Although the top brass of the Wehrmacht had a low opinion of Italian military power, Hitler now pressed for a military alliance with Italy, which Mussolini had been in no hurry to conclude. Staff talks between the two high commands began in April and Keitel reported to OKW his “impression” that neither the Italian fighting services nor Italian rearmament were in very good shape. A war, he thought, would have to be decided quickly, or the Italians would be out of it.43
By mid-April, as his diary shows,44 Ciano was alarmed by increasing signs that Germany might attack Poland at any moment and precipitate a European war for which Italy was not prepared. When, on April 20, Ambassador Attolico in Berlin wired Rome that German action against Poland was “imminent” Ciano urged him to hasten arrangements for his meeting with Ribbentrop so that Italy would not be caught napping.
The two foreign ministers met at Milan on May 6. Ciano had arrived with written instructions from Mussolini to emphasize to the Germans that Italy wished to avoid war for at least three years. To the Italian’s surprise, Ribbentrop agreed that Germany wished to keep the peace for that long too. In fact, Ciano found the German Foreign Minister “for the first time” in a “pleasantly calm state of mind.” They reviewed the situation in Europe, agreed on improving Axis relations with the Soviet Union and adjourned for a gala dinner.
When after dinner Mussolini telephoned to see how the talks had gone, and Ciano replied that they had gone well, the Duce had a sudden brain storm. He asked his son-in-law to release to the press a communiqué saying that Germany and Italy had decided to conclude a military alliance. Ribbentrop at first hesitated. He finally agreed to put the matter up to Hitler, and the Fuehrer, when reached by telephone, readily agreed to Mussolini’s suggestion.45
Thus, on a sudden impulse, after more than a year of hesitation, Mussolini committed himself irrevocably to Hitler’s fortunes. This was one of the first signs that the Italian dictator, like the German, was beginning to lose that iron self-control which up until this year of 1939 had enabled them both to pursue their own national interests with ice-cold clarity. The consequences for Mussolini would soon prove disastrous.
The “Pact of Steel,” as it came to be known, was duly signed with considerable pomp at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin on May 22. Ciano had bestowed on Ribbentrop the Collar of the Annunziata, which not only made Goering furious but, as the Italian Foreign Minister noticed, brought tears to his eyes. In fact, the plump Field Marshal had made quite a scene, complaining that the collar really should have been awarded to him since it was he who had really promoted the alliance.
“I promised Mackensen [the German ambassador in Rome],” Ciano reported, “that I would try to get Goering a collar.”
Ciano found Hitler looking “very well, quite serene, less aggressive,” though he seemed a little older and his eyes more deeply wrinkled, probably from lack of sleep.* The Fuehrer was in the best of spirits as he watched the two foreign ministers sign the document.
It was a bluntly worded military alliance and its aggressive nature was underlined by a sentence in the preamble which Hitler had insisted on putting in declaring that the two nations, “united by the inner affinity of their ideologies … are resolved to act side by side and with united forces to secure their living space.” The core of the treaty was Article III.
If contrary to the wishes and hopes of the High Contracting Parties it should happen that one of them became involved in warlike complications with another Power or Powers, the other High Contracting Party would immediately come to its assistance as an ally and support it with all its military forces on land, at sea and in the air.
Article V provided that in the event of war neither nation would conclude a separate armistice or peace.46
In the beginning, as it would turn out, Mussolini did not honor the first, nor, at the end, did Italy abide by the second.