Italy and Germany 1936 to 1940

Italy and Germany 1936 to 1940

When Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1936-7, she alienated Europe’s most powerful players: Britain and France. This forced her into the arms of Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain. The alliance that formed between the two Fascist leaders, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, would have far-reaching implications in the coming years.

Mussolini and Hitler, Berlin, 1937
Mussolini and Hitler, Berlin, 1937

Background to the Italian-German alliance: the Spanish Civil War

Spain saw the outbreak of a civil war in 1936 between the left-wing Republicans (who had come to power in 1931) and the right-wing Nationalists, who were headed by General Franco.

Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Russia provided aid and troops - referred to as "volunteers" to avoid the ire of the League of Nations - to the left-wing Republicans. Mussolini sent Franco support and ‘volunteers’.

France and Britain were in a tricky position. If Franco’s nationalists won, France would be surrounded by Fascist powers. It was eager to avoid this fate, but Britain and France were also loath to support the Republicans now that they were supported by the communist USSR. Communism was considered inimical to European peace. Instead of offering support to either side, they set up a non-Intervention Committee to try to stop international aid reaching Spain.

Mussolini viewed the Italian involvement in Spain as another chance for him to increase his power and influence. However not all Italians sided with Franco. Indeed some, who had emigrated during Mussolini’s rule, formed the Garibaldi Brigade which fought on the Republican side. The people of Italy dreaded that Italians would end up fighting Italians; at the Battle of Guadalajara (8-23 March 1937) this happened. The Republicans were victorious in this battle. Mussolini was enraged to know his ‘volunteers’ had been beaten and cast blame on the Garibaldi Brigade. The Brigade's leader, Carlo Rosselli, was murdered three months later. It is believed that Mussolini’s secret agents were most likely responsible.

Italy’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War was hardly a success story, and proved to be very unwelcome in Italy, where people could not understand Italy’s intervention in a foreign civil war.

However, the growing friendship between Italy and Germany was symbolised and strengthened by their mutual support of the Spanish Nationalists. This alliance was solidified in October 1936 when the informal Rome-Berlin Axis was signed.

Hitler and Mussolini

Mussolini paid a visit to Germany in 1937 - Hitler put on a major display of military might for Mussolini (see picture) and once the visit came to an end, Mussolini was convinced that Italy should form a formal alliance with Germany.

Germany had withdrawn from the League of Nations in 1933; Mussolini responded to the League’s imposition of economic sanctions on Italy during the Abyssinia crisis by following suit in 1937.

Anschluss and and the Italian-German friendship

Germany broke the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and occupied Austria in 1938. The British thought that Anschluss would bring about an Anglo-Italian reconciliation. When the Austrian Nazis had attempted a coup in 1934, Italy had honoured a pact with Australia to protect the country from Germany by gathering her troops on the Brenner pass to prevent an invasion.

The British were wrong. The Italians were not surprised by the union of Austria and Germany. In fact, Mussolini withdrew his protection of Austria in 1936, and in 1937, he informed the Austrian Chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, that Italy would no longer defend Austria against outside aggression. Joachim von Ribbentrop (later German foreign minister) discussed with Mussolini the future Anschluss on 6 November 1937. Mussolini voiced no objections on the condition that Germany ‘acknowledge Italy’s imperial ambitions in the Mediterranean’. Ribbentrop agreed.

Mussolini and the Munich Agreement

Mussolini gained widespread acclaim for his part in the creation of the Munich agreement of September 1938. The crisis in Czechoslovakia made war seem extremely likely in autumn 1938. On Mussolini’s suggestion, the high powers - Germany, France, Britain and Italy - met in Munich. The ensuing Munich agreement (and Chamberlain’s "Piece of Paper") seemed to establish European peace, which Mussolini was credited with and as a result his reputation in Europe peaked.

Mussolini and Hitler in 1939

When the German army invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Hitler did not warn Italy in advance. Mussolini was annoyed at the fact Germany was enlarging its empire and making Italy a weaker member of the Anglo-Italian alliance. Mussolini therefore decided to annex Albania. Italy successfully invaded on 7 April 1939 and the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III was presented with the title King of Albania.

In May 1939, the German and Italian foreign ministers - Joachim von Ribbentrop and Count Galeazzo Ciano - signed the Pact of Steel. This was initially intended to include Japan, but Italy and Germany wanted the pact to concentrate on France and Britain, whereas Japan wanted it to be aimed at the USSR. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany therefore decided to sign the pact without Japan. This pact meant both countries had a commitment to support each other in the event of war.

In August 1939, Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression agreement with Communist Russia. The Italian foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano was only informed about the Pact by Ribbentrop just before the German Foreign Minister departed for Moscow to sign the agreement. Ciano was shocked by this act of duplicity, but Italy did not strongly or angrily react to news of the agreement.

Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Hitler expected Italian assistance in accordance with the Pact of Steel, but the Italian Army was not ready to fight and Italy did not immediately enter the war.

Italy declared war on France and Britain on 10 June 1940. Mussolini saw Germany’s rapid advances and was worried Germany would end up with vast territories and many war profits. France was on the verge of surrender and Mussolini thought it would not be much longer before Britain followed suit. Europe looked rich for pickings.

On 17 June 1940, France made public its intention to seek an armistice with Germany. On 21 June, just before the armistice was signed, Mussolini commanded that there be an Italian invasion along the Alpine Line. The French, however, fiercely resisted the invasion and the Italians only managed to conquer a small area.

Italy launched an attack in September 1940 on British troops in Egypt. This war would prove catastrophic for Italy.

See also: Germany 1939

MLA Citation/Reference

"Italy and Germany 1936 to 1940". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.