Italy Between Non-belligerence and War Part I

By | February 9, 2022

In the early afternoon of September 1, 1939, a communiqué from the Council of Ministers was published in which it was said that military measures “have and will remain simply precautionary” and that Italy “will not take any initiative in military operations”. There was no declaration of neutrality either then or later; and to define the Italian position the term “non-belligerence” was adopted after some time. By it, evidently, Mussolini meant that he was not equidistant between the two sides, but remained an ally of Germany, even though he did not take up arms at the time.

There was, before the entry into the war of England and France, on 3 September, a truly belated attempt at mediation. Mussolini asked the three powers if they would agree to meet in conference with Italy (to resolve the Polish conflict as had happened for the Czech one). The project failed because the Western powers made it a condition that Hitler withdraw troops from Polish territory.

According to localtimezone, the announcement of neutrality (as it was then called by all) was welcomed by the Italian people with a great sigh of relief, even by the great majority of the fascists, both for the sake of peace, and for aversion to the Germans and particularly to Hitlerite Germany, and for partial release of repressed anti-fascism. The relief was accompanied by a sense of indignation at the news spread rapidly, first of all by the people recalled, on the conditions of scandalous unpreparedness of the Italian armed forces. From that moment on, the impression that the regime had badly squandered the tens of billions destined for military spending spread and took root: and this was one of the most serious and decisive blows to the prestige of the regime itself.

There was no initiative and the regime was left to its own uncertainties and internal conflicts. Basically, there were, side by side, two tendencies: the sentimentally warlike one of Mussolini, the resolutely pacifist one of Ciano. Mussolini would have gladly accepted a quick end to the war, in which he could have acted as a mediator; he found it unbearable that, as the war prolonged, the warrior Fascist Italy would continue to stay out of it. However, he bit the brake in the face of the ascertained military impotence (only ten divisions were ready for war) and postponed the intervention to the second half of 1940 or even 1941. This was confirmed by Ciano who, however, was faced with the almost daily fluctuations of the Duce between Germanophilia and Germanophobia, with prevalence, in

An idea advocated by Ciano, cherished by Mussolini, and then not hindered by Germany, was the neutral Danubian-Balkan blockade around Italy. The idea was not even given a principle of implementation. The visits of Bottai, Minister of National Education, to Sofia in November, Athens in December, Belgrade and Zagreb in February 1940 were of no political significance. Instead, there were visits by statesmen from Eastern countries to Italy: in Venice, in January 1940, Ciano met with the Hungarian Foreign Minister C. Czaky, and “the perfect identity” of views and feelings was announced; in February the Romanian minister T. Sidorovici, commander of the “National Guards”, came to Rome; in March it was the turn of P. de Teleki, the Hungarian prime minister, and the intention was declared to deepen the collaboration between the two countries. Also in March, Ciano and M. Markovič, Foreign Minister of Belgrade, celebrated the three years of the Italo-Yugoslav agreement (which did not prevent the fascist government from intensely intriguing Croatia) in a joint demonstration. In April, the Romanian propaganda minister Giurescu was in Rome. From all this nothing came out for international politics.

Ciano deluded himself, with the two expositions made to the Grand Council on 7 December 1939 and to the Chamber on the 16th, that he had definitively fixed Italy in a position of neutrality subtly hostile to Germany; but the final part of the report to the Chamber was preceded by a whole apologetic narration of fascist foreign policy with anti-Western bets, which did not accord with such intentions. In reality Ciano had neither the mental capacity nor the willpower to bring about a reversal of fascist foreign policy, nor the necessary influence over Mussolini, to drag him along this new path; even if at the end of October his position was strengthened with the ministerial rehash that led to talk of a Cyan ministry: moreover, by promoting the replacement of Starace with E. Muti, he showed himself that he did not know how to get out of the circle of squad and legionary fascism. A card in the anti-German game was the Russian intervention in Poland and above all the Soviet war against Finland. There was, in favor of the latter, in the winter of 1939-40, almost an anti-Bolshevik campaign in Italy, a campaign behind which Germanophobia was growing.

In the uncertainty with respect to foreign policy and the war, Mussolini at least tried (after having remained silent for some time) to keep alive the flame of the fascist and nationalist spirit inside, flaunting the works of the regime.

On January 18, 1940, the first exhibition of self-sufficient building materials was inaugurated in Rome. On that same day, the first meeting of the Council of the ten colonial councils took place which had the task of studying the enhancement of Italian Africa, having as its first aim imperial autarchy. In October 1939 the second book of the new civil code was approved (the third and fourth followed in January 1941). In January 1940 Grandi, who had become Minister of Justice ambassador, spoke of the general principles of the Fascist legal system. On March 1, 1940 there was the ceremony of admission into the divisional units of the army of 132 blackshirt battalions: this meant not so much a regularization of the militia as a fascistization of the army.

Italy Between Non-belligerence and War 1