Part Two

The Underlying Forces

The Role of Ideology

Carlo Rosselli, the leader of the Italian Action Party, in exile in Paris, wrote in 1936: ‘Beware! A European conflict is developing. We have reached the moment when the two opposed worlds, the world of freedom and the world of authoritarianism, are about to find themselves face to face.’1 He was expecting a war of ideologies, and was conscious that, as a political refugee from his own land, he was already engaged in such a war. In retrospect, these views seem largely justified. Nazi Germany, and to a lesser extent fascist Italy, professed ideologies which, if put into practice, would produce dynamic, expansionist foreign policies which were certain at some stage to be opposed. The war, when it came, was to an important degree a conflict of values and ideas, in which the victors imposed a form of government, an ideology, and a culture on the vanquished. This was usually (though not always) the case with Nazi conquests; and it was also true in occupied Germany at the end of the war, when the East became a communist state and the West a liberal democracy, and the Germans themselves were re-educated to fit into the new order.

The line-up of forces was not as simple as that presented by Rosselli, with freedom facing authoritarianism. Fascism/Nazism stood opposed to parliamentary democracy; but there was also another brand of authoritarianism in communism, and the result was the emergence of a triangle of forces, each opposed to the other two, though willing from time to time to make tactical alliances with one enemy against the other. It is also clear that the role of ideology was not unique or all-embracing. States continued to pursue material interests, economic advantage, and military security. The continuities of policy imposed by history and geography could not be, and were not, simply discarded. Hitler inherited much from the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm; Stalin from the Russia of the Tsars; and one of the most determined and courageous opponents of Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill, embodied a deeply rooted traditional patriotism rather than any contemporary ideology. Moreover, it is given to no man to achieve an undeviating consistency in thought and action; even the most devoted zealot will change his mind or make mistakes.

Despite such reservations and complications, the role of ideology in the coming of the Second World War in Europe was significant, and any analysis which ignored it would be well wide of the mark. Ideology was a powerful force in international relations. Fascism, Nazism and communism offered ideas and systems which were attractive alternatives to liberal democracy, which faltered in face of the political and economic challenges of the 1920s and 1930s. In principle, communism had the widest appeal, because it was addressed to all workers, irrespective of nationality, and indeed there were people in all European countries whose first loyalty was to the Workers' Fatherland in the Soviet Union. Fascism and Nazism were in theory narrower in their appeal, which was to the members of a nation or a race, to the exclusion of others; but in practice they attracted followers across national borders and racial divides.2 Ideology thus produced lines of division which ran within states as well as between them, so that in almost every state in Europe there were individuals and groups whose first loyalty was to an idea rather than to their country — and often to another country which embodied the idea. Ideological links and antagonisms made it difficult for governments to act solely on the basis of power politics and material interest. For example, France and Italy might well have made an alliance against Germany on power-politics lines, but ideology stood in the way — fascist Italy was anathema to French Left-wingers, while Nazi Germany was in the same ideological camp as fascist Italy. In Nazi Germany itself, the ideological claims of a master race to living space came to dominate foreign policy, and if pressed to their conclusion were certain to lead to war.

Our main concern is with the role of ideology in foreign policy and the origins of the war. But to establish this, it is necessary to examine the nature of the ideologies involved, and their roles within the various European states. Much of what follows in the next four chapters bears only indirectly on the Second World War itself; but in so far as it was an ideological war, we must examine the ideologies in order to assess their significance in its origins.


1. Quoted in Federico Chabod, Italian Fascism (London 1963), p. 80.

2. See Alan Cassels, ‘Ideology’, in Robert Boyce and Joseph Maiolo, eds, The Origins of World War Two: The Debate Continues (Basingstoke 2003), pp. 227–248; and the same author's Ideology and International Relations in the Modern World (London 1996). See also François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century (London 1999), especially pp. 1–26, 156–65.

Chapter Five

Italian Fascism

Fascism, which with its close relative Nazism was to play a crucial role in European affairs in the 1930s, first came to power and prominence with the rise of Mussolini in Italy in the 1920s. Italy was not in material terms a power of the first rank, and Mussolini is sometimes presented as being little more than a desperado or a mountebank. But the success of Italian fascism encouraged many imitators. It was the start of what proved to be a disruptive movement in European politics, and it deserves serious attention.

The rise of Italian fascism

The unification of Italy achieved by 1870 was forced, hasty, and superficial. There was little in common between south and north. The Vatican maintained its opposition to the new state. Nationalists were aggrieved that Italian populations in the South Tyrol, Trieste, and Fiume still remained outside the frontiers of Italy. The First World War compounded these problems, leaving a legacy of inflation and industrial depression. Nationalists were distressed that the Paris Peace Conference denied Italy some of the gains she had been promised on her entry into the war on the Allied side. This issue came to a head over the question of Fiume. That city was not in fact one of the territories promised to Italy in 1915, but it was regarded as part of ‘unredeemed Italy’, and there was widespread resentment among Italians when President Wilson proposed that Fiume should become a ‘free city’. Gabriele d'Annunzio, the flamboyant nationalist, airman and poet, occupied the city in September 1919 with a force of volunteers. He ran Fiume in spectacular style for over a year, and the government in Rome did not dare to dislodge him until December 1920.

At the same time, Italy was in the throes of a domestic political crisis. There were five different governments between 1919 and 1921. The pre-war politicians, of whom the most prominent was Giolitti, seemed out of their depth amid post-war problems. There was a series of strikes in northern Italy, culminating in the occupation of many factories in August-September 1920. Governments appeared unable to cope with industrial disorder, just as they were unable to deal with d'Annunzio in Fiume.

It was these circumstances that presented Mussolini with an opportunity. Born in 1883, the son of a blacksmith, Mussolini made his early political career as a militant socialist journalist, with a strong line in anti-militarism. He went to Switzerland in 1904 to avoid call-up for the army (though he later completed his military service); and he agitated against the Tripoli War of 1911–12. He became a leading figure in Italian socialism, but in 1914 he broke with his anti-militarist past, and threw himself instead into the movement for Italian intervention in the First World War, in which he served as a soldier from 1915 to 1917. When the war was over, he founded the fascist movement at a hall in Milan on 23 March 1919. He had pursued an erratic career, showing a strong taste for violence, boundless ambition, and a marked talent for journalism and propaganda; but he had yet to achieve any solid success.

The crisis of the parliamentary regime thus came opportunely for Mussolini and his so far hesitant fascist movement. D'Annunzio had aroused the militant nationalists, but his adventure in Fiume petered out, leaving his followers ready to turn elsewhere. Industrialists, property-owners, and the middle classes generally were alarmed by strikes and fear of revolution, and looked for more drastic preventive action than that being taken by the government. The opening was there. Mussolini moved to exploit it. He dropped the left-wing and republican aspects of the fascist programme. The fascists showed their strength by beating up socialists and burning their headquarters, and by marching through the streets wearing black shirts and singing ‘Giovinezza’, the song of youth that had become popular in Fiume. Mussolini's ploy was to combine violence and displays of strength with a legal approach, using the constitutional organs of parliament, Cabinet, and the monarchy. After a prolonged period of political confusion during 1921 and most of the next year, a turning point was reached at the end of October 1922. During the night of 27/28 October, the fascist militia mobilised and seized control of several provincial towns. The government responded by proclaiming martial law and preparing to use the army to defend Rome and restore order elsewhere. The King, Victor Emmanuel III, then changed his mind and drew back from the use of force. The Prime Minister resigned, and his successor, Salandra, offered to take Mussolini into his Cabinet. He refused, and Salandra advised the King to call on Mussolini himself to form a government. Mussolini took office on 29 October, and on the 30th the Blackshirts entered the capital — the so-called ‘March on Rome’, though most travelled by train.

Superficially, therefore, all was done in due constitutional form. Mussolini formed his administration at the King's request; the new Cabinet included representatives of various Liberal groups and of the Catholic Party; and Mussolini presented his new government to the Chamber and Senate, and was voted full powers to make financial and administrative reforms, with only the socialists and communists voting against. The ‘March on Rome’ took place after Mussolini had become Prime Minister. But despite all this, it remained true that the atmosphere of violence and the danger of a rebellion played a crucial part in the events of 28/29 October. When Mussolini asked for parliament's co-operation, he held out the scarcely veiled threat of his Blackshirt squads if he did not receive it. Mussolini came to power through a mixture of force and constitutionality. He liked to boast about the force, but he also made full use of his proper constitutional position. He was a fascist leader, but also the Prime Minister in a parliamentary monarchical state.

Fascist doctrines and institutions

What was this fascism that came to power in Italy in 1922, and how did it develop? It was only one (though one of the earliest) of a number of European dictatorships which appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. At the end of the First World War the victory of the democratic and parliamentary powers, and a widespread desire to impress President Wilson (which was not wholly unconnected with hopes of American largesse), assisted in the creation of a number of new republics on ostentatiously democratic lines in central and eastern Europe, to add to the democratic states which already existed in the west and in Scandinavia. In the following years the swing away from this position was rapid and far-reaching. A list of European countries adopting various kinds of dictatorial forms of government in the 1920s and 1930s comprised the following. (The list is arbitrary, and not everyone will agree with its contents or shorthand descriptions. Some would regard Russia as the only true democracy; or Portugal as an outright fascist state. But at the very least none of these states was a parliamentary democracy.)


1917: Dictatorship of Lenin and the Communist Party


1919: Bela Kun, communist; replaced 1920 by Admiral Horthy, conservative, claiming to be Regent for the Habsburgs


1922–25: Mussolini, fascist


1923: Mustapha Kemal, secularising and modernising


1923: Primo de Rivera, conservative


1926: Marshal Pilsudski, military and conservative


1929: King Alexander I, monarchical-conservative


1930–31: King Carol, monarchical-conservative


1932: Salazar, conservative with some fascist trappings


1933: Hitler, national socialist


1936: Metaxas, conservative with some fascist trappings

This amounts to eleven states in all. What reason was there to distinguish fascist Italy from the ruck of authoritarian states which emerged in the 1920s?

Many thought there was very little reason. British conservatives, for example, tended to regard Mussolini as a man who had saved Italy from revolution, established order, and encouraged a degree of prosperity. Lord Rothermere, Winston Churchill, and The Times all thought of him, in their different ways, as a sensible, dependable, and perhaps even a distinguished figure. While Austen Chamberlain was Foreign Secretary between November 1924 and 1929, he met Mussolini five times. These men did not think his methods suitable for Britain; but compared to the intrigues and instability of earlier Italian politics his regime seemed sound enough for his own country, with no indication that it was particularly evil or dangerous for the rest of Europe. Others who took a much less favourable view of Mussolini and his regime still did not take him unduly seriously. The French socialist politician, Joseph Paul-Boncour (later to be Foreign Minister), called Mussolini in 1925 ‘César de Carnaval’: a mock-up Caesar — a label that has stuck.

There has been a strong tendency to represent Mussolini and Italian fascism as lacking in consistency, depth, and seriousness. In this view Mussolini was a shrewd political operator, with, in his early career, an instinctive sense for an opportunity, and a journalist's flair for publicity and propaganda. He was full of contradictions: socialist and anti-socialist at different times; once an anti-militarist and then an almost lyrical champion of war; an anti-Catholic who reconciled the Italian state with the Vatican. He was unstable in purpose, and often more concerned with appearance than reality. He was brutal, and cultivated an image of ruth-lessness, but his violence was unsystematic and on nothing like the scale of that practised by Hitler and Stalin. The crime most often held against him was the murder of a single man, the socialist politician, Matteotti, in 1924, rather than the mass slaughter perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin. The Italian secret police, the OVRA (Organizzazione di Vigilanza Repressione dell'Antifascismo), had a staff of only 375 in 1940. Between 1929 and 1943, the Special Tribunal imposed only 42 death sentences for political crimes; and of these 11 were not carried out. In addition, some tens of thousands were exiled to the south of Italy or to islands — not harsh, compared to Siberia.1

Mussolini thus appears as a man who was wilful rather than resolute, a dictator whose tyranny was tempered by inefficiency and vacillation. Fascism is presented as mainly a matter of display and propaganda. Its doctrine is seen as incoherent and full of contradictions, scarcely worth taking seriously, and serving mainly to obscure the compromises with the monarchy, the generals, the Church, and the industrialists, by which the regime survived.

In such an interpretation, fascism ceases to have serious characteristics of its own, and becomes an emanation of Mussolini's unstable personality, with the addition of some spectacular conjuring tricks. But against this should be put the picture that the regime tried to project of itself, which was to a considerable degree shared by some of its most determined opponents, and which deserves serious consideration. In this picture, fascism had important characteristics which separated it from other authoritarian regimes of the day. The role of Mussolini remains crucial — it is scarcely possible to conceive of Italian fascism without him — but this does not mean that everything can be reduced to the impact of one man's personality. Let us examine the main characteristics of fascist doctrine: the cult of dynamism and its totalitarian claims.

Dynamism was a word much in vogue among fascists, who claimed to embody youth, energy, action, violence, revolution. This was particularly important in Italy, where there was little point in a new movement claiming to represent conservatism or tradition, because the Catholic Church, the House of Savoy, and the ancient cities and provinces already played that role with more conviction than any upstart was likely to muster. Fascism made novel claims. When Mussolini presented his first government to the Chamber of Deputies in November 1922, he asserted that he stood for the revolution of the Blackshirts. Fascism proclaimed the primacy of action, the ability to cut through discussion with a command or a blow. D'Annunzio wrote in his Letter to the Dalmatians (January 1919): ‘Of what value are the secrets of laborious treaties — expedients bred from weakened faith and untimely fear — compared to an upright heroic will?’ Ten years before in 1909 the Manifesto of Futurism which contributed much to fascist ideas and sentiments, opened with the words: ‘We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness’; and went on to assert that ‘Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character…. We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world….’ Mussolini, in his article on ‘The doctrine of fascism’ in the Enciclopedia Italiana (1932), wrote that up to 1919 ‘My doctrine… had been a doctrine of action.’ Before the March on Rome there had been discussions, ‘but — and this is more sacred and important — there were deaths’. ‘Above all’, he wrote,

Fascism believes neither in the possibility nor in the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism — born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to their highest tension all human energies and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put a man in front of himself in the alternative of life and death.2

The embodiment of Italian Fascism: Mussolini as the Great Leader

Source: Bettman/Corbis

Words are cheap; but sometimes men mean what they say. D'Annunzio followed words with action at Fiume. The author of the Futurist Manifesto, the poet Filippo Marinetti, volunteered for military service in the Second World War, when he was over sixty. There is evidence that Mussolini seriously intended to harden the Italian people in the fires of war. Adrian Lyttleton has summed up the heart of the matter: ‘Fascism, reduced to its essentials, is the ideology of permanent conflict.’3 Those who chose to ignore this, or to dismiss it as mere braggadocio, did so at their peril.

The totalitarian claims of fascism arose from its conception of the state. Mussolini wrote that ‘The keystone of Fascist doctrine is the conception of the State, of its essence, of its task, of its ends. For Fascism the State is an absolute before which individuals and groups are relative.’ Giovanni Gentile, one of the regime's most prominent philosophers, defined the point more sharply: ‘… for the Fascist, everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has value, outside the State. In this sense Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strength to the whole life of the people.’4 Totalitarianism meant that the state claimed to control the totality of life, and all aspects of the activities of its citizens. Individuals, families, organised groups of all kinds (including the Church) must be subordinated to the state; and Gentile opposed the Lateran agreements of 1929 with the Vatican because they fell short of this principle.

How far, indeed, such sweeping claims could be made good in Italian conditions was very doubtful; but they were made, and influenced the nature of fascism. Its emphasis was on authority and unity. The fasces which were adopted as the Party symbol, and in 1926 became insignia of the state, were taken over from the symbols of authority carried by the Roman lictors. Parliamentary democracy was rejected because it meant legitimising conflict within the state, with political parties as the accepted embodiment of conflicting interests. Socialism, communism, or any sort of Marxist doctrine proclaimed the class struggle, which was equally impermissible in a state aiming at unity. The solution was the corporate state, in which all groups recognised their common interests, whether political or economic, and the institutions of the state were designed to impose unity, not to encourage conflict.

The political institutions of fascist Italy were designed to impose both the totalitarian claim and the demand for unity. The parliamentary system was transformed by an electoral law (1923) providing that the majority party in a legislative election should automatically secure two-thirds of all the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. A further law (1928) introduced a system of extreme simplicity: the Fascist Grand Council was to choose 400 candidates, who would be put to the voters for election (without opposition) to the 400 seats in a new Chamber. In 1939 the Chamber of Deputies was abolished altogether, and replaced by a Chamber of Fasces and Corporations, nominated from members of the Fascist Grand Council and the National Council of Corporations.

This last change emphasised the fascist claim to be evolving a new form of political and economic organisation, the corporate state, which would eliminate conflicts of interest between employers and workers. An elaborate system of corporations was set up, each made up of confederations representing workers and employers respectively in different sectors of the economy, e.g. industry, agriculture, or commerce. Much of the system remained on paper rather than being translated into practice; and government control over the workers' side was much tighter than over the employers. However, the corporate state was one of the distinctive features of Italian fascism, and attracted some favourable attention outside Italy.

While this formal structure of the new state was being set up, the rougher work of crushing opposition to the regime went ahead. Mussolini allowed individuals from other parties to remain in his government for a year or two — from the Catholic Party until 1923, Liberals until 1924. In 1924 the murder of Matteotti after a speech in the Chamber attacking fascist electoral malpractices signified that open opposition would be ruthlessly suppressed; and opposition deputies decided to take no further part in the work of the Chamber until the rule of law was re-established -the so-called ‘Aventine Secession’. Anti-fascist newspapers were closed down or taken over; political parties opposed to the regime were dissolved; freedom of movement for individuals was curtailed by the cancellation of all passports; and severe penalties were imposed on opponents of fascism who succeeded in going abroad to continue their resistance. One of the most significant moves was also one of the earliest. In December 1922, at the first meeting of the Fascist Grand Council, the Voluntary Militia for National Safety was set up, incorporating the Blackshirt squads into a permanent organisation, whose members were paid by the state but owed allegiance only to Mussolini — a political armed force separate from the regular army. Those who, like the old Liberal statesman, Giolitti, had hoped to make use of the fascists and draw them into the parliamentary system found that they were dealing with a political force of a different kind; and when they tried to oppose it (as Giolitti did when at the age of eighty-six he spoke and voted against the electoral law of 1928) it was too late.

In outward appearance, Italy was provided with much of the structure of a totalitarian state. The Fascist Party dispensed patronage and became the way to advancement. Children from the age of eight onwards were compulsorily enrolled in fascist organisations, increasingly military in form as the child grew older. Education, and particularly the teaching of history, was directed towards the propagation of fascism and a fascist view of the past. A Fascist Institute of Culture published books and organised cultural life. Even leisure was supposed to be organised by the state. Yet behind this façade the system was not fully totalitarian, and the state did not control the totality of life. The monarchy remained a focus of loyalty and authority separate from the Party. The law of December 1925 which laid down that the head of the government was not responsible to parliament retained the power of the King to dismiss him — a provision which, to Mussolini's surprise, was invoked in 1943. The army was allowed considerable freedom in its internal affairs and promotions. The Italian Confederation of Industry struck a bargain with the regime rather than being subjected to it. Above all, the Church retained its independent position. The Lateran Treaty of February 1929 gave many advantages to the regime through its recognition by the Vatican; but it also accepted that the Church was a separate, and to some degree a privileged, body within the state — for example, it ran its own youth movement, Catholic Action, and Catholic newspapers were the only legal source of news not controlled by the Fascist Party.

These were important limitations to Mussolini's power; and the regime ran by means of a series of compromises with what were essentially conservative elements. This meant that the dynamism of the fascist movement tended to get lost in domestic affairs, and was redirected outside Italy, into attempts to promote international fascism and into an adventurous foreign policy. If various groups were left alone in important respects, the price they paid was to let Mussolini have his own way in questions of foreign affairs and war. Notably, the army accepted, however reluctantly, Mussolini's decisions as to when and where it should fight. Fascist dynamism was real; and if it could not find expression in a totalitarian revolution at home, its energies were released abroad.

Fascism and foreign policy: the beginnings

For opponents of fascism in the 1930s it became a truism that fascism meant war. It was a view that received much support from what fascists themselves wrote and said. Mussolini asserted the nobility of war, and its necessity as the final test of character. In a more down-to-earth way, Starace (secretary of the Fascist Party in the 1930s) used to say that war was ‘like eating a plate of macaroni’ — a simple, straightforward pleasure.5 Mussolini's public statements were peppered with remarks about an air force which would blot out the sun, or an army of 8 million bayonets. The whole style of the regime was one of belligerence, bullying, and swagger, which at some stage was likely to find an outlet in foreign war. The Ethiopian War (1935–36), intervention in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), the invasion of Albania (1939), and the attacks on France and Greece (1940) owed much to this motive, as well as to other calculations. John Gooch sums the matter up like this: ‘Military aggressiveness was always a stated core — perhaps it is better to say the stated core -of Fascism.’6

These are generalisations. How far did fascist ideas affect particular foreign policy decisions? On one point there is no doubt: foreign affairs was the aspect of policy in which the fascist regime came nearest to having complete control. The professional officials and diplomats of the Foreign Ministry, even when they were not replaced by fascist nominees, exercised little influence; and the General Staff raised no serious opposition even to moves of which it disapproved. Foreign policy was that of the fascist regime; and by the 1930s that usually meant Mussolini himself.

The early years of Mussolini's foreign policy were not spectacular; nor did foreign affairs at that time hold the centre of his attention. Mussolini took the post of Foreign Minister (as well as Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior) in 1922; and among his first acts was attendance at international conferences at Lausanne and London. In 1926 the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Ministry, Contarini, resigned; pressure was put on officials to join the Fascist Party; and members of the fascist militia were forced upon Italian embassies, despite their lack of experience, qualifications, or even good manners. But apart from such changes in personnel, continuity appeared to be the order of the day. Mussolini wanted to emphasise that Italy was a great European power; but so had his predecessors. He shared a widespread dislike of the Versailles settlement, and wanted to change it, notably at the expense of Yugoslavia. He re-established Italian authority in Libya, which had been allowed to slide during the First World War; but Libya had been conquered by the Liberal regime, which would certainly have done the same thing when it could. Only the bombardment and occupation of the Greek island of Corfu in 1923, to force Greece to make apology and reparation for the killing of an Italian member of a boundary commission on Greek soil (by unknown assailants) stood out as an exceptional and brutal act, perhaps the forerunner of a policy of action and violence. Even that was in part a failure: Mussolini wanted to maintain the Italian occupation of the island, but Britain insisted on withdrawal. As for doctrine, fascism was declared not to be for export, though this was not strictly adhered to. A press office was set up to promote fascism abroad. It seems almost certain that fascist money was used to support the Nazi Party in Germany. Mussolini may have encouraged the Munich putsch in 1923, and he certainly gave refuge to Goering and other fugitives after it failed.7 There was also much fascist activity among Italians living abroad. For the most part, however, Mussolini chose to play the part of an orthodox European statesman rather than a fascist ideologue. He did not even break off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, but developed commercial ties with this ideological opponent.

A change began in the early 1930s, when the regime was firmly established at home (the tenth anniversary of Mussolini's coming to power was a landmark); and also when some fascists began to feel that the movement was losing its dynamism and settling into middle age. Fascism had begun by making a cult of youth — fine-sounding, but in the nature of things a fading asset unless perpetually renewed. Between 1930 and 1934 there was an attempt to restore the appeal to youth, and to revive the dynamism of fascism by extending it outside Italy. A number of prominent individuals lent their influence to this attempt: Guiseppe Bottai; Mussolini's younger brother Arnaldo, the editor of the newspaper Popolo d'Italia; and Asvero Gravelli, who in 1932 published a book entitled Toward the Fascist International. Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law and the coming man of the regime, also gave his support. The only specific result was the holding of an International Fascist Congress at Montreux in December 1934, at which parties from fifteen countries (but not Germany) were represented. The Congress showed more diversity than unity and the Permanent Committee which was set up to continue its work met only twice, in January and April 1935; after which Ciano cut off Italian government support.

It was a feeble and short-lived attempt to create a Fascist International; but various links with foreign fascist parties survived it. Considerable sums of money went to the Heimwehr in Austria, the Rexists in Belgium, and the British Union of Fascists. (Mussolini paid Oswald Mosley about 3.5 million lire (60,000 pounds) between 1931 and 1935, though he cut off the funds when he was told that they were going down the drain.8) In France, support was given to Déat, Marquet, and their group of dissident socialists who moved rapidly towards fascism, and to the Francistes; and in Spain to José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the former dictator and head of the Falange. It pleased Mussolini to appear as the leader of European fascism; and there was political advantage in having a prop for Italian policy in Austria, or a means of launching agitation in France.

The practical effect of these activities was limited; but the psychological influence was considerable. International fascism was seen to exist, in both open and covert forms. It was confronted by anti-fascism, in the shape of Italian exiles, notably in Paris and Spain, posing a nagging problem of which Mussolini was always aware. A conflict existed which crossed frontiers and set groups in various countries against their own governments — the outline sketch of an ideological war. It remained to be seen whether the outline would be filled in.

Fascism in action: Ethiopia, Spain, Rome-Berlin Axis

Between 1935 and 1939 there were more substantial steps in Italian foreign policy which appeared to show fascist dynamism at work: the invasion of Ethiopia (Abyssinia), intervention in the Spanish Civil War, and the making of the Rome-Berlin Axis. What was the role of fascism in these events?

The Ethiopian War was in many ways a nineteenth-century colonial campaign waged out of due time. Mussolini's main motive appears to have been political and personal — a demonstration of Italian power to the glory of the regime, which would revenge the defeat inflicted on the old Italy at the battle of Adowa in 1896. He added to this some wildly optimistic economic speculation about raw materials and prospects for emigration; and talk of a native army to help conquer the Sudan. How much of this was fascist? By this time, it was impossible to distinguish. The expedition might well have been contemplated by another kind of Italian government; but without Mussolini's particular brand of drive and self-confidence it is unlikely that it would have been launched. Italian prestige and the prestige of the Duce had become one and the same. Victory was a triumph for the regime; and League of Nations sanctions, imposed by ‘fifty nations led by one’ (Britain), became the occasion for a marked rallying of support for the war even among opponents of the regime. The war was a personal triumph for Mussolini: he pressed reluctant generals into it; replaced the first unsuccessful commander; and kept his nerve when international opposition proved more extensive than he expected. A success for Mussolini was a success for fascism. The regime imposed on the conquered areas of Ethiopia was ostentatiously fascist, with the imposition of symbols like the fascist salute, and the more substantive refusal to adopt methods of indirect rule through local chiefs.

Much of this success proved ill-founded and short-lived. The areas beyond the main towns and roads were never pacified, and the Italian Army lived as a garrison in a hostile population. The use of mustard gas and evidence of atrocities reinforced external opposition to Italy and to fascism. The cost of the war was high, and the burden of occupation heavy. But the immediate effects of victory were exhilarating. Mussolini had succeeded where the old Italy had failed. He had defeated not only the Ethiopians but the League of Nations. He abandoned his former cautious approach to foreign affairs, and looked for new worlds to conquer.

There followed, almost as soon as the Ethiopian campaign ended, Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War. This was accident, not design. Despite an agreement with Spanish monarchists in March 1934, there appear to have been no Italian contacts with the officers who launched the revolt of July 1936; and two requests for assistance were turned down before it was decided to provide help, in the shape of twelve bombers, to be paid for in cash before delivery. The hardheaded ring of these terms indicated an important strand in Italian motivation. The most authoritative survey of the subject concludes that ‘Italian intervention in Spain was motivated largely by traditional foreign policy considerations relating to Italy's political and military position in Europe and the Mediterranean, particularly her relations with France’.9 A secret agreement secured with Franco's government on 28 November 1936 provided for refusal of permission to a third power (i.e. France) to use Spanish bases, or to pass troops across Spanish territory; and for benevolent neutrality in case of war with a third power, or the imposition of international sanctions. Equally, there was little sign of Italian interest in the internal politics of the nationalist side in Spain. The most important Italian decision, dictated by a combination of chance and geography, was to aid Franco rather than other military leaders; which meant support for a reactionary rather than a fascist Spain. The Italians did nothing to promote the Falange, the most genuinely fascist movement in Spain; and merely stood by in 1937 when Franco absorbed the Falange with other political parties and brought it under his own control.

This was not to say that fascism went for nothing in Italian intervention in Spain. Mussolini often presented intervention as being ideological in character. In Majorca, the Italian forces were led by the dashing figure of Bonaccorsi (‘Conte Rossi’), one of the early fascist squad leaders and a spectacular figure, who led his men on horseback and drove a fast sports car round the roads of the island. He supported the Falange, and carried out large-scale killings, variously estimated at between 1,750 and 3,000. His activities were ostentatiously fascist — unorthodox, flamboyant, brutal; and the tales about them lost nothing in the telling. Anti-fascist sources often put the number of Italians in Majorca at 12,000 or 15,000, when the actual figure was 1,200.10 The impact of this episode on outside opinion was greater than that of the cautious Italian policy on the mainland, which by its nature went unobserved.

The motives of Italian intervention were also linked to fascism. Fear that a left-wing government (perhaps even revolution) in Spain would stimulate opposition to fascism in Italy was a serious consideration; and anti-fascist exiles made precisely the same calculation in reverse, hoping that victory for the republic in Spain would be a blow to Mussolini in Italy. Moreover, once intervention had begun, in support of what was expected to be a rapid coup d'état or a military promenade, not a three years' war, Mussolini's own prestige and that of fascism were engaged. This was particularly the case after the battle of Guadalajara (March 1937), where Italian troops, including three divisions of Blackshirts, suffered a defeat. This had to be avenged, and fascist prestige restored. When, in 1937–38, the British tried to secure the withdrawal of Italian troops from Spain, they were wasting their time. The fascist regime could not accept defeat or compromise, and had to see the war through. Péguy's maxim, ‘Tout commence en mystique, et tout finit en politique’, was reversed: what started with politics was caught up in the mystique of fascism.

Before the Spanish Civil War was over, Mussolini addressed the Fascist Grand Council (30 November 1938) on the subject of what he called the ‘immediate goals of Fascist dynamism’. These were Albania, Tunisia, Corsica, French territory east of the River Var (to include Nice, but not Savoy), and the Ticino canton of Switzerland.11 External expansion was by this time the principal remaining object of fascist dynamism. The aims set out by Mussolini were part of a wide-ranging view of Italy's position in the Mediterranean which he had held for several years and which he expressed with increasing frequency and emphasis in 1939 and 1940: that Italy was a prisoner in the Mediterranean, shut in between Gibraltar and Suez, with Corsica, Tunis, Malta, and Cyprus as bars of the prison. In a document of February 1939 he declared that the aim of Italian policy was to break the bars of the prison, and then march either to the Indian Ocean through the Sudan and Ethiopia, or to the Atlantic by way of French North Africa. In either case, Britain and France were the enemies; and in a conflict with them, Germany would cover Italy's rear in Europe.

This calculation leads to what appeared at the time to be the crowning influence of fascism on Italian foreign policy: the alliance with Nazi Germany, the obvious ideological partner. Mussolini referred to the Rome-Berlin Axis (‘around which can revolve all those European states with a will to collaboration and peace’) on 1 November 1936.12 The relations between the two countries became closer, until they became formal allies in the so-called Pact of Steel, signed in Berlin on 22 May 1939 — in the seventeenth year of the fascist era, as was recorded at the end of the text.13

How far did this alliance arise from the ideology of fascism and its affinities with Nazism? The two regimes had much in common, in the leadership principle (Duce and Führer both mean ‘leader’), anti-communism, and hostility to parliamentary democracy. Hitler made a favourable reference to fascist Italy (though not to Mussolini personally) in Mein Kampf. In 1931–32, Hitler asked several times to see Mussolini, though without success; and as Chancellor he sent the Duce flattering messages. There was the making of an ideological personal alliance. Yet this was not altogether how events worked out. The first meeting between Mussolini and Hitler at Venice in June 1934 was only a partial success: Mussolini described Hitler as a buffoon, and as a gramophone with only seven tunes. But he changed his own tune by the time of his first visit to Germany in September 1937: Hitler set out to flatter and impress, and Mussolini returned intoxicated. (It was after this visit that he determined to introduce the goose-step into the Italian Army, calling it the passo romano.) Thereafter he never escaped from Hitler's influence — he reacted against it from time to time, as he increasingly had to take second place, but he was always drawn back by personal contact.

Ideology and foreign policy: the Rome-Berlin Axis in action. Hitler greets Mussolini before the Munich Conference.

Source: Ullstein Bild/AKG Images

On the other hand, there were ideological differences, notably on the question of race and anti-Semitism. Fascist journals in the early 1930s attacked the racial theories of Nazi Germany. The Italians, after all, were obviously not a Nordic race. On one occasion an article in the Popolo d'Italia, unsigned but obviously by Mussolini himself, poked heavy fun at such ideas, arguing that the Lapps, because they lived further north than other peoples, must be the purest of all races. It is quite likely, as Richard Bosworth argues, that Mussolini had no strong views on race at all, except that common to most Europeans at the time — that they were superior to non-Europeans.14 Jews were admitted to the Fascist Party, and over 8,000 were members in 1933. In April 1933 and February 1934, Mussolini received Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, and expressed sympathy for his cause; and in April 1933 the Italian press gave much publicity to an interview between the Duce and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, who came to draw attention to the persecution of his co-religionists in Germany. After the reconciliation with the Papacy, the pagan elements in Nazi Germany were also unwelcome to the regime, as well as to Catholic Italians.

This hostility was serious. Admiration for Nazi Germany was not widespread among Italian fascists — Farinacci was one exception, as was Ciano, who later changed his mind; and anti-Semitism was rare. (The census of 1938 showed only 47,000 Jews in Italy, so there was in any case little to be anti-Semitic about.) When Mussolini took up the racial issue it marked a breach with a section of his party, and with Italian opinion as a whole. In July 1938 he published a manifesto on race, declaring that there was a pure Italian race, a branch of the Aryan race, and that the Jews were separate from it. This was followed by legislation against foreign Jews; naturalisations since 1919 were annulled, and those who were thus made aliens had to leave the country. The Italian Jews were excluded from the teaching profession, from academic, cultural, and scientific associations, and from the civil service, banks, and insurance firms. Their right to hold property or control businesses was tightly restricted. Jewish children were excluded from ordinary elementary schools, and had to attend special schools with Jewish teachers. In practice, there were many exceptions allowed, both openly (e.g. for the families of Jewish soldiers killed in the Italian Army, 1915–18, or for adherents to fascism before the March on Rome) and secretly, by the turning of a blind eye. The policy was not popular. There were protests from the Vatican and the Italian bishops; and it seems to have marked a turning of opinion against the regime — not so much on grounds of principle about anti-Semitism, but because it was rightly seen as a symbol of subservience to Germany. Mussolini chose to demonstrate his unity with Germany by adopting the cardinal point of Nazi ideology.

Thus ideology was called in at a late date to consolidate an alliance which began with political and economic matters: German support for Italy during the Ethiopian conflict; the supply of German coal, on which Italy became increasingly dependent; and co-operation in the Spanish Civil War. Above all, the objectives which Mussolini set for his foreign policy — amounting to Italian domination in the Mediterranean — could only be attained in opposition to France and Britain, and therefore only in alliance with Germany. Mussolini was thinking along these lines before Hitler came to power, and as early as 1927 he was considering accepting Anschluss between Germany and Austria as the price he would pay for German support in the Mediterranean.15 This alliance was consolidated by the developing personal relationship between the two dictators; assisted by the similarity in style and approach of the two regimes; and hindered by the lack of a serious racial and anti-Semitic element in Italian fascism, until Mussolini, for the sake of the alliance, decided to make good this lack.

How should the influence of fascism on Italian foreign policy, and on the movement of Europe towards war, be assessed? This question is complicated by another: how far did Mussolini follow a consistent foreign policy with defined objectives, and how far were his activities a matter of improvisation, uncertainty, posturing, and propaganda — more a means of raising the blood pressure than of pursuing an aim? In both pictures, fascism plays a part. In the first picture, the part is of fundamental importance: the fascist regime developed existing Italian policies in the Mediterranean and Africa to such an extent that they could only be achieved by a major war against Britain and France, not just by minor wars against small states. It was to this that ‘fascist dynamism’ in foreign affairs led; and Mussolini's use of these words on 30 November 1938 was not accidental. In the second interpretation, fascism is of lesser significance, and more a matter of display and rhetoric than of stern reality.

The balance of probability has come to lie very much with the first of these interpretations. There was greater purpose and coherence in Mussolini's foreign policy than was allowed by those who dismissed him as a fraud, or as a ‘sawdust Caesar’. Of course there were improvisations and changes of mind. But Mussolini steadily maintained certain fundamental aims: to control the Adriatic and the Mediterranean; to consolidate and extend Italy's African empire; and to break out to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. These were serious and consistent geopolitical objectives. As early as March 1925 Mussolini described Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and Suez as ‘a chain that permits England to encircle, to imprison Italy in the Mediterranean.’16 And as we have seen already (see above, p. 74), he recurred to this theme repeatedly up to 1940, with occasional variations in the place names, and references to France as well as Britain as the keepers of the prison. When the German alliance and German successes in Europe provided the opportunity in 1939 and 1940, it was towards these objectives that Mussolini moved. Compared with earlier Italian governments, Mussolini both inflated the objectives and changed the methods of Italian policy. Others before him had tried to make Italy a great power, with a position in the Mediterranean and Africa; but it was a position to be shared with the other Mediterranean powers, Britain and France, and to be achieved by clever diplomacy, shifting alliances, and small wars against the Turks and Africans. Mussolini repeatedly declared that his policy must be honest; he despised the shifts of diplomacy; and he would not allow Ciano to ease him out of the Axis and resume freedom of action during the phoney war. And the end result of his policy, if it was pursued to its conclusion, was a military show-down with France and Britain.17

Italian foreign policy under fascism passed through two main phases. The first, up to 1934–35, was a period of modest activity, in which Italy acted for the most part as a normal and responsible state. In 1925 she was a guarantor of the Locarno agreements, and in April 1935 she was still a welcome partner of Britain and France at the Stresa conference, devoted to maintaining the status quo in Europe. During this period, the rest of Europe became accustomed to the presence of a fascist regime, and found that in most practical matters it made little difference. Even Stalin remarked in 1934 that the existence of the fascist regime had not prevented the establishment of good Italian-Soviet relations.

The second period was very different. From 1935 to 1940, Italy followed a policy of almost ceaseless activity and aggression — the invasion of Ethiopia, intervention in Spain, the occupation of Albania, the declaration of war on France and Britain, and the attack on Greece. Some of these actions — notably Ethiopia, Albania, and the extension of war to the Mediterranean in 1940, had serious and far-reaching consequences, so that the influence of Italy on European affairs was disproportionate to her material strength. In this active, forward policy, fascist objectives played an important part. Mussolini and his enemies both proclaimed that fascism meant war. It certainly brought European war nearer.

1 Referencs

1. R. J. B. Bosworth, Mussolini (London 2002), pp. 222–223.

2. Mussolini's speech in the Chamber quoted in Ivone Kirkpatrick, Mussolini (London 1964), pp. 196–197. The quotations from d'Annunzio, ‘The Manifesto of Futurism’, and Mussolini's ‘Doctrine of Fascism’, from Adrian Lyttleton (ed.), Italian Fascisms, from Pareto to Gentile (London 1973), pp. 182, 211–13, 44, 46–7.

3. Lyttleton, Italian Fascisms, Introduction, p. 12.

4. Quotations from Lyttleton, Italian Fascisms, pp. 53, 42.

5. Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini's Roman Empire (London: Peregrine Books 1979), pp. 124–125.

6. John Gooch, ‘Fascist Italy’, in Robert Boyce and Joseph Maiolo (eds), The Origins of World War Two: The Debate Continues (Basingstoke 2003), p. 38.

7. Alan Cassels, ‘Switching Partners: Italy in A. J. P. Taylor's Origins of the Second World War’, in Gordon Martel (ed.), ‘The Origins of the Second World War’ Reconsidered (London 1986), p. 76.

8. Richard Lamb, Mussolini and the British (London 1997), p. 92.

9. John F. Coverdale, Italian Intervention in the Spanish Civil War (Princeton 1975), pp. 388–389. John Gooch, in Boyce and Maiolo, p. 42, and Robert Mallett, Mussolini and the Origins of the Second World War (Basingstoke 2003), pp. 87–8, take the same view.

10. Coverdale, Italian Intervention, pp. 127–150, for a description and the various figures.

11. MacGregor Knox, Mussolini Unleashed, 1939–1941 (Cambridge 1982), pp. 38–39.

12. Kirkpatrick, Mussolini, p. 328.

13. Text of the treaty in Mario Toscano, The Origins of the Pact of Steel (Baltimore 1967), Appendix, pp. 405–408.

14. Bosworth, Mussolini, pp. 271–272.

15. Macgregor Knox, Common Destiny: Dictatorship, Foreign Policy and War in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (Cambridge 2000), pp. 124–126.

16. Ibid., p. 119.

17. Denis Mack Smith, in Mussolini's Roman Empire and in Mussolini (London 1981), stresses the elements of improvisation, propaganda, and the desire to dazzle. Knox, Mussolini Unleashed, and Common Destiny are careful and convincing statements of the opposite point of view. Mallett, Mussolini and the Origins of the Second World War, and R. M. Salerno, Vital Crossroads: Mediterranean Origins of the Second World War, 1935–40 (New York 2002) give solid reasons for taking the same view as Knox.

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