Dominique Kirchner Reill, “The Fiume Crisis: Life in the Wake of the Habsburg Empire”

Recasting the birth of fascism, nationalism, and the fall of empire after World War I, Dominique Kirchner Reill recounts how the people of Fiume tried to recreate empire in the guise of the nation.

The Fiume Crisis recasts what we know about the birth of fascism, the rise of nationalism, and the fall of empire after World War I by telling the story of the three-year period when the Adriatic city of Fiume (today Rijeka, in Croatia) generated an international crisis.

In 1919 the multicultural former Habsburg city was occupied by the paramilitary forces of the flamboyant poet-soldier Gabriele D’Annunzio, who aimed to annex the territory to Italy and became an inspiration to Mussolini. Many local Italians supported the effort, nurturing a standard tale of nationalist fanaticism. However, Dominique Kirchner Reill shows that practical realities, not nationalist ideals, were in the driver’s seat. Support for annexation was largely a result of the daily frustrations of life in a “ghost state” set adrift by the fall of the empire. D’Annunzio’s ideology and proto-fascist charisma notwithstanding, what the people of Fiume wanted was prosperity, which they associated with the autonomy they had enjoyed under Habsburg sovereignty. In these twilight years between the world that was and the world that would be, many across the former empire sought to restore the familiar forms of governance that once supported them. To the extent that they turned to nation-states, it was not out of zeal for nationalist self-determination but in the hope that these states would restore the benefits of cosmopolitan empire.

Against the too-smooth narrative of postwar nationalism, The Fiume Crisis demonstrates the endurance of the imperial imagination and carves out an essential place for history from below.

About the Author(s)

Dominique Kirchner Reill is Associate Professor in Modern European History at the University of Miami and author of the award-winning Nationalists Who Feared the Nation: Adriatic Multi-Nationalism in Habsburg Dalmatia, Trieste, and Venice.


“[An] excellent example of how modern historians are adding texture to our understanding of 20th-century Europe… The colorful story of Fiume has indeed been told before, but never with so many fresh and fascinating insights as Reill provides.”—Tony Barber, Financial Times

“A superb book, smartly conceived and beautifully written. With a genius for unearthing fascinating stories of local people, then using them to illuminate larger issues, Reill forces us to reconsider in profound ways how we conceive the history of the immediate postwar period in Europe. This history from below questions stale nationalist certainties and depicts vividly how communities worked to create their own options in a challenging postwar world.”—Pieter Judson, author of The Habsburg Empire: A New History

The Fiume Crisis offers a fundamentally new way of thinking about war and postwar rebuilding. By zooming in to a specific city at the crossroads of many different pasts and multiple possible futures, Reill provides a fresh perspective on who makes history happen—bilingual cabbage sellers and young schoolteachers, emigré lawyers and seductive dockworkers—all those who tried to create a city that could escape the ravages of war and economic devastation. Their creativity and vision, triumphs and failures come alive in this breathtaking story.”—Alison Frank Johnson, author of Oil Empire: Visions of Prosperity in Austrian Galicia

“In this fascinating and important book Reill transforms our understanding of both the Fiume crisis and the whole geopolitical metamorphosis of Europe that followed World War I. She shows that the struggle over the city between Italy and Yugoslavia reflected a much deeper and more complex history of Adriatic identities in a Habsburg and post-Habsburg context.”—Larry Wolff, author of Woodrow Wilson and the Reimagining of Eastern Europe

“A magisterial account of everyday life in the multi-ethnic city of Fiume after the end of the Great War. Moving well beyond the familiar story of the soldier-poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and his occupation of Fiume, Reill succeeds in telling the fascinating story of how a city of considerable cultural complexity dealt with the challenges of being a small successor state in a post-imperial world.”—Robert Gerwarth, author of November 1918: The German Revolution

“A brilliant reevaluation of the nationalist myths and legends that have grown up around the history of Fiume under Gabriele D’Annunzio. Shifting our gaze away from his charismatic personality to the experiences of the citizens of Fiume, Reill demonstrates the persistence of imperial loyalties underpinning their quest for greater autonomy. This book forces us to question what we think we know about the relationship between nationalism and empire in the aftermath of the First World War.”—Tara Zahra, author of The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World

“In this gem of a book, Reill peels away the sensational stories that made Fiume notorious as both a diplomatic thorn in Woodrow Wilson’s peacemaking and the prancing ground of proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio, revealing a more thrilling, politically meaningful history. In the plucky polyglot city’s colliding authorities, crazy quilt laws, and contradictory wants, Reill vividly captures the human comedy as well as the shoals on which hopes for the Great Peace to follow the Great War foundered.”—Victoria de Grazia, author of The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini’s Italy

Table of Contents

  • A Note on Names
  • Maps
    • Rijeka (Fiume) Today
    • Fiume within the Habsburg Empire
    • Fiume 1919–1924
    • Fiume 1924–1941
    • Fiume 1947–present
  • Introduction: The Christmas of Blood
  • 1. Concealing Histories: The Different Fiume Stories
  • 2. Follow the Money: The Currency Debacle
  • 3. Legal Ins and Outs: Crafting Local Sovereignty
  • 4. Between City and State: The Contradictions of Citizenship
  • 5. A Sense of Self: Propaganda and Nationalism
  • Conclusion: When Empire Disappears
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Illustration Credits
  • Index

Publication Date: 12/01/2020

312 pages

Harvard University Press