Corfu Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Italian leader Benito Mussolini bombarded and occupied the Greek island of Corfu after the murder of an Italian envoy and his party. Reluctant to come to Greece’s aid, the League of Nations deferred to the Conference of Ambassadors, which forced Greece to issue an apology and pay compensation.

Summary of Event

On August 27, 1923, five Italians—members of an international-boundary commission charged with defining the border between Greece and Albania—were murdered on Greek territory. Italian leader Benito Mussolini, who had been waiting for such a provocation, held Greece responsible for the murders and issued an ultimatum consisting of a series of largely unreasonable demands. When the Greek government rejected some of these demands, Mussolini ordered the Italian fleet to occupy the Greek island of Corfu, a step widely interpreted as a prelude to the permanent Italian annexation of Corfu and the rest of the Ionian Islands. A bombardment preceding the occupation led to casualties among a group of Armenian refugees, and Greece turned to the newly formed League of Nations for help. Corfu, Italian occupation Italy;Corfu occupation League of Nations;Corfu crisis [kw]Corfu Crisis (Aug. 27-Sept. 29, 1923) Corfu, Italian occupation Italy;Corfu occupation League of Nations;Corfu crisis [g]Corfu;Aug. 27-Sept. 29, 1923: Corfu Crisis[05840] [g]Greece;Aug. 27-Sept. 29, 1923: Corfu Crisis[05840] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 27-Sept. 29, 1923: Corfu Crisis[05840] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Aug. 27-Sept. 29, 1923: Corfu Crisis[05840] Mussolini, Benito [p]Mussolini, Benito;Corfu crisis Tellini, Enrico Solari, Emilio Euripéos, Petros Cambon, Jules Politis, Nikolaos Sokrates

Corfu (sometimes referred to as Kerkyra), the northernmost of the Ionian Islands, lies in a strategic position between the Adriatic and Ionian seas: It is opposite the large Italian Gulf of Taranto and within sight of the present-day border between Greece and Albania. Ceded to Greece in 1864 by Great Britain, the Ionian Islands were coveted by Italy, which hoped to establish control over not only the eastern Adriatic but also the entire Mediterranean region.

Albania had secured its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, and in the years following World War I, Great Britain, Albania, Yugoslavia, and Greece asked the League of Nations to delimit Albania’s boundaries. The League referred the matter to the Conference of Ambassadors, Conference of Ambassadors which had been created to oversee the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles Versailles, Treaty of (1919) (which had concluded World War I), and the conference set up a Commission of Delimitation to study the borders. The group working on the issue of the Greco-Albanian border included five Italian members, including General Enrico Tellini.

On the morning of August 27, 1923, Tellini, his Italian colleagues, and an Albanian interpreter were ambushed and murdered on the Greek side of the border near Janina. Within two days, Mussolini, who had come to power late in the preceding year, issued an ultimatum to the Greek government. Among other demands, Mussolini insisted that Greece pay Italy an indemnity of fifty million lire, and that it fully agree to all of Italy’s demands within twenty-four hours.

There was no evidence that Greeks had been responsible, and in fact there was good reason to believe that Albanians were to blame, as Albanian bandits had been active in the area as early as 1921. Since the crime had taken place on its soil, however, Greece was willing to accede to some of Italy’s demands. It rejected other demands as unreasonable, however, and Mussolini probably expected this. The Italian leader then dispatched a fleet under the command of Admiral Emilio Solari to occupy Corfu and hold it until the Italian demands were met.

When Corfu’s prefect, Petros Euripéos, was hesitant to surrender to Solari, the admiral quickly ordered that the island be bombarded—apparently against Mussolini’s instructions—to avoid the use of unnecessary force. The bombardment began shortly after 5:00 p.m. on August 31, and was concentrated on the forts overlooking the capital of the island (a town also known as Corfu) and its harbor. At this time, the forts held no artillery, and in fact one contained a hospital and had been converted into a temporary shelter for refugees from Armenia. Sixteen people (mostly Armenians) were killed, and more than fifty were wounded in the bombardment. The prefect surrendered after about twenty minutes, and Italian troops then occupied the town.

The following day, September 1, Greek delegate Nikolaos Sokrates Politis (who was born in Corfu) presented an official appeal to the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Although Italy had been one of the first countries to endorse the League, it now rejected the organization’s jurisdiction and threatened to withdraw. In the ensuing flurry of diplomatic activity, it became clear that the members of the League Council (which at this time included the four permanent members of France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan, as well as four nonpermanent members) were for the most part intent on advancing their own strategic interests. In particular, French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré was anxious to retain Italy’s support on other issues. While Great Britain initially favored League action, the country was eventually persuaded to side with France. As a result, the Council deferred once again to the Conference of Ambassadors, which had after all overseen the initial border delimitation. Even Greece fell into line with this decision, and Politis lost whatever chance he and his country had of forcing the issue in the League.

The Conference of Ambassadors sat in Paris, and its president at the time was French diplomat Jules Cambon. After intense and complicated negotiations, Italy agreed in mid-September to withdraw its forces from Corfu, although the evacuation was not completed until September 27. When a commission of inquiry charged with investigating the murders of the Italians failed to identify the culprits within the allotted time, the conference insisted that Greece apologize to Italy and pay the indemnity of fifty million lire. Delays in arranging the payment led Mussolini to order his warships back to Corfu, and it was only on September 29 that the ships left Greek waters for good.

Significance

Although Italy evacuated Corfu under the agreement arbitrated by the Conference of Ambassadors, the affair was Mussolini’s first foreign policy success, and it made him a hero in his own country. He quickly went on to increase Italy’s power at the expense of its neighbors, wresting the Fiume region at the northern end of the Adriatic from Yugoslavia, redoubling Italian pacification efforts in its North African colonies of Tripoli and Cyrenaica, and consolidating Italian influence over Albania.

Even though further military confrontation had been avoided, the actions of the League of Nations and the Conference of Ambassadors during the crisis amounted to a capitulation to Italy and its belligerent new leader, and helped pave the way for another world war. The affair highlighted the League’s reluctance to enforce its own covenant and undermined its authority in dealing with future disputes. An inquiry subsequently commissioned by the League’s secretary-general, British diplomat Sir James Eric Drummond, concluded that the League did indeed have the authority to act in such situations, but in Corfu’s case it no longer mattered. Corfu, Italian occupation Italy;Corfu occupation League of Nations;Corfu crisis

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barros, James. The Corfu Incident of 1923: Mussolini and the League of Nations. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Argues that the League was not designed to deal with situations such as the Corfu crisis. The single best work on the subject in English. Supplemented by an excellent chronology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boatswain, Timothy, and Colin Nicolson. A Traveller’s History of Greece. 2d ed. London: Phoenix, 2003. Sees the incident as one of a series of debilitating events in modern Greek history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kallis, Aristotle A. Fascist Ideology: Expansionism in Italy and Germany, 1922-1945. New York: Routledge, 2000. Considers the crisis and the occupation of Corfu as emblematic of fascist leadership and expansionist philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neville, Peter. Mussolini. New York: Routledge, 2004. Popular biography that considers the Corfu crisis as a step in Mussolini’s rise to international power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ostrower, Gary B. The League of Nations: From 1919 to 1929. Garden City Park, N.Y.: Avery, 1996. Includes a thorough account of the affair and its implications for the new organization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodhouse, C. M. Modern Greece: A Short History. 5th ed. London: Faber & Faber, 1998. Treats the incident as an element in the modern nation’s first national crisis and an early prelude to World War II.

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