World War II was certainly the most devastating and catastrophic conflict of human history. Because of its size and complexity, this war had strong economic, social and political repercussions both on the international system as whole and on the future of the single countries involved in the conflict. This is the case of Italy, which was one of the main protagonists of WWII. Indeed, its foreign policy and consequently its stance in the conflict deeply affected the position of the country in the post-war world, undermining its influence and authority at international level. In order to explain how the Fascist foreign policy shaped the future of the post-war Italy, it is worth to analyse the main stages of its evolution as well as highlighting the most relevant turning points regarding the Italian participation to WWII.
When in 1939 WWII erupted, Italy was unprepared, disorganized as well as unwilling to immediately enter the conflict. Still, Hitler’s pressures forced Mussolini to join Germany in the war. In order to understand why Italy decided to support Hitler’s project and consequently to ally with Germany in WWII, it is essential to analyse the transformations that the Fascist foreign policy underwent during the years prior to the outbreak of the conflict.
The evolution of the Fascist foreign policy articulates into two phases. During the first phase (1922-1929), Mussolini pursued a low profile foreign policy. Moderation and prudence were key elements for Italy to win back the trust of the European Great Powers after WWI. In order to redeem itself and to claw back its power at European level, Italy reassured the European Chancelleries about its intentions to honour the Treaties of Peace. Besides, moderation and prudence were aimed at gaining international legitimacy of Fascism. Also, this low profile foreign policy was justified by the need for concentrating Italian political efforts on the solution of internal problems and on the consolidation of the newborn regime. These circumstances diverted temporarily Mussolini’s attention from foreign affairs. However, his ultimate objective was to improve Italy’s influence in the continent as to integrate the country among the European Great Powers. To this purpose, Italy focused on achieving three main objectives. Firstly, Mussolini negotiated a stable agreement with the UK. The two countries were linked by a long-lasting friendship. In particular, the UK considered Italy to represent an obstacle both to the French hegemony and the threat of Communism in Europe. When Chamberlain, who was very close to Mussolini, became Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1924, the relationship between the two countries improved considerably. Secondly, Italy aimed at gradually bringing up the issue of the territorial losses it suffered as a consequence of WWI Treaty of Peace. Also, some hints of Imperialism began to fill Italy’s foreign policy, as the country had never stopped to look at Africa as an area where to project its influence in order to become a Great Power. Thirdly, during this phase, Italy opposed drastically to the rise of Germany, inasmuch as it began to perceive Germany as a threat to its national security. Since those three key elements made the Fascist strategy appear to be the continuation of the post-Unitarian liberal tradition, the Italian diplomacy supported Mussolini’s foreign policy. However, despite the cooperation with the regime, the Italian diplomacy was immune from the contamination of the Fascist ideology.
The Fascist foreign policy began to evolve when Dino Grandi became Undersecretary at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1925. Indeed, he gradually substituted the main charges in the Ministry with Fascist personalities as to grant the collaboration of the Italian diplomacy with the regime. Notwithstanding these formal changes in the composition of the Italian diplomacy, the Fascist foreign policy did not change dramatically. During Grandi’s permanence at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Italy’s priorities were maintaining the same distance between France and Germany, projecting its power in the Mediterranean and granting security in the Balkan area.
The Fascist foreign policy entered the second phase in 1929 when Dino Grandi was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. This was a turning point for the Fascist regime moderation and prudence were abandoned and replaced by the “policy of determinant weight”. This last was based on the idea that although Italy was weak from a military point of view, its presence in the European scenario had become essential. Grandi was convinced that Italy could act as the arbiter of the status quo in Europe, the regional equilibrium relying on its actions and stances. In order to carry out successfully this policy, Grandi promoted a strong pacifism in Italy’s international relations. Particularly, he believed that peace was an essential condition to let Italy play the role of arbiter in the European scenario since war would have implied to line up with one faction or another, thus hindering the balance of power in the region. The rationale behind this pragmatic foreign policy was to grab all the opportunities for gains that were offered to Italy, even the ones coming from its rivals. Therefore, in this phase, the Italian foreign policy remained separated from the Fascist ideology. The policy of determinant weight was pushed to test and revealed to be successful during the London Naval Conference held in 1930 where Italy achieved naval power parity with France.
Notwithstanding the great successes achieved by Grandi during those years, in 1930 Mussolini overthrew him and took the control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This choice was justified by two reasons. Firstly, Grandi’s project could only have been realized in a long-term perspective whereas Mussolini aimed at rapidly integrating Italy among the Great Powers. Moreover, Mussolini disagreed with Grandi’s pacifism and progressively began to consider him as a threat for the reputation of the regime. Finally, he began to perceive Grandi as a threat for his power. Actually, this succession did not change the characteristics of the Italian foreign policy during that phase. Indeed, Mussolini carried on Grandi’s policy of determinant weight as to improve Italy’s influence in the European context. To this purpose, in 1933 Mussolini presented the Four-Powers Pact proposal to the UK, France and Germany. This drafted agreement aimed at promoting peace maintenance and cooperation for peaceful settlement of disputes (which were the main concerns of France and the UK) as well as revising WWI Peace Treaties (which was the main purpose of Germany and Italy). In this scenario, Italy could play a strong role, balancing the interest of the four involved powers while expanding Italian influence in the European system of states. However, the pact failed due to Germany reluctance to accept naval parity with France.
… to Alignment
Italian neutralism vis-à-vis the European Great Powers began to disintegrate in 1934 when Hitler attempted unsuccessfully to annex Austria for the first time. This episode raised concerns among the Fascist executives who realized that Germany was progressively strengthening and expanding. Indeed, Hitler’s revisionist plan to annex Austria was threatening directly the security of Italy and its neighbours. This episode represented a turning point for the Italian foreign policy since it made the country abandon its balanced and non-aligned attitude in international relations. Besides, it helped the reconciliation between Italy and France. Indeed, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two countries met in 1934 to discuss about the future of Europe vis-a’-vis the German attempts of expansion. During the talks Mussolini and Laval urged for the convocation of a conference to discuss about the equilibrium in the Balkans and reaffirmed their common commitment to protect Austria from any attempt of annexation. Allegedly, during one of the meetings, Mussolini also obtained Laval’s approval about the Italian annexation of Ethiopia, which was fundamental for Italy to project its power in Africa and to achieve the status of Great Power.
The attempted annexation of Austria also fostered the creation of the Stresa Front in 1935, an alliance between the UK, France and Italy aimed at maintaining peace and avoiding any attempt of altering the European equilibrium. Hence, the agreement was an ill-concealed attempt to contain the German expansion. No sooner had the Stresa front been created than it unveiled its weakness. Eventually, the agreement collapsed when the UK accepted the naval rearmament of Germany. Even though the Stresa Front had failed, Mussolini believed that France and the UK would still have approved his project of annexing Ethiopia. Indeed, since it would have not altered the European equilibrium, the campaign was in line with the Stresa agreements. This was not the case. When in 1935 Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, both France and the UK condemned the act, accusing Italy of aggression. This episode represented a rupture, changing drastically the European political equilibrium. In fact, the negative reaction of France and the UK to the Ethiopia campaign deteriorated the alliance with Italy and fostered a rapid reconciliation between Mussolini and Hitler, who supported the Fascist colonialist project and flattered the regime. Besides, the participation of the two countries in the Spanish Civil War further helped the reconciliation. These circumstances made the Italian hostility towards Germany end soon.
The designation of Galeazzo Ciano as Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1936 further strengthened the relationship between Italy and Germany. Indeed, Ciano was one of the main advocate of the alliance between the Fascist and Nationalist regime since he considered that the friendship with Hitler would have been essential for Italy to become a Great Power. Despite Mussolini’s reluctance, Ciano and the German Minister of Foreign Affairs von Neurath signed a protocol in 1936, known as Rome-Berlin Axis, stating a joint commitment for fighting against the Bolshevism.. During his assignment, the fascist foreign policy changed drastically, becoming more adventurous and aggressive.
1938 is a second turning point for the consolidation of the relationship between Italy and Germany. When finally Hitler annexed Austria, Mussolini did not opposed, accepting the fact impassively as it was unavoidable. This attitude was a consequence of the policy of appeasement, based on a quite spread feeling that European countries could negotiate with Hitler as to contain the German revisionism. During the same year, Hitler officially visited Rome, urging for a more formalized and concrete alliance between Italy and Germany. With regard to the alliance between the two countries, even though Italy had played for time during the previous years, a big change had produced in the Fascist foreign policy. Indeed, two years after the Rome-Berlin Axis approval, Mussolini began to show his interest towards a formal alliance with Hitler whereas Galeazzo Ciano, who previously promoted the reconciliation with Germany, started to regret the idea. Ciano’s reconsideration was based on a number of episodes that had highlighted the lack of transparency and integrity of the regime, thus deteriorated his trust in Hitler’s intensions.
In 1939 the European equilibrium was on the verge of the collapse and the European countries new that the outbreak of a continental war was a matter of time. This circumstance pushed Mussolini to surrender to Hitler’s pressures and to accept the military alliance with Germany. However, when Italy signed the Pact of Steel in 1939, Mussolini highlighted that Italy would have been able to join Germany in the conflict after three years since at that stage it was militarily unprepared. Despite Hitler’s reassurances, the war erupted a few months after the Pact of Steel was signed, forcing Italy to enter the war with Germany despite its weak military capacities and lacking preparation. Eventually, Mussolini was dragged into a world conflict that he had tried to escape from ever since. This led to the further deterioration of the relationship between Italy and the Allied Powers, which would have had considerable repercussion on Italy’s future in the post-war world.
The war had been going on for four years with Germany prevailing on the Allied Powers when the Husky Operation began in July 1943. The military campaign conceived in the First Washington Conference (also known as the Arcadia Conference), held from December 1941 to January 1942, was aimed at taking Sicily from the Axis Powers in order to free Italy from the Nazi occupation. The success of the operation raised concerns among the Fascist executive, which realized that the regimes would have not survived the invasion unless it had changed its attitude and institutional structure. In particular, in the night between 24 and 25 July 1943 the Grand Council of Fascism urged for Mussolini to resign but he refused to. The following day, King Vittorio Emanuele III dismissed and arrested Mussolini and appointed Marshal Badoglio as Prime Minister of a provisional government. Since Italian people misinterpreted this event as a signal that WWII was ending, Marshal Badoglio clarified that the War would have continued while at the same time he began to negotiate secretly with the Allied Italy’s separation from the Axis Powers. Badoglio charged the new Minister for Foreign Affairs Guariglia with leading the negotiations with the Allied Powers in order to ease the conditions of the Italian exit from the war. The armistice clauses would have been lightened if Italy had helped the Allies defeat the Nazi regime. On the 3rd September 1943 Italy signed the Armistice of Cassibile, which forced the country to surrender unconditionally. No sooner had the Armistice been announced than the King escaped leaving the country in the hands of the Allies and the Nazi forces. On September 28 1943 the Allies met with Marshal Badoglio on board the Battleship HMS Nelson to sign the detailed version of the armistice agreement. Only in that moment Italy was informed about the tough conditions that it would have undergone after the end of WWII. Indeed, the agreement included military and political clauses. In particular, the Italian government would have been controlled by an Allied commission and a referendum on the Monarchic form would have been held. Eisenhower opened to the possibility of easing the conditions of the armistice with Italy provided that this last had declared war against Germany. Notwithstanding its efforts to cooperate with the Allied Powers, Italy was tagged as a co-belligerent country (instead of being considered an ally). This raised concerns among the Italian political class since it predicted that Italy would have not been given any penalty reductions in exchange for their commitment with the Allies.
… to international isolation
When peace talks officially opened in 1945, Italy was not in the position for negotiating territorial concessions nor could it advance any claim for having bandwagoned with the Allied in the war against Germany. Indeed, the Allies considered Italy to be a mere co-belligerent. Its disadvantaged stance showed during the Council of Foreign Ministers held in London in September 1945, where De Gasperi, who had been appointed as Prime Minister of the Italian government, realized that the Allied had substantial punitive intentions against Italy. Those intentions were confirmed during the Twenty-first Plenary meeting, conveyed in Paris in August 1946 to discuss about the status of Italy in the post-war scenario. In this context, three main issues were addressed. Firstly, the Allied Powers agreed on the demilitarization of Italian borders as well as the reduction of the power of Italian armed forces.
Secondly, they discussed about territorial issues. in particular, the talks focused on the destiny of Trieste. Supported by Truman, De Gasperi urged that the division of the territory had respected the wilsonian principle of nationality. This request faced the opposition of Stalin, who, backed by France and the UK, supported Tito’s ambitions of expansions to the detriment of Italy. The meeting also focused on the Austrian claims on South Tyrol. In this case while the UK supported Vienna’s claims France and the US backed Italy.
A third issue concerned Italian colonies. In the meeting, De Gasperi underlined that Italy would have renounced to any territory occupied during the Fascist regime but the same would not have been done for pre-Fascist conquests. This attitude was strongly criticized by the UK that was ready to expand its influence in all Italian former colonies.
The results of the Twenty-first Plenary meeting shaped the Italian Treaty of Peace formalized during the third meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, held in New York in November 1946. With regard to territorial issues, Trieste was attributed mainly to Tito whereas Austria was forced to respect the existent borders. Further, France obtained some territorial adjustments at the detriment of Italy as reparation for having been attacked by the Fascist regime during WWII. Regarding Italian colonies, Rome was forced to renounce to Albania, Ethiopia and the Dodecanese. Finally, Italy was condemned to pay high war reparations to the USSR, Greece, Yugoslavia as well as its former colonies.
During talks De Gasperi realized that Italy would have been forced to accept a “punitive” peace since it had no power for negotiating the Allies’ decisions. However, the most curious aspect of the Italian Treaty of Peace lied in this: as a result of the peace process, Germany was punished through the complete eradication of its national institutions as well as the dismemberment of its territories. Eventually these punishments revealed to be a blessing rather than a punishment. Indeed, Germany underwent a deeply controlled and guided process of state-building, supported by the Allies. The same cannot be said when referring to Italy. This last was punished for its ambiguous attitude in international relations and isolated by the international community. These differences in the attitude towards those two countries could appear to be paradoxical. However, they can be easily explained highlighting that Germany was given a chance because the Cold War had started and for its geographical position it represented a major obstacle for the expansion of Communism. Italy was not a buffer state. Besides, the Fascist regime had betrayed the expectation of its European neighbours, which hoped that Italy would have pursued a low profile and moderate foreign policy as to redeem itself from the accuses of double-crossing in WWII.
Despite De Gasperi’s highlights on the efforts that his country had carried out in the fight against the Fascist and Nazi regimes, the Allied proved to be inflexible, rejecting any request for easing the condition of the Treaty of Peace. The “revanche” was unavoidable even though it was not Italy but the Fascist regime that controlled the country to ally with Germany and enter WWII. Hence, De Gasperi had to decide whether refusing to sign the Treaty of Peace or accepting temporarily the “punitive ”peace as to wait for a more propitious moment to ask for the revision of its conditions. This orientation prevailed and De Gasperi signed the Treaty in February 1947.
The end of international isolation
The first occasion for Italy to fully reintegrate in international relations came in 1948 when the UK Foreign Secretary Bevin proposed the creation of a political and military alliance between France, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Belgium and the UK. However, De Gasperi rejected the proposal for two reasons. On the one hand, WWII had hindered the friendship with the UK. On the other hand, many Italian political forces opposed to the participation and challenging their desires would have implied De Gasperi’s defeat in the forthcoming elections.
A second occasion came in 1948 when the country fully engaged in the creation of the concept of Europe. Finally, in 1949 Italy signed the North Atlantic Treaty, becoming one of the members of OTAN. Even though the admission of Italy was a move to show the USSR that the occidental coalition was solid (and to hinder any communist influences in Italy), it sounded as redemption to the Italian executive, which felt that the country had been fully reintegrated in the international context. However, Italy had redeemed itself only from a formal point of view, since it had no influence in the international scenario.
The complete reintegration of Italy in international relations occurred during the 50s when it entered the CECA and finally was admitted to the UN.
Analyzing the main features of the Fascist foreign policy and the main stages of its evolution was essential to understand why Italy decided to enter WWII with Germany even though, during the first year of the regime, Mussolini took position against Hitler’s attempt to break the European balance of power. This digression has also highlighted that Italy underwent tougher peace condition than Germany when considering the long-term implications of the Treaties. Finally, this article highlighted how the Fascist foreign policy strategy has deeply affected Italy’s reputation in the post-war international relations, even after the collapse of the regime, neutralizing its influence and making it (unfairly) appear to be a double-crosser, unreliable and disloyal country.
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