What were Mussolini’s foreign policy aims between 1922 and 1939?

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Mussolini’s foreign policy has caused nearly as many debates as that of Hitler. Whilst some feel that he had a coherent plan, many feel he merely was an opportunist who “was simply seeking to exploit the mayhem which he had helped to unleash”1 in order to further his and Italy’s image. Overall historians appear to agree on two main principles that run through the foreign policy; fascist imperial notions and consolidation of power. Firstly I will examine arguments on how policy was determined and then I will look at the policies themselves and what the aims behind them appear to have been.

One issue that prevents the investigation in Mussolini’s policies is that he was always answerable to the King, between 1922-25 he was the Prime Minister which although is considerable power is technically subordinate to the King. However after examining the foreign policy for even a short time it becomes apparent that the King rarely managed to exercise any restraint over Mussolini and after 1926 when Contarini resigned the foreign policy lay in Mussolini’s hands to be developed as he wished and later delegated to other fascists. “It was quite clear that through out the regime it was Mussolini who conducted

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the foreign policy of fascist Italy whether he was nominally in charge or not.”2

Another argument is that actually “fascist foreign policy could be seen as conventional or the extension of a certain tradition.”3 In many areas he maintained the same policies as the previous ministers and indeed many of the ministers were from the previous regimes and it was only when his son-in-law was appointed to the foreign office that it was said that the ministry became fully fascist. The policy he adopted was one that many conservative liberals and nationalists subscribed to which is why it was so popular at the time. Later it became more extreme which is where it left the track of normal nationalism and became fascist.

“Mussolini’s domestic policy governed his foreign policy which was one of hand to mouth improvisation.”4 Italy was vastly over populated, in 1931 the population was 42 million and within 15yrs would have risen to 50 million. Italy couldn’t support herself. “Deficient in vital raw materials, she had to import coal, iron and oil. More remarkably she was not self sufficient in agricultural products hence ‘the battle for wheat’.”5 Italy needed new areas and materials as she could no longer support the population without vast imports. “Lack of capital resources hindered the rapid modernisation.”6 Some feel this would have affected, or indeed determined, Mussolini’s foreign policy.

From early on Mussolini demonstrated Fascist imperial notions wanting to expand and indeed “from its inception, Fascism was imperialist.”7 Mussolini followed this idea of expansion. One of the reasons for this thirst for imperialist expansion and glory was the mutilated victory of World War 1. Mussolini had been deeply shamed by the lack of action Italy saw in the war and was insulted by their treatment at the Paris Peace treaties. They were deliberately left out when the mandates were distributed and their desire for one was publicly known right through the 1920’s. The allies “had not delivered the anticipated gains in the Adriatic, the near East and Africa”. The Treaty of London, 19158 promised gains that quite possibly they never intended to deliver, in Mussolini’s view this was certain. He blamed the British and French governments so acted accordingly.

After such humiliating years Mussolini strongly promoted the idea of getting what Italy deserved though his foreign policy. “The movement had as its declared aim a general commitment to realising the grandeur of Italy, specifically through the foundation of an empire.”9 Italy wanted to be seen as a major power so used foreign policy to push the other powers as far as possible to establish Italy as a power and see how much respect the other allies were willing to give.

Mussolini “sought to extend Italian influence in south east Europe by meddling in the internal politics of countries.”10 Mussolini became involved in Albania, Yugoslavia and after 1929 fascist Croatian Ustasha. This was an unusual idea as fascism is not a doctrine to be spread unlike the communism where they felt they had to spread as far as possible. Fascism is about nationalism, putting your country first, the only reason for meddling in other countries is for expansion.

Mussolini placed much more of his hopes in his idea of the “ancient Roman style of ‘Mare Nostro’ [our sea].”11 He connected strong leadership with the ancient Rome style and wanted to bring Italy back to its former glory. “Italy was clearly a Mediterranean power, with a long coastline, two offshore islands and colonial possessions,” its problem was that it was also clearly a continental power and because of its dominance in the Adriatic a Balkan power too. Italy had too many frontiers and not enough resources to protect them. For the Mediterranean frontier a large navy was required and for the continent a large army. Knowing this, Mussolini tried to spread out to gain the resources necessary and become powerful enough so no one would challenge him. His main problem was that no matter where he spread he crossed the interests of Britain or France. On 4 February 1936 Mussolini said “The bars of this prison are Corsica, Tunisia, Malta and Cyprus- its sentinels are Gibraltar and Suez.”12 Mussolini was trapped by the powers as they controlled the Suez Canal and Gibraltar leaving him in a very delicate position. Sea borne trade accounted for 76% of Italian imports of 62% passed through Gibraltar, 3% through the Suez and just 11% through the Mediterranean and Black sea countries. This was bad because Italy was by no means self sufficient and he relied on the friendship of Britain because of their vast territories around him, yet felt the need to push them to establish Italy as a major power.

“An African Empire, based upon control of the Mediterranean, had been the one constant theme in his policy, it was not surprising that it led to conflict with Britain and France.”13 Throughout this period Mussolini swung between allies [as I will discuss later] and changed his polices according to which camp he was resting his alliances with at the time but he consistently wanted an empire for Italy. We can be sure that the gaining of an empire was one of Mussolini’s concerns because of one of his speeches. “After fifteen centuries, he roared, there was again a Roman Empire.”14

Italy’s foreign policy through out this period was a dynamic one, he realised that Italy wanted a strong leadership, one that wasn’t afraid to fight for Italy, this relates back to the shame Italy felt at World War 1. “The patriotic tub thumping over Corfu in 1923 was certainly designed to demonstrate to the Italian public that at last Italy had a government which stood up for and defended the nation’s interests.”15

Much of Mussolini’s policy was to try and recover the prestige lost by earlier regimes. For example, the Italian people never forgot the humiliation of their defeat at Adowa, Ethiopia in 1896. When Mussolini achieved a victory their support shot up, “the Ethiopian war marked the high point of support and consent fort he Fascist regime.”16 War has always been a way of uniting people and gaining support. During the victorious conflicts the Italian people were happier and more productive for their government. Mussolini and Ciano were convinced that such a policy would maintain support and make Italy great.

This appears to be one for the reasons for entering the Spanish war. Especially as Mussolini declared in 1937 “When Spain is finished, I will think of something else. The character of the Italian people must be moulded by fighting.”17 Unfortunately this didn’t work as Italy will never be remembered for its soldiers. Clark says “Italy had no particular interest in the Spanish civil war but the French…were backing the republicans so Mussolini supported the nationalists.”18

In 1936-7 he sent volunteers and aircraft to Franco’s aid. The troops were worse than useless but the 1400 pilots, 400 fighter planes and 200 bombers made a massive impact. 11 British ships were sunk, or badly damaged, in the early summer of 1938. However despite the success of the air corp “Italian intervention in the Spanish civil war was another diplomatic disaster.”19

The distraction allowed Germany to continue her progress unchecked, it damaged relations between Italy and the western powers and it bled Italy dry. While the rest of Europe was embroiled in Spain Hitler continued his plan and in 1938 when Austria was annexed Mussolini could only watch as he was so over stretched. He loaned Franco money and arms for the war and when he tried to collect on the loans Franco refused and Mussolini was left with nothing. The machinery he sent over was never returned and the cost of replacing that on top of the loans severely damaged Italy’s economy. It didn’t do much for his prestige either.

However by involving himself he stood to gain a Mediterranean ally and concessions at naval bases in the Balearic Islands. These would help him greatly in his Empire building.

There is also an argument that he became involved for ideological reasons. “The struggle between the Revolutionary Left and the Revolutionary Right which took place in Italy before Mussolini came to power was transferred to other countries… seen in this light Mussolini’s eventual intervention in the Spanish Civil war makes sense.”20 This theory takes away from the idea of Mussolini just wanting to pick a fight with the bigger European powers and makes his policy in the Spanish civil war more sensible. When anti-fascists left the country they didn’t merely go and live in another state they would campaign actively for the downfall of the old one. The struggle had merely moved to Spain and Mussolini was continuing the fight there. It merely seems convenient that while Mussolini was “ever seeking further military glory on the cheap”21 such a conflict presented itself. Whether Mussolini’s involvement was for ideology or not it shows that he consistently looked for conflicts. “His whole past, his whole propaganda, his whole regime had glorified war”22 and his foreign policy was merely another part of this. It also helped stability at home as people could be proud of their fighting nation.

Another reason for the conflicts was that Mussolini consistently tried to make Italy a major power and pushed the allies to see how far he could go before provoking a war. He knew that Italy was not advanced enough to be on an equal pare with France, Britain and Germany but hoped to make himself the deciding weight between them.

He supported Islam and Zionism against the allies to make a stand against them and show his strength. Many feel Mussolini’s involvement in the Spanish civil war was purely about opposing the other major powers. “His policy in 1938-39 was essentially still that of manoeuvring for advantage among the contending powers, meanwhile hoping that a European war would be avoided.”23 Despite his policy of making up for World War 1 Mussolini was not a fool and knew that for the period in question here he could not fight a European war, especially not whilst pursuing the policies in the East and Africa.

It was inevitable that Italy would find conflict with the western powers because of Mussolini’s empire ambitions; “attempted economic penetration of the Balkan and Danubian countries … always met superior competition on the same ground from richer countries.”24 This was France in the 1920s and early 1930s, Germany late 1930s right up to the war and Britain for most of this period. Whether Mussolini wanted to expand the other countries had claims or were protecting the independence of it.

However Mussolini pushed the powers and their appeasement encouraged him. As Germany grew stronger the allies began to want Italy as a friend as Hitler was powerful enough without all the weight of Italy as well. “19 March 1928, the French suggested a friendship pact followed by a settlement of colonial differences”25 but Mussolini wanted too much and the talks collapsed. Several times France suggested pacts but Mussolini pushed too far and the deals always collapsed, as with Hitler the allies were willing to appease but unfortunately for Mussolini they didn’t fear him as much so there was a limit to their deals.

The conflicts in Ethiopia showed that the allies could be pushed beyond belief. Laval didn’t want to lose Italian support; “in tripartite discussions on August 16 the British and French offered to support Italian economic and political preponderance in Ethiopia but would go no further.”26 The talks broke down due to Mussolini’s demands. But still the allies did nothing. The British controlled the Suez Canal but rather than close it and cut supplies and communications to the Italian troops they allowed free passage. The troops barely had enough water, cutting their communication line would have brought to their knees within days but Britain didn’t want to as Italy would see that as an act of war.

The British fleet was moved to war status in the Mediterranean and brought up to strength but “so little were the British interested in pressuring the Italians with a show of force that they took the various naval measures with as little publicity as possible.”27 They didn’t want war so despite having to defend themselves British ships were moved as quietly as possible.

When economic sanctions were imposed, they didn’t include oil and Germany, Japan and America didn’t have to obey them so they made little impact. All they did was fuel Mussolini’s belief that he could take on the great powers of Europe and win standing alone. The Hoare-Laval pact also sent out the message that acts of aggression would be rewarded.

Another instance of Mussolini testing the allies was over Corfu in 1923. He occupied Corfu and bombarded Greek territories. Such an act of aggression had to be dealt with but Mussolini managed to avoid the League of Nations showing that the league had little power to deal with aggressors. Italy finally withdrew under pressure from the British navy.

These events show Mussolini’s determination to assert Italy as a major power in Europe and to show the allies and Germany that Italy was important enough to court. He engineered talks on disarmament and worked as a negotiator between Germany and the others, for example the Four Power Pact in 1933.

By keeping relations friendly with Germany Mussolini was able to push Britain and France more as they were worried about the possibility of their alliance. However these events could easily have provoked a fight as “the bumptiousness of Italy is so great that it may be worth fighting her to reassert our dominance over an inferior race”28 as Chatfield said to Fisher on August 23rd. Luckily for Mussolini, the top levels of government were determined not to fight as the forces of the country were champing at the bit as Mussolini became more and more daring.

For a while relations became distinctly icy between the two fascist powers when Germany annexed Austria. But Mussolini had no option as he was told by his minister winter, “You must decide, Your Excellency, whether you want to see the swastika over the Brenner or democracy established in Austria.”29 Given this choice he would side with his ideological ally, Hitler, especially as it was unlikely that the allies would be sympathetic.

The Stresa Front in April 1935 made the allies think that Mussolini was aligning himself with the west but the following year the Rome Berlin Axis was announced. Mussolini made it a policy of his never to allow either party to rely on him too much and for all to court him. The aim of this was obviously to make Italy more central to events and to be the deciding factor. Unfortunately the appeasement of the allies allowed Mussolini to be drawn in by his own propaganda.

It is difficult to see what Mussolini’s aims were as they seem to change easily. There were some consistent themes running through this period these are his ambitions for an empire and for Italy to be a major power, in some ways he was very similar to Hitler, and indeed any dictator. But the changing alliances make his policies difficult to read his long-term plan, if indeed there was one.

“Some historians, notably De Felice, try to argue that Italy’s choice of allies and enemies was still open as late as spring 1940.”30 This view would suggest that Mussolini didn’t have a long-term plan. Even Nenni [Mussolini’s closest friend before 1914] said he lacked “coherence.” Indeed it would so appear, Alan Bullock calls him “an opportunist who snatched eagerly at any chance that was going but never succeeded in combing even his successes into a coherent policy.”31

It would appear this view is the most likely as Mussolini was primarily interested in boosting his regimes image and promoting his imperial aims.

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