Blame It on Mussolini

R.W. Johnson

  • Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World 1940-41 by Ian Kershaw
    Allen Lane, 624 pp, £30.00, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9712 5

The Second World War is the conflict that shaped all our lives and will go on shaping lives for generations to come. Looking at it in terms of the key decisions that determined its course and outcome – all of them taken in a period of about eighteen months – could have had the effect of disposing of the war as the sort of heroic recitation that too much TV history has turned it into. Instead, by focusing on the strategic choices facing the various actors, and the way these were transformed by the shifting tides of the war itself, Ian Kershaw gives a far stronger sense of the open-endedness of things. Very little about the war was inevitable. Many of the biggest decisions were, by most counts, irrational, even crazy: Britain’s to fight on against hopeless odds; Germany’s attack on Russia and Stalin’s refusal to believe in it till after it happened; Japan’s attacking an enemy it could not defeat; and Germany’s doing the same by declaring war on America. No one could possibly have predicted any of these, let alone Hitler’s attempt to annihilate European Jewry, an act without precedent. One of Kershaw’s greatest triumphs is getting inside each of these decisions and showing how natural and right they came to seem to those who took them.

But the Second World War was also a war of rapid movement, in which sweeping changes transformed the strategic situation almost overnight. There is no better example than the German advance across Scandinavia and Western Europe in the first half of 1940. The world had seen the Wehrmacht dispose swiftly of the Poles but everyone knew that had been a war in which cavalry charged against tanks. The astonishing ease with which the Germans overwhelmed the Danes, Norwegians, Belgians, Dutch and French, and reduced to ruins the large British Expeditionary Force sent to help them, left no doubt as to how superior the Nazi forces were. In a few weeks Hitler had achieved what more than four years of struggle had failed to do in 1914-18. Habituated by that conflict to a front that moved only glacially, no one was prepared for the German raz de marée and its complete destabilisation of the old strategic balance.

Khrushchev was with Stalin when the startling news of the fall of France arrived in June 1940. ‘He’d obviously lost all confidence in the ability of our army to put up a fight. It was as though he’d thrown up his hands in despair and given up after Hitler crushed the French army . . . He let fly with some choice Russian curses and said that now Hitler was sure to beat our brains in.’ Stalin’s increased sense of vulnerability had the effect of making him determined to avoid provoking Germany. When Hitler invited Molotov to Berlin in November 1940 – a meeting, as Kershaw makes clear, of huge potential significance, though it has seldom received much attention – Stalin hurriedly complied. Hitler wanted to find out whether the USSR would join the Tripartite Pact with Germany, Italy and Japan, effectively dividing the world up into four, with the USSR encouraged to expand towards the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and India. Hitler already had it in mind to attack the USSR in 1941 but we can’t know how things would have gone had Molotov embraced Hitler’s plan. Clearly under orders from Stalin to exercise maximum caution, he doggedly contested every detail. Hitler, who had wanted to use the meeting to explore Soviet thinking, was frustrated and angry, concluding that any notion of a deal of that sort was hopeless.

The effect of June 1940 on Tokyo was electrifying. Japan immediately insisted that Britain and France stop allowing supplies through to the Chinese Nationalists – demands with which, humiliatingly, they had to comply. More important was the ‘golden opportunity’, as the army minister, Hata Shunroku, put it, of a sweeping Japanese expansion southward, opened up by the undermining of British, French and Dutch power in the Pacific. In the ensuing debates about American power, and whether or not to confront it, attention always quickly reverted to this ‘golden opportunity’, as Japan drifted steadily towards war with an enemy it knew it could not defeat. On 27 September 1940, it signed the Tripartite Pact with the idea that this would deter the US from reacting if Japan moved southward. When it became obvious that it had had the opposite effect, Tokyo convinced itself that backing down would mean disavowing everything that Japan had done and suffered since the original Mukden Incident in 1931, and would therefore be an unacceptable national humiliation.

Yet it was the effect of June 1940 on the weakest actor, Mussolini, that was to prove most fateful. Mussolini’s dream was to restore lost Roman glories by evicting Britain and France from the Mediterranean and turning it into ‘an Italian lake’, with consequential gains in the Balkans and Africa. The problem was that the Italian armed forces were hopelessly unprepared for such adventures. Whenever Mussolini inquired when they’d be ready, the answer was always ‘next year.’ But he was furious at being continually upstaged by Hitler. Conscious that he had once been the senior dictator, he was humiliated by Hitler’s never warning him in advance of his impending exploits. The Führer was shrewd enough to realise that entrusting military secrets to Rome was a fool’s game. Mussolini had to learn from the press about the Anschluss, the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland and the sweep into France. Seeing pictures of the Führer strolling round Paris, Mussolini was consumed by rage, ambition and revenge. Although he had contributed nothing to the French defeat he immediately demanded that Italy be allowed to occupy France as far north as the Rhône valley, to annex Nice, Corsica, Tunisia and Djibouti, and to take over the French navy and air force. Hitler had other ideas: he wanted a lenient peace treaty in order to bolster Pétain’s position. The tougher the terms imposed on France, the more likely it was that the French fleet and more French African colonies would defect to De Gaulle. Mussolini had to retreat in humiliation.

At this stage, as Kershaw’s innovative narrative shows, Hitler found himself having to deal with Mussolini as just one of a clutch of Fascist dictators along with Pétain, Franco, Metaxas and Salazar, not to mention a whole series of leaders of Fascist movements from France to (ultimately) Ukraine. The question for them all (and perhaps one should add de Valera) was whether to join forces with the Third Reich and at what price. Franco wanted Gibraltar, Oran and Morocco, and a lot of aid. Hitler was happy about Gibraltar but couldn’t agree to Oran and Morocco without antagonising Pétain; nor could he give Pétain much without infuriating Italy. In the end, Franco and Salazar stayed neutral and survived for decades after the war. Mussolini clearly should have done the same but his notions of national greatness would never allow such a pedestrian compromise. He alone signed the Tripartite Pact and he alone had the mad idea that national ‘virility’ required that a country should declare war, not just let it happen.

When Hitler firmly rejected his offer of help in invading Britain, Mussolini turned to wishing both that the invasion succeed, and that Germany might suffer a million casualties. Meanwhile, he prepared his demands from a defeated Britain: Malta, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, British Somaliland. Increasingly, however, he came to feel that the only thing that would get Italy taken seriously – would, indeed, confirm its (and his) virility – was a bold stroke: a declaration of war and a lightning invasion which, with luck, Hitler would only learn about from his morning paper. His eye roved over North Africa, Corsica, Croatia, Greece, Yugoslavia and even Ticino, the Italian enclave in Switzerland. Badoglio, the army commander, remarked in fury: ‘The enemy changes every day. I expect the order to attack Iraq!’

Mussolini settled on Greece, despite explicit requests from Hitler not to do anything to provoke the British to intervene in the Balkans. His response was to issue strong denials, even to the Germans, that he was about to invade right up until he did, on 28 October 1940. Hitler was livid. The Germans had to intervene to stave off an Italian defeat. In February 1945, Hitler claimed that this had cost him the war: it had put back Barbarossa by four crucial weeks and diverted many of his best divisions to ‘this stupid show’ – including the elite paratroopers who got chewed up in Crete. Kershaw dismisses this, arguing that the wet weather would have delayed Barbarossa anyway and that it failed in its own right. I am less convinced. Snow and ice, not rain, were ultimately to hold back the Nazi advance into Russia. Four weeks earlier, Hitler’s armies would not have been halted before Moscow by the onset of winter in October. The Wehrmacht would have got there at the beginning of September and the city’s defences would have been correspondingly weaker. The standard Russian answer, even today, is that had Moscow fallen, it would have been no more significant than Napoleon’s fruitless conquest – and the war would have gone on. This ignores how crucial the capital is in an age of modern communications. Stalin had a train waiting in which to flee the city but was stopped at the last minute by Zhukov. Molotov, when later asked what would have happened had Stalin quit, said that ‘Moscow would have burned’ and fallen, the USSR would have collapsed and the anti-Hitler coalition would have disintegrated. Mussolini could never have won the war for Hitler but it may well be that he lost it.

Kershaw’s ten decisions are really only eight, for he splits into two both Roosevelt’s resolve to aid Britain and Japan’s resolve to go to war. This is unnecessary. The fascination lies not so much in the decisions as in the strategic assumptions behind them. Hitler decided in the autumn of 1940 that he must attack Russia because Britain’s continued resistance was, he was sure, predicated on an implicit reliance on a Soviet threat to Germany. If that threat were knocked out, Britain would have to come to terms. Any attempt to cross the Channel would be ‘very hazardous’, but Hitler was extremely confident of the Wehrmacht’s superiority in a land war with Russia. Accordingly, an attack on Russia was the ‘less risky’ option.

Another view was put by Admiral Carls, the German navy’s second in command. Germany, he held, must build a fleet big enough to challenge America. Once naval supremacy (and thus British defeat) had been achieved, Belgium, Normandy and Brittany would become German protectorates, and the French colonial empire would be divided up between Germany, Italy and Spain. South Africa and Southern Rhodesia would be removed from the British Empire to become a single state (doubtless under a pro-Nazi leader like John Vorster), but Germany would take Northern Rhodesia to act as a bridge between its east and west African territories. Germany would take over all of Britain’s positions in the Middle East, including its oil concessions and the Suez Canal, and also annex the Shetlands and Channel Islands. Finally, there would be a ring of German bases on the Canary Islands, the Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar, sealing off Eurafrica from American challenge. As Kershaw points out, the probable result of such a global contest between Germany and America would have been a race to acquire atomic weapons, with the first bombs going off over Germany rather than Japan.

The most important decision of all was Germany’s declaration of war on the US after Pearl Harbor. Without this there would have been two separate conflicts, an Anglo-Russian war against Germany, and a Japanese-American war in the Pacific. Quite clearly, Hitler should have offered Japan Lend-Lease, as the US did to Britain, but stayed clear of war and watched FDR struggle with a Congress furious for revenge against Japan and disinclined to get involved in Europe. Germany’s treaty obligation was merely to support Japan if she was attacked: if Japan attacked first, Germany had a free hand. Pearl Harbor took Hitler completely by surprise: he didn’t have a single U-boat in US waters. Why then declare war on an enemy whose mainland and cities you couldn’t attack and when you lacked the means to stop its military build-up?

According to Kershaw, Hitler had calculated that, even if it entered the war, the US wouldn’t make much impact before 1942. If Russia could be defeated before then, Germany would be too strong and FDR would have to have second thoughts. The key was to keep America out of the war till then. Berlin actively encouraged Tokyo to launch a strike on Singapore with the notion that this would keep the US occupied in the Pacific and enable Japan to achieve a naval supremacy that FDR would find it hard to counter. But the Japanese concluded – logically enough – that it would be best to try to cripple the US first. FDR – who was reading all the secret cipher traffic between Berlin and Tokyo – was aware of much of this, and was determined to project American power far into the Atlantic to frustrate Germany in its struggle with Britain. A key move on this chessboard, hardly mentioned in official histories but rightly illuminated by Kershaw, was the decision to place 4000 US troops in Iceland, enabling British convoys to gain American cover and giving a clear signal of intent. Hitler took sharp note of this move: for a poorly educated house-painter he had a remarkable grasp of geopolitics. Everything hung by a thread. Germany tried to persuade Tokyo to attack Vladivostok and when Japan sought German assurances that they would support Tokyo in a war against America, Hitler gave his agreement only on 4 December 1941 – he had no idea that the Japanese fleet had already been steaming for some weeks towards Pearl Harbor.

Hitler was hugely pleased by the news of the attack: he saw America as being as much under the control of Jews as the USSR was controlled by ‘Jewish-Bolshevism’. He immediately ordered his U-boats to attack American shipping. Some in Berlin suggested he should wait: after all, FDR had immediately declared war on Japan but three days later had said nothing about Germany. But Mussolini wasn’t the only one convinced that ‘national virility’ required war. Ribbentrop, doubtless quoting Hitler, was emphatic: German prestige required that Germany act first. ‘A great power does not let itself have war declared on it, it declares war itself.’ FDR, having no such foolish ideas about national prestige, was only too glad for Hitler to silence Congress in this way and make his choice a simple one.

As Hitler contemplated the probability of war with America in autumn 1941, for the first time he briefly contemplated the possibility of defeat. The significance of this was revealed when he addressed the Nazi leadership on 12 December. As Goebbels recorded, ‘with regard to the Jewish Question, the Führer is determined to make a clean sweep. He prophesied that if they brought about another world war, they would experience their annihilation. This was no empty talk. The world war is here. The annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.’ Given that it was Hitler’s own declaration of war on America the previous day that had turned the war into a world war, this sounds crazy, but the slender thread of logic lay in Hitler’s consciousness of possible defeat. He had begun to talk of ‘the removal of the Jews altogether’ in late 1919 – as revenge for what he took to be the Jews’ ruination of Germany in the First World War. Hence in Mein Kampf a few years later, he spoke of how ‘the sacrifice of millions at the front’ could have been avoided if only ‘twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas’ at the war’s outset. So while the Jews were to be punished for Germany losing, they were now also to be punished for the possibility that Germany might lose again. Hitler’s state of mind was complex to say the least: euphoria at the blow to the hated Roosevelt, confidence in victory, but just enough doubt about defeat to unleash this Götterdämmerung. In that sense, the road to Auschwitz and Belsen begins at Pearl Harbor.

The lesson of Kershaw’s book seems to be that Hitler lost the war essentially because he couldn’t control his allies. Had Mussolini not invaded Greece, Barbarossa might have succeeded; had Japan only attacked Vladivostok as Hitler asked, Russia would almost certainly have fallen. But most of the crazy decisions were taken by the dictators, another lesson being that democracies probably act more rationally in wartime.

I would add only two thoughts. The first is that Nazi and Japanese maps of the postwar world were compatible in every respect except one: each showed India as their own territory. This might have become the great fault-line in a later war between Eurasia and East Asia, to use Orwell’s terms. Second, the Japanese decision to attack southwards rather than northwards was a major turning point, not only because Russia might well have been defeated but because the US would then have had no cause to enter the war. This highlights Kershaw’s key omission: the battle of Khalkhin-Gol in August 1939, when the Japanese attempted to cross the Soviet-Manchurian border. They ran into the future Marshal Zhukov, who deployed 500 tanks and co-ordinated air power against them, made innovative use of motorised artillery and even threw in a parachute regiment. The Japanese were crushed. They were not to know that they had happened to run into the Soviet equivalent of the young Napoleon. It is hardly accidental that they lost all appetite for moving northwards against the USSR. Yet by the same token, Khalkhin-Gol frightened Stalin: suddenly, he was menaced by a possible war on two fronts. It is again hardly accidental that the very next week he tried to obviate such a possibility by hurriedly signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Currently, Khalkhin-Gol gets as little mention in the history books as the US occupation of Iceland. One of the great pleasures of Kershaw’s fine work is that it makes one re-examine the chessboard and realise that some of the pawns were more important than the bishops, knights or rooks. A whole new history of the Second World War may lie at the end of this process.