The Free State of Fiume ([ˈfjume]) was an independent free state which existed between 1920 and 1924. Its territory of 28 km2 (11 sq mi) comprised the city of Fiume (now in Croatia and, since the end of World War II, known as Rijeka) and rural areas to its north, with a corridor to its west connecting it to Italy.
Fiume gained autonomy for the first time in 1719 when it was proclaimed a free port of the Holy Roman Empire in a decree issued by the Emperor Charles VI. In 1776, during the reign of the Empress Maria Theresa, the city was transferred to the Kingdom of Hungary and in 1779 gained the status of corpus separatum within that Kingdom. The city briefly lost its autonomy in 1848 after being occupied by the Croatian ban (viceroy) Josip Jelačić, but regained it in 1868 when it rejoined the Kingdom of Hungary, again as a corpus separatum. Until 1924, Fiume existed for practical purposes as an autonomous entity with elements of statehood.
In the 19th century, the city was populated mostly by Italians, and as minorities by Croats and Hungarians, and other ethnicities. National affiliations changed from census to census, as at that time "nationality" was defined mostly by the language a person spoke. The special status of the city, being placed between different states, created a local identity among the majority of the population. The official languages in use were Italian, Hungarian, and German; most of the business correspondence was carried out in Italian, while most families spoke a local dialect, a blend of Venetian with a few words of Croatian. In the countryside outside the city, a particular kind of Croatian Chakavian dialect with many Italian and Venetian words was spoken.
After the First World War and the demise of Austria-Hungary, the question of the status of Fiume became a major international problem. At the height of the dispute between the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) and the Kingdom of Italy, the Great Powers advocated the establishment of an independent buffer state. President Woodrow Wilson of the U.S. became the arbiter in the Yugoslav-Italian dispute over the city. He suggested that Fiume be set up as an independent state, and indeed as the potential home for the League of Nations organisation.
The dispute led to lawlessness, and the city changed hands between a South-Slav National Committee and an Italian National Council, leading finally to the landing of British and French troops who took over the city. The National Council over-stamped Austro-Hungarian notes – the Fiume Krone – were used as official currency. This confusing situation was exploited by the Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, who entered the city on 12 September 1919 and began a 15-month period of occupation. A year later after failure of negotiations with the Italian government, D'Annunzio proclaimed the Italian Regency of Carnaro.
On 12 November 1920, the Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes signed the Treaty of Rapallo by which both parties agreed to acknowledge "the complete freedom and independence of the State of Fiume and oblige to respect it for eternity". With this act the "Free State of Fiume" was created, which, it turned out, would exist as an independent state for about one year de facto, and four years de jure. The newly created state was immediately recognized by the United States, France and the United Kingdom. D'Annunzio refused to acknowledge the Agreement and was expelled from the city by the regular forces of the Italian Army, in the "Bloody Christmas" actions from 24 to 30 December 1920.
In April 1921, the electorate approved the plan for a free state and for a consortium to run the port. The first parliamentary elections were held, contested between the autonomists and the pro-Italian National Bloc. The Autonomist Party, which was supported by votes from the majority of the Croats, gained 6,558 votes, while the National Bloc, composed of Fascist, Liberal and Democratic parties, received 3,443 votes. The leader of the Autonomist Party, Kari Campos, became the President.
Control over the Free State was in an almost constant state of flux. Following the departure of D'Annunzio's troops in December 1920, the Italian National Council of Fiume re-assumed control and appointed a provisional government. A pact with the local Italian commander handed control to the military on 18 January 1921, but this lasted just three days before a nationalist rebellion. They appointed an extraordinary government, which fell two days later. In June 1921 an Italian Royal Commissioner was appointed, whose control lasted two weeks.
A group of D'Annunzio loyalists seized part of the town, until they were in turn pushed out in September. In October the autonomist Riccardo Zanella was appointed provisional president; his rule lasted until 3 March 1922, when Italian Fascists carried out a coup d'état and the legal government escaped to Kraljevica. On 6 March, the Italian government was asked to restore order and Italian troops entered the city on 17 March. They returned control to the minority of the constituent assembly, who were loyal to the Italian annexationists.
After the proclamation of the Rapallo Treaty, the Communist Party of Fiume (Partito Comunista di Fiume – Sezione della III.a Internazionale) was instituted in November 1921. The Communist Party of Fiume was the smallest Communist Party in the world. It was founded following the principles of the Third International, according to which each sovereign state had to have its own Communist Party organization.
In January 1924, the Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes signed the Treaty of Rome (27 January 1924), agreeing to the annexation of Fiume by Italy and the absorption of Sušak by the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes; this took effect on 16 March. The government-in-exile of the Free State considered this act invalid and non-binding under international law and continued its activities.
With the surrender of Italy in World War II, the Rijeka issue resurfaced. In 1944, a group of citizens issued the "Liburnia Memorandum" in which it was recommended that a confederate state be formed from the three cantons of Fiume, Sušak and Ilirska Bistrica. The islands of Krk (Veglia), Cres (Cherso) and Lošinj (Lussino) would enter the common condominium as well. President Zanella of the government-in-exile still sought the re-establishment of the Free State.
The Yugoslavian authorities, who took over the city from German occupation on 3 May 1945, objected to these plans. The leaders of the autonomists – Nevio Skull, Mario Blasich and Sergio Sincich – were killed. With the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, Rijeka and Istria officially became part of Yugoslavia.