“Hitler is a big softy, deep down.”Mussolini to his Mistress, Clara Petacci, on Oct. 1, 1938, a day after the signing of the Munich Pact.
(Photo credit – Alamy – Mussolini speaking in Rome to a mass audience in mid-1930s)
The relationship between Mussolini and Hitler, Europe’s two major Fascist leaders, was never smooth, despite the public parades and spectacles each of them created for public consumption both for their own peoples and for impressing their mutual foreign opponents, especially in the Western democracies.
Within their most intimate entourages, the ambivalence was much clearer. As of late 1937, Mussolini’s overall opinion of Hitler had undergone significant change. The Fuhrer’s support for his Ethiopian conquest had hardened and Mussolini was grateful for increased German financial, commercial, and technical exchange in the face of League of Nations sanctions. In return, Hitler’s bold move into the Rhineland signaled his determination to dismantle the “Wilsonian” (from US President Woodrow Wilson) order of Europe represented by the League of Nations and balance of power lying in the hands of the Western Allies.
Mussolini too sought to undo the Versailles/Wilsonian order. The Italian view had been that Italy had been cheated of the fruits of victory in The Great War when it had not received the promised territorial compensation in the Austrian Tyrol and the Dalmatian Coast. Mussolini believed Italy had a right to be treated as a Great Power, and would take what was rightfully hers when the time was right. To that end, the armed forces would be built strong and the Mediterranean would return to being “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea), as Imperial Rome had once claimed it.
Fascist rule within Italy could be harsh if you were at the wrong end of the political spectrum. Most of the leaders of the Leftist parties had had the good sense to leave after “Musso” put into place the last major brick of his consolidation of total Fascist control with the signing of the Lateran Accords with Pope Pius XI in 1929. The Duce now had the full support of the King, who approved of his strong, stable rule, and the Pope, who could release Catholics to serve in the government which affirmed the “true Church” as the official faith of the nation. For foolish protesters and active, underground political dissenters, the prisons were made bigger, and the colonies could be made available for their residency – unless they accepted exile. But the rumors of Hitler’s brutal treatment of German troublemakers seemed “barbaric and primitive” to sensitive, civilized, cultivated Italians – even to the Duce.
The Duce retained a sense of what tolerant Italians would willingly accept, and the harsh Germanic brutality that was being bruited about was a step too far. As an indicator of where the boundary might lie within Italy for attempting similar methodology, when Anti-Semitic measures were decreed in Italy after the Anschluss (the unification of Austria with Germany and its incorporation into the Third Reich) in March 1938, the outcry in Italy was so great that Mussolini soon backtracked by stipulating that the measures should be softened and not applied – i.e., to turn a blind eye to enforcement. In other words, it was all a show to simulate solidarity with his German ally, whose troops now stood at Italy’s northern borders, where Austria’s had been. In return, Hitler reconfirmed that he had no intention of reclaiming the South Tyrol for incorporation into the new Greater Germany which he was creating.
While Hitler still valued Mussolini as a sort of mentor in his rise to power, there were/are definite differences in ideology between Fascism à la Musso and Nazism. Nazism was/is virulently racist from its inception, and was oriented towards the conquest of the lands inhabited by “inferior” peoples who, as inferior, were not worthy of it. Fascism was/is aggressively nationalistic and certainly carries the notion of the superiority of one’s own nation over others, but does/has not historically endorse(d) genocide and mass enslavement of whole “races”. The kind of racism and ideological commitment to genocide and mass elimination of whole sectors of populations was never part of Mussolini’s agenda, and within Italy when the Germans later forced its application following their occupation of the north and center of the country, Italian passive resistance to and disgust with it was notable. Naturally, there were segments of the population who participated, as there were in every nation the Nazis subjugated, for the elimination of the Jews opened opportunities for personal enrichment.
Mussolini and Hitler were able to provide spectacle and a strong propaganda image of mutual regard and ideological kinship, but there was always tension and ambiguity in their relationship. All the more among the leadership of their respective parties and governments. As the German power grew and Hitler’s triumphs accumulated, Mussolini felt increasingly threatened by comparison and he was determined to establish the credibility of Italy’s (and his) claim to national greatness by taking an independent course. He supported the Nazi destruction of Czechoslovakia (Sept. 1938 – the Munich Conference, and March 1939 – the annexation of Bohemia [Czechia today] and Moravia, along with the creation of a nominally independent Slovakia). But in April 1939 he unilaterally invaded and took over Albania without consulting Hitler. His goal was to prepare for the eventual conquest of Greece.
As it became clear that Poland was Hitler’s next target, Mussolini began to distance himself from the German leader’s obvious intention to continue expanding the new Germanic Empire to the east. Italy could not afford to be dragged along into such a conflagration. When it became clear that, despite their “Pact of Steel” Alliance, signed in May 1939, an attack on Poland finally meant war with Britain and France, Mussolini made it abundantly clear that Italy was not ready for such a war and would not be until 1942, and, even then, only with massive German help in modernizing and reequipping its armed forces. A frustrated Hitler excused Mussolini and told him that a friendly neutrality would do for the moment.
Despite the bombast and aggressive rhetoric, Mussolini was well aware that fighting against the West would be a far different proposition from overrunning African territories whose powers of resistance were overmatched by Italy’s more technologically advanced forces. However, even there, the Italians had resorted to chemical warfare and brutalities they would not have dared use in Spain[i]. This pattern would be repeated in the Balkans in 1940-43. But in 1939, Mussolini and his Fascist regime greatly feared the power of Britain and France with their powerful navies and reputable armies laying all of Italy’s conquests exposed to attack, as well as Italy itself.
Thus it was that when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Italy declared non-belligerency.
TO BE CONTINUED
[i] The Spanish Civil War had ended in May 1939 with the victory of Franco’s Nationalists. Over 100 000 Italian “volunteers” had fought for Franco, and Italy had furnished hundreds of planes, artillery pieces, and much else. This effort had drained Italy’s arsenal and resources even if it had helped ensure the creation of another Fascist state in Europe.
2 thoughts on “The Uses of History, 32 – Mussolini and Fascism, 4”
I appreciated your distinctions between Naziism and Fascism and between Hitler and Mussolini.
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Another worthwhile article in a great series. The subject is very appropriate to the times we live in. Your distinction between Nazism and Italian Fascism is instructive.