The meetings between Mussolini and Hitler were robust projections of an aggressive challenge to the Wilsonian post-war order. The Fascist and Nazi regimes defied lurking tensions to promote a powerful image of unity, a unity symbolised by the dictatorial friends meeting amidst their peoples – in marked contrast to Western statesmen, who, according to Fascist and Nazi propaganda, preferred secret alliances, furtive negotiations and quiet diplomacy – a way of conducting international relations that, many believed at the time, had helped cause the First World War. Although in reality hardly any significant strategic or political decisions were taken at the meetings, the Fascist and Nazi regimes, together with their diplomatic staffs, staged them as bellicose floutings of the purportedly rational political culture of liberal internationalism that had supposedly dominated the 1920s (and which has recently received renewed scholarly attention).
Mussolini and Hitler increasingly seemed to take back control of diplomacy, at least in public, posing at face-to-face meetings staged by the regimes’ propaganda machines and amplified by mass media. The style of the meetings, particularly in the early stages, was characterised by a mix of traditional forms of diplomacy with new forms of representation, negotiation and performance that included the masses as key participants. Four crucial characteristics of this fascist pageantry stand out.
First are the political ramifications of the emotive politics of the Mussolini–Hitler relationship, as well as the various strategies in which German and Italian officials, journalists, politicians and, of course, the leaders themselves constructed and represented their purported friendship. Their gestures of friendship, such as greetings, the awarding of medals and the writing of friendly letters, were part of this spectacular construction, and depicted by their propaganda apparatuses from the late 1930s onwards as emblematic of the friendship of the German and Italian peoples. The image of the camaraderie between the two ex-corporals who had risen from humble origins to the top of government was above all a Fascist and Nazi strategy to appeal to the masses and make the Italo-German alliance appear distinct from the Franco-British coalition, which was made out to be held together by the machinations of secretive and elitist diplomats. The Fascist and Nazi representation and construction of the Mussolini–Hitler relationship as a friendship provided a personal, emotive form of diplomacy that challenged the supposedly rational order established at the Paris Peace Conference. Yet such a reading of the post-1919 order was a simplification for propagandistic effect: big personalities and personal relations had also shaped the post-war era, above all the Big Four at the Paris Peace Conference: the British prime minister David Lloyd George, the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, the US president Woodrow Wilson and the Italian prime minister Vittorio Orlando.
Italy and Germany had strong connections with other states, and an Italo-German alliance was by no means inevitable. Therefore, Italian and German propaganda projected the strong ties of a dictatorial friendship that extended across the Italian and German peoples. These stagings altered over time in terms of their size and intensity, reflecting the changing relations between Italy and Germany. A crucial aspect of the Mussolini–Hitler meetings was that both dictators believed that they were making history, a message reinforced by their propaganda.
Second, Mussolini and Hitler posed as friends united by a common ideology and the shared goal of challenging the purported hegemony of the ‘plutocratic democracies’, Britain and France – countries which, Mussolini believed, prevented Italy’s territorial expansion. But Nazi and Fascist commentators did not offer a detailed explanation of the common ideology because ideological parallels remained largely superficial, although both regimes were united by the desire to conquer territories and smash the Wilsonian order. Their attempt to redraw the rules of modern diplomacy in an age of mass politics and propaganda was a symbolic reflection of their aggressive and bellicose nature. While there was a gradual shift towards personal meetings among other leaders – especially Churchill and Roosevelt, who soon became the principal rival pair of statesmen – the Mussolini–Hitler alliance was not only the chief alternative to the ‘special relationship’ of Britain and the United States but arguably also pioneered this kind of leaderly relationship as an expression of a joint geopolitical enterprise and as an extension of each regime’s construction of leadership cults. A new culture of face-to-face meetings of assertive fascist leaders who, reflecting their allegedly omnipotent power, could dispense with traditional diplomacy was supposed to replace the culture of inter-war diplomacy, above all the internationalism of the post-1919 period, manifested by the League of Nations and similarly despised by Hitler and Mussolini. In this way, the Mussolini–Hitler meetings symbolised the attempt of the two principal fascist regimes to cooperate with one another in order to create a New Order in Europe. This cooperation was of far greater political significance than that of other, more minor European fascist movements or institutions that have recently come under renewed historiographical scrutiny. While Italy’s war was hardly successful, it seemed to many at the time that the Axis might create a New Order – until 1942/3 when the Allies clearly achieved a position of superiority. Yet, despite the apparent cooperation between Italy and Germany, the shape of the New Order remained contested as the two regimes continued to jockey for dominance and influence.
This was a relationship between dictators based on a broadly similar ideology of territorial conquest, uniting the masses and, in contrast to the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, appealing to the old elites. Throughout its existence, it was a relationship that reflected differing strategic approaches. Indeed, it is difficult, though not impossible, to unpick the nature of the relationship between Mussolini and Hitler, since both leaders, especially the Duce, were inclined to change their opinion of the other depending on circumstances.
Third, this insight invites a consideration of the significance of personal factors in the making and maintaining of transnational associations. Except for the (often tense) relations between Churchill and Roosevelt that emerged as a liberal-democratic counterfoil to the already established rapport between Mussolini and Hitler, no other relationship between two political leaders was as politically significant as the dictatorial pact of Mussolini and Hitler in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.
Fourth, I will explore the Fascist and Nazi regimes’ spectacular construction of the Mussolini–Hitler relationship. An important question in this regard is who was making the decisions about how the relationship should be constructed. Certainly the dictators, who by no means always saw eye to eye and, significantly, kept changing their views of what the relationship was and should be, made choices in this regard; but so did their staffs. Their relationship relied heavily on show and the representation of domestic and international power, above all on the ceremonies and rituals performed during their seventeen meetings. It was largely through propaganda and ritual that the relationship became known to the peoples of Italy and Germany and an international audience, and it is also how it was remembered after the Second World War.
From Mussolini and Hitler by Christian Goeschel. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Christian Goeschel is senior lecturer in modern European history at the University of Manchester, and he has held a visiting position at the European University Institute in Florence. His publications include Suicide in Nazi Germany.