April 11th 1935, eighty years ago. Benito Mussolini disembarked – jumping down from a speedboat he was steering – on the Isola Bella, facing Stresa, North Italy and entered Palazzo Borromeo with his usual quick steps. The highest political representatives of Great Britain and France were expecting him, while Adolf Hitler wasn’t invited. The debates ended three days later with the signature of an important agreement that created what was defined as Fronte di Stresa or the Stresa Front. We’re convinced that no one in our days will remember such anniversary, yet it had a worldwide resonance and its failure, aroused by the cowardice of Great Britain, brought the world straight into WWII. In Italy books about this ephemeral agreement are still waiting to be written, neither essays are available offering a dispassionate historical analysis dedicated to it and to its tragic developments. Yet we can say that those days marked the apogee of the prestige and the fame of Mussolini, much more than Munich in 1938. The best study devoted to this intricate subject is due, in our opinion, to Rosaria Quartararo, a brilliant student of historian Renzo De Felice; or to French historians, here I mention only Léon Noél Les illusions de Stresa, L’Italie abandonée a Hitler published in 1975, while little has been written by English historians, perhaps because they don’t know how to free themselves from their superiority complex, enforced by their victory in WWII which in reality it should be attributed primarily to USSR and secondarily to the United States: and perhaps it is for this reason that they continue to see the frantic diplomatic efforts put up by Mussolini to save Italy from ruin as the work of a clown. The Stresa Agreement, according to conservative American historian and journalist Pat Buchanan, in his bestseller Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary war, was the most important attempt ever made in Europe to stop Adolf Hitler before WWII. Buchanan even underlines the fact that it was sheer madness, few months after Stresa, for Great Britain to vote against Italy for the application of punitive sanctions and trade embargo for invading Ethiopia, pushing her into Hitler’s arms. France, on the other hand, accepted Italy’s sovereignty over Ethiopia as a price to pay for preserving the unity of the Stresa Front: a further demonstration of its importance. Italy and France at that time longed for an alliance against Hitler, after he had restored (March 16th 1935) the compulsory conscription and he stated his will to greatly increase the number of divisions of the German army thus tearing apart the Versailles treaty. The winners of WW1 lodged a protest, however the most noticeable error was made by Great Britain: John Simon and Anthony Eden went on to Berlin as scheduled, instead of having their trip cancelled in protest, as if nothing had happened. Benito Mussolini at the start laid out various matters to be discussed; however the necessity of avoiding the Anschluss of Austria was at the core of those talks. He commenced by demonstrating his knowledge of the situation in Vienna, telling the representatives of Great Britain, Ramsay Macdonald and John Simon and to the French Pierre Laval and Pierre-Etienne Flandin, that the conscription in Austria would spell the end of its neutrality, since all the young Austrians were pro Nazis. Mussolini didn’t want Germany at the Brenner Pass and he hoped that Austria would remain a buffer state and, in addition, he wanted to have a guarantee which would allow the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. Today we would say that the occupation of Ethiopia was to vindicate the shame of the 1896’s Adowa defeat, which was part of his electoral platform… Although Mussolini didn’t explicitly speak of the invasion of Ethiopia, he made some weighty allusions, offering in exchange for those African lands he would support the other European powers against Nazi Germany. No one objected or warned him not to dare to carry on the invasion. If they had done so, we doubt that Mussolini would have moved the Italian army. As the then French Prime Minister Pierre-Etienne Flandin, once put it, if Great Britain would have been clearer, it wouldn’t have inflicted a burning humiliation on Mussolini, adding that: “Dictators don’t accept humiliations.” An evidence of the propensity to compromise by Mussolini was the fact that he was willing to accept the subsequent Pact of Hoare-Laval, before it leaked to the press and was made public, causing outrage throughout Europe. Thus Great Britain, the country with the most colonies in the world, voted for the sanctions of Italy over Ethiopia who wanted to have it since the previous century as her colony. As the permanent Secretary of Foreign Office, Sir Robert Vansittart once said: “With this fiasco we lost Abyssinia, we lost Austria, we created the Axis, and we made the coming war with Germany inevitable.” Great Britain – the nickname perfidious Albion, at least in this case, seems well deserved – had a very ambiguous behaviour in those years, thinking it could successfully appease Hitler.
Soon after Stresa, on June 18th 1935, succumbed to the lures of the Nazis; Great Britain signed a naval agreement with them and without informing neither France nor Italy, which put a direct proportion to Germany and Britain by number and tonnage of warships, in fact renegading the agreements of Stresa, as well as those of Versailles of 1919. Benito Mussolini was furious when he heard the news and, unfortunately for Italy, convinced himself that Hitler couldn’t be stopped anymore and that, therefore, he had to ride the tiger.
(Translated by Gino Paratico)
An Italian version of this article was published on Dino Messina’s blog for the Corriere della Sera newspaper on the 10th of April, 2015. http://lanostrastoria.corriere.it/2015/04/10/11-aprile-1935-il-fronte-di-stresa-cosi-mussolini-tento-di-fermare-hitler/?fb_ref=Default