The three main Axis powers of World War II made for an improbable combination. Imperial Japan seemed an unlikely partner for Nazi Germany, considering the latter’s focus on racial purity and the “master race.”
Both nations, however, were militaristic and bent on expansion, and both were at opposite ends from a common foe – the Soviet Union – so there was much in the union that made sense.
Germany’s alliance with Italy, however, was much less logical, at least from the Italian point of view.
Outside of being led by a pair of dictators who embraced fascism, there was actually a great deal of difference between Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany when the Pact of Steel uniting the two countries was signed 75 years ago this month.
The two nations had fought on different sides in World War I, with Italy being a member of the victorious allies that laid down what Germans saw as the draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. And while Germany lost the First World War, it acquitted itself well while Italy’s performance was seen by many as less than spectacular.
Despite having invaded and captured Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia) in the mid-1930s, assisted Franco in the Spanish Civil War and taken over Albania in 1939, Mussolini knew his country suffered from a number of military shortcomings.
It had relatively few tanks and those it did have were of poor quality; its artillery was of World War I variety; and the nation’s primary fighter was a biplane that was obsolete compared to monoplanes used by the other major countries. Also, while the Italian navy did have several modern battleships, it had no aircraft carriers.
Italy recognized its military inadequacies. Under terms of the Pact of Steel it was stipulated that neither country was to make war without the other earlier than 1943.
But recognizing his military was ill-prepared Mussolini declined to get involved when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939.
Italy finally joined the conflict on June 10, 1940, mostly because Mussolini, having seen the lightning speed with which Germany was dispatching its European foes, was afraid he’d get none of the spoils.
On June 17, 1940, the day France sought surrender terms from Germany, Mussolini ordered an Italian invasion of southern France.
In September 1940, Italy attacked the British troops based in Egypt. This was the start of an effort that was to prove disastrous for Italy, and ultimately Germany, which was forced to send hundreds of thousands of troops to Africa to try to bail out overmatched Italian soldiers.
There is conflict among historians when it comes to assessing the fighting ability of the Italians during the World War II.
Some assert that the Italians never demonstrated the same willingness to fight that the Germans and Japanese possessed; others refute that claim and contend that Italy was ultimately done in by poor military supplies, poor leadership, beginning with Mussolini, and a lack of direction from the outset.
The fact that Hitler bled the Italians to fulfill his own goals did help the Italian effort, either.
One thing that is indisputable is that World War II, like its predecessor, proved an unmitigated disaster for the Italians, who lost nearly 500,000 troops and civilians during the conflict.
(Top: German and Italian officials sign the Pact of Steel, May 22, 1939, in Berlin.)