It is remarkable that, throughout the critical period pending Italy's decision, Italian statesmen negotiated mainly with German and not Austrian diplomats. Although the Italians believed that Germany had dictated Austria's war policy, in the end it developed that the kaiser and his ministers were unable to control Austria to the full extent that they considered desirable in the matter of yielding to the Italian demands. The purpose of Prince von Buelow was to find out the minimum terms acceptable to Italy, and meanwhile, by making small concessions, create the impression that Italy could gain without firing a shot all that she could hope for through successful war. In fact, the Teutonic agents did bring against the Italian Cabinet the accusation that they were not acting for the best interests of their country, and were determined to fight regardless of proffered concessions. This charge was denied by the Italian premier in a speech wherein he asserted that the offers of Germany were not in good faith.
Germany asked if the Italian claims would be satisfied by the cession of Trentino. To this Baron Sonnino replied that he "did not consider that Italian popular sentiment would be content with the Trentino alone." A stable condition of accord between Austria and Italy, he said, could be effected only by satisfaction of the old Irredentist formula, "Trent and Trieste." Von Buelow answered that Austria certainly would prefer war to the surrender of Trieste. Here the negotiations stuck fast, the Italian ministry declining to define their demands any further until Austria agreed to the cession of Italian territories actually in the possession of the Hapsburg monarchy.
On February 12, 1915, Sonnino addressed a solemn warning to Austria-Hungary. He declared that any military action undertaken by that monarchy in the Balkans against either Serbia or Montenegro, without previous arrangement with Italy, would be considered an open infringement of Article VII of the Triple Alliance. Disregard of this declaration, he added, would lead to grave consequences for which the Italian Government henceforth declined all responsibility.
Five days later, February 17, 1915, he repeated the warning. "It is necessary," he said, "to state very clearly that any other procedure on the part of the Austro-Hungarian Government could only be interpreted by us as an open violation of the terms of the treaty, and as clear evidence of its intention to resume its liberty of action; in which case we should have to regard ourselves as being fully justified in resuming our own liberty of action for the safeguarding of our interests."
At this time there were rumors of a fresh attack on Serbia by both Austria and Germany, and there is little doubt that the Serbs for the time being were saved by Italy's firm stand. Germany redoubled her efforts at Vienna. Baron Burian, who had recently succeeded Count Berchtold as Foreign Secretary of the Dual Kingdom, had adopted a much more intransigent position than his predecessor. He clung to the contention that it was impossible to settle the question of compensation for Austria's invasion of Serbia until it had become clear how that enterprise would result. Military action, he argued, could not afford to wait upon diplomatic discussion.
Early in March, 1915, it looked for a time as if the Central Powers and their ally would find a satisfactory way out of the tangle. On March 9, 1915, Baron Burian accepted the principle that compensation to Italy must be made from Austrian territory. Italy demanded that negotiations begin at once, and that they should be between Italy and Austria without German interference. Prince von Buelow, still acting for his country, protested, but finally, on March 20, 1915, notified Baron Sonnino that he had been authorized to guarantee in the name of Germany the execution of any agreement which Italy and Austria might conclude.
As announced by the German imperial chancellor, the concessions Austria was willing to make were as follows:
Cession to Italy of that part of Tyrol and the western bank of the Isonzo inhabited by Italians, and of the town of Gradisca.
Trieste to be made an imperial free city, receiving an administration insuring an Italian character to the city, and to have an Italian university.
Recognition of Italian sovereignty over Avlona and the sphere of interests belonging thereto.
Austria-Hungary to declare her political disinterestedness regarding Albania.
National interests of Italian nationals in Austria-Hungary to be particularly respected.
Austria-Hungary to grant amnesty to political or military criminals who were natives of the ceded territories.
The further wishes of Italy regarding general questions to be assured of every consideration.
Austria-Hungary, after the conclusion of the agreement, to give a solemn declaration concerning the concessions.
Appointment of mixed committees for the regulation of details of the concessions.
After the conclusion of the agreement Austro-Hungarian soldiers, natives of the occupied territories, should not further participate in the war.
At last Germany, weighed down by the burden of war and anxious to keep Italy neutral, appeared to believe that the difficulty had been settled. But Baron Sonnino's reply proved disappointing. He found the proposals too vague. They did not settle the Irredentist problem; above all they made no appreciable improvement in Italy's military frontier; finally, they did not offer adequate compensation for the freedom of action Austria would enjoy in the Balkans. "A strip of territory in the Trentino," he concluded, would not satisfy any of Italy's requirements.
On April 2, 1915, Austria, spurred on by Germany, endeavored to meet the Italian objections by offering more specific concessions. She expressed willingness to cede the districts of Trento, Roveredo, Riva, Tione (except Madonna di Campiglio and the neighborhood), and Borgo. This readjustment would give Italy a frontier cutting the valley of the Adige just north of Lavis. These districts Baron Burian considered far more than a "strip of territory," and he hoped Italy would be satisfied.
But Italy was far from satisfied, and six days later, in response to an invitation for counterproposals, Baron Sonnino drafted the following demands:
I. The Trentino, with the boundaries fixed for the Kingdom of Italy in 1811.
II. A new eastern frontier, to include Gradisca and Gorizia.
III. Trieste and its neighborhood, including Nabresina and the judicial districts of Capo d'Istria and Pirano, to be formed into an autonomous state with complete independence from Austro-Hungarian rule. Trieste to be a free port.
IV. The cession by Austria-Hungary of the Curzolari Islands off the coast of Dalmatia.
V. The immediate occupation by Italy of the ceded territories and the immediate evacuation by Austria-Hungary of Trieste and the neighborhood.
VI. The recognition by Austria-Hungary of Italian sovereignty over Valona and district.
VII. The renunciation by Austria-Hungary of any claims in Albania.
VIII. A complete amnesty for all political or military prisoners belonging to the territories mentioned in I to IV.
The next three articles provided:
IX. That Italy should pay to Austria-Hungary as indemnification for the loss of government property, as a share of the public debt, and against all money claims, the sum of 200,000,000 lire.
X. That Italy should pledge herself to maintain neutrality throughout the war, this pledge applying to both Germany and Austria-Hungary.
XI. That Italy should renounce any further claims under Article VII of the Triple Alliance for the whole duration of the war, and that Austria-Hungary should renounce any claim to compensation for Italy's occupation of the Dodecannesus.
These demands were pressed by Italy in the face of disquieting rumors that Austria-Hungary was on the point of concluding a separate peace with Russia, which would leave her free to devote her whole attention to Italy and Serbia if the former refused to make terms. They were rejected by Austria, April 16, with a few unimportant exceptions: Article VIII was accepted. As regards Article IX, Baron Burian asserted that the amount offered was totally insufficient, but suggested that the question of pecuniary indemnity be referred to The Hague. He held that the pledge of neutrality should be extended to Turkey as well as to Germany and Austria, and asked for the insertion of an extra clause in Article XI, providing that Italy's renunciation of further claims under Article VII of the Triple Alliance should cover all such advantages, territorial and otherwise, as Austria might gain from the treaty of peace which should terminate the war. The only cardinal point on which Austria offered concessions was in regard to the proposed Trentino frontier. This she agreed might follow a course more advantageous for Italy than that suggested in Austria's former proposals.
Baron Sonnino's reply was sent from Rome on April 21, 1915. It declared that these additional concessions failed to "repair the chief inconveniences of the present situation, either from the linguistic and ethnological or the military point of view." Austria, he pointed out, seemed determined to maintain positions on the frontier that were a perpetual threat to Italy. There were three more conversations between Baron Burian and the Italian Ambassador at Vienna before negotiations were broken off, and on April 29, 1915, the Italian Ambassador telegraphed to Rome that Austria virtually negatived all the Italian demands, especially those contained in the first five articles. The real break, which made war inevitable, came on May 3 when Baron Sonnino sent to Vienna a formal denunciation of the Italo-Austrian alliance.
It must be remembered that behind the text of these formal proposals and counterproposals lay a belief in the minds of many Italians that Austria made even the slight concessions she granted unwillingly and under pressure from Germany, and that if the war resulted successfully for the Central Powers, Austria would immediately begin to scheme for a restoration of her old frontiers.
Since it is an axiom of diplomatic bargaining that each side asks more than it expects to receive, there is no doubt that Italy would have been willing to modify her demands if her statesmen and people had been sure that the concessions obtained from Austria under these circumstances would not have been disturbed in the event of a Teutonic victory.