Nazi Germany’s main political and military ally in Europe was Italy. The Italians were governed by a fascist regime led by Benito Mussolini, who came to power in 1925.
Italian fascism was, in many respects, the elder brother of Nazism, something Adolf Hitler himself acknowledged. Yet for all their ideological similarities, the relationship was bumpy and complex and the alliance not as firm as many assumed. By the late 1930s, Germany and Italy were military allies but their priorities lay with their own national interests. The union was more a marriage of convenience than a firm alliance of sister states.
In his early years at the helm of the NSDAP, Hitler was a great admirer of Mussolini. The Nazi leader was particularly fascinated with Mussolini’s ‘march on Rome’, a 1922 protest march involving thousands of fascists and fascist supporters that led to Mussolini’s appointment as prime minister.
In 1923, Hitler wrote to his Italian counterpart about the ‘march on Rome’. In Hitler’s mind, the November putsch attempt in Munich was the Nazi leader’s attempt to replicate it.
From the late 1920s, Mussolini provided some financial support to the rising Nazi Party. He also allowed Sturmabteilung (SA) and Schutzstaffel (SS) men to train with his own paramilitary brigade, the Blackshirts. Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933 was publicly praised by Mussolini, who hailed it as a victory for his own fascist ideology.
Seeds of division
In private, however, Mussolini was scornful of Hitler and his party. The Italian leader, who was not short on ego and pomposity, described Mein Kampf as “boring” and thought Hitler’s ideas and theories were “coarse” and “simplistic”. Mussolini also had a low opinion of Hitler’s elevation to power, which he viewed as political, conniving and much less glorious than his own.
The first meeting between the two, held in Venice in June 1934, was disastrous. Mussolini spoke some German and refused to use a translator – but he had great difficulty understanding Hitler’s rough Austrian accent. The Italian was subjected to some of Hitler’s long monologues, which bored him greatly. Both men emerged from the Venice summit thinking much less of each other.
Despite this, Nazi and Italian fascist propaganda of the 1930s suggested a close working relationship and even a friendship between the two leaders.
Another important point of difference between the two was their racial views. Mussolini, like Hitler, considered white Europeans the architects of civilisation and culture – but unlike Hitler, his views on race did not extend to hateful anti-Semitism or eugenics.
Mussolini was an Italian nationalist who often harked back to the glory and triumphs of ancient Rome. He was therefore scornful of Hitler’s rants about Aryan supremacy. In one speech, the Italian leader expressed “pity” for the racial views being expressed by the Nazis, “the descendants of those who were illiterate when Rome had Caesar, Virgil and Augustus.”
Despite their personal differences, Hitler and Mussolini did manage a degree of co-operation. There was enough of it to suggest a reasonably strong Nazi-Fascist alliance to the rest of the world.
Germany offered support to Rome during and after the Abyssinian crisis of the mid-1930s. Mussolini had grandiose visions of building a new Italian empire, to replicate the glories of ancient Rome. His first target was Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), one of the few African kingdoms not yet under European control.
In October 1935, Italian troops invaded and occupied much of Abyssinia. Italy was strongly criticised in the League of Nations, however, Hitler – who had pulled Germany out of the League in 1933 – backed Mussolini’s action. German-Italian relations were also boosted by their joint involvement in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
Mussolini’s state visit
In September 1937, Mussolini paid a state visit to Germany, where he was met with a long parade of troops, artillery and military equipment. These shows of strength were obviously convened to impress the Italian leader, and it appeared to work. Two months later, Italy joined Germany and Japan in the Anti-Comintern Pact: an agreement to resist the expansion of the Soviet Union and prevent the spread of communism.
Hitler’s influence on Mussolini became evident in the Italian leader’s Manifesto of Race (July 1938). This decree, which proved very unpopular in Italy, stripped Italian Jews of their citizenship and removed them from government occupations.
In September 1938, Mussolini was part of the four-nation summit on the Czechoslovakian crisis and a signatory of the Munich Agreement.
The ‘Pact of Steel’
In May 1939, the Nazi-Fascist alliance was extended further, with the signing of the Pact of Friendship and Alliance between Germany and Italy. Informally called the ‘Pact of Steel’, this ten-year agreement committed Rome and Berlin to supplying military and economic aid if either nation found itself at war.
The pact also contained secret discussions and protocols where Germany and Italy agreed to prepare for a future European war. Negotiators promised a rapid increase in German-Italian trade and military co-operation, while both nations secretly agreed to avoid waging war without the other until 1943.
Hitler’s commitment would last barely a few weeks. In late August 1939, he wrote to Mussolini, advising him the situation with Russia had changed and that war was imminent. German troops would invade Poland a week later, marking the beginning of World War II.
Italy enters the war
Mussolini had received advice that Italy would not be ready for war until late 1942, because of slow industrial growth and military production. The Italian leader heeded this counsel, holding off on declaring war until June 1940, by which time the German conquest of western Europe was almost complete.
Mussolini’s main war aim was to seize control of British and French colonies in northern Africa. The campaign was disastrous: by late 1941 most Italian troops in Africa had been defeated. The Allies invaded Italy in July 1943; Mussolini was soon expelled from power and the new government surrendered to the Allies in September.
The former fascist dictator was captured by partisans and executed in April 1945, two days before Hitler suicided in Berlin. The body of Il Duce – once the ‘saviour of Italy’ – was suspended on meat hooks and pelted with stones.
A historian’s view:
“Their relationship evolved gradually over the years they had known each other. At first, Hitler deferred to the Duce and appeared to have genuine admiration for the more senior dictator. Later, and especially after Mussolini began to play second fiddle to Hitler as a war leader, summit meetings between the two men had consisted mainly of long monologues by Hitler, with Mussolini barely able to get in a word. At one memorable meeting in 1942, Hitler talked for an hour and forty minutes while General Jodl dozed off and Mussolini kept looking at his watch.”
1. Benito Mussolini was the fascist leader of Italy, appointed as prime minister after his ‘march on Rome’ in 1922.
2. Italian fascism was a right-wing nationalist ideology that many, including Hitler, considered the ‘big brother’ of Nazism.
3. Mussolini, however, had a low regard for Hitler and Nazism, believing them to be uncultured and simplistic.
4. Despite this, the two developed a cautious alliance, meeting several times and signing the Pact of Steel in 1939.
5. When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, years ahead of schedule, Mussolini refused to support his ally, claiming that Italian industry and military production was not yet ready.