Italian leader Benito Mussolini assumed power in 1922. Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.
Hitler had long idolized Mussolini, and during the first years of Hitler’s rule Mussolini remained a much more commanding figure on the international stage. Indeed, Hitler was often ridiculed in the world press as an absurd, puny version of the Italian leader.
Of course, the media had an agenda. Fascist Italy was not anti-Jewish until ultimately pressured by Germany to become so. Indeed, Jews crowded the upper levels of state and society in the Fascist era. Long lists of Jews in top positions, including the names of numerous generals and admirals, were published in both the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia and in an article in The Nation magazine.
Initially Mussolini shared the prevalent propagandistic view of Hitler as an insignificant upstart. Their first meeting, at Venice in 1934, did not go well; Hitler was snubbed by his Italian counterpart.
A correspondent wrote, “They were not over three yards from me, and I was fascinated to watch the expressions on their faces. I found I could see an expression of amusement in Mussolini’s eyes and of resentment in Hitler’s.”
Mussolini told the Italian press representative in Berlin, “Hitler is simply a muddleheaded fool. His head is stuffed with philosophical and political tags that are utterly incoherent. He played the buffoon, with his ridiculous electoral contests, in order to take legal possession of the reins of power. Either he is a revolutionary or he is not. We are dynamic, and Signor Hitler is just a prater.”
Yet already there were subtle intimations of things to come. As the dictators reviewed a parade of Fascist troops in the Piazza San Marco, two marching columns fell into a quarrel over the right of way directly in front of the rostrum. Neither unit would yield, and both plunged ahead, colliding and disputing noisily.
Hitler later asked his German adjutant, a lieutenant, what he thought of the military value of such troops. The man replied that parading and fighting were two different things.
Unconvinced, Hitler at the same moment glanced out the window and saw to his amazement an Italian warship with an array of sailors’ shirts and underwear flying from the ship’s masts instead of fleet flags.
At Venice, Il Duce dominated the talks, which centered around Austria. Austria shares borders with Germany in the north and Italy in the south. Mussolini insisted that the country retain its full independence. Though Hitler was determined to incorporate it into the Reich, he promised Mussolini to respect Austria’s freedom.
The meeting at Venice took place June 14–16, 1934. Two weeks later, on June 30, the Röhm Purge was carried out, removing the rebellious SA Captain Ernst Röhm and his leading henchmen, together with several troublesome (to Hitler) non-SA figures, including Gregor Strasser and the tough former Weimar Chancellor Gen. Kurt von Schleicher.
Hitler’s Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen also nearly lost his life. He was imprisoned briefly but subsequently occupied leading diplomatic posts in the Third Reich. Narrowly escaping the Nuremberg hangman, Papen died in 1969.
The purpose of the purge was to eliminate the threat posed by Röhm’s Left-wing, paramilitary Sturmabteilung (SA, Storm Section—also known as Stormtroopers or Brownshirts after the color of their shirts).
Röhm wanted his radical SA to absorb and supplant the German military. Comprised of extreme socialists, the faction also insisted the national revolution be carried through to its conclusion—that is to say, a full national socialist revolution. Hitler was too moderate for its taste.
The brothers Otto and Gregor Strasser had formerly been prominent leaders of this Left-wing, anti-capitalist element of the Party, as had Joseph Goebbels until recently.
Should Hitler refuse to accede to their demands, the SA was prepared to carry out a “second revolution.” It thus posed a significant threat to the Party, the nascent state, and the old-line military.
Arrayed against Röhm and his powerful SA were the military, industrialists, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler and his still-modest SS, and the newly-converted Goebbels.
Though the exact number of victims is unknown—most were shot to death, individually or by firing squad—the total number of fatalities is judged to have been 100–200. Many more were imprisoned.
Leftists refer to the Röhm Purge as the “Night of the Long Knives” or the “Blood Purge.” But “Night of the Long Knives” actually derives from Hitler’s subsequent speech justifying his actions. Röhm and the SA, Hitler said, “planned the Second Revolution. Their ghastly name for it was the ‘Night of the Long Knives.'” This phrase was then flipped around to describe Hitler’s own actions.
Mussolini’s anger was palpable: “This abominable and repulsive spectacle that Hitler showed the world on the 30th of June would not have been tolerated in any other country in the world. Only these primitive Germans, prepared even for murder, will put up with such things.”
This conveniently overlooked the USSR, whose brutalities were indulgently tolerated by every country in the world. As Hitler pointedly observed in a slightly different context: “Who in the world talks about the millions of victims of Bolshevism? The Jewish press of the world pursues me because I am an anti-Semite. Herr Stalin is their darling.”
“It would mean the end of European civilization,” Mussolini fumed, “if this country of murderers and pederasts were to overrun Europe.” Subsequently, the Italian press took up the theme of Germans as murderers and pederasts. Mussolini also called Hitler “a horrible sexual degenerate.” (Röhm was homosexual, but Hitler was not.)
Mussolini’s Reaction to the Murder of Dollfuss and Hitler’s First Austrian Coup Attempt
Despite Hitler’s sham assurances to Mussolini about Austrian independence the previous month, the German leader was actually backing a secret campaign of terrorism by Austrian Nazis against that country’s pro-independence fascist leader, Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, an opponent of both Communists and National Socialists, as a prelude to Anschluss.
On July 25, 1934, eight Austrian Nazis entered the Chancellery building in Vienna and murdered Dollfuss in an attempted coup. They shot the Chancellor in the throat at a six-inch range, leaving him lying on the floor bleeding profusely to suffer a slow, agonizing death.
Possibly this was what 90-year-old Ernst Jünger alluded to in his joking reference to the NS threat to shoot him in the head: “Better in the head than the neck.” (Counter-Currents Video of the Day #2, March 29, 2012)
However, Dollfuss had uncovered the plot beforehand, and the cabinet had fled. Only the courageous Dollfuss remained behind. The takeover plot was quelled, the murderers apprehended and executed.
Kurt von Schuschnigg was named Chancellor, and the regime Dollfuss had established, known as Austrofascism or Ständestaat (“corporate state”) remained the form of government until the successful Anschluss of 1938, when the country was incorporated into Germany.
Mussolini was furious, not only because Hitler had lied to him, but because Frau Dollfuss and the victim’s children were his houseguests at the time. It therefore became his painful duty to inform them of the Chancellor’s death.
Mussolini immediately wired Vienna that Italy would back Austrian independence by force if necessary—a game-changing development for Hitler, since Italy’s military might was greater than Germany’s.
Though the cold-blooded murder of Dollfuss caused an international sensation, the Italian dictator’s attacks on Hitler were among the most scathing: “Hitler is the murderer of Dollfuss, Hitler is the guilty man, he is responsible for this.”
The Duce traveled to Vienna personally to underline his continued support to Vice Chancellor Prince Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg (1899–1956).
Prior to the abolition of the nobility in 1919, Starhemberg’s full title had been His Serene Highness Ernst Rüdiger Camillo 6. Fürst von Starhemberg. He was the 1,163rd Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, Austrian Order.
Starhemberg was a member of the same family as the Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg who commanded the defense of Vienna against the Turks in 1683, and was one of the richest and best connected men in the country.
A World War I veteran, Starhemberg wrote in his memoirs, “I made a good soldier. I enjoyed war. . . . Every time I went on leave, I was back with my regiment before the time expired.” Of politics he said, “I confess that the idea of sitting at a desk and keeping office hours, of hearing official reports and dealing with files, appeared to me grotesque. As long as politics meant fighting and the arena was a political platform, I found them very interesting.” (Prince Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, Between Hitler and Mussolini, Harper & Bros., 1942)
After the war the Prince became a member of the Freikorps Oberland, and in 1923 participated in Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich.
Back in Austria he became a leader of the Heimwehr, and later of the Christian Social Party-Fatherland’s Front. He ultimately rose to the number two spot in Austria after Engelbert Dollfuss and, briefly, his successor Kurt von Schuschnigg.
A hardline anti-Nazi (he wanted Austria to remain independent) and anti-Communist, Starhemberg had his first marriage annulled in 1937 so that he could marry Nora Gregor, an Austrian Jewish stage and film actress. Their half-Jewish son died in 1997.
After the Germans occupied Austria in 1938, Starhemberg left the country for Switzerland, forfeiting both his Austrian citizenship and his considerable properties. He joined the British and the Free French air forces, but quit after the Allies openly embraced Stalin.
Starhemberg then traveled to Argentina, where he spent the next thirteen years. In 1955, the year Juan Peron was ousted in a military coup, Starhemberg returned to his homeland, where he died.
Hitler As Warlord
One view I have of Hitler is that he was a contemporary reincarnation of the classic Germanic warlord, projected by some strange magic across the centuries into the modern world of liberalism, nation states, enlightenment, printing, motion pictures, radio, early television, parliamentary democracy, urbanization, industrialization, Volkswagens, freeways, rockets, jet planes, and atomic bombs.
Similarly, his menacing foes, Jews and Leftists—far more successful throwbacks—exemplify the primitive mindset of Levantine or Oriental viciousness and brutality lifted straight out of the pages of Herodotus or the Old Testament.
Since I have never seen anyone else suggest this particular analogy with regard to Hitler, it was of great interest to me to read Mussolini’s 1934 views privately related to Prince von Starhemberg.
The Italian dictator maintained that “certain doctrines taught beyond the Alps by the descendants of people who were wholly illiterate in the days when Caesar, Virgil, and Augustus flourished in Rome” were part of a
revolution of the old Germanic tribes in the primeval forest against the Latin civilization of Rome. National Socialism is savage barbarism; in common with barbarian hordes it allows no rights to the individual; the chieftain is lord over life and death of his people. Murder and killing, loot and pillage and blackmail are all it can produce.
Ironically, the title Mussolini selected for himself in 1925, Il Duce (It., “The Leader”), is closely associated with the northern warlord institutions of late antiquity:
Tacitus [the Roman historian and earliest chronicler of the Germans] did not know that the tribal society of the Germans was not dominated by kings. The Germans chose their kings from those of noble blood, their war-leaders (duces) from those who had demonstrated their martial prowess. The dux owed his position to his ability as a leader of warriors and he could only maintain it by a record of success. As Tacitus remarked (Germania, 14), “It is impossible to maintain a large following of warriors except by violence and warfare.” A leader’s authority lasted only as long as his success in war. His family connections would not save him if he proved a failure. The warriors who listened to the deeds of Hrothgar and Beowulf centuries after the Germania was written recognized this as a fact of life. This is why the German leaders we hear most about were the great war-leaders. Most of the kings have disappeared without mention, or are no more than names.
The greatest of the Germanic war-leaders whose careers are recorded for us [by ancient Latin historians] are those who opposed the extension of Roman power into northern Europe. The authority of most of these rulers extended over more than one people and it was so impressive to the Romans that its holders could only be called reges [“kings”], however they came to power. (Malcolm Todd, The Early Germans, 2d ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2004)
Dux (pl. duces), the Latin word for “leader”—from whence the English term “duke” and French “duc“—was also the name for a military commander stationed in a province of the later Roman Empire. Many German warlords either occupied or had occupied such positions in the Roman army.
Though Mussolini in 1934 still regarded himself as the master, and Hitler his pupil, it was not long before the latter far surpassed his teacher.
Starting in the mid-1930s, Mussolini became increasingly absorbed with the goal of establishing a new Roman Empire that would reinstate Italian civilization around the Mediterranean Sea. To that end he invaded Ethiopia in October 1935. After a brief conflict, Emperor Haile Selassie was driven from the country and Mussolini incorporated it into the Italian Empire.
The dominant international powers increasingly isolated Mussolini. In response, in 1936 he began moving toward an alliance with Germany.
The two countries intervened together on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). While Italy’s troops performed poorly, Germany’s were instrumental in saving the country from Communism. The event epitomized Italy’s growing dependence on the ever-increasing power and unflinching purpose of Hitler’s Germany.
In May 1939 Italy and Germany entered into the Pact of Steel. Though his ally’s chronic military incompetence caused Hitler endless headaches, his great admiration for Mussolini never waned, and he remained faithful to him to the end.
Even so, “By the end of the 1930s,” one historian wrote, “Mussolini was merely an appendage to the Nazi comet.”