Goeschel (Modern European History/Univ. of Manchester; Suicide in Nazi Germany, 2009) examines the strained relationship—never a true friendship—between the two dictators.
Both Hitler and Mussolini served as corporals in World War I, and both seized power through brutal violence and apparently legal political activity. Their “new order” was based on replacing the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles. Both were anti-Bolshevik and anti-Jewish. While anti-Semitism was central to Hitler’s ideology, Mussolini believed in a strategy of racial exclusion, not extermination. Mussolini was a strategic model for the rise of Nazism as the driving force behind the attempt to reshape postwar politics and diplomacy. In Italy, the monarchy and papacy were maintained, curtailing a complete dictatorship, a fact that Hitler often criticized. Curiously, Hitler was the instigator of the alliance, which wasn’t signed until well after World War II began. As the author demonstrates, the relationship was never ideological; it was politically constructed and contained little substance. Tensions were constant, not only between the dictators, but also their nations; few Germans could forget that Italy deserted their alliance and fought against them. The rivalry manifested itself at all of the meetings, which were really about image. Hitler quickly dropped his hero worship of Mussolini and, as an all-powerful dictator, monopolized their short conversations and made the decisions. Mussolini doggedly pursued his goal to become the “determining weight” in the Mediterranean and continued to foster Italy’s détente with England, hedging his bets with brinkmanship and opportunism. Hitler’s method of diplomacy was to completely skip the bureaucratic machinations, make backdoor deals, and put every nation’s fate in his own hands. The author methodically follows the meetings through the years, from great shows of power and exorbitant expenditures to the secretive meetings at Wolf’s Lair late in the war, which were no more than summons to Mussolini to receive Hitler’s instructions. Ultimately, Goeschel skillfully exposes the relationship as that of two men who merely tolerated each other to amass power.
A necessary book for those who study dictators.