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Prewar Years

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The term “Axis” was first coined by Mussolini in a speech he gave in Milan, Italy on November 1, 1936. In this speech, he referred to the Rome/Berlin alliance as a Axis in which all European countries would revolve around. This alliance, however, was a result of forced isolation from the rest of Europe, rather than a sincere Italo-German partnership of mutual respect.

In fact, 1934 was a year in which Italy almost went to war with Germany over the potential German attempt at annexing Austria.

Austria

Austria’s independence was immediately threatened when Hitler assumed power in Germany. He made it clear that expansion was his goal, with Austria’s large German speaking population as the logical choice. But this did not sit well with Mussolini and his fascist government. In 1934, Austria was protected by Italy and it’s Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, was a friend of Mussolini. Even if Austria was a small nation, it provided a buffer between the borders of Germany and Italy. To Mussolini, this border was to be maintained at all costs, and he vowed to protect Austria’s independence with military force.

The first meeting between Hitler and Mussolini occurred on June 13, 1934. Mussolini understood some German so he refused a translator for this meeting. Hitler was advised not to wear a uniform, in order to appear more as a diplomat, rather than the war monger as perceived by the Italians. He appeared wrinkled and untidy compared to the authoritative, tailored uniform of Mussolini. Hitler advised Mussolini to stop trying to protect Austria and that he wanted Chancellor Dollfuss replaced. Mussolini replied that the persecution of Jews was folly. Neither dictator may have understood what each was saying.

Hitler returned to Berlin assuming that the German acquisition of Austria was approved by Italy and Mussolini returned distrusting the Germans even more. On July 25, 1934, Nazi assassins killed Chancellor Dollfuss in his office. The day he was killed, Chancellor Dollfuss was scheduled to fly to Italy for a meeting with Mussolini. His family was already there waiting for him. Once word spread of his murder, Mussolini had the difficult task of telling his family in Rome.

Mussolini was well aware that Chancellor Dollfuss was murdered by Nazi operatives. He then made two bold steps. He ordered Italian troops mobilized on the Austrian border and sent a wire telegram to Austria promising Italy’s help in the defense of her independence. Mussolini expected France and England to send the same message, but that never happened. Mussolini was confronting Germany alone.

Germany was not yet prepared for war and Mussolini’s bold stand was enough for Hitler to abruptly change his plans.

The Nazi press, which prepared a special edition to announce Dollfuss’ assassination and the fall of Austria, ordered a last minute cancellation of the publication and revised it with statements from Hitler condemning Dollfuss’ murder. Hitler had the assassins arrested and deported to Austria for trial. He also recalled the German ambassador to Austria and sent in a replacement with instructions to seek better relations.

Mussolini emerged as a hero and won the admiration from England and France. Mussolini felt very confident in his position in the political world. He used this to advance his prospect of a new Roman Empire. This admiration, however, would soon to replaced by international embargo. The isolation of Italy began with their invasion and annexation of Ethiopia.

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