Vital Crossroads of the
Second World War
Before 1935, British and French defense planning did not focus on Mediterranean security, seeing this vital crossroads as little more than an imperial transportation route and a staging ground for naval maneuvers and reviews. Despite Fascist foreign policy's revisionism in the 1920s and early 1930s, the British perceived Italy as a friendly power that favored the continuation of the status quo both on the continent and in the Mediterranean region. The French had been wary of Italy since 1919, and by 1926, Franco- Italian hostility had reached acute levels. But that conflict largely revolved around a struggle for influence in southeastern Europe and never threatened to erupt into direct confrontation. In fact, after the Fascist-Nazi breach caused by the failed Vienna putsch in mid-1934, France and Italy decided to lay aside their differences to form a common anti-German front.
Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935 threw British and French Mediterranean policy into disarray and compelled the two democracies, as well as Nazi Germany, to reconsider their views of Fascist Italy. What is often dismissed as “the Abyssinian diversion” actually started the chain of events that brought Italy into armed conflict with Britain and France in June 1940. Beginning in 1936 Germany and Italy developed the basis for a mutually advantageous partnership, which encouraged Italy to engage in proxy wars with France in Spain and East Africa. Yet the British government firmly believed that it could entice Mussolini away from ever-closer ties to Hitler. That diplomacy only created friction between London and Paris, while Fascist Italy took what it could from the British and continued to strengthen its ties to Nazi Germany.
At the center of this discord was Fascist Italy, whose attachment to Nazi Germany grew in 1936—38 from an appreciation of the strategic value of Germany as a continental ally to the recognition that Italy and Germany