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Savoy and Nice

Frederick Engels

While the Governor of Chambéry has positively declared that the King of Sardinia has never contemplated the cession of Savoy to France[a] we have from the Foreign Minister of England the assurance, delivered in the House of Commons on the 2d inst., that the project was disavowed last Summer by Count Walewski in behalf of the Emperor of the French[b]. These statements of Lord John Russell, however, refer to a period of several months ago; and what was then denied may now be very nearly consummated. Certainly it is difficult, or rather impossible, to believe that the movement for annexation to France, which has recently been developed among the people of Savoy, is purely of native origin. It must have been fomented by French agents, and must be sanctioned, or at least tolerated, by the Government of King Victor Emmanuel.

Savoy is a province of thorough and decided French nationality, as much as the western cantons of Switzerland. The people speak a Southern French (Provençal or Limousin) dialect; but the written and official language is everywhere French. This, however, is no proof whatever that the Savoyards wish to be annexed to France, and particularly to Bonapartist France. According to the notes of a German officer who made a military tour through the country in January, 1859, the French party is nowhere of any importance, except in Chambéry and the other towns of Lower Savoy, while Upper Savoy, Maurienne and Tarentaise would prefer to remain as they are, and Chablais, Faucigny and Genévois, the three northern districts, would prefer to form a new Canton of the Swiss Confederation. Still Savoy, being thoroughly French, will undoubtedly more and more gravitate toward the great center of French nationality, and ultimately be united to it, so that it is a mere question of time.

With Nice the case is different. The people of the county of Nice also speak a Provençal dialect but here the written language, the education, the national spirit, everything is Italian. The relation between the Northern Italian and the Southern patois is so close that it is almost impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. Even the patois of Piedmont and Lombardy is, in its inflections, thoroughly Provençal, while the way in which the words are formed from the Latin, is essentially Italian. To claim Nice on the strength of this patois would never do; consequently, it is now claimed on the ground of supposed sympathies for France, the existence of which, however, is more than problematical. That Nice, in spite of these sympathies and of its patois, is thoroughly Italian, there can be no better proof than that it produced the soldier, par excellence, of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi. The notion of Garibaldi becoming a Frenchman, is ludicrous enough.

The cession of both these Provinces would not much weaken Piedmont in a merely financial point of view. Savoy is a poor country, which, although it produces the best soldiers in the Sardinian army, yet never pays the expense of its own administration. Nice is not much better off, and, besides, is but a small strip of land. Apparently the loss would not be great. Nice, though Italian, might be sacrificed to the consolidation of Northern and Central Italy; and the loss of a foreign province like Savoy might even be considered an advantage, so long as the chances of Italian unity are thereby promoted. But things take a far different aspect when examined from a military point of view.

From Geneva to Nice, the present frontier between France and Sardinia forms almost a straight line. On the south, the sea, on the north, neutral Switzerland, cut off all communication. So far, the position of the parties in a war between Italy and France would appear equal. But both Savoy and Nice are situated beyond the main ridge of the Alps, which surround Piedmont proper in a vast arc, and both are open toward France. While, therefore, on the frontier of Piedmont and France, each party holds one side of the Alpine chain, Italy holds, on the northern and southern parts of the frontier, both sides, and thereby completely commands the passes.

Moreover, while from want of traffic all the roads across the Alps leading from Piedmont into France have become quite neglected, the road over Mont Cenis from Piedmont to Savoy, and that over the Col di Tenda from Piedmont to Nice, are main roads of European traffic, and in capital order. The consequence is, that in all wars between France and Italy, both Nice and Savoy, when the attack came from the Italian side, have formed natural bases of operation for an invasion of France; and when France attacked, she had to conquer these two provinces before she could assail transalpine Italy. And although neither Nice nor Savoy could be held by the Italians against a superior army, they have still afforded time for a concentration of the Italian forces in the plains of Piedmont, and thus served as a safeguard against surprise.

If the military advantages resulting to Italy from the possession of Savoy and Nice were confined to these positive ones, they might still be sacrificed without any severe inconvenience. But the negative advantages are by far the greatest. Let us imagine Mont Blanc, Mont Iseran, Mont Cenis, and the Col di Tenda, to be gigantic stone pillars marking the frontier of France. The frontier, instead of being a straight line as now, would sweep around Piedmont in an immense arc. Chambéry, Albertville, Moutiers, the points where the chief roads converge, would be turned into French depots. The northern slope of the Mont Cenis would be guarded and fortified by the French; the outposts of the two nations would meet on its hight, two marches from Turin. On the south, Nice would be the center of the French depots, and their outposts would stand at Oneglia, four marches from Genoa. Thus, the French would be, even in time of peace, at the very gates of the two largest towns of Northwestern Italy, and as their territory would almost surround Piedmont on three sides, they could render impossible the concentration of an Italian army in the plain of the Upper Po. Any attempt to concentrate the Italian forces west of Alessandria would be exposed to an attack before the concentration was complete—in other words to a series of defeats in detail. Thus, the center of defense of Piedmont would at once be removed from Turin to Alessandria; in other words, Piedmont proper would become incapable of serious defense, and would be at the mercy of the French. This is what Louis Napoleon calls

"a free and grateful Italy, which, to France alone, will owe her independence."

If we turn to the North, what is a standing menace to Italy would be a death blow to Switzerland.. Savoy becoming French, the whole of Western Switzerland, from Basel to the Great St. Bernard, would be hemmed in by French territory, and untenable. for a day in case of war. This is so conspicuous, that the Vienna Congress resolved to neutralize Northern Savoy as much as Switzerland, and in case of war to give the Swiss the right to occupy and defend that district[c]. Sardinia, a paltry State of four millions, could not object to such a regulation; but could or would France allow part of her territory to be thus placed in military subjection to another and a smaller State? Could Switzerland attempt, in the event of war, to occupy and take under her military control a French province? Certainly not. And then, whenever it might suit France, the whole of French Switzerland, the Bernese Jura, Neuchâtel, Vaud, Geneva, with as much of Fribourg and Valais as might be deemed expedient, might be annexed as easily and comfortably as Savoy and Nice; and until such time Switzerland would be as much under the control and influence of France, as if she were a mere satellite. As to Swiss neutrality in case of war, that will have ceased from the same moment. There can be no neutrality when a great and warlike power is able at all times to crush its neutral neighbor.

This innocent-looking plan for the annexation of Savoy and Nice has no other meaning than to establish French domination in Italy and Switzerland—to make France paramount on the Alps. This little step, once accomplished, how long will it be before we behold the attempt to make France paramount on the Rhine also?

Written in early February 1860
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5874, February 21, 1860 as a leading article


[a] "The Annexation of Savoy", The Times, No. 23530, January 31, 1860.—Ed.

[b] John Russell's speech in the House of Commons on February 2, 1860, The Times, No. 23533, February 3, 1860.—Ed.

[c] "Declaration des Puissances rassemblées au Congrès de Vienne au sujet de la Suisse. Annexe N° 11 de l'acte du Congrès de Vienne".—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.557-560), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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