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During the first few months of rule Mussolini did not have a ‘master plan’ concerning foreign policy, but he did begin an aim, in his words, ‘to make Italy great, respected and feared’. Mussolini believed that Italy would one day be the dominant power in the Mediterranean, would develop and empire in Africa and would have the Balkans as her own sphere of influence.
Until the 1930s these ‘great’ plans lacked any kind of detail. Mussolini was unsure on which colonies would expand, nor was he clear on how he would achieve ‘dominance’ in the Mediterranean. The Duce soon realised that foreign affairs could provide him with the ideal stage – he could impress compatriots with spectacles where he would overshadow foreign statesmen and defend and promote Italian interests with unending success. Foreign policy began to take up more and more of his time. He thought this was the start of a new era in Italian foreign policy. Mussolini though pursued his goals relentlessly and recklessly, especially in the 1930s. He wasted money on colonial conflicts, and led Italy into an ill-fated world war, leading to the collapse of fascism, civil war and the death of the Duce himself.
For ten years it seemed that Italy was permanently at war, the years 1922-1932 brought along a period of diplomacy. Mussolini believed that ‘only blood can the turn the bloodstained wheels of history’. He was now set on war. There is no real basis behind Mussolini’s foreign policy, and it is difficult to find principles behind his thoughts. Most close to the truth is his fervent nationalism and his intense dislike of western democracies.
In 1923 an Italian general and four of his staff were murdered in Greece. They had been working for the international boundary commission set up under the terms of the peace settlement and were advising on location of new Greek-Albanian borders. Mussolini used this as an excuse for an armed landing on the island of Corfu to go ahead. The European powers, led by Britain and backed by her Mediterranean fleet, requested that Italy withdraw. The Duce had little choice but to agree, and even though he received 50million lire compensation he never received an apology from Greece. Although he had lost a useful strategic base on the Mediterranean he had undercut the League and saved some face.
Two weeks after the Corfu bombardment, Mussolini sent a military commandant to Fiume to say that the town was in a state of anarchy and that all Italians were at risk. The King of Yugoslavia was a keen admirer of Mussolini and made no fuss. In 1924 a pact declared their friendship, and he handed the major part of Fiume to Italy. Mussolini realised that Yugoslavia could be pushed around. He wanted to show that he could make life very difficult for Yugoslavia if it tried to resist Italian influence. A brilliant opportunity to illustrate this arose when an Italian-sponsored local chieftan, Ahmed Zog managed to take power in Albania. The Fascists pumped money into Albania and tried to make Italians feel free to use the country as their own. By the time a Treaty of Friendship had been signed in 1926, Albania was nothing more than an Italian satellite.
As one of Mussolini’s aims was to dominate Europe then he needed to deal with the Allies, Britain and France, they had foiled his plans to annex Corfu. Although he enjoyed relatively good relations with several British politicians, including Churchill and Ramsay Macdonald at various times, he was wary of Britain. But there was not much he could do to harm British interest. He was able to set up a number of quarrels with France. He was annoyed with the status of Italians in French owned Tunisia, he accused the French of harbouring anti-Fascists in Paris and he even tried to upset the Little Entente (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Rumania) these were the fruits of French diplomacy in central Europe. He even toyed with the idea of an alliance with Spain to break French power in the Mediterranean. He disliked France intensely and described them as ‘truly decadent’; he desperately wanted them to fall. His hatred of France even led him to side with her greatest enemy; Germany.
Mussolini realised in the 1920s that a strong, resurgent Germany, seeking revision of Versailles, would be able to frighten Britain and France and make them more susceptible to Italian demands. He believed that nationalists were to be they key groups of the future, and so he strived to support the Nazis. The Nazis didn’t impress him in their infancy, labelling them ‘buffoons’. He saw no true problems with them and helped them re-arm. Mussolini was worried when Austrian Nazis assassinated Dollfus, the Austrian Chancellor. Realising that Anschluss would threaten Italian domination of the Tyrol and Alps, he threatened to invade Austria if Hitler decided to move in. Hitler was dependant on Mussolini to neutralise Britain and France, so he backed down. Mussolini believed that there was no longer any problem and continued with the policy of destroying the Social democrats in Austria, the only party capable of preventing Nazis from gaining power.
Mussolini believed that Italian colonies should be developed and expanded, not for commercial gain but because the possession of an increasing empire would strengthen Italy’s claim to be a great power. The idea of possessing colonies was in Italian’s blood after all. Ethiopia was an ideal target for Mussolini’s ambitions. It was a large country with no previous European occupiers. Following a small incident on the border of Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland Mussolini ordered mobilisation and a full-scale attack was launched on Abyssinia in October 1935. There were several reasons for this attack. There were several reasons for this attack none more important than revenge for a rout at Adowa in 1896. It also served as a warning to Hitler and other rising European fascists. This successful showing was thought to warn off others. The assault was a considerable success, he had astutely realised that the modern weapons of the Italians would be no match for the Ethiopians. Any attempt to stop Mussolini had proved feeble.
Mussolini went from one war straight to another. In 1936 the Spanish republic came under attack from Spanish fascists. He was delighted at the prospect of a Fascist country to scare France. He sent in 25,000 men to Spain. This contradicted the 1936 Non-Intervention Pact, and Mussolini even ordered his submarines to start preying on British ships, but a stern warning thwarted this idea. Eventually Madrid fell to the fascists in April 1939, this was therefore not a rapid victory.
Mussolini looked towards the Nazis with favour – here was another vibrant Fascist regime with had grievances against Britain and France. In October 1936 the countries met and signed a secret co-operation agreement. In November of that year, Mussolini first referred to the Rome-Berlin axis, which he described as ‘not a diaphragm but an axis round which can revolve all those European states with a will to collaboration and peace.’ In September 1938, Chamberlain asked Mussolini to use his influence to restrain Hitler from invading Czechoslovakia. Mussolini was dazzled by Hitler’s speaking and decided to go along with Hitler.
It was now the time to turn the alliance into a real agreement. The Germans drafted the new alliance and the ‘Pact of Steel’ was signed in May 1939. The Pact made sure that if either country went to war that the other was obliged to support in all aspects of warfare. Foreign Minister Count Ciano warned Germany that Italy would not be ready for war until 1943. Italy really now seemed to be in Germany’s shadow, their marching methods were the same, anti-semitic laws were introduced and when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia Mussolini sent troops to Albania. The Italians who were so delighted about the annexation of Ethiopia were no cynical. Mussolini’s popularity began to spiral as did relations between the two leaders.
In June 1940 Mussolini decided to seize the chance to win military glory and he declared war on Britain and France. Within a week of Italy’s entry into war France surrendered to the Germans. Mussolini was convinced that Britain would cripple and follow and so he tried to seize as much territory as possible. So, in September 1940, he ordered his forces in Libya to attack the British in Egypt. But by the end of the year the Fascist armies had been pushed back into Libya and Albania respectively.
The navy did no better, losing half its fleet to a British air attack on the port of Taranto in November. In 1941 his ill equipped attack on the British in Egypt foundered. A counter-offensive took 100,000 Italians prisoner. In February, the British captured Italian Somaliland, thus starting the break up of Italy’s empire. In April Addis fell. In June Mussolini sent his troops to invade Russia with Germany, they suffered cruelly at the front. In 1942 the British cracked the Axis front in Egypt. By 1943 the Axis forces were overwhelmed in Tunisia. 20,000 were lost or injured. The Allies now were free to cross to Sicily and invade the Italian mainland. He blamed cowardice.
Mussolini’s foreign policy goals were far too ambitious. It is hard to imagine how he thought he could dominate Europe, hold numerous African colonies and have political control over the Balkans. To have gained even one of these aims Italy would have required more planning and a more modernised and efficient armed force, and importantly an economy capable of providing the funds for a war. Italy had established political control over Albania, annexed Ethiopia and played a part in international conferences but this was far from being ‘great, respected and feared.’