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Consider this scenario: In May 1940 Italian dictator Benito Mussolini observes with mixed emotions the stunning speed of the German military triumph in the west. He cannot help but admire Hitler’s audacity and the prowess of the Nazi war machine. At the same time, he knows Italy is not ready for war and he is resentful of the way Hitler is treating him.

The previous year, after signing a military alliance with Germany—the “Pact of Steel”—Mussolini had sent Hitler a rambling memorandum urging the postponement of the “inevitable” war with Great Britain and France until 1942, when Italy’s military buildup would be complete. To Mussolini’s chagrin, Hitler had not bothered to inform him that he had already decided to attack Poland in September 1939. Nor had he notified Mussolini of his intention to grab Slovakia. Mussolini had learned about the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in the newspapers, just like the rest of the world.

Although the terms of the Pact of Steel require Italy to join Germany in the event of any war, even one of aggression, Mussolini has taken refuge in a policy of nonbelligerence, in which Italy would be sympathetic to Germany but remain technically neutral. Hitler has gone along with this, and although Mussolini lusts to enter the war, he hopes to maintain non belligerence until Italy is ready to fight. On the eve of the Nazis’ spring offensive in 1940, Mussolini intimates to Italy’s foreign minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano—also his son-in-law—that it would not displease him if the campaign proved bloody and indecisive. Hitler, he thinks, needs to be “slowed down.”

The rapid German breakthrough and surrounding of the Allied armies in Belgium that May, however, show all too well that Hitler is on the verge of one of the fastest and most complete military conquests in modern history. Mussolini knows Italy must join the war at once. Privately he imagines himself on the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia, his headquarters in Rome, announcing to a cheering crowd that Italy has at last taken arms “against the plutocratic and reactionary democracies of the West.”

The war, Il Duce tells his top commanders on May 29, 1940, would be over by September. It would be a cheap victory that did not require full military preparation—merely “a few thousand dead” to earn a place at the peace conference and gain a share of the spoils.

The normally supine commanders, however, show a degree of resistance that leaves Mussolini distressed but impressed. The supreme chief of the Italian general staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, had three days earlier told Mussolini that a decision for war would amount to “suicide.” He is more measured at the meeting, but still insists that Italy lacks the ammunition reserves for even a brief conflict. Marshal Rudolfo Graziani opines that the army is not yet fit to take the offensive against Yugoslavia, much less France. Adm. Domenico Cavagnari insists that the navy is ready only for defensive operations.

There are other objections. The only offensive open to Italy is an attack on France through the Alps. Even in June, temperatures in that region can dip close to freezing. The Italian troops lack adequate clothing; hundreds could fall prey to hypothermia. In any event, the troops then near France are, per Mussolini’s earlier directive, in defensive positions. It will require 20 days to redeploy them. Someone else points out that a million tons of Italian merchant vessels are at sea. It will take weeks to recall them; otherwise neutral or hostile nations will con fine them as soon as Italy declares war.

Mussolini has a visionary’s belief in the power of will to overcome cold fact, but he faces another obstacle: unlike Hitler, his power is not absolute. Italy’s king, Vittorio Emanuele III, remains the head of state. The previous August he had told Ciano that “we are absolutely in no condition to wage war.”

The combination of military and royal opposition gives Mussolini pause. He could impose his will over one or the other but not both. Ruefully, he decides to continue Italy’s nonbelligerent stance.

The next few weeks are agony for Il Duce as France sues for peace and the Luftwaffe pounds Great Britain in apparent preparation for a cross-Channel attack. But by September it becomes clear that the war is going to continue for some time. British fighters have retained command of the skies above their home land, the Royal Navy remains intact and has been supplemented by 50 destroyers handed over by the United States, and the onset of autumn weather renders a seaborne invasion of England impossible. Italy can still complete its military preparations and enter the war in its own time, on its own terms, and perhaps even as the arbiter of the huge conflict.

Save for surprisingly few differences, this scenario follows historical fact. The crucial departure is that the king and military were as impressed as Mussolini by Germany’s offensive; although they made Italy’s lack of military preparedness a matter of record, they agreed that it was time to enter the war. Furthermore, the effect of a sudden declaration of war on Italy’s merchant fleet was not taken into consideration; a million tons of shipping, one third of all that Italy possessed, was indeed seized and confined. Nor was the impact of climate on an Alpine offensive considered. Italian troops gained only a few hundred yards of French territory in June 1940 before an armistice ended combat; dozens perished from exposure.

Had Italy remained on the sidelines, the war would have unfolded very differently. There would have been no failed Italian invasion of Greece and, more importantly, no campaign in North Africa. Without the North Africa campaign, Germany would not have sent the Afrikakorps to shore up the wretched Italian army, and American forces would not have launched Operation Torch—the November 1942 invasion of western North Africa—because there would have been no German troops to fight. There would have been no invasion of Sicily or landings at Salerno and Anzio. As a result, the western Allies would have had to mount a cross-Channel attack by forces almost devoid of amphibious and combat experience.

Military historian Douglas Porch believes that “to factor the Mediterranean out of World War II is to imagine a disaster of epic proportions, and a military outcome in the European theater far different from an unconditional surrender of Germany.” The sad truth, he adds, is that Operation Sledgehammer and Operation Roundup—the planned Allied invasions of northern France in 1942 and 1943, respectively—“would certainly have collapsed in bloody disaster against a strongly entrenched German army, backed by a powerful Luftwaffe, with German wolf packs prowling among the Allied fleet supporting the invasion.”

But Mussolini did indeed stand on the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia on the evening of June 10, 1940. In so doing he condemned Italy to a disastrous war and, as Porch observes, opened a Mediterranean theater that proved “vital to Allied success.” As for Mussolini, he was toppled from power in July 1943 and summarily shot by partisans in April 1945, his corpse suspended upside down from a meat hook at a Milan gas station.

In his memoirs, Churchill mused on what might have become of Mussolini had he chosen differently in June 1940: “Peace, prosperity, and growing power would have been the prize.”


Originally published in the July 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here