Fas­cist friends and ri­vals

Neil Gre­gor tracks the power shifts in the wartime re­la­tion­ship be­tween a de­struc­tive pair of lead­ers

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Neil Gre­gor is pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Euro­pean his­tory at the Univer­sity of Southamp­ton.

Mus­solini and Hitler: The Forg­ing of the Fas­cist Al­liance

By Chris­tian Goeschel

Yale Univer­sity Press, 400pp, £20.00 ISBN 9780300178838 Pub­lished 14 Au­gust 2018

When Adolf Hitler’s armies oc­cu­pied Cze­choslo­vakia in March 1939, his fas­cist part­ner in crime, fel­low im­pe­ri­al­ist and dic­ta­tor-next-door Ben­ito Mus­solini com­plained that “Ev­ery time Hitler oc­cu­pies a state he sends me a mes­sage.” The point was clear enough – Hitler had not con­sulted Mus­solini as an equal be­fore­hand, but had merely told him af­ter the event – and the sig­nif­i­cance was sim­i­larly ob­vi­ous. By this point at the lat­est, the el­der states­man of Europe’s dic­ta­tors was very much the ju­nior part­ner, con­demned to ac­qui­esce in Ger­man diplo­matic, and later mil­i­tary, moves that would even­tu­ally lead both to dis­as­ter.

Worse was to come. Italy’s fail­ure to en­ter the war in 1939, and the poor per­for­mance of its armies in 1940 and 1941, con­firmed most Ger­mans’ deep­est prej­u­dices con­cern­ing Ital­ian re­li­a­bil­ity and mil­i­tary prow­ess. These views ran deep in Ger­man so­ci­ety on ac­count of the ex­pe­ri­ences of the First World War. The fas­cist regime was plunged into cri­sis by suc­ces­sive de­feats and wartime de­pri­va­tions. When Mus­solini was re­moved by the Ital­ian king in 1943, the hu­mil­i­a­tion was com­plete, and the re­venge vis­ited by the Ger­mans on or­di­nary Ital­ians bru­tal.

Yet it had not al­ways been so. There had been a time when Mus­solini was an es­tab­lished Euro­pean leader and Hitler a fig­ure on the mar­gins who wrote in vain ask­ing the for­mer for a signed pho­to­graph. In 1934, Mus­solini’s move­ment of troops to the Bren­ner Pass in re­sponse to the Aus­trian Nazis’ as­sas­si­na­tion of chan­cel­lor En­gel­bert Doll­fuss un­der­lined Hitler’s early diplo­matic iso­la­tion and showed who of the two dic­ta­tors was boss.

In this very read­able book, Chris­tian Goeschel traces the chang­ing dy­nam­ics of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two, fo­cus­ing on cul­tural diplo­macy as a means to ex­plore shifts of power and author­ity over time. Who trav­elled to visit whom, who was re­ceived where, who wore what, who stood next to whom in the pho­to­graphs and so on – all these were acts of com­mu­ni­ca­tion to each other and to the world out­side. To the ca­sual observer, they sig­nalled the im­mutabil­ity of the fas­cist al­liance. To the more at­ten­tive on­looker, Goeschel shows, they pro­vide a more tex­tured in­sight, legible in cor­re­spond­ingly sub­tle ways, into the stresses, strains and di­vi­sions that ac­com­pa­nied the re­la­tion­ship through­out.

They also pro­vided in­sights into the dif­fer­ences be­tween the two regimes. Nazi Ger­many, more firmly in con­trol of the tra­di­tional ap­pa­ra­tus of state than Mus­solini was ever to be, de­vel­oped its own brand of cul­tural diplo­macy, com­par­a­tively – if not en­tirely – free of the re­straints of in­her­ited pro­to­col. In Italy, mean­while, the pres­ence of the monar­chy meant that con­ven­tional pro­to­col was re­tained to a greater ex­tent, caus­ing oc­ca­sional em­bar­rass­ment to a Ger­man dic­ta­tor who was some­times not sure how to be­have.

At the height of their pow­ers, both were able to put on a pub­lic show that made clear that this was no or­di­nary al­liance. Yet, apart from a rel­a­tively brief mo­ment in the late 1930s when Ital­ian and Ger­man cul­tural diplo­macy adopted full-on fas­cist style, one is struck by the fa­mil­iar­ity of the is­sues that Goeschel de­scribes. The chore­og­ra­phy of EU sum­mits, for ex­am­ple, shows many sim­i­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics. Watch out for those group pic­tures with Theresa May hope­lessly marginalised, and the point is ob­vi­ous enough.

Not al­ways in sync ‘there had been a time when Mus­solini was an es­tab­lished Euro­pean leader and Hitler a fig­ure on the mar­gins’

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