The war had not gone well for Italy. Although Mussolini was in a formal alliance with Hitler at the outbreak of the war he had not declared war on France and Britain – until he saw the success of the German panzers blitzkrieg through France in 1940. Even in these circumstances his troops were rebuffed by the French. His gamble to grab Egypt from Britain had failed spectacularly, as had his invasion of Albania.
His Mediterranean fleet had repeatedly fallen foul of the Royal Navy. Hitler had had to come running to his assistance in the Balkans and North Africa, a diversion which he was later to blame for causing a critical delay in launching the invasion of Russia. Now Mussolini’s finest Alpine troops were suffering an ignominious retreat on the Eastern front.
It was not surprising that Mussolini sensed opposition to him within his own regime. Now he acted to shore up his support. He had a close personal relationship with his son-in-law Count Ciano who was also his Foreign Minister. But he knew that Ciano had always had reservations about the alliance with Germany. Now he sacked him.
Ciano had been at the heart of the Italian government and had been present on most of the occasions when Mussolini met Hitler. His diaries reveal much more than the diplomatic manoeuvres of the war and many acute observations of the personalities involved:
February 8, 1943
I hand over my office at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Then I go to the Palazzo Venezia to see the Duce and take leave of him.
He tells me “Now you must consider that you are going to have a period of rest. Then your turn will come again. Your future is in my hands, and therefore you need not worry!” He thanks me for what I have done and quickly enumerates my most important services. “If they had given us three years’ time we might have been able to wage war under different conditions or perhaps it would not have been at all necessary to wage it.”
He then asked me if I had all my documents in order.
“Yes,” I answered. “I have them all in order, and remember, when hard times come – because it is now certain that hard times will come – I can document all the treacheries perpetrated against us by the Germans, one after another, from the preparation of the conflict to the war on Russia, communicated to us when their troops had already crossed the border. If you need them I shall provide the details, or, better still, I shall, within the space of 24 hours, prepare that speech which I have had in my mind for three years, because I shall burst if I do not deliver it.”
He listened to me in silence and almost agreed with me. Today he was concerned about the situation because the retreat on the Eastern Front continues to be almost a rout.
He has invited me to see him frequently, “even every day.” Our leave-taking was cordial, for which I am very glad, because I like Mussolini, like him very much, and what I shall miss the most will be my contact with him.
This was to be the penultimate entry in his diary. See The Ciano Diaries.