Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Duce

As a World War Two buff, I had to watch a documentary last night on Italian Fascism and was struck by how completely pointless was Italy's entry into the war. While most combatants had some logical (if unjustified) reason for going to war--Germany wanting land back that they lost after the first war, Japan having their oil cut off amidst their invasion of China, every other country being in it because they were attacked by one of the first two--it seemed Italy had nothing even approaching a plausible reason to go to war. Mussolini's best argument was that Hitler was going to beat the corrupt democracies, and Italy needed her share of the spoils--even if Italy wasn't strong enough to do much in the war, you couldn't get a seat at the peace table without some war dead. But even if you accept this callous attitude towards your own troops, it's defied by the very reason the Fascists took power in the first place. Italy had entered the First World War (for also very poor reasons--to try and get a bit of land from Austria in the Tyrol region) and performed terribly, losing half a million men and needing to be bailed out by the British and French. As a result, they got a bit of Tyrol, but not nearly as much spoils as they thought they'd deserved after all that sacrifice. This anger and desire for national honor helped fuel the rise of Fascism after that war was over. So, what on earth made Mussolini think he'd somehow get a better deal after the second war--even if Hitler won? Plus, what was Italy hoping to gain--a bit of the Balkans, more of Africa? Was that worth the risk of going to war when you're not ready? And the choices of battlefields made no sense either. Immediately after declaring war in 1940, Mussolini attacks southern France, and despite the French surrendering in record time to the Germans, they still put up enough resistance to the Italians that little was gained. Despite this ominous sign, Italy then sends an ill-equipped army from Libya into Egypt to attack the British. Strike two, they get pummelled! In the middle of this, just for the hell of it, they then attack Greece for no reason. (Seriously, there is no reason for this--no age old quarrel with Greece, no threat from them, not even any natural resources to gain). Even this--Greece, for crying out loud--goes disastrously, and in each case the Germans need to bail out the Italians. And, just in case it wasn't clear enough that his army wasn't ready for prime time, Mussolini sends hundreds of thousands of his troops to Russia to support the Nazi effort there. Because if you can't beat the French, British or even Greeks, surely the Soviets--same guys who were the first to pummel the Wehrmacht--should be an easy mark. And this went as well as you could expect. The tragic aspect of this--aside from the hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers and civilians killed needlessly in the war, not to mention the thousands of Africans killed in the Fascists' colonial efforts--also highlighted the plight of Italian Jews. Unlike the case in Germany, Jews in Italy were more often than not enthusiastic supporters of the Fascists. (Something like one in three Italian Jews was a member of the party) The reason for this was the association of Italian nationalism with the closing of the ghettos and citizenship rights for Jews, as well as the fact that unlike German Nazism, the ideals of Italian Fascism were non-race based and even Mussolini originally rejected Nazi notions of racial superiority. The documentary focused on an Italian Jewish banker from Turin who'd been an early and ardent supporter of the Fascist Party, and stuck by Mussolini up until the partnership with Hitler led Il Duce to pass anti-Semitic laws expelling him (among others) from the party--and when the Germans eventually invaded the northern half of the country, twenty thousand Italian Jews (including this banker) were rounded up and executed by the Nazis. It was pointed out that Mussolini did nothing to stop this--though ultimately one shouldn't expect honor from a notorious thug like that. One does wonder, though, that if Italy had smartly stayed out of the war and kept its distance from Hitler how things might have changed the war itself. Italy, for one, likely would have remained Fascist for a while longer (as Spain did) and would not have lost its colonies for at least a couple decades. Perhaps Gadaffi wouldn't have emerged as he did in the late-'60s, though who knows what might have been the case there. Hitler's troops probably never would have been involved in North Africa or even the Balkans, meaning his timetable for invading Russia might have been several weeks earlier than the June 1941 date, meaning the Germans might have taken Moscow before the autumn rains set in, knocking out Stalin and facing the West with greater strength. But you never know--history's full of just the sort of improbable circumstances that keep you guessing.

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