Academic

Friend or Foe? The Rome-Berlin Axis from the perspective of necessity and ideology. 

Written By Hela Gorecka. The development of the Rome-Berlin Axis saw many trial and tribulations, but what were the main motivations for its cooperation and to what extent was it an inevitable occurrence?

1933 saw the emergence of the Third Reich, a totalitarian state regulated by the ideology of Nazism. After a long period of isolation on the international arena, Adolf Hitler intended to realise his ideological aims, mostly territorial expansion for the sake of lebensraum (living space) and racial purity. However, his bargaining potential was relatively limited. It seemed natural to seek assistance from a state supposedly similar to the one Hitler aimed to create. Italy, a well-established Fascist state led by Benito Mussolini, seemed to be a perfect match. A similar institutional design followed by parallel ideological evolutions favoured cooperation on the international level between the two leaders. Nevertheless, the development of the Rome-Berlin Axis displays a great amount of tension and conflict. The reasons for the alliance, its background and its dramatic end are analysed in this article. The topic is approached from the ideological as well as the pragmatic perspective. Was the cooperation inevitable? Who benefitted more from the alliance? It should be highlighted that this article does not try to provide a comprehensive, linear presentation of the facts. Nor is its analysis fully complete; there is much more to be said on the topic of this alliance. Nevertheless, this article seeks to show that both Hitler and Mussolini needed each other in order to exert influence on the international arena. Their cooperation provided the Third Reich with a sense of security, while Fascist Italy benefitted from the strength developed in time by Germany. Moreover, Mussolini could be blamed for the Axis’ issues at its dawn; the nature of the Italian war effort seriously compromised the efficiency of the Axis and distracted Hitler from other, crucial strategic challenges on the Eastern Front. 

First, this article will analyse the similarities between Italian Fascism and the Third Reich. To properly understand the reasons for the emergence of this peculiar alliance, one should make sense of the ideological programmes of both totalitarian states. Mussolini and Hitler believed in the superiority of the strongest; as right-wing movements, they focused on preserving the domination of a specific ethnic or national group. To achieve their aims, the leaders accepted the inevitability of war as a means to achieve expansion. The dictatorships strongly rejected any form of parliamentary democracy and shared a firm anti-Bolshevik stance; these specific values were the most intense commonalities in their approach to international politics.  

On the international level of analysis, Fascist Italy and the Third Reich seemed prone to form an alliance. Both countries experienced a similar political disturbance as a repercussion of World War I; the crises of the 1920s facilitated the growth of radical nationalism in both societies, which turned to the ideology in response to liberalism’s failure. Moreover, they recognised similar political designs to be hostile; Germany would be the only right-wing state that shared Italy’s prejudice towards liberal Britain and France. Nevertheless, one should remember that Fascist Italy was a well-established dictatorship in 1933 when Hitler took over the post of Chancellor and started the process of power consolidation. The extent of German isolation in 1933 is not to be omitted, either; Mussolini seemed to be in a rather favourable position relative to Hitler at the time. When the Third Reich was established, it was a natural process to seek inspiration from Fascist Italy.  

Initial similarities in the ideological designs of Mussolini and Hitler’s dictatorships suggested a promising cooperation; nevertheless, the beginnings of the alliance were, to a great extent, unsuccessful. The initial territorial ambitions of Hitler towards Austria were met with a negative response from Mussolini, as it threatened his own sphere of influence. This caused Mussolini to feel excluded from the contemporary international setting and punished by the League of Nations’ sanctions resulting from the Abyssinian Crisis and the failure of the Hoare-Laval Pact and led him to seek out Hitler as an ally instead. The study of the establishment of the Rome-Berlin Axis explores the interesting relationship between the importance of ideology and pragmatism in forming international alliances. Which of these factors prevailed in the cooperation between Benito Mussolini’s new Roman Empire and Adolf Hitler’s Reich? Both states needed each other to provide a basic level of support in the international arena. Nevertheless, this did not imply that the cooperation had to be fruitful and uncomplicated. The next part of the article will outline the limitations of the Rome-Berlin Axis, the differences in cultural settings, the notion of pragmatism in the alliance, as well as the ultimate failure of the cooperation being the delayed entrance of Mussolini to the war struggle and the series of defeats that led to the ultimate collapse of Fascism in the Italian state. 

Even though Mussolini’s Fascism reflected the eagerness of territorial expansion and cultural domination, it could not be compared to the extent of Hitler’s ambitions concerning the establishment of an Aryan state. Italians stayed under a strong influence of the Catholic Church which limited the specific parts of the Fascist agenda (mostly related to racist and anti-Semitic policies) in places where German religious affiliations did not possess that kind of influence. All these aspects provided unequal engagement from the Italian state. Moreover, the Nazi regime was much more developed in terms of institutional design; Germans seemed to become much more inspired by the fanatical, racist content of Hitler’s speeches than Italians had ever been. Even though both dictators possessed a similar support base – mainly middle-class citizenry – the potential for mobilisation drastically differed.  

The reason for such difference is specifically an incomparable experience after the Great War. While the conditions of Fascist Italy and the Third Reich’s emergence could be perceived as similar, it was Germans who believed in a long-time suffering of the nation after the results of the Treaty of Versailles’ post-war European design. The economic hardship of 1918–1933 and the external issues of Weimar democracy brought a much more intense reaction to the radicalism of Nazism. In the case of Italy, however, the period of discontent was a result of a much different set of reasons. While the internal tensions surged because of post-war tensions, they deescalated as quickly as they had escalated before the March on Rome in 1922. The position of a World War I victory did not provide Italian Fascists with much space to create a myth of hostility towards the European community, especially since Italy became a permanent member of the League of Nation’s Council. Therefore, the 1920s in Germany and Italy differed drastically; the decade gave rise to a differentiated support toward the regimes. Generally, the radical conditions of the Weimar Republic granted Hitler a much more extensive set of legitimated actions to be undertaken than in the case of Mussolini. The alliance of the Third Reich and Fascist Italy was doomed with the underlying social and cultural differences from the very beginning. The ambitions of the leaders could be similar (both strove for the extension of living space for their nations); however, the legitimated support for the meaning of those actions was drastically limited for Mussolini in comparison to Hitler. As a result, the political potential of the Rome-Berlin Axis was limited from the Italian perspective by the extent of the radicalism that could be used.  

Moreover, not only the social characteristics of both states limited the potential for an extensive alliance. One should ask whether the cooperation between two totalitarian states aiming for territorial expansion and inevitable war struggle was rather a pragmatic decision, bearing in mind short-term stability and support in the international arena. Even though in the beginning it was Mussolini who possessed a greater hard and soft power in European affairs, Hitler was focused on re-establishing German dominance over the continent. He needed a partner in crime closer to home, as the increased presence of right-wing nationalism directly threatened the liberal states as well as functioning as a counterforce to Communist Soviet states in the east. An alliance with Italy began to appeal to Hitler, who had developed a radical approach to territorial expansion after an initial commitment to strengthening domestic economy. The initial support of Mussolini, as a result, seemed to function as a symbolic statement of the German return to the international arena as a power to be reckoned with. As the Third Reich grew in importance, Fascist Italy found itself to be much more reliant on the actions undertaken by Hitler. Il Duce saw the eclipse of his leadership in the Fascist dictatorship project; nevertheless, it gave him increased bargaining power in relation to liberal democracies. Therefore, it seems that pragmatism was an important aspect of increased cooperation between the states. Fascist Italy and the Third Reich mutually benefited from each other’s support.  

Nevertheless, the initial commonalities of ideological settings in Fascist Italy and the Third Reich seem to be the reason for the fall of the Rome-Berlin Axis. As mentioned before, the basis for the political alliance between Mussolini and Hitler was the mutual belief in the war as the ultimate method of achieving domination over the weaker. Ironically, Mussolini’s lack of commitment to the common Axis war effort undermined and drastically changed the dynamics of the cooperation between those two powers. Fascist Italy decided to opt out in 1939; King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy opposed involvement in Hitler’s offensive. At the same time, the decision to break the Pact of Steel signed on 22 May 1939 was deemed reasonable. Mussolini desired to postpone the war—the one he saw as the inevitable—until 1943, when Italy would achieve military readiness. Even though Hitler offered assistance and supplies to the Italian military, only when the Third Reich established a series of military and strategic successes did Mussolini have the bargaining power to change the aforementioned veto. Nevertheless, the Italian performance in the war was seriously limited. Rather than functioning as an equal ally, it was the Third Reich which compromised their own resources to assist Italy on the Mediterranean and African fronts. Extensive material support from the Third Reich did not provide Mussolini with enough potential to succeed.  

The outcome of the Italian war effort strongly undermined Hitler’s trust and harmed the alliance. The military burden on the German army caused by the inefficiency of Mussolini’s forces was catastrophic. Mussolini needed Hitler’s support in the most unfortunate moment of the Eastern Front’s development. The Third Reich could not afford the dispersal of its military power; nevertheless, the assistance was needed for the sake of rescuing major theatres of war. The abolishment of the Fascist state in Italy challenged Fascist superiority as well. From the Nazi perspective, it proved Italy to be the weaker nation not suited to cooperate with Germans. For Hitler, however, it could be the first sign of the gloomy future of his legacy in case of the Reich’s defeat.  

As I have mentioned before, this article is not intended to provide a detailed account of the linear history of the Rome-Berlin Axis; it is rather an introductory analysis of the relationship between two totalitarian leaders who needed each other to the extent that their interdependence failed them both.  Even though the potential for successful ideological and military cooperation existed, Fascist Italy could never achieve the same level of political fanaticism established in the Third Reich. While ideology decisively brought the two states closer, it was rather the pragmatism and desperate need for an ally in the international arena that caused the Rome-Berlin Axis to emerge. Nevertheless, the alliance was doomed to fail from the beginning. Having a specific set of values or beliefs as an individual dictator does not guarantee their complete realisation. The support of the people willing to sacrifice their lives for the ideology matters; Italian society was not engaged in the idea of Fascism. The influence of the Catholic Church and existence of the Italian monarchy indicated the presence of different sources of influence over society. Fascism was not the ultimate answer to the problems of 1920s Italy; it was rather a third option. Italians would not defend the regime at all costs; the support for Mussolini decreased dramatically with consequent failures of his army. The society of the Third Reich was incomparably more committed to Hitler’s programme and his goals. The disparities in support for the regimes meant that both dictators had a different potential for sustaining their rules in their countries. As a result, the Rome-Berlin Axis was a temporary, pragmatic alliance which, in the long term, could not be sustained by ideological similarities. They were simply too weak in Italy to become decisive.  

Written By Hela Gorecka

Bibliography:  

De Grand, Alexander J. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany: The ‘fascist’ style of rule. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. 

Goeschel, Christian. ‘Italia docet? The Relationship Between Italian Fascism and Nazism Revisited’ European History Quarterly, 42(3), 2012, pp. 480-492.  

Goeschel, Christian. ‘Staging Friendship: Mussolini and Hitler in Germany in 1937’. The Historical Journal, 60(1), 2017, pp. 149-172.  

MacGregor, Knox. Hitler’s Italian Allies: Royal Armed Forces, Fascist Regime, and the War of 1940-1943. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.  

Roberts, David D.  The Totalitarian Experiment in Twentieth-Century Europe: Understanding the Poverty of Great Politics. New York: Routledge, 2006. 

1 comment on “Friend or Foe? The Rome-Berlin Axis from the perspective of necessity and ideology. 

  1. R.T.Gorecki

    For such a serious topic, it’s pretty good, although at times it feels somewhat lost in such a vast topic. Maybe we should start with a bit lighter topics? But the first step has been taken! Sincere congratulations! We look forward to seeing more! Your loving father.

    Like

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