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Il Duce’s Overreach

A history of Italy’s involvement in the Second World War is a case study in how a lesser power ought not to wage war. In June 1940, a country with only two working battleships, almost no modern artillery, a mere seventy tanks, and a paltry 152 anti-aircraft guns declared war on the Allies. Economically underpowered and militarily overstretched from the beginning, Italy was utterly routed in three years. The real question is why Mussolini fought the war the way he did. If Mussolini’s decision to go to war in June 1940 was risky, then his decision to fight on nearly half a dozen fronts—so that by autumn 1942 Italians were in Yugoslavia, Greece, Libya, Russia, and even occupying parts of France—was lunacy.

A tempting explanation is that a madman governed Italy. Indeed, some of Mussolini’s contemporaries thought this; more than one Italian officer declared that Mussolini had lost his mind during the 1940s. Yet in Mussolini’s War, a concise and balanced military history of Fascist Italy, John Gooch offers a more subtle explanation. Mussolini imagined all kinds of dazzling military campaigns, but lacking a genuine grasp of the intricacies of grand strategy, he neglected to connect imagined ventures to what was militarily possible. His greatest failure was in misapplying the lessons learned from Liberal Italy’s defeats, and drawing the wrong lessons from his own victories in the 1930s.

Italy’s Liberal government, which governed the country for decades after Risorgimento, was implicated in a series of fiascos. Encouraged by the great powers to pursue an empire and attempt the conquest of Abyssinia in 1896, Liberal Italy suffered a humiliating defeat. The attempt to conquer Libya in 1911-12 met with limited success, and Italy’s performance in the First World War was so poor that David Lloyd George once exclaimed that the Italians “had no idea what fighting meant.” Diplomatically, Liberal Italy lost the peace of 1919, where the other great powers attacked its requests for new territory as cynical power grabs (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly). Italy was left to pick up minor scraps. These failures crippled the regime’s legitimacy. The ensuing unrest provided the political opportunity for Mussolini to rise to power.

Fascist Italy sought to finish what its Liberal predecessor had started. In 1921, the Liberal government had begun a campaign to win back the lost territories of Libya. After securing his domestic position, Mussolini injected fresh, ferocious life into that fight. By 1932, Libya was completely subdued for the first time in two decades. Following this success, Mussolini began to plan for the invasion of Abyssinia, cunningly arranging the military and diplomatic prerequisites for such an invasion over the course of several years.

Diplomacy was particularly important, as if there was a war in Europe, an Abyssinian expedition would not be possible: Italy would need its forces to defend the homeland and its sea lanes. The latter were essential to the country’s survival, as Italy relied on shipping imports to sustain its industries. Losing the sea to a superior naval power, such as France or Britain, would throttle Italy. Mussolini waited. By June 1935, his diplomatic maneuvers confirmed that neither the French nor the British would risk war over Abyssinia. Mussolini then struck. Over the course of a six-month campaign, Italy conquered a territory larger than France and Germany combined.

Mussolini came off very well in the 1930s. He defied the consensus of “expert” international opinion, which regarded Italy as incapable of organizing large military campaigns. He avenged old humiliations and showed that Italy could make impressive conquests without being dragged down into lengthy conflicts. With his intervention on Franco’s behalf in the Spanish Civil War, where Italians faced off against Soviet-supplied troops, he showed that Italy could contribute to the civilizational war against Bolshevism. Mussolini’s daring continued to pay off: in an attack launched with only a week’s notice in April 1939, he annexed Albania to Italy. All in all, Mussolini seemed to demonstrate that Italy’s prior failures were due to the Liberal regime, not to the Italians themselves.

The question was whether Fascist Italy could repeat the successes of the 1930s in another conflict with the great powers. By the time he signed the Pact of Steel with Hitler, Mussolini saw war against the democracies, the “plutocratic and therefore selfishly conservative nations,” as inevitable. Reflecting on the First World War, the Fascists concluded that Italy’s weak economy meant that the country was poorly suited to fight a protracted war against other great powers, which would degenerate into an economic war of attrition. Consequently, Fascist strategy focused on la guerra lampo (“fast war”), rearranging the Italian army to be faster and lighter than ever before. Divisions were reduced from three regiments to two, with fewer pieces of artillery and heavy machine guns. Troops were to be ferried around in trucks. Yet this model was a dubious application of prior experience. In the late 1930s, the trucks upon which mobility hinged had yet to be built. Moreover, it was unclear how this model, developed from the experience of fighting lower-quality forces in Abyssinia and Spain, would fare against advanced armed forces.

Yet in the summer of 1939 at least, Mussolini did grasp one lesson from Abyssinia: Italy needed time to prepare for war. He told the Germans that he needed until 1943, at which point new artillery and tanks would be available, mountain and coastal defences would have been prepared, and six battleships would be ready to put to sea. The strategy of la guerra lampo would then allow Italy to seize resource-rich territories in the Balkans at the start of the conflict, then dig in for the long haul. The Germans feigned agreement, and said they would wait. But as intended all along, Germany invaded Poland on September 1st.

Miffed, Mussolini declared Italy’s “non-belligerence.” This decision, Gooch writes, “met with massive popular approval.” It was a pivotal moment, as Mussolini’s informers reported that the soldiers and populace strongly approved of his decision. They trusted il Duce to keep Italy out of the war. A better statesman would have grasped that for a lesser power, neutrality could have been used—as it was by Salazar and Franco—to consolidate the regime into the next decade and beyond.

Mussolini, however, chose a different path. In one sense, we can understand why Mussolini gambled on war. The rapidity of the German victory in May 1940 suggested the dawn of a new era. Mussolini wanted to avoid making the same strategic mistake Italy had made during the First World War, when the Liberal government’s decision to stay out of the conflict until 1915 consigned it to a minor role among the Allies, leading to the ‘mutilated peace’ of 1919. Nevertheless, the overarching lesson of the First World War was about the need to avoid a fighting long war of attrition from a weak position. Mussolini seemed to have understood that lesson at first. But in June 1940, tempted by visions of conquest, he abandoned it.

Unlike Salazar, the studious technocrat, and Franco, the experienced general, Mussolini knew little of military matters. Despite the regular briefings he received on Italy’s military woes, Mussolini regarded “spiritual efficiency,” instilling a burst of spirit and willpower into the armed forces, as more important than strategic planning. So instead of looking to repeat his success in Abyssinia, made possible through meticulous preparation, Mussolini looked for opportunities to repeat his success in Albania, which was an improvised invasion. The results were catastrophic.

Mussolini never provided his country with a consistent war strategy. At one moment, he planned to seize French and British territories in North Africa. Next, he dreamed of a new Roman Empire in Greece and the Balkans. Then he would reorient Italy’s army to assist in the invasion of Russia. This put an unbearable strain on the Italians, made worse, as Gooch details, by Mussolini’s failure to mobilise the economy for war and build the necessary supply ships to keep these essential sea lanes going (between January 1939 and September 1943, Italy only built 4 new tankers).

In one sense, we can understand why Mussolini gambled on war. The rapidity of the German victory in May 1940 suggested the dawn of a new era. Mussolini wanted to avoid making the same strategic mistake Italy had made during the First World War, when the Liberal government’s decision to stay out of the conflict until 1915 consigned it to a minor role among the Allies, leading to the ‘mutilated peace’ of 1919.

Fuel and supplies were always desperately short, crippling battlefield efficiency. In North Africa, for example, Italian armoured columns could only advance at 7-8 kilometres an hour, while their German counterparts advanced at twenty kilometres an hour.

The only way to remedy Italian deficiencies was to write ever-larger wish lists to send to Germany. Sometimes the Germans delivered, but often as not they prioritized their own objectives. In spite of the fact that Italy’s hopes were tied up with Germany’s, there was an astonishing absence of strategic collaboration between the two powers. Mussolini, anxious for Italy to be a great power in its own right, jealously guarded Italian military independence and worried about the Germans growing too strong. In the critical winter of 1940-41, when the British were weak and the Germans offered to help the Italians in their Egyptian offensive, Mussolini turned Germany down. Mussolini’s impromptu decision to invade Greece in the spring of 1941 was to counterbalance German advances into Romania. Until the last moment, Mussolini concealed these plans from the Germans. The invasion was a disaster, and the Germans had to step in—as they had to do everywhere else the Italians fought.

The American entry into the war compounded Italy’s strategic problems. The country had to contribute more to the Russian and North African fronts and deal with the possibility of an Atlantic front. To protect against the Americans, Italy had to build up its coastal and anti-aircraft defences in cities and industrial areas. It was simply impossible for the regime to meet all these demands. Unsurprisingly, after the first American divisions arrived in the Mediterranean, the Fascist regime lasted less than a year.

In spring 1943, as the Allies were eating up the Italian forces in North Africa, confidence in the prowess of il Duce as warlord evaporated. Food prices and the cost of living shot up, the value of money plummeted, and strikes broke out in Italy’s factories. The upper echelons of the Italian government, hoping to end the war, plotted to remove Mussolini. In July 1943, he was denounced by his own party, arrested, marched off to prison, and—save for a short denouement as Hitler’s valet in Northern Italy— doomed to a violent death. Like Liberal Italy, Fascist Italy’s ultimate crisis of legitimacy came in the wake of its military failures. In the same way as Liberal Italy, Mussolini was weighed in the balance, and found wanting.

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