Berlin, Germany May 22, 1939

On this date in 1939 Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy signed the “Pact of Steel” (German, Stahlpakt; Italian, Patto d’Acciaio). The pack, known formally as the “Pact of Friendship and Alliance,” tied the two dictator­ships in a ten-year mili­tary and poli­tical alli­ance and stipu­lated, among other things, that neither nation, should it be at war with a third party, could make peace with­out the other’s consent. Omi­nously dubbed the “Pact of Blood” in the planning stage, the alli­ance marked the for­mal crea­tion of the Rome-Berlin Axis, simul­ta­ne­ously giving Ital­ian strong­man Benito Mus­so­lini an ally sym­pa­thetic to his impe­rial am­bi­tions in the Bal­kans and East Africa and Nazi dicta­tor Adolf Hitler the abi­lity to respond to poli­cies of encircle­ment directed against his coun­try by the Western democracies—Great Britain, France, and Poland.

Mussolini had rejected a formal alliance sev­eral times ear­lier and was ner­vous even now: at the very moment, Hitler was beginning to con­front Poland over the “prob­lem of German-speaking Danzig” (now Gdańsk) and free­dom-of-transit issues through the “Polish Corri­dor,” the post-World War I creation that gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea while it split pre­war Prussia in two. (Before World War I Poles lived in a nation parti­tioned between Austro-Hun­gary, the German Empire, and the Russian Empire.) Even after Germany had solved its Polish prob­lems by wiping Poland off the map in Sep­tem­ber 1939, it wasn’t until June 10, 1940, when German vic­tory in France, Belgium, and the Nether­lands was beyond doubt, that Italy owned up to its treaty obli­ga­tions and entered the conflict by declaring war on France and Great Britain.

Even before Italy’s entry into the war the Italian foreign minis­ter, 37-year-old Count Gale­azzo Ciano (who was Musso­lini’s son-in-law), had informed the Amer­i­can am­bas­sador to Rome, William Phillips, on May 27 that “Musso­lini wants a war.” In his diary that night, Ciano wrote that Musso­lini “is con­vinced that things are now coming to a head, and he wants to create enough claims to be entitled to his share of the spoils.” (Quoted in John Kelly, Never Surrender, pp. 223–24.)

For the predatory Mussolini and his nation, June 10 was a tragic mis­step. Poor planning would soon cause Ital­ian defeats in Greece, while Axis cam­paigns in North Africa and in the Soviet Union (espe­cially in the Soviet Union) shattered the Ital­ian mili­tary. Following the July 1943 Allied inva­sion of Sicily, Italy (Oper­a­tion Husky), Musso­lini was toppled, after 21 years in power, in a blood­less coup and jailed by order of Italian King Victor Emmanuel III. Hitler reacted with a ven­geance, rescuing Musso­lini from his royal deten­tion and occupying the north­ern half of Italy, where he installed Musso­lini at the head of the puppet Repub­blica Sociale Ital­iana (RSI). The south was governed by mon­ar­chist and lib­eral forces that fought on the side of the Allies, helped by about 350,000 par­ti­sans of various stripes who ranged over Fascist and Nazi-occu­pied Italy. Nearly half a million Ital­ians, com­ba­tants and non­com­batants, died between June 10, 1940, and May 1945.

Benito Mussolini’s Italy, 1939–1945, and the Axis Pact of Steel

Benito Mussolini’s Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI), 1943

Above: Map of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italian Social Republic (Repub­blica Sociale Ital­iana [RSI], infor­mally known as “Salò Republic”) in second half of 1943 (yellow and green). The green-shaded areas in North­east Italy (Oper­a­tional Zone Alpine Foot­hills [OZAV] and Oper­a­tional Zone Adri­atic Coast [OZAK]) were German mili­tary zones that were offi­cially part of the RSI, though they were in fact effec­tively under direct German admin­is­tra­tion. Musso­lini’s seat of gover­nment, Salò (under­lined), was prac­ti­cally within shouting distance of the OZAV. Areas to the south of the Italian Social Republic were in the hands of the Western Allies and the post-Mussolini Italian government.

Axis Pact of Steel: Italians on Eastern Front, 1942Axis Pact of Steel: RSI propaganda poster

Left: Italian soldiers on the Eastern Front, July 1942. At its peak Musso­lini’s army contributed 2.5 mil­lion troops to the Axis war effort. From the start of the Italian cam­paign on the East­ern Front in mid-1941 to the Eight Army’s with­drawal in 1943, Ital­ians suffered 75,000 killed; another 54,000 would die in Soviet cap­tivity. Ital­ian ranks had been reduced from a height of 230,000 men in July 1942 to 150,000 men eight months later, and of these 34,000 were wounded. The dis­aster in Rus­sia (Italian sol­diers lacked heavy arms, equip­ment, ammu­ni­tion, and pro­vi­sions), followed swiftly by the rout in North Africa in May 1943 (Axis losses were close to 350,000 in dead and pri­soners), sank the Pact of Steel, leading the Grand Coun­cil of Fas­cism in Rome to remove Mussolini as head of government on July 25, 1943.

Right: A poster from Mussolini’s collabora­tionist RSI govern­ment pro­claims “Ger­many is truly your friend.” After the Wehr­macht ruth­lessly dis­armed and interned the Ital­ian Army in Sep­tem­ber 1943 until the end of the war in May 1945 Ital­ian troops fought on both sides: with Musso­lini’s National Repub­lican Army (Eser­cito Nazionale Repub­bli­cano, 52,000 men) or with Marshal Pietro Badog­lio’s Allied “Co-Bellig­er­ent Forces” (Esercito Cobellige­rante Ital­iano, 50,000 men at its height). In German-occupied Italy (RSI), the partisan movement fielded 350,000 fighters.

Axis Pact of Steel: RSI naval commandos, Rome, March 1944Axis Pact of Steel: Mussolini with Blackshirt teenager, 1944

Left: Rome, Italy, March 1944. RSI naval com­mandos being reviewed by a gen­eral of the Luft­waffe prior to deploy­ment along the Allied beach­head at Anzio and Nettuno, south of Rome. The com­man­dos, fighting as allies of the Germans, were in­tensely anti-Semi­tic in the wake of strong Nazi influ­ence and answered Musso­lini’s call to defend the terri­torial integrity of Fascist Italy against the Allies.

Right: Mussolini speaking to an adoles­cent mem­ber of one of the Fascist para­mili­tary Black Bri­gades (Brigate Nere), 1944. The majority of bri­gade mem­bers wore Italian army ski caps or berets dyed black, replaced their stan­dard-issue Ital­ian army shirt for a black shirt as a sym­bol of loyalty to Muss­olini, and gen­erally parti­ci­pated in anti-par­tisan acti­vities. The badge or insig­nia of the Black Brigades was the jawless death’s head.

Hitler, Mussolini March Lockstep in 1930s German newsreels. German, Italian foreign ministers sign May 22, 1939,“Pact of Steel” in Berlin’s New Reich Chancellery. Begins 11:03 minutes into video