The Foreign Policies of Hitler and Mussolini: Russel Tarr Sees Similarities but Also Important Contrasts in the Foreign Policies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy

By Tarr, Russell | History Review, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Foreign Policies of Hitler and Mussolini: Russel Tarr Sees Similarities but Also Important Contrasts in the Foreign Policies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy


Tarr, Russell, History Review


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Introduction

To the casual observer, Mussolini and Hitler are something of a diabolical double act: aggressive right-wing dictators who rose to power in similar circumstances, shared a similar ideology, fought side by side in World War Two, and died violently at the end of the conflict in 1945. But the reality is much more complex. In particular, it was Mussolini's Italy--not the democracies of Britain, France or the USA--that initially led the most vigorous attempts to contain the aggression of Hitler's Germany. It was the West's decision to appease Hitler rather than confront him that was at least partly responsible for Mussolini's decision to realign Italy as an ally of Germany. In the words of Richard Lamb, 'British policy threw Mussolini into Hitler's arms'. A study of the foreign policy of both dictators therefore highlights at least as many contrasts as comparisons.

Historiographical Background

Any discussion of the foreign policy of Hitler and Mussolini is complicated by the fact that historians continue to disagree about what their respective aims actually were. Even here, however, we can still start to draw some comparisons and contrasts. For example, a number of historians argue that, although both dictators gave a radical spin to the foreign policy of their country, each built upon rather traditional national aims. Famously, AJP Taylor (Origins of the Second World War, 1961) used Bethmann-Hollwegg's September Memorandum (1914) and the Treaty of Brest Litovsk (1918) as evidence that Hitler's aggressive policies were hardly novel. Similarly, RJB Bosworth (Mussolini, 2002) argues that 'even at its most aggressive, Fascist Italy behaved as though it were a nineteenth century power, replicating the land-grab for Africa indulged by the Greater Powers at the time'.

However, whilst the general objectives of Hitler and Mussolini in foreign

policy were broadly traditional, the same cannot be said of their methods of achieving them. Hitler's increasingly powerful position as leader of Germany allowed him to drive events forward in a way that Mussolini could only envy. Hugh Trevor-Roper (Hitler's War Aims, 1960) used Mein Kampf (1924) and the Hossbach Memorandum (1937) as evidence that Hitler's ideas were radical, and argued that these objectives were pursued with conviction and coherence ('To the end, Hitler maintained the purity of his war aims'). In contrast, there is a general consensus that Mussolini was an opportunist in his approach to foreign affairs, although few go as far as AJP Taylor's judgement that he was 'a vain, blundering boaster without either ideas or aims'. Given the economic weakness of Italy, this was inevitable. As Mussolini's first foreign minister, Dino Grandi, put it, '[Italy should be] with everyone and against everyone. We must arm ourselves and stand apart ever more in order to sell ourselves at a high price in the hours of the great future crisis'.

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Relations with Britain

Both Mussolini and Hitler recognised the importance of good relations with the British Empire as a means of advancing the position of their countries. Through out the 1920s, British foreign policy was dominated by the fear of a resurgent Germany on the one hand and an aggressive communist Russia on the other. It was on this basis that Britain, along with France, had refused to accept either country as initial members of the League of Nations.

Mussolini's policy was to play upon British fears of a powerful and vengeful Germany by making strenuous efforts to enforce the Treaty of Versailles. The Italian foreign ministry official, Raffaele Guariglia, wrote that Italy's policy was 'for intrinsic and obvious reasons, historically obliged to stand first here, then there and to pursue the fulfilment of her own aims by cutting the cloth necessary for her own cloak from the cloth of her various adversaries, and, until her own mantle is ready, to take shelter on rainy days under the ample and capacious cloak of England'.

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