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When dictators met: Hitler and Mussolini at the Brenner Pass

When dictators confer at an important juncture in history, the products are usually disinformation, bullying and dashed expectations.   

A classic example of such a meeting occurred during the “phony war,” that period between September of 1939 and May of 1940 characterized by a battlefield lull in the fighting between the Allies and the Third Reich. 

In mid-March of 1940, Hitler and Mussolini held a hastily arranged meeting at their favored site, the snowy mountain passage in the Alps between the Austrian and Italian border, known as the Brenner Pass, to which each traveled by special train.  As often happens in critical meetings, the participants were meeting because of outside circumstances. This meeting’s trigger was the presence in Europe of U.S. Secretary of State Sumner Welles. 

In late February, the long-term diplomat had arrived in Naples by steamer, sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to talk with the belligerents — France, Great Britain and Germany — as well as with still-neutral Italy. Welles and Roosevelt did not think they could bring the parties to the peace table, but did believe they had a shot at detaching Mussolini from lockstep with Hitler, and thereby helping the allies. Welles’s presence would also help the Allies because, they believed, while he was in Europe, Hitler wouldn’t dare invade France. 

Upon meeting Mussolini, Welles was shocked by his appearance, and wrote in his diary that Il Duce must be under great strain. That was true: Mussolini was worried sick because for two months Hitler had not answered his Christmas letter. The “ghosting” stoked Mussolini’s fear that Hitler would conquer the West without him, which was precisely the impression that Hitler wanted him to have. 

Welles then proceeded to Paris, London and Berlin, where he spoke with each country’s leaders in their own tongues — Hitler’s German was more understandable than foreign secretary Von Ribbentrop’s, he noted. The belligerents seemed more determined than ever not to settle with the enemy.  In Paris, Welles was astonished to receive mounds of hate mail from French anti-Semites after having dared to meet with former premier Leon Blum, a Jew. 

Before Welles could return to Italy, Hitler called the snap meeting at the Brenner Pass.  Mussolini told his son-in-law and foreign secretary, Count Ciano, that he expected Hitler to announce the invasion of the West, but that he, Mussolini, would only bring Italy into the fight at his convenience, and late in the game. He wanted Italy’s participation to produce just enough casualties to earn him a seat at the peace table.

Possibilities for collateral damage sprang up. That Hitler might cede to Mussolini the right to take over Hungary, Yugoslavia and Rumania threw those governments into a panic.  In Moscow, recalibrations were made about the Balkans. 

On the eve of the meeting, Mussolini had had a dream that “tore away the veil of the future,” and he wanted to tell it to Hitler to emphasize that he was still the most far-seeing Fascist — but when they met, Mussolini hardly got a word in edgewise.  According to Ciano, Hitler was “less agitated than usual,” and spoke in a “monologue” for two hours, during which he overstated the strength of his forces and understated the capacity of the Allies to counter him. In Hitler’s view, the war would be over by summer.  He would not tell Mussolini the date of the proposed invasion of the West, which led Mussolini to believe that “Hitler will think twice before he begins an offensive on land.”

Of course that was nonsense: the May date of the German invasion of the West had already been scheduled, as had an April invasion of Norway (ostensibly to secure iron ore), but Hitler was not about to inform Mussolini and Ciano, who leaked like sieves.  Von Ribbentrop did promise that Germany would continue to supply iron ore, coal, oil and other necessities for the Italian military machine — the Allies had recently sunk coal-carriers in the Mediterranean that had been destined for Italy.  Mussolini was completely cowed.  He was only able to plead with Hitler that Italy could not sustain a long war — Hitler assured him it would be a short one — and agreed that Italy would join the battle at an opportune moment, and for no immediate promises of spoils. 

They shook hands and had a small meal.

When Welles visited Mussolini once more before leaving Italy, the dictator was wreathed in smiles — deluded that all of his problems had been solved. 

Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury, Conn.