Brenner Pass, Italy · October 4, 1940

On this date in 1940, at a border crossing between Germany and Italy, Benito Mus­so­lini and Adolf Hitler met for the seventh time. (The two would meet seven­teen times.) The Bren­ner Pass meeting of the two dicta­tors followed on the heels of their June 18 meeting in Munich, which focused on the im­mi­nent French sur­render to the Ger­man Wehr­macht on June 22. In between the two meetings, Mus­so­lini had urged Hitler to allow Italy to par­ti­ci­pate in the planned attack on Great Brit­ain, mostly in order to claim some of the pro­jected spoils, among them semi-inde­pen­dent Egypt, with its Suez Canal, and the jointly ad­minis­tered Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (modern-day Sudan and South Sudan) to add to Italy’s African empire (at the moment Libya, Ethi­o­pia, Eri­trea, and Ital­ian Somali­land). Hitler politely but firmly re­jected the Duce’s offer of an Ital­ian ex­pe­di­tion­ary corps, citing the dif­fi­cul­ties of sup­plying two in­va­sion armies, but accepted modest Ital­ian air force parti­ci­pa­tion against the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain (June–Septem­ber 1940). In the Brenner Pass meeting Mus­so­lini laid the ground­work to justify his next con­quest, Greece, which Hitler didn’t seem to pick up on. In­stead, Hitler was pre­occupied with Luft­waffe losses over Eng­land, which had caused the Fuehrer to post­pone Opera­tion Sea Lion, the amphib­i­ous inva­sion of Great Britain, two and a half weeks ear­lier. Also on Hitler’s mind were secret plans to seize the Roma­nian Ploiești (Ploesti) oil fields in mid-Octo­ber and secret plans to liq­ui­date the Soviet Union in mid-1941 (Opera­tion Barba­rossa). Hitler’s sur­prise move into Roma­nia out­raged Mus­so­lini, who believed that that nation fell geo­graphically within his sphere of interests as agreed to by the two dicta­tors in Octo­ber 1936, just as the Duce’s sur­prise inva­sion of Greece from Italian-occupied Albania in late-October 1940 out­raged Hitler. The Italian mis­ad­ven­ture in Greece was to have nega­tive im­pli­ca­tions for Bar­ba­rossa’s suc­cess, pushing Hitler’s plan­ned spring in­va­sion of Russia into the sum­mer as Ger­man troops were rushed to Greece in early April 1941. Hitler admit­ted: “If the Ital­ians hadn’t attacked Greece and needed our help, the war would have taken a dif­fer­ent course. We could have an­ti­cipated the Rus­sian cold by weeks and con­quered Lenin­grad and Moscow. There would have been no Stalingrad.”

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Mussolini and Hitler: Tending to the Ties That Bind

Mussolini and Hitler review Nazi Party troops, Munich, September 25, 1937Mussolini and Hitler, Munich, June 1940

Left: Mussolini and Hitler review Nazi Party troops parading before one of two “Honor Temples” (Ehren­tempel) on Koenigs­platz, Munich, Septem­ber 25, 1937. Musso­lini’s visit to Munich, Berlin, and Essen, the Euro­pean capital of the steel and arma­ments indus­tries, cost Ger­many mil­lions of Reich marks. Both dic­ta­tors used the occa­sion to cement bi­lateral ties of friend­ship, which had first been laid down in a friend­ship pact signed by their for­eign minis­ters in late Octo­ber 1936. The Ger­mans were rewarded with assur­ances from the Ital­ians that “special Ger­man inter­ests in Aus­tria would not be opposed by Italy,” a green light for the March 1938 Nazi take­over of Austria (Anschluss).

Right: Mussolini visited a clearly triumphant Hitler on June 18, 1940, driving through Munich’s streets in an open car and holding discus­sions with his Axis part­ner on how to divvy up French spoils as all signs pointed to a Franco-German armis­tice. The discus­sions were held in the Fuehrer­bau in the same room where he, Hitler, French Premier Édouard Dala­dier, and Brit­ish Prime Minis­ter Neville Chamber­lain had divvied up Czechoslovakia in September 1938.

Italian Attack on Greece, 1940