When Mussolini Challenged Hitler (NEWSDAY, July 25, 2009)
Imagine a world where the Holocaust never happened. No Anschluss. No Auschwitz. No World War II.
Having challenged my Critical Thinking students at Briarcliffe College to ponder such a scenario, I reminded them of former President Bill Clinton's haunting query: "What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler?"
Actually, the only man to thwart Hitler's plans for conquest before 1942 was, quite improbably, Benito Mussolini. Today marks the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's first defeat - at the hands of a fellow dictator.
As an Italian-American activist, I've been the target of critics who expect me to "explain away" the reign of il Duce. First of all, I am neither a revisionist nor an apologist for the founder of fascism.
In truth, il Duce and Adolf Hitler were not always political bedfellows. When the two first met in Venice in June of 1934, Mussolini excoriated Hitler for coveting Austria.
The Italian premier considered Hitler "quite mad" and found the Nazi doctrine of a master race to be nonsense. He openly repudiated Germany's virulent anti-Semitism. Unaware of the Magic Boot's secular tradition of philo-Semitism, my students were astounded by Mussolini's defiant attitude toward his future German ally.
Indeed, not one Jew under fascist Italy's governance was ever delivered to the Germans - until the Nazi occupation in 1943. And despite the racial laws of 1938, Mussolini even sent the Italian military into harm's way to protect Jewish lives.
In a speech following their initial meeting, il Duce humiliated Hitler by insisting that Germany join Italy in respecting Austria's sovereignty. But on July 25, 1934, Hitler struck back and had Engelbert Dollfuss, the Austrian chancellor, assassinated as part of a coup to annex the land of his birth.
More than 100 people were killed, and more than 200 suffered serious injuries. Enraged, Mussolini dispatched 75,000 Italian troops to the Brenner Pass. Hitler backed down and ceased all Nazi depredations in Austria.
The following April, Mussolini convened a summit of the three major European victors of World War I - Britain, France and Italy - at Stresa, to forge a united front against German rearmament and expansionism. But Britain rejected such solidarity, signing the Anglo-German Naval Agreement two months later.
Had the Stresa Front held, the Third Reich might have ended before it began.
A UJA-Federation of New York study in 2002 found that Long Island, New York City and Westchester are home to 55,000 Holocaust survivors. As we reflect on this missed rendezvous with history, imagine the world that might have been had the West followed Italy's lead and thwarted the Final Solution.