Rome, Italy May 3, 1938

On this date in 1938 Adolf Hitler began a six-day Ital­ian state visit to Rome, Naples, and Florence in a dis­play of Axis sol­i­darity. The choreo­graphed visit featured a parade by the Ital­ian armed forces (demon­stra­ting to German reviewers a lack of modern equip­ment), a review of the Ital­ian Navy (world’s fifth largest), a horse-drawn carriage ride into Rome’s city center with its historic archi­tecture (the Coliseum was illumi­nated by pyro­technics for the drive-by), and hours-long visits to the city’s museums and galleries.

The exception to Rome’s lavish welcome mat was that of Vati­can City. The year before, Pope Pius XI had damned the Nazi leader for his perfidy, his untrust­worthi­ness, his deter­mi­na­tion to take the place of God, and his danger to German society in a March 21, 1937, encyc­lical titled “Mit bren­nender Sorge” (With Burning Con­cern) that was read to all Catholic parish­ioners that Palm Sunday. The pope chose there­fore to seal off the Vati­can’s art trea­sures during Hitler’s visit lest they be “dese­crated,” going so far as to turn off the City’s lights at night. Rising above the obvious insult, “Rome capti­vated me,” Hitler later remarked. More annoying to the Fuehrer, it seemed, was the fact that his host for the state visit was King Victor Emman­uel III, not Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. Hitler made do with sharing the company of the king or Mussolini depending on whether the events they and their entourages attended were political or not.

This was not the first meeting between the two Euro­pean states­men. Hitler and Mus­so­lini had first met in Venice on the Ital­ian Adri­atic Coast in June 1934 and three years later in Ger­many, in Munich and Berlin. During that latter visit in Novem­ber 1937, Italy was prompted to join the sym­bolic anti-Com­intern Pact (anti-Com­mu­nist pact) directed against the Soviet Union, a pact that had already linked Germany and Japan.

The German leader’s 1938 visit to Italy had several im­por­tant objec­tives, one being Hitler’s show of grati­tude to Il Duce (Italian, “the leader”) for allowing, in a pre­arranged script, neu­tral Austria to be annexed to the Reich. The March 13 Anschluss (union) elimi­nated the buf­fer state between the two mili­ta­rized dicta­tor­ships that the Duce had long pre­ferred, a buf­fer that the Aus­trians had recently made cum­ber­some to Mus­so­lini’s thinking by their poli­tical dis­array. A second objec­tive was to secure Ital­ian neu­tra­lity when Hitler moved to occupy Czecho­slo­vakia with its Sudeten-German minority.

The third objective was to cement a bond of “eter­nal friend­ship” between the two dicta­tor­ships. This friend­ship logically led to the “Pact of Steel” (Ital­ian, “Patto d’Acciaio”) in 1939, which com­mitted both coun­tries to mutual sup­port in the event of war, though Mus­so­lini let the Ger­mans know that Italy would not be ready to wage war for sev­eral more years. The Pact (orig­i­nally named “Pact of Blood” which it did, in fact, become in June 1940), marked the for­mal crea­tion of the Rome-Berlin Axis, giving Italy an ally sym­pa­thetic to its pre­da­tory poli­cies in the Bal­kans and East Africa and Ger­many the ability to respond to poli­cies of en­circle­ment directed against it by the Western democracies—Great Britain, France, and Poland.

Mussolini and Hitler: On Route to the 1939 Blood Pact

Signing Pact of Steel, Berlin, May 22, 1939Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler, Berghof 1942

Left: Signing the Pact of Steel in the Reich Chan­cel­lery, Berlin, May 22, 1939. From left, sitting, Italy’s Foreign Minis­ter Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mus­so­lini’s son-in-law; Adolf Hitler; and Ger­man For­eign Minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop. Behind Hitler, standing, is Luft­waffe chief chief Hermann Goering.

Right: Adolf Hitler with his mistress Eva Braun at the Berg­hof, the Fuehrer’s lux­u­ri­ous Bava­rian re­treat on the Ober­salz­berg, June 14, 1942. In her 1938 travel papers to Italy, the then 26‑year‑old Braun was given the ficti­tious title of “secre­tary.” Nine­teen years his junior, Braun would even­tually become Hitler’s wife in April 1945, 40 hours before their suicides in the Fuerhrer­bunker beneath the ruins of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.

Hitler’s May 1938 State Visit to Italy: Hitler and Mussolini in Florence1941 Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini postage stamp

Left: His face expressionless, Mussolini rides in a black con­ver­tible with Hitler in Florence, Italy, May 9, 1938. City bells rang and Florentians waving banners bearing swas­tikas cheered the lumi­naries. Flying in tight forma­tions above their twenty-car motor­cade were air­planes of the Italian air force. Scrunched into Hitler’s 10 hours in Florence were visits to the Uffizi gal­leries and the Basilica of Santa Croce, where Michel­angelo and Galileo were buried; dinner at the Palazzo Medici; and a Verdi perfor­mance. Through­out his six days in Italy, Hitler beamed and strutted like a pea­cock across his host’s stage, having pulled off his coup in Aus­tria (Anschluss) earlier in March after Musso­lini had abandoned his northern neighbor to the Nazi predator.

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

Hitler’s Visit to Italy, May 1938. Foot­age Begins 5 Seconds into Video