In July 1936, a civil war broke out in Spain between the Republicans and the Nationalists lead by the army General Franco. The Republicans got support from various groups throughout Europe. Stalin of Russia sent aid and troops though they were referred as “volunteers” so not to offend the League of Nations. This in itself tended to condemn the Republicans in the eyes of many in Europe as Stalin and the communist regime in Russia still terrified many. Mussolini and Hitler sent support and “volunteers” to Franco.
Franco did not believe in parliamentary government. He did not lead a dictatorship in 1936 – in the sense that he did not yet have power in Spain but this was to come. Mussolini saw Italian involvement in Spain as yet another opportunity to expand his power and influence.
Not all Italians were pro-Franco. Some Italians who had moved abroad during Mussolini’s time in power, formed the Garibaldi Brigade. They fought on the Republicans side. At the Battle of Guadalajara, Italians fought Italians – something people in Italy had dreaded. In this battle the Republicans won. Mussolini was furious that his ‘volunteers’ had been beaten but blamed the Garibaldi Brigade. Three months after the defeat at Guadalajara, the leader of the Garibaldi Brigade, Carlos Roselli, was found murdered. Mussolini’s secret agents had done this.
The Spanish Civil War was deeply unpopular in Italy, as many people there could not see what it had to do with them. Also, the Italian involvement was hardly a success.
This apparent alienation in Europe drove Mussolini even further to Hitler. Mussolini referred to Italy and Germany being the most influential countries in Europe and that all the rest of Europe would revolve around this “axis”.
Hitler and Mussolini
In September 1937, Mussolini visited Germany. Hitler put on a major display of military power for Mussolini and by the end of the visit, Mussolini became convinced that Germany was the power he should ally with. He was sure that an alliance with Germany would lead to Italy becoming more powerful throughout Europe.
As Germany had left the League of Nations in 1933, so Mussolini left the League in 1937 after the League had imposed economic sanctions on Italy for the invasion of Abyssinia.
In 1938, Germany occupied Austria in the Anschluss (forbidden by Versailles). Hitler did not forewarn Mussolini about what he was going to do and this upset Mussolini’s belief that he was an equal partner. However, there was nothing Mussolini could do about the Nazi occupation of Austria and it was clear from 1938 on that Mussolini was definitely the minor partner in the relationship.
However, Mussolini achieved real fame for the part he played in the Munich agreement of September 1938. War seemed a real possibility in the autumn of 1938. The major powers took the opportunity to meet in Munich – an idea suggested by Mussolini. The outcome was the “Piece of Paper” which at the time seemed to everyone to guarantee European peace. Mussolini got the credit for this. After Munich, Mussolini’s reputation was at its peak. To many he seemed to be Europe’s saviour – a reputation that he assumed made him Europe’s premier statesman.
Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 angered Mussolini because it was clear that Germany was carving out its own empire and Italy was not.
To compensate for this, Mussolini took over Albania on Good Friday 1939. To him, this was a sign of Italy’s expanding power in Europe. King Victor Emmanuel was offered the title of King of Albania. Italian propaganda made a great deal out of this but in reality Albania had been under the influence of Italy for years and this was barely an Italian military success.
Mussolini made it clear to Hitler that he expected Italy to have the Adriatic Sea as a sphere of influence.
In May 1939, the Germans and Italians cemented their friendship with the Pact of Steel. This pact committed both countries to support the other if one of them became involved in a war. The Italian Foreign Minister, Galleazo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, realised that this pact was potentially very damaging for Italy but Mussolini was more concerned with the prestige of allying with Europe’s most potent power rather than the politics of it.
Mussolini also considered that Hitler’s Non-Aggression Pact with Communist Russia meant that somehow that involved Italy and he saw it as a three-nation treaty though Italy never signed it (nor was Italy even told that it was going to take place).
On September 1st, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Hitler had informed Mussolini what his plans were and fully expected Italian help. Mussolini, for all his boasts, realised that the Italian Army was not up to fighting in September 1939. Therefore, the Italians did not join in the German attack despite the Pact of Steel.
Italy did join the war on June 10th 1940. Why? He feared that Germany might get all the spoils of war as she was completely successful up to this date. To Mussolini, it was only a matter of time before Britain surrendered and he saw Europe as rich for easy pickings. His nearest rival geographically, France, was on the verge of surrendering. On June 17th, the date France sought surrender terms from Germany, Mussolini ordered an Italian invasion of southern France. The invasion grabbed a small piece of land but the French put up fierce resistance and a full-scale invasion of southern France never occurred.
In September 1940, Italy attacked the British troops based in Egypt. This was the start of a war that was to be disastrous for Italy.