Many factors in Italy’s history lead to her becoming one of the Axis powers during World War II.
Since his rise to power in 1922, Benito Mussolini consistently steered Italy to becoming a new Roman Empire, based this time on Fascist ideology. The range of this proposed empire, at least initially, was said to be ‘From the Straits of Gibraltar’, a strategic body of water connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean; to the ‘Straits of Hormuz’, an even more strategic connection between the Arabian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.
As justification for this goal, Mussolini claimed that complete, unfettered and uncontested access to all the world’s oceans was vital to the country’s security. Details of his plans of that period also indicated a desire for control over other parts of Europe, including Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Dalmatia and Romania, many of which had been parts of earlier versions of the Roman Empire.
As many other European Countries had done previously, Mussolini set sights on establishing a presence in Northern Africa using Italy’s excellent position in the bordering Mediterranean Sea as an access point. In 1935 he initiated what was then called the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. His goal was first to create an Italian outpost, but also to conscript an army to fuel further inroads into the area, including the then British controlled Sudan.
In the same year, Spain entered into a civil war as fascist leader Fransico Franco began his ultimately successful bid to take control of Spain. This success was due in no small part to the assistance of various fascist and conservative countries, including Mussolini’s Italy.
Mussolini became fully committed to this conflict, seeing it as way to rebrand Italy as a ‘Warrior Culture’ and an opportunity to put the country on a War footing. This gave the government additional influence and control over the industry, agriculture and policies of Italy.
During this period, once cold relations with Germany began to thaw, and the two nations entered into a mutual interest treaty which Mussolini felt had established a ‘Berlin-Rome’ Axis’. This power block was a major factor in European politics and policy from that time on, due in large part to Europe’s dependence on German coal.
Readiness for World War II
While Germany, on paper at least, recognized Italy as a valued ally in the conflicts leading up to the war, in reality, the country was not yet ready to engage in a conflict of this magnitude.
The Royal Italian Army, while well trained and competent, was neither as large as Italy claimed nor as well equipped. When Italian troops engaged in their first battles in the war, they did so with substandard tanks, World War I era artillery, and an air force based onbiplanes. And while these forces fared well against equally obsolete weaponry and tactics in Northern Africa, they would prove to be less of a threat as a German ally.
The Italian soldier, it is to be noted, should not share the blame for the ineffectiveness of Mussolini’s military forces. They were, as a rule, courageous and committed fighters, willing to do what it takes to take and objective. In fact, many of Mussolini’s soldiers who were under persecution from their own government due to resistance to the Nazi agenda, formed their own army to fight on the side of the allies.
Other Issues of Readiness
At the time of their entrance into the war, the Italian economy was in a trouble. The conflicts in Spain and Ethiopia, which had cost the country the equivalent of nearly $9 Billion, had depleted both manpower and financial resources. The Italian debt profile was rapidly reaching the danger point, and the value of the Lira was dropping worldwide.
The Italian Industrial complex was not doing any better. Resources such as petroleum were short as were workers for the factory, who were now part of the growing Italian Military.
Exports were down in part due to concern by other countries over Italy’s Fascist policies, and the aggressive attitude expressed by Mussolini against France and Britain, two of Italy’s biggest customers.
Why did Italy join the Axis?
This is a question pondered by many historians. Some think that by becoming an ally, Italy hoped to avoid invasion. Others feel that they saw this as an opportunity to gain some of the strategic outposts that Mussolini felt were so important for Italy’s future.
But most agree that it was primarily a matter of pride.