Benito Mussolini’s role in the two world wars was significant. In the First World War, he fought the Germans alongside the allied forces. However, in less than three decades he had changed allies and found himself on the same side with the former enemy and fought the former allies. While the Mussolini desire for power and conquest in the world stage may have prompted his wavering strategies on the run-up to the Second World War, his poor strategies on the Italian foreign policies led him to the hands of Adolf Hitler, who was short of allies’ abroad. Mussolini’s association with the Nazi government of Germany led by Adolf Hitler was not based on any ideological commonality but was a matter of convenience with the sole purpose of enhancing the Italian territorial expansion overseas through conquests and manipulation of lame-duck regimes. To some extent, the association between the Nazi German and the Italy under Benito Mussolini was not mutually beneficial especially to the Italian and Mussolini himself. While association with Italy and Mussolini during the Second World War proved costly to the Nazi Germans, Italy and Mussolini suffered greatly as Adolf Hitler exploited every opportunity to expose the Italians to the attacks of the allied forces. Mussolini was more of a puppet that was to be manipulated by Hitler as it suited him. This paper illustrates the role of Italy and its leader Benito Mussolini during the Second World War. It also provides evidence on how Hitler exploited Italy and Mussolini to his own advantage during one of the greatest wars of the 20th century (Dalton 78).
Benito Mussolini was born on July, 29 1883 and died on April, 28 1945. Mussolini is well remembered for the creation of the National Fascist Party and was among the key figures in Europe that developed the ideologies of fascism that were common and widespread across Europe after the closing stages of the First World War (Bauer 65). Having fought in the First World War, Mussolini returned home and started embracing the ideologies of the fascists which he had earlier opposed. He alongside other Italians founded the Italian Fascism (as it is popularly known) through the configuration of the National Fascist Party (Steinberg 78). Mussolini and his party were well-liked at the time since the Italians were yearning for leadership that would help rid the country of many social problems. In 1922, Mussolini became the 40th Italian prime minister, a position he served in until his embarrassing dismissal in 1943 by the National Council of his party. Together with the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, Mussolini enjoyed absolute control over the Italian military. As a result he was able to summon and deploy the Italian forces whenever he liked without necessarily seeking the approval of the King (Walker 51).
Mussolini and Hitler had never had a smooth relation and could be described as contentious at best (Walker 71). According to Bauer, while Hitler had secretly expressed great admiration for Mussolini and even considered him an influence, Mussolini had nothing for Hitler. He was particularly infuriated by the Nazi government’s assassination of his ally Engelbert Dollfuss, Austrian dictator in 1934. After this incident, Mussolini tried very hard to avoid any connection with the Nazi Germans and their leader, Hitler. He particularly rejected the Germans racialism and anti-Semitism sentiments (71). Mussolini did not believe in biological racism but instead was keen on Italianizing parts of the world that he sought to conquer and build the Italian Empire (O'Hara 72). However, according to Dalton, the official position of Italian Fascism had never been clear and had shifted between 1920 and 1934. Nevertheless, the ideologies of the Italian Fascism had never been considered as discriminatory against the Jewish living in Italy (78). Mussolini viewed that the Jewish community had existed in Italy for centuries dating back to the period of the Kings of Rome and therefore should be left to live peacefully in the country .This later changed as the influence of Hitler on Italian Fascism intensified (Bauer 78).
Despite numerous attempts to distance himself from the Nazi regime in the early years of his reign, Mussolini found himself inching closer to Hitler as an ally towards the beginning of the Second World War. Walker notes that, the configuration of the Manifesto of Race during 1938 was a clear indication of the influence of Hitler on Mussolini (80). The Manifesto of Race had borrowed a lot from the Nazi Nuremberg laws (O'Hara 57) and was intended to strip any Italian Jews of their citizenship and consequently their professions and positions in the public service or government. Despite the unpopularity and uproar across the nation against the Manifesto, Mussolini did little to change his resolve that he considered Nazi Germans as allies. It is argued that Mussolini’s adoption of the Manifesto of Race was purely guided by his reasoning that the move would be tactical in drawing Hitler closer as an ally. Indeed this was the beginning of the close ties between Mussolini and Hitler that was later transferred to the world stage during the Second World War (Bauer 67).
As the Prime Minister of Italy, Mussolini had a burning desire to see his Italy expansionism ideals come to fruition, especially after playing a key role in the defeat of the Germans and Austrians during the First World War. While Italian invasion of Ethiopia as well as his country’s military support during the Spanish Civil War served to soothe this dream, Mussolini found Italy and himself being isolated by the League of Nations, a predicament they shared with the Nazi Germans (O'Hara 56). The continued isolation of Italy forced Mussolini to forge close working relations with the Nazi Germans who were being blacklisted for their fascist ideologies and actions. Having fallen out of favor with the League of Nations even after its key role in the World War I, Italy under the leadership of Benito Mussolini decided to pursue its own cause. Mussolini believed Italy and even Germany could not be stopped by the League of Nations in their quest for more colonies. Thus, he decided to press on with his expansionist ideals. The first causality of this burning ambition was Albania when it was invaded by Italy on April 7, 1939. Albania was defeated after only five days and this forced the Albanian King Zog to escape leaving the country under Italians for a long time. A month later, Mussolini and Hitler strengthened their relationship through the Pact of Steel (Walker 84).
Despite the reservations of the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III about siding with Germany as an ally, the Mussolini was keen on cementing his relationship with the Nazi Germans. While the Nazi Germans planned on how to invade Poland, a move Hitler considered would not be interfered with by the Allied forces, he advised Italy to invade Yugoslavia (Walker 86). Mussolini contemplated taking the offer but was advised by King Victor Emmanuel III to take a neutral stand on the impending crisis. He was also humbled by the fact that Italy was not in a position to rebuild after the devastating effects of World War (O'Reilly 34). It was therefore not surprising when Italy avoided joining the Axis when the Second World War broke out on September 1, 1939 following Hitler’s invasion of Poland drawing the ire of the French and British (Bauer 86). At the onset of World War II, the British were keen on joining forces with the Italians against the Nazi Germans as was the case during the First World War .However, the French had long lost trust with the Italians and were more willing to attack the Italian forces in Libya. Later in 1939, the French offered to negotiate with the Italians on a number of issues; however, Mussolini was quick to withdraw from the talks when he realized that the French were not ready to negotiate on Nice, Savoy, and Corsica. This infuriated both the French and the British who saw Italy as dining with the enemy and therefore would only spare Italy if it stayed out of the war (O'Hara 86).
However, Mussolini led his country into the Second World War in 1940 against the hesitations of his king. He joined the Axis as an ally. This came despite the fact that Italians had earlier partnered with French against the Germans earlier in 1930s. Blinded by the belief that the war would not last long and that Germany would have the victory, Mussolini declared war on the United Kingdom and France hoping that he would benefit from the peace deal that would follow (Steinberg 87). Italy sent its forces to the Battle of France where they joined the German forces trying to fight off the French out of Alpine Line. Within eleven days, the French forces were forced to surrender and the Axis forces took charge of the border (Dalton 64).
Meanwhile, Mussolini took the battle to the British in their colonies in East Africa especially in Kenya, Sudan, and Somaliland, in a war termed the East African Campaign. While the Italian forces were able to make advances in Kenya and Sudan, they only managed to conquer the British Somaliland on August 3, 1940 (Steinberg 89). The Italians also fought the British in Egypt (the Western Desert Campaign) and in Belgium (the Battle of Britain). Mussolini also sent his forces to Greece where Greco-Italian war broke out. The Italians desperately lost the battle with the Greece and subsequently ceded one quarter of Albania. This gave the Allied forces an opportunity to gather in Balkans and forced the Germans to commit more forces to fight off the Allied forces (Bauer 91).
With array of loses to the British forces in Africa, Italy proved to be more of troublesome than an advantage to the Nazi Germans. For instance, the Italians were forced back to Libya in the Western Desert Campaign while incurring high losses in the process. The East African Campaign also proved costly to the Italians and Mussolini’s forces could not resist the Allied forces’ attacks (Walker 78). To fortify the Italian hold on North Africa, Hitler sent his forces to help the Italians repel the heavy attacks of the British in Egypt and Libya. Despite these problems, the Axis forces also had good times as they fought hard to complete the Greco-Italian War which ended in Axis’ favor and led to the Italian and German occupancy of Greek. Meanwhile, Mussolini was waging another war with the Soviet Union when the Axis forces invaded Stalin’s territory in June 1941. Italy also declared war against the United States in early December 1941. This was after Japan had attacked the Pearl Harbor raising the U.S anger (O'Hara 98).
While it can be argued that the Axis were fairing well before the entry of the U.S into the war, the provocation of the United States by the Japanese changed the cause of the war for the Axis forces. The events of 1942 shaped the destiny of Italy and Mussolini as far as the war was concerned. As early as March 1942, Italy had started to feel the full effect of the war which was taking its tolls on the country’s resources. After they had lost at El Alamein in late 1942, the Axis forces were forced to retreat in Tunisia where they finally lost to the Allied forces in 1943. Meanwhile, the Allied forces were increasingly threatening Italy at home when they invaded the Sicily. The bombings of the Allied forces in Italy were the telling signs that Mussolini and the Axis was losing the war (Dalton 102).
After employing propaganda throughout the war to convince the Italians that the Axis forces would win and Italy would benefit greatly in such victory, Mussolini’s grip on power was fast slipping away. Following the invasion of Sicily by the Allied forces and subsequent bombings in the country, the factory operation in Italy were paralyzed as there was acute shortage of raw materials. In addition, the Italians were forced to buy food at extremely high prices due to shortage in supply. Numerous workers’ strikes were recorded in 1943 and this only served to further alienate Mussolini in Italy not only within his National Fascist Party but also by the general public (Walker 67). With the looming crisis at home, Mussolini desperately requested Hitler to negotiate a peace deal with Stalin so as to block Allied invasion of Italy from the West. Mussolini was running desperate for help which he could not find in his friend and ally Adolf Hitler as he feared the Allied forces were gearing up to attack the Italian peninsula .This far, it can be argued that Italy had more enemy than the Nazi German as it seemed that the Allied forces had resolved to completely destroy Italy before facing off with Germany. Despite the destruction going on in Italy, Hitler was still confident about the Axis victory and showed little remorse for the tribulations of Mussolini and Italy. To him, Italy and Mussolini were be exploited and manipulated for the benefit of the Nazi German (Steinberg 35).
This was clearer after Mussolini was replaced as Italy’s Prime Minister later on in 1943. Given the large presence of the German forces in Italy, the new Prime Minister, Badoglio announced against his will that they would continue to fight in the war alongside their German allies. The Prime Minister had realized that despite the war being unpopular in Italy and within his government, the Nazi Germans had strategically positioned themselves to attack Italy should they decide to change ally. This is something that Hitler may not have thought twice about. This was evident after Italians surrendered to the Allied forces when Hitler sought to drive out Italians from Italian peninsula and also occupied Rome against the wishes of the Italians (Walker 89). In other words, Italy would continue to be the launching pad of the German forces against the Allied forces, something that left Italy exposed to the Allied forces’ attacks.
Mussolini continued to be manipulated and exploited by Hitler even after he was replaced as the Italian Prime Minister. After a meeting with Hitler in Germany following his replacement and rescue from prison, it is believed that Mussolini had expressed desire to retire from politics as he was depressed and in poor health after suffering in the hands of the friends-turned-foes in Italy. After hearing his friend’s resolve and desire, Hitler threatened that he would destroy Turin, Milan, and Genoa unless Benito Mussolini changed his decision and formed a new fascist state in Italy. Driven by the desire to save his country from the Nazi oppression, Mussolini decided to follow the demands of Hitler and thus form a new fascist regime under the Italy Social Republic party (Steinberg 96). Unknown to him, Hitler was setting him up against the Allied forces and against the government of Badoglio. In addition, through Mussolini, the Nazi Germans continued to exploit Italy as was evident in their control of large parts of the country as well as take over the territories that were earlier conquered by the Italians such as those in Albania and Greece (Walker 62). Despite Mussolini’s protestations, Hitler’s expansionist ideals were extended through Italy and Mussolini himself.
The fact that Italy and Mussolini was blinded by the huge egos of the Nazi Germans was no doubt. The main reason why Mussolini drove his forces to join the Germans forces in the Second World War was based on the huge prospects that the Germans would win the war and thus help Italy expand its territories and empire. While the Italian and German forces tried hard against all odds to resist the attacks of the Allied forces, Italy and Mussolini should have listened to the wise counsel of King Victor Emmanuel III who adviced Italy to remain neutral in the crisis. But being hungry for power, Mussolini believed Italy would realize its expansionist ideals through Nazi Germans than it would under the League of Nations. However, this played into the hands of the Nazi regime and its head Adolf Hitler who wasted no time in exploiting Italy and its leader Mussolini. He not only extended the German Fascism to Italy, Hitler was more willing to force Italians out of their lands or to remain loyal to his oppressive rule.