The following chapter was not included in the book. It's basically a continuation of Chapter 3, "An Early Friendship." While Chapter 3 focused on the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini during the 1930s, this new chapter explains how the dynamics between the two men changed after Hitler ignited World War II.
The Devil's Pact
Even I don't dare disturb my servants at night, but the Germans make me jump out of bed at any hour without the slightest consideration.
- Benito Mussolini (1941)
By August of 1939, just several months after concluding the Pact of Steel, Mussolini was already beginning to regret his new partnership with the Germans. This was due to the fact that he was receiving a steady stream of reports from his diplomats in Berlin indicating that Hitler was planning to launch an attack against Poland regardless of the consequences. The Duce and Ciano both feared that any such move would force the hand of the West and unleash a world war. Mussolini had agreed to the Pact of Steel with the understanding that Hitler would not risk a world war for several more years at the least.
"We agree in feeling that we must find some way out," Ciano wrote on August 6, sounding a note of desperation. "By following the Germans we shall go to war and enter it under the most unfavorable conditions for the Axis, and especially for Italy." The Duce decided to send Ciano on a mission to clarify matters with Hitler, who as usual was not keeping the Italians in the loop. "Before letting me go," Ciano wrote on August 10, "he recommends that I should frankly tell the Germans that we must avoid a conflict with Poland, since it will now be impossible to localize it, and a general war would be disastrous for everybody." At the time, no one could have possibly foreseen the full extent of the disaster.
Ciano spent the next several days in meetings with Ribbentrop and Hitler. Ciano was forthright with the Fuehrer, explaining Mussolini's concern over the possibility of a European war and complaining that Hitler was leaving Italy in the dark about his intentions. "Ciano delivered his great anti-war speech," recalled Eugen Dollmann, who was present at the showdown. "His central theme was the fact that it was impossible, materially and politically, militarily and psychologically, for Italy to participate in a war at this early stage. She had, in effect, been waging war for years on end." Ciano had in mind (primarily) the Ethiopian war and Italy's participation in the Spanish Civil War.
Unbeknownst to Ciano, Hitler had already issued secret orders for an attack against Poland near month's end. "I am unshakably convinced," Hitler assured him, "that neither England nor France will embark upon a general war." Ciano did not share his optimistic assessment and told him as much. But Hitler was not persuaded, and merely doled out another helping of praise for his friend Mussolini. He was happy, he said, "to live at a time when, apart from himself, there was another statesman living who would stand out in history as a great and unique figure. It was a source of great personal happiness that he could be a friend of this man. When the hour struck for the common fight he would always be found at the side of the Duce, come what may."
Hitler's extravagant praise of Mussolini did little to buoy the spirits of the Italian foreign minister, who was finally beginning to view the Nazis in a clear light. "I return to Rome," he wrote on August 13, "completely disgusted with Germany, with its leaders, with their way of doing things. They have betrayed us and lied to us. Now they are dragging us into an adventure which we have not wanted and which might compromise the regime and the country as a whole." After his sobering encounter with the Germans, Ciano made a strenuous effort to turn the Duce against Hitler. According to several of Ciano's diary entries from the month of August, Mussolini wavered.
"The Duce's reactions are varied," Ciano noted on August 13. "At first he agrees with me. Then he says that honor compels him to march with Germany. Finally, he states that he wants his share of the spoils in Croatia and Dalmatia." Then the following day: "I do not hesitate to arouse in him every possible anti-German reaction any way I can. I speak to him of his diminished prestige and his playing the none-too-brilliant role of second fiddle…The alliance was based on premises which they now ignore; they are the traitors and we must not have any scruples in ditching them. But Mussolini still has many scruples." The argument reached a crescendo on August 21: "The Germans, not ourselves, have betrayed the alliance…Tear up the pact. Throw it in Hitler's face…"
That same day, the Duce learned in a roundabout fashion that Hitler was forging a pact with Stalin. The deal was clearly designed to protect Germany's rear in the East in case war broke out with England and France in the West. (Stalin was happy to oblige as long as the pact succeeded in keeping the Nazis off Russian soil.) On August 25, after the deal was signed and sealed, Hitler cabled an apologetic letter to Mussolini in which he officially informed him of the new Russo-German alliance. The Duce was surprised, his wife Rachele later said, that Hitler had signed the agreement without notifying him beforehand.
Hitler also intimated that Germany could attack Poland at any moment, and he wanted a commitment from Mussolini that Italy would do its share of the fighting if a wider war broke out as a result. Hitler knew very well that the invasion was set for August 26, the following day, but as usual he withheld the details from his loose-lipped ally.
Hitler waited anxiously for a response from the Duce. When it arrived in the early evening on August 25, Hitler was taken aback. Though the Pact of Steel required Italy to fight at Germany's side, Mussolini stated that his country was in no position to participate in a war against the West-his extravagant boasts of eight million bayonets were revealed as so much hot air.
The Duce would only commit his forces if Hitler agreed to deliver a large quantity of raw materials to replenish Italy's stocks: "Our intervention can, nevertheless, take place at once if Germany delivers to us immediately the military supplies and the raw materials to resist the attack which the French and English would predominantly direct against us. At our meetings the war was envisaged for 1942, and by that time I would have been ready on land, on sea and in the air, according to the plans which had been concerted."
"The letter was a bombshell," remembered Hitler's interpreter Paul Schmidt, who noted that "for the next hour the Chancellery [in Berlin] resounded with disparaging remarks about the 'disloyal Axis partner.' " As if Mussolini's backpedaling were not enough, Hitler learned on that same day that England had formally committed itself to fighting for Poland's defense. Flustered by both these developments (especially the latter), Hitler called off the attack against Poland at the very last minute.
It was clear to him that the Duce was doing his best to wiggle out of the Pact of Steel without actually saying so. This became even more obvious when Mussolini sent a follow-up letter dated August 26 that provided a detailed listing of the raw materials that Italy required. The amounts were outrageously large, "enough to kill a bull," in Ciano's words. In fact, some of the figures had been multiplied by a factor of two or three just to ensure that Germany would be unable to satisfy the Duce's demands. Mussolini also floated a proposal for another four-power conference in the spirit of Munich, but Hitler was not interested. He informed the Duce that, in the last resort, he was willing to risk all-out war with the West.
Mussolini was torn, according to Ciano. He wanted to fight but could not due to the sorry state of the Italian military. On August 26 Ciano wrote in his diary that the Duce "is really upset. His military instinct and his sense of honor were drawing him toward war. Reason has now stopped him. But this hurts him very much." Mussolini also sent a secret message to the British informing them that Italy would not fight alongside Germany. From his point of view it made sense to play both sides of the fence until it became more obvious who would emerge victorious in the coming conflict, Hitler or the West.
Having regained his confidence, Hitler launched his savage Blitzkrieg against Poland on September 1 and proceeded to wipe out the Polish army within a few weeks. Though the Duce kept Italy on the sidelines, he had no intention of closing the door on Germany. Disliking the passive nature of the word "neutral," he preferred to describe Italy as Hitler's "non-belligerent" ally. Semantics aside, Mussolini's decision to stay out of the war was certainly a prudent move from a military point of view. Despite his bragging, he had only about ten (poorly equipped) divisions at hand when the war broke out. He had not even bothered to keep an accurate count of how many planes his air force possessed.
As the Duce had foreseen, Hitler's latest act of aggression pushed the West too far. Proving Hitler and Ribbentrop wrong, England and France responded to the attack against Poland by declaring war on Germany on September 3. That same day, when he finally realized that Great Britain was about to officially enter the conflict, Hitler seemed momentarily shaken according to Paul Schmidt. "After an interval which seemed an age," recalled Schmidt, who had just read aloud to him a British ultimatum, "he turned to Ribbentrop, who had remained standing by the window. 'What now?' asked Hitler with a savage look, as though implying that his Foreign Minister had misled him about England's probable reaction."
Many ordinary Germans were apparently asking themselves the same question in the weeks and months ahead, but as it turned out their worries were premature. England and France were in no position to defend far away Poland, and they refrained from making direct attacks on Germany proper.
Hitler and Mussolini continued to exchange letters during this period. "I am aware, Duce," Hitler wrote on September 3, "that the struggle in which I am engaging is a struggle for life and death.…I personally was always aware that the future of our two regimes were bound up, and I know that you, Duce, are of exactly the same opinion."
Perhaps. But Hitler's quick conquest of Poland and Mussolini's refusal to fight began to gnaw at the Duce. "And, besides, why hide it?" Ciano wrote in his diary on October 3. "He is somewhat bitter about Hitler's sudden rise to fame."
Relations between Hitler and Mussolini cooled during the Sitzkrieg ("sitting war"), the period of relative calm that occurred between the conquest of Poland and the outbreak of hostilities in the West. It seemed clear that being exposed as a paper tiger had only increased the Duce's feelings of resentment.
On hearing that his German counterpart had survived an assassination attempt in November of 1939, for instance, Mussolini found it difficult to hide his contempt while writing a congratulatory telegram. Ciano later recalled the Duce's predicament: "He wanted it to be warm but not too warm, because in his judgment no Italian feels any great joy over the fact that Hitler had escaped death-least of all the Duce." He even went behind Hitler's back and informed the Dutch and the Belgians of Hitler's forthcoming invasion plans (and Hitler got wind of this move).
In early January of 1940 Mussolini took advantage of the Sitzkrieg lull to write Hitler a pessimistic letter warning him of the bleak prospects of ultimate victory. For once in his life he did not mince words with Hitler, telling him that it was folly to believe that the Axis could defeat England and France. "To believe that is to delude oneself. The United States would not permit a total defeat of the democracies." The Duce was also unhappy that Russia, who had snapped up territory in Poland and the Baltic States, was profiting from Hitler's aggression. Mussolini became increasingly annoyed as months passed without a response from Hitler, and even sent signals to Berlin that his relations with England and France were on the rise.
The Americans tried to capitalize on the Duce's dissatisfaction during this period by attempting to detach him from the Axis before Hitler and the West came to blows, but without success. During a meeting with Mussolini in February, American diplomat Sumner Welles could sense the dictator's inner turmoil. "The man I saw before me," wrote Welles in his report, "seemed fifteen years older than his actual age of fifty-eight….Mussolini impressed me as a man laboring under some tremendous strain; physical unquestionably, for he has procured a new and young Italian mistress only ten days ago; but in my definite judgment, mental as well. One could almost sense a leaden oppression."
In March of 1940 Hitler finally wrote the Duce a long, friendly letter in response to the latter's January message. In it, Hitler again urged him to play an active role in the broader conflict that loomed on the horizon. The very length of the message reflected both the importance in Hitler's mind of the Rome-Berlin alliance and his growing relationship with Mussolini. "And, finally," wrote Hitler, "let me assure you that in spite of everything I believe that sooner or later fate will force us after all to fight side by side, that is, that you will likewise not escape this clash of arms, no matter how the individual aspects of the situation may develop today, and that your place will then more than ever be at our side, just as mine will be at yours."
Privately, the Duce confided to Ciano that he had grave doubts about Hitler's chances of success and planned to tell him so during an upcoming meeting at the Brenner Pass. But Ciano was not so sure of Mussolini's will. After all, as Ciano reflected around this time, there was no denying that "the Duce is fascinated by Hitler, a fascination which involves something deeply rooted in his nature: action."
That meeting occurred on March 18, 1940, in Mussolini's private railroad car at the Brenner Pass. "The conference…is more a monologue than anything else," Ciano lamented in his diary. "Hitler talks all the time…Mussolini listens to him with interest and with deference." Though he did not explicitly ask for anything, Hitler wanted a commitment from the Duce that the Italians would fight alongside the Germans when Hitler attacked France in the spring. He tried to tempt his reluctant counterpart with the possible spoils of war, of which Italy could only partake as a fighting partner of Germany. Hitler did everything possible to sweeten the deal, even suggesting that Italy remain on the sidelines until the Nazis had whipped France and demonstrated their military superiority.
"The meeting," wrote Monelli, "which took place in a train during a blizzard, developed as every meeting between the pair was to do from then on; Mussolini spent most of the time listening. Hitler harangued him interminably, stunning the other with his confused, hysterical eloquence, full of expressions which were difficult to translate and often difficult even to understand; and Mussolini, in spite of the pains he had taken to learn German, often missed words and even complete phrases; and when he tried to reply his speech was stumbling and ineffective. But he had a mania for talking foreign languages and refused an interpreter when he could; so between the difficulty of understanding the shades of the other's speech and the even greater one of expressing the shades of his own thoughts, he found himself at a disadvantage the whole time."
The Duce finally acquiesced, but told Hitler that he reserved the right to choose the timing of Italy's entry into the war. His real strategy, which he confided to his colleagues at the end of March, involved waiting as long as he could before committing Italy to one side or the other. He had no intention of backing the wrong horse. The question was: Which horse was best? He even toyed with the idea of negotiating a peace settlement before the real fighting began. But Hitler remained unfazed by Mussolini's hesitations. He knew that the Duce would join arms with the Nazis once they had beaten the formidable combination of France and England on the battlefield.
May was a month for fighting-and for letter writing. On May 10 Hitler unleashed his powerful offensive against the West (in England, Winston Churchill was elected prime minister on the same day). His surprise attack through the Ardennes forest, which the French had deemed an impregnable barrier, caught the opposition off guard and threw its armies into disarray.
It was "the most brilliant strategic stroke of the Second World War," wrote AJP Taylor, "the strategic stroke which, in May 1940, disrupted entirely the French front, produced not only a defeat but a catastrophe for the French Army, which within a few weeks had collapsed, and with virtually no loss to the German forces. Germany achieved not only the defeat of France, but supremacy over Europe…" Within weeks the Germans had dealt a fatal blow to the large and well-equipped French army and had forced a smaller British force trapped at Dunkirk to flee the Continent via the English Channel.
Though Mussolini was well aware of these developments, Hitler wrote him frequently with optimistic updates on the German victory-in-progress. Every few days another letter appeared-on May 13, 18, and 25. Hitler's generals, who had nothing but contempt for Italian arms, shook their heads in wonder at the Fuehrer's passion for an Italian collaboration.
It was only on June 10, after German forces had largely defeated France and driven the British from the continent, that the Duce finally chose sides by declaring war on the Western powers. But when his legions went into action, their performance was nothing to brag about. "Mussolini is quite humiliated," wrote Ciano on June 21, describing the embarrassing debut for the Italian armed forces, "because our troops have not taken a step forward. Even today they have not succeeded in advancing and have halted in front of the first French fortification that put up some opposition." The Duce was also disappointed by the terms of the French armistice (hostilities ceased on June 25), according to which Italy received nothing in the way of territorial spoils.
"It is the material that I lack," Mussolini remarked bitterly around this time, blaming Italy's early military defeats on the Italian people. "Even Michelangelo needed marble to make statues. If he had had only clay he would have been nothing more than a potter."
When fall came around, the Duce decided that it was time to turn the tables on Hitler. He would surprise the Fuehrer with a military offensive of his own and score a speedy and dramatic victory for Italian arms. "This time I am going to pay him back in his own coin," Mussolini boasted. "He will find out from the papers that I have occupied Greece. In this way the equilibrium will be re-established." At least that was the plan. In October, the Duce did indeed shock Hitler by launching a massive invasion. Learning of Mussolini's plans at the last moment, a furious Hitler rushed to Italy to put a stop to them but arrived too late.
(Hitler and Ribbentrop were on a pair of special trains headed for Berlin when the news broke. "The Führer intends at all costs to hold up this crazy scheme of the Duce's," Ribbentrop announced, "so we are to go to Italy at once, to talk to Mussolini personally." Paul Schmidt, Hitler's interpreter, recalled the scene: "In the tense atmosphere prevailing in our train on receipt of this news, one could almost feel the swerve of the train as it turned southwards away from Berlin.")
Though the Duce had intended to fight a quick campaign, the badly planned Blitzkrieg backfired when the Greek army fought back and put the Italians on the defensive. For reasons of prestige, Mussolini refused Hitler's repeated offers of military assistance. The Duce eventually found a scapegoat in Badoglio, who was sacked as the chief of Comando Supremo, but this action did little to remedy the dreary situation at the front, where a huge force of (ultimately) half a million Italians proved itself no match for the smaller Greek army.
And yet, while Mussolini's exploits in Greece created numerous problems for Hitler-the botched invasion carried with it grave military and political repercussions for the Axis-the German dictator went out of his way to reaffirm his commitment to his Italian partner during a November meeting with Ciano in Austria. "From this city of Vienna," Hitler told Ciano as the two men parted, "on the day of the Anschluss, I sent Mussolini a cable to assure him that I would never forget his help. I confirm it today, and I am at his side with all my strength." But it was the emotion with which these words were uttered that struck Ciano. "He had two big tears in his eyes," Ciano noted in his diary. "What a strange man!"
The depth of Hitler's understanding caught the Duce off guard. "The man is hysterical," he confided to fellow Fascist Dino Alfieri during a summit meeting with the Fuehrer in January of 1941. "When he told me that no one had lived through and shared my anguish more intensely than he had there were tears in his eyes. All that is an exaggeration." During this same conference, according to Alfieri, Hitler had also fussed over the details of the Duce's accommodations, personally approving the rugs and flowers in his villa.
In April of 1941, six months after Mussolini had launched his surprise attack, Hitler finally sent German troops into the Balkans to finish what the Duce had started. The immediate provocation was an anti-German coup in Yugoslavia, which Hitler punished by practically razing Belgrade to the ground. He also managed to conquer Greece within the space of a few weeks, raising the Nazi flag over the Acropolis in triumph.
The Italian debacle in Greece was a deep humiliation for Mussolini and one of the turning points in Axis relations. But Hitler may have been the biggest loser of all. This last-minute diversion of German forces into the Balkans may have helped to doom his invasion of Russia, which he launched later that year, by delaying the campaign for over a month. "But for the difficulties created for us by the Italians and their idiotic campaign in Greece," Hitler said near the end of his life (when he was doing his best to explain away his own mistakes), "I should have attacked Russia a few weeks earlier."
In the spring of 1941, Hitler also felt obliged to come to the Duce's aid in North Africa, where Mussolini's army had recently taken a beating in Libya. General Erwin Rommel was sent to North Africa-where his exploits soon became legendary-along with an armored division and a few units of the Luftwaffe. "From this moment," wrote AJP Taylor, "Italy had lost the war. She was kept in the war only by German support, by German troops, first of all in Greece, and then, increasingly, by German troops in North Africa, by Rommel and the Afrika Korps."
The Duce's resentment of Hitler only seemed to increase as he became more dependent on the Fuehrer.
In early June of 1941, not long after the Nazi victory in Greece, Hitler and Mussolini met at the Brenner Pass for a summit conference. It was the tenth meeting between the two dictators, and Hitler monopolized the conversation as usual, talking for hours about a variety of subjects. What he failed to mention were his plans to launch a massive invasion of Russia a few weeks hence.
Shortly after the meeting, the Duce complained to Ciano about the futility of the Axis summits. "Personally, I've had my fill of Hitler and the way he acts. These conferences that begin with the ringing of a bell are not to my liking; when people call their servant they ring the bell. And besides, what kind of meetings are these? For five hours I am forced to listen to a monologue that is quite pointless and boring." He did not know that Hitler was putting the finishing touches on the greatest gamble of his life.
A couple weeks later (on June 16) Ciano and Ribbentrop went for a gondola ride in Venice. While Hitler and Mussolini had managed to connect on some level, there was no love lost between the two foreign ministers. They made an improbable duo-Ciano the down-to-earth Don Juan and Ribbentrop with his buttoned-up demeanor and meticulous, "correct" manners.
"The German was better brought up than his noble colleague," noted Eugen Dollmann, who frankly disliked both men. "Ribbentrop's manners were flawless, whereas Ciano used to outrage Hitler by his eating-habits and, worse still, by the way he blithely scratched himself in places where Ribbentrop would have endured an infestation of fleas without moving a muscle."
As the two men drifted along the canals of Venice, Ribbentrop said nothing about the imminent attack against the Bolsheviks. But Ciano, who had heard rumors concerning the invasion, pressed the point. "Dear Ciano," Ribbentrop replied disingenuously. "Dear Ciano, I cannot tell you anything as yet because every decision is locked in the impenetrable bosom of the Führer. However, one thing is certain: if we attack them, the Russia of Stalin will be erased from the map within eight weeks."
A few days later, in the early morning hours of June 22, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, one of the largest military operations in history. The massive invasion force, which stretched from the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea, consisted of three million German ground troops, three thousand tanks, and two thousand planes. In Italy, the Duce was roused from sleep in the middle of the night and given the news of the Fuehrer's latest surprise move. "Even I don't dare disturb my servants at night," Mussolini complained to Ciano, "but the Germans make me jump out of bed at any hour without the slightest consideration."
Though he did not wish for the Germans to lose the war against the Communists, the Duce hoped that Stalin would be able to take Hitler down a notch. "I hope for only one thing," he told Ciano, "that in this war in the East the Germans will lose a lot of feathers." Nevertheless, he followed suit by declaring war on Russia and insisted on sending a contingent of Italian troops to the Eastern front so that he could share in the spoils of victory.
During the summer months the German army rolled eastward with a seemingly unstoppable momentum, capturing hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers, many of whom eventually died in captivity due to inhumane living conditions. In late August, two months after the start of Barbarossa, Hitler invited Mussolini to visit the Wolf's Lair, his new headquarters in East Prussia, and take a tour of the Russian front. This trip gave rise to one of those slightly absurd episodes that cropped up from time to time during the course of the Axis dictators' uneasy partnership.
While the two men were flying over the Ukraine, the Duce, who was a pilot, surprised everyone by his insistence that he take the controls of Hitler's four-engined Condor in order to demonstrate his flying abilities. Hitler grew visibly nervous at the request but he eventually consented. Mussolini flew the plane for half an hour without incident (the German pilot remained in the cockpit the entire time), but some observers thought that Hitler seemed quite relieved when the exhibition was complete. He had not taken his eyes off the Duce for a moment.
The whole affair was "a piece of typically Latin irresponsibility," Eugen Dollmann later observed with tongue in cheek, "which threatened to jeopardise the Third Reich and, with it, world supremacy." (Aside from Hitler and Mussolini, the plane also bore Himmler and Ribbentrop.) If the episode were not silly enough, Mussolini insisted that his piloting feat be recorded in the official Axis communiqué.
Though Hitler came tantalizingly close to taking Moscow, it was clear by early 1942 that his major offensive in the East had run out of steam on the vast and frozen expanses of Russia. Only Hitler's sheer willpower, the German dictator later claimed with some justification, had prevented the German army from being routed in the face of strong Russian counterattacks. To make matters worse for the Axis, Hitler and the Duce had invited calamity by declaring war on the United States the previous December after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Due to a shortage of German manpower, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering was sent to Rome at the end of January to ask Mussolini for additional Italian reinforcements for the Eastern front (reinforcements that Hitler had earlier scorned). Though Goering was technically the Number Two man in the Third Reich, the figure that he cut in Rome that winter did not exactly inspire confidence on either side of the Axis.
"As usual he is bloated and overbearing," Ciano wrote in early February. "We had dinner at the Excelsior Hotel, and during the dinner Göring talked only about the jewels he possesses. In fact, he had some beautiful rings on his fingers…During the trip he was nervous, so his aides brought him a small cup filled with diamonds…He wore a great sable coat to the station, something between what automobile drivers wore in 1906 and what a high-flying prostitute wears to the opera."
Knowing that the Duce continued to worry over his obsession with destroying Russia, Hitler summoned his Italian counterpart to Klessheim Castle (near Salzburg) in April of 1942 to boost his sagging spirits. During his two-day pep talk Hitler did his best to convince Mussolini that Germany was still strong and would ultimately succeed in bringing Stalin to his knees. Ciano, who was also present, noticed that Hitler seemed to be growing older by the day. "The winter months in Russia have weighed heavily upon him," Ciano confided to his diary. "I see for the first time that he has many gray hairs."
But while Hitler may have looked old and gray, he was no less verbose. "Hitler talks, talks, talks," wrote Ciano. "Mussolini suffers, since he is in the habit of talking and, instead, practically has to keep quiet. On the second day, after lunch, when everything had been said, Hitler talked uninterruptedly for an hour and forty minutes. He omitted absolutely no argument: war and peace, religion and philosophy, art, and history. Mussolini automatically looked at his wristwatch…General Jodl, after an epic struggle, finally went to sleep on the sofa. Keitel was reeling…"
Though the Axis enjoyed a slight rebound during the course of the year (thanks, in part, to Rommel's feats in North Africa), by the fall of 1942 the situation had taken another turn for the worse-one that would ultimately prove fatal for the Duce's Fascist regime.
"By the autumn of 1942," wrote Mussolini biographer Christopher Hibbert, "after more than two years of a hated war, the opposition to the Germans and to the Fascist regime was already widespread all over Italy. Intellectuals in Rome and Milan, working-men in Naples and Sicily, were being arrested daily….In the south thousands of peasants were close to starvation, and all over the country the poor were hungry and pulling in their belts to the last hole, the one they called the 'foro Mussolini'-Mussolini's hole."
The year 1943 marked the beginning of the end. (The Russians referred to it as the perelom year: the year of the big turning point.) The German disaster at Stalingrad, which was so psychologically devastating to Hitler, was merely the first in a series of setbacks and reversals that the Axis could not overcome.
No one was more aware of this slide than the Duce. His health, which acted as a barometer of Axis fortunes, had steadily declined over the course of 1942. People began to whisper about his weight loss and the way his face was often wracked by pain. By early 1943 he had become a physical wreck, and some of his Fascist subordinates were even beginning to call his mental faculties into question. He was thoroughly examined and reexamined by Italian doctors but a convincing medical explanation could not be found. While the existence of ulcers may have added to his problems, it did not seem to explain his dramatic deterioration.
But instead of reducing his burden and delegating more responsibility, Mussolini simply tightened his control over the Italian state. In February, Mussolini fired Ciano from his position as foreign minister and made him Ambassador to the Vatican (the Duce took over as foreign minister). During the previous months Ciano had been discretely discussing the possibility of removing Mussolini from power and grabbing the reigns himself. He had also developed a sudden interest in poisons.
In April of 1943 Hitler and the Duce met at Klessheim Castle near Salzburg. Mussolini made a feeble effort to argue with Hitler regarding the conduct of the war, but the latter easily won the battle of wills. Hitler, who was beginning to lose his grip on reality around this time, later bragged to Goebbels that the Duce had left the summit meeting looking like a new man. "The Fuehrer did everything he could," Goebbels noted in his diary, "and by putting every ounce of nervous energy into the effort, succeeded in pushing Mussolini back on the rails. In those four days the Duce underwent a complete change…When he got out of the train on his arrival, the Fuehrer thought, he looked liked a broken old man; when he left again, he was a man in high fettle, ready for any deed."
Not everyone agreed with his assessment. One eyewitness at Klessheim remarked that Mussolini looked like a man at death's door. During the conference Hitler suggested, as he had often done in the past, that the Duce allow German doctors to examine him, but Mussolini refused for reasons of national pride. To acquiesce to Hitler's suggestion would imply that Italian physicians were somehow inferior to their Teutonic counterparts.
The Axis position in North Africa continued to deteriorate rapidly after the Klessheim meeting. Despite the gravity of the situation, the Duce was often absent from his headquarters in Rome. The ailing dictator preferred to convalesce at Rocca delle Caminate, his country villa in the Romagna, where he played card games and tried to direct the war by telephone. Even his mistress Claretta, who was the talk of the town by this stage, was unable to buoy his spirits. He tried to break off the affair several times during the course of the year but could not follow through.
In a weird parallel, Mussolini faced a similar, and much more important, dilemma in regard to Hitler. He considered backing out of the war but apparently did not know how to do so. He rejected the notion of "unconditional surrender," and in any case was too scared of Hitler (or possibly too ashamed) to broach the subject of a separate peace with him. "How much easier it is," Churchill reflected after the war, "to join bad companions than to shake them off!" Even the Allied invasion of Sicily on July 10 did little to shake the Duce out of his paralyzing mental stupor.
Other Italians in high places were more energetic. By the summer of 1943, Rome was beginning to bubble over with secret plots designed to oust Mussolini or diminish his powers. "The capital was a gigantic laboratory," recalled his wife Rachele, "where the most surprising mixtures were being concocted, where everyone was plotting against everyone else….The only point all the combinazione had in common was the commitment to remove Mussolini."
Though these schemes seemed to emanate from every corner of the Italian regime-from the Royal House, the army, and the Fascists themselves-the distracted dictator hardly seemed to notice them, either because he was overconfident or because he was too distraught to fully comprehend what was happening.
In the end it was the King's scheme that mattered most, though the monarch received a timely assist from Dino Grandi, one of the Duce's ministers. It was Grandi who, in secret agreement with Victor Emmanuel, pushed through the no-confidence vote in the Grand Council of Fascism, giving the King a convenient pretext for removing Mussolini from power on July 25. Most of Grandi's fellow Fascists knew nothing of the King's plot. They did not realize that by registering their dissatisfaction with the status quo they were actually voting Fascism out of existence and themselves out of a job.
When the blow was finally struck, the Duce found himself utterly alone. "Fascism," wrote AJP Taylor, "collapsed overnight; not a single Fascist attempted to defend the régime which had lasted 20 years, and had boasted itself of such power. It simply fell down like a house of cards, which was all it really was." From Mussolini's point of view it seemed as if just about everyone-from the King of Italy and the Duce's Fascist lieutenants to the Italian people themselves-had either betrayed him or (at the very least) abandoned him to this fate.
In fact, when all was said and done, the only man who really did anything at all to rescue Mussolini from his predicament was not an Italian but a German and a Nazi, perhaps the most brutal and heartless Nazi of them all.
"Disloyal as he had been to some of his closest associates," observed William Shirer, author of the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, "a number of whom he had had murdered…Hitler maintained a strange and unusual loyalty to his ridiculous Italian partner that did not weaken, that indeed was strengthened when adversity and then disaster overtook the strutting, sawdust Roman Caesar."