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Erik Sass

Mixed Messages from Italy

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Erik Sass

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 107th installment in the series. 

March 10-11, 1914: Mixed Messages from Italy

In the opening months of the Great War, Germany and Austria-Hungary were enraged by the failure of their supposed ally Italy to come to their aid, compounded by an even greater betrayal when the Italians sided with their enemies and attacked Austria-Hungary in May 1915 (shown above). Public opinion excoriated the “treacherous Latins” for this “stab in the back,” but as always the truth was more complicated.

Italy first joined Germany and Austria-Hungary in the defensive Triple Alliance in 1882, mostly out of fear of France, which had invaded Italy under Francis I, Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte; annexed Corsica in 1768; stationed troops in Rome and annexed Italian-speaking Savoy and Nice under Napoleon III; and more recently opposed Italy’s colonial ambitions in North Africa. But when France renounced new territorial claims and formed a closer relationship with Italy’s friend Britain, Italian motives for adhering to the Alliance faded.

Italy also had unfinished business with her “ally” Austria-Hungary, which held Italian-speaking territory around Trent and Trieste. The heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, cherished hopes of recovering Lombardy and Venice, lost to the new Italian state in 1859 and 1866, and Italian nationalists deplored Austria-Hungary’s oppression of its Italian minority, especially the recent Hohenlohe Decrees banning Italians from public office in August 1913. Italy and Austria-Hungary were also competing for influence in the Balkans.

In short, many Italians considered Austria-Hungary the real enemy, prompting Italian diplomats to hedge their bets. In 1902, Italy and France signed a secret non-aggression pact as well as a colonial agreement for North Africa, assigning Libya to Italy and Morocco to France. The Italians also insisted on adding a clause to the Triple Alliance treaty specifying that Italy would never have to fight Britain. And in 1909, Italy struck a deal with Russia aiming to preserve the status quo in the Balkans, which was obviously directed against Austria-Hungary.

But in typical fashion, Italian diplomats mostly kept their military colleagues in the dark about these other agreements, since none technically involved new military commitments. As far as Italian generals were concerned, Italy’s main obligations were still to its Triple Alliance partners. Thus in March 1914, the chief of the Italian general staff, Albert Pollio, dispatched General Luigi Zuccari, the commander of Italy’s Third Army, to Berlin to hammer out plans for military cooperation in the event of a hypothetical French attack on Germany. 

At a conference on March 10 and 11, 1914, Zuccari and the German quartermaster general, Major General Count George von Waldersee, agreed on a war plan calling for the transportation of three Italian army corps and two cavalry divisions through Austria to the Rhine, where they would reinforce German troops facing the French invaders. Meanwhile Italy would attack France directly across their shared frontier, forcing the French to divert troops from the main attack on Germany. In return (although the generals didn’t discuss this), Italy could probably expect territorial rewards in Nice, Savoy, Corsica, North Africa, and the Balkans.

This plan was so radically at odds with Italy’s actual actions just a few months later, it’s tempting to conclude it must be evidence of Italian duplicity. But Pollio, the conservative chief of the general staff, was a staunch supporter of the Triple Alliance, and Zuccari was simply following his orders. Again, as professional soldiers they didn’t consider diplomacy their concern: The fact that Italy’s civilian government was more likely to go to war against Austria-Hungary than for her was irrelevant to their duty as officers.

Events were about to reveal the basic dysfunction in the Triple Alliance. As Austria-Hungary and Germany pushed for war in July 1914, Italian diplomats correctly pointed out that the treaty was defensive in character, and therefore didn’t apply if Austria-Hungary provoked a broader conflict by attacking Serbia. Austria-Hungary also neglected to consult Italy before delivering the fatal ultimatum to Serbia (in July 1913 the Italian foreign minister, San Giuliano, had warned Austria-Hungary not to embark on any Balkan adventures without consulting Italy first, so there was no excuse for keeping Italy out of the loop one year later). Finally, in July 1914, Austria-Hungary also seemed to be breaking its promise to give Italy “compensation” for any territorial gains Austria-Hungary might make in the Balkans.

In other words, despite the public outcry in Germany and Austria-Hungary over Italian “treachery,” the fact was Italy had absolutely no obligation to join their war under the defensive Triple Alliance treaty—and beneath all their feigned indignation, top officials in Berlin and Vienna knew it. On March 13, 1914, the chief of the German general staff, Helmut von Moltke, advised his Austrian counterpart, Conrad von Hötzendorf: “At present… we must begin the war as if the Italians were not to be expected at all.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Wikipedia/Public Domain
Civilian Researchers Discover Wreckage of the USS Indianapolis
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Wikipedia/Public Domain

On July 30, 1945, the cruiser USS Indianapolis sank in the Pacific Ocean after it was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58. More than 70 years after the historic naval tragedy— which claimed the lives of nearly 900 crew—The New York Times reports that the ship’s mysterious final resting place has been found.

The discovery came courtesy of a team of civilian researchers, led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. His state-of-the-art research vessel, Petrel, located the wreck 18,000 feet below the Pacific’s surface, the team announced on Saturday, August 19.

"To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling,” Allen said in a statement. “As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence, and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances."

Before it sank, the USS Indianapolis had just completed a top-secret mission to a naval base on the Northern Mariana island of Tinian. After delivering enriched uranium and components for Little Boy— the atomic bomb that the U.S. would drop on the Japanese city of Hiroshima about a week later—the cruiser forged ahead to Guam, and then to the Philippines. It was supposed to meet the battleship USS Idaho at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare to attack Japan.

The USS Indianapolis never made it to Leyte Gulf. Shortly after midnight on July 30, the Japanese submarine I-58 spotted the cruiser and fired six torpedoes. The USS Indianapolis—which was hit twice—sank within 12 minutes. Around 300 to 400 sailors and Marines were killed in the attack; the rest were stranded in the Pacific Ocean for several days.

Many of these survivors would ultimately lose their lives to sharks, a grisly scene that would be famously (albeit semi-accurately) recounted in the 1975 movie Jaws. Others died from drowning, heat stroke, thirst, burns and injuries, swallowing salt water or fuel oil, and suicide. More than 300 crew members were rescued after a bomber pilot accidently sighted the imperiled men while on a routine antisubmarine patrol.

The mass tragedy—which wouldn’t be announced to the public until August 15, 1945—sparked controversy: Charles B. McVay III, captain of the USS Indianapolis, was found guilty in a court martial of failing to steer the ship on a “zigzag” course to elude Japanese submarines. A Japanese submarine captain testified that this precautionary measure wouldn’t have thwarted the enemy, but McVay was charged nonetheless. The captain died by suicide in 1968, and wouldn’t be officially exonerated by the Navy until 2001.

For decades, the remains of the USS Indianapolis were lost to the ravages of time and nature. But in 2016, naval historian Richard Hulver found a historic ship log that mentioned a sighting of the USS Indianapolis. Allen’s search team used this information to locate the ship, which was west of where experts assumed it had gone down.

Allen’s crew took pictures of the wreckage, including a piece of its hull, and will search for more of the ship. They plan to keep the exact location of the USS Indianapolis a secret, however, to honor the sunken ship as a war grave.

"While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming,” Allen said.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Getty Images
The Time That Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Opened Competing Restaurants on the Sunset Strip
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Getty Images

From 1946 to 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were show business supernovas. With an act that combined singing, slapstick, and spontaneous hijinks, the duo sold out nightclubs coast to coast, then went on to conquer radio, television, and film. Long before Elvis and The Beatles came along, Dean and Jerry  were rock stars of comedy.

Offstage, there was a cordial but cool friendship between the laidback Martin and the more neurotic Lewis. But as the pressures of their success increased, so did the tensions between them. Martin grew tired of playing the bland romantic straight man to Lewis’s manic monkey boy. And when Lewis started to grab more headlines and write himself bigger parts in their movies, Martin decided to quit the act. In an angry moment, he told Lewis that he was “nothing to me but a f**king dollar sign.”

After the split, both men went on with their individual careers, though it took Martin a few years before he regained his footing. One of his ventures during that transitional period was a Hollywood eatery called Dino’s Lodge.


In the summer of 1958, Martin and his business partner, Maury Samuels, bought a controlling interest in a restaurant called The Alpine Lodge, at 8524 Sunset Boulevard. They hired Dean’s brother Bill to manage the place, and renamed it Dino’s Lodge.

Outside they put up a large neon sign, a likeness of Dean’s face. The sign turned into a national symbol of hip and cool, thanks to appearances on TV shows like Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, and most prominently, in the opening credits of 77 Sunset Strip.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dino’s Lodge was popular from the get-go, serving home-style Italian food and steaks in an intimate, candlelit, wood-paneled room meant to replicate Martin’s own den. In the first year, Dean himself frequented the place, signing autographs and posing for photos with starstruck diners. He also occasionally brought along famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. To promote the idea of the swingin’ lifestyle that Martin often sang about, Dino’s served “an early morning breakfast from 1 to 5 a.m.” The restaurant also had a lounge that featured singers, though only females. Dean apparently didn’t want any male vocalists encroaching on his turf.

But as with many a celebrity venture into the food business, this one soon turned sour. And most of that was due to the jealousy of Jerry Lewis.


In late 1961, Lewis wooed Martin’s business partner Maury Samuels away, ponied up some $350,000, and opened his own copycat restaurant three blocks down Sunset. It was called Jerry’s. To make it clear he was out for top billing, Lewis had his own likeness rendered in neon, then mounted it on a revolving pole 100 feet above his restaurant. In contrast to Dino’s Italian-based menu, Jerry’s would serve “American and Hebrew viands.” Lewis didn’t stop there. Within a few months, he’d hired away Dino’s top two chefs, his maître d', and half his waitstaff.

Wire Photo, eBay, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Lewis was in Los Angeles, he made of point of table-hopping and schmoozing with his guests at his restaurant, and he occasionally brought in a few of his celebrity friends, like Peggy Lee and Steve McQueen.


By the following year, a disgusted Dean Martin was fed up with the restaurant business and cut ties with Dino’s Lodge. Much to his aggravation, he lost a motion in court to have his likeness and name removed from the sign. So the new owners carried on as Dino’s Lodge, with the big neon head staring down on Sunset for another decade before the place finally went bust.

Jerry’s lost steam long before that, folding in the mid-1960s.

For the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Martin and Lewis avoided each other. “Jerry’s trying hard to be a director,” Dean once told a reporter. “He couldn’t even direct traffic.”

In 1976, Frank Sinatra famously engineered an onstage reunion of the pair during The Jerry Lewis Telethon. While the audience roared their approval, Sinatra said, “I think it’s about time, don’t you?” And to Sinatra, Lewis said under his breath, “You son of a bitch.”

What followed was an awkward few moments of shtick between the former partners. Reportedly, Martin was drunk and Lewis was doped up on painkillers. There was a quick embrace, Martin sang with Sinatra, then blew Lewis a kiss and disappeared from his life for good. Martin died in 1995. Lewis passed away today, at the age of 91.


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