Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator who came to power in Italy in the 1920s, fancied himself a modern-day Julius Caesar and, accordingly, set out to forge a new Roman empire. To that end, Mussolini launched a number of military campaigns in the Mediterranean in the 1920s and 1930s and aligned himself with Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany during World War II. Mussolini's self-serving dream, however, would prove beyond Italy's military means.
Italian Successes in the 1920s and 30s
Mussolini's dream empire was to include the Mediterranean, northern and eastern Africa and extend as far east as Syria and Lebanon. Under his rule, Italy tightened its grip on its colonies in Somalia and Libya and expanded its presence in Africa with a successful invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935. In April 1939, Italy took over Albania. In the 1930s, Mussolini also provided air support to fellow fascist leader Francisco Franco, helping him win the civil war in Spain.
Pact of Steel
By the time Hitler initiated World War II by attacking Poland on September 1, 1939, Italy exerted considerable influence in the Mediterranean and Red Sea regions, but Mussolini's military was also drained. Eager to share in a Nazi victory and gain support for his own cause, Mussolini aligned Italy with Germany. Mussolini believed that by defeating the western democratic powers, Great Britain and France, he would be free to consolidate the empire he coveted. The alliance between Italy and Germany became official on May 22, 1939 with the Pact of Steel. Mussolini thus felt slighted when Hitler invaded Poland a few months later before Italy was ready to engage in combat.
Italian Failures in Greece and Africa
Determined to conquer regions that had been part of the classical Roman Empire, Mussolini ordered an invasion of Egypt from Italian-occupied Libya in September 1940. British forces in Egypt responded with an effective counteroffensive, however, and only intervention from Germany salvaged the Italian effort. On October 28, 1940, without informing Hitler, Mussolini ordered Italian troops in Albania to attack Greece. With the help of British forces, however, the Greeks mounted a formidable resistance, not only pushing the Italians out of their territory, but also occupying part of Albania. A furious Hitler once again came to Mussolini's rescue in April 1941. By May, Germany had taken most of Greece.
Broken Imperial Dreams
Italy's technology in the 1940s was ill-suited for Mussolini's goals and thus undermined his plans, as did power struggles between his Fascist Party and supporters of the Italian monarchy. Moreover, lack of coordination and cooperation between Italy and Germany, as exhibited by Mussolini's and Hitler's reluctance to confide in each other, impaired both nations' campaigns. Italy's poorly planned invasions in Africa and the Balkans also forced Germany to over-commit its forces. Hitler saved Mussolini when the monarchy overthrew Mussolini in 1943, but communists murdered the deposed fascist leader in April 1945.
- History.com: World War II - Benito Mussolini
- History.com; This Day in History: The Pact of Steel is signed; the Axis is formed
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Italo-Ethiopian War
- Encyclopedia Britannica: World War II - Central Europe and the Balkans
- Encyclopedia Britannica: World War II - Other Fronts
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Italy
- SparkNotes: World War II - Italy and the Mediterranean
- History.com: This Day in History - Italy invades Egypt
- History.com: This Day in History - Benito Mussolini Executed
Since beginning her career as a professional journalist in 2007, Nathalie Alonso has covered a myriad of topics, including arts, culture and travel, for newspapers and magazines in New York City. She holds a B.A. in American Studies from Columbia University and lives in Queens with her two cats.