Italy was a unique blend of old and new at the start of World War II. Her ancient capital of Rome had been the center of the largest Empire antiquity had ever seen, but she had unified her ancestral lands in a great civil war just fifty years before Benito Mussolini was asked to form a government.
The nicest thing that could be said about Mussolini was “he made the trains run on time. ”He murdered journalists critical of his Fascist Party and smashed opposition with Black Shirted thugs. Adolf Hitler would emulate his rise to power a decade later. Taking power, he dissolved political parties that opposed him and stocked the Senate with his party members. He had gained the support of the Monarchy and the Catholic Church.
He had taken power in 1922 when his black shirts marched on Rome. He made King Victor Emmanuel VI a figurehead. Trying to protect Italy from the worldwide depression, he embarked on a rearmament program. He seriously threatened British domination of the Mediterranean, determined to confront the Royal Navy there.
In 1935, Mussolini decided to expand his African possessions. Moving against Ethiopia, Mussolini’s troops fought tribal spearmen with airplanes and poison gas. Condemned in the League of Nations, Italy simply withdrew, rendering the League impotent. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, quietly dignified, was a dynamic figure who rallied Western support to his cause. The invasion was quickly condemned by several nations publicly and privately, but no one made any intervention. The League would never be a source of concern to Mussolini again, or to any aggressive nation.
Italy, seeking to dominate the nations around her, invaded Albania on April 7, 1939. King Zog fled and Albania became an Italian province.
Italy would not join Germany in declaring war until it looked like France would fall in June 1940. Her forces crossed the border on June 10, 1940 and declarations of war against Britain soon followed. Her colonies’ proximity to English possessions would precipitate along and bitter conflict in North Africa.