In the early days of Mussolini’s regime (he came to power in 1922), Italian foreign policy seemed rather confused: Mussolini knew what he wanted, which was ‘to make Italy great, respected and feared’, but he was not sure how to achieve this, apart from agitating for a revision of the 1919 peace settlement in Italy’s favour. At first he seemed to think an adventurous foreign policy was his best line of action, hence the Corfu Incident and the occupation of Fiume in 1923.
By an agreement signed at Rapallo in 1920, Fiume was to be a ‘free city’, used jointly by Italy and Yugoslavia; after Italian troops moved in, Yugoslavia agreed that it should belong to Italy. After these early successes, Mussolini became more cautious, perhaps alarmed by Italy’s isolation at the time of Corfu. After 1923 his policy falls roughly into two phases with the break at 1934, when he began to draw closer towards Nazi Germany.
At this stage Mussolini’s policy was determined by rivalry with the French in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, where Italian relations with Yugoslavia, France’s ally, were usually strained. Another consideration was the Italian fear that the weak state of Austria, along her north-eastern frontier, might fall too much under the influence of Germany; Mussolini was worried about a possible German threat via the Brenner Pass.
After 1934 Mussolini gradually shifted from extreme suspicion of Hitler’s designs on Austria to grudging admiration of Hitler’s achievements and a desire to imitate him. After their first meeting (June 1934), Mussolini described Hitler contemptuously as ‘that mad little clown’, but he later came to believe that there was more to be gained from friendship with Germany than with Britain and France. The more he fell under Hitler’s influence, the more aggressive he became. His changing attitude is illustrated by events:
- When Hitler announced the reintroduction of conscription (March 1935), Mussolini joined the British and French in condemning the German action and guaranteeing Austria (the Stresa Front, April 1935). Both British and French carefully avoided mentioning the Abyssinian crisis, which was already brewing; Mussolini took this to mean that they would turn a blind eye to an Italian attack on Abyssinia, regarding it as a bit of old-fashioned colonial expansion. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement signed in June convinced Mussolini of British cynicism and self-interest.
- The Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in October 1935 was the great turning point in Mussolini’s career. Italian involvement in the country, the only remaining independent state left in Africa, went back to 1896, when an Italian attempt to colonize it had ended in ignominious defeat at Adowa.
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