Italy at War
|One of the most prominent features of the anti-democratic
and anti-parliamentarian movement which coursed through Europe in the years
preceding and following the First World War was the claim that parliaments
were inherently corrupt. This feeling had been widespread in Italy, in
reaction to the practice of trasformismo. Nationalists especially argued
that the parliamentarians, constantly engaging in wheeling and dealing
and peddling influence in Rome, neglected the interests of the nation as
To super patriots, Italy’s gains at the peace treaties ending the war were insufficient reward for her sacrifices and merely confirmed their scorn for the politicians. They yearned for a strong man, tied to no special interest groups, who could promote the real interests of the nation. Such a leader they found in Mussolini, who had consistently criticized the treaty system, calling for revision and fairer treatment for the “have-not” states like Italy.
But during the 1920s there was little that Mussolini could
do to advance the national interest abroad. The pendulum policy of playing
one group of powers off against the other did not work in the immediate
post-war period. With Germany and Soviet Russia desperately weakened by
war, revolution, and economic collapse, the only remaining block of powers
was the victorious Entente, to which Italy
This left Italy little leverage and little opportunity.
Italy was invited to participate in the Locarno Agreements (1925)
and this confirmed her status as one of the European powers. But it also
put her on record as defending the treaty system, which Mussolini was determined
to revise. Italy got an opportunity to flex her muscles against Greece
in the Corfu Incident (1923), and she negotiated the
For the rest, Mussolini was left to try to undermine France’s position in Central Europe by courting influence in Austria and Hungary -- both defeated states, interested in revising the treaty system -- and by sponsoring Croat separatism as a means of weakening Yugoslavia.
All of this was to change rapidly after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933. He rapidly consolidated power and swiftly brought Germany out of the Depression. With Germany’s rising strength and Hitler’s avowed goal of breaking “the chains” of the Versailles Treaty, here was a valid counter-weight to France and Britain.
It was by no means a foregone conclusion that Mussolini
would eventually line up with Hitler and Nazi Germany. Indeed, Mussolini
was initially scornful of Hitler. But France and Britain responded
weakly to Hitler’s challenges to the treaty system, apparently confirming
Mussolini’s frequent assertions that parliamentary government was obsolete
and decadent. There were major differences between Fascism and Nazism,
but the similarities were more numerous. And both were openly revisionist,
As they did, Italy fell increasingly under the domination of her more powerful neighbor to the north. This meant involvement in the Second World War and Italy’s ruin.
The lectures for this week will deal more deeply with the diplomacy of Fascist Italy, the drift to war, and Italy’s wartime experience.