“If Mussolini hadn’t joined the war on Hitler's side, he would have had a chance to survive. But he was carried away with his playing”

The series of interviews by the 80th anniversary of the beginning of Second World War. Part 10: Italy

“If Mussolini hadn’t joined the war on Hitler's side, he would have had a chance to survive. But he was carried away with his playing” Photo: wikipedia.org (Hermann Goering, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Mussolini's son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano)

In the final part of the conversation about Italy's participation in the Second World War, historian German Gigolayev told Realnoe Vremya why it took some time for Italy to enter the Second World Way, how strongly Hitler needed Mussolini, as well as whether the Vatican was a direct ally of the two leaders.

“The UK caused disagreement between France and Italy, thereby pushing the latter into the arms of Hitler”

Mr Gigolayev, how much did the war with Ethiopia won in 1936 embolden Mussolini and Italy? Wasn’t that the reason that led to a further alliance with Hitler, if, as you say, he gave Mussolini ideological support?

Certainly, Ethiopia emboldened everyone in Italy. First, it was a revenge for Italy's previous unsuccessful war with that state. Ethiopia was invaded, and those who looked at the map of the world after the war could see that Italy stretched from sea to sea, occupying almost the entire Horn of Africa from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Perhaps, particularly the Ethiopian war provided Mussolini’s regime with support among military, as previously they had existed in parallel: the military was more focused on the king of Italy, but after Ethiopia, between fascists and military, there were cooperation and understanding brewing. And, for example, Marshal Badoglio, who in 1922 proposed to the king to get rid of the fascists by force of arms in approach to Rome, received a gold badge of the fascist party for the victory over Ethiopia. Besides, the foreign policy successes were then to please the Italian youth.

Then there was the war in Spain, where Germany and Italy came out in support of Franco, but the Spanish experience for Mussolini was rather discouraging. With a number of successes of the fleet and aircraft in the major battle in 1937 at Guadalajara, the Italian corps was thoroughly defeated by the Republicans, in addition, Italy spent a lot of money to support the Francoists, which was an additional burden on the economy of the country.

Italian soldiers in Ethiopia. Photo: wikipedia.org
Perhaps, particularly the Ethiopian war provided Mussolini’s regime with support among military, as previously they had existed in parallel: the military was more focused on the king of Italy, but after Ethiopia, between fascists and military there were cooperation and understanding brewing

Did Mussolini and Hitler form an alliance after Spain and Ethiopia? It is difficult to say. Yes, in Spain they cooperated, Italy signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, but I think that Italy considered Germany as an ally because the imposition of sanctions for the seizure of Ethiopia (the import of a number of strategic materials to Italy was banned — editor’s note) alienated it from France. After all, there were secret agreements that France would not interfere with this war, and then suddenly condemnation and sanctions. It is clear that these sanctions did not really decide anything, but the fat was in the fire.

The UK had a hand here. Seeing France playing with Italy, they began to play with Hitler on the subject of their interests — the same appeasement, caused disagreement between France and Italy, thereby pushing Italy into Hitler's arms. If Italy had cooperated with France and the UK, perhaps, many things would have developed in the international relations of that period differently. After all, as early as in 1934, Italy prevented the Anschluss of Austria by sending troops to the German border with Austria with the hint that it would not allow such “reunification”.

Italy did not enter the war in 1939 on Hitler's side. Isn't it strange?

No, it is not. For a major war, Mussolini needed weapons, strategic materials, equipment. According to the diaries of Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law, Mussolini had nothing against the Western powers — he was more annoyed by the Bolsheviks, and, they say, if not the USSR, Mussolini would not have participated in the war. But this is a strange position — bargaining with Hitler about entering the war still went to the last, and like with the entry into the First World War, Italy weighed all the pros and cons and entered the Second World War only close to the defeat of France in 1940. But it entered only in order to try to snatch something from almost defeated by Hitler France, but even for this, it didn’t have enough forces.

Mussolini announces Italy's entry into the war from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia on the evening of 10 June 1940. Photo: wikipedia.org
Like with the entry into the First World War, Italy weighed all the pros and cons and entered the Second World War only close to the defeat of France in 1940. But it entered only in order to try to snatch something from almost defeated by Hitler France

“Under Mussolini, the Soviet Union and Italy also had pragmatic cooperation”

But it's hard to believe Mussolini didn't want more if he entered the war.

Certainly, Mussolini, first of all, had views on the Adriatic. Italy had had plans for the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans since the beginning of the century, and this pushed it to fight against Austria-Hungary in the First World War. Before entering it, the Italians asked the Entente for a very good territory — the land of Dalmatia, part of Albania with the port of Vlora, the territory of Asia Minor along with Izmir and much more. Under Mussolini, these plans did not go away, but only grew, with the same reminder to the people — the posters depicting maps of the Roman Empire hanging in Rome near the Forum.

What was Mussolini's real attitude to the USSR? Was he really annoyed by the Bolsheviks, as was written in the memoirs you have mentioned?

It's very difficult to figure out. On the one hand, in 1924, Italy established diplomatic relations with the USSR, almost simultaneously with England and ahead of France, but on the other, it was done by Mussolini in the preparation for the next elections — Mussolini thereby knocked out of the hands of the Italian left wing an important trump card.

At the same time, there was pragmatic cooperation. In particular, the Italian shipyards were building the vessels necessary to the Soviet Union, cruisers such as Kirov were made on the basis of purchased from the Italians scientific and technical documentation. In the sense of ideology, of course, there was a discrepancy. Mussolini saw in the left-wingers his enemies, and the most left-wing was the state of workers and peasants, that is, the USSR. Well, the USSR, in turn, saw the Nazis as reactionaries — the most aggressive group of imperialists.

Photo: wikipedia.org
Some people try to get Pope Pius XII out of the cooperation with Hitler, saying that he was in silent opposition to the Fascist regime, and others say that the Pope came to an understanding with the Nazis in the policy of anti-communism

“Pope Pius XII collaborated with the Nazis, but he did not like the persecution of the Jews”

What were the relations between Mussolini and the Vatican? For example, before the alliance with Hitler?

The Vatican itself appeared as a state, as you know, just thanks to Mussolini. Earlier, in the era of the liberal state, the Catholic Church did not cooperate with the secular authorities, but then the policy was gradually relaxed — Catholics got the right to participate in elections, and already under the Nazis, in 1929, the Pope was guaranteed certain cash payments, residence, and eventually the small state was created on the territory of several quarters of Rome.

Mussolini understood that the Catholic Church played an important role in the life of Italian society. Although his father was an atheist, syndicalist, and Mussolini himself was originally a socialist, he understood that for the tacit loyalty of Catholics it was necessary to negotiate with the Church. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church received, in addition to its small state, also access to school education, and Catholicism was recognized as the only state religion in the country.

Were there differences between Mussolini and the Vatican? There were — the Church did not like Mussolini's rapprochement with Nazi Germany because under Hitler Catholics were known to be persecuted.

By the way, what has historical science shown regarding the accusations of the Vatican and specifically Pope Pius XII in active cooperation with the Nazis and fascists in the Second World War?

It is also difficult to say — there is a lot of divergent evidence. Some people try to get Pope Pius XII out of the cooperation with Hitler, saying that he was in silent opposition to the Fascist regime, and others say that the Pope came to an understanding with the Nazis in the policy of anti-communism. We can definitely say that the Pope did not like the persecution of the Jews, although if we take the Balkans, there were Catholic priests who participated in the Holocaust. At the same time, Catholic priests in other parts of Europe and even in the Balkan region tried to save the Jews. If we again mention the Balkans and specifically Croatia, there Catholic priests encouraged the genocide of Serbs and even participated in it, so the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church was tarnished, in particular, with the cooperation with the Croatian Ustashe.

So we can say that the Pope collaborated with the Nazis. Some believe that the Roman Church limited the power of the fascists, and so the fascist regime in Italy was weaker than the Nazi in Germany. Among the Catholics, there really was some resistance — there were emigrants from the left-wing Catholics, oppositional to fascism. In addition, secular organizations of Catholics like Catholic Action were preserved, and a certain discontent with the fascists arose there, too, and because of this, the authorities were even forced to exert pressure on the Church.

Therefore, everything is not so simple in the matter of cooperation between Mussolini and the Roman Catholic Church, and the two sides did not have a complete symphony.

“The Italian army often acted as a burden to the Germans”

Let’s get back to the war. Why did Mussolini enter The Second World War? Is it only because of the success of Hitler's venture in relation to France?

Certainly, Mussolini entered the war because of Hitler's successes. On the other hand, Mussolini was jealous — Hitler was increasingly turning into a senior partner, who succeeds in everything, and Italy also needs to implement its “great” plans and also had a lot to do. In particular, having entered the war two weeks before the defeat of France, the Italians hoped to get themselves a bigger piece of the pie, that is, to occupy some of the southern territories of France, Nice in particular, and reach Marseilles. But the French units managed to hold back the Italians, and the Italians captured almost nothing, except a small area near the city of Menton.

The Italians just wanted to show their importance and get a piece of the pie, but they succeeded neither in 1940 nor later. The reasons I have already mentioned: they were poorly armed, equipped, and low morale had not gone away. Even in 1943, when the Germans decided to occupy Italy, and, it would seem, it was necessary to resist the invaders, the Italians did it badly: the army was demoralized by ambiguous orders of the command.

Did Hitler still need the Italian army?

On the one hand, he needed additional manpower for the war against the USSR, but on the other hand, when the Italian corps arrived in 1941 in Ukraine, many German officers after a joint parade expressed doubt about the combat capability of the Italian units. Nevertheless, in 1941, in Ukraine, Italia acted relatively successfully because the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army was retreating. However, a catastrophe for the Italian 8th army became the Battle of Stalingrad.

But in general, the Italian army often acted as a burden for the Germans: they were forced to send troops to North Africa because the Italians could not cope there with the British, in 1940 Mussolini attacked Greece, but was defeated, and Italy was forced to ask the Germans for help.

Soldiers of the 8th army in the Soviet Union in 1942. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B27180 / Lachmann / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org
In 1941, in Ukraine, Italia acted relatively successfully because the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army was retreating. However, a catastrophe for the Itallian 8th army became the Battle of Stalingrad

In your opinion, if Mussolini remained neutral, could he rule for a long time — like, for example, Franco in Spain?

The question is debatable. In the scientific community, there is an opinion that if Mussolini hadn’t have fought on the side of Hitler, he would have a chance to retain power. In particular, Western experts, who introduced, as is known, the term totalitarianism, made distinctions between the German and Mediterranean versions of totalitarianism and believed that, yes, Italian totalitarianism was a priori bad, but not as hard as in Germany or in the USSR. Western ideologists believed that in Italy fascism was a kind of intermediate form with features of both totalitarianism and authoritarianism because there were limitations of fascism — the king and especially the Catholic Church. And, of course, if this is not the Spanish, Francoist variant, which is generally considered an authoritarian regime, then certainly not the German, the classic version of totalitarianism, if again to follow the terminology of Friedrich Or Brzezinski.

This approach of “whitewashing” Italy under Mussolini was still caused by political considerations of the post-war period, the Cold War. Italy was one of the founders of NATO, it was relatively quickly accepted into the UN, it was one of the founders of the European Economic Community. Theoretically, if Mussolini had not joined the war on Hitler's side, I think he would have had a chance to survive, like Franco did in Spain, and become a useful ally of the West. But Mussolini was carried away with his playing.

By Sergey Kochnev