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Mussolini’s foreign policy 1922-1939 Essay

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“How far do the sources suggest consistent aims in Mussolini’s foreign policy 1922-1939?”

Source 1 is two dispatches from the British Ambassador to Rome, Sir Ronald Graham written in January 1923 and June 1923 respectively. The significance of the author can be viewed in two ways. Firstly one might conceive that as he is obviously a well-respected high-ranking British official he would be telling the precise truth, on the other hand one may believe that he may be distorting the truth in order to satisfy the government as we all know that politics is not without its corruptness. The source states that although the Italians are in awe of Mussolini, “omnipotent as he is…” he is finding it difficult; however successful foreign policy is “of vital importance to him…”

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In both documents we see a similar reflection of Mussolini’s foreign policy. Both articles state that the foreign policy aims were “egotistical” and “opportunistic”. This source suggests that one of Mussolini’s foreign policy aims was to increase international prestige for Italy, “his foreign policy will be in the sole interests of Italy…”

Source 2 is a painting depicting an Italian soldier opening the door of ‘freedom’ to the Abyssinian ‘slaves’. The contextual meaning of the painting is that the Italians are showing the Abyssinians the light of Fascism. The painting suggests that the Italians believed they were benefiting the Abyssinians by ‘civilizing’ their lives. The source proposes a policy of spreading the ideology of Fascism and establishing an Empire.

Source 3 is part of a statement made by Mussolini in 1939 to the Grand Council of Fascism. By this time Mussolini had virtually chosen which side to ally Italy with in the European power struggle. The source gives us an insight into what Mussolini thought about Italy’s position in the world; he believed Italy was “semi-independent”. The source states his intentions are to break the “bars of the prison” and shows his aggressive policy towards Britain and France. This source shows consistency with source 1 in that it emphasizes the aim of expanding the Italian Empire.

Source 4 was written in 1944 by an anti-Fascist called Carlo Levi. This man was banished to the South during Mussolini’s regime; therefore the reader may interpret this source as being purposefully negative or perhaps partisan. This source can give us an insight into the real feelings of Italians at the outbreak of war. It says that the peasants, upon hearing the news of the war, were “as dark and gloomy as bats.” This source suggests that one of Mussolini’s foreign policy aims was to increase domestic support for the government. It shows this by the writer depicting an Italian landowner trying to muster up support for the war, however he was greeted with an apathetic, “stony indifference.”

Source 5 shows us Mussolini’s feeling about the Germans in 1934. This date is significant because it is a few months after Hitler’s visit to Italy which was described as “tense”. It is also before Mussolini’s visit to Germany which dramatically changed his view of the nation, after the visit he said Germany was “the most powerful nation in modern Europe…” This shows us that Mussolini’s foreign opinions can change radically, as the derogatory opinion of Germany soon turned into a military alliance.

Source 6 is an extract from the Pact of Steel constituted in May 1939. It is a military treaty in which both nations, Italy and German, pledge to defend one another in time of war. The aim of the Pact, it is said, is to “secure their living space and to maintain peace.” Of course this was not true. The source suggests that one of Mussolini’s foreign policy aims was to create an Empire, as with source 2, and to increase international prestige.

All six sources show us that there is a wide range of judgment about Mussolini’s foreign policy. The sources have been written and spread over a long period of time and interlink with vital events in the history of Fascism. Some of the sources show consistency with Mussolini’s foreign policy aims. Source 2 and source 4 both suggest that one of his aims was to spread Fascism and to increase domestic support for the regime. Mussolini’s only inconsistent policy is his relationship with Hitler. Mussolini shows many swings of loyalty and I believe that he wanted to see which side would come out victorious. Source 5 and source 6 shows this interpretation well, source 5 is a very critical observation of the German people, however source 6 shows total alliance of the two nations.

From the sources we can determine six main foreign policy aims. These were to gain dominance over the Mediterranean, which Italy was fighting over with Britain and France, to achieve supremacy in the Balkans, with these policies he could establish an Empire, and this would result in the spread of Fascism, an increase in international prestige for the regime and Italy, and increased domestic support for the government.

Part B;

What impact did the pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy have upon the Italian people?

“I want to make Italy great, respected and feared…” (Mussolini speaking in 1925)

One of Mussolini’s major priorities was to make Italy ready for war, his fascist ideology, if it had any clear content at all, was based upon this single aim. Mussolini praised war as an ennobling activity and said that it would strengthen and unite the Italian people. Although Mussolini began his foreign policy in a generally cautious and traditional fashion, his future intentions were always made clear, “It is destined that the Mediterranean should become ours, that Rome should be the directing city of civilisation…” Originally Italians followed Mussolini, they believed that he could direct them to glory, that Italy would become like it once was, the resulting effects on their lives was immeasurable.

Mussolini was involved sporadically in foreign policy during the 1920’s; the Corfu crisis is one example. In the Locarno Pact of 1925 historical evidence suggests that, contrary to popular belief, Mussolini played an important role in the talks and this gave him and Italy recognition as a the ‘make-weight’ of Europe. These events had modest impact on the Italian people who were, for the time being, not greatly affected by his policies. Mussolini’s main concern in the 20’s was revitalizing the Italian economy. He did this with a series of measures; these measures included the Battle for the Lira, and the Battle for Grain. Each one of these processes was intended to result in an economy that was ready for war. The battle for the Lira aimed to fix the value of the Lira at 90 to the pound.

The effects on the Italians were that they were shown the power and authority of the regime. It eventually harmed the economy by hitting exports, and the Government was forced to impose 20% cuts in wages. The Battle for Grain intended to boost cereal production to make Italy self-sufficient in grain, and to perform one of Mussolini’s foreign policy objectives, to increase international prestige. D. Mack Smith comments on the battle, “Success in this battle was…another illusory propaganda victory won at the expense of the Italian economy…” The effects on the people were that their quality of diet decreased and there was a raised cost of grain and bread in Italy.

As Mussolini’s reputation at home grew (along with his confidence) he began to discard his comparatively non-active foreign policy for a much more aggressive one. The Abyssinia War (Oct 1935 – April 1936) had a massive impact on the Italian people for many reasons. This country was of particular importance to Italy because of its past experiences, in particular the defeat of the Italian army by the Abyssinian army at Adowa in 1896. Another reason for the invasion was very similar to Hitler’s ‘Lebensraum’ campaign, in Italian “Spazio vitale”. According to Carlo Levi most of Italians in the south were not enthusiastic for the war, “the peasants listened [to the announcement of war] in silence…” However other Italians did not share the same view, one Italian journalist said that Mussolini’s “pictures were cut out of newspapers and magazines and pasted on the walls of the poor peasant cottages…”

The campaign ended with an Italian victory and with minimal opposition from the Western powers and League of Nations. On the other hand it is questionable whether Italian victory against the Abyssinians was beneficial to the Italian people. The advantages of the war were mainly short term. These were that the Italians were identified as ‘true’ Fascists, Tannenbaum comments, “In response to League of Nations’ sanctions for a few months the identification of ‘Italian’ with ‘Fascist’, which had been proclaimed for about the last ten years, seemed a true one.”

They had revenged the defeat at Adowa in 1896, Clark believes that the triumph was “his [Mussolini’s] finest hour…” and the popularity of the Duce cult among Italians was at its peak. The victory detracted the people’s attention from the failing Italian economy and the increasing social unrest. The damaging effects of the war were mainly long term however there was once instantaneous effect. This was the detrimental effect on the Italian-Anglo-Franco relationship, which was on its proverbial ‘last leg’ after continuous political antagonism relating to dominance over the Mediterranean and East Africa.

The long-term effects are immeasurable, but the most important consequence on the Italian people was the huge economic cost. The budget deficit rose from 2.5 billion to 16 billion lire, in October 1936 the lire was devalued by 40% and there were massive wage cuts, especially for agricultural and factory workers. A further long-term harmful effect of the war was the huge military cost, along with the Spanish Civil war, Italy was left literally stripped of its most valued weaponry (an estimated 37 tanks, 25 artillery pieces and 67 trucks were lost in the Spanish Civil War alone) and a human cost of over 4,500.

The final damaging effect was that Mussolini’s already inflated ego was continuing to grow; he felt that he was ‘invincible’. Overall the Abyssinian War made the Empire and the cult of the Duce extremely popular with the Italian people but only for a short period, in all other respects it was a disaster. The economic cost was enormous, militarily the victory led to complacency from the army, diplomatically Italy was left isolated in a hostile world and according to Carocci, “the British, Italy’s traditional ally, never forgave Mussolini.”

After this conquest Mussolini became over ambitious and gave the army and economy little time to convalesce before taking part in another foreign policy operation, the Spanish Civil War. One aim of the Italian intervention was to fulfil one of Mussolini’s foreign policy aims, to spread Fascism. The final reason to intervene in the war was to keep Fascism ‘on the boil’ so to speak. It would further distract domestic problems and Mussolini believed that, as with Abyssinia, his popularity would flourish.

The Spanish Civil War turned out to have a massive impact on the Italian people; the effects were parallel to the Abyssinian War. Firstly the enormous economic deficit continued to devalue the Lire and the government was forced to raise taxes, which greatly angered the working class. The cost of the war was in the region of 14 billion lire, which is half a year’s tax revenue! Wages were lowered and Italian trade was disrupted, this forced increased trade with Germany, further alienating Italy from the western powers.

The government, which had gained support from the Abyssinian War, had in fact lost significant support because of its intrusion. Militarily, although Italy was on the winning side, it had lost much needed ammunition and weaponry. Also its humiliating defeat at Guadalajara had exposed the army’s weaknesses to its enemies as well as its allies. Another outcome was that Italy was increasing its links with Nazi Germany, the German Ambassador in Rome said “All the more clearly will Italy recognise the advisability of confronting the Western powers shoulder to shoulder with Germany.” This was a difficult for most Italians to except as they saw Germany as becoming a domineering influence on Italian policy.

The effects of the Spanish Civil War on the Italian people demoralized them and their support for the regime dwindled. The long-term effects were equally destructive to the government’s popularity and economically Italy was now crippled in debt.

In October 1936 Mussolini made an alliance with Hitler. They declared common policies towards Spain, the Danubian countries, the Soviet Union, and the League of Nations. Mussolini called the new alliance the “Rome-Berlin Axis”. On November 25th 1936 Germany made the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan, pledging mutual support against the Soviets, Mussolini joined in November 1937, extending the Axis from Rome to Tokyo.

This alliance had a large impact on the Italian population, including obvious reasons like the economic impact and social changes, such as the Anti-Semitic guidelines. Some Italians began to see that Mussolini was not taking them to greatness as they had believed after the victory in Abyssinia but perhaps taking them to destruction. The result of this alliance with Germany was the Pact of Steel signed by Ciano (Italian foreign Minister) in May 1939. This was perhaps Mussolini biggest mistake of his leadership. Not only did the majority of Italian people oppose the alliance, he lost support of many of the elite and the Church.

The effects of the alliance were vast. Some historians have suggested that this event lead to Mussolini’s downfall as it pushed him into war and therefore his collapse. The historian Cassels suggests, “The Axis became for Fascist Italy an obligation dictated by harsh necessity, from which there was no exit…Fascist Italy became, in fact, a satellite of Nazi Germany.” Other effects included Mussolini’s attitude towards Austria. Many Italians had seen Austria as a geographical barrier between them and Germany; they practically lost their most important strategic gain of Versailles, the Brenner Pass. The social effects on the Italians were relatively minimal (the majority still supported the regime) besides the growing underground resistance to Fascism and the Anti-Semitic policies applied.

Economic policy also had a major effect on the Italian people. Firstly there was Mussolini’s pursuit of Autarky, meaning self sufficiently. The effects of autarky on the Italian people were immense. Imports dramatically fell from 1929 onwards and this hit wages and prices were increased. Prices on food, coal and oil all rose, which, mixed with decreasing wages, ended up costing the average Italian a lot more. Some historians, like Morgan, argue, “Autarky was certainly an unattainable goal for a relatively poor and ill-resourced country like Italy…” I believe that Morgan’s comment is absolutely true.

Mussolini’s priority was to make Italians harder and better fighters for the inevitable war in Europe. One of these policies was the Welfare state. The Welfare State is a relatively old provision and the Fascist government inherited a complicated system that was funded, mainly by private bodies such as the Church. Mussolini hope welfare would allow Fascism to reach areas of Italian society as yet untouched by the regime, as Morgan proposes, “By providing the moral and material benefits of welfare, the party was extending the regime’s network of control and surveillance of the population.” The aims of the project were to reduce the dangers of social unrest, to use the exercise as a form of propaganda to rally support and to prepare Italians for war. The results and effects on the general population were limited however; there was no real extension to previous systems except in childcare, which was aimed at producing future soldiers.

Other areas of the economy that were affected due to Mussolini’s aggressive foreign policy were agriculture, industry and trade. New areas of industry were developed during the 20’s and 30’s such as chemical and synthetic fibres. Most industry benefited from supportive government polices and the growth of larger firms and cartels continued. Trade should have been important for a country lacking many basic resources. Mussolini’s foreign policy entanglements increasingly effected the direction and nature of Italy’s trade in the 1930’s.

One of Mussolini’s ambitions in foreign policy was to reinforce domestic support. He often controlled and idealised foreign policy for either his own personal image expansion or to increase Italy’s international prestige. For the first ten years Mussolini acted fairly cautiously, only participating in mild foreign campaigns, such as Corfu in 1923 and Fiume in early 1924. In the mid 1930’s however Mussolini was able to exploit Italy’s position as the ‘make-weight’ of Europe. The Abyssinian war and the intervention in the Spanish Civil war were both great strains on the Italian economy; however the Abyssinian war was Mussolini’s peak of popularity.

The Rome-Berlin Axis bought Mussolini under Hitler’s sphere of influence, shown in the different attitudes to Anschluss in 1934 and 1938. After this alliance the Nazi government began to sway domestic policy and this began to alienate the Italian elite and they began to withdraw their support for Fascism. By 1939 Mussolini’s foreign policy looked fairly successful, but in reality he had wasted Italy’s precious resources for little real gain. The Italian people meanwhile had been subjected to virtual constant war from 1935, the death of over 4,500 soldiers, massive reduction in core resources and life that was practically controlled by the state.

The government’s ambitious economic plans, along with the Depression, can be said to have lowered living standards and set Italy back by decades. However the historian D. Williamson claims that “Overall Italy was more prosperous in 1939 than in 1923…but this modest increase did not filter through equally to all sections of the Italian population.” I agree with D. Williamson in that although Mussolini’s foreign policy seemed successful at surface level, the average Italian did not greatly benefit. Mussolini aimed to make Italy feared around the world; he achieved his purpose, even though it enveloped the unforeseen reaction of contempt towards Italy, the fact that he bought economic ruin and eventual Civil War to the Italian people was unintentional.

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