Our Missed Rendezvous with History
The New York Star Ledger, Opinion, July 25, 2014
One hundred years ago this summer, Western civilization was forever altered by a wasteful and wanton conflict known as the Great War.
Rather than making the world safe for democracy, World War I unleashed the contagion of totalitarianism, paving the way for Adolf Hitler, World War II and the Holocaust.
But what if Hitler had been halted in his tracks?
World War II might have been forestalled. And 6 million Jewish lives would not have perished in the Final Solution.
Thursday - July 25, 2014 - marked the 80th anniversary of just such a tipping point: Adolf Hitler's first defeat, by the forces of Benito Mussolini.
Improbable as it may seem, Italy's brusque and bellicose fascist dictator thwarted Hitler long before Winston Churchill rallied the West against Nazi Germany.
Though Italy would eventually (and sadly) join Germany and Japan in the Pact of Steel, Mussolini and Hitler were not exactly ideological soul mates. Unlike the Fuhrer---or the Soviet Union's Josef Stalin - il Duce did not wield ultimate power. His authority was circumscribed by King Victor Emmanuel and the Fascist Grand Council.
Initially, Mussolini and Hitler had different geopolitical agendas. And when the dictators met in Venice on June 14, 1934, Mussolini hectored Hitler over Austria.
Il Duce had also developed a personal aversion to the disheveled German dictator, whom he considered more than a little "mad" - especially when it came to the "arrant nonsense" of a Nazi master race.
(Moreover, unlike other nations, Italy has a long-standing secular tradition of philo-Semitism. The odious racial laws enacted in 1938 ran contrary to this custom.)
In "Liberal Fascism," Jonah Goldberg notes that "Jews were overrepresented in the Italian Fascist Party and remained so from the early 1920s until 1938."
"Fascist Italy had nothing like a death camp system," writes Goldberg. "Not a single Jew of any national origin under Italian control anywhere in the world was handed over to Germany until 1943, when Italy was invaded by the Nazis. Jews in Italy survived the war at a higher rate than anywhere under Axis rule save Denmark, and Jews in Italian-controlled areas of Europe fared almost as well. Mussolini actually sent Italian troops into harm's way to save Jewish lives."
In a speech following their meeting in Venice, il Duce warned Hitler to respect Austria's sovereignty.
But on July 25, 1934, the German dictator made a lunge for the land of his birth. In his first attempted Anschluss of Austria, Hitler had Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss assassinated. More than one hundred innocent people were killed.
An infuriated Mussolini ordered 75,000 Italian troops to the Brenner Pass. Hitler ignominiously backed down---and Austria remained a free and independent state for four more years.
The next day (Thursday, July 26, 1934) the front-page headline in The New York Times told the tale: "AUSTRIAN NAZIS KILL DOLLFUSS, REVOLT FAILS;147 PLOTTERS HELD; MARTIAL LAW IN EFFECT; ITALIAN ARMY, NAVY, PLANES READY TO ACT."
According to the British historian Richard Lamb in Il Duce's Italy on the World Stage: Mussolini as Diplomat, "Austria would have fallen to Hitler in 1934 had it not been for Mussolini. The combination of Italian and Austrian firmness proved that determined opposition to Hitler could prevent Nazi aggression, and Mussolini had set a fine example to Britain and France. Tragically, Britain ignored his success and failed to accept the lesson of the Austrian crisis - that despite all his defects, Mussolini's continued cooperation was essential if Hitler was to be kept in check."
On April 11, 1935, Mussolini convened a summit of the three major European victors of World War I (Britain, France and Italy) at Stresa - on Lago Maggiore - to forge a united front against German rearmament and expansionism. But Britain ignored il Duce's entreaties and subsequently signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement on June 18 of the same year - even though Hitler's attempted annexation of Austria had flagrantly violated the Versailles Treaty.
Had the Stresa Front held, Germany could have been contained and demilitarized - ending Hitler's reign and the threat of Nazi aggression. And the world might have been spared a second global war, the Holocaust and even the Cold War.
However, Britain's Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, developed an antipathy to Mussolini - owing to il Duce's role in the Spanish Civil War and Italy's conquest of Abyssinia. During a 1937 meeting with Neville Chamberlain, Eden explicitly stated that an agreement with the Fuhrer had "a chance of reasonable life ... whereas Mussolini is ... a complete gangster."
Duff Cooper, who served as Britain's War Secretary (1935) and First Lord of the Admiralty (1937), strongly believed that Anthony Eden had erred in alienating Italy.
In his autobiography, "Old Men Forget," Cooper bemoaned Eden's obduracy: "In any case, we should have retained the friendship of Italy; and the Axis, which was to prove the pivot of Hitler's assault upon Europe, and without which he could hardly have launched the second World War, would never have been formed."
Tragically, the West missed its rendezvous with history.
Rosario A. Iaconis,
Italic Institute of America