In “The Fiume Crisis,” Dominique K. Reill Explains How a Citizens’ Uprising Established a Free State After the Fall of the Habsburg Empire

On September 8, 1919, the charismatic poet and propagandist Gabriele D’Annunzio led a band of shock troops into the former Austro-Hungarian Adriatic city-state of Fiume and staged a coup d’état, proclaiming its annexation to Italy. The government in Rome opposed the coup, and at Christmastime 1920, Italian troops laid siege to oust D’Annunzio and restore Fiume’s independence. This bizarre episode in Europe’s interwar history is the story historian Dominique Kirchner Reill sets out to tell in her new book, The Fiume Crisis: Life in the Wake of the Habsburg Empire. But it is not, she argues, a tale of competing nationalisms and rising authoritarianism, but something quite different.

A professor of modern European history at the University of Miami, Reill has written one previous work on nationalism in the Habsburg Empire, Nationalists Who Feared the Nation, about nascent 19th-century movements in Venice, Trieste and Dalmatia. With The Fiume Crisis, Reill seeks to show how ordinary Fiumians navigated this period of crisis in the history of their city. Based largely on bureaucratic documents and Fiume’s monetary and legal policies in the years 1918-1924, her research reveals their pragmatism as they tried to make the best of their new position as an isolated city-state in the age of nations.

Fiume, today Rijeka in Croatia, was a corpus separatum, a semi-autonomous city in the Kingdom of Hungary within the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1868 until its collapse in 1918. A port city, Fiume attracted migrants from across the empire, and by the time of the 1910 census, it had become a typical Habsburgian stew: 49 percent Italian speakers, 26 percent Croatian, 13 percent Hungarian, 5 percent Slovene, 5 percent German, and so on. The postwar carve-up of Europe left Fiume a free state and the subject of a tussle between Italy, Yugoslavia and the US government over its future.

A Pregnant Widow

As the great powers hashed out Fiume’s fate, Reill argues Fiumians worked to remake their own world in the absence of the empire. They “continued to administer themselves using the structure and personnel remaining after the dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy,” including much of the legal code and even the currency: Old Austro-Hungarian Kronen were stamped with the seal of Fiume and made legal tender. The imperial regime was retained and modified, shifting rights and duties “away from a broader royal citizenship in favor of a homed-in Fiume localdom.” Reill does not believe Fiumians were committed to becoming Italians, but something more “Fiume-centric.”

The clearest articulation of Reill’s case comes buried deep in her text: “Rather than leaving imperialism through nationalism,” she argues, Fiume’s history “was one of transitioning to a new form of locally centered imperialism, with Italy standing in for the Habsburgs. Her research is substantial and her book well-structured, including a helpful section outlining the dominant historical narratives surrounding Fiume. Still, its argument could be clearer; her ideas are often expressed too obliquely, the research left to speak for itself.

As seen through The Fiume Crisis, the year 1918 was no clean break between imperialism and nationalism. The period during which Fiume’s status remained unsettled was what the Russian writer Alexander Herzen referred to as a departing world leaving behind not an heir, but a pregnant widow. “Between the birth of the one and the death of the other,” Herzen wrote, “much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.”

The citizens of Fiume, Reill argues, tried to navigate that lost night as best as they could, before the next day in their history began.

Dominique Kirchner Reill

The Fiume Crisis: Life in the Wake of the Habsburg Empire 

Harvard University Press

December 2020

pp 289