Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 22, 1939 – Mussolini Rejects “Pact of Rust”

After a meeting that had begun cordially but ended in mysterious anger, the Italian delegation to Berlin stormed out, refusing to sign what was to be called the “Pact of Friendship and Alliance between Germany and Italy.” In later speeches, energetic Mussolini would call it a “Pact of Rust”, declaring that promises offered by Hitler looked as shiny as a new Volkswagen, but they would soon lead to the danger and potential destruction of his Italy. Hitler, meanwhile, considered the political slight to be personal and cut off relations with Italy.

It would be some time before international intelligence agencies and investigative journalists determined what exactly caused the issues between the two nations that had nearly become blood-brothers. Both Hitler and Mussolini were charismatic, powerful leaders who were born out of the economic turmoil of post-WWI Europe. Hitler had been a failed artist who fell into politics after feeling the betrayal of the Treaty of Versailles with its crippling rules and reparations demanded on a Germany that he felt militarily won the war. Joining and soon leading the National Socialist German Workers' Party, Hitler would rise to power through propaganda and discipline, elected legally despite his monstrous promises for a Final Solution to what he considered “racial inferiors.”

Benito Mussolini, meanwhile, had grown from being the son of a provincial blacksmith father outspoken about socialism and a devout Catholic mother who worked as a schoolteacher. After being dismissed from Catholic boarding school for violent behavior, Mussolini did well in public school and later emigrated to Switzerland, partly to avoid his requirement of military service. In Switzerland, the bedrock of Italian socialist ideals of Mussolini’s father that had formed in Mussolini’s mind expanded with philosophy from Nietzsche, Marxists, and, especially, Georges Sorel. Using Marx’s ideals of destruction of decadence through strikes as well as his father’s praise of anarchist violence, Mussolini collected an array of skills in social manipulation, most importantly his ability to tap into the deep emotions of an audience.

Mussolini returned to his home town to be editor of The Class Struggle (Lotta di Classe), a weekly radical newspaper. His publishing spread quickly, and he came to great fame as a Socialist speaker and writer. When World War I broke out, he came into difficulties with the Italian Socialist Party and eventually was dismissed when he determined that his best interest would be to support the war and work toward nationalism. His political beliefs swung to the right, and Mussolini soon signed up for military service and argued for the strength of unity and the state. He created the National Fascist Party in 1921 and skyrocketed to power, performing the March on Rome with his Blackshirts in October, 1922, effectively seizing control of Italy.

Over the next decades, Mussolini would continue to gather power and promote the Italian state. Dodging assassinations and cracking down on dissent, he built a government unquestionable by the silent majority and admired by those seeking social positions. Parades, uniforms, and increasingly ornate titles (Mussolini’s being "His Excellency Benito Mussolini, Head of Government, Duce of Fascism, and Founder of the Empire" by 1936), the Italian Fascism would become a renewed powerhouse with ideas such as youth involvement, land reclamation, price control, and gold donation to keep taxes low while social programs continued to operate through the Great Depression. To further political dedication, he launched military campaigns such as his “Conquest of Ethiopia” in 1935-6 and aided the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, citing atrocities against Catholics by the Republicans.

Hitler and Mussolini were soon at each other’s attention. Hitler emulated many of Mussolini’s successful techniques in his own rise to power, but Mussolini was skeptical of Hitler’s claims of racial superiority, saying in 1934, “Race! It is a feeling, not a reality: ninety-five percent, at least, is a feeling. Nothing will ever make me believe that biologically pure races can be shown to exist today.” Cultural superiority, however, was easily found as Mussolini referred to the Germans as “the descendants of those who were illiterate when Rome had Caesar, Virgil and Augustus.” Despite their political differences, however, both dictators knew they could use the other to their advantages: Hitler wanted to establish a political alliance with himself at the head (the term “Axis” believed to have been Mussolini’s), while Mussolini had ambitions of rebuilding a Roman Empire, having conquered Albania in under a month and looking toward Tunisia but needing Germany’s superior military technique and technology to maximize the war effort.

The two parties outlined agreements in a pact with public declarations of communication, mutual defense, and cooperation with economic and military support. The pact also carried Secret Supplementary Protocols about the use of propaganda, and it is believed that here an insult against Mussolini’s writing style as opposed to the film making of Nazi Germany prompted a break between the two countries. The cleft broke wide, and soon the two countries were preparing for war over old territorial arguments between Austria and northeast Italy.

German foreign minister Ribbentrop asked his Soviet counterpart Molotov for support, but the USSR declined in August of 1939, as did the rest of the world, largely sitting back to see what would happen. Mussolini’s armies moved to take hold of supposedly Italian land, and Hitler quickly struck back. Italy held the upper hand for the first year of the Fascist War with its veterans, but German troops and superior materiel eventually overwhelmed Italian defenses and marched into the peninsula. Mussolini fled the country, and a desperate war of resistance eventually died out as German authority became solid.

Holding Italy, Hitler continued southward, building up a German empire in Africa before turning against Communist Russia his nemesis Stalin with Operation Barbarossa in 1945, which would ultimately lead to his own downfall.


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In reality, Mussolini and Hitler formed a Pact of Steel between their fascist nations. It lasted until 1943, when Italy ousted Mussolini and attempted to make peace with the Allies while being surreptitiously invaded by Germany in Operation Achse. Hitler ordered Mussolini’s rescue before he was turned over to the Allies and protected him until 1945, when Mussolini was spotted trying to escape to Spain and shot, then hanged.

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