10 June 2016

Italy enters the Second World War

Mussolini sides with Germany against Britain and France

Photo of Mussolini making war declaration
A newspaper photograph of Mussolini announcing his
declaration of war from the Palazzo Venezia
One of the darkest periods of Italian history began on this day in 1940 when the country's Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, declared war on Great Britain and France, ending the possibility that Italy would avoid being drawn into the Second World War.

Mussolini made the declaration from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, where he had his office. The balcony enabled him to address a large crowd in the Piazza Venezia and he ordered his Blackshirts to ensure that the square was full of enthusiastic supporters.

Italy had already signed a Pact of Steel with Germany but had been reluctant to enter the conflict. Mussolini had a strong navy but a relatively weak army and a lack of resources across the board.

By June 1940, however, Germany was on the point of conquering France and it was thought that Britain would soon follow. Historians believe Mussolini's decision to enter the conflict was an opportunistic attempt to win a share of French territory.

He told the Italian people that going to war was a matter of honour after his efforts to preserve peace had been rebuffed by 'treacherous' Western democracies, but many believe his motives were simply to pursue his expansionist ambitions at minimal cost.

The Italian Army's chief of staff, Marshall Badoglio, was said to be against Italy becoming involved before it was ready and for a week after the declaration there was no movement from Italian forces.

Photo of Mussolini and Hitler
Mussolini and Hitler met in in Munich the
day before Italian troops attacked France
But German leader Adolf Hitler told Mussolini that France had agreed to enter negotiations for an armistice and that unless Italy made some contribution towards the campaign it would not be able to participate in negotiations and would have no claim in any settlement.

On June 20 Italian troops launched an offensive in south-eastern France.  It was quickly repelled but by June 24 France had formally surrendered and Mussolini's goal of winning territory was achieved, albeit at the cost of more than 1,200 dead or missing and more than 2,600 wounded.

United States President Franklin D Roosevelt condemned the invasion as "a dagger in the back of a neighbour" and there was a substantial backlash against Italians living in Britain, with Italian businesses attacked during riots in British cities. South Wales and Scotland, where there were large Italian communities, were particularly affected.  Italians in Liverpool also came under attack.

London's 10,000 Italians suffered relatively little trouble, although communities were swiftly torn apart when Britain's wartime leader, Winston Churchill, announced the day after the declaration of war that all Italians between 17 and 70 who had not been resident in Britain more than 20 years would be arrested and interned.  Some were even deported to Australia and Canada.

Travel tip:

The Palazzo Venezia, which housed Mussolini's office, is a palace in central Rome, just north of the Capitoline Hill. Originally a modest medieval house intended as the residence of the cardinals appointed to the church of San Marco, it became a residential papal palace. The palazzo faces Piazza Venezia and Via del Plebiscito and currently houses the National Museum of the Palazzo Venezia.

Photo of monument to Victor Emanuel II
Piazza Venezia in Rome is dominated by the huge
monument to Victor Emmanuel II
Travel tip:

The Piazza Venezia is dominated by the vast Altare della Patria, otherwise known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, and sometimes 'the wedding cake' or Il Vittoriano, a monument built in honour of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy. It features Corinthian columns, fountains, an equestrian sculpture of Victor Emmanuel and two statues of the goddess Victoria riding on quadrigas. Including the winged victories, it touches 81 metres (266 feet) tall. The base of the structure houses a small museum of Italian Unification.

(Photo of Il Vittoriano by Fczarnowski CC BY-SA 3.0)

More reading:

The death of Benito Mussolini

Italy rebuilds after the War


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