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Umberto II: Last King of Italy

by Giulio Poggiaroni

Umberto II was the son of Vittorio Emanuele III. He was the last king of Italy, serving only 34 days until Italians voted for a republic.

Early Life and Marriage

Umberto Nicola Tommaso Giovanni Maria di Savoia was born on 18 September 1904. As the only male heir of King Vittorio Emanuele III and Queen Elena of Montenegro, he received the title of Prince of Piedmont. As a tradition in the House of Savoy, he obtained a robust military-oriented education. This education came under the supervision of Admiral Attilio Bonaldi.

Umberto as a young child.

Umberto as a young child. Image: Public Domain.

In 1918, he joined the military academy in Rome and graduated in 1921. Umberto obtained the rank of General, thanks in part to his status of Crown Prince. During the 1920s, he lived a quiet life, far from the political scene.

In January 1930, Umberto married Maria José, daughter of the Belgian King, Albert I of the House Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The two knew each other for years. Despite cultural differences, it was a happy marriage. Together they had four children, Maria Pia (1934), Vittorio Emanuele (1937), Maria Gabriella (1940), and Maria Beatrice (1943).

Anti-Fascism and Coup Conspiracy

The war against Abyssinia in 1935-1936 and the deteriorating relations with France and Britain led Benito Mussolini to develop an alliance with Hitler and Nazi Germany. Many in royalty believed this as a threat to European peace. The current rulers of the House of Savoy had favorable views of France and Britain. King Vittorio Emanuele III, who was not a fan of Germany, disapproved of this allegiance taken by Mussolini. It was a sentiment also shared by Umberto and his wife.

Umberto II in 1944.

Umberto II in 1944. Image: Public Domain.

Prince Umberto, and Princess Maria José, held meetings and discussions with leaders and figures who opposed the war. The Princess met Marshall Badoglio in the royal residence of Racconigi in the spring of 1940. Attorney Carlo Aphel also attended this secret meeting. Aphel enjoyed close relations with the Agnelli family (owners of FIAT) and, more importantly, Arturo Bocchini, head of the police.

The idea was to depose Mussolini with a coup and replace him with Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano. This conspiracy included the Duke of Aosta, Italo Balbo, and Dino Grandi.

It is not clear what stopped them, but most likely, the collapse of France. This news shocked the entire world. A defeated France tipped the political balance in favor of Mussolini and his pro-war party.

Italy in WW2

When Italy joined the war, Umberto became nominated Commander in Chief of forces on the Western front against France. The front lasted less than two weeks. During this time, Umberto recognized the unreadiness of the Italian Royal Army, especially in terms of inadequate equipment.

In the following years, he unsuccessfully requested command in Yugoslavia, Libya, and Russia. Mussolini turned down each request. Mussolini’s refusal denied the Prince any chance in boosting his popularity or achieve military honor.

Umberto, Prince of Piedmont, inspecting Alpini on the Western Front.

Umberto, Prince of Piedmont (L), inspecting Alpini on the Western Front.

Umberto, a soldier by education, wanted to defend the honor of his house and fulfill his duty, even in a war he strictly opposed. Although denied a military command, he and Maria José conducted charitable activities and visited populations devastated by bomb raids. On 29 October 1942, he received the new rank of Marshall of Italy.

The defeat at El Alamein and the worsening conditions on the Eastern Front began to take a toll on those tolerating the war.

Benito Mussolini visiting Umberto, Prince of Piedmont, on the Western Front.

Benito Mussolini visiting Umberto, Prince of Piedmont, on the Western Front. Image: Public Domain.

In the months prior to the fall of Benito Mussolini, Umberto intensified his contacts with those planning to depose Mussolini. These contacts included Galeazzo Ciano, Dino Grandi, Pietro Badoglio, Vittorio Ambrosio and Enrico Caviglia among others.

Armistice

During the armistice, Umberto opposed the idea of leaving Rome. He preferred to defend the capital against German troops dispatched to occupy the peninsula. Umberto continued to protest on several occasions on the way to Pescara. He declared himself available to return to Rome and organize the resistance. However, the King refused his request, and Umberto, loyal to his father and king, obeyed. Once in Pescara, the royal family embarked on a ship and reached Brindisi. The new government spent the remainder of the war as co-belligerent allies.

Luogotenente del Regno

After the liberation of Rome, on 5 June 1944, the King nominated Umberto Luogotenente del Regno. This nomination meant that all of King’s powers transferred to Umberto. In other words, Vittorio Emanuele maintained the title of King in name only. During this ascension, Umberto dismissed Badoglio’s government and appointed Ivanoe Bonomi, a liberal politician, as the new Prime Minister.

Prince Umberto in Sparanise, Italy in May 1944. Image:

Prince Umberto in Sparanise, Italy in May 1944. Image: Public Domain.

In August 1944, he abolished the death penalty with war crimes as an exception. In this period, he also signed an act allowing the Italians to decide the future constitutional form of the country. This vote would occur following the complete liberation of its territory.

Umberto II, King of Italy and Exile

In May 1946, Vittorio Emanuele III abdicated the throne and retired in exile in Alexandria, Egypt. He subsequently died in 1947. As a result, Umberto ascended to the throne as Umberto II, King of Italy, on 9 May 1946.

However, the Italian referendum vote on whether to continue as a monarchy or a republic remained scheduled for 2 June 1946. Almost all antifascist parties and their leaders favored a republic while Umberto and the monarchist party fought for a monarchy. Italians, displeased in King Emanuele III’s leadership during the last 24 years, wanted change. The Republic won with 54.3% of the votes, even though southern Italy voted overwhelmingly in favor of the monarchy.

King Umberto II (second from right) on 22 July 1964.

King Umberto II (second from right) on 22 July 1964. Image: Public Domain.

However, monarchist faction raised doubts about the truthfulness of the results. In fact, some even advised King Umberto II to go to Naples and refuse the result of the referendum. Umberto II rejected such an idea and accepted the vote. He did not want to see another civil war. Umberto II traveled to Portugal in exile and died of cancer on 18 March 1983 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Per Umberto II’s request, he is buried at the traditional burial site for the House of Savoy at Hautecombe Abbey, Savoy, France.

Sources

Books
G. Ciano, Diario 1937-1943.

Documentaries
N. Caracciolo, Umberto II, Rai Storia (2009).
N. Caracciolo, Verso la Guerra-Fermate Mussolini! Rai Storia (2011).

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