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From the NS archive: Gilding the axis

2 October 1937: Mussolini visits Berlin.

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In this anonymous piece, our correspondent analysed the relationship between Mussolini's Italy and Nazi Germany. They did not think there was much to be gleaned from the propaganda that accompanied Mussolini’s visit in October 1937, nor did they think Hitler and Mussolini’s speeches were enlightening – they simply repeated the need for the “luminous truths” of Nazi-Fascist civilisation. That both proclaimed a desire for “peace” was meaningless when this peace simply "masks one war of aggression after another”. But, our correspondent thought, this visit made it clear that the Berlin-Rome axis was in fact far from secure. Neither dictator could commit himself to the other’s long-term plan of continental dominance, for fear it would impact on his own.

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The Goering-Goebbels publicity firm is to be congratulated on its achievements in Berlin this week. Military manoeuvres, the elaborately displayed resources of Krupps, the hundred thousand disciplined performers in the May Field’s torchlight tattoo – to say nothing of the hundred blondes drawn from the film studios to typify Nordic sex appeal – all have been adroitly exploited to impress the Duce with Germany’s power and to demonstrate that here was a guest whom the Reich delighted to honour. What propaganda can do propaganda has done. If the peoples of Germany and Italy are not convinced that their interests are bound up in the “solidarity of the Berlin-Rome axis”, it will not be the fault of the impresarios responsible for the staging of this display of spectacular amity.

As to the inward implications of the meeting, little of note has emerged. In their speeches on Tuesday night both the dictators emphasised the community of ideas shared by fascism and national-socialism; each proclaimed a common determination to combat the “dark forces and destructive elements” menacing the “luminous truths” of Nazi-Fascist civilisation; both stressed their desire for peace. What are we to conclude from this? That the members of the “luminous” anti-Russian front are brothers under the shirt, brown or black? The statement has been made from Berlin and Rome so often that it gains little in significance by this duet of repetition. That Italo-German pacific intentions are genuine? We should be more impressed with their sincerity if they were expressed in less stentorian tones. That Britain and France are to take warning against any attempt, in the projected Three-Power talks, to wean Italy from her unofficial but now firmly cemented alliance with the Reich? This may be the intention, but the loud insistence on the closeness of Nazi-Fascist rapprochement raises, here too, the question of whether Duce and Fuhrer – near the microphone at any rate – do not protest too much.

[see also: From the NS archive: The ministry of emotion]

Before the Berlin visit Signor Mussolini gave every indication of playing for position. His change of attitude in the matter of the Nyon Agreement, followed by hints that an accommodation might be reached with regard to the withdrawal of “volunteers” from Spain, suggested strongly that Herr Hitler was to infer that Italy wanted to know by whom her bread was to be buttered. How far Germany has responded suitably to this manoeuvre is a matter of pure speculation. Herr Hitler may have intimated that the Reichswehr high command is not ready to back Italy’s political bills and that Germany’s acute raw material shortage, strained budgetary position and declining standards of living are cogent arguments against her participation in expensive Mediterranean adventures. Equally it may be that desire to preserve the Berlin-Rome axis with something more substantial than this week’s propaganda gilt has induced the Fuhrer to promise, in effect, to pin France diplomatically on the Rhine while Italy gets on with the good work of civilising Spain by bomb and bayonet.

Conjecture as to short-term bargains and decisions is fruitless. What is less open to doubt is that on a long-term view the stability of the famous axis is far from secure. The ultimate ambitions of the two dictators are scarcely compatible with each other. Mussolini dreams of a Mediterranean imperium embracing Spain, North Africa and the Levant, with Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey as satellites in an Italian constellation. Hitler, for all the propaganda use he makes of Germany’s need for colonial outlets, cherishes in reality the conception of a Pan-German bloc which is to absorb Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and part of Poland, and from that base is to dominate the Balkans. On the Brenner Pass, on the Danube and in the Near East alike, these rival ambitions clash. Declarations of community of ideals notwithstanding, Mussolini has no wish to see a Nazi occupation of Austria, bordering the semi-Italianised South Tyrol, still less the emergence of a Germany so supreme in Central Europe that Italy would become a very junior partner in the Nazi-Fascist firm.

[see also: From the NS archive: A schoolgirl in Germany]

Germany, on the other hand, though she is interested in securing control over the metal ores of Spain and the Spanish Zone in Morocco, is not particularly sympathetic towards Italy’s dreams of a Mediterranean converted into mare nostrum et clausum. She is apprehensive lest sabre-rattling at Rome may serve indirectly to strengthen the already visible tendency of the Little Entente countries to form a resolutely independent Danubian bloc embracing Hungary. Above all, she is by no means anxious at this juncture unconditionally to endorse Italian adventures in the western Mediterranean at the expense of being embroiled with France and losing all chance of favours from Britain. In brief, neither Duce nor Fuhrer is eager to commit himself to support of his associate’s long-term policy for fear of its ultimate reactions either on his own plans or on the attitude of other powers.

Here lies the essential weakness of the axis, a weakness which should embolden the western democratic powers, acting in concert with the USSR, to proclaim their desires and intentions as vigorously as, and much more specifically than, the two dictators have done in Berlin. Desire for peace is not a monopoly of Germany’s or Italy’s sacro egoismo, and the powers who remain members of the League have conceptions of peace to with, they are entitled to insist, all nations must conform. The peace for which Mussolini professes his readiness to work overtime is, he declares, “a real, fruitful peace which does not silently ignore, but solves, the questions arising from the life of the peoples”. What meaning have those words of a toy Caesar who complains in the same speech that “criminal” steps to boycott Italian trade were taken by the League of Nations when he launched his bombers in flagrant aggression against Abyssinia, and who boasts that “to save European culture” thousands of fascist troops have died bringing death unprovoked to the inhabitants of Spain?

Peace which is a sickening hypocrisy and masks one war of aggression after another is not the peace desired by the Western democracies, nor yet by the USSR. The stability of the Berlin-Rome axis, the territorial integrity of Germany and Italy, the licence of their Governments to rule as they please within their own frontiers, are threatened by no nation in the world. Germany’s lost colonies? To transfer to the German flag territories, whose chief utility in the eyes of the present German government would be that of air bases, would be a poor service to humanity. Raw materials? Access exists or has been offered which is insufficient only on the assumption that the non-colonial powers intend actions which would invoke sanctions against the aggressor. If the professions of desire for “real, fruitful peace” made so ostentatiously at Berlin are genuine, there is a short way to demonstrate their sincerity. Non-intervention in Spain can be made a reality tomorrow by the withdrawal of the Italian expeditionary force from the Peninsula. It is to be hoped that, if tripartite discussions on Spain materialise, the British and French governments, whose hand is reinforced by their power to open the Pyrenean frontier, will call firmly and unequivocally for a showdown of the cards.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)