By Alfio Bernabei
Eighty years ago this month a fascist act of treachery that the world will never forget brought Italy into the war on the side of the Nazis in a murderous alliance that would cause the death of over sixty million people – the devastating toll of WWII.
How Mussolini would play his cards remained uncertain till shortly before he stepped on a balcony in Rome on 10 June 1940 to declare war on Britain and France to the cheers of thousands of Italians.
France and Britain had hoped that Italy would remain loyal to the alliance established during WWI. Both countries had been trying to entice Mussolini at the very least to stay neutral. They had made diplomatic overtures and shown readiness to discuss anything, from
territorial concessions to commercial agreements. Mussolini kept everyone guessing.
He was watching Hitler’s moves holding the cards close to his chest.
On 10 May the first German bombs fell on England. Two days later the conquest of France began with German troops crossing the Meuse river. “Bad news from Italy” wrote in his diary Oliver Harvey, Anthony Eden’s former private secretary who was now at the French Embassy in Paris: “It looks almost certain as if Mussolini were now coming in against us…he is heaping insults against us in his papers…and doing everything he can to excite opinion against us….I think he will come in when our fortunes look darkest like a bully and a jackal.”
Amsterdam was occupied on 15 May. Three days later Brussels was taken. On 25 May German troops conquered Boulogne and on the 27 British and Allied forces began the evacuation of Dunkirk.
According to Harvey, it was the French who were pressing Britain to make concessions to Mussolini through Edouard Daladier, French Foreign Minister. “Daladier’s plan for buying off Italy has progressed” he wrote on 25 May. “He has now proposed that Roosevelt be asked to inform Mussolini that the allies would be willing to consider his problems provided he keeps out of the war and to ask what he claims. Foreign Office agrees to this and we are approaching Roosevelt accordingly. Roosevelt is empowered to say that we would agree to Italy having a seat at the Peace Conference as if she had been a belligerent…I hate to see us reduced to this…Mussolini is the father of all our present troubles.”
Possibilities of concessions to Mussolini meant not only territories in Yugoslavia and around the Mediterranean but also in areas which had been previously considered, such as Djibouti and British Somalia, as well as granting Italy a seat on the Suez Canal Board. “Our move to buy off Italy has gone a stage further” Harvey wrote soon after: “Roosevelt is now being asked to inform Mussolini that the allies are prepared to consider his Mediterranean grievances and negotiate a settlement for them…Mussolini of course will put forward monstrous demands for a new Treaty of London…”
On 28 May Harvey reported that Roosevelt’s démarche had met with “no response”. On the following day he wrote that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had concluded that no further approaches should be made as they would be “useless.” To Harvey’s horror, Lord Halifax, Foreign Minister, was suggesting some sort of abject capitulation by apparently promising Mussolini a role of mediator “on an offer of terms to Hitler.”
On 29 May Harvey heard that the British ambassador to Italy, Sir Percy Loraine, had been told by Galeazzo Ciano, Italy’s Foreign Minister, that it was now certain that “Mussolini would come in against us.” The view was that Mussolini would wait before declaring war until France was beaten. The timing of an opportunist. Or of a coward.
Something that Harvey doesn’t mention is that British official of MEW (Military Economic Warfare, part of British Intelligence) were at work in Rome ready to discuss anything, from territorial concessions to commercial agreements worth at least £ 20,000.000. Keeping in touch with the British Embassy, they were still at work on 7 June contemplating the placing of “an order for 11 ships which might possibly be increased to 20” and ventilating the “demilitarisation of Gibraltar and of the Suez Canal”, still hoping that further concessions would keep Mussolini out of the war.
All to no avail. As had been predicted, “the jackal” pounced three days later when Hitler’s troops were at the outskirts of Paris.
It is worth recalling the opinion of another diarist. Ivan Maisky was the Soviet ambassador in London. On 20 May 1940 he wrote “The Anglo-French bourgeois elite is getting what it deserves. If one reflects over what has happened in the European arena over the last 20 years, it becomes entirely clear that the main cause of the Allies’ current plight is the bourgeois elite’s mortal hatred of ‘communism’. This hatred has prevented this elite from establishing any sort of stable friendly relations with the USSR over the past 20 years. They have been ups and downs but, on the whole, our relations have been unsatisfactory throughout. After all, there are only a few major pieces on the international chessboard, and if a player discards even one of these, for whatever considerations, he considerably weakens his position. Owing to that very hatred, the ruling elite of England and France systematically supported the Japanese warmongers, Mussolini and Hitler. What’s more it’s that same elite which nurtured Hitler – in the hope that one day he would march east and wring the Bolsheviks’s necks. But the ‘Bolsheviks’ proved too strong and too skilful. Hitler headed not east but west. The ruling elite of England and France fell into the same trap they had set for us…”
World War II losses of the Soviet Union from all related causes to the war against Nazi-fascism were about 27,000,000 both civilian and military. A figure of 20 million was considered official during the Soviet era.
The diplomatic diaries of Oliver Harvey 1937-1940. Ed. By John Harvey. N.Y. , St Martin’s Pr., 1971
The Maisky diaries, Ed by Gabriel Gorodetsky, Yale University Press, 2015