The Rome-Berlin Axis: To what extent was Hitler’s decision to form an alliance with Mussolini the result of ideological affinity between the two regimes?

Posted on October 1, 2012

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Cooperation between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy started in the mid-1930s as a merely political commitment and culminated in 1939, with the Pact of Steel: a military alliance. The alliance between the two states is not as easily explained as imaginable. Hitler’s racial ideals saw the Germanic race as the one to rule the world, yet he decided to form an alliance with Mussolini’s Italy, which was hardly a Germanic country. In racial terms, Hitler justified the alliance with Italy claiming that Northern Italy’s culture was of Germanic in origin and that the ancient Romans were Aryans.[1] Rich argued that Hitler’s motive for advocating an alliance with Fascist Italy is explained by applying the balance of power principle: Italy was to counter balance France in Hitler’s struggle for world supremacy.[2] Instead, Sullivan argued that the fulcrum of the Italo-German alliance was the belief that they shared a duty to fight democracy and hinder the advance of Bolshevism.[3] Examining a period of time stretching from the early 1920s and the signature of the 1939 Pact of Steel, particular attention will be given to Hitler’s personal plans and desires involving Italy, even before his rise to power. This essay argues that the reason behind Nazi Germany’s alliance with Fascist Italy was not born mainly out of ideological affinity, but it is to be understood to a great extent in terms of political as well as, to a smaller extent, military strategy.

Hitler himself claimed his interest for an alliance with Italy is traceable back to the early 20s. At the time, he believed that the two countries’ shared hostility towards the territorial settlements of the Treaty of Versailles could be the base for a political partnership.[4] In Mein Kampf, he spoke of the need for cooperation with Italy in terms of anti-Semitism. He believed that the biggest threat to Germany were the Jews, he convinced himself that they had already gotten a firm hold on France and its political and economic leadership. To face France and the Jewish conspirators Hitler declared that all causes of resentment towards those states that, like Germany, were not willing to suffer nor endure France’s will to dominate Europe, should be put aside. These states were Britain and Italy.[5]

In the case of Italy, the cause of resentment that Hitler spoke about in Mein Kampf was certainly the South Tyrol. This German-speaking region had been annexed by Italy after the Paris Peace Conference on the grounds of military security, as the new border would have moved up to the easily defendable Brenner Pass.[6] This decision put roughly 200.000 Austrian Germans under Italian rule and caused great resentment both in Austria and in Germany.[7] Once Mussolini came to power in 1922, Fascist authorities commenced a policy of oppression towards this German minority, inflaming public opinion not only in the German speaking states, but also in the other Western democracies.[8] Despite the South Tyrol question seeming to be the potential cause for long-term tension and diffidence, Hitler was always prepared to compromise. Since the early 1930s, Hitler had looked for collaboration with the Italian dictator and had gone so far as to declare that he considered the Brenner frontier as final.[9] Again, in MeinKampf, Hitler had argued that the question of South Tyrol should be cast aside, in order to focus on the other, much larger, German communities that had been abandoned to rival states after Versailles (mainly the Rhur). The situation in South Tyrol occasionally brought to violence and Hitler claimed that the cause had been fomented directly by Habsburg legitimists and Jews to hinder the rapprochement between Germany and Italy.[10]

While on Hitler’s side alliance with Italy seemed inevitable, Mussolini was not initially fond of Hitler: he suspected that Hitler was mad and believed that his racial theories were “nonsense”.[11] Indeed, Mussolini’s scepticism towards Hitler’s anti-Semitic demagogy meant that many Nazis were not particularly fond of Mussolini either, who was also known as one of the foremost Italian interventionists before Italy’s entrance into the Great War against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1915.[12] Nevertheless, Hitler later said that he considered Mussolini to be his mentor, and that without his ascent to power in Italy the Nazi movement would have been doomed.[13] In 1930 he again declared: “I have been striving for many years for a relationship with Italy”. Similarly, other leading Nazis had built personal links with the Fascist state, including the Prince of Hess and Goring.[14]

However, during the first half of the 30s the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini was far from idyllic. The greatest point of friction was Austria and Hitler’s will to achieve the Anschluss, which Mussolini, who wanted to make of Austria a satellite state, had so far managed to hinder.[15] In 1935, tension was so great that Mussolini ordered Italian troops to the Brenner, threatening conflict with Germany annex Austria.[16] However, Mussolini’s attention shifted towards Abyssinia and he gave Hitler virtually a free hand in Austria, at the same time, Hitler would not oppose his war in Africa.[17]

The Rome-Berlin Axis was formed in 1936. A protocol was signed in which Italy pledged to represent Germany’s interests at the League of Nations, which the latter had left in 1933, and to support her in the quest to re-acquire colonies as sources for raw materials.[18] However, the two states’ interests clashed again in the Danube region, which Mussolini wanted as an Italian sphere of influence and so did the German Fuehrer.[19]  To put an end to the dispute, the German-Italian protocol of 1936 contained a reciprocal promise for mutual diplomatic support aimed at economic penetration in the Danube region and for assistance in front of third party states.[20]

However, evidence seems to suggest that the fight against Bolshevism was more of a cover, while the motives for German-Italian partnership appear to be of a strategic nature, both political and military. For instance, in February 1937, the German ambassador at Rome analysed the partnership in a very practical manner, without the rhetoric typical of Mussolini and Hitler.

The good German-Italian relations prevailing at present are based on some elements that seem to guarantee durability but also on others of a transitory nature. The former derive primarily from the geographical situation, from many conditions of life shared in common and…also from the kinship of the two domestic political systems…The elements of a transitory nature spring from the political situation of the day, as for instance from the close collaboration in the Spanish conflict.[21]

As this relationship was also based on short-term causes, the ambassadors claimed that the one between Germany and Italy was a friendship rather than a marriage, which was made possible by common interests. The first eventuality that could break this friendship was Germany’s decision to turn against Italy about Abyssinia. The advent to power of the Right in France was another eventuality, which could bring Italy close to France and away from Germany. The ending of the Spanish Civil War would take away an excuse for close partnership. Two more causes for a break-up were the possibility of a clash of interests in the Danube region or a political row over Austria.[22] The ambassador continued his letter by observing that it was in Germany’s interests to give the Italians Carte Blanche in the Mediterranean, given that the Reich had no interests there other than securing Italy’s rivalry against France, which could be provided by Italy’s thirst for economic expansion in the Mediterranean stage.[23]

As Weinberg argues, Germany’s alliance with Italy allowed Hitler to enhance his influence in East and South-East Europe while also allow Germany to re-arm without preventive action by the French and the British.[24] Although Hitler had attempted to form an alliance with Britain, the latter had in the late thirties drifted away from Germany and aligned itself with France. Once Hitler realised an alliance with London was impossible, Italy had to become his weapon against Britain in the Mediterranean.[25]  This strategic reasoning led to the signing by Mussolini and Hitler of the 1939 Pact of Steel. As opposed to the merely political Axis agreement of 1936, this was a purely military pact. In case of an attack from a third state, the two powers had to come to the attacked power’s aid.[26] Hitler was not interested in Italy’s actual military capabilities, though. Bell argued that Mussolini had managed to create the impression that Italian armed forces were far better trained, organised and equipped than they were in reality.[27] However, in the aforementioned telegram, the German ambassador at Rome warned that Italy’s ‘peculiar’ organisational and military skills had not to be underestimated, in the case of a military alliance.[28] The ambassador’s observation shows that the German leadership would have been aware of Fascist Italy’s military faults when the Pact of Steel was signed, suggesting that the alliance, on the German side, was not intended to be fruitful in strictly military terms. Italy was chosen as an ally not because it would be a militarily strong partner, but because Italy’s rivalry with France and Britain in the Mediterranean could be a balancing factor in case of conflict.

It has been argued by Baxa that, by 1939, the two regimes were held together not only by shared interests but also by ideology. Analysing Hitler’s 1938 visit to Rome, he suggests that that was the moment when the two dictators started to feel a sense of ideological camaraderie. He argues that, although Hitler was in Rome to seal a military alliance and Mussolini tried to avoid this sort of commitment, the visit showed that “something profound… united the two regimes… Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy found each other and recognised in one another a kindred spirit”.[29] However, ideology might have brought Hitler and Mussolini closer before the Pact of Steel, but given Hitler’s long-standing desire for an alliance with Italy and also the fact that he had come to Rome specifically with the intention of forming said alliance, it can be argued that the path to an alliance had already been drawn by the strategic and diplomatic circumstances analysed in this essay.

In conclusion, Sullivan’s theory that ideology was the fulcrum of the German-Italian alliance is fundamentally incorrect. Firstly, Hitler had initially ideated an alliance between the two states on anti-Semitic grounds and shared resentment for Versailles, rather than affinity between the National Socialist and Fascist movements. Secondly, Mussolini was not an anti-Semite and neither was the Fascist movement based on anti-Semitic ideas during the 1920s when Hitler claimed he had thought of an alliance. Affinity between the Fascist and Nazi ideologies undoubtedly played a role in bringing Hitler and Nazi leaders closer to Mussolini’s regime, but the ideologies were on the whole different, mainly because of Hitler’s obsessive racism and anti-Semitism. Furthermore, the fact that Hitler had at a point sought an alliance with Britain suggests that Hitler was hardly concerned with ideology in the 1930s, when he was looking for allies in Europe. Ideology did however have a role in keeping Italy and Germany close during the second half of the 1930s in the form of joint intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, ideology did play a role in legitimising the alliance, but only during the later stages. Rich’s argument that Hitler’s alliance with Fascist Italy is the result of the application of the balance of power principle is accurate. This alliance was beneficial to Germany as it procured Hitler with an ally against France (and later, Britain) and a supporter on the international stage during the years of rejection of Versailles, rearmament and aggressive expansion in East Europe.

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

 

Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, Series C, Vol. V. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (London, 1966).

Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, Series C, Vol. VI. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (London, 1983).

Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, Series D, Vol. VI. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (London, 1956).

Hitler, A., Mon Combat. La Défense Française (Paris).

Secondary Sources:

 

Adelman, J.R., (ed), Hitler and his Allies in World War II. Routledge (New York, 2007).

Baxa, P., Capturing the Fascist Moment: Hitler’s Visit to Italy in 1938 and the Radicalization of Fascist Italy. Journal of Contemporary History , Vol. 42, No. 2 (Apr., 2007), pp. 227-242

Bell, P.M.H., The Origins of the Second World War. Longman Group UK Ltd (New York, 1986).

Dockrill, M.; Goold, D., Peace Without Promise: Britain and the Peace Conferences, 1919-1923. Batsford Academic and Educational (London, 1981).

Rich, N., Hitler’s War Aims. André Deutsch Ltd (London, 1974).

Stoakes, G., Hitler and the Quest for World Dominion. Berg Publishers Ltd (London, 1986).

Weinberg, G.L., Hitler’s Foreign Policy 1933-1939. Enigma Books (New York, 2010).

Wiskemann, E., The Rome-Berlin Axis. Fontana Library (London, 1966).

Endnotes:


[1] Rich, N., Hitler’s War Aims (London, 1974). pp. 317

[2] Ibid

[3] Adelman, J.R., (ed), Hitler and his Allies in World War II (New York, 2007). pp. 117

[4] Stoakes, G., Hitler and the Quest for World Dominion (London, 1986). pp. 103-105

[5] Hitler, A., Mon Combat (Paris). pp. 574

[6] Dockrill, M.; Goold, D., Peace Without Promise: Britain and the Peace Conferences, 1919-1923 (London, 1981). pp. 107

[7] Wiskemann, E., The Rome-Berlin Axis (London, 1966). pp. 38-39

[8] Ibid pp. 40

[9] Ibid pp. 40-41

[10] Hitler, A., Mon Combat (Paris). pp. 557

[11] Wiskemann, E., The Rome-Berlin Axis (London, 1966). pp. 42

[12] Stoakes, G., Hitler and the Quest for World Dominion (London, 1986). pp. 105

[13] Wiskemann, E., The Rome-Berlin Axis (London, 1966). pp. 44-45

[14] Ibid pp. 40-41

[15] Bell, P.M.H., The Origins of the Second World War (New York, 1986). pp. 189-190

[16] Wiskemann, E., The Rome-Berlin Axis (London, 1966). pp. 57-72

[17] Ibid pp. 57-72

[18] Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, Series C, Vol. V (London, 1966). pp. 1136-1137

[19] Ibid pp 47

[20] Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, Series C, Vol. VI (London, 1983). pp. 162-163

[21] Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, Series C, Vol. VI (London, 1983). pp. 457

[22] Ibid

[23] Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, Series C, Vol. VI (London, 1983). pp. 459

[24] Weinberg pp 262

[25] Wiskemann, E., The Rome-Berlin Axis (London, 1966). pp. 110-111

[26] Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, Series D, Vol. VI (London, 1956). pp. 561-563

[27] Bell, P.M.H., The Origins of the Second World War (New York, 1986). pp. 185-188

[28]  Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, Series C, Vol. VI (London, 1983). pp. 459-460

[29] Baxa, P., Capturing the Fascist Moment: Hitler’s Visit to Italy in 1938 and the Radicalization of Fascist Italy (Apr., 2007). pp. 227-241

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