In 1921 Benito Mussolini founded the National Fascist Party in the aftermath of World War I and, as their leader, governed Italy from 1922 - 1943. As the father of Fascism, he put forward a return to traditionalism, a rejuvenation of Italy through rebuilding a modern Italian Roman Empire. After World War I, Italy felt a ‘mutilated peace’. This stemmed from the broken 1915 Pact of London she made with the Triple Entente. Italy was not given the land she had been promised if she were to declare war on Germany and the Entente powers came out victorious.
This, arguably, formed the basis of his foreign policies, which involved two main ideas: aggressive nationalism and reinvigorated imperialism. With these perceived to be his two main objectives in Italy’s international relations in post-World War I Europe, it is clear that by the end of the Second World War in 1945 Mussolini had failed in achieving them. Early into his regime, Mussolini’s displays of aggression showed his long term ambitions in rebuilding an Italian Empire. To achieve this he focused on increasing their sphere of influence into the Balkans and along the Danube as well as finding an empire in Africa.
The 1920’s were quite cautious years due to domestic concerns as well as Mussolini’s newness to the position. However, the few international incidents Italy was involved in, specifically the Corfu Incident of 1923, showed his readiness and enthusiasm to use force. The Italians had occupied the Greek island of Corfu after the Italian General Tellini was murdered on the Greek border. Mussolini, bombarded the Greek coastlines and demanded Greece pay a fine, which they eventually did.
Intentionalist historians, like Macgregor Knox, believe that there was the premeditated desire for expansion that would be much more prevalent in the 1930’s. The Corfu Incident, as such, was a demonstration of the seriousness that Mussolini had with the violent struggle to be a nation that would remain an international contender for power and prestige. This opinion is perhaps the most traditional and common amongst historians and thus why historians, like Macgregor Knox and Dennis Mack Smith, of traditional educations and backgrounds tend to stress the predetermined goals Mussolini had for Italy.
From early on, with expansion on his mind, the failure of Mussolini’s foreign plans at the end of the Second World War to increase their empire or their sphere of influence is evident by the major defeat of them on the Axis side. The campaigns in the 1930’s that Mussolini led into Africa further the claim that Mussolini had long term goals for his foreign policies. This so much so that his force and violence mirrored the previous scramble for Africa by the Great Powers during the time of Imperialism, which is the comparison traditional, intentionalist historian R.
J. B. Bosworth puts forth about Mussolini’s foreign aims. The Abyssinia Crisis of of 1937 illustrates the confidence Italy felt. A skirmish along the border of Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia, which Mussolini claimed was Abyssinian aggression, in late 1934 led to Italian invasion and occupation of the area by October 1935. Even the League of Nations, on October 7, declared Italy the aggressor in the situation. Italy became more estranged from the Western Allies as the view of Italy being a ‘warmonger’ increased.
The initial help Britain and France were to offer through the Hoare-Laval Plan, giving Italy control over large portions of Abyssinia, was dropped when the general public expressed that they saw it as a form of betrayal to Abyssinia. This led to Mussolini turning to the German dictator Adolf Hitler for support. By 1940, Italy was in control of most Abyssinia. Perhaps seen as a success at the time, the Italian Empire that Mussolini had wanted to create was now spreading into Africa which was what he had wanted. However, in the long term the ‘Empire’ failed in rejuvenating imperialism.
What more, the areas they had expanded into were poverty stricken and as such the Empire was a delusion of grandeur with territorial gain but increasing in little else in terms of economic achievement or some sort of military advantage from the area. It was because of the Abyssinia incident that Italy was forced to fight parallel wars during the Second World War, in Europe and in Africa, spreading herself too thin to truly be successful in any of her pursuits. This led to Abyssinian sovereignty early in the war by help from British forces, with Mussolini’s foreign aims not achieving success in the long run.
However, there is argument that exists that Italy was pigeonholed into her situation in the Second World War due to her pragmatic approach to foreign affairs in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Revisionist school in Italy created the Structuralist view of Mussolini. Renzo De Felice is one of the leading revisionist Italian historians on Fascist Italy whose left wing background led to critical analysis of Mussolini, thus departing from traditional views. His belief is that Mussolini had no active foreign policy in that time but simply attempted to manipulate certain situations to develop with the changing international circumstances.
The Corfu Incident was simply situational given the clash along the border of the nations and not necessarily showing signs of goals for expansionism. The involvement of Italy in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 was simply in support of a fellow fascist, the rebel group led by General Francisco Franco, more than anything else. This, along with the German support for Italy after the Abyssinian Crisis led to the estrangement of Italy, putting Italy and Germany together before Mussolini even desired a strong relation with Germany over other potential allies.
This hesitation to be with Germany is evident as Italy did not join the Second World War immediately at the beginning in 1939, even though she had a pact with Germany, but instead felt too unprepared to do so. Their alliance could be seen as an act of desperation by Mussolini, traumatized by the ‘mutilated victory’ of being neutral in the previous war as well as slight belief in Germany coming out victorious, eventually joining the war on the side of Germany the following year in June 1940.
With no overarching foreign goals but to simply remain a global presence, Mussolini would have then achieve his lack of any aims. Nonetheless, it would seem to be a stretch to say he was absent of long term goals. Either to distract from the domestic problems by creating a sense of nationalism or fueled by revenge for their ‘mutilated victory,’ though he had no clear cut strategy on how he would achieve it, Mussolini had an overall goal for expansionism.
For it was the actions he had made in pursuit of that expansionism, either spreading ideology through the Spanish Civil War or territorial gain in the Abyssinia Crisis, that led him to be allied with Germany rather than a succession of events that seemingly forced upon Italy her situation. Mussolini himself would say that “imperialism is the eternal and immutable law of life,” expressing his view on the importance, and inevitability, of expansionism of territory and influence for a nation to be successful.
Much of his actions, from aggressive confrontations along borders and support for rebellions, were most likely to have been to achieve this expansionism rather than single, slightly related events that Italy was forced into. As such, by the end of the Second World War in 1945 Italy had been defeated, her sphere of influence dwindling to the point of nonexistence and it left her a weak nation with a small presence in international affairs. Murdered at the end of the war, Mussolini left behind him an empty shell of a country, with goals of expansion unachieved and never fully realized.