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The Historiography of fascist foreign policy*

  • Stephen Corrado Azzi (a1)

This article analyses how, in the last half-century, scholars have differed over the nature of Italian foreign policy under the fascist regime. It examines the debate between orthodox and revisionist historians over Mussolini's foreign policy in general, and also over three specific areas of Italian policy in the interwar years: Franco-Italian relations, Italian participation in the Spanish Civil War, and the alliance with nazi Germany. The author concludes that much of the debate has arisen because of conceptual befuddlement; writers have been primarily concerned with questions of coherence and continuity, and not with understanding Italian foreign relations. Historians have also disagreed over whether Mussolini had a ‘programme’, but a closer look shows that many of them were engaging in a semantic debate, and did not differ over the nature of fascist policy.

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1 Of the histories of the fascist period written by Mussolini's enemies in the post-war period, the most important are: Salvemini, Gaetano, Mussolini diplomatico, revised edition (Bari, 1952); Salvemini, Gaetano, Prelude to World War II (London, 1953); Chabod, Federico, A history of Italian fascism (London, 1963); Salvatorelli, Luigi and Mira, Giovanni, Storia del fascismo: L' Italia dal 1919 al 1945 (Rome, 1952); Salvatorelli, Luigi and Mira, Giovanni, Storia d'Italia nel periodo fascista (Turin, 1956).

2 Salvemini, Gaetano, The fascist dictatorship in Italy (New York, 1927); Salvemini, Gaetano, Under the axe of fascism (London, 1936); Salvemini, Gaetano, Italian fascism (London, 1938).

3 Salvemini, , Prelude to World War II, p. 10.

4 Azzi, Gianni, Modena 1859–1898: Condizioni economiche, sociali, politiche (Modena, 1969), p. 17.

5 Sestan, Ernesto, ‘Salvemini storico e maestro’, Rivista storica italiana, LXX (1958), 43.

6 Wiskemann, Elizabeth, The Rome-Berlin Axis: A history of the relations between Hitler and Mussolini (London, 1949), p. 339.

7 Hughes, H. Stuart, ‘The early diplomacy of Italian fascism, 1922–1932’, in Craig, Gordon A. and Gilbert, Felix, eds., The diplomats 1922–1932, 1 (Princeton, New Jersey, 1953), 224.

8 Cassels, Alan, Mussolini's early diplomacy (Princeton, New Jersey, 1970).

9 Nolfo, Ennio Di, Mussolini e la politico estera italiana (Padua, 1960), p. 45.

10 Di Nolfo, p. 100.

11 Di Nolfo, p. 45.

12 Cited in Cassels, , Mussolini's early diplomacy, p. 390.

13 Cassels, , Mussolini's early diplomacy, p. 401.

14 In foreign affairs, revisionism was the policy of seeking to alter the Versailles settlement. In historiography, the revisionists were those scholars who challenged the orthodox interpretation.

15 Rumi, Giorgio, ‘“Revisionismo” fascista ed espansione coloniale’, Il movimento di liberazione in Italia, XVII (1965), 45.

16 Rumi, Giorgio, Alle origini della politica estera fascista (Bari, 1968).

17 Ian Kershaw had a similar criticism of the literature on nazi foreign policy. Kershaw, Ian, The nazi dictatorship: problems and perspectives of interpretation (London, 1985), pp. 121–2.

18 Carocci, Giampiero, La politico estera dell' Italia fascista (Bari, 1969), pp. 1314.

19 Robertson, Esmonde M., Mussolini as empire-builder: Europe and Africa, 1932–36 (London, 1977), p. 17.

20 Robertson, p. 17.

21 Knox, MacGregor, Mussolini unleashed, 1939–1941: politics and strategy in fascist Italy's last war (Cambridge, 1982), p. 286.

22 Rumi, , ‘“Revisionismo” fascista’, p. 45.

23 Felice, Renzo De, Mussolini il rivoluzionario (Turin, 1965).

24 Felice, Renzo De, Mussolini il fascista: I. La conquista del potere (Turin, 1966), p. 559.

25 Felice, Renzo De, Mussolini il fascista: II. L'Organizzazione dello Stato fascista (Turin, 1968), p. 439.

26 Felice, Renzo De, Mussolini il duce: I. Gli anni del consenso (Turin, 1974). p. 323.

27 Smith, Denis Mack, ‘A monument for the Duce’, Times Literary Supplement (10 31, 1975). p. 1278.

28 Felice, De, Il duce I, p. 337.

29 Felice, De, Il duce I, p. 338.

30 Felice, Renzo De, Mussolini il duce: II. Lo Stato totalitario (Turin, 1981).

31 Felice, Renzo De, Mussolini l' alleato: I. L'Italia in guerra, two volumes (Turin, 1990).

32 Taylor, A. J. P., The origins of the Second World War (london, 1962), p. 56.

33 Kirkpatrick, Ivone, Mussolini: a study in power (New York, 1964), pp. 165–6.

34 Smith, Denis Mack, Mussolini's Roman empire (London, 1976), p. 252; first published as Le guerre del Duce (Bari, 1976).

35 Smith, Denis Mack, Mussolini (London, 1981).

36 Taylor, A. J. P., ‘The great pretender,’ Mew York Review of Books (08 5, 1976), p. 4.

37 Knox, p. 2. One wonders if Mack Smith has based his argument on an a priori use of the evidence. His views were first advanced in an article in 1959 and have not significantly changed since then, in spite of the opening of the archives and a revolution in the historiography. Smith, Denis Mack, ‘Mussolini, artist in propaganda: the downfall of fascism’, History Today, IX (04 1959).

38 Salvemini - shortly after the war began - was the first to argue that Mussolini invaded Ethiopia because of the domestic economic situation: ‘[T]he war was willed primarily by Mussolini… because something had to be done to restore the prestige of the Fascist regime in Italy… [which had] steadily declined during the six years of world depression… The Ethiopian war was the way out of domestic stagnation.’ The other orthodox historians did not agree. Kirkpatrick and Taylor saw the Ethiopian adventure as merely a continuation of the Duce's bid for propaganda successes. According to Kirkpatrick, ‘Jealousy, aggravated by his natural egotism, drove him to attempt to match the German dictator and so to embark on a series of adventures’. Similarly, Taylor argued, ‘he was merely intoxicated out of his senses by the militaristic blustering which he had started and in which Hitler was now outbidding him’. Mack Smith thought Mussolini was trapped by his own propaganda into believing that the conquest of Ethiopia would help solve Italian economic problems. Salvemini, , Under the axe of fascism, pp. 390–1; Kirkpatrick, p. 192; Taylor, , Origins, p. 88; Smith, Mack, Mussolini, p. 190.

39 Baer, George W., The coming of the Italian-Ethiopian war (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967), p. 31.

40 Baer, , Coming, p. 33.

41 Catalano, Franco, L'economia italiana diguerra (Milan, 1969); Rochat, Giorgio, Militari e politici nellepreparazione della campagna d'Etiopia (Milan, 1971).

42 Felice, De, Il duce, I, p. 323.

43 Felice, Renzo De, Fascism: an informal introduction to its theory and practice, with Ledeen, Michael A. (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1976), p. 79.

44 Cassels, Alan, ‘Switching partners: Italy in A. J. P. Taylor's Origins of the Second World War’, in Martel, Gordon, ed., The origins of the Second World War reconsidered: the A. J. P. Taylor debate after twenty-five years (Winchester, Massachusetts, 1986), p. 80.

45 Robertson, p. 123.

46 Robertson, p. 93.

47 Hughes, p. 229.

48 Felice, De, Il fascista I, p. 559.

49 Bosworth, R. J. B., Italy, the least of the Great Powers: Italian foreign policy before the First World War (London, 1979).

50 Bosworth, Richard, ‘Italian foreign policy and its historiography’, in Bosworth, Richard and Rizzo, Gino, eds., Altro Polo: intellectuals and their ideas in contemporary Italy (Sydney, 1983), p. 73.

51 Bosworth, , ‘Italian foreign policy’, pp. 78–9.

52 Cassels, Alan, Fascist Italy (New York, 1968), p. 73.

53 Salvemini, Gaetano, Mazzini (London, 1956), p. 83.

54 Duroselle, Jean-Baptiste and Serra, Enrico, eds., Italia e Francia dal 1919 al 1939 (Milan, 1981); Shorrock, William, From ally to enemy: the enigma of fascist Italy in French diplomacy 1920–1940 (Kent, Ohio, 1988).

55 Salvemini, , Prelude to World War II, p. 72.

56 Salvemini, , Prelude to World War II, p. 77.

57 Cassels, , Fascist Italy, pp. 80–1.

58 Felice, De, Il duce I, pp. 357–8.

59 Di Nolfo, p. 308.

60 Villari, Luigi, Italian foreign policy under Mussolini (London, 1959), p. 167.

61 Grand, Alexander De, Italian fascism: its origins & development (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1989), p. 119.

62 Cassels, , Fascist Italy, p. 88.

63 Pastorelli, Pietro, ‘La politica estera della fine del conflitto etiopico alia seconda guerra mondiale’, in Felice, Renzo De, ed., L' Italia fra tedeschi e alleati: La politica estera fascista e la seconda guerra mondiale (Bologna, 1973), p. 105.

64 Coverdale, John F., Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War (Princeton, New Jersey, 1975), p. 15.

65 Coverdale, p. 390.

66 Coverdale, pp. 388–9.

67 Coverdale, p. 77.

68 Coverdale, p. 76.

69 Smith, Mack, Roman empire, p. 100.

70 Watt, D. C., ‘The Rome–Berlin axis, 1936–1940: myth and reality’, The Review of Politics, XXII (10 1960), 522.

71 Petersen, Jens, Hitler–Mussolini: Die Entstehung der Achse Berlin–Rom, 1933–1936 (Tubingen, 1973).

72 Smith, Mack, Roman empire, p. 132.

73 Salvemini, , Prelude to World War II, p. 156.

74 Kirkpatrick, p. 289.

75 Felice, De, Fascism: an informal introduction, pp. 80–1.

78 Quartararo, Rosaria, Roma tra Londra e Berlino: La politico esterafascista dal 1930 al 1940 (Rome, 1980), p. 461.

77 Quartararo, p. 469.

78 Quartararo, p. 625.

79 Quartararo, p. 461.

80 Gilbert, Felix, ‘Ciano and his ambassadors’, in Craig, Gordon A. and Gilbert, Felix, eds., The diplomats 1919–1939, vol. 2 (Princeton, New Jersey, 1953), p. 533.

81 Funke, Manfred, Sanktionen und Kanonen: Hitler, Mussolini und der Internationale Abessinienkonflikt 1934–36 (Düsseldorf, 1970); translated as Sanzioni e cannoni, 1934–1936: Hitler, Mussolini e il conflitto etiopico (Milan, 1972).

82 Pastorelli, , ‘La politica estera’, p. 103; Mori, Renato, Mussolini e la conquista dell'Etiopia (Florence, 1978), p. 314; Cassels, , Fascist Italy, p. 81; Cassels, , ‘Switching partners’, p. 81.

83 For example, MacGregor Knox looked at the factors that restrained Mussolini who wanted – from an early date – to enter the war. Knox, pp. 85–6, 187.

84 Coverdale, p. 407.

85 Felice, De, Il duce II, p. 684.

86 Felice, De, Il duce II, p. 844. The quotation comes from Churchill's 23 December 1940 BBC address to the Italian people. See Churchill, Winston S., Their finest hour (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1949), p. 620.

87 Bosworth, R. J. B., ‘In the green corner, Denis Mack Smith. In the red? black? corner, Renzo De Felice: an account of the 1976 contest in the historiography of Italian fascism’, Teaching History, IX (08 1977), p. 38. See also Bosworth, , ‘Italian foreign policy’, pp. 78–9.

88 Bosworth, , ‘Italian foreign policy’, p. 79.

89 Mori, p. 4.

90 Bosworth, , ‘Italian foreign policy’, p. 78.

* The author is grateful to Professor George Urbaniak for advice and criticism.

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