Salzburg, Austria April 8, 1943

On this date in 1943 in Salzburg, Austria, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini met for the first time since the col­lapse of the Axis de­fense of Stalingrad at the end of Janu­ary. Ignoring Mus­so­li­ni’s trial bal­loon about nego­ti­a­ting a cease­fire with the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, Hitler remained con­vinced that the Euro­pean war would be won or lost in Russia. For his part, Il Duce (Italian, “the leader”) had already accepted the inevi­ta­ble loss of his Libyan colony to the Allies, al­though Hitler put a brave face on events in North Africa since the start of the Anglo-Ameri­can offen­sive in Novem­ber 1942 (Operation Torch): “Duce, I can assure you that Africa will be defended. The situ­ation there is serious but not des­perate.” Mus­so­lini could not but cringe in anxious anti­ci­pa­tion of Allied landings on the Italian island of Sicily from their new North African spring­board, an event which his en­tou­rage in Salz­burg believed would be soon.

Mussolini requested Hitler’s help in creating a new south­ern army with mo­dern equip­ment and a shield to suffi­ciently pro­tect it against air attacks that would en­sure the fail­ure of any Allied landings in Italy. Hitler, how­ever, had much to gain by keeping the Allies bogged down on the Ital­ian front and offered Italy only moral support. Hitler’s cynical posi­tion irked Mus­so­lini to no end, prompting the Duce to later approach his other major Axis ally, Japan, in a two-pronged effort to per­suade Germany to furnish all the war material Italy requested for its defense.

After his two-hour meeting with Hitler, Mussolini met with the Reichs­fuehrer of the para­military Schutz­staffel (SS), Hein­rich Himm­ler. He wanted the advice of the much-feared head of Nazi Germany’s secu­rity, sur­veil­lance, and terror organ­i­za­tion on how to sup­press likely inter­nal un­rest due to the length­ening nature of the war. (Italy had already been plagued with worker strikes in the coun­try’s north.) Himm­ler tore a pre­scrip­tion out of his own black book in Germany—throw the trouble­makers into concentration camps.

Himmler had a low opin­ion of the Duce, believing that Germany could not count on Mus­so­lini or his regime any­more. In fact, he pre­dicted that within a few months at most Italy would drop out of the war. Himm­ler con­fided to a col­league that, if the condi­tion of the Duce today (Mus­so­lini took to his sick bed the next day) was a reflec­tion of the condi­tion of the Ital­ian people and his Fas­cist regime, then the end was near. It was an eerie pro­phecy, for in the wee hours of July 25, 1943, the Grand Coun­cil of Fas­cism in Rome, in proceedings that had begun 10 hours earlier, deposed the Duce from his leader­ship posi­tion, and Italian king Victor Emmanuel III placed him under arrest.

The Men in Mussolini’s Life

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Florence, Italy, 1938 1941 Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini stamp

Left: His fleshy face expressionless, Mussolini rides in an open-air car with Axis partner Hitler in Florence, Italy, May 1938. Hitler beamed and strutted like a peacock across his host’s stage, having pulled off his bloodless land grab of Austria (Anschluss) earlier in March after Mussolini had abandoned his northern neighbor to the Nazi predator.

Right: 1941 German stamp of Hitler and Mussolini. Translation of text at the top: “Two Peoples and One Struggle.”

Men in the life of Benito Mussolini: Italian Marshal Pietro Badoglio Men in the life of Benito Mussolini: Italian King Victor Emmanuel III

Left: Marshal of Italy and conqueror of Ethiopia in 1936 Pietro Badog­lio, whom Musso­lini had sacked four years later for losing Greece. On the night of July 24/25, 1943, two and a half weeks after Allied landings in Sicily (Operation Husky) and a week after Allied air­craft had un­loaded their bombs on Rome, the Grand Council of Fascism voted 19‑to‑8 to remove 60‑year-old Musso­lini from power, which he had tightly held for 21 years. The only person legally and consti­tu­tionally empowered to do so, Italy’s king ordered the Duce’s arrest the next day, July 26, and appointed 72‑year-old Badoglio to be Italy’s new prime minis­ter. The king’s selection of Badog­lio, who despised Musso­lini ever since Il Duce’s Fascist March on Rome in 1922, was pretty much a given, as the Marshal had let it be known pri­vately that he was bent on over­throwing Mussolini with or without Emmanuel III’s permission.

Right: King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. Publicly, the dimin­u­tive king (5 ft, 0 in) and new Italian premier Badog­lio claimed that their coun­try would con­tinue the war as a mem­ber of the Axis. Privately, they both began negoti­ating with the Western Allies for an armis­tice, which was signed on Septem­ber 3, 1943, but made public on the 8th. Badoglio’s govern­ment declared war on Germany on October 13, 1943.

History’s Verdict: Benito Mussolini