- - Thursday, November 1, 2018


By Christian Goeschel

Yale University Press, $30, 400 pages

Might we call it “the pact made in Hades?”

In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, tyrants who did not especially care for one another personally, signed onto a partnership that was a major step toward the war that devastated much of Europe.

The agreement was one of convenience to both parties.

Hitler wanted his southern flank protected, recognizing the ability of the Royal British Navy to land a force in Italy that could cut the legs beneath his campaign centered on France.

Mussolini had his eyes on converting much of North Africa into Italian colonies, ousting the British and French.

The “partnership” — the alliance deserves the quotation marks — was fraught with betrayal and mistrust. Many historians have depicted the duo as “vain, pompous, and jealous rivals.” Mussolini especially has been described as, a “boob” and opportunist.

Nonetheless, British historian Christian Goeschel contends, convincingly, that the partnership, despite its many flaws, was “decisive in destroying the inter-war Wilsonian order.”

At first glance, the men were ideological opposites. Hitler bullied his way to leadership with rhetoric promising to “restore” war-ruined Germany. Mussolini, a sometime editor, started as a socialist; by the time he achieved power in 1921, he cared naught for democracy.

Initial relations were restrained. Mussolini ridiculed Hitler’s putsch as a “caricature of Italian Fascism” — a backhanded acknowledgement of his power. After some early slurs, Hitler recognized Mussolini as a “tough anti-Marxist” in his book, “Mein Kampf.”

Eventually the dictators exchanged autographed photographs, although Hitler refused to use Mussolini’s term “fascism” to describe his Nazis. In his own gesture, the “Duce” financed an Italian edition of “Mein Kampf.”

Eager to have Italy recognized as a “great power,” in 1933 Mussolini proposed a four-power pact with France, Britain and Germany, a means of undermining the League of Nations.

Hitler was not ready for such an alliance, but in 1937 invited Mussolini to Berlin. And thus began a relationship that initially had elements of high comedy.

Striving for grandeur, Mussolini ordered Italian journalists to wear army uniforms. Hitler ferried in almost a million spectators to line the route into Berlin, adorned with thousands of flags atop illuminated white pylons.

The display drew sneers of derision across Europe. British diplomat Nevile Henderson said sarcastically that Italy would be “the tail of the dog” in the alliance, while a French official said that Mussolini was a fool “now condemned to subservience to Germany.”

Although the goal was to present “a powerful and menacing image of two dictators leading Europe towards a New Order of conquest,” problems teemed beneath he splendor. Notably, Hitler’s generals “thought little of the Italian army.”

When Hitler visited Italy a year later, Mussolini sought to outdo him in splendor. Most vividly, “no fewer than 1l,671 Italian and 11,264 German flags would be shown along the railway, the almost identical numbers suggesting that Italy and Germany were equals.”

Further, Mussolini’s regime distributed 1,910,000 Italian and German flags in the provinces which Hitler’s train would cross. (A discordant voice was Pope Pius XI, who closed the Vatican to fend off a visit by Hitler.) The Germans showed up wearing garments that “looked like costumes for a fancy dress party.” But the purpose was to show unity, false though it might be.

In sum, thereafter Hitler acted as he pleased, without bothering to consult his “partner” about his invasion of Austria, the result of which included taking control of the Tyrol area to which Italy had historical claims. Hitler did announce his intention in a letter timed to be delivered after the fact. Although Mussolini “had no option but to accept the Anschluss and be polite to Hitler,” he privately seethed.

Mussolini was astute enough a politician to recognize that Hitler was unpopular with the majority of Italians, and he occasionally hinted at switching sides and continued to retain relations with Britain. But his intelligence service realized that Italy did “not have the capacity to crush Germany.”

Thus he supported Hitler’s move against Czechoslovakia in hopes of increased Italian influence in southeastern Europe. But Mussolini’s first solo venture, the invasion of Albania, went poorly — displaying a deep gap between boastful rhetoric and “poor Italian military performance.”

Hitler surely realized the Duce’s weaknesses. He did not consult him before invading Poland or signing his infamous pact with Russia. Mussolini did not move against France until Hitler’s win was final. Only then did he claim a chunk of France. And his troops were no match for Allied armies in North Africa.

In the end, a defeated Hitler died by his own hand, and Italian partisans hanged Mussolini (along with his mistress) at war’s end. As Mr. Goeschel concludes, the relationship was overshadowed by “pretensions to world domination and by petty personal jealousies.” Nonetheless, the deadly duo inflicted grave damage on the world.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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