Military history

THE DUCE PLUNGES HIS SMALL DAGGER INTO FRANCE’S BACK

Despite his preoccupation with the unfolding of the Battle of the West, Hitler had found time to write Mussolini at surprisingly frequent intervals, keeping him informed of the mounting German victories.

After the first letter on May 7, apprising the Duce that he was attacking Belgium and Holland “to ensure their neutrality” and saying he would keep his friend informed of his progress so that the Duce could make his own decisions in time, there were further ones on May 13, 18 and 25, each more detailed and enthusiastic than the other.22 Though the generals, as Halder’s diary confirms, couldn’t have cared less what Italy did—whether it came into the war or not—the Fuehrer for some reason attached importance to Italian intervention. As soon as the Netherlands and Belgium had surrendered and the Anglo–French northern armies had been smashed and the surviving British troops began taking to the boats at Dunkirk, Mussolini decided to slither into the war. He informed Hitler by letter On May 30 that the date would be June 5. Hitler replied immediately that he was “most profoundly moved.”

If there could still be anything which could strengthen my unshakable belief in the victorious outcome of this war [Hitler wrote on May 31] it was your statement … The mere fact of your entering the war is an element calculated to deal the front of our enemies a staggering blow.

The Fuehrer asked his ally, however, to postpone his date for three days—he wanted to knock out the rest of the French Air Force first, he said—and Mussolini obliged by setting it back five days, to June 10. Hostilities, the Duce said, would begin the following day.

They did not amount to much. By June 18, when Hitler summoned his junior partner to Munich to discuss an armistice with France, some thirty-two Italian divisions, after a week of “fighting,” had been unable to budge a scanty French force of six divisions on the Alpine front and farther south along the Riviera, though the defenders were now threatened by assault in the rear from the Germans sweeping down the Rhone Valley.* On June 21 Ciano noted in his diary:

Mussolini is quite humiliated because our troops have not moved a step forward. Even today they have not succeeded in advancing and have halted in front of the first French fortification which put up some resistance.23

The hollowness of Mussolini’s boasted military might was exposed at the very beginning and this put the deflated Italian dictator in a dour mood as he and Ciano set out by train on the evening of June 17 to confer with Hitler about the armistice with France.

Mussolini dissatisfied [Ciano wrote in his diary]. This sudden peace disquiets him. During the trip we speak at length in order to clarify conditions under which the armistice is to be granted to the French. The Duce … would like to go so far as the total occupation of French territory and demands the surrender of the French fleet. But he is aware that his opinion has only a consultative value. The war has been won by Hitler without any active military participation on the part of Italy, and it is Hitler who will have the last word. This naturally disturbs and saddens Mussolini.

The mildness of the Fuehrer’s “last word” came as a distinct shock to the Italians when they conferred with the Nazi warlord at the Fuehrerhaus at Munich where Chamberlain and Daladier had been so accommodating to the two dictators regarding Czechoslovakia less than two years before. The secret German memorandum of the meeting24 makes clear that Hitler was determined above all not to allow the French fleet to fall into the hands of the British. He was also concerned lest the French government flee to North Africa or to London and continue the war. For that reason the armistice terms—the final terms of peace might be something else—would have to be moderate, designed to keep “a French government functioning on French soil” and “the French fleet neutralized.” He abruptly dismissed Mussolini’s demands for the Italian occupation of the Rhone Valley, including Toulon (the great French Mediterranean naval base, where most of the fleet was concentrated) and Marseilles, and the disarmament of CorsicaTunisia and Djibouti. The last town, the gateway to Italian-held Ethiopia, was thrown in by Ciano, the German notes say, “in an undertone.”

Even the bellicose Ribbentrop, Ciano found, was “exceptionally moderate and calm, and in favor of peace.” The warrior Mussolini was “very much embarrassed,” his son-in-law noted.

He feels that his role is secondary … In truth, the Duce fears that the hour of peace is growing near and sees fading once again that unattainable dream of his life: glory on the field of battle.25

Mussolini was unable even to get Hitler to agree to joint armistice negotiations with the French. The Fuehrer was not going to share his triumph at a very historic spot (he declined to name it to his friend) with this Johnny-come-lately. But he promised the Duce that his armistice with France would not come into effect until the French had also signed one with Italy.

Mussolini left Munich bitter and frustrated, but Ciano had been very favorably impressed by a side of Hitler which his diaries make clear he had not previously seen or suspected.

From all that he [Hitler] says [he wrote in his diary as they returned to Rome] it is clear that he wants to act quickly to end it all. Hitler is now the gambler, who has made a big scoop and would like to get up from the table, risking nothing more. Today he speaks with a reserve and a perspicacity which, after such a victory, are really astonishing. I cannot be accused of excessive tenderness toward him, but today I truly admire him.26

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