The nightmare of war and dictatorship behind, and hope for a better future ahead. These feelings accompanied almost 25 million Italians on 2 and 3 June 1946, as they went to the polls to choose between monarchy and republic. The referendum was held on the initiative of the Resistance forces, who considered the House of Savoy to be responsible for the rise of fascism and, consequently, of the suffering caused by joining World War II on the side of Nazi Germany.
In 1944, after Vittorio Emanuele III had already appointed his son Umberto II “lieutenant of the Kingdom”, the government led by Ivanoe Bonomi (joined by all the anti-fascist parties), issued a decree that transformed into a rule of law the agreement whereby a referendum was to be held to choose the new form of the State and to elect the Constituent Assembly once the conflict was over. Everything was formalized by a second legislative decree, adopted in March 1946. In fact, Umberto (who soon would have become a sovereign, through his father’s abdication) ensured that he would have respected the outcome of the vote.
In the months leading up to the referendum, a strong “pro-Republic” was held, orchestrated by the parties who enjoyed greater support among the population. These included the Communist Party, the Italian Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity, the Action Party, the Republican Party and, later on, the Christian Democrats. The only exception, within the varied post-partisan experience, was represented by the Liberal Party, which continued to support the king.
The Supreme Court announced the results on June 10, sanctioning: 54.3% voted for the Republic, 45.7% for the Monarchy. Much has been written on these data, which sparked significant discussion. The monarchists feared a possible electoral fraud, based, among other things, on the first projections provided by the Police at the polls, which indicated that most votes were in favor of the king. But none of the complained alleged irregularities had the effect of changing the outcome of the consultation, which took place for the first time by universal suffrage. The most significant detail was a different one: the division of the country into two blocks. The Republic prevailed in the North and Monarchy in the South. It was the direct result of the last years of the war. The South, which became the Southern Kingdom after the King’s flight from Rome, had never detached from the monarchy, whereas the north had suffered the German occupation, the Social Republic, and the Civil War.
On June 13, angry because of the government’s proclamation of the Republic through a “unilateral act” and being faced with the alternative of “cause bloodshed or suffer violence”, Umberto II decided to leave Italian soil, inviting the subjects faithful to the crown to comply with the new form of the State, to avoid further suffering after the war. It was the end of an era that had begun with the Renaissance, during which the House of Savoy had a starring role.
On June 28, the Constituent Assembly (which saw a prevalence of Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Communists) appointed Enrico De Nicola as interim head of State. They began to draft the new fundamental law which would have replaced the Albertine Statute. The latter was no longer in line with the times – it had been a concession of the king – and proved to be too weak when it allowed the rise and perpetration of fascism.
In October, more than 70 years after that referendum, Italians will be called to the polls again, this time not to decide the shape of the State, but to change the constitution, the eldest daughter of the Republic. The political debate, full of platitudes, useless controversies, and shameful fights, should not make us lose the sense of solemnity of that moment. We owe it to those who fought so we could freely exercise our sovereignty. And our grandparents, who on June 2 1946 realized for the first time what it means to build their own future.