Navigation Kopfzeile

Falanga, Gianluca (Sample Translation)

Mussolinis Vorposten in Hitlers Reich (Mussolini’s Outpost in Hitler’s Reich)

Ch. Links Verlag, October 2008, 336 pp
with approx. 42 b/w illustrations
ISBN: 978-3-86153-493-8
Preface 7
Prolog 9
Seduction (1933–1935) 11
Vittorio Cerruti
The »Lord Protector of the Reich« 12
First Signs of Unease 18
The Ambassador and the Major 28
The End of Friendship? 37
The Doors aren’t closed yet 54
Disillusion (1935–1940) 65
Bernardo Attolico
A Political Diplomat 67
Trust in Germany 73
Into the Blind Alley of Axis 81
Duel of Peace 87
Last Battle of Attolicos110
Disconnection (1940–1943) 146
Dino Alfieri
A Fascist as Ambassador 148
Crisis of Confidence 158
Triumph of Distrust 172
Attempts of Exit 194
Deduction 207
Revenche (1943–1945) 221
Filippo Anfuso
Mussolini’s last Ambassador 222
Ruins of the »Schicksalsgemeinschaft« 236
»Der Deutsche ist ein harter Herr« 247
Till a bad End? 265
Epilog 286
Appendix 289
Annotations 289
List of references 326
Picture index 330
Index of names 331
SEDUCTION (1933-1935)
On the evening of January 30 1933 there is an atmosphere of feverish activity in all the diplomatic missions in Berlin. Dispatches and telegrams are being composed with great zeal in every embassy and legation in the capital of the Reich to inform heads of government all over the world about what has happened today. The news was released shortly after midday: the German government crisis developing since the resignation of General Kurt von Scheicher’s cabinet has reached its end. The German head of state, the geriatric President Paul von Hindenburg, has approved the formation of a government of "national concentration" under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Almost ten years after the failed Munich putsch in November 1923 the national socialists have come to power in Germany.
In the Tiergarten precinct, not far from the Chancellor’s Palace in Wilhelmstraße, where the historic decision was reached in the morning, is the diplomatic mission of the Kingdom of Italy. The embassy chancery shares a spacious belle époque building at 36 Viktoriastraße with the ambassador’s residence.
On this cold January evening, as the columns of an impressive torch procession of thousands of SA men are forming, ready to march to the government precinct to celebrate the national socialist "grab for power", the Italian ambassador in Berlin, Vittorio Cerruti, is setting about transmitting to the prime minister and foreign minister of Italy, the fascist leader Benito Mussolini, his first impressions of the political upheaval in Germany. As Cerruti sends off his telegram at about 8.30pm, the head of the torchlight procession, watched by large numbers of spectators, reaches its destination, the Reichskanzlei, where Adolf Hitler salutes his legions from the window of his new office. The words of the ambassador reach Rome half an hour after midnight: "The resolution of the crisis" begins the situation report by the diplomat in this historic hour, "has surprised the many people in Berlin who considered co-operation between Hindenburg and Hitler out of the question and would have considered von Papen impossible as a vice-chancellor."
Surprise is indeed the commonest reaction to the national socialists’ coming to power. Like many of those around him, Cerruti wonders whether the coalition parties in the new government under Hitler’s leadership will hold together: Hitler, Franz von Papen, the media baron Alfred Hugenberg, "each of them has his own ideas and wants to assert them." However, the Italian ambassador is not one of those politicians and diplomats taken completely by surprise by Hindenburg’s decision. On the contrary: since autumn 1932 Cerruti has been one of the few people in Berlin who have given the national socialists a serious chance of coming to power one day. [3]
Vittorio Cerruti is an experienced professional diplomat, a typical example of the "old school" of the Palazzo Chigi, the Italian ministry of foreign affairs.[4] This ever-serious 52-year-old man from Novara began his career as early as 1904 at the court of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, where he served under a well-known ambassador, Count Giuseppe d’Avarna. Cerruti’s curriculum vitae shows that he has had top-level diplomatic experience, such as participation in the Italian delegation at the peace negotiations in Versailles in 1919 and his six years as head of the Italian embassy in Peking from 1921 to 1927. Thereafter he represented Italy till 1930 in Moscow and then in Rio de Janeiro. He arrived in Berlin only at the end of October 1932 – just in time to experience the last months of the Weimar Republic’s death agony.
It is clear that Cerruti is the most competent man that the Italian foreign affairs ministry has available for the post of ambassador in Germany at this time. Owing to his long years in the Austro-Hungarian Empire he is completely familiar with the problems of Central Europe and speaks German fluently [7] – a skill not to be underestimated. Despite his conspicuous reserve, known to all, his staff value his gravitas. Cerruti is also liked by the staff of the German foreign office. The ministry at Wilhelmstraße 76 congratulated him on his new appointment without a moment’s hesitation. [8] At the beginning of 1933 the Italian ambassador, with his colleagues from France and Britain André François-Poncet and Sir Eric Phipps, is amongst the most distinguished figures in the Berlin diplomatic corps.
Germany, as Cerruti encounters it, is a country utterly taken up with its own political instability. Papen’s government, the "cabinet of barons", has been in office since June 1932. It is weak and its days are numbered. In the Reichstag the "enemies of the republic" on the right and the left have had a veto for two years which has paralysed the parliament and makes possible only minority governments appointed by the president, so-called presidential cabinets. Over this unstable political scenario hovers the threat of the national socialists.
Although it has been the strongest block in the Reichstag since July 31, Hitler’s party has struggled through the gravest crisis in its history in the autumn of 1932. Hitler’s strategic decision to take power through parliamentary means has been put to a hard test inside the party; its "brother movement" in Italy has also attacked the NSDAP’s "policy of legality" vehemently. The Italian fascists, particularly the old war-horses who took part in the march on Rome in 1922, have accused their northern comrades of being "only" peace-loving, law-abiding citizens and not real revolutionaries, and are impatiently wanting to know why Hitler has not ordered a march on Berlin. [9]
Yet Hitler will not be diverted from his course. The current situation in Germany, as he constantly repeats, is utterly different from Italy in 1922, but he promises: "The day [is] not far off when we shall govern not through a coup, but by the clear will of the people, in the name of God and for the good of the people." [10] On November 17 1932 the Papen cabinet resigns en bloc. Two weeks later Hindenburg, with a heavy heart, drops his "favourite chancellor" Franz von Papen; he commissions General Kurt von Scheicher, not Hitler, with the formation of another conservative government.
The disappointment at the recently missed chance is still felt deeply in the leadership of the NSDAP when Ambassador Cerruti attends a dinner at Hermann Göring’s on December 10 to honour General Italo Balbo, the Italian Air Force Minister, who is in Berlin at this time to hold initial discussions about supporting the secret German re-armament effort. A few leading figures in the NSDAP meet on this Sunday evening in the Reichstag president’s palace – among them are Joseph and Magda Goebbels, Göring’s wife-to-be Emmy Sonnemann, the press secretary of the NSDAP Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, and the "Reich film director" Leni Riefenstahl. [11] The Italian ambassador, who hesitated at first to accept an invitation from a representative of an opposition party, comes accompanied by his wife Elisabetta.[12]
During the lavish meal, the vehement resentment that the national socialists feel towards President Hindenburg leaves a deep impression on the Italian couple. In particular, the Ceruttis are alienated by the insulting words the host uses at table in his vocal demand for the "old man to resign" – he is delaying Hitler’s taking over the government. Later, on the way home, the ambassador and his wife exchange their impressions of Göring and Goebbels, who both cut strange figures in the German political landscape.[13]
As to the determination of the two NS leaders to take power, Cerruti is not deceived by the pessimism prevailing in their circle at this time. For him the question is how long the conservative opponents of the NSDAP, like Hindenburg or Schleicher, whose electoral popularity is waning, can keep Hitler out of government. The period of the presidential cabinets has dragged on too long and with too little success. In contrast to his predecessor, Ambassador Orsini-Baroni, Vittorio Cerruti does not think that the actual centres of power that influence German politics are to be found in the ambit of the Reichswehr.[14] Accordingly he changes the slant of his embassy’s reports. Presumably it is on the basis of his positive evaluation of the Hitler movement in the climate of strengthening contacts between Italian fascism and the NSDAP that he earns the title "Lord Protector of the Reich" that the French ambassador André François-Poncet gives him at the beginning of 1933.
Six weeks later it happens: Hitler is chancellor of the Reich. While the international press does not conceal its concern over the political change in Germany, all the leading Italian dailies publish enthusiastic reports. Hitler’s "grab for power" is celebrated as "the collapse of the old democratic-liberal systems in the world" and as the beginning of a new historical era of the fascist philosophy. In their many reports and articles, Italian journalists stress the decisive role of Mussolini’s fascism as a model for the Hitler movement.[16]
Thoroughly flattered by such enthusiastic acclaim from the country where the model of a fascist society was "invented" and first put into practice, the new German chancellor makes no bones about being in Mussolini’s debt. To show his gratitude for the favourable reports, Hitler receives the Italian correspondents on February 2, a day earlier than all the other foreign journalists. To the representatives of the Italian media he announces his firm resolve to build up "a close and real friendship" between Germany and Italy. Italy, too, demands recognition of its "rights as a great nation", Hitler points out, and in this he sees one of the reasons "why the two countries should stand on the same ground, with their eyes fixed on the same goal."
Such protestations of friendship and spontaneous offers of allegiance to Italy are no rarity during Hitler’s first public appearances as head of government. Abroad, especially in England and France, they cause real consternation. The spectre of an antidemocratic, fascist front in Europe, an "alliance of fascisms" wanting to destroy the post-war European order, sounds the alarm for the European left, and for others as well. Within Germany, too, Hitler’s extravagant admiration of Mussolini causes agitation, especially in the foreign office. A hastily tied bond between Berlin and Rome is seen by Wilhelmstraße as an escalation and not a solution to the prime foreign policy problem, namely Germany’s international isolation.
At first, ambassador Cerruti attaches no great importance to the "emotional" outbursts of affection by this notorious fan of Mussolini. Rather, he strives to gauge accurately the strength and stability of the new German government. "The government programme does not have much content" he reports to Rome on February 2, "but it does show serious intentions, despite its thinness." [20]. In addition to combating mass unemployment and reviving German industry, Hitler wants to "thwart Bolshevik attempts to destroy Germany". "Signs of stringent measures against communism," Cerruti concludes. [21] But before this, new elections are to take place. If he has a clear electoral victory on March 5, Cerruti explains to Mussolini, Hitler will have the opportunity to strengthen considerably his position of power within the government.[22]
So Cerruti’s verdict on Hitler’s first official appearances is entirely positive. What first makes the Italian ambassador believe in the Hitler’s apparent political prudence is doubtless the moderate and reassuring tones the new chancellor uses towards Germany’s concerned neighbours. The German nation has been desiring internal peace for too long, says the diplomat. Now is the hour of the strong man who will help the country out of its crisis.
The gesticulating demagogue, the tribune of the plebs with the strand of hair over his forehead and the angry voice – this Hitler is known to all. But how will he now act in the difficult rôle of statesman? How will the beer-hall politician come to terms with the dictates of protocol? The diplomatic circles in the Reich capital soon get their first taste of this. On February 8, at the Reich president’s annual New Year reception for the Berlin diplomatic corps, Hitler makes his debut on the international stage.[23]
At table, Signora Cerruti is given the honour of sitting next to Hitler. The two converse throughout the dinner. Elisabetta Cerruti, struck by the common, mediocre appearance of the feared NS Führer, discovers something strange in his temperament, a detail that is confirmed by many others: as soon as Hitler is asked about his political programme, his otherwise normal voice rises to a hysterical tone, to scream abuse at Germany’s enemies. Although she feels a "special kind of magnetism" emanating from Hitler, she feels relief when Hindenburg requests the guests to go to the drawing room for coffee.
There, in the drawing room of the president’s palace, the first conversation between her husband and Hitler takes place. The chancellor enthuses once more about Italy to the Italian ambassador. The press commentary was "really marvellous", he thankfully acknowledges to Cerruti. Rome and Berlin must at all costs come closer together, and therefore he is very anxious to pay a visit to Mussolini as soon as possible, so as to get to know him personally. Hitler is unstinting in his words of admiration for the "duce", and Cerruti promptly reports them to Mussolini.[25]
However, the ambassador is wary about the journey to Rome that Hitler longs for, as he is about Hitler’s speeches during his first days a chancellor. [26] He knows that Mussolini does not think it is opportune to meet other fascist leaders yet; this kind of meeting would surely have a negative effect on the international climate that is tense enough as it is. Although the rumours about Hitler’s visit to Rome intensify to such an extent during the month of February that a number of people consider the visit a fait accompli [27] – among them are the German foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath and the French and German ambassadors in Rome – it is not difficult for Vittorio Cerruti to calm the chancellor’s initial impatience. Before the election date (March 5) which will demand all of Hitler’s concentration, Cerruti tells him, any entry on to the international stage would be too early.[28]
On the morning of February 15, Cerruti has a further discussion with Hitler.[29] In Hitler’s office in the Reichskanzlei the two men are now able to continue the conversation that they began at Hindenburg’s party a week ago. Hitler makes a few interesting statements about domestic policy. "Many people in Germany", he says, "speak of the present situation as if it were an episode, and of me as if I were a politician who will soon disappear. They are wrong, for I am firmly resolved to hold on to this leadership for a long time."[30] The immediate aim of his government which must be achieved "at all costs" is the eradication of marxism. "The task I am undertaking is enormous, I know, for it is a question of putting 13 million people out of action. But I shall do it."[31] The elections on March 5, Hitler continues, are fairly insignificant for him, for he is "determined no longer to tolerate their [the KPD’s] activity , under any circumstances."[31] He needs a little more time to "document their criminal activities", then he will take his lead from Italy in this matter, as he has in others. "You have managed to defend yourselves from marxism in such a way that it is easy for you to have good relations with the Soviets."[32]
How vividly the Italian ambassador must have recalled Hitler’s words – "I will show you in a very short time how to deal with the communists"[33] – when only two weeks later, on February 28, President Hindenburg, following the burning of the Reichstag, signs the notorious "Decree for the protection of the people and the state" and thereby invalidates all the basic rights guaranteed by the Weimar constitution. The national socialists use the opportunity to put the social democrats and communists effectively "out of action", by forbidding them to meet and spread propaganda, and not least by taking their most important political leaders into "protective custody".
The decree is the first step towards dismantling the democratic state and installing the national socialist dictatorship. The innumerable arrests and the widespread use of force by the police and the SA against political opponents towards the end of February 1933 take the Italian fascists by surprise. Those who had accused the German "comrades" of excessive desire to abide by the law must now revise their opinion. In the areas of terror and repression the squadristi south of the Alps have nothing to teach the national socialists. Cerruti and Mussolini, too, who expected stronger resistance by the German left, are forced to realise that establishing fascism in Germany will be considerably quicker than it was in Italy.[34]
The Reichstag elections on March 5 confirm the governing coalition’s majority, but they are not a triumph for the national socialists. Despite the arrest of their leaders, the prohibition of assembly and publishing in the press, and the intimidation of their voters by the SA, the communists receive more than twelve per cent of the votes. That equates to over 80 seats in the Reichstag which are immediately denied the KPD by the provisions of the "Burning of the Reichstag decree". In the eyes of the Italian press it is of course a clear and decisive success for the NSDAP. Once more there is talk of an "affinity of spirit and will" between fascism and national socialism, on the basis of which it is now possible to strengthen the friendship and cooperation between Berlin and Rome.[35]
Now convinced of Hitler’s power, Mussolini decides for a moment to abandon his cautious position and for the first time publicly claims "spiritual paternity" of the Hitler movement. [36] On March 9 he has the fascist Great Council approve a resolution which states that Rome "recognises in the fascist movement which is developing beyond the borders of Italy the manifestation of a new spirit which is derived directly or indirectly from that set of doctrines and institutions through which Italy has created the modern state, the people’s state". [37] In the Italians’ eyes, Hitler’s government has passed the test of stability, and this encourages Mussolini to take one more big step. For some years the dictator has been working on a project to "establish peace" in Europe, as the regime propaganda puts it. Now that Germany has regained strength, as he hoped, the head of the Italian government sees the time as ripe for putting his ambitious plan into action.
The political scenario of Europe has grown out of the peace treaties, and fascist Italy is admittedly a vigorous player in it, but the main thrust of its foreign policy has a paradoxical quality: emerging as a victorious power from the First World War, Italy is a beneficiary, and indeed one of the creators, of the European order after Versailles. However, as this victory is seen as "flawed", Italy belongs to the camp of the "dissatisfied", i.e. the nations which are demanding a revision of the treaties and are opposed to the status quo.[38]
Although Mussolini has inscribed revisionism on his banner, he is not primarily interested in a radical upheaval of the post-war order – and certainly not at the cost of a new great war in Europe. Despite all the vacillation and ambiguity that marks his attitude to foreign policy, the aim of the "duce" is to extend Italian influence over the Mediterranean, the Danube-Balkan area and Africa, in order to help Italy achieve the status of a great power. This can of course only succeed if the balance of power in Europe changes. For this purpose the Italian head of government pursues a kind of "revisionism without revision", [39] with which he keeps the Franco-British peace arrangements in permanent crisis without putting them into any serious danger. While on the one hand Mussolini demonstrates that he is a supporter of resistance against the League of Nations, on the other hand, by adhering to the treaties and respecting the enforcement agencies, he shows that he does not wish to destroy the international security system.
Till the end of the 1920s Mussolini thought the situation in Europe was not favourable for extending Italy’s sphere of influence. Furthermore, he was too preoccupied with consolidating his regime to make a serious challenge to the dominance of Paris and London. He therefore kept major foreign policy ambitions on the back burner at first, and in 1925 entrusted the leadership of the foreign ministry to the moderate fascist Dino Grandi. This man pursued a cautious policy of equidistance from all the major powers, which was supposed to make Italy the peso determinante (decisive weight) in Europe – at least until such time as a change in the constellation of power on the continent gave Italy more scope for action.[40]
With the world economic crisis in 1929 and the development of the political situation in Germany, Mussolini thinks that the moment for a more offensive foreign policy had come. So the "duce" assumes the leadership of the foreign ministry once more and began to develop the idea of a "four-power pact" which was to resolve all conflicts threatening peace by instituting a directorate of the four great powers, Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Mussolini speculates on the idea of tying Germany into a cooperation system as a useful counterpoise to France and England, and to create for himself the key function of mediating between the central and western powers. By these means he hopes to be able to remove tension from the overall situation in Europe without having to abandon his revisionism. In the final analysis, his main concern is to keep the power constellation "fluid", or to shift it in his favour and put Italy firmly in the inner circle of the great powers.[41]
The beginning of the "war of nerves" for Danzig, which will keep all the embassy chancelleries and governments of Europe in a lather till the end of August, also marks the beginning of the passionate bid for peace by Attolico. In the middle of July, he proves how well he knows the NS leadership. Despite what many members of his staff think, the ambassador has understood that Hitler and Ribbentrop will take no account of Italy’s point of view, and that they firmly believe that Mussolini will unhesitatingly come to their side once war has broken out. The fact that Italy wants no war in the next three years is a matter of indifference to the Reich government. Therefore he believes German silence signifies anything but assent. Attolico is right – Italy is not given the slightest bit of information about the well-aimed attempts to provoke a war with Poland or about Hitler’s endeavours to reach an understanding with Moscow. Attolico has no way of knowing that this breach of the alliance was personally ordered by Hitler at the secret meeting on May 23.
The torment of worry about the way the situation is developing makes Attolico write a long letter to Ciano’s head of staff Anfuso on July 11. In the letter he lists all the "symptoms" of an escalation of the situation: troop movements, concentration of arms in Danzig, secretary of state Weizsäcker’s cancellation of his holidays. All this, according to Attolico, leads one to assume that "the Führer will decide between peace and war in August, to be more precise, between the 10th and the 15th of the month." There is a further reason for thinking this likely, namely that the autumn weather will turn large tracts of the Polish plains into a swamp which could make it more difficult for the troops to advance. "If he is going to strike" observes Attolico, "then it will be in August." Without naming his informant, Attolico demands that Anfuso make contact at once with Ciano who is on a state visit to Spain. The foreign minister must arrange a meeting between Mussolini and Hitler as quickly as possible. In Rome Mussolini is torn between the wish to remain loyal to the Germans and the feeling that they are acting behind his back. Attolico’s suggestion for a one-on-one meeting with Hitler is received positively by the "Führer", who even encourages his ally to tell him about his idea of an international conference to solve the Danzig question. Anfuso’s reply to Attolico reaches the embassy in Berlin two days later: the meeting will take place at the Brenner and is set down for August 4. On July 19, hardly has Ciano returned from Spain, Magistrati is summoned urgently to Rome to receive instructions for the ambassador about the planned meeting.
Count Magistrati arrives in the Eternal City on July 21. He finds Ciano extremely annoyed by "Attolico’s endemic anxiety attacks" and Mussolini desperately looking for a way to maintain peace but not give up his alliance with Hitler. In the plans for an international conference Magistrati tends to see a second "Four-Power Pact" rather than a "second Munich". This is an attempt, he is told, to break up the "moral and political unity" of the Franco-British front to defend Poland. At the meeting at the Brenner Pass, Mussolini will personally explain to Hitler the advantages of a diplomatic step of this kind. Yet Ciano and Mussolini both have a premonition that it will not be easy to get the "Führer" back to the negotiating table.
When Magistrati returns to Berlin on July 24, Attolico is waiting for him to continue with him to Salzburg immediately. After agreeing by telephone with Ciano, the ambassador is to undertake an initial sounding, first presenting Mussolini’s initiative to Ribbentrop. Attolico is already afraid that the idea of a conference will find no support in the Reich foreign ministry.
At Fuschl castle, where the German foreign office moved just a few days ago, ago, the Ribbentrop opposes the Italian suggestion, as predicted. Nevertheless he promises to talk to Hitler about it. Back in Berlin, Attolico draws up an extensive report about the discussion, using notes that Magistrati made during the conversation with Ribbentrop. The ambassador makes much of Ribbentrop’s rejection. Attolico also confers with Ernst von Weizsäcker who makes him change his mind: a meeting of the two leaders could heighten the danger of imminent war, for Hitler and Mussolini would "egg each other on". Three days later there is a communication from Hitler: the planned meeting at the Brenner on August 4 is postponed indefinitely.
The situation continues tense, however. Therefore Attolico decides to give Rome no respite, though disagreeing with Magistrati. He presses for a new attempt to clear the air with the Germans. The ambassador’s "alarmist bombardment" (bombardamento allarmistico in Ciano’s words) finally, during the first days in August, make the foreign minister sit up. Mussolini’s son-in-law, as shown in his diary entries, is uncertain whether he should listen to Attolico or Magistrati, who prefers to wait and see. "August 2: ... Attolico’s perseverance is making me very worried. Either he has completely lost his senses or he sees and knows something that we are completely unaware of. ...August 3: Massimo [Magistrati]...advises against taking the initiative and asking the Germans for an explanation of their plans. ... Roatta, the new military attaché [in Berlin], reports troop concentration and movement on the Polish border, however. Who is right?" On August 4 Ciano finally gives in to Attolico: "The moment has come when we must know how things really stand. The game is getting too dangerous to await developments passively." After he has conferred with Mussolini, Ciano instructs the ambassador to organise a new meeting with Ribbentrop. On August 11 Ciano, accompanied by Attolico, Magistrati and Leonardo Vitretti, a diplomat, arrives at the idyllic residence of the Reich foreign minister on the Fuschlsee.
Before Ciano’s departure, Mussolini asks him to approach the Germans once more about his project for an international conference. The "duce" explains that a conflict with Poland must be prevented at all costs, "for it is no longer possible to limit it. A general war would spell disaster for everyone at this time." "Today as never before" notes Ciano in his diary on August 10 " the duce spoke passionately and without reservation about the necessity of maintaining the peace." With these words in the back of his mind the young Italian appears before Ribbentrop.
Yet the man standing before him is no longer the forthcoming minister that he met in Milan only three months ago. From the start Ribbentrop takes a hard line. As they go for a walk in the garden before lunch Ciano asks his colleague: "Well now, Ribbentrop, what is it you are after? The corridor or Danzig?" "Neither now," replies the German coldly. "We want war." Ciano is speechless. "As if he were speaking of the most insignificant and commonplace administrative matter", Ribbentrop abandons all pretence and presents Ciano with the naked truth. The atmosphere at lunch is icy. The two ministers hardly exchange one further word. Afterwards they retire to a room in the castle for a long private talk. The Italian tries to counter the affront. The discussion becomes more and more tense. Ciano tries in vain to convince his opposite number that an attack on Poland would leave Great Britain and France no choice this time but to go to war, and Italy is not ready for it. Ribbentrop pays scant attention to Ciano’s argument. When asked about the details of the campaign against Poland he is evasive and somewhat embarrassed. "He rejects any solution which might both satisfy Germany and avoid fighting," Ciano will shortly confide to his diary. "I am certain that the Germans would attack even if all their demands were met, because they are possessed by the demon of destruction. ...It is becoming clear to me how little we are worth in the eyes of the Germans."
Meanwhile Attolico, Magistrati and Vitetti are waiting impatiently on the shore of the Fuschlsee for Ciano and Ribbentrop to finish their discussion. The cool atmosphere at lunch and the horror on the minister’s face have made the ambassador gloomy. At about 5.30pm Ciano and Ribbentrop end their conversation. The Italian hurries to talk to his party. The situation is extremely serious, Ciano says, finally able to give free rein to his outrage. Ribbentrop is convinced that the western powers will " watch the slaughter of Poland unmoved". "Ribbentrop even wanted to .... make a wager about it with me. If the English and French remain neutral, I am to give him an Italian painting, and should they enter the war he promised me a collection of antique arms."
Ciano’s account stuns the little team of diplomats. However there is no time to discuss the situation at length. The next item on the programme for the visit is dinner in the famous "Weißes Rössel" restaurant on the Wolfgangsee. Only when they return to the hotel in Salzburg late in the evening the Italian delegation ensconce themselves in Ciano’s bathroom in the hope of finding there, at least, protection from the ubiquitous ears of Ribbentrop’s men. They are unanimous: the Germans have breached their duty of information under the Steel Pact and allowed their ally to believe that they wanted to maintain peace for the next three years at least. The scales have fallen even from Ciano’s eyes. From now on, the minister promises, Italian will refuse to be a party to German campaigns. In a war provoked by Berlin, Rome must at all costs remain neutral.
At this same time Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German defence, is meeting the new military attaché Mario Roatta at the Italian embassy in Berlin. The two know each other from Spain, where the Italian commanded the fascist voluntary militia in the civil war. Italy’s attitude in the crisis, as Canaris says, is decisive if they are to avoid a war which could be devastating even for Germany. At a second meeting a few days later he even divulges to the Italian officer that Hitler’s aim is not Danzig but the annihilation of the Polish state, and that the military operations will begin in about two weeks. The "Führer" is aware of the lack of preparedness on the Italians’ part, Canaris continues, but this will not deter him from his plans for war. The only thing would be if Italy openly accused Germany of breaching the Steel Pact. The head of German intelligence knows that Roatta will not hesitate one moment to report to Attolico what was said to him in confidence. He hopes that his indiscretion will reach Rome and open Mussolini’s eyes. It is actually not the first time that Canaris has directed information to the Italian embassy by roundabout routes. Several times he warned of the dangers of eavesdropping and the deciphering of telegraphed reports by the Gestapo. Because of Canaris’s tip-offs, Attolica had the secret code changed.
On the morning of August 12 Ciano is received by Hitler in Berchtesgaden. The Chancellor "is friendly, to be sure, but also unyielding and unshakable [like Ribbentrop]". To impress his guest Hitler invites him to sit in his office: military maps are spread out in full view on the desk. Hitler plays the military expert. He advises Italy to occupy Yugoslavia. The Balkan state has always taken an ambiguous position towards the Axis. The Italian protests vehemently. Italian is not ready, war will plunge the Italian people into misery. The "Führer" listens with scant interest. He merely repeats his conviction that it is inconceivable that the conflict will spread beyond Poland. For the second time Ciano realises how powerless he is: "I sense that the Germans value their alliance with us only to the extent that we can keep enemy forces from their fronts. No more. They do not care about our fate. They assume that the war will be decided by them and not us. In the final analysis they are only offering us crumbs." On the same evening there is a second conference of the Italian delegation in Ciano’s room. They decide not to issue a press release about the way the German-Italian meeting has gone, in order to preserve Rome’s freedom of action. Before he goes to bed Ciano telephones his father-in-law: "The situation is very serious: further details by word of mouth in Rome". "Disgusted by Germany, by its leadership and the way it is acting," as he writes in his diary, Ciano returns to Rome. "They have lied to us and betrayed us. Now they want to draw us into a venture that we did not want and may endanger the regime and the country. The Italian people will be fuming with rage when it hears of the attack on Poland, and will possibly want to resort to arms against the Germans." The "duce’s" reaction to Ciano’s report is sheer horror. Mussolini’s inner torment is intensified by the words of his son-in-law, who openly favours breaking off relations with Germany immediately. Ciano speaks to him with "brutal frankness": he has now become the unwilling helpmate of the Germans and, to make matters worse, was being led a merry dance. He should have no compunction about repudiating the alliance, leaving the national socialists "in the lurch", for they first betrayed Italy and not the other way around. "I have no more illusions about the Germans: tomorrow it will be Hungary’s turn and then ours. We must act immediately while we still can."
Mussolini is much less determined than his son-in-law. At first he is against the plan of dissociating himself from Germany, then, one day later, on August 14, he agrees with Ciano to prepare the rupture with Germany, but he does not want to break off the relationship abruptly. In the event that France and Great Britain do not intervene, it would be better not to make enemies of the Germans. The "duce" has turned his eyes on Belgrade, Ciano notes to himself; "he wants to have his share of the spoils": Croatia and Dalmatia. The protocol of the Salzburg talks can if necessary, be used at the appropriate time as proof of German "betrayal". Only a few hours later Mussolini is pessimistic again: the western powers will fight after all. "It is useless to fly two thousand metres up in the clouds. ... This time it is war. And we cannot be part of it because the conditions don’t allow us to."
On August 15 Attolico leaves Berlin for Rome. He is to support Ciano personally in his anti-German crusade. "It will not be simple to bring him [Mussolini] over to my side," as the foreign minister says, "but I will try to do it, in the conviction that I am doing a service to my country." For two days Ciano and Attolico put pressure on Mussolini to take this great step: to make a break with Hitler. They resort to any argument they can think of: that the Italian public want "to hear nothing more about the Germans"; that a policy of neutrality would be very popular; that later, a war against Germany, if it proved necessary, would win approval from the people. But to convince Mussolini is a difficult undertaking. The two only get permission to make further representations to Ribbentrop, to stress once again the Italian condemnation of a conflict. Attolico telephones Berlin at once and makes an appointment to meet Magistrati in Munich on the morning of August 18.
At a further meeting at Fuschl castle Attolico passes a short message from the "duce" to Ribbentrop. It is yet another complete failure. Ribbentrop is unyielding. He considers the Italian worries to be baseless and repeats his conviction that Paris and London will remain neutral. In any case, Hitler has decided to bring the Poles to account, by force of arms. That much is certain. The words that pass between Attolico and Ribbentrop make their mutual aversion plain. Next day in a second meeting at the "Österreichischer Hof", a hotel in Salzburg, the discussion takes a dramatic turn. When Ribbentrop accuses the Italian embassy of defeatism, Attolico sees red and almost resorts to violence. This is the final break between them. Neither the ambassador nor the minister will ever forget this moment.
In Munich Magistrati and Attolico go their separate ways. Magistrati returns to Berlin, where important discussions with Ernst von Weizsäcker are awaiting him. Like Canaris – and possibly in consultation with him – the secretary of state is betting on the Italians leaving the alliance in order to avoid being involved in Hitler’s war. Weizsäcker also tries to exert pressure on Mussolini through secret channels in England. Attolico however heads back to Rome. He wants to stand by Ciano in his endeavours to convince the "duce". But in the Italian capital there is a nasty surprise waiting for him: Mussolini is now of the opinion that it is too late to rescind the alliance with Hitler after all. The "duce" fears his ally’s rage which might result in a punitive expedition. He is even more afraid that the international community might accuse him of cowardice and disloyalty if he leaves Germany in the lurch at the very moment when there is a call to arms. On August 20 Ciano is called back urgently to Rome from a visit in Albania: Mussolini has backed down and wants to give the Germans confirmation of Italy’s support in a war. In a special night-time meeting in Mussolini’s office Attolico and Ciano really go to work on Mussolini to get him to change his mind. The dictator is deaf to all arguments. The three agree to meet again tomorrow. "Attolico leaves the palazzo Venezia discouraged and exhausted," notes Ciano in his diary.
August 21 is a crucial day. Ciano takes his father-in-law to task. "Duce, you cannot and will not do it. ... The Germans have betrayed the alliance, not us. We were supposed to be allies and not inferiors. Tear the pact up, rub it under Hitler’s nose and Europe will see you as the leader of the crusade against the Germans. Would you like me to go to Salzburg? Very well, I shall go and speak to the Germans the way they should be spoken to. Hitler will not make me put out my cigarette as he did with Schuschnigg." Mussolini is stunned by this frankness. He agrees to a further meeting of Ciano with Ribbentrop at the Brenner. In Berlin Magistrati receives instructions to contact Ribbentrop, but he can’t be reached. Only at around 5.30pm Ribbentrop telephones Ciano. He says he cannot agree to the meeting immediately because he is expecting "an important message from Moscow". Ciano goes to Mussolini to prepare for the discussion with Ribbentrop. In a four-point paper the Italian government declares its intention not to participate in any war resulting from the invasion of Poland. At 10.30 the shock comes. Ribbentrop rings Ciano again. He would rather see him in Innsbruck, because he has to go to Moscow the next day. The German Reich is in the process of concluding a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. The whole world realises at once what an understanding between Hitler and Stalin means: that Germany has averted the danger of encirclement and a war on two fronts. Nothing can now stop Hitler from attacking Poland.
The news of the German-Soviet summit hits Rome like an axe-blow to the head. The Italian embassy in Berlin has been keeping its government up to date about the way discussions between the Reich government and the Soviets have been developing, but they appeared to be economic negotiations. A political agreement was not thought possible. Again the NS leadership has been leaving its allies in the dark. Ciano and Mussolini consider that the planned meeting with Ribbentrop has been "overtaken by events". Now they have to wait for the signing of the German-Soviet pact. As Attolico fears, Mussolini is fascinated by this latest German coup. He even calls it a "master stroke" and reverts to his idea "to stand ready in order to get our part of the spoils in Croatia and Dalmatia". While Ribbentrop is signing the sensational non-aggression treaty in Moscow, and Germany and the Soviet Union are dividing Poland between them in a secret supplementary protocol, Attolico returns to Berlin from Rome in a depressed state. "This evening the duce is in favour of war," he writes disappointedly in his diary. The next day the foreign minister has an audience with the king.
The Italian crown is favourably disposed to the Germans and a war. Victor Emmanuel III asks Ciano insistently to press Mussolini to keep Italy neutral. The state of the army after the war in Abyssinia and the participation in the Spanish Civil War is utterly pitiful. During the night Ciano has a telephone call from Ribbentrop: Hitler wants to let him know that the situation in Danzig is escalating owing to the usual "Polish provocation". In fact Hitler has scheduled the attack on Poland for the morning of August 26. He asks Ribbentrop for another meeting, but is refused. So Ciano turns his attention to Mussolini once more. He wants to send Hitler the "Four-Point-Paper". The "duce" continues in his indecisiveness.
But Mussolini’s indecisiveness on that Friday, August 25 coincides with unexpected hesitation on Hitler’s part. At about 2pm the new German ambassador in Rome, Hans Georg von Mackensen, is ordered to hand Mussolini a personal letter from the "Führer". In it, Hitler announces to the "duce" that he will order the advance on Poland in the next few hours. For this he requests "Italy’s understanding". Mussolini wavers. Ciano wants him to reply to Hitler immediately to tell him that Italy will not go to war – except if Germany supplies its partner with the means and raw materials necessary to wage war. The "duce" gives in. "It is not the message that I would have wanted", the foreign minister comments privately, "but at least it is something. The ice has been broken."
Upon hearing from Ciano, Attolico rushes to the Neue Reichskanzlei. It is about 6pm and the ambassador has no inkling that Hitler gave the order to attack at 3.02pm without waiting for an answer from Mussolini. The German war machine is running at full speed. Without regard to etiquette, Attolico bursts into Hitler’s office unannounced. Mussolini’s message is like a bombshell, as Hitler’s interpreter Paul Schmidt later recalls. The Italian refusal is unmistakable, even if Mussolini is using the poor supply of raw materials in Italy as a smokescreen. To cap it all, it comes only one hour after a report from London that gave Hitler cause to quail: the British and the Poles have concluded a formal alliance.
Hitler coldly dismisses Attolico. He can hardly conceal his disappointment. Hardly has the ambassador left the room than the "Führer" rages: "The Italians are acting as they did in 1914!" he screams. He is gripped by worry that the situation could change. He must reflect. Completely unexpectedly Hitler summons Keitel and orders: "Stop everything at once! The order to advance must be cancelled immediately." Whilst the generals strive to abort "Operation Tannenberg" and call the soldiers back to their barracks, Hitler has Attolico summoned again to give him a copy of the letter that ambassador Mackensen will hand to the "duce" this same evening. In this letter Hitler asks Mussolini what raw materials he can help Italy with, and above all, what quantities Italy needs. In Standartenstraße they are hoping again that the direct approach by Mussolini to Hitler can once again stop the worst happening. In the night of August 25 they are working feverishly at the palazzo Venezia in Rome on an answer to Hitler’s letter. Military attaché Roatta is about to telephone the news that the order to advance on Poland has been revoked at the last minute raises Ciano’s hopes. In a meeting of the army leaders and other experts next morning, Ciano and Mussolini issue a staggering list of requests that Hitler has no hope of satisfying: millions of tonnes of materials, arms and raw materials, some of them very rare, that Germany will never be able to do without." "If an elephant could read the list it would fall dead on the spot", is Ciano’s comment. The preposterous list is telephoned through to Berlin.
Accompanied by Magistrati this time, Attolico heads for Hitler’s Reichskanzlei. As they sit in the car, Magistrati asks his boss whether he has wondered when the supplies are to be delivered, if the Germans really intend to comply with the "duce’s" request. Attolico reads through Mussolini’s letter attached to the list of raw materials. There is no mention of a date of delivery. This makes the ambassador think. Meanwhile the car has arrived in the courtyard of the Neue Reichskanzlei. A few minutes later, it is about 1.30pm on Sunday August 26, Attolico hands Hitler the list and the letter from his head of government. This is a second blow for Hitler. As Magistrati foresaw, Ribbentrop asks Attolico when Italy needed the materials requested. Attolico answers immediately with a cunning smile: "Subito – at once." Ribbentrop and Hitler almost jump out of their chairs. Just for the transport of such supplies 17 000 goods trains would be needed! Italy is demanding the impossible, and Attolico knows this perfectly well. Later this will be shown to be a misunderstanding. Mussolini was not thinking of any time frame, as they considered the list could not be filled anyway. Yet Attolico does not miss this opportunity to exploit this "misunderstanding", in order to keep Italy out of the war that was now imminent.
Thus for Hitler the matter was decided: they had to do without Italy’s help. In a further letter to Mussolini he agrees that Rome may keep out of the conflict. He rewquests, however, that the war be supported by "active propaganda and military demonstrations". When this news arrives in Rome around 4pm, Ciano rejoices: he believes that the way is now assured for leaving the alliance with Berlin. "The duce is really agitated: his warrior instinct and his sense of honour called him to battle. Reason held him back. But he is suffering a great deal FROM THIS," as Ciano judges the state of his father-in-law’s psyche. Around 7pm Mussolini, in a gloomy mood, dictates his reply to Hitler in a telephone call to the embassy in Berlin. For Attolico and his colleagues in Standartenstraße this is a moment of great emotion. The ambassador notes almost with tears in his eyes the words dictated by Mussolini, in which he recommends, as he has done repeatedly, "a political, not a violent solution". When they hand the message to a pale, expressionless Ribbentrop, Attolico and Magistrati have the feeling they have pulled it off. The worst is over, at least for Italy.
However it is not enough for the Italian ambassador to keep his country out of this perilous venture into war and stress the difference of the Italian and German positions in the eyes of the international community. Attolico wants to try once more to rescue the peace in Europe. As in the summer of the year before, he and his whole embassy get not a moment’s rest in these ominous last days of this hot August 1939. Most likely Hitler was thinking of him, when on August 22 in Berchtesgaden, mindful of the experience in Munich, he says to his generals: "I am only afraid that some Schweinehund will put a plan for conciliation before me at the last minute". While Mussolini is promising Hitler not to make his "neutrality" public yet, and also to send Italian workers in large numbers for German industry and agriculture, Attolico is supporting the latest British attempts to solve the German-Polish conflict without violence. He wants to persuade the Poles to bypass diplomatic formalities and seek direct contact with Ribbentrop and Hitler at once. He even suggests that Mussolini and Ciano should work on Warsaw and Berlin, with a further personal letter from the "duce" to the "Führer", for instance. In his embassy they are working round the clock. At 9.40pm Attolico is still at his desk, writing to Ciano: "I believe firmly that the situation can still be saved."
Yet Attolico has not reckoned on the criminal recklessness of the national socialists or on Hitler’s unstoppable drive to go to war. Barely two hours earlier, at 8pm, an SS detachment dressed as regular soldiers of the Polish army, attacked the German radio station in Gleiwitz in Upper Silesia, near the German-Polish border. It is the "incident" that Hitler needs to unleash is Polish campaign. The last desperate attempts at negotiation with Hitler and Ribbentrop by the British ambassador Neville Henderson are merely a propaganda bluff for the aggressor to create the appearance of moral legitimacy in the eyes of his own people. On September 1 at 7.30am Attolico calls Rome: "I fear there is nothing more to be done." The fighting in Poland has been under way since 4.45.
On June 17 1940, three days after the Wehrmacht’s entry into Paris, counsellor Michele Lanza is sent to Brussels to take over the business of the Italian embassy there, as it has been closed since the entry of the Germans. On the same evening the Italian diplomat decides to go on to the French capital. He arrives in France on the following day and is one of the first foreign diplomats to see occupied Paris. On his way to the metropolis he sees the destruction that the German air attacks have wrought, as well as the signs of the weak resistance met by the German tank divisions. In Paris he witnesses the march-past of the German battalions on the place de la Concorde and the Champs-Élysées. On seeing the swastika waving on the buildings and the soldiers camping at the edge of the streets he feels his heart constricting.[49]
Lanza remains in Paris for less than 24 hours "I could not have stood another single day in that city,"[50] he writes in his diary, filled of horror and disgust. "I didn’t recognise it any more ... left to the barbarians like that .. And duty obliges us to stand at the side of those who have inflicted this on the city!" [51] Back in Brussels the thoughts of the young diplomat drift to Munich where Hitler and Mussolini are just meeting in order to agree on the capitulation conditions to be imposed on conquered France.
For on that same June 17, while the Wehrmacht is marching into the French metropolis, now declared an open city, Marshal Philippe Pétain, the new French prime minister after the resignation of Paul Reynaud’s government, contacts the Reich government from Bordeaux asking for a truce. Mussolini is immediately summoned to a discussion with Hitler, and he curses: peace has come too soon. He has not even attacked the French yet. On June 18 he appears in Munich accompanied by Ciano and General Roatta, with a memorandum in his pocket. [52] In it the Italian general staff demands the immediate occupation of southern France, Corsica and Tunisia in order to provide Italy with a strategic advantage in the fight against Great Britain in the Mediterranean. This demand is predictable as it was made known long ago, and it worries Hitler. Excessive claims, particularly from the Italians, who have not beaten them, could make the French government move to Africa, withdraw its fleet into British harbours and continue its resistance from there. Hitler is already thinking how he might persuade London to accept a compromise peace and wants to avoid complications of this kind with France.[53]
In Munich the "Führer" acceeds in principle to the Italians’ wishes, but he asks them to delay till the "beginning of peace negotiations" with France and Great Britain. In a two-hour tête-à-tête Hitler manages to convince Mussolini that London, too, will be conquered in a very short time. [54] He says that a "reasonable" attitude on Italy’s part is therefore advisable, in order to make it easier for the French to accept the truce conditions, and to prevent their fleet being transferred to the English.[55] Ribbentrop is far less tactful to Ciano, who is thoroughly impressed by Hitler’s apparent leniency towards the traditional enemy France: "You have to be modest and not let your eyes be bigger than your stomach." [56] Hitler also declines politely but firmly Mussolini’s wish to conduct the negotiations together with the Germans. The "Führer" has a different vision: the signing of the armistice with France in the same Pullman railway-carriage in the forest of Compiègne in which the painful German capitulation was sealed in 1918 is a moment of revenge that he has longed for and wants to share with nobody. The two dictators finally agree to two armistices which are to be signed one shortly after the other. "The French have to suffer the indignity of travelling to Rome to capitulate to us, though we have not defeated them" – this is Michele Lanza’s ironic comment on June 21 when he is back in Berlin.[57]
For Mussolini it is not easy to pass up the spoils of war. He went to war under the illusion that nothing much more than a symbolic array of divisions on the western alpine border and in Libya would be sufficient to assert his territorial claims in France and to sit alongside Germany at the negotiating table. In Munich Mussolini has the sobering experience of what it is like to be the "second" in the Axis. Hitler dictates the conditions, for the Germans have defeated France unaided. Immediately after his return to Rome Mussolini orders a big offensive, attacking the French positions on the western alpine border. He hopes that a successful advance might put him in a better position both in the armistice negotiations and vis-à-vis the Germans. But the French, though already defeated, resist tenaciously and reveal the pitiful state of the Italian forces.
Speaking to Ciano, Mussolini blames the Italian people for the humiliation: "I lack the material. Even Michelangelo needed marble to create his statues. If he had had only clay he would have become a mere potter. A people that has been the anvil for 16 centuries cannot become a hammer in the space of a few years."[58] But all this lamenting doesn’t help: he has to eat humble pie. From the French he receives only "the minimum": a 50-kilometre-wide demilitarised zone on the Italian-French and the Libyan-Tunisian borders. Two days after the grand proceedings at Compiègne, General Charles Huntziger and General Roatta sign the armistice between France and Italy in the Villa Incisa. On Mussolini’s instructions the ceremony is kept low-key and almost "secret". The press is not permitted to report on the details of the treaty.
Yet Mussolini cannot yet rid himself of the delusion that he can conduct a straightforward war. The disappointment at his army failing in the baptism of fire, and the bitter experiences in Munich and the Villa Incisa weigh heavily on him, but his enthusiasm for a war which he continues to think is already won remains intact. On June 26 he offers Hitler a contribution to the campaign against England on which the eyes of the whole world are now directed. He insists that Italian "land and air forces" will take part in the decisive "attack on the island".[60]
Mussolini’s attitude is amateurish and irresponsible. It is based on the naive notion that Great Britain without France will not resist German pressure very long. He believes that British power has already been weakened so much that a few tentative Italian attacks on the British positions in North Africa might soon force them to withdraw from the Mediterranean entirely. The military leadership is partly at fault for this irresponsible naivety, as it does not require the political leadership to develop workable plans for naval warfare and the fight in North Africa, the fronts in Mussolini’s "parallel war".
Hitler does not at first react to Mussolini’s offer. [61] He has not yet decided how he wants to continue the war. He hopes to reach a compromise peace with London and wonders why the British want to continue fighting willy-nilly. Towards the Italians he acts as if he were determined to wage war. He wants to show no weakness to Mussolini – and he does not want him to take part in the secret dialogue with London. On July 1 Ambassador Alfieri goes to "Tannenberg", the Führer’s headquarters in the Black Forest where Hitler has been staying for a few days. During the conversation – Ribbentrop and Wilhelm Keitel are also present – the "Führer" explains to Alfieri that he is just preparing a decisive strike against England in the form of psychological propaganda: he wants to convince the world that the entire blame for the continuation of the war lies with London, because the British reject all dialogue with him. In consequence he declines Mussolini’s offer. On the other hand, he says, he would welcome and support any Italian offensive in Egypt which was directed towards capturing the Suez Canal. [62]
Immediately after his return from "Tannenberg" the Italian ambassador is assailed with questions from Rome. Mussolini is impatient. He wants to know every detail of the German plans for attack, he wants Italian troops to be included in the plans at all costs. Alfieri makes every effort to break through the wall of silence behind which the Germans are hiding their intentions. At meetings with the leadership of the Luftwaffe – Göring and General Field Marshal Erhard Milch – and with Ribbentrop and Weizsäcker, Alfieri is given contradictory information. His reports do not manage to calm Rome, although they are always formulated with great care in order to avoid disappointing or irritating Mussolini. In the Italian capital the spectre of a long war is slowly emerging, causing great agitation.
Ciano is much more perceptive than Mussolini. The Italian foreign minister senses the unease of Hitler and the German military leadership before the fight with Britain, which is after all a great power. As long ago as the conference in Munich on June 18 he knew that the Reich government, possibly through the mediation of the Swedish government, was extending its feelers to negotiate with London. He believes that behind the certainty of victory that Hitler feigns for the benefit of the Italians, especially his father-in-law, Berlin is seeking in secret a compromise with London which would leave Great Britain a free hand in its colonial empire and, in exchange, would assure Germany of dominance over the whole European continent. This would be in line with an old vision of Hitler’s which regarded the British as desirable allies. In such an understanding, however, Rome’s claims to being a great power would be crushed between London and Berlin.[63]
On July 7, only one day after the "Führer’s" triumphant return as the victor of the western campaign, Ciano appears in Berlin. The following day Hitler has scheduled a major speech in the Reichstag, to present officially a peace offer to England, but the speech is rescheduled at short notice. The visit of the Italian minister is confirmed, however. Ciano is received by Hitler in the Bellevue Palace. [64] After the two men have discussed the question of a new order in their colonial possessions after the establishing of the Vichy regime in Southern France, Hitler stresses that he prefers an Italian attack to capture the Suez Canal to Italian participation in the invasion of England (as the "duce" wished) – the operation is now being prepared. They both keep their war plans hidden – further proof of lacking military coordination between the two Axis powers. This consultation strengthens Ciano’s impression that Hitler has not yet decided how he is to continue.
Meanwhile the Italian embassy tries to direct Rome’s attention to a new development. In the NS leadership there is disquiet at the advance of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe. While the Wehrmacht was marching into Paris, the Red Army occupied the Baltic states. At the same time Moscow is demanding the immediate cession of Bessarabia and the Bukovina by Romania. Without any inhibitions Stalin is now taking what the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, particularly its secret supplementary protocol, promised him. At the Italian embassy, where the rapid deterioration in German-Soviet relations after the French campaign has not gone unnoticed, they are beginning to perceive that the aggressive behaviour of the Soviet Union is based on precise secret agreements with the German Reich.[65]
The Soviet expansion westwards, above all in the Baltic and Balkan areas, increases fear in the Reich government of a destabilising of central and eastern European nations like Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, which Berlin regards as a kind of buffer against Russia. Such destabilisation could lead to open conflict with the Soviet great power before Germany has finished settling affairs with Great Britain in the west. To allay the danger of a conflict between Hungary and Romania, Hitler and Ribbentrop summon the Hungarian prime minister Teleki to Munich on July 10. Ciano also takes part in the meeting, having just seen the battlefields of the western campaign.[66] In the Führer’s building, where the Munich conference of 1928 had taken place, Hitler holds out to the Hungarians the possibility of getting back Siebenbürgen, which currently belongs to Romania. However Hitler demands in exchange that Budapest undertake not to go to war against Bucharest. Ciano stresses that he, too, holds peace in the Balkans very dear, particularly now that Italy is waging war on another front. The events of the following months will expose his words as a brazen lie.[67]
In the middle of July the great German air offensive against Great Britain begins. It is the prelude to the Battle of Britain. Goering’s Luftwaffe is to bomb the island into "readiness for invasion". On July 13 Hitler informs Mussolini of the beginning of the operation and politely declines the offer of an Italian expeditionary corps. At the same time the first naval battles between the British and the Italian fleets take place in the Mediterranean. The news of the first sinkings of Italian warships foster pessimism amongst the embassy staff in Berlin. On July 19 Hitler summons the Reichstag so that he can finally deliver his speech, postponed again and again. In the diplomatic circles of the capital of the Reich it has been expected since the end of the western campaign. Hitler has the air of one confident of victory. He makes an "appeal to reason" to England: "I believe I can do this because I am not pleading for something as a defeated man; rather, I am speaking in favour of reason as a victor. I see no compelling reason for the continuation of this struggle."[68] Ciano, who is present at the speech in the crowded Kroll opera house, notices that the euphoria of the national socialists after the triumph over France is clouded by the unbending determination of the British, who want to continue the war even though they are alone.[69] This fact creates even greater worries for Rome, for the Italian government is aware that a prolongation of the war might expose the inadequacy of their forces. They are beginning to notice that they have allowed themselves to become involved in a perilous adventure.
In Rome they are worried about the delaying of the "decisive" German landing in southern England and they are demanding further details from the embassy in Berlin. The German leadership continues to avoid giving clear information. Under pressure from Ciano,[70] Ambassador Alfieri once more demonstrates his incompetence. The most committed and responsible officers in the embassy, like Michele Lanza, the military attaché Efisio Marras and the press attaché Cristano Ridomi, try to grasp the initiative themselves. Yet none of them enjoys any particular esteem in the NS leadership. In view of the opinion that Lanza and his colleagues have of the national socialists, this is no wonder: "I do not think that there has ever been a more mentally deficient or dirty leadership clique than the one ruling the Reich and aiming for hegemony over the whole world. They are all common, uneducated, vulgar, greedy and unscrupulous creatures who, as a reward for their animal-like loyalty, get to rule provinces which are as big as whole states. They live in boundless luxury, have the limitless power of satraps, they plunder, get drunk like beasts, have whores and ephebes surrounding them, they rule like conquerors. And – what is even more interesting – the mass of the people despises them and yet obeys them blindly."[71]
During the summer of 1940 there is an increase in the fears of the political and military leadership in Germany that their ally might create increased tension in Eastern Europe with his unpredictable "parallel war" – and these fears are by no means groundless. The foreign office knows of the plans to attack Yugoslavia worked out by the general staff of the Italian military as early as April 1940. Mussolini, who views this neighbour as a "typical product of Versailles", created for the sole purpose of keeping Italy in check, has been waiting for a long time for a propitious moment to take the Dalmatian coast which he has always claimed. The start of the war against France made him put off the attack for the time being. The repeated demands by the Germans "not to make any moves" in the east divert Mussolini from his intention. The divisions, already in battle order, are demobilised. [72]
In Rome the growing presence of the Germans in the Balkans is regarded with disquiet. The stalemate in the war against Great Britain gives the Italian leadership time to direct its attention back to the conflict of interest in the region, which Germany and Italy have not resolved. Ciano, particularly, who constantly wishes to annoy the Germans, presses Mussolini to take the initiative there. Instead of taking the abandoned plans for an attack out of the drawer, the foreign minister suggests attacking Greece. This country is seen as a bridge between Albania and North Africa – on an official level, as it happens, Rome has good relations with Greece. A surprise attack could achieve three aims at once: it could restore the damaged reputation of the Italian troops, it could make Italy a protagonist once more and serve to encircle the British in Egypt, making an Italian advance from Libya to the Suez Canal easier. "A useful and easy undertaking", Ciano writes in his diary.[73]
In the middle of August, rumours of a possible Italian attack on Greece raise tensions between Germany and Italy. Mussolini accuses Athens of allowing British ships to anchor in Greek harbours. On August 15 Ciano informs the embassy in Berlin that a conflict with Greece is within the realms of possibility. It could be resolved "during the first ten days of September, as far as one can see". [74] The foreign office is alarmed, Ribbentrop summons Ambassador Alfieri to his office and, according to Ciano, orders "a halt, right down the line!" [75] The Italians are to shelve any plan for an attack on Yugoslavia or Greece at once. All available energy must be concentrated against England. [76] The "duce" agrees for the moment and puts his plans for attack back in the drawer. Ciano smoothes the waves with a telegram to the embassy in Berlin on August 17. As far as Greece is concerned, he writes, a military operation had been considered only as a precaution. They are in the process "of transferring the dispute to the diplomatic arena."[77]
In Berlin it has become clear to most people that Great Britain cannot be brought to its knees even with the heaviest bombings. Invading the island is an undertaking without any prospects of success, even for the "undefeatable" Wehrmacht. On September 17 "Operation Sea Lion" is put off indefinitely. The Italian embassy in Berlin, which is up to date about the failure of the German air offensive thanks to the efforts of the military attachés Marras and Teucci, tries to convince Rome that a German landing in England is unlikely. The "duce" seems not to want to believe the unpleasant truth, however. "I am beginning to think", notes Lanza sadly at the beginning of September, "that there is one single person in the world who still believes in the possibility of an imminent landing, or is pretending to believe it: Mussolini!" [78]
On September 27 Ciano is in Berlin once more. Hitler, still convinced that he can reach a "settlement" with the British, has decided to increase the pressure on London. By converting the Anti-Comintern Pact with Italy and Japan, till now a treaty of political collaboration, into a full military alliance, Hitler believes he can keep the USA from becoming involved in the war in Europe and so prevent them supporting the British. The "Three Power Pact" is signed in a solemn ceremony in the Reichskanzlei.[79] Ciano takes part, somewhat bored. He does not believe that the pact will have the effect on the Americans that the Germans hope for; even more sceptical is his attitude to Hitler’s intention to persuade the Spanish dictator Franco to join the war. The "Führer" has decided to write to Franco, Ribbentrop tells him. Franco is too wily, Ciano retorts, to allow himself to be dragged into a conflict whose outcome is still very uncertain. [80]
After the signing of the Three Power Pact in the Neue Reichskanzlei, Ciano wants to take a tour through Berlin. He is struck by the depressed mood in the capital which is preparing for a second wartime winter, sure to be harder than the previous one. The first sleepless nights in the air raid shelters and the increasing shortage of food are beginning to leave their mark on the morale of the German population. [81] Alfieri asks counsellor Lanza to accompany him on his tour through Berlin. Strolling through the shops, the foreign minister reveals his pessimism about the situation to the embassy official. He says you don’t need "to look very closely to realise that the shop windows promise much more than they actually offer."[82] The Germans, he says, went to war without knowing the English. "This morning Ribbentrop showed me a few photographs of Londoners dancing on the ruins of their houses, and called them savages. He could not understand the spirit of these people with their nerves of steel and iron will. ... In 1942 we shall all see what kind of an army the British will conjure up. At a time when our soldiers will ask whether it is really worth the trouble to fight for the belly of one man or the moustache of another..." [83] Michele answers very candidly when asked how the mood of the Germans appears to him, living in Berlin as he does: he describes the quiet, dignified despondency of the Berliners. The spectre of 1914 haunts them all. They fear America which determined the outcome of the war then. Now Lanza takes advantage of a favourable moment to give the minister a hint about the conflict of conscience that he and his colleagues at the embassy are suffering. "Loyalty is a fine thing,... but the citizens have to feel it. For those in government there can be only one kind of loyalty: to the interests of their own country. If this is put in question by an alliance, then it is their indisputable duty to rescind the alliance at all costs."[84] As Lanza speaks these unambiguous words, Ciano seems absent, much to the disappointment of his interlocutor.[85]
Two days later, on September 30, under heavy pressure from staff, Alfieri finally finds the courage to inform Mussolini that Hitler has given up the project of invading England. [86] The "duce" takes the news with surprising equanimity – he is preoccupied with an offensive in Egypt. On October 4, as arranged by his son-in-law in Berlin, he meets Hitler at the Brenner. The embassy finds out about the substance of the discussion only by indirect means, through Wilhelm Keitel, whom Marras the military attaché approaches pointedly. [87] The Germans want to send tank divisions to join the operations in North Africa, though not under Italian command. Hitler is counting on taking the Suez Canal in order to drive the British fleet out of the Mediterranean. The "Führer" is also hoping to bind the French collaborators of the Vichy regime into the Axis, in order to isolate the British and to strengthen the fortress in continental Europe under national socialist leadership. Encouraged, Mussolini returns to Rome from the Brenner discussions. He has no inkling that Hitler has a new surprise in store for him. On October 12 the German Wehrmacht occupies Romania. The Reich government declares the campaign a safety measure: the Bucharest government had asked for it, as it feels threatened by Russia. In fact Hitler is taking over the oil fields essential to the war, and is occupying a position on the Black Sea. At the Italian embassy in Berlin they are asking themselves if this is to be read as a warning to Stalin. Actually this would be the precise moment for diplomacy to undertake bustling activity. Yet Lanza writes resignedly: "In a situation which is getting more confused and serious from day to day, our poor embassy is all at sea. Alfieri, still sick, is staying in Capri. There are no instructions from Rome. We wonder what we are actually doing here."
While the leaderless embassy despairs about being kept in the dark by its own government, Mussolini reacts in outrage to the German occupation of Romania which destroys all Italian illusions of being an equal in the Axis. "Hitler always presents me with faits accomplis", the furious "duce" complains to Ciano. "This time I shall pay him back in kind: he will find out from the newspapers that I have occupied Greece. This way balance will be restored." [89] Immediately Mussolini pulls his plans for a campaign against Athens out of the drawer and in two days he sets down the date for the attack: October 26. [90] This time he is really determined to teach a lesson to all those who see Italy merely as a burden to the German Reich. This lesson will however be very expensive for his country and his regime, as it will be for the war being waged together with Germany. On October 22 preparations are so far advanced that Berlin hears rumours about the attack which was indeed being kept secret from the Germans. The foreign office hopes that it is only another false alarm. To dissuade the Italians from going ahead, the German high command suggests to Marras, the military attaché, that they could capture Crete with parachute troops in the coming spring. [91]
During those days of feverish preparations in Rome, Hitler and Ribbentrop are on a journey to France. The planned discussions with Marshal Pétain and with Franco in the Pyrenees make Mussolini more nervous. The "duce" fears that an extension of the Axis to include the Vichy French will not favour his drive for expansion. On the evening of October 24 Mussolini informs the embassy in Berlin that the offensive against Greece is imminent. The message is to be given to Hitler as quickly as possible. In the embassy they immediately realise what the "duce’s" tactics are: "Will this letter reach Hitler in time? Is it being sent deliberately at this time when he is in France, in order to confront him with a fait accompli? [92]... For we assume that the Führer would forbid the duce to attack Greece if he found out about it." [93] Indeed Mussolini’s telegram, which is handed to the foreign office, does not reach the German dictator, although paradoxically he is sitting in the train to Florence where another brief meeting with the "duce" is planned for October 28. On this Monday morning, the 18th anniversary of the march on Rome, Italian troops invade Greece through Albania.
The Italian embassy in Berlin, which hoped till the last moment that the letter would be given to Hitler in time to stop the attack, finds out about the invasion from the radio. Despondency spreads once more amongst the officials. Michele Lanza confides to his diary the Italian diplomats’ new conflict of conscience. "I do not know whether one day we will be accused of obeying the orders of our government at a time like this. From a moral point of view our obedience is perhaps culpable. From the point of view of social order it is not. We are obeying a legitimate government which we have devoted our lives to. Each one of us, within his abilities, is trying to instruct and advise it. But this obedience costs us a lot of effort! Do soldiers talk when faced with death? ... No, they do not talk: they suffer, die, curse perhaps, but they behave like worthy sons of their country. Can we not obey? Can we betray our soldiers while they are still fighting? This is absolutely impossible." [94]
In addition to the state of partial isolation that they are living in, the members of the Italian embassy in Berlin, which was once very well informed, have to endure the scorn of German officers and functionaries owing to the failures of the Italian army. Only one week after the beginning of the battles in Epirus the Italian invasion is stopped. The Greeks rally to the military regime of General Metaxas, unpopular till now, and even begin a counter-offensive which pushes the Italians back on to Albanian territory. Ciano, who is staying at Schloss Schönhof near Karlsbad for hunting with Ribbentrop, is called back to Rome by a panic-stricken Mussolini. The Corpo Aereo Italiano, like the army, has covered itself in ignominy in it participation in the Battle of Britain, which the "duce" was able to push through with much urging. The squadron of Fiat fighters stationed in Belgium is constantly losing its way in the thick fog over the English Channel and suffers heavy losses from the Hurricanes of the Royal Air Force on November 11. November 11 is also a black day for the overrated Italian navy. In a night air attack by the British on Taranto harbour, the Regia Marina loses half its battle ships at one stroke. The advance in the Egyptian desert will soon also prove to be a trap.
Translated by Tomas Drevikovsky