World War II: Italy Declares War (June 1940)

Italian declaration of war
Figure 1.--Itlatian dictator Benito Mussolini despite being Germany's Axis ally hesitated joining Germany in the War. Only once France was clearly defeated did Mussolini decide on war. He does not, however, seem to have had any real idea about the fighting capacity of his military. Italy had a substantial population, more than enough for a major European army. It did not, however, have the industrial capacity to wage a modern war. Mussolini may have had some inkling of this, but he appears to have had no idea that despite nearly two decades of Fascist rule, the Italian people, including the young people, had no interest in fighting a war. Of all the major combtants, the will to fight within the Italianian Army was the weakest. This was in sharp contrast to the hold that Hitler gained over German youth in only a few years. The image here was part of a series on the Italian Fascist youth movement that ran in American newspapers. The caption read, "Rifle Drill: Italian 'Sons of the Wolf' go through a drill with small parade rifles. The youngsters are ptovided with training something like he United States Boy Scouts receive, except that riflesan bayonets predominate. Each rifle bears th name of an Italian soldier who fell during the world war."

Italy and Germany were Axis, but the Axis alliance did not require members to join in aggressive wars. German Füher Adolf Hitler urged Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini to join him and Stalin when they launched the War by invading Poland (September 1939). Hitler again met with Musolini at the Brenner Pass, but the Duce still declined to enter th War (March 1940). Defeating Poland was one thing, defeating the British and French was quite another. Britain tried to convince Mussolini to stay out of the War. The stunning success of the German Western Offensive changed everything. Finally Mussolini he decided to join Hitler by declaring war on Britain and France (June 10, 1940). Ironically while encouraging Mussolini to wnter the War, Hitler would come to see thia as a great mistake. By this time the French had been essentially defeated by the German Wehrmacht which after Dunkirk had turned south. Counting on th stunning German strength, he calculated that the War would be short and decisive. Both he and Hitler expected the British to also quickly capitulate. Mussolini told confidants that it would be humiliating "to sit with our hands folded while others write history." Hitler was not impressed and told confidants, “First they were too cowardly to take part. Now they are in a hurry so that they can share in the spoils.” Mussolini did not yet see himself as junior partner. The thought of Hitler on his own conquering the Continent was too much for Mussolini's expansive ego to bear. He told his Armed Forces Chief, Marshal Badoglio, "I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought." Count Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister and Mussolini's son-in-law, wrote, "Mussolini speaks from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia. The news of the war does not surprise anyone and does not arouse very much enthusiasm. I am sad, very sad. The adventure begins. May God help Italy." [Ciano] Mussolini seems to have had no real appreciation for the fighting capacity of the Italian military. At this late date such intervention was of no real value. Mussolini hoped to achieve territorial gains in North Africa (Tunisia) and southern France such as Turrin, but Hitler would not allow it as the Italians had made no real contribution to the German victory. And he not only had allowed France to retain's its empite as a part of the armistice agreement, but hoped to convince the French to join his war. One matter that never seems to have occurred to Mussolini was what would be the future of Italy in Europe dominated by the all-powerfull race-obsesssed NAZIs. Speaking from London, Prime-Minister Churchill addressed the Italian people, "It is all one man - one man, who, against the crown and royal family of Italy, against the Pope and all the authority of the Vatican and of the Roman Catholic Church, against the wishes of the Italian people who had no lust for this war; one man has arrayed the trustees and inheritors of ancient Rome upon the side of the ferocious pagan barbarians." [Churchill] President Roosevelt commented, "The hand that held the dagger has plunged it into the back of its neighbor." This was a vivid metaphor, but not well chosen--an uncommon political miscue for Roosevelt in an election year. Many Italian Americans considered it an ethnic slur. And Italian Americans were an imortant part of the Democratic coalition.


Churchill, Winston. "To the Italian People" (December 23, 1940).

Ciano, Count Galeazzo. Hugh Gibson, ed. The Ciano Diaries, 1939-1943 (Garden City Publishing: New York, 1947), 582p.


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Created: 12:15 AM 2/5/2017
Last updated: 12:15 AM 2/5/2017