Benedetto Brin's Italy: gradualism, strength and will

(To Federico Maiozzi)

Can a country that is small in economic, political, military and diplomatic strength emerge from its condition of minority? Yes, provided that whoever manages it knows how to think and execute plans without resignation but with a sense of reality, implementing them as openly as possible, informing and involving citizens in order to include them in the project and not make them mere passive executors or users. To have proof of this, it is enough to study historiography1.

Let's take the year 1871; our country had recovered from the hard defeats of the conflict that we call Third War of Independence2, begun and finished in 1866. Custoza had demonstrated - taking only three regional identities among others - how a Sardinian soldier, plus a Tuscan soldier, plus a Neapolitan soldier did not necessarily result in three Italian soldiers. At least not yet. Furthermore, the progress of the battle could raise some doubts about the strategic lucidity of the senior officers of the former Kingdom of Sardinia, in theory the engine of the new state. In short, the blue and light blue soldiers seemed to have gone to die (among the dead, missing and wounded around 7000 victims) and to kill (7-8000 victims among the Austro-Hungarians) for nothing3.

On the other hand, it had been much worse at sea4. In Vis the Italian fleet, brand new and in part Made in Great Britain, had suffered a severe defeat by the Austro-Hungarian one, inferior in terms of tonnage and technology. For Custoza it is legitimate (but still wrong) to indulge in lucubrations such as: “If only Sod had fought back Caius then maybe…”, for Lissa not even this kind of consolation holds. Even mere arithmetic is in Austro-Hungarian favor (2 ships sunk against none: 100-200 victims against 600-700), not to mention the at least questionable management of the defeat at a political level in the following weeks.

At this point, however, it would be inaccurate to reduce Custoza and Lissa (image) to two military setbacks, to two humiliationswhatever that term means. Two such hard defeats could have made us fear a profound and serious possibility, namely that after 18 years of wars and turbulence during the Risorgimento, after thousands of victims, of radical changes, of years spent in prison, torture and excesses on all sides and last but not least of painful cuts with the past in truth nothing had changed. Was the kingdom of Italy or was it not an independent state, able to live without a greater ally? Or rather was it preparing to become a huge Grand Duchy of Tuscany, independent until different foreign wishes?

Mind you, independence and autonomy are not important for a single fact of dignity. They are because a foreign master, especially of the time, almost always drains the material and intellectual resources of a subject country towards itself and its customers inhabitants mostly in the country of origin. Sometimes it is true that there are of better externals than internal democracies, but this case still represents an aberration and an exception and one cannot live hoping for exceptions.

Then Chernyshevsky's question returns: what to do? Luckily his and ours (ours also of contemporary Italians), in that 1871 mentioned at the beginning Benedetto Brin5 became director of naval construction of the Regia Marina. This Brin was a thirty-eight-year-old from Turin, obviously an officer of naval engineering, who had spent eight years in the Sardinian Navy (1853-1861) and ten in the Italian one. He did not have extraordinary inventions or disruptive organizational innovations to his credit, but he did possess a clear vision of the future that he was not afraid to expose and defend with those who collaborated, whether they were civil or military, politicians or industrialists. The rest, this disruptive one, came by itself.

In the very first step, Brin identified the need to avoid forward leaps by one of the components of the Italian notables. Industry, military and politics had to walk together. Furthermore, if on the one hand it was necessary to acquire foreign armaments where the superior quality required it, on the other this had to serve as a stimulus and point of reference for national production, so that this produced goods and materials of excellent quality that could at least potentially replace all foreign supplies.

In the period from 1871 to 1898, Brin held positions of the highest level (deputy, Minister of the Navy, Minister of Foreign Affairs...) which materially allowed him to implement many of his projects. As fascinating as it would be to retrace his biography, he would go beyond the topic of the article and therefore attention will be paid to the work of the Italian officer and politician, understood as a system of intellectual, material, organizational and political capacities).

Paraphrasing Lewis Carroll, we could say that Benedetto Brin started from the beginning.

What did the Kingdom of Italy urgently need? Of good ships. Benedetto Brin designed two good (some say excellent, but let's be cautious) sister ships: the battleships Caio Duilio e Dandolo. The project was innovative and represented an intellectual challenge that probably also benefited the open-mindedness of the Italian military and political notables. Previously established design and construction methods were called into question, both in the design of the ships themselves and in those of their rigging and the result was that the Regia Marina came out of the period of painful stasis following the battle of Lissa.

But after designing two good ships, how to build them? Furthermore, however valid these two projects might be, after thirty, twenty or even just ten years they would already be old since the rest of the world would certainly not stand still and congratulate us. Therefore, an industrial and management system that could be valid over the decades had to be thought of. At this juncture, Brin showed himself in line with the Italian economic policy of the time, which envisaged the partial closure of the free market in some strategic sectors until the companies of the Kingdom of Italy had reached capacities and qualities comparable to those of the other world players6.

Fortunately for the country, however, Brin knew the Made in Italy it's not enough if it's not a good one Made in Italy and so above all as Minister of the Navy he contributed to a very decisive improvement and expansion of the existing arsenals and to the creation of new industrial poles in the North, South and Center, in Terni. A reflection on the Terni site is dutiful which perhaps even by itself would be enough to understand how far-sighted Benedetto Brin was also as a politician.

The need to produce national steel existed and the geographical locations suitable for the construction of a new iron and steel pole were different. In short, Terni was an excellent variant but not the only one.

So why Terni? The reason is trivial, but looking at the Italy of the contemporary age where above is below and below is above, perhaps we should call it brilliant. The large iron and steel pole should have been used to produce steel for warships as well. Today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. Given this, it was therefore legitimate to think that as a place dedicated to war production it would have represented a possible target for any enemy of today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Given this too, it was therefore only right to think that the enemy would try to strike him with today's weapons but also and above all with those of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and it was precisely from these that the pole itself had to be defended.

Perhaps mindful of the lessons of the mighty forts built to defend Rome after the capture of the city and made useless a few years after their construction by the progress of artillery, in the same way Brin imagined a hypothetical development of artillery such as to be able to fire into the Tyrrhenian Sea and strike in the Adriatic (obviously it is simplified but this was the idea); in order to delay the geostrategic aging of the next Italian iron and steel pole, the Italian officer and his collaborators chose Terni because it was not only very rich in water, but also far from the coast and protected by the mountains both from possible enemy projectiles and landing groups from the sea ​​than by enemy infantry attacking en masse, an aspect which instead made the Po basin vulnerable. This consideration did not grow old even with the advent of the first war airplanes and airships, given that in the First World War the Austro-Hungarian and German aerial vehicles attacking from the sea they managed to hit Italian installations both to the north and to the south, but without ever entering the Apennines.

Let it be clear, here the author does not exclude that the construction of both the new poles and the new ships was not free from episodes (episodes) of corruption, approximation or real errors, but on a systemic level, the leap that Brin guaranteed the country was enormous, and Italian industry still owes a great deal to this leap today.

If a shadow can be found in Brin's work, we can touch the limit of paradox by stating that he had the audacity to give excessive credit to the Italian politics of the time, reaching the bizarre point of believing that if the Italian political notables affirmed with rumor and with written documents that the Italian navy had to prepare for a war against France since its Latin sister was seen, rightly or wrongly, as our first rival in the Mediterranean, this was also true in reality.

Brin, in fact, created a well-balanced industrial system capable of producing that number of ships sufficient to counter that part of the French navy operating in the Mediterranean; therefore, ready for great naval battles since our Latin brothers did not have jagged coasts in which to hide their ships, except in part in Corsica, where, after all, there were no large bases. We know how it went afterwards. In addition to a distraction of resources in the hasty Ethiopian campaign, despite the most recent archival documents Austria-Hungary7 (like indeed not even France), was not preparing any preventive attack against the Kingdom of Italy, Rome declared war on Vienna and Budapest about two decades after Brin's death (1898) and that navy model, based on large ships which should have engaged in a few, decisive fights, found themselves fighting against a highly motivated navy in the fight against the Italian invaders (from their point of view), which could count on jagged, irregular coasts full of inlets from which to launch insidious vessels and potentially give birth to a second edition of Lissa. This did not happen, but the damages inflicted by the Austro-Hungarians on the Italians were greater than those suffered8. This was certainly not Brin's responsibility, however. On the contrary, he demonstrated how even a small country cannot perform miracles but can strengthen itself, giving stability and security, even economic, to its citizens by integrating the military system into society, rather than using it for its control as it often was in Europe too.

He also revealed how even a "minor" nation can handle external interference. These are important and they exist, it's true, and the Italy of those years, especially when he became director of shipbuilding, did exist and were by no means small or unassertive. At the same time, however, no empire is omnipotent and when the ideas are clear and one is ready to execute them, independence can be conquered step by step, accepting the stopping points but always having the objective clear.

So Brin's was an Italy that approached problems seriously and therefore gradually. You cannot write a degree thesis in ten days; you can't rebuild a country in ten weeks.

A strong Italy, since independence is the necessary condition for the economic and moral development of its citizens, and this pragmatically means accessible health care, medicines and food in pharmacies and supermarkets and not in containers of foreign "aid", art and industries, look in the mirror and remember that you are never alone in your own country.

A "willing" Italy, since the will for now it is not measurable and therefore it is not a scientific category, yet it must be included in the equation that describes a country, in order not to give in to ineluctability or paranoia, which are two important components with which empires dominate their subjects.

1 Let's leave the term "history" alone, it is often confused with "memory" and in the contemporary world it is assuming a metaphysical connotation whose risks it would be appropriate to discuss.

2 On the Italian forces (understood variously) in the field during the Risorgimento, compare among others the most recent and available in Italian: G. Esposito, The Armies of the Italian Risorgimento 1848-1870, Gorizia, 2019.

3 Among other things, it is worth remembering that the estimates are indicative and the drafting of the same is affected by the culture of the time in which they were drawn up. To give an example, a historian of the XNUMXs probably would not have considered those who were disabled following a collision to have suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress.

4 For the history of the Italian naval instrument before the Great War, compare among others from the historical office of the Navy General Staff: M. Gabriele, The Italian Maritime Power, 1861-1915, Rome, 2017.

5 By the same author of the volume on Italian maritime power compare among others M. Gabriele, Benedetto Brin, Rome, 1998. To place Brin's work in a broader context on the history of naval military doctrines of European states, we also recommend: C. Alfaro-Zaforteza, A. James, M. H Murfett, European Navies and the Conduct of War, London, 2017.

6 Those of my readers who have studied economics will forgive my simplification.

7 See volume never disclosed enough: J. Schindler, Fall of the Double Eagle: the Battle for Galicia and the Demise of Austria-Hungary, Lincoln, 2015.

8 On the subject: P. Halpern (author), A. De Toro (editor), The great war in the Mediterranean, Gorizia, 2011.