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Italian Army of 1940: Facilitator or Victim of Mussolini’s Failed War Strategy? Part Two

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Mussolini reviewing troops

Mussolini’s Blunted Sword

The first part of this article, which aimed to exam the factors that shaped the Italian Army of 1940, presented the case that Italy was thrown into the abyss of war by an uncertain political course helmed by its leader, Benito Mussolini. A major question that has persisted through the years since Fascist Italy’s collapse has been to what extent did the military establishment facilitate and or support the Duce in his actions, specifically those of a strategic military nature? This matter has been debated for a long time, and more than others, it has created a scission in the public opinion of Italians, who have formed two opposite factions based on their beliefs.

While one sect has absolved the Army High Command on the belief that they were forced to accept passively any decision which came from a political establishment that could not be contradicted, the other affirmed the exact opposite: their postulation was that Mussolini made far reaching decisions, decisions that have been judged by many as irrational or uneducated, because he was for so long deceived by his own Generals, who had depicted to him a powerful army able to endure successfully a long war. Thus to this faction, the only blame for these decisions that should be placed upon the shoulders of the Duce was to entrust too much faith in his Generals.

Into a matter so complex, the radicalization of these opinions, added to an innate need for simplification, did nothing to determine even partial truth to this debate. In reality it was just another attempt to relieve either the political power or the military one of its share in the responsibility of the sad and devastating events of the Italian participation in the war.

For the Italian ruling class, passing the buck from one to another was the only explanation about Italy’s role and performance in the Second World War that they were able to give to the Italian people. When finally the records of history were made known to the public, knowledge of the truth which emerged did nothing to absolve either side of responsibility. Those individuals once labeled either as guilty or hailed as heroes of yesterday, were likewise sucked into a whirlwind which correctly repositioned them into a landscape which clearly showed how both the political and the military powers shared in the responsibility, even if in different proportions, in the events which overtook Italy during the war.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s……..

The Relationship Between Political Power and Military Establishment

A common mistake when one attempts to analyze military history, is the proclivity to ignore or underestimate the balance of power between military status and civilian concerns coexisting together in a nation at war. At first glance a war seems a purely military matter, but nothing is further from the truth than this concept; the armed forces of a nation is nothing more than a tool to be wielded to accomplish the national strategy (or supreme interest) established by its government.

For this reason, the capacity for clear communication and synergy between any armed force and the central government is of crucial importance for a modern and efficient nation, especially one who is at war. To understand the relationship between the Italian armed forces and its government, it is necessary to start an evaluation in 1925, when Fascism was in a developmental phase still far from the totalitarian dictatorship which it evolved into some years later.
In that year the minister of war, Antonino Di Giorgio, who was a former General in the First World War, and although not a Fascist was connected to a coalition who supported the Fascist party, presented to the parliament a draft of law to modernize the Italian Armed Forces.

His draft, which was ahead of its time in Italian military thinking, provided also for the creation of an Interforce High Command which was to forge a new coordination among Army, Navy and the newly formed Air Force. Its purpose was to keep a constant channel of communication open between the government and the military power, thus helping to ensure the symmetry between all arms of the armed forces.

During this same period, several other forward thinking nations of the world felt the need to begin transforming their supreme commands into a structure that fit better the new concepts of modern warfare. No longer was a nations war effort to be directed from a far away battlefield by its preeminent general, but coordinated from a central location able to better process information and in theory see clearer through the fog of war. In Italy however, development of this conceptualization commenced in a different way due in large part to the persistent and bitter rivalry between the leaders of its armed forces. This led the military hierarchy to view Di Giorgio’s project as a mortal stab to the autonomy of each branch of military.

So, while the armies of several other nations were marching towards an intertwined and centralized command within the greater whole of their national order, in Italy the first postulate of the military power remained as a strict separation between each armed force.

Seeing the fervent protests which the military waged against Di Giorgio and his plan, Mussolini immediately understood the political importance that the situation offered him; since 1922 Mussolini perfectly understood that the armed forces were in fact the only Italian institution which had the means or potential to stop the course and growth of Fascism. Thus, Il Duce formed the belief that for the preservation of the future of Fascism, a compact and united armed force was potentially more dangerous to his movement than three separate armed forces each working towards their own goals and ends.

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  1. This was a great article and well written. Im gonna share it with some of my friends.

  2. Excellent article! Thoroughly researched and well written.