Meeting Number 1792
March 18, 2010
ADOLPH and BENITO
1919 - 1940
by A.D. Griesemer
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
The essence of the drama of this relationship can, in one sense, be told in just a few sentences. These two vitriolic men enjoyed a rise to international prominence about ten years apart in the Twenties and Thirties, built totalitarian regimes on the back of political turmoil caused by national humiliation and economic chaos, glowed brightly for a short period based on imperialistic success, only to crash ignominiously within a few days of each other in 1945. In between, the relationship between them included amazingly strong but unwarranted admiration, in the Twenties on the part of Adolph, due to Mussolini’s apparent defeat of Italian Bolshevism by what he called shear will power, and his ability to rule by mass dictatorship, causing Hitler at one point to refer to II Duce as his mentor. However, initially Mussolini had only disdain for Adolph following their first meeting in 1934, commenting that Hitler may be unbalanced. Visions of creating a politically new and geographically realigned Europe drove both men, and skewed their thinking with a strong mutual hatred and fear of Bolshevism. For Benito Mussolini this vision took the form of at least the control of the Mediterranean (his Mare Nostrum) and its surrounding territory. For Adolph it was much more grand, using the logic of Social Darwinism, he was convinced that Germans were destined to be the overlords of mankind based on the superiority of the Aryan race, even sending an anthropologist to Tibet in the Thirties to try to find a link to the Yeti as a possible ancestor, the logic of which escapes me.
Their relationship went through many ramifications, but was always inexplicably flavored by a mystical admiration and an unshakable loyalty regardless of the circumstances they were facing. Hitler commented on one occasion that they were connected on a human level since they both matured as men working in the building trades. In reality, their only commonality was their possession of supreme power for a few fleeting years within their countries and conquered territories. At one of their conferences Hitler spoke of his “deep friendship for this extraordinary man”. However, observers at their subsequent meetings characterized their interactions as more often then not disingenuous, as if they really didn’t hear or understand each other, and when Hitler made unrealistic commitments to Mussolini, as the conflict wore on, no serious challenges were forthcoming from II Duce. When they were apart, many comments were recorded indicating that their real feelings and treatment of each other time and again were laced with mutual deceit and delusion resulting in the human race being forced to suffer the cataclysmic disaster of World War II where more than sixty million souls were lost. Even though they both died humiliating deaths, Hitler died asking his generals to continue fighting to the end, whereas Mussolini had clearly lost his taste for death and suffering, prompting his German critics to characterize his leadership in the last two years of the war as soft and unfit for totalitarianism.
This paper will attempt to document the events that brought these two men together in the Thirties, the rise of Fascism and its relationship to Nazism, and the complications these two ideologies presented in trying to forge a political partnership. In reality, in the back of both men’s minds was a burning desire for territory (living space as Hitler called it) which in several cases geographically overlapped. It will also deal with the rise of Hitler and the subsequent decline of Mussolini in the late Thirties, and expose the clear lack of trust, organization and cooperation that existed both within and between their countries as they attempted to find a commonality in purpose and a related capability that would make a military pact appear sound and functional. And finally, the rationale for this alliance was never satisfactorily explained to the Italian people, resulting in large factions of the populace never substantially supporting the war from the beginning, which was in reality a holdover from their reluctance to enter World War I twenty five years earlier. Strong factions of Socialists, Monarchists, Catholics, Communists and working peasants (Italy was still predominantly agrarian) never fully backed the imperialistic dreams of Mussolini or the Fascist Party. II Duce painted this alliance as critical if Italy was to be respected and taken seriously in the revolution occurring in European politics. Mussolini was driven to make sure Italy played a significant role in the design of the “New Europe” which he accepted as the inspired vision of Adolph Hitler’s genius, especially since he felt Italy had been snubbed by the West after World War I.
The end came for the Axis due to many mistakes, Hitler’s obsession with Bolshevism and his dislike and distrust of anything Russian, his belief that he and he alone understood the threats to Germany and how to avoid them, politically as well as militarily, and his final admittance that he should never have partnered with Italy, for their goals, strengths, commitment, and motivation were very much different from his own. All of his rationale for engaging Italy as a partner in World War II was based on one man’s Fascist reputation, a man whom he alternately idolized and chastised, called his one and only friend, but in the end a man he repeatedly ignored and almost pitied for his softness and inability to get his countrymen to follow his lead.
THE BAPTISM OF FASCISM, ITALIAN STYLE - 1919 TO 1933
Mussolini was born in 1883, in Dovia di Predappio, a small town about 60 miles northwest of Florence, in the Province of Forli. His father was a blacksmith, with little formal education, but very active as a responder to the political scene in that part of Italy. He would contact politicians regularly, and even wrote articles for local papers and socialist journals. Both Benito’s father and grandfather rode their passion for politics into dangerous waters, landing them both in jail on more than one occasion. His mother was a teacher who used their home as a school. Benito was not a pleasant child, often getting into fights. He once told his mother that he “would astonish the world” someday. His father was not religious, but his mother was a devout Catholic, which resulted in Benito growing up non-religious, although he was baptized. He was sent away to boarding school, but was expelled after stabbing a boy with a small knife. He entered another school, suffered expulsion again, but was taken back, and eventually graduated from this school with good grades which qualified him to become an elementary school teacher.
In 1902 he began teaching in a small town, found he liked public speaking and became somewhat of a bohemian, pretty much ignoring any rules his employers or society tried to impose on him. He was considered intelligent and was respected for that by his contemporaries. During his early years, and for much of his life, he was very promiscuous, and his affairs were characterized as physically demeaning and brutal, but he seemed to have no trouble attracting lovers from all walks of life. Within a year he left his teaching job and traveled to Switzerland, to work as a mason. His brutish manner continued, and within the year was elected Secretary of the Bricklayers Union, in charge of propaganda. It was here that the term Duce was first used in reference to Benito. He called himself the “apostle of violence”, speaking often of the tyranny of religion. He spoke at one rally on the need of the Union members not only to strike, but to feel free to use violence. For this he was arrested, quickly released and deported back to Italy. He returned to Switzerland, (supposedly to avoid the draft), but was sent back again after another arrest. That was in 1904, which corresponded conveniently with King Victor Emmanuel I I I’s declaration of amnesty for military deserters. During these years Benito read ravenously and became literate in French and eventually German. The authors he favored included Nietzsche, the sociologist Pareto, and the syndicalists Sorel and Lagardelle as well as some Marxist writers including Lenin. While in Switzerland he actually joined the Marxist Socialist movement, and his actions earned him the title “II Grande Duce”. He was very non-nationalistic, calling the Italian flag “a rag to be planted on a dung hill”, and the Catholic Church as a “gang of robbers”. He married his father’s mistress’ 16 year old daughter Rachele Guidi in 1907. She bore Benito’s first child Edda, a daughter in 1910. At this time he founded a socialist newspaper in Flori, La Lotta di Classe, which gained the respect of the populace. During this time he learned how to inspire an audience, with vigorous, provocative and emotional rhetoric, and found he liked the powerful feeling it gave him. He was being recognized as a leading socialist, and spoke out loudly against Italy’s imperialistic war, and denounced bitterly Italy’s intent to attack Libya. He was so effective that he got two of the prominent Socialists in the movement, Bonomi and Bissolati expelled from the Party. This would come back to bite him later in 1943, when Bonomi led the effort to have him overthrown.
In 1909 he became the editor of the very influential newspaper Avanti, and reached the conclusion that the existing government needed to be removed, violently if necessary. He attacked the moderate socialists that supported the government. Although he had been overtly anti -military until this time, in 1914 he began to change that stance and advocated “some” need for Italy to consider “active neutrality” in World War I. For Socialists this was blasphemy, for they were for total neutrality. He was subsequently forced to leave Avanti, but created another paper Le Poplol d’Itlalia. One author felt fascism had its beginning for Mussolini at this time in his life. He began to talk about Italy’s place in the new Europe, saying she needed to regain her historic stature with shows of strength, and if that meant war, so be it. This may have had some effect, for Italy finally did enter World War I in 1915. Mussolini volunteered for the army and served for nine months on the front lines.
Upon his return from the war, he began making speeches to the returning veterans about the need to take control of the government suggesting that a dictatorship would be superior to the status quo, for Socialism was dead. When speaking to these groups he began to talk as if he were their leader. Eventually in 1919, this more or less became accepted and he called this new organization the Fascio di Combattimento, calling himself the Lenin of Italy. One author believes that he chose this name for he felt that the proletariat should unite in one “formidable fascio” which in Latin refers to a bundle of rods that tied together, provide greater strength (often figured as an axe surrounded by wooden shafts). The group included about 200 men. His definition of Fascism at this time indicated it was strongly nationalistic, militaristic, and nondemocratic, with total allegiance to the State, where all power resided. He said he received much of his support for this position from his reading of Plato. What made Mussolini’s approach so different was that he proposed a structure that was both traditional and revolutionary at the same time – what he called the “third way”. His earlier Combattimento organization was remade into what were later called the Squadristi, or Action Squads, later still the Blackshirts. In the election of 1919, the Fascists did not do well, drawing only 4000 votes, causing Avanti to call Mussolini “dead” politically. It was at this time that Fascism took a brutish turn and began to use terrorist tactics including intimidation and bombings which were carried out by the Action Squads. They would break up meetings with overt violence similar to the Brownshirt tactics used later in Germany. They were basically thugs – but it began to be effective, for there was so much turmoil in Italian society and politics at the time (1663 strikes in Italy in 1919), some people actually applauded the Squads as they seemed to make life safer by causing some groups to back off a bit. They were actually vigilante groups, which the police and governmental entities tended to ignore. These strikes were being called mostly by the Socialists and Communists, with the government showing little ability to control the situation. The young men coming back from the war had little patience for this government ineptness, and became ready recruits for the Fascist propaganda, raising their numbers in 1920 to about 20,000. The anti-riot success the Action Squads were having, as they forcefully bullied the Communist and Socialist rallies, resulted in significant membership increases, finally causing the Fascists to decide to form a new party in 1921, the National Fascist Party. Their first try at running for office resulted in the election of a modest 35 members (out of 535) to the Chamber of Deputies that year, including Mussolini. Encouraged by their limited success, they worked even harder to attract members and amazingly by the end of 1921, the Fascist Party reported a membership of 250,000 . The Socialists by far still held the majority of the seats in the Chamber and were getting a bit edgy. Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti was having significant troubles controlling labor at this time, which is why he let the fascist Action Squads run unfettered. He felt he could stabilize his government by dissolving Parliament in April of 1921. He then tried to form an alliance with various groups such as the conservatives to form a “national block”, and as part of this effort he invited Mussolini to join with his 35 votes, thinking of the Fascists as still minor players. Mussolini accepted, much to the chagrin of his more militant members who wanted to take over the government by force. His 35 votes became pivotal for Giolitti, giving Mussolini much more power than he ever expected – and in reality he controlled the streets. However, Giolitti’s coalition didn’t last very long nor did the efforts of his successors. By the middle of 1922 King Emmanuelle found himself with, in essence, a government-less country.
Fascist support continued to widen because the industrialists and the landlords were at serious odds with the Socialists, who were seeking control of wages and costs to better suit the workers. Mussolini was now becoming a national figure, much to the chagrin of the Socialists, the Liberal Government, and certainly the Church. Mussolini had really not yet been able to clearly define the true essence of Fascism, so it would change readily depending on which group he was talking to. Many in his group were ready to overthrow the floundering Parliament, so he needed to take control and form a rational plan. He told the government that if they could not control the strikers, his Action Squads would. These Squads then began attacking Socialist buildings and even the Avanti press building. At a party congress in Naples in 1922 Mussolini declared, due to the growing pressure on him to act, and in response to the new disenfranchised war veterans who were joining his party for change and security, that the government either needed to capitulate, or be removed by force. This meeting was attended by 40,000+ members. They threatened to force this position by holding a March on Rome. At the time Mussolini had a “Group of Four” that was his brain trust, later referred to as the Quadrumviri. Although Mussolini, it was said was a bit hesitant, the March on Rome did commence on October 28th, 1922, with Benito only walking a short distance. The current Prime Minister Facta tried to get the King to declare marshal law, but he would not, fearing a civil war. As a result of this capitulation, a new coalition government was proposed by Facta, but Mussolini refused to be a part of it. Running out of options, the King relented and called Mussolini to the Palace and asked him to form a new Ministry. He came before the King dressed in a black shirt, a bowler hat and spats. No one really knew what to expect from the new Mussolini government, for his definitions had always been so nonbinding, and ill defined. Benito would often tell people that they should not try to understand Fascism, “just experience it”. He would say, “Don’t think – feel”, and consider it a mystical vision in the spirit of classical Rome. The regal glory of ancient Rome always seemed to be standard that Mussolini aspired to have modern Italy emulate. He became an excellent propagandist for Italy, causing many foreign dignitaries to sing his praises, calling him charming, including Churchill. However, in his element, he was often very vitriolic and would treat people in a chameleon fashion, being extremely rude one moment and fatherly the next. If he felt one of his ministers was more intelligent then he, he would replace him. His administrative style was to dismiss cabinet members, without warning via the newspaper and radio, and appoint new members without even bothering to ask them in advance. He did this often, making a shambles of governmental operations for his ministers, who never knew what their status was, and what power they had to conduct business. In his ever smaller and smaller circle of trusted advisors, this became a serious problem, for eventually there were not enough qualified people left to take the roles needed to run the government.
His initial cabinet was a coalition of Fascists, Nationalists, Liberals, and even a couple of Catholic ministers from the Popular Party. His ultimate goal was to create a totalitarian state with himself as the supreme leader. He now wanted to revive the title II Duce, the “leader”. He also wanted the Party to become synonymous with the State.
At this juncture in the late 1920’s, Benito described the Third Way “as a new political and economic system that combines expansionism, totalitarianism, nationalism, anti-communism, anti-capitalism, and anti-liberalism into a state designed to bind the classes together under a corporatist system”. His definition of corporatist was a ruling body of key corporate and labor leaders chosen by the state. And when asked how he defined Fascism, he said that Fascists were advocates of the collective significance of life, which was to be developed at the cost of individualism.
During his honeymoon period, Parliament allowed him dictatorial power for one year. Of course this was not relinquished for the next twenty years. By 1923 II Duce had appointed himself to the positions of seven Ministries (such as foreign affairs, the interior, defense etc.) the head of the Fascist Party and his personal armed militia, the Blackshirts, as well as the Premiership. To finalize his control, in 1923 the parliament passed the Acerbo Law which said that any party that obtains more than 25% of the vote, is granted two thirds of the seats in Parliament. This did happen when Benito forged an alliance with the old Liberals, and used relentless intimidation of the voters with the Action Squads. He subsequently forced the dismantling of the socialist unions. Mussolini was in charge, but no one really knew how he proposed to rule, what really was his credo and plan for the future, domestically or internationally. In the elections in the spring of 1924, the Fascists won an unbelievable 374 seats.. Two months later, a strong denunciation of these elections that had swept Mussolini to power was raised in the form of a book by the leader of the United Socialist Party, Giacomo Matteotti. He actually called for the annulment of the election due to numerous irregularities, and particularly pointing to the violence employed by the Action Squads. As a result of his efforts, he suddenly disappeared, and was not found until August lying in a ditch 20 miles from Rome. Five men were arrested, but none were detained even though they were convicted, due to a declaration of amnesty by the King. However, three of the men arrested in 1924 were retried in 1947 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mussolini was never proven to be associated with the death in any way. This event however, did put the Fascist movement in a very bad light with the public. The King almost asked Mussolini to step down, but relented again, fearing the Blackshirts and civil war.
Mussolini therefore weathered the storm, but many of the anti-Mussolini senators decided to boycott the Parliament, which ultimately worked in Mussolini’s favor. Now he could pass any legislation he wanted, and did. He decided that Fascism was a moral force as much as a political one. However, in reality he was governing minute by minute, with no real plan or policy. He described Parliament as a “gathering of old fossils and intellectuals”, which he was gradually able to neutralize. The Press was slowly muted, and critics were violently dealt with, without a whimper from the public. He was quoted as saying that “critics need to live in fear”. The infrastructure he pushed through in the early years more than satisfied the public (including many archeological projects to focus world attention on the glory of ancient Rome). They were also relieved that the strikes and roaming gangs of thugs had gone away. Finally on the 3rd of January of 1925 under threat from his own more militant members, in a historic speech, he took responsibility for Matteotti’s death due to the style of governing he had to impose. He said Italy needed to move forward, and without much opposition, removed the sham of a democratic parliament, proclaiming his intent to operate from now on as a dictatorship and a one party system. All other parties were outlawed in 1928. Between 1925 and 1928, Mussolini worked hard to neutralize the unions by displacing them with Fascist labor groups, which all had appointed leaders. There were no strikes after 1925, until the 1940’s. These actions put strong clamps on the Socialist and Communist organizations which eventually resulted in Mussolini getting the credit for saving Europe from the threat of Bolshevism. This caught Adolph Hitler’s attention. Local autonomy was abolished, and all city and town mayors and councils were replaced by appointed podestas. The opposition was too disorganized to react, which left Mussolini in total control. However, this left his relationship to the Monarchy unresolved, since his Prime MInistership had been bestowed upon him under the old rules of government, by proclamation of the King. So what was his relationship to the Monarchy? Under the old rules, the Prime Minister could be removed by the King, but under which set of laws was the new government operating? No one seemed to know, and certainly no one was about to challenge Mussolini to find out, not even the King, at least not for the next fifteen years. It took Italy’s dire circumstances of 1943 for this relationship with the King to finally play itself out.
Mussolini did develop a governmental structure which was in reality controlled by one man. The top body was called the Grand Council, which actually was first formed in 1923. It included his cabinet, those remaining of the Quadrumviri, and several party dignitaries numbering about 20. Mussolini considered them to be nothing more than his “advisors”. This body was written into the Constitution and considered in 1932 the highest constitutional authority. In fact, the Grand Council had a provision for succession, which was designed to allow for the most senior member to accede to the Chairmanship. The Grand Council could in theory remove II Duce from office, but since Mussolini not only controlled the Council, but also decided when and if it would meet, and what the agenda would be, he felt no threat from its members. The last time the Council was called to gether by II Duce was in December of 1939, advising him not to enter the war with Germany. No minutes or votes were taken at that meeting. In 1938 Mussolini had added a Chamber of Deputies made up of corporatist members, the undersecretary of state, and many medium to high ranking party officials, all appointed by II Duce. Even though the Party and the Government were pretty much the same thing, there was also a Party hierarchy. It all started with the Party Secretary (appointed by Mussolini), and a Party Directorate that met weekly, made up of a dozen party members. Under their control was a larger body called the National Council composed of 92 provisional appointed secretaries that came from all over the country and met twice a year.
As an example of his style of leadership, in 1927 in an effort to rid Sicily of the mafia, he appointed Cesare Mori as the Prefect of Palermo. He told Mori that he wanted him to eliminate the Mafia from the island and he didn’t care how he did it. Using torture and the kidnapping of women and children as part of the Action Squad methods brought the Mafia figures into line. This style set the tone for II Duce’s administration, tell people little, promise them much, produce showy government programs, silence dissent in any way that is expedient, and convince the populace that what you are doing is indeed Fascism and in tune with the new doctrine of the Twentieth Century – the destined replacement of democracy. During this period, all school teachers had to swear an oath to defend the Fascist regime, and all significant newspaper editors were hand picked by Mussolini.
The educational program for the county was also brought into new focus. Fascism tried to follow the new school called Futurism which Fascism interpreted as a cultural movement arguing for a school system focused on physical courage and patriotism. They endorsed throwing out the “prehistoric” courses of Latin and Greek and replacing it with courses on soldering. This is the time that the first Fascist Youth Wings were developed, referred to as the Vanguards. The person charged with this revision of the fascism education system, referred to as the “second wave” was Renato Ricci. Ricci actually traveled to England to meet and learn from the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell. The boys and girls from 8 to 18 were enrolled in semi-military “formations”, given black shirts and toy machine guns, and taught loyalty to the State.
By the late 1920’s, Mussolini was becoming in some circles a figure of adulation in Italy due to the impressive public works projects and the relative quiet the country was experiencing, In addition, global economic conditions had begun improving in parallel, which probably had little to do with Fascist policies, but nevertheless was making life a bit easier for all, During the Twenties, he was able to eliminate debt in several public agencies, as well as curb Italy’s massive national debt. Mussolini’s visitors during these years had nothing but praise for II Duce, and were mimicked by accolades from all over the world, including the governments of Great Britain, and the United States, as well as such dignitaries as Juan Peron, George Bernard Shaw, and Winston Churchill. As indicated earlier, Hitler too had taken notice.
When Mussolini first came to power in 1922 he moved rather slowly internationally and appeared to have a slight pacifist and anti-imperialistic bent. But within a year he was arguing for pressuring the islands of Leros and Corfu off the coast of Greece, Albania, Libya, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Tunis and other small Eastern Mediterranean islands, to join the Italian family or be absorbed. Mussolini also began developing plans for all the territory surrounding the Adriatic Sea including the Balkans. His expansionist plan had become aggressive, for he truly felt that the Mediterranean was “his ocean”, and he dearly wanted to rid himself of the bottle necks at each end. He considered these blocks to the great oceans an insult to Italy. Initially he sided with treaties designed to curb German growth, joining with Great Britain and France in these pacts, for until the summer of 1938 he and the people of Italy supported the independence of Austria and were aware of the Anschluss talk that was being expressed openly in Germany. By the early 1930’s Mussolini was in his glory, but the big test was on the horizon. He did not like Fascism being compared with Nazism, he dismissed the idea of a master race as idiotic, and anti-Semitism he felt was a German vice. Even though National Socialism was similar in many ways to Fascism, he felt it was definitely an inferior form of government. However, with no real military might, or the natural resources to create one, how could he challenge Great Britain and France on the world stage, each with their own imperialistic designs on the Mediterranean region? The humiliation Italy suffered after World War I at the hands of these traditional giants and the Unites States, left him with few allies to turn to if he were to achieve his dream of a new Roman Empire. Mussolini had rather rapidly created a “rising star” reputation internationally, deserved or not, but even he knew it was based on very hollow realities.
FORGING A RELATIONSHIP WITH GERMANY - 1933 TO 1940
At this juncture, Let us take a brief look at what factors led to the evolution of his German counterpart , Adolf Hitler. Hitler was born on April 20th, 1889 in Braunau am Inn, Austria, of a loving mother and very domineering father who inflicted numerous beatings on young Adolf. Even in this environment, Hitler apparently was a relatively happy child, who became very focused on a book of his father’s dealing with the Franco-Prussian war. He mentioned in Mein Kampf that he became enthusiastic on anything military at that time. When his younger brother Edmund died of measles in 1900, Hitler became sullen and much more confrontational. His father forced him to enter technical schools, even though his interest was in art and as a result, like Benito, was asked to leave two schools. He moved to Vienna in 1905 and lived a bohemian life style but was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts which said he was “unfit for painting”. He became an anti-Semite in Vienna which had a large Jewish population at this time and had become a hotbed for religious prejudice and racism. His anti-Semitism did not cause him however, to avoid Jewish contemporaries, for he was known to often have dinner with a well known Jewish family, and sell his art work through Jewish merchants. However, his rhetoric with friends was very slanderous, stating that the Jews were the enemy of the Aryan race and responsible for all sorts of crises, such as socialism and bolshevism which he even called Jewish movements. It was also at this time that he concluded that democracy was unworkable. He joined the German army in 1914 and eventually was decorated twice for bravery, suffering a bullet wound and blinding by mustard gas. He became a German patriot during World War I and was shocked by Germany’s surrender and the eventual Treaty of Versailles’s heavy restrictions. He called the negotiators from Germany the “November Criminals”. Hitler stayed in the Army and in 1919 was assigned to the Intelligence section. His investigation of the German Worker’s Party, is how he became associated with the head of this fledging group, Anton Drexler. He joined the Party two months later, and became its head in 1921 by eliminating Drexler. Hitler thus became known as the Fuhrer of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. This group developed a “Storm Divison” which became involved with the famous Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 that almost cost Hitler his life, and did result in his incarceration for about six months for high treason. This is when he wrote Mein Kampf which has sold over 10 million copies. After 1926, Hitler centralized the Party even more, making all leadership positions appointed. In 1930 this new Nazi Party made great strides in the elections, gaining 18% of the vote, becoming the second largest political party in Germany. In 1932 he ran against incumbent President Paul von Hindenburg and lost, but was established as a serious contender. Hitler had gained support from the business community and he used this to pressure von Hindenburg for they thought that Germany needed a new spark to rebuild its honor and world status. This resulted in Hitler being appointed Chancellor of a coalition government in 1933 and he never looked back. When von Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler simply ignored the constitution and declared the Presidency vacant, and appointed himself Fuhrer and Chancellor, with the help of his ruling Party. He began very soon after this take-over to speak of the need for “living space”, and publically rejected the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty, and no one took any steps to stop him. Although Hitler and Mussolini had taken notice of each other, they had not met and Hitler in particular seemed to be very interested in how the two totalitarian expansionist leaning countries could interact, for their mutual benefit.
As Mussolini’s plans for expansion continued to grow in the early 1930’s, he was aware that he would have a very delicate path to follow since his most likely ally Germany had its sights set on some of the same territories as Italy, namely the Balkans, and of course there was always the problem of Italy’s long standing support of Austria, On the other hand Germany and Italy had some significant concerns in common, their anger over the final version of the Versailles Treaty, and the League of Nations, both of which severely crippled their plans for expanding, using the methods of old – occupying, either in a friendly manner or otherwise. The politics of the Twentieth Century seemed to frown on that sort of thing. Hitler’s response to these restrictions was to ignore them, so Germany after 1933, following his ascendancy to the leadership of Germany, resigned from all such organizations. Mussolini was informed as early as December of 1933 by Germany that the Austrian question would be solved by an annexation, the only question was when. All through this period, confusion reigned, for Mussolini was both planning for a partnership with Germany at the same time he was being forced to develop a war plan to combat Hitler’s design on Austria, a country which had long standing support among the Italian populace, especially in the north. There were even worries in some circles in Italy that if Germany annexed Austria, she might not stop there, but try to annex much of north Italy as well since Hitler often used the logic in annexing areas, that where there were large populations of Germophyles, those territories should become part of the Fatherland. In Hitler’s words, “one blood demands one Reich”.
In the light of this international geopolitical confusion and posturing, Hitler sought the opportunity to meet with Mussolini since Hitler had developed respect and a bit of awe for II Duce at this stage of their relationship. This meeting was held in Venice in June of 1934. The word reaching Mussolini was that this new upstart leader of Germany, Adolph Hitler admired him, and was very anxious to meet him and exchange thoughts on Europe’s need for restructuring. The meeting was said to be uneventful, and even prompted Mussolini to characterize Hitler later as a “buffoon”, and quite mad. Their only areas of agreement were their mutual dislike for France and Bolshevism Apparently Hitler asked that there be elections in Austria, with at least some Nazi Party members on the ballot. Mussolini thought that Hitler was only asking for free elections with continued Austrian independence. However, only a month later, an attempted coup occurred with the assassination of the Prime Minister. The coup failed, but Mussolini was forced to move troops to the Austrian border, ruining any movement toward collaboration with Germany that may have taken root in June. Mussolini even made an attempt at seeking France’s support against Germany if the situation were to escalate. However, Mussolini had a more serious long range problem. He had imperialistic dreams about his Mare Nostrum and its surrounding territories, especially its east and west outlets, and he knew he couldn’t fight both Britain and France, unless he could acquire strong support from the continental north – that meant Germany.
Therefore to impress Hitler with Italy’s military strength and ability to build empires, Mussolini decided to invade Ethiopia in December of 1934, against the advice of his military. The French agreed to look the other way regarding Ethiopia, if Mussolini would agree to long term support against Germany. Mussolini hoped that Great Britain would follow suit, but found no support there since they both were Interested in the future development of the African continent. Since Ethiopia was an undeveloped country, Mussolini expected the war to be of short duration, which not only wasn’t the case, but in reality, Italy never totally controlled the country, and this endeavor later proved to be a drain on the Italian economy and military strength. From this point on, Mussolini’s military advisors time and again pleaded with him to make it clear to Hitler that Italy would not be ready for any all out European conflict until 1942-43 – and that was being optimistic.
The very turbulent times began in 1935, with Germany totally flaunting the Versailles Treaty by announcing that she intended to create an Army of 36 Divisions, as well as a Luftwaffe. Hitler made an offer to Mussolini that he could have all of North Africa, access to the Red Sea, the Balkans, and the control of the Mediterranean Sea if they would forget about Austria. Mussolini turned Hitler down on the grounds that Austria was Italy’s demilitarized zone. Mussolini even called a conference of Great Britain, France, and Italy in 1935 to discuss the German situation. This led to little cooperation, especially from Great Britain, but on the issue of Ethiopia, Mussolini felt Great Britain only expressed disinterest rather than disdain – which some authors point to as the beginning of World War II – was this the misunderstood seed that emboldened Mussolini to go forward with the invasion of Ethiopia that began the sequence of lies and deceit within the European community that started them toward war? For in reality, the level of tension on the part of Great Britain was rising quickly, for they really didn’t want to deal with competition for African resources. However, whenever talk of war with Great Britain came up in high level talks in Italy, all the military commanders gave grave warnings of unpreparedness, especially the Navy, who said a war with the British would be a total disaster, for at this point the British undeniably ruled the seas.
At the same time, Hitler’s offer still stood, and Mussolini began to revisit the thought of Germany as an ally. Hitler sweetened the pot by relaying to Mussolini that Germany was totally neutral on Ethiopia. Further, Hitler stated in a memo to Mussolini that Germany would hold off on Austria for a while, and not interfere with her internal affairs, and did not currently plan to annex Austria. This was all that Mussolini needed to start working on an alliance with his northern neighbor. All this talk made the British very nervous and they began to soften their rhetoric on Ethiopia, as they offered Italy an option to divide up Ethiopia between them. This proposal was brought to Mussolini by Anthony Eden with the stipulation that Britain would remain the Protector of Ethiopia. Mussolini rejected the concept calling the proposal a menace. All this came to a head on the eve of the invasion of Ethiopia when the British caved in saying it would not close the Suez Canal nor humiliate Italy or impose any military sanctions. Mussolini pledged to not impose any threats as well on any imperial interests of Great Britain. The British were worried at this time of the Mussolini/Hitler connection, and hoped that the gift of Ethiopia might cause Italy to back away from any pro-German discussions. The Ethiopia campaign started on October 3, 1935.
Why was Mussolini invading Ethiopia? His stated reason was to bring civilized peace and stability to a backward country. However, in realty, he felt he needed the control of the Bab-el Mandeb Straits. II Duce also noted that Italy had helped win the Great War, but was being told to stay put, while the big boys divided the world. He felt obligated to show that Italy was not a second rate nation. It too had to demonstrate dominance, especially to Germany- and what easier way than to attack a country with practically no army, in the name of civilization.
Tensions were growing all across Europe. Great Britain overestimated the military strength of Italy when deciding not to engage her in a military conflict. It ended up imposing only mild and limited economic embargos, still being very wary of a German/Italy alliance. In fact, in September of 1935, Hitler began his courtship of Mussolini by inviting Rome’s Ambassador to Germany, Bernardo Attolico to a meeting with Rudolph Hess to discuss how Fascism and Nazism could work together to crush Bolshevism, which they perceived as a common enemy for all of Europe. Many discussions followed with Germany offering economic assistance for the Ethiopian war, and the suggestion for the development of a new European balance of power outside the League of Nations, dominated by Germany and Italy. Germany was sending Italy coal, and offered to transfer money being sent to Germany by the United States,for reconstruction, to Italy. The stakes were getting too high, Mussolini had to make up his mind about the future of his imperialistic dream, and he chose Germany. In January of 1936, Mussolini met with the German Ambassador Ulrich von Hassel, and told him that Austria was a dead issue, suggesting they develop a friendship treaty saying they should move in parallel as a satellite state. All negotiations with Great Britain and France were now dead.
It might be appropriate at this juncture to examine the relationship between Fascism and Nazism as being practiced by these two countries in the 1930’s. Fascism had its origin in the 1920’s with the work of Sergio Panunzio, Giovanni Gentile, Charles Peguy, Huber Lagardelle, and George Sorel. The official Fascist articles were signed by Mussolini however, thus II Duce is often credited with its creation. Some of the models laid out by Pope Leo XII regarding social relations and class collaborations find their way into Mussolini’s Fascism. The Pope was speaking against capitalism and the exploitation of the masses and called for strong governments to protect the people. It also spoke of eliminating the class struggle by urging social solidarity between the classes and a strong nationalism as a way to preserve morality. This was a kind of corporatism, organizing political societies along industrial lines resembling mediaeval guilds - the people were represented by interest groups. All of this led to a definition of Fascism that was published in the 1932 Encyclopedia Italiana. Fascism was a system in which “the State not only is the authority which governs and molds individual wills with laws and values of spiritual life, but it is also the power which makes its will prevail abroad. For the Fascist, everything is within the State and neither individuals nor groups can be outside the State. For Fascism, the State is an absolute before which individuals or groups are only relative.”
Nazism by some authorities is only a form of Fascism. Nazism was officially known in Germany as the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. The Party became a philosophical movement that combined several ideologies centered around nationalism, anti-communism, traditionalism, totalitarianism, anti-liberalism, and anti-Semitism, with the importance on a pure ethnographic heritage. The humility they suffered after World War I, the sanctions of the Versailles Treaty and the belief that the Jews and the Communists were at the bottom of the conspiracy to pull them down, played a heavy role in the turmoil that existed in Germany prior to Hitler’s ascendency. As noted above, the Nazi Party actually had its beginning in January of 1919 with the efforts of Anton Drexler and six other workers, calling themselves the German Workers Party. After Hitler took over the Party leadership in 1921, the Party grew rapidly in numbers and strength, becoming a significant reality on the political scene. This resurgence resulted in Hitler ultimately being asked to form a new government by President von Hindenburg in 1933. In rapid fashion, Hitler persuaded the President to grant him unprecedented emergency powers to suspend civil liberties, arrest opponents, abolish unions and all political parties, as well as stripping all significant powers from federal German states. Soon after in 1935 a systematic repression of the Jews began.
In summary, Fascism demanded that all in society have as their purpose - serving the State, and nothing was above the State. The only purpose of the government was to value itself as the highest priority. “The Fascist movement sought to preserve the class system and uphold it as the foundation of established and progressive culture”. The State’s nature was superior to that of the sum of the individuals comprising it, and all existed to serve the state rather than the state existing to serve them. Therefore, all individual’s business was the state’s business, and the state’s existence was the sole duty of the individual. In the Corporative system, private enterprise does exist, but in a sense it was contracted to the State so that the State could step in if it felt the need to assure usefulness. On the other hand, Nazism, saw the states purpose as providing an ideal to value its people, race, and social engineering and to provide the greatest prosperity for its people at the expense of all else. It spoke of a class based society as the enemy and wanted to unify the racial element above established classes. Totalitarian rule was key to both systems, but in the end both systems came crashing down as both men became more and more isolated from reality and from those meant to provide input and support.
It was never clear if Hitler felt that Italians were part of the master race concept that was such a strong part of his plan for the future of the world. II Duce’s attitude toward Jews, and anyone not Aryan was never a strong component of his philosophy or for Italians in general. Therefore, when Mussolini decided to march with Germany in the upcoming conflict, he felt he had to prove to Hitler that he understood the race issue and was willing to act accordingly. That may have been part of the rationale for invading Ethiopia, so he could demonstrate that the role of the white race was to dominate. In 1936 there was only one high ranking official in Italy opposed to an alliance with Germany, the Undersecretary of State, Fulvio Suvich. He was subsequently replaced by Benito’s son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano, who had been a part of the administration for propaganda since 1934. At this point, the Army was mildly supportive of going to war, but the Navy was very pessimistic that they were even close to being ready. Mussolini had a small problem to resolve with a pact he had signed with Great Britain and France in 1925, the Locarno Treaty that guaranteed the establishment of Germanys’ border on the bank of the Rhine, preserving the Rhineland for France and Belgium. However, it was well known that Hitler wanted the Rhineland back, so without hesitation, he simply moved into the Rhineland on March 7th of 1936 and no one reacted. Mussolini’s only comment was that it was a turning point in European history.
By June of 1936 the Ethiopian campaign was over, taking months longer than expected, and Benito referred to himself as the Founder of the North African Colonial Empire. By the fall of 1936, the die had pretty much been cast for the creation of an axis with Germany. The West had refrained from trying to stop either Italy or Germany’s grab for new territory. In particular the decision of Prime Minister Baldwin of Great Britain not to engage Italy emboldened Mussolini to begin to think of even greater exploits. In July Hitler announced Germany had a new “understanding” with Austria making her an independent State of Germany. Great Britain and France still made attempts to court Italy throughout 1936, but to no avail. Anthony Eden thoroughly disliked Mussolini, but was entering talks only to try and hinder Italy’s romance with Germany.
Mussolini’s decision to support Franco in the Spanish Civil War was also done in an effort to show Hitler that Italy was a serious partner against Bolshevism. In reality, this war which took three years and far too much manpower and military resources, was a serious mistake for Mussolini, and became a problem back home among the populace and the military. It also shut the door in a very final way with Great Britain and France. In fact this may have been the beginning of the end of Fascism in Italy, for dissent began building from this year on for Mussolini’s government. He was convinced that Franco would ultimately join Italy as a Fascist state, and he would thus have solid control of Gibraltar. Germany and Italy almost seemed to be competing with each other over who could help Franco the most, but in reality, the bulk of the support came from Italy, which again was a significant drain on their economy and war readiness. At first the German participation was minimal, but it gave Hitler an excellent excuse to begin a build up of his armed forces, using the Spanish Civil War as his rational for this effort, totally breaking with the Versailles Treaty, which allowed him only 100 aircraft and 100,000 men in uniform. Russia became their more significant adversary, for they supported the Republic of Spain.
It was during this joint effort that Hitler began his active campaign to have Italy join with Germany to form a Rome-Berlin Axis, and began using flattery on Benito by calling him the “leading statesman in the world”, and it seemed to be working. Hitler also sent his Ambassador to Milan to make a speech about the growing relationship, and used the term Berlin – Rome Axis for the first time, suggesting that this axis would provide the nucleus around which all European states that desire peace would have to revolve. It was at this time that Mussolini made Galeazzo Ciano his Foreign Minister. Ciano was flamboyant, charming, pretentious, as well as intelligent, but was found to be superficial and vain by the Germans. Ciano made his first trip to Berlin in October of 1936, where he was told that the war was coming, but not expected to last more than three years. With Hitler’s recent overtures, and the promise that the Mediterranean was solely Italy’s domain, Mussolini was moving more and more toward an alliance with Germany. The war in Spain was going slowly, and costing Italy much more than anticipated. Franco seemed to be in no particular hurry, which helped Hitler for with that war in the news, his rearmament progress was being overlooked. In mid 1937 the Italians started the blockading of Spanish ports, at first not bothering British and French ships, but by the end of summer, Spanish ships were being sunk, and finally British, French and Danish merchant ships were being attacked as well. The excuse was that they were really Russian vessels, flying neutral flags. Finally in September of 1937 an Italian submarine attacked a British destroyer, bringing war very close. A conference was called in Paris trying to calm the waters, which was attended by Italy because it gave Italy equal footing with Britain and France for the first time. They agreed to set up regions in the Mediterranean that would be patrolled with each country taking responsibility to help prevent “mistakes” happening again.
Also in September of 1937, Mussolini made his first trip to Berlin. The affair was quite lavish, with banquets and visits to manufacturing plants and Army bases. Nine hundred thousand people supposedly came to the Reichstag to hear Mussolini speak – in a thunderstorm. He came away feeling that Germany loved him. The meeting with Hitler was short and rather meaningless. However, Mussolini did give the impression that a partnership had been forged. When Mussolini returned he learned his own people didn’t feel as positively toward the alliance. They felt betrayed, for Mussolini’s earlier characterizations of Hitler painted him as a paranoid and uncouth individual, but now Mussolini was calling him a genius. A month later, Mussolini signed the Anti-Comintern Pact that stated that Italy and Germany would fight Bolshevism together. Mussolini began a propaganda campaign to convince the public that an alliance with Germany was in Italy’s best interest. In January of 1937 Goering tried to get Mussolini to agree to a deal that called for Germany supporting Italy against Britain if necessary, if Mussolini would agree to the annexation of Austria. A German/Italian commission was established for the coordination of efforts in case of a war. Mussolini became convinced that Britain was going to remain passive, since she had allowed the Ethiopia takeover to occur. Even at this late date, when Mussolini was having serious conversations with Germany about their move on Austria, he was still telling the Austrians that he supported their independence. Neville Chamberlain was now the Prime Minister of Great Britain and more than anything else wanted to avoid war.
In October of 1937 von Ribbentrop visited Rome and brought with him the Japanese military attaché to Berlin. There had been some discussion on Italy’s part of asking Japan to join in the axis because of their dislike for communism and the fact that they had a good navy. Ribbentrop was also pushing for a formal tripartite axis agreement, feeling that Britain would seek help from the United States, but II Duce refused. Mussolini had reached the convenient conclusion that the Austrians didn’t really oppose annexation, that they were ready to become Germany’s satellite. He thought that the Anschluss (meaning connection in German) would occur around 1943. At this point, Britain and France were becoming even more distressed. Chamberlain was still trying to find a silver lining. Anthony Eden was sent to Italy in February of 1938 to try one last time to convince Mussolini to pull back from a German alliance. Hitler had only the day before given an ultimatum to the Austrian Chancellor – to either accept annexation, or Germany would invade. Eden had a clear dislike for Mussolini so when Chamberlain still tried to arrange for further talks in Rome, Eden had a shouting match with him in front of the Italian Ambassador Count Grandi. Eden resigned the next day.
Hitler was having his own internal political problems, resulting in a shakeup of his cabinet, dismissing all the conservative, “slow growth” members in February of 1938. He stirred additional turmoil in Italy when he gave a speech to the Reichstag that indicated that Germany’s relationship with Italy was ideological not political – placing Mussolini and Italy in a distinct secondary position, not an equal. Berlin would merely “consult” with Rome on major decisions. This really took the political wind out of Mussolini’s sails at home. This came at a time when Mussolini was focusing his major attention on planning for a war with Great Britain and France over the control of the Mediterranean, and North Africa, and if he didn’t have Germany’s full support, how was this to occur? In the midst of all this turmoil which was raging throughout Europe Hitler moved into Austria on March 12th of 1938, and no one intervened. Austria now became the German Province of Ostmark. This made Rome very nervous that Hitler might continue into the Alto Adige Provence of northern Italy, which also had a large population of German speaking people. The Austrian Chancellor, appealed to Mussolini since Mussolini had been a supporter of the Fascist leaning Austrian government since the early 1930’s, but to no avail. Hitler claimed he was restoring tranquility to the country.
Hitler sent a message to Mussolini through Goering that the Fuhrer would never forget what Mussolini had done in giving up his support for an independent Austria. He came to Rome in May of 1938 to smooth things over with the government and populace, and after a short period of tension, all went well, and he assured Mussolini that Germany would respect the Brenner Pass as its southern boundary. Ribbentrop pushed hard for a full military alliance during this visit, but his arrogant demeanor and tactics put Mussolini off. Of course Hitler’s imperialism was only getting warmed up. Ribbentrop also was expressing Germany’s position, that Italy should not be concerned with Czechoslovakia. They supposedly parted in a very emotional scene at the train station saying that no force on earth will ever be able to separate them. Hitler made it clear, that the issue of Czechoslovakia was Germany’s alone (with Russian assistance), and he was asking nothing from Italy in this regard. In June of 1938, Ciano signaled that Italy was ready to move up from an ideological social club relationship to a concrete political/military alliance. It was very clear by this time that Hitler was committed to an all out war in Europe by 1940-41, even though II Duce was still requesting a much later time, perhaps 1943.
Italian war plans for the Mediterranean were building, with the aim being to gain control of the Suez Canal and the Bob El Mandel Strait. Mussolini spoke to the Grand Council in February of 1939 stating that Italy was a prisoner in her own ocean, with the French and British controlling the only exits, and that Italy’s future depended on breaking through those prison walls. Mussolini was hesitant to act for he was still unsure of Hitler’s time frame for the take over of Czechoslovakia, and Ribbentrop indicated that the plans were too fluid for much notice to be given. On September 4th and 5th respectively, Japan and the United States declared their neutrality in regard to the European conflict. At this early stage, Germany was still not economically strong, and had a relatively small Navy, which by implication meant that Italy would have to take the lead in this part of the plan. The fact that Italy also had a weak economy and Navy, something Mussolini did not want to admit openly, prompted II Duce to listen to overtures made to him by Prime Minister Chamberlain to serve as intermediary to “preserve peace” for the world. So at Chamberlain’s urging, Mussolini agreed to use his influence and approached Hitler on September 27th, just 24 hours prior to the planned Czechoslovakia invasion. This of course, appealed to Mussolini’s ego, suggesting a rise in his stature within the world community, and his subsequent contact with Hitler amazingly proved successful. Hitler’s mystical respect for Il Duce seemed to work one last time, and he called a halt to the invasion and agreed to talks. It seems that Hitler was still not sure of how valuable Italy would be in his imperialistic plans, and didn’t want to take a chance of alienating Mussolini. The meeting took place the next day in Munich between the four European powers. In particular, Mussolini asked Hitler to meet to discuss the status of the Sudetenland, again, heavily populated by Germophyles. Eventually Chamberlain agreed to the takeover of the Sudetenland, but nothing else.
When Mussolini returned to Rome he was hailed as the “Angel of Peace” . Mussolini resented this for he didn’t want to be viewed as soft – like Neville Chamberlain. Much was made of this apparent coup by Mussolini, causing the Ambassador to Germany, Bernardo Attolico to declare Il Duce saved Europe from war. This euphoria lasted for only a few weeks , for in October of 1938, Mussolini agreed to a military alliance with Germany, convinced that for his control of the Mediterranean agenda to be realized, he needed the military might of Germany. He now had to sell this decision to the Italian people. Mussolini found it hard to sell Hitler’s plan since the details were seldom shared with or developed in consultation with Rome, so Mussolini only had generalities on which to build a defense. On the other side of the coin, Ribbentrop tried on several occasions to get Mussolini to agree to a true military pact, to no avail, Mussolini kept saying his people were not ready. Mussolini’s position was clear on the value of warriors, and was quoted as saying “War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the people who have the courage to meet it”. Hitler would surely agree. Out of the blue he decided he had waited long enough, the courage was there, so six months later Hitler decided to take all of Czechoslovakia, in an agreement made with Russia. This not only included Czechoslovakia, but also Poland, Romania, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. Of course Hitler never intended to keep this arrangement, for his intent to capture western Russia had been in his mind for some time. This takeover occurred on March 15th, 1939, with no prior counsel with Mussolini or his staff. The world seemed to be shocked, for there was no real warning. This provoked Mussolini to action as well, deciding to announce just a month later, his intent to annex Malta, Corsica, and Tunis as well as an invasion of Albania. He finalized these bold acts by announcing to the Grand Council on March 21st that he would sign the pact with Germany regardless of their objections. Three prominent Fascists did openly disagree, but Mussolini called them stupid, creating wounds that would come back to haunt him. In his mind he had no real choice at this point, for he felt that his only path to owning the Mediterranean was to follow Hitler’s plan for European domination. II Duce’s perpetual fear was that Hitler might decide not to stop in his annexation of “living space”, and appropriate Italian designated space around the Mediterranean, such as the Balkans, North Africa, and even northern Italy. Trust was never at a high level between these imperialists. Nevertheless, in Berlin the “Pact of Steel” was signed by Ciano on May 22nd of 1939, which Mussolini assumed at the time was only defensive in nature, but in fact was anything but. By this time the invasion of Poland was already on the books for Germany, again without the knowledge of Mussolini. Hitler’s rationale was that Germany needed more land, and of course he needed to capture back the territory taken from Germany after World War I.
The line in the sand was finally being drawn by Great Britain and France, as they indicated in March of 1939 that an attack on Poland would mean war. Mussolini, in May of 1939, made it clear that Italy would not be ready for an all out war until 1943, and Ribbentrop agreed, but assured Ambassador Ciano that if something did happen regarding Poland, that the western powers would do nothing. Finally understanding he had little influence on the question, Mussolini relayed to Berlin that he was “not interested” in the Polish question, which of course turned out to be a very serious mistake. The move to invade now was clearly open, just at a time when international tensions seemed to ease with the ending of the civil war in Spain in March of 1939. When Ciano returned to Italy he encouraged Mussolini to leave the Pact of Steel, for Germany didn’t really care about what the Italians thought, and would only play a very secondary role. At first Mussolini agreed, but then reversed himself (which was not unusual), saying he had to position Italy to receive their share of the “booty” at the end. Ironically, at the same time that Ciano was in Berlin, the Germans were agreeing with Russia on the take over of Poland, which included Russian neutrality.
As tensions grew through the summer of 1939, Italy withdrew its Ambassador to Great Britain permanently. President Roosevelt made a rather timid effort to assist the situation by sending a message to Mussolini suggesting he try to influence those embroiled in this pending war to take a ten year truce, but it was noted that Mussolini threw the message in the trash.
The Italian Ambassador Attolico told Ciano in June to inform Mussolini that he was sure the invasion was coming soon. German documents show that the invasion had been decided on at least by April, for a September 1 implementation. The British Ambassador, Percy Loraine in a meeting with Mussolini indicated that if Germany did invade, that Britain would declare war, and Mussolini reportedly said “so be it”. In fact Mussolini was still imploring Hitler to put off any overt aggression until no earlier than 1942, that such a time table was in harmony with the Pact of Steel.
Strangely at this time, both the British and Germans were in negotiations with Russia, seeking her allegiance, but Germany seemed to be making the most headway. Foreign Minister Molotov seemed to fear Germany more, and eventually sided with Berlin. Not all the German staff and officials agreed the West would stand idly by if Poland was invaded, and even asked Mussolini to intervene, including the German Admiral Canaris, but he did not do so. The pact was signed with Russia on August 23, 1938. Hitler more or less told the reluctant Mussolini to just stay out of the way, to tie down the western powers with rhetoric as much as possible and supply Germany with agricultural and industrial workers. Mussolini saw his stature shrinking, and tried once more to take a prominent role by calling for a summit meeting in Munich for August 31st,, offering to mediate the conference, but it was way too late, the invasion came three days later.
The invasion took place on September 3rd, and Mussolini stayed on the sidelines – politically embarrassed for looking weak to Hitler, and indecisive to political and military leaders of Italy. He was being defined as a neutral by Britain, which infuriated him especially with Germany doing so well. Britain continued to try to convince Italy to stay out of the conflict, and they did so for nine months. Mussolini had further problems at home, for the dismantling of Poland, a Catholic country by atheists did not sit well. However for Hitler this meant nothing, and besides, he was reveling in the quick success in Poland. He told Ciano Italy should take on the responsibility to organize and lead the neutral states, which Ciano thought meant the Balkan countries. Hitler quickly indicated that he only meant the western Mediterranean areas, for he needed the Balkan states for their rich mineral resources. Mussolini had always felt the Balkans were his domain. In December of 1939, a piqued Mussolini at the Chamber of Deputies let Ciano address the Chamber and expose Germany’s almost total disregard of Italy in these major decisions, including their decision to start World War II three years early. Ciano again suggested this should be the death of the Axis Pact! Britain saw an opening and reacted quickly by making a last ditch effort to keep Italy from entering the war. The British offered to supply Italy with two thirds of her annual coal needs in exchange for armaments worth approximately twenty million pounds. Rome agreed to the offer, but three months later turned it down without comment. Subsequently it was learned that Berlin had agreed to supply all of Italy’s annual coal needs, which Mussolini could not turn down, and the decision rested with II Duce alone.
Hitler digested this speech for two months, finally coming to the conclusion that Italy may not be worth the effort. Even though the two countries could not at this late date extricate themselves from one another, it seems clear that this conclusion permanently colored Germany’s view of Italy as a military partner from this point forward. Even though the Grand Council met on several occasions in early 1939 and repeatedly decided on a non-aggression position, Mussolini never considered himself bound by these discussions. Later, when Italy had declared war on Greece, II Duce would send his disgruntled Ministers to the front to fight in the trenches. Some authors feel that the first plans to dispose Mussolini were formulated in those trenches. Two of the deputies so disposed, were Grandi and Bottai, future instigators in his eventual dismissal by the King.
Roosevelt sent a message to Mussolini on May 27th of 1940 urging him to stay out of the war, a bit too late. The evacuation of Dunkirk was underway, with Britain leaving nearly 90% of their military equipment and supplies on the beaches of France. Mussolini could wait no longer; he finally relented and told Hitler that Italy continued to support the Axis pact. However, Hitler made it clear to Mussolini that there was no more turning back, that they now must live or die together, as they were inextricably tied, and that Italy needed to become comfortable with Germany as the lead. Mussolini remained very reluctant to declare war against the West, knowing Italy was ill prepared to carry on a world war, but after the rapid fall of France and Belgium, he felt he could wait no longer, finally declaring war on June 10th, 1940 over the strong objections of his Chief of Staff Marshal Pietro Badoglio, II Duce made the announcement to the Italian people in a grand production from the balcony of his headquarters, the Palazzo Venezia. He told the Marshal that the war would be over by September and that “I need only a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought”. His only rationale was that he made his decisions based on clever strokes of insight, demonstrating his instinctive mastery of Machiavellian intuition. Whatever his ability to inspire with rhetoric, it was noted that the next day the Marshal seemed to be ready to go to war, ready or not, and everyone but Mussolini seemed to know they certainly were not.