Umberto enthusiastically underwent a military education, and at age 19, he became an officer in the Italian army. A profligate socialite during the 1920s and 1930s, he nonetheless enjoyed rapid military promotion. He advanced to brigadier general in 1931, to division general in 1934, to corps general in 1936, and to General of the Army in 1938. In June 1940, Umberto commanded the Army of the Alps in the Italian invasion of southeastern France. This opportunistic attack, begun in the wake of the German blitzkrieg, did not fare well. Although Umberto was a mere figurehead commander, with real control over the army exercised by Benito Mussolini and the Supreme Command, he saw his reputation diminished by the campaign.
Umberto switched allegiance to the Allied side when his father signed an armistice with the Western Allies in September 1943. The king's authority had been tainted by his tacit approval of the Fascists, so on 5 June 1944, the apolitical Umberto became lieutenant general of the realm and acting regent for the duration of the war. He attempted to shore up Italy's deteriorating foreign relations and proved a much less intransigent and, certainly, more affable head of state than Victor Emmanuel III, but the House of Savoy's collusion with Mussolini and fascism for two decades poisoned his prospects for success in establishing a postwar Italian royal dynasty.
In 1946, a national referendum was scheduled to determine whether Italy should remain a monarchy or become a constitutional republic. In an effort to maintain the House of Savoy's royal status, Victor Emmanuel abdicated on 9 May 1946 in favor of his more popular son. Umberto, now the king of Italy, campaigned vigorously with various promonarchist parties to preserve the throne. On 2 June 1946, however, the citizens voted 12.7 to 10.7 million to abolish the monarchy and make Italy a republic. Dubbed by Italians "the King of May" for his 35 days of official reign, Umberto was forced to leave the country and went to live a luxurious life of exile in Portugal. Umberto II, the last king of Italy, died in Geneva on 18 March 1983.
John P. Vanzo and Gordon E. Hogg
Cannistraro, Philip, ed. Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.; Instituto dell' Enciclopedia Italiana. Lessico universale Italiano. Rome: Arti Grafiche Marchesi, 1980.; Katz, Robert. The Fall of the House of Savoy. New York: Macmillan, 1971.; Mack Smith, Denis. Italy and Its Monarchy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.