Rome, Italy · June 10, 1940

On March 18, 1940, at the Brenner Pass on the Italian-Austrian border, Adolf Hitler and Ital­ian strong­man Benito Mus­so­lini met face to face. Hitler had requested the sum­mit in order to force the Duce (Italian, “leader”) to take sides within the frame­work of the German-Ital­ian Pact of Steel, signed by the foreign min­is­ters of their respec­tive coun­tries the year before in Berlin. Since then Hitler had destroyed two coun­tries, Czecho­slo­va­kia and Poland (1939), while a hesi­tant Mus­so­lini watched from the side­lines, building up his armed forces and dithering over when and how he would end Italy’s “nonbelligerent status.”

The summit did not change Mussolini’s posi­tion; ins­tead, he insisted on waiting for “mathe­ma­tical cer­tainty” before entering the war against the West­ern Allies. Now in April, May, and June 1940, after the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) had made mince­meat of Den­mark, Nor­way, Holland, Bel­gium, and Luxem­bourg, and was now making stunning incur­sions into France, whose govern­ment had fled its capi­tal, the cal­cu­lating Mus­so­lini chafed at the bit to enter a war he believed would be easy and short, and would more­over allow him to add terri­tories bordering the Medi­ter­ra­nean Sea to his own “Fascist Empire”; for example, Egypt where British and Common­wealth forces were out­numbered by Italian forces in the neighboring Italian colony of Libya.

On this date, June 10, 1940, Mussolini declared war on France and Britain in the name of Italy, though he had not con­sulted his own govern­ment or the advi­sory Grand Council of Fascism, and the date he had chosen to declare war had been coor­di­nated with Hitler. War against the Western demo­cra­cies was defen­sible, he said, because “It is the struggle of fruit­ful young people against sterile people on the thres­hold of their decline.” Black­shirted Italian street rabble responded by shouting at the top of their lungs: “Nice, Corsica, Tunis, Suez!”

Respectful of diplomatic niceties, the Duce gave his new ene­mies 6 hours prior notice. The following day, on June 11, Mus­so­lini sent the Ital­ian Royal Air Force (Regia Aero­nau­tica) to attack French bases in Tunisia, North Africa, and on the French Medi­ter­ra­nean island of Cor­sica, as well as Brit­ish instal­la­tions on the strate­gically located for­tress is­land of Malta, 55 miles/­89 km south of Sicily. (The Ital­ian air cam­paign against Malta would last 3 years and end in failure.) That night the British retali­ated by bombing Turin, a major busi­ness and cul­tural cen­ter in North­ern Italy, and the first Ital­ian city to be hit during World War II. On June 12 the British Medi­ter­ranean fleet directed its anger south by attacking Tobruk, the sea­port city in Italian-occupied Libya in North Africa. For Italy, the nightmare years were just beginning.

Milestones on the Italy’s Road to Perdition

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, Berlin, September 1937Benito Mussolini (second from left) at the Munich Conference, September 1938

Left: Axis partners Mussolini and Hitler at a confab in Germany, late Septem­ber 1937. Musso­lini had coined the term “Axis Powers” when he spoke of a Rome-Berlin axis on Novem­ber 1, 1936. The Rome-Berlin axis arose out of the treaty of friend­ship signed between Italy and Germany the week before. It was around this new axis that other states in Europe and else­where would revolve, he said. Later, in May 1939, this treaty of friend­ship was trans­formed into a mili­tary alli­ance, which Mussolini called the “Pact of Steel.”

Right: British Prime Minister Neville Cham­ber­lain and French Premier Édouard Dala­dier believed appease­ment to be a prac­ti­cal and poli­tically cor­rect way to deter Hitler from further roiling Europe’s poli­ti­cal waters and plunging the con­ti­nent into a second world war. In November 1937 Lord Hali­fax, who in February would become Cham­ber­lain’s foreign secre­tary (1938–1940), visited Hitler and left the German chan­cellor with the dis­tinct impres­sion that his country would give Germany a free hand in Europe as long as there were “no far-reaching distur­bances.” Ten months later, on Septem­ber 29, 1938, the major Euro­pean heads of state agreed to Hitler’s incor­pora­tion of Sude­ten­land, a chunk of sover­eign Czecho­slo­va­kia where 3 million German-speakers lived, into his Third Reich. Posing stiffly just prior to signing the infa­mous Munich Agree­ment are Cham­ber­lain (left), Dala­dier, Hitler, Mus­so­lini, and Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s foreign minister and son-in-law.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, Munich, June 1940Signing Tripartite Pact, Berlin, September 1940

Left: Mussolini visited a clearly triumphant Hitler in Munich on June 18, 1940, holding dis­cus­sions with his senior Axis part­ner on how to divvy up French spoils. The dis­cus­sions were held in the same room where he, Hitler, Dala­dier, and Cham­ber­lain had divvied up Czecho­slovakia in September 1938.

Right: In late September 1940, the Axis Powers grew by one when Japa­nese am­bas­sa­dor Saburō Kurusu (head turned left), Ital­ian foreign minis­ter Galeazzo Ciano, and German foreign minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop (standing at podium at right) signed the three-way Tri­par­tite Pact. Hitler (slumping in his chair) wit­nessed the gala pro­ceedings. Within 5 years all three signa­tory nations would be pul­verized (liter­ally) into sur­ren­der, and all prin­ci­pal figures at the pro­ceedings, excepting Kurusu, dead or soon to be dead.

Benito Mussolini Declares War on Great Britain and France, June 10, 1940 (Click “CC” for English subtitles.)