1935: Collapse of the Stresa Front

AUSTRIA KNOWS THAT she can count on us to defend her independence as a sovereign state.1


Next fall I am going to invite Hitler to…make Austria German. In 1934 I could have beaten his army…today I cannot.2


THE ITALIANS HAD come home from the Paris conference bitter, and they blamed Wilson even more than Lloyd George.

After deserting the Triple Alliance and declaring neutrality in 1914, Rome had been bribed into the war on the Allied side by the British, who offered Rome more than Berlin could. In the secret 1915 Treaty of London, Italy had been promised South Tyrol, Istria, Trieste, northern Dalmatia, most of the Dalmatian Islands, sovereignty over the Dodecanese Islands, and a protectorate over Albania. These lands were to be confiscated from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

Were the Treaty of London to be fully honored, Harold Nicolson had noted, Italy would have been given dominion over “some 1,300,000 Yugoslavs, some 230,000 Germans, the whole Greek population of the Dodecanese, the Turks and Greeks of Adalia, all that was left of the Albanians, and vague areas of Africa.”3 Forced to listen to incessant Italian demands for full payment for having joined the Allies, plus Rome’s added demand for the Croatian port of Fiume on the Adriatic, a disgusted Lord Balfour dismissed them as “swine.”4

Italy had come home from Paris with South Tyrol, Trieste, and Istria, but believed she had been denied the Dalmatian coast and Fiume by Wilson and robbed of her share of the African spoils by Lloyd George.5 Italy felt cheated, for her sacrifices during the war had included more than four hundred thousand combat deaths.

“Even before he took charge of Italy as the Fascist leader and through the period after 1922,” writes the Italian diplomat Luigi Villari, “Mussolini constantly urged a revision of these treaties [Versailles and St. Germain] and predicted a second European war if this was not done.”6 In 1922, however, it was domestic unrest that led to a Fascist march on Rome that brought to power this ex-socialist and war veteran who was determined to gain for Italy that place in the sun denied her at Paris.

Mussolini had been in power for a decade before Hitler ever became Chancellor. During that decade, Il Duce’s attitude toward the Nazi leader may be summed up in a single word: contempt. But Hitler’s admiration for Il Duce bordered on adulation. As leader of the National Socialist Party in 1927, Hitler had, through the Berlin head of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, requested a signed photograph of Il Duce. Across the memorandum Mussolini scrawled in bold letters, “Request refused.”7

When Hitler came to power, Mussolini, realizing the Nazis might attempt the violent overthrow of Versailles, imperiling the peace of Europe, proposed a Four-Power Pact. It was among the bolder and more visionary ideas of the era. Britain, France, Italy, and Germany would meet as equals to rectify the injustices of Versailles to avert another war. Il Duce “threw all his energy and enthusiasm into perfection of such a pact in 1933, but it was rejected by France, Britain and the pro-French Little Entente” of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Rumania.8

Among the statesmen pouring cold water on Il Duce’s plan to create a new Concert of Europe was Winston Churchill: “In 1933, Churchill had in the House of Commons vigorously attacked Mussolini’s proposal for a four-power pact, the one comprehensive plan set forth in Europe which might have revised postwar treaties in a peaceful manner and held Hitler in check.”9


THE FOREIGN POLICY HITLER would pursue began to take shape within a year of his having taken control of the Nazi Party. His first goal was a Rome-Berlin alliance. Believing that war might be necessary to overturn Versailles, Hitler wanted no repetition of 1914, when Italy, an ally, declared neutrality, then entered the war against Germany. In return for an alliance, Hitler was prepared to surrender all German claims to South Tyrol. Writes biographer Ian Kershaw:

Already in 1920, before he had heard of Fascism, [Hitler] was contemplating the value of an alliance with Italy. He was determined even then that the question of South Tyrol—the predominantly German-speaking part of the former Austrian province of Tyrol lying beyond the Brenner, ceded to Italy in 1919, and since then subjected to a programme of “Italianization”—would not stand in the way of such an alliance.10

Though railing against the injustices of Versailles was a constant theme in his rise to power, Hitler displayed an opportunistic willingness to write off German lands and peoples to avoid wars he did not want and to gather allies for the new German goal: an empire in the east. “Almost alone of Germans, in 1926–27, Hitler did not complain of the Italianisation policies in Alto Adige [South Tyrol], pursued with Mussolini’s personal endorsement, and with that Fascist method well defined as the policy of ‘open conflicts, openly arrived at,’” writes R.J.B. Bosworth.11 Hitler would stubbornly admonish friends that any “reconquest of the South Tyrol…[is] impossible.”12

When he took power in 1933, Hitler’s readiness to surrender South Tyrol was already being denounced by German and Austrian nationalists as the appeasement of Italy and the abandonment of a Germanic people.


HITLER’S FIRST TRIP ABROAD, to meet Mussolini in Venice, June 14, 1934, was “a conspicuous failure.”13 Hitler made a dismal impression. He talked ceaselessly “and what he said was disquieting and repugnant…. Hitler made wounding observations on the superiority of the Nordic race and the negroid strain in the Mediterranean peoples.”14

Hitler was shy and awkward on his first appearance in a foreign country and the disparity between the two leaders was emphasized by the difference in their appearance: the Duce in his Fascist uniform resplendent among his obedient and acclaiming crowds; and the Fuehrer ill at ease in a badly fitting suit, patent leather shoes, a shabby yellow mackintosh and an old gray felt hat…. To the eyes of the Venetians, he might have borrowed his wardrobe from Charlie Chaplin.15

Foreign Minister von Neurath, who had advised Hitler on how to dress for his meeting with Mussolini, was never forgiven. Of his visitor, whom he considered a buffoon, Mussolini was contemptuous. He looked like a “plumber in a Mackintosh,” Mussolini mocked.16 “Instead of speaking to me about current problems, he recited…from Mein Kampf, that boring book which I have never been able to read.”17

“What a clown this Hitler is,” Il Duce told an Italian diplomat.18

One problem the two had discussed was Austria.

Determined to bring Austria into Germany’s orbit, Hitler knew the time was not ripe. Any attempt at Anschluss would be forcibly resisted by Italy, which saw Austria as its buffer state. Hitler was warned by Mussolini not to intervene, and he assured his host he would respect Austrian sovereignty but went no further, for his SS was secretly backing Austrian Nazis in a terror campaign against Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss.

Mussolini sensed what was about to happen. As early as 1933, he had confided to his son Vittorio, “The saucepan’s boiling under poor Dollfuss and it’s Hitler who’s stoking the fire.”19

Dollfuss was a fierce nationalist determined to retain the independence of his landlocked nation that had been mutilated by the Treaty of St. Germain. His government has been described as a “repressive single-party dictatorship bearing some distinctly fascist traits.”20 Political parties had been banned. And Dollfuss had not recoiled from using tanks and artillery on rebellious Austrian Social Democrats in a working-class housing project of “Red Vienna” in February 1934.

“Leading Socialists, including their most influential ideologue, Otto Bauer, fled to safety through Vienna’s famous underground sewers,” writes Richard Evans, author of The Third Reich in Power. “Dollfuss now outlawed the Socialists altogether.”21 His real concern was the Nazi Party, banned since July 1933. Dollfuss intended to eliminate it. In Mussolini he had a friend and ally pledged to stand beside him should Germany intervene.

Mussolini had become Dollfuss’s patron. On first meeting the Austrian chancellor in 1933, Il Duce had concluded, “Dollfuss in spite of his minuscule size, is a man of ingenuity, possessed of real will. Together, these qualities give a good impression.”22

Two weeks after Hitler left Venice came the Night of the Long Knives, the “sanguinary liquidation of the S.A. Leader Roehm.”23

Ernst Roehm was a decorated veteran of the Western Front who had marched beside Hitler in the Munich Beer Hall Putsch and been imprisoned for it. His storm troopers had fought the Nazis’ street battles with the Communists. When Hitler came to power, recruits had poured into the SA. Roehm’s prestige and power soared. By mid-1934, with his vast army of bully boys, Ernst Roehm was a rival to Hitler and preaching a “second revolution.” Hitler was under pressure from President Hindenburg, the German generals, industrialists, and conservatives such as ex-chancellor von Papen, who helped bring him to power, to suppress Roehm’s SA. Initially reluctant, Hitler, in the summer of 1934, moved with ruthless efficiency in a lightning purge. Europe was stunned.

Having caught his old comrade in a homosexual tryst, Hitler had him executed, along with scores of brownshirt leaders. The SS used the occasion to settle accounts with ex-chancellor Kurt von Schleicher. He was murdered with his wife at their home. The Night of the Long Knives was the first act of state terror of the Third Reich and revealed the character of Hitler and his regime. To the Nazis, murder was a legitimate weapon to deal with political enemies. Between 150 and 200 people died. Mussolini was shaken. Reading of how Hitler relished the role of executioner of former comrades, Mussolini

burst into a room in which his sister Edvige was sitting and waved a bundle of newspapers: “He is a cruel and ferocious character and calls to mind legendary characters of the past: Attila. Those men he killed were his closest collaborators, who hoisted him into power. It is as if I came to kill with my own hands, Balbo, Grandi, Bottai…”24

Il Duce now knew that the Hitler he had considered a buffoon in Venice was a decisive, ruthless, menacing, and formidable figure, unlike any European statesman with whom he had dealt in a decade in power.

Six weeks after Hitler’s visit to Venice, 150 Austrian Nazis stormed the chancery in Vienna. Most of the Cabinet, warned in advance, had fled. But the gritty little Dollfuss refused to run. From six inches away, he was shot in the throat. As the celebrating Nazis went on national radio to announce his resignation, Dollfuss, ignored by his killers, bled to death, the only European leader to die a martyr’s death resisting Nazism.

Berlin hailed the coup. Whether Hitler knew it was coming remains in dispute. But when word reached him at the Bayreuth Festival in Munich that Dollfuss had died at 6 P.M., that the putsch had been quelled, and that the Nazi assassins were under arrest, Hitler was alarmed. Given the Austrian Nazi hand in the coup, Mussolini might well conclude that Hitler had lied to him.

Late that night, at the home of Wagner’s widow, Cosima, who had died in 1930, Hitler appeared nervous. He phoned Berlin, only to be told the German ambassador in Vienna was negotiating for safe passage for the Nazi assassins out of Austria. Hitler shouted that the ambassador had no such instructions. Nearly incoherent with rage, he countermanded Berlin’s orders, fired his ambassador in Vienna, and demanded that Franz von Papen, under house arrest since he had narrowly escaped Nazi death squads in the Roehm purge, be flown to Munich. Papen had befriended Dollfuss and warned Hitler about the Austrian Nazis.25

Papen found Hitler in a “state of hysterical agitation, denouncing feverishly the rashness and stupidity of the Austrian Nazi Party for having involved him in such an appalling situation.”26

“We are faced with a new Sarajevo!” Hitler shouted.27

Hitler was right to be nervous. Mussolini, who had been hosting Dollfuss’s family and had to break the news of his assassination to his wife, was enraged and ordered four divisions to the Brenner. Il Duce sent word to Vienna: If Germany invades, Italy will go to war. In a show of support, Mussolini departed for Austria, where he vented his disgust at Hitler and the Nazis to vice chancellor Prince Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg: “It would mean the end of European civilization if this country of murderers and pederasts were to overrun Europe.”28

Starhemberg recalls Mussolini, eyes rolling, delivering a tirade against the Nazis: “Hitler is the murderer of Dollfuss…a horrible sexual degenerate, a dangerous fool.”29 Nazism was a “revolution of the old Germanic tribes of the primeval forest against the Latin civilization of Rome.”30 To Il Duce, Italian Fascism was a world apart from Nazism:

Both are authoritarian systems, both are collectivist, socialistic. Both systems oppose liberalism. But Fascism is a regime that is rooted in the great cultural tradition of the Italian people; Fascism recognizes the right of the individual, it recognizes religion and family. National Socialism…is savage barbarism; the chieftain is lord over life and death of his people. Murder and killing, loot and pillage and blackmail are all it can produce.31

Mussolini hoped Britain and France would recognize the danger and form a united front:

Hitler will arm the Germans and make war—perhaps even in two or three years. I cannot stand up to him alone…. I cannot always be the one to march to the Brenner. Others must show some interest in Austria and the Danube basin…. We must do something, we must do something quickly.32

While Italy had mobilized troops, Britain and France had done nothing. Mussolini was confirmed in his convictions about the decadence of the democracies and “resolved petulantly that he would not again attempt to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for the West.”33

For Hitler, the failed Austrian coup was a debacle and a humiliation. Writes historian Ernest May, “In foreign newspapers and magazines…Hitler saw himself ridiculed. Punch pictured Germany as a dachshund cowering before a mastiff labeled, ‘Italy.’”34

Hitler had to repudiate his fellow Nazis on the other side of the Inn River. Signing a formal agreement that promised no interference in Austria’s internal affairs, he dissolved the Austrian Legion, a group that had been training in Bavaria. He even issued an order forbidding Nazis in Germany to have any contact with Nazis in Austria.35

Looking back in 1942, Hitler—perhaps exaggerating to impress his listeners—recalled the Austrian Nazis’ Vienna coup as far more fraught with peril than any had assumed at the time:

I shall never forget that at the time of the Austrian National Socialist coup d’etat in 1934…[T]he unarmed Germany of the time would have emerged from a struggle against the combined forces of France, Italy and Great Britain in a state of ruin and desolation comparable only to the situation at the end of the Thirty Years’ War.36

The crisis passed and, in January of 1935, Hitler’s Reich received an enormous boost in morale and legitimacy. Writes British historian A.J.P. Taylor,

[T]he Saar—detached from Germany in 1919—held a plebiscite on its future destiny. The inhabitants were mostly industrial workers—Social Democrats or Roman Catholics. They knew what awaited them in Germany: dictatorship, destruction of trade unions, persecution of the Christian churches. Yet, in an unquestionably free election, 90% voted for return to Germany. Here was proof that the appeal of German nationalism would be irresistible—in Austria, in Czechoslovakia, in Poland.37

Speaking in Saarbrücken on March 1 of his joy at the Saarlanders’ vote to return to the Reich, Hitler, the Versailles amputations in mind, proclaimed, “In the end, blood is stronger than any document of mere paper. What ink has written will one day be blotted out by blood.”38

With the Saar’s return, Hitler prepared his next move. On March 9, 1935, Hermann Göring informed a correspondent of the London Daily Mail that the Luftwaffe would become an official branch of the armed forces. The next Saturday, the Nazis announced that Germany was reimposing conscription and calling up 300,000 men to create an army of 36 divisions. This was the first formal breach of Versailles. Hitler reassured the French ambassador he had no designs on the West as he delivered a blazing tirade against Stalin and Bolshevism. The French envoy was soothed. Paris appealed feebly to the League of Nations against this brazen violation of the 1919 peace treaty that had been crafted with France’s security foremost in mind.

Britain and France now began to believe Mussolini might be right. With German rearmament under way, and the murder of Dollfuss and the failed Austrian coup in mind, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and French prime minister Pierre Flandin and Foreign Minister Pierre Laval agreed to meet with Mussolini in Stresa on Lake Maggiore from April 11 to 14.

Passed over by many historians, this was a crucial meeting in the interwar period. For in 1935, as Oxford’s R. B. McCallum has written, “Italy, with her military force and strong and virile Government, held the balance of power in Europe.”39 At the end of the Stresa conference a communiqué was issued denouncing German rearmament as a violation of Versailles and affirming the three nations’ commitment to the principles of Locarno.


THE LOCARNO TREATY OF MUTUAL Guarantee—negotiated in that Swiss town and signed in London in 1925—was the brainchild of German foreign minister Gustav Stresemann. He had suggested to the British that, rather than siding with France against a friendly and democratic Germany by guaranteeing France’s border, Britain should guarantee the borders of both nations. As described by historian Correlli Barnett, the Locarno pact was a group of treaties:

Germany, Belgium and France bound themselves to recognize as inviolable not only their existing mutual frontiers, but also the demilitarisation of the Rhineland. Thus Germany now voluntarily accepted in respect of the Rhineland and her western frontiers what had been imposed on her at Versailles. The three countries further pledged themselves that in no case would they attack, invade or resort to war against one another. All these obligations were guaranteed by Italy and England; in other words, the guarantors were immediately to intervene against a power which broke the treaty by violating the frontier of another…. [T]hey were similarly to intervene if Germany violated the demilitarised zone.40

Locarno was crucial. For it represented the voluntary acceptance by Berlin of what had been imposed upon Germany at Versailles. On October 16, 1925, a democratic Germany accepted the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, the inviolability of its borders with Belgium and France, and the permanent demilitarization of the Rhineland, and undertook to apply for membership in the League of Nations.

At Locarno, however, the borders of Eastern Europe had gone unmentioned. For no German statesman could accept, in perpetuity, the loss of Memel, Danzig, the Corridor, and the Sudetenland to Lithuania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, and survive. Writes Taylor:

This was an impossible condition for the German government. Most Germans had acquiesced in the loss of Alsace and Lorraine; few of them even raised the question until after the defeat of France in 1940. The frontier with Poland was felt as a grievance. It might be tolerated; it could not be confirmed.41

How vital to its national security did Britain regard the 1919 Polish–German borders imposed at Versailles? As Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain, son of Joe and half brother of Neville, who would win the Nobel Prize for Peace for negotiating Locarno, explained, the Polish Corridor was a creation “for which no British Government ever will and ever can risk the bones of a British Grenadier.”42

One statesman, however, did favor an “Eastern Locarno” that would commit the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia, backed by Britain and France, to act jointly to stop any German attempt to undo the borders laid down at Paris. He was Louis Barthou of France. In 1934, French policy toward Hitler’s Reich was in the portfolio of this tough-minded foreign minister and “last survivor of the staunch old republican politicians of the stripe of Clemenceau and Poincaré, who had helped guide the country to victory over Germany.”43

Barthou supported an understanding with Italy, the restoration of France’s alliance with Russia, and firmness toward Hitler. He had helped to bring the Soviet Union into the League of Nations. Where Ramsay MacDonald was willing to concede equality of armaments to Germany, Barthou declared that France would refuse to legalize any German rearmament contrary to the terms of Versailles, adding, “France will assure her security by her own means.”44

Tragically, Barthou was riding beside Yugoslavia’s King Alexander in Marseilles on October 9, 1934, when that monarch was assassinated by a Macedonian terrorist who also shot and wounded Barthou. The king was in France on the first day of a state visit to cement their alliance against Germany. While the king was being attended to, Barthou, ignored, bled to death.


NOW, AT STRESA, ten years after Locarno, Britain, France, and Italy had agreed to support the independence and integrity of Austria. But there was a worm in the apple of accord. The British were double-dealing. Mussolini and the French had come prepared to form a united front. But MacDonald and Foreign Secretary John Simon had assured Parliament they would make no commitments at Stresa that would bind Britain to act against Germany.

MacDonald and Simon had both opposed British entry into the war in 1914 and were unwilling to commit Britain to defend any nation in Central or Eastern Europe, or to act with Italy and France, should Hitler commit a new violation of Versailles. As Mussolini biographer Jasper Ridley writes, “In all the discussions between Britain, France and Italy as to how to react to Hitler’s breach of the Treaty of Versailles, Simon was the most pro-German and Mussolini the most anti-German.”45

Britain had also come to Stresa with two cards facedown. She had decided the Rhineland was not a vital British interest and was trolling for an Anglo-German naval agreement that would allow Hitler to breach the Versailles naval restrictions in return for his recognition of Britain’s supremacy at sea.46

When Flandin declared at Stresa that if Hitler committed one more violation of Versailles, France would mobilize, Mussolini called for even stronger joint action. MacDonald and Simon refused to make any commitment.47 Concludes historian J. Kenneth Brody,

What had the [Stresa] Conference wrought? The vigorous leadership of Mussolini and the firm determination of France to arrive at concrete courses of action to face up to the German threat contrasted to the British horror of any commitment and Britain’s yearning for some kind of arrangement with Germany. The clarity, the logic, the pertinacity, and the force of the Franco-Italian position had been met by British vacillation, hesitancies and obfuscations.48

Two days after the Stresa conference ended, however, on April 17, a British-French-Italian resolution condemning German rearmament and conscription as a breach of Versailles was passed by the Council of the League of Nations. The condemnation of Germany was unanimous, with only Denmark abstaining. A committee of thirteen, including Russia, was set up to consider sanctions. The Third Reich was diplomatically isolated.49

Having alarmed and united Britain, France, and Italy into forming the Stresa Front against him, Hitler decided the moment was ripe for a peace offensive. On May 21, 1935, he declared to the Reichstag, “What else could I wish for other than calm and peace? Germany needs peace, and wants peace.”50 Hitler went on to reassure Mussolini that “Germany had neither the intention nor wish to annex or incorporate Austria.”51


FOR THE BRITISH, HITLER had prepared a more tempting offer. Alluding to the naval arms race the Kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz had run with the Royal Navy that alienated Britain and propelled her into the 1904 entente with France, Hitler declared:

The German Government recognizes the overpowering vital importance, and therewith the justification, of a dominating protection for the British Empire on the sea…. The German Government has the straightforward intention to find and maintain a relationship with the British people and state which will prevent for all time a repetition of the only struggle there has been between the two nations.52

The London Times was ecstatic. Hitler’s speech contained “the basis of a complete settlement with a…free, equal and strong Germany” and the Fuehrer’s words should be taken “as a sincere and well-considered utterance meaning precisely what it says.”53

Hitler now moved to snap the weak link in the Stresa chain. He wrote his friend, newspaper baron Lord Rothermere. Hinting that a dangerous new Anglo-German naval arms race was in the offing, Hitler told Rothermere he would agree to restrict the new German navy to 35 percent of the Royal Navy, the same fraction France and Italy had accepted at the Washington Conference. The High Seas Fleet had reached 60 percent of the Royal Navy. Hitler knew his history and believed that the challenge of the Kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz to the Royal Navy had assured British hostility in the world war. He did not intend to repeat the blunder. In his letter to Lord Rothermere, Hitler spoke of a broader, deeper entente—between England and Germany:

Such an agreement between England and Germany would represent the weighty influence for peace and common sense of 120,000,000 of the most valuable people in the world. The historically unique colonial aptitude and naval power of Britain would be combined with that of one of the first military nations of the world.54

Stanley Baldwin, who had replaced MacDonald, rose swiftly to the bait. When Hitler’s emissary, Joachim von Ribbentrop, arrived in London, he declared the 35 percent figure nonnegotiable. For twenty-four hours, the British balked, and then capitulated. On June 18, 1935, an Anglo-German Naval Agreement was signed permitting Germany to construct a fleet 35 percent of the Royal Navy and a submarine force equal to Great Britain’s. Writes historian Evans, “This rode a coach and horses through the Stresa agreement, concluded only a few months before, and was a major diplomatic triumph for Hitler.”55

Ribbentrop returned home to a hero’s welcome. Paris was as stunned as Moscow. Stalin believed Britain had just given Hitler a green light to build a Baltic fleet strong enough to attack him. From Rome came reports that “Mussolini had nearly gone through the roof of the Palazzo Chigi when he heard about the Anglo-German Agreement,” believing that the “British government were so frightened of Hitler that they had lost faith in the League of Nations’ ability to prevent war.”56

To Correlli Barnett, Ribbentrop’s demand that Germany be granted, within twenty-four hours, full rights to submarine parity and a fleet one-third the size of the Royal Navy, in violation of Versailles, was a “preposterously arrogant demand.”57 Britain’s acceding to it amounted to an “abject surrender” that marked the “consummation of a complete German moral ascendancy over the British…disastrous in its results, but even more fateful for the future.”58

Hitler was elated. A naval agreement meant an alliance was possible. Ever since he had fought the “Tommies” on the Western Front, Hitler had dreamed of an Anglo-German alliance.

Britain had sacrificed both Allied solidarity and principle. A naval treaty with Nazi Germany meant Britain put bilateral relations with Hitler ahead of any reliance on her Stresa Front partners. Having sought her own security in a side deal with Hitler, Britain had undermined the Stresa concept of collective security. “The solidarity of the Stresa Front…was destroyed,” writes Hitler biographer Alan Bullock. “The British Government, in its eagerness to secure a private advantage, had given a disastrous impression of bad faith.”59 As Ian Kershaw writes, however, to the German people,

Hitler seemed to be achieving the unimaginable. The world…looked on in astonishment. Great Britain, party to the condemnation of Germany for breach of treaties, had wholly undermined the Stresa Front, left its allies in the lurch, and assisted Hitler in tearing a further large strip out of the Versailles Treaty.60

To Mussolini, the Anglo-German agreement meant Britain was too pacifist to hold a weakened Germany to commitments that ensured her own security. Perfidious Albion might cut a deal with Hitler behind his back. Rather than rely on such an ally, Il Duce began to consider whether he should cut his own deal first.

Churchill thought the Anglo-German treaty a rotten bargain:

The League of Nations has been weakened by our action, the principle of collective security has been impaired. German treaty-breaking has been condoned and even extolled. The Stresa front has been shaken, if not, indeed, dissolved.61

In coming years, British denunciations of Hitler’s moves into the Rhineland and Austria as violations of Versailles would ring hollow in light of her own naval agreement that authorized Hitler to ignore the Versailles limits on warships. British diplomacy would now shatter the Stresa Front altogether and drive Mussolini straight into the arms of Hitler.


THE ROOT OF THE Ethiopia crisis went back to the late nineteenth century.

Following the Berlin conference of 1884–85, which laid down the rules for the partition of Africa, Italy, late to nationhood and empire, had set out on the path trod centuries before by the sea powers that fronted on the Atlantic: Spain, Portugal, England, and France. As all the choicer slices of Africa had been staked out, Italy had to settle for Libya, Somalia, and Eritrea. When Italy attempted to seize the last independent state, Ethiopia, she had taken a thrashing. At Adowa in 1896, the tribal warriors of Ethiopia had slain 4,000 Italian soldiers and perpetrated unspeakable atrocities on the prisoners they had taken. Bismarck had been proven right: “The Italians have a big appetite and poor teeth.”62

Adowa stuck in Italy’s craw, and Mussolini was determined to avenge the humiliation and append to his new Roman empire the last great uncolonized land in Africa. He had an added incentive. In dividing up the Ottoman Empire and distributing Germany’s colonies, Britain and France had cut Italy out, though she had lost 460,000 men in the Allied cause. Italy and Mussolini felt these grievances deeply. In December 1934, there occurred a clash on the border between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia that gave Il Duce his opportunity. According to Luigi Villari,

In November, 1934, large Ethiopian forces suddenly approached the Italian frontier post at Wal-Wal—an area which had been under Italian rule for many years and to which Ethiopia had never made any claim at all….

On the night of December 4, 1934, the Ethiopians attacked Wal-Wal, but were beaten off after heavy fighting. As the Italians were only one-fifth as numerous as the Ethiopians, it is hardly likely that they would have been the first to attack.63

Mussolini now had his casus belli and most of Europe believed Italy would invade. At Stresa, Mussolini had searched for any sign of British-French opposition. In six meetings he heard none. Though banner headlines in the Italian press were trumpeting ITALIAN TROOPS PASS THROUGH SUEZ CANAL!, the British statesmen at Stresa never mentioned Abyssinia.64

“Ramsay MacDonald and Simon could have issued a stern warning to Mussolini at Stresa against Abyssinian aggression,” writes Brody. “They chose silence…. Simon had the opportunity to warn Mussolini in unmistakable terms. He did not choose to take the opportunity.”65

As he signed the Stresa communiqué, Mussolini loudly repeated the words of his amendment to the final draft, “peace in Europe.”66 MacDonald and Simon looked at each other and said nothing. Mussolini took this as a signal of Allied assent to his plans for conquest in Africa.67 Thus did Britain miss an opening that could have saved its alliance with Italy. Writes British diplomat and historian Ivone Kirkpatrick,

The best chance of inducing Mussolini to compromise over Abyssinia lay in demonstrating that the Stresa Front would otherwise be broken and that maintenance of any effective Stresa front was essential to Italian security. This latter proposition Mussolini was conditioned to accept. The murder of Dollfuss had inflamed him against Germany and he was beginning to be frightened of Hitler.68

As the British Empire controlled almost every other piece of real estate in East Africa, Italy’s annexation of part or all of Ethiopia posed no threat to Great Britain. And with British flags flying over Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, Burma, India, Ceylon, Pakistan, southern Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika, Rhodesia, South Africa, Southwest Africa, Togo, the Gold Coast, and Nigeria—not all acquired by peaceful purchase—for Britain to oppose Italy’s annexation of Ethiopia might seem hypocritical. To aspiring imperial powers like Italy and Japan, it did. Yōsuke Matsuoka, who had led the Japanese delegation at Geneva, had commented about the centuries-old practice of imperialism: “The Western powers taught the Japanese the game of poker but after acquiring most of the chips they pronounced the game immoral and took up contract bridge.”69

When a Frenchwoman accosted Churchill to argue that Italy was only doing in Ethiopia what British imperialists had done for centuries, Churchill replied, “Ah, but you see, all that belongs to the un-regenerate past, is locked away in the limbo of the old, the wicked days. The world progresses.”70

Mussolini believed that, as the British-French Entente of 1904 had put Egypt in Britain’s sphere and Morocco in France’s, Italy, a Stresa partner of the Allies, should be given a free hand in Abyssinia. Moreover, Abyssinia was no ornament of civilization, but

was itself an empire, ruling subject and often migratory populations by force and terror, behind shifting or indeterminate frontiers…. Abyssinia was a primitive African monarchy which practiced slavery; not a modern state at all. It should not have been in the League. The notion that the League had to guarantee its frontiers was an excellent illustration of the absurdity of the covenant which led Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and his friends to reject it. The League should also have been scrapped after the 1931 Manchurian fiasco.71

But the League had not been scrapped, Ethiopia was a member, and Wilsonian idealism now had a powerful hold on the British upper class and the national imagination.

How had an African empire that practiced slavery qualified for the League?

Paradoxically, Ethiopia had been brought into the League by Italy in 1923. Rome suspected Britain had designs on the country and wanted to keep it out of the Lion’s paws. Indeed, British newspapers had been clamoring for intervention in Ethiopia to abolish slavery, and Britain had been among the least enthusiastic members of the League about admitting so reactionary a state. Ethiopia, upon its admission, had pledged to end slavery, but had never done so.


AS IT BECAME CLEAR Mussolini intended to invade Ethiopia, Britain, in June 1935, tried to divert the dictator with a deal. “The carrier of the deal,” writes Bosworth, “was Anthony Eden, the elegant, young, ambitious, but nervy British Minister for League of Nations Affairs, a newly minted post unlikely to be applauded in Rome. The offer was of an exchange of territory whereby Italy would gain land in the Ogaden desert, and Ethiopia an outlet to the sea at Zeila in British Somaliland.”72

Eden was insufficiently briefed and unprepared for his encounter with Mussolini. Brusquely brushing aside the British offer, Il Duce told Eden that Italy would accept nothing less than all the territories that the Ethiopian empire had taken in the last century and “de facto control of the surviving nucleus.” Were his demands not met, Mussolini warned, it “would mean the eventual cancellation of Ethiopia from the map.” Already, Il Duce maintained, grabbing his statistics from the air, Italy had 680,000 men under arms; a million would be ready soon.”73

After this verbal beating, the “tender sensibilities of Eden left him with the impression that Mussolini was ‘a complete gangster,’ the ‘Anti-Christ,’ a view which never left him.”74 Eden felt personally insulted and humiliated. So enduring was the bad blood between him and Mussolini that when Eden was removed as foreign secretary by Neville Chamberlain, Rome rejoiced.

After the Eden-Mussolini confrontation, the British press, to whom Eden was the personification of the new and higher League of Nations morality in international affairs, turned on Mussolini, mocking and assaulting him as the world’s worst dictator. British socialists, Liberals, and Labour Party members all joined in heaping abuse on the Italian ruler. Rome-London relations went rapidly downhill, and in Geneva the League, led by Britain, threatened sanctions if the invasion of Abyssinia went ahead. Isolated, Mussolini decided he had to act quickly.


ON OCTOBER 3, 1935, Italy sent into battle against African tribesmen a large army equipped with all the weaponry of modern warfare, including bombers carrying poison gas. It was a slaughter. Against the Italians’ four hundred aircraft, Emperor Haile Selassie could match thirteen—of which only eight, all unarmed, ever left the ground. Of his 250,000 troops, only one-fifth had modern weapons. Against the ruthless Marshal Pietro Badoglio—who had not scrupled to spray the flanks of his advance with mustard gas, crippling thousands of tribesmen—the Abyssinians never stood a chance.75

“Moral indignation was almost universal,” writes historian John Toland:

How could a civilized nation attack a weak foe forced to battle planes and tanks with tribesmen on horseback? Britain and America, with conveniently short memories of their own pacification programs, were particularly abusive, and the former led the campaign in the League of Nations to invoke limited economic sanctions against Italy.76

Baldwin’s government faced a dilemma. For British ideals now clashed with British interests. Should Britain avert its gaze from Ethiopia to keep Italy as a Stresa Front partner against Germany, or lead the League in branding Italy an aggressor, impose sanctions, and lose Italy? “What was demanded by fidelity to the high principles of the Covenant of the League of Nations,” writes Barnett, “ran clean counter to what was demanded by imperative strategic need.”77

In January 1935, Barthou’s successor Pierre Laval, concerned about Germany, not some tribal fiefdom in Africa, visited Italy and came close to assuring Mussolini that France would not oppose his conquest. In return for Italy’s abandonment of all claims to Tunisia and her acceptance of French hegemony there, Mussolini had won from Laval an explicit promise of a “free hand” in Ethiopia. But the British had by now been converted to moralistic internationalism and the principles of the League of Nations.

So it was that by midsummer 1935 the British had already reached the point where they were admonishing an old friend and ally, a co-guarantor of the Locarno Treaty and a naval power astride their main imperial artery; and doing so in the tone of Dr. Arnold rebuking a boy at Rugby for wickedness and sin.78


AFTER ITALY INVADED, supported by tribal peoples anxious to end the rule of the Amharic emperor Haile Selassie, who claimed descent from the Queen of Sheba, Foreign Secretary Sam Hoare and France’s Laval put together a peace proposal. Italy would take the fertile plains of Ethiopia, the Ogaden. Haile Selassie would retain his mountain kingdom. Britain would compensate Ethiopia for its loss with land and an outlet to the sea. The British Cabinet backed Hoare-Laval and Mussolini was prepared to accept. With peace seemingly at hand, Hoare went on holiday, before heading to Geneva to inform Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of Judah, that he must give up half his kingdom.

But when the plan leaked in the Paris press, a firestorm erupted over this reward for aggression in violation of the League of Nations Covenant. So hot did the fire burn that Hoare and Laval both had to resign, and London and Paris washed their hands of the Hoare-Laval plan. Sir Roy Denman underscores how political panic and the public uproar over the Hoare-Laval plan caused the British Cabinet to act against vital British interests:

Had the Cabinet stuck by Hoare it is likely that Mussolini would have accepted the plan. Had [Prime Minister] Baldwin…explained robustly the British interest in maintaining Italy as an ally against Germany—the real danger—the massive well-drilled Conservative majority in the House of Commons would not have rebelled. As it was, the Stresa front was broken and the new British Foreign Secretary [Eden] was determined to make the classic mistake of trying to ally himself with Hitler and to oppose Mussolini instead of the reverse.79

Richard Lamb underscores the tragedy that came of Britain’s failure to stand by Hoare-Laval:

Mussolini was on the brink of accepting the Hoare-Laval proposals; indeed he had already told Laval that they satisfied his aspirations. His acceptance would have meant the end of the Abyssinian war, and Italy would have happily rejoined the Stresa Front, leaving Hitler isolated.80

But with Anthony Eden—still smoldering at his treatment by Mussolini in Rome the previous summer—now foreign secretary, the possibility of a negotiated solution to the crisis among the Great War Allies was gone. Britain led the League in imposing sanctions on Italy. A limited embargo was declared that did not include oil, Rome’s critical import, and Britain did not close the Suez Canal to Italian troopships. This produced the worst of all worlds. The sanctions were too weak to compel Mussolini to give up a conquest to which Italy’s army had been committed, but they were wounding enough to enrage the Italian people. “The only effect of the sanctions policy,” writes Paul Johnson, “was to turn Italy into an enemy.”81 “The only result of this display,” wrote Taylor, “was that the Emperor of Ethiopia lost all his kingdom, instead of losing half, as Mussolini had originally intended.”82 Bullock describes how Britain’s failure to choose led to total debacle:

By insisting on the imposition of sanctions, Great Britain made an enemy of Mussolini and destroyed all hope of a united front against German aggression. By her refusal to drive home the policy of sanctions, in face of Mussolini’s bluster, she dealt the authority of the League as well as her own prestige a fatal blow, and destroyed any hope of finding in collective security an effective alternative to the united front of the Great Powers against German aggression.83

Had Britain closed the Suez Canal to Italian warships and troopships and been willing to engage the Italian fleet, she could have forced Mussolini to quit Abyssinia. But the strategic result would have been the same. To Il Duce, avenging Adowa was a matter of national honor. When Britain and France turned on him, he turned on them. The Stresa Front was dead.

Six months later, when Britain and France sought out Mussolini to stand with them in the Rhineland crisis, the sanctions on Italy were still in effect. By assuming the moral high ground to condemn a land grab in Africa, not unlike those Britain had been conducting for centuries, Britain lost Italy. Her diplomacy had created yet another enemy. And this one sat astride the Mediterranean sea-lanes critical to the defense of Britain’s Far Eastern empire against that other alienated ally, Japan.

On July 15, 1936, the League of Nations lifted the sanctions on Italy. Even Eden had now come around. Finally, in 1938, writes Henry Kissinger, “Great Britain and France subordinated their moral objections to their fear of Germany by recognizing the Abyssinian conquest.”84 By then it was too late. Mussolini had cast his lot with the Hitler he had loathed.

One British Cabinet minister did deliver a “blast of realism” at the “Tennysonian chivalry” of sanctioning Italy over Ethiopia. Said Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain in 1936, recalling Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it had been “the very midsummer of madness.”85

The damage done to Britain’s security may be seen by looking back to the Great War. With an army of 1.5 million in France and a navy invincible at sea, Britain had brought Italy, Japan, and the United States into her alliance with France. All were needed to defeat Germany. Now Japan had been cast off to appease America, Italy had been driven into the arms of Germany, and America had retreated into neutrality. And Hitler was about to move.

To appease the Americans, Britain had severed its alliance with Japan and radically reduced the real and relative power of the Royal Navy. Now that navy faced the prospect of war against a German navy in the North Sea and U-boats in the Atlantic, Italy’s fleet in the Mediterranean, and a Japanese navy in the Pacific and Indian oceans that was growing in carriers and battleships as Tokyo cast off the restrictions of the Washington and London naval agreements.

Luigi Villari’s 1956 Italian Foreign Policy Under Mussolini is a defense of Italian policy and an explanation of how Mussolini was driven into the arms of the Nazi dictator he despised. But even British historians concede Britain’s folly in the Abyssinian crisis, and many blame the same man. Wrote Villari:

More than any other Englishman he [Eden] was responsible for blocking any successful effort to attain relatively permanent peace between the two World Wars and for thus exposing England to an “unnecessary war” which “liquidated” the main portions of the British Empire, subjected Britain to many years of austerity after the War, and reduced it to the status of a second-rate world power.86

Privately, Churchill shared a low regard for the Kennedyesque Eden. On Eden’s elevation to Foreign Secretary, he wrote Clementine, “Eden’s appointment does not inspire me with confidence…. I expect the greatness of his office will find him out…. I think you will now see what a lightweight Eden is.”87

Italy, now friendless and alone in the League, enduring sanctions that had begun to bite, seeking friends, turned to Germany. On January 7, 1936, von Hassel, Hitler’s ambassador in Rome, reported that Mussolini regarded Stresa as “dead and buried” and wanted to improve relations: “If Austria as a formally quite independent state were…in practice to become a German satellite, he would have no objection.”88

On November 1, in Milan, Mussolini proclaimed the Rome-Berlin Axis. In 1937, Italy would adhere to the Anti-Comintern Pact of Germany and Japan, established to resist subversion by the Comintern, or Communist International, centered in Moscow. For the League of Nations, the crisis in Abyssinia was the end of the line. A.J.P. Taylor writes,

Fifty-two nations had combined to resist aggression; all they accomplished was that Haile Selassie lost all his country instead of only half. Incorrigible in impracticality, the League further offended Italy by allowing Haile Selassie a hearing at the Assembly; and then expelled him for the crime of taking the covenant seriously. Japan and Germany had already left the League; Italy followed in December 1937…. When foreign powers intervened in the Spanish civil war, the Spanish government appealed to the League. The Council first “studied the question” then expressed its “regrets” and agreed to house the pictures from the Prado…at Geneva.89

By the time of Munich 1938, Hitler had his alliance with Italy. He would seal it on the eve of war by ordering the German population of South Tyrol transferred to the Reich. Germans who adopted Italian surnames and agreed to assimilate could remain. This ethnic “self-cleansing,” this sellout of his Austrian kinsmen, was done by Hitler to demonstrate good faith to his Axis partner. South Tyrol was expendable to Hitler. But Ethiopia was not expendable to Britain. Thus did Britain lose Ethiopia—and Italy.



Historian Richard Lamb writes that in the House of Commons, the now backbencher Churchill “argued with passion that sanctions must be taken against Italy if Mussolini violated the Covenant of the League of Nations by attacking Abyssinia.”90 William Manchester contradicts him: “Churchill’s steady eye was still fixed on Germany. Compared with Hitler’s Reich, he had told Parliament, Ethiopia was ‘a very small matter.’”91 On July 11, 1935, Churchill had warned against getting too far out in front in urging the League to punish Italy. We ought not to become, said Churchill,

a sort of bell-wether or fugleman to gather and lead opinion in Europe against Italy’s Abyssinian designs…. We must do our duty, but we must do it only in conjunction with other nations…. We are not strong enough—I say it advisedly—to be the law-giver and the spokesman of the world.92

Churchill thought Ethiopia a matter of honor for the League, and the League a vital instrument of collective security against Hitler. But he did not believe Ethiopia was a matter of morality: “No one can keep up the pretence that Abyssinia is a fit, worthy, and equal member of a league of civilized nations.”93 To Churchill, Abyssinia was a “wild land of tyranny, slavery, and tribal war.”94 And there were far more serious concerns. “In the fearful struggle against rearming Nazi Germany I could feel approaching,” Churchill later wrote, “I was most reluctant to see Italy estranged, and even driven into the opposite camp.”95

On October 1, 1935, hours before the Italian army marched, Churchill expressed his feelings about the folly of alienating an old ally that had fought beside Britain in the Great War:

I am very unhappy. It would be a terrible deed to smash up Italy, and it will cost us dear. How strange it is that after all those years of begging France to make up with Italy, we are now forcing her to choose between Italy and ourselves. I do not think we ought to have taken the lead in such a vehement way. If we had felt so strong on the subject we should have warned Mussolini two months before.96

British leaders willing to appease Mussolini to keep him as an ally would be derided as the Guilty Men in the title of leftist Michael Foot’s 1940 book savaging the Tory appeasers. But Churchill had been among them. From the first time he met Mussolini, Churchill seemed taken with the Fascist dictator. Emerging from a talk with Il Duce in 1927, Churchill, then still Chancellor of the Exchequer, told the press,

I could not help being charmed…by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers…. If I were Italian, I am sure I would have been with you from beginning to end in your struggle against the bestial appetites of Leninism.”97

Churchill went on to praise Fascism’s contribution to the world and the struggle against Bolshevism:

I will…say a word on the international aspect of Fascism. Externally your movement has rendered a service to the whole world…. Italy has shown that there is a way of fighting the subversive forces which can rally the mass of the people, properly led, to value and wish to defend the honour and stability of civilized society. She has provided the necessary antidote to the Russian poison.98

Writes Churchill biographer Robert Payne,

With an unusual blindness, even in those times when the blind were leading the blind, Churchill continued to hold Mussolini in high esteem. The man he was later to call “Hitler’s utensil” belonged to the company of “great men” to be admired, placated and helped on their way. When Mussolini invaded Abyssinia in October, 1935, Churchill staunchly defended him: The Abyssinians were as primitive as the Indians and deserved to be conquered. While the invasion was taking place, Churchill was holidaying pleasantly in Barcelona and North Africa.99

A week before the Italian army invaded Ethiopia, Churchill was hailing Mussolini as “so great a man and so wise a leader.”100

Two years after Mussolini had embraced Hitler, Churchill was still proclaiming the genius of Rome’s Fascist dictator: “It would be a dangerous folly for the British people to underrate the enduring position in world-history which Mussolini will hold; or the amazing qualities of courage, comprehension, self-control and perseverance which he exemplifies.”101 In December 1940, when Britain was at war with Italy, Churchill, in an address to the Italian people, again said of Mussolini, “That he is a great man I do not deny.”102

A.J.P. Taylor, looking back at the fraudulence of Fascism and the “vain, blundering boaster without ideas or aims” Mussolini had been, wondered at the character of British statesmen, Churchill included:

Ramsay MacDonald wrote cordial letters to Mussolini—at the very moment of Matteoti’s murder; Austen Chamberlain and Mussolini exchanged photographs; Winston Churchill extolled Mussolini as the saviour of his country and a great European statesman. How could anyone believe in the sincerity of Western leaders when they flattered Mussolini in this way and accepted him as one of themselves?103

When Ramsay MacDonald returned from his first meeting with Il Duce, he was so effusive in his praise for the achievements of Fascism and Mussolini, one colleague remarked, “There is nothing more for the British Prime Minister to do but to don the Black Shirt in the streets of London.”104

Still, what was the proper course for a disarmed Britain, confronted with an atavistic act of aggression by a friendly Italy? If one believed Hitler was a mortal peril and Italy a valuable ally against a greater menace, Britain ought to have put League of Nations morality on the shelf. “Great Britain’s leaders should have confronted Hitler and conciliated Mussolini,” Kissinger writes. “They did just the opposite; they appeased Germany and confronted Italy.”105

Where did this leave Britain in January of 1936?

Let Correlli Barnett have the last word on the consequences of putting League of Nations morality above vital security interests. After Abyssinia and the collapse of the Stresa Front,

England, a weakly armed and middle-sized state, now faced not one, not two, but three potential enemies: enemies inconveniently placed so as to threaten the entire spread of empire from the home country to the Pacific. And the third and most recent potential enemy in the Mediterranean and Middle East, was the entirely needless creation of the British themselves as Eden himself admitted to the House of Commons in November 1936, in recalling that the “deterioration in our relations with Italy was due to the fulfillment of our obligations under the Covenant; there had never been an Anglo-Italian quarrel so far as our country was concerned.”106

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