A message from Benito Mussolini is forwarded to Adolf Hitler. In the missive, the Duce cautions the Fuhrer against waging war against Britain. Mussolini asked if it was truly necessary “to risk all-including the regime-and to sacrifice the flower of German generations.”
Mussolini’s message was more than a little disingenuous. At the time, Mussolini had his own reasons for not wanting Germany to spread the war across the European continent: Italy was not prepared to join the effort, and Germany would get all the glory and likely eclipse the dictator of Italy. Germany had already taken the Sudetenland and Poland; if Hitler took France and then cowed Britain into neutrality—or worse, defeated it in battle–Germany would rule Europe. Mussolini had assumed the reins of power in Italy long before Hitler took over Germany, and in so doing Mussolini boasted of refashioning a new Roman Empire out of an Italy that was still economically backward and militarily weak. He did not want to be outshined by the upstart Hitler.
And so the Duce hoped to stall Germany’s war engine until he could figure out his next move. The Italian ambassador in Berlin delivered Mussolini’s message to Hitler in person. Mussolini believed that the “big democracies…must of necessity fall and be harvested by us, who represent the new forces of Europe.” They carried “within themselves the seeds of their decadence.” In short, they would destroy themselves, so back off.
Hitler ignored him and moved forward with plans to conquer Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Mussolini, rather than tie Italy’s fortune to Germany’s—which would necessarily mean sharing the spotlight and the spoils of any victory—began to turn an eye toward the east. Mussolini invaded Yugoslavia and, in a famously disastrous strategic move, Greece.