorious army

The Russian Revolution in February 1917, and the decision of the Russian provisional Government to continue the war with a catastrophic offensive during the summer eventually brought down the Russian army's ability to continue fighting. After that, mutinies, mass desertions and surrendering of whole units with no resistance become normal. In this context, Germany and Austria-Hungary decide moving a large amount of units to the Italian front for the great offensive.

Besides, Germans came from the Eastern front with new efficient combat techniques, called infiltration tactics. Conceived by general Oskar von Hutier to break the stalemate caused by the trench war, they pursued surprise and quickness in the attack. They started with brief, intense bombings, followed by an attack lead by "sturmtruppen", supported by aircraft, with the aim of trespassing and disorganizing the rearguard, suppressing artillery support and communication lines. Then, the bulk of the infantry forces would clean the remaining pockets of resistance. These tactics had been successfully tested in September ending the siege of Riga, but they were used in large scale for the first time in Caporetto.

After their success, they were further used in the Western front, where the Germans almost reached the total victory at the Ludendorff Offensive. These tactics eventually settled the base of the German doctrine developed during the inter-war period, resulting in the principles of the Blitzkrieg, the tactics that kept Nazi Germany undefeated during the first half of the Second World War.

Italy reacts

The first consequences of the battle of Caporetto in Italy were the replacement of field marshal Luiggi Cadorna by Armando Diaz as the army chief commander, and also the formation of a new Government, somehow unavoidable after the continues quarrels between the defenders of neutrality and those for intervention.

However, the most influent change during the following years was the transformation of public opinion about the war. Before that, the army had fought in foreign territory with the aim of obtaining territorial acquisitions. Caporetto, on the contrary, was almost completely fought inside Italian land, switching the war objective to a matter of patriotic defense. This fact, together with the extent of the Italian defeat were skilfully exploited by some public figures, such as nationalist poet Gabrielle d'Annunzio, precursor of ideals and techniques in Italian fascism, and specially Benito Mussolini, then editor in chief of Il Popolo d'Italia. They called for patriotic feelings, discipline and fight against invaders and managed to rise the spirits of more than half a million new recruits, who contributed with the necessary strength to hold Austro-Hungarian attacks at the Piave and save Italy from occupation.

One year later, taking advantage of the high visibility and leadership he had managed to reach, Mussolini founded the Fascist movement, starting the darkest stage of Italian modern History.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Artistic geniuses of Austria-Hungary

Vienna, at the dawn of the 20th Century, was a huge city, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the fourth World political and financial centre. It is the classical era of Franz Joseph and Sissi, valses and operas, and viennois luxurious palaces and eclectic buildings. However, near the antiquated atmosphere led by the decadent Habsburg aristocracy and the close-minded artistic rationalism, there was an avant-garde hive of artists in the shadows, bursting with intellectual and sensual energy. This "clandestine" generation's works, progressist and provocative, constantly clashed with the conservatism in Austro-Hungarian culture. Nowadays, our modern point of view considers this one of History's most creative movements.

Symbolism vs Realism

During the last years of the previous century, the influence of symbolist trend arrived in Austria. This style had arisen as opposition to the prevailing realism and naturalism, which had stopped making sense after the spreading of photography. Symbolism rejected the mere representation of apparency in favor of ideas, a neo-romantic, spiritual new way of thinking. Thoughts are depicted about life and death, love, divinity, nature, the seasons of the year, etc. Specially the woman's figure is generally painted, itself symbolizing both desire and death (Klimt), a sensual being that becomes nearly magic (Mucha) and finally, simply provoking (Schiele).

Surrounded by this atmosphere between academism and symbolism, by old and new generations of artists from the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, the young Gustav Klimt, son of a Bohemian immigrant, made his studies. He grew up in a poor, but close to art, family, and became an admirer of classicist painter Hans Makart. However, his experiments with allegoric motifs and his golden works in architectural decoration shaped his personal style, together with the search of the symbology transmitted by feminine sensuality.

In fact, he had trouble with the latter, when he performed the paintings called Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna in 1894. The conservative personalities in politics, arts and religion from the Empire were scandalized by the explicit sexual language in these works, openly considered as "pornographic". Klimt never accepted assignments from public institutions anymore.

The secession of Vienna

Meanwhile, in France and Britain, Art Nouveau appeared. Directly related with symbolism, but much more focused on aesthetics than concepts, one of its greatest representatives was the Czech painter and designer Alfons Mucha, born in Moravia. After his failure in Vienna, he moved to Paris, where he achieved great prestige and an unexpected commercial success, specially designing the posters for actress Sarah Bernhardt and in symbolist magazines (La plume, 1898). Even without being related to Klimt, he also pursued spirituality through sensually depicting the feminine body, while treating woman as an untouchable character from a fairy tale.

The Austrian version for this kind of arts was represented by the movement of the Secession of Vienna, founded by Klimt and other artists in 1897, as a copy of those in Munich and Berlin. Years later, this would eventually have more influence than the latter in Art Nouveau trends. The aim for this institution was opposing the insipid prevailing eclecticism and encourage experimentation in new materials and decorative forms that, again, broke the classic trends of that time. In fact, they built their own exhibition pavilion, designed by one of its members, architect Joseph Maria Olbrich. Other artists in the institution were architects Otto Wagner and Joseph Hoffman, and painter Koloman Moser.

For five years, the company effectively created a new style, seceded from anything else existing at that time, by using purer, more abstract shapes and motifs in their works. Besides, they managed to mix different decorative arts in a single one -architecture, painting, metal work, decoration- nearly reaching the pursued idea of "total work of art".

In 1903, three of the main artists of the movement, Klimt, Hoffman and Moser, could not coexist with a faction opposed to the fusion of decorative arts anymore -the so-called naturalists-, and founded the independent Wiener Werkstätte. This institution eventually created the most truly distinctive style of Art Nouveau, by applying beauty to practical objects, characterized by simple shapes, minimalist decoration and use of geometric patterns.

Some years before, in 1899, in his Nuda Verita, Klimt had introduced a quote from Schiller: "If you cannot please everybody with your facts and arts, then just please a few". In effect, the arts produced at the Werkstätte defended the value of being manual and unique, in opposition to industrialist tendencies from schools of Arts and Crafts all along Europe, progressively more oriented to mass production. This elitist spirit was confirmed by Hoffman, when quoting that "as it is not possible to work for all the market anymore, then let us concentrate in those that can afford it".

Clashing with the surrounding social trends had a price: Both Hoffman and Olbricht were banished, the first to Brussels, the latter to Darmstadt (Germany), where he continued taking an active part in the city's modernist school. Meanwhile, Hoffman went on pursuing the practical application of arts into everyday objects, eventually creating the bases for the future Art Deco.

New secessions. Expressionism

Together with his disciple, Egon Schiele, Klimt created the Vienna Kunsthalle (Arts Hall) in 1917, in order to attract local artists and prevent them from fleeing abroad. Klimt became very interested in the young painter, introduced him to the Wiener Werkstätte, and in 1908 he got his first exhibition. Together they experimented with new symbolist trends, more focused on dreams and darker aspects of human conscience, such as anger and loneliness. Schiele's style, however, got increasingly different from his master's, as he overlooked the aesthetics of his works in order to concentrate in the pure expression of the idea. Expressionism had arrived.

We should not forget, with more a personal style, the genial, eccentric Hungarian painter Csontváry, also in the middle between symbolism and expressionism, and his mysterious paintings full of metaphors and dramatic sentiments.

Schiele abandoned Klimt to completely focus on the new style. Same as his master, Schiele gained great reputation all over Europe despite disliking traveling, in fact he preferred installing in his studio, far from the noises of Vienna. However, he did not cease to observe the neurotic behaviors of the population in the city, decadent and closed on itself, which were described by Sigmund Freud and depicted by Schiele and his contemporaneous Oskar Kokoschka, also disciple of genial Klimt. The latter became, after the premature deaths of the master and Schiele in 1918, arguably the most intense expressionist painter during the 20th Century, whose works, declared "depraved" by the Nazis and persecuted, showed the darkest, most heart-rending aspects of the hard period he lived.