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, 19381941 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 BadoglioMen 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

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