Italy’s Endeavour to Take Over the Central European Railway Network, 1919–1923


Among the many issues that arose from the breakup of the Habsburg empire, the fate of an empire-wide rail network was one of the most complicated, on both political and economic levels. Italy was especially interested as Rome had previously recovered several railway sections after the war. Beyond that, to take hold of at least part of the rail system of the former empire was a valuable chess piece which could be played later in larger negotiations on the future of Central Europe and could also aid in Italy’s desire to take over as the region’s great power after Austria. Italy’s attempts at controlling the rail lines in Central Europe necessitated a joint effort from all players involved: diplomats, the military and economic operators – especially those coming from Trieste and the “redeemed lands”. With limited finances Italian ambitions partially hindered by France and the successor States, it first set its sights on the Südbahn Gesellschaft, (Southern Austria Railway Company), one of the key Austrian railway companies. The Südbahn Gesellschaft found itself at the centre of a major rivalry where strategic, diplomatic and financial issues were at stake though it can be argued that the Italian railway policy in Central Europe was elaborate, consistent and in line with the general purposes of the country’s overall foreign policy. From peace treaties to the Rome agreements on the Südbahn Gesellschaft in March 1923, the railway issue helped to make Italy a major player in the area by enforcing diplomatic leadership, but also exposed its weaknesses and shortcomings in the aftermath of the Great War.