Dr James Sadkovich,
European History, University of Wisconsin.
‘German Military Incompetence Through Italian Eyes’
War In History 1994 1: 39
In his insightful article, ‘German military incompetence through Italian eyes’, Dr James Sadkovich has given us a long overdue reevaluation of the Italian-German alliance. He begins with a quote from Gaetano Salvemini who in 1969 believed Anglo-Saxon racism less severe than German racism owing to “Anglo-American priggishness”. But in the final analysis, the two types of racism – German and British – have over the years succeeded in bouncing off and validating each other with centrifugal acceleration to the extent that so-called “Italian military incompetence” has become an inseparable corollary of perceived German “efficiency”. Even supposedly more balanced Anglo-Saxon writers like MacGregor Knox still maintain this binary view of the Italian military as the mirror-opposite of the German. They seem incapable of analyzing the Italian military effort in its own terms. As an exasperated Guiseppe Mancinelli, a liaison officer between the Italian and German armored forces in Africa declared, “The perception of Italian inferiority inevitably was applied to every unfavorable and unfortunate episode from which the Germans were certainly not immune… and the responsibility of failure was thus assigned solely to the Italians.” Interestingly, he accuses the Germans of being easily discouraged, refusing to confront the British whom they saw as formidable racial cousins but instead foolishly attacked the Russians, whom they perceived as genetically and culturally inferior. Arrogant and blinded by their ideologically racist beliefs, their refusal to take Italy as a serious ally made defeat in the Mediterranean inevitable while “their inability to assess their enemies accurately led them to botch the diplomatic preparation and military planning for every major operation they studied, from Sealion to Barbarossa.”
In the Spring of 1943, Vittorio Ambrosio compiled a list of German deficiencies. It was a long list which included their failure to invade Britain in 1940; their botched effort to bring Spain into the war and seal off the Mediterranean by taking Gibraltar; denying Italy the use of Tunisian ports in 1941-42; postponing the invasion of Malta until it was too late; foolishly attacking the Soviet Union in 1941 and resisting Italian attempts to obtain a separate peace; woefully inadequate intelligence and finally, for provoking war in 1939 despite Hitler’s promises and Italian warnings not to do so before 1942. Moreover, from 1940 to 1943, the Italians were constantly repeating to the Germans after each of their fiascoes a belated “I told you so”. In fact it was Mussolini who had a better grasp of the international environment than Hitler, whose strategic view of the world was parochial and provincial Austrian.
Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 left a bitter taste in the mouths of Mussolini and Ciano, who realized early on that here was an ally they couldn’t trust. Ciano considered the Germans “arrogant and reckless” scoundrels. It was Mussolini who displayed a keener understanding of the British than the generally clueless Germans. For example, while they were at a loss to explain British reactions, the Italians correctly predicted British reactions in the Mediterranean. The Italian diplomatic corps considered the Germans amateurish newcomers, dumb Teutons wrecking havoc wherever they went. The Italian ambassador in Berlin, Bernardo Attolico was generally disgusted by their “absolute lack of any moral sense”.
It was the Italians who warned Hitler that an attack through Belgium would alienate the US. But as usual, their advice fell on deaf ears. German deficiency in common sense was also revealed when they gladly sold weapons and machinery to Yugoslavia instead of their real ally, Italy. Nor could the Germans admit that their attack on Poland was a tragic mistake which was to have severe repercussions.
The Germans consistently broke promises to their Italian ally, made worse by their interference and overweening nature in Italian affairs and spheres of influence, particularly in the Balkans.
Rather than cooperate activity and energetically with their Axis partner, the Italians found the Germans to be mentally sluggish and perfidious. As Attolico and other Italian diplomats got to know the Germans better, they found them to be without wit or charm, moderately intelligent, boastful and arrogant. They considered Ribbentrop a fool.
The Germans delayed their promised material support to Italy, finding one excuse after another, while at the same time, demanding workers and raw materials from their poorer ally. The Italian diplomat Lanza noted that while the Germans might blindly obey the Nazis, they actually despised them as “petty individuals, vulgar, ignorant, greedy and immoral”. While Hitler dithered in the Fall of 1940, the Italians were busy expelling the British out of Somaliland and invaded Egypt. The failure of nerve displayed by the Germans in dealing with Britain added to Italy’s woes. Rather than invade Britain and knock it out of the war quickly, the foolhardy Germans decided to invade the USSR instead! The inanity of the Germans was, for the Italians, beyond belief! As Sadkovich caustically observed: “In the end, the Italians wasted three months waiting for Operation Sealion, whose cancellation allowed Britain to rebound, gave France hope, and caused other states either to gravitate to the British orbit or, like Spain, to remain neutral.” By September 1940, even the German public were demoralized by the war and by British raids on their cities.
Had the Germans lent the Italians adequate material support; had they attempted seriously to plan with the Italian general staff, or had they risked an action across the English Channel in 1940, the war could have taken a very different turn. Even a German failure would have disrupted Britain’s buildup in the Mediterranean, and a partial success might have led to a negotiated peace. Instead, mixed signals from Hitler and Ribbentrop, Germany’s invasion of its ally’s sphere of influence, and Berlin’s indifference to Italian requests for raw materials and weaponry at a time when the German army was idle, triggered an Italian attack on Greece and distracted Rome’s attention from Africa just as Germany’s failure to invade Britain allowed London to reinforce Egypt.
In short, Sadkovich rightly points out that it was German timidity that botched the Axis war effort in 1940; German arrogance that led to the invasion of Russia before dealing adequately with Britain; and German duplicity that kept the Italians in the dark and generated suspicion. The German reassurance that the war would soon be over, that Britain was finished and they had won, made them look foolish in the eyes of their supposedly “valued” allies, the Italians.
The Italians were no fools. They had a better grasp of the strategic and diplomatic realities than the Germans. They looked upon their “Teutonic ally” and their antics with growing horror and nervousness. But by September 1940, it was too late for the Italians to get out of the alliance with their unreliable and erratic ally. All the Italians could do was to grit their teeth and hope for the best. But the best never came. Rather than improve, their German allies became worse as the war progressed.
By mid-July 1941, the wife of at least one German diplomat in Rome was referring to Hitler as that ’idiot’. As with the Italians underestimating Greek determination and fierce resistance in their invasion of Greece, likewise the Germans woefully underestimated the Russians. But rather than admit their mistake, the Germans had no choice but to persevere. As one Italian diplomat said of Hitler’s headquarters in late August 1941, “Reality ceases and a detached and isolated world begins here.” Ribbentrop and Dietrich were continually announcing the defeat of the Soviet Union in a matter of weeks. Such pronouncements were considered absurd by Italian generals, while Ciano ridiculed the Germans for singing their “hymn of victory too soon”.
As Sadkovich noted, “a disastrous situation in the east was particularly embarrassing to Berlin because as racially inferior Russian troops routed German armies outside Moscow, well-disciplined Italian forces stymied a superior British opponent in Africa where Auchinleck’s offensive only barely succeeded” no thanks to Rommel’s recklessness and Hitler’s veto of Rome’s request to ship supplies through Tunisian ports.
By Christmas of 1941 and with the invasion of Russia stalled and looking more and more the fiasco it really was, Lanza and others began to see Hitler as a “nut and fantastic dilettante” while Otto von Bismarck in Rome remarked casually to Anfuso that Hitler was a “blundering ass”. To the great amusement of both Mussolini and Ciano, the Germans overnight became “almost cordial” as they invented excuses for their failures. A more contrite Hitler asked Mussolini (as well as the Hungarians and Romanians) for more Italian divisions to bolster the Russian front. Both the Hungarians and Romanians balked at his request, but the genial Mussolini took pity on the Germans and obliged while dismissing him as that “big jack-ass”. Ciano underlined how ridiculous the Germans were becoming by February 1942 when he noted that every time the Germans issued a communiqué that things were going well on the Russian front, they get a thrashing. And by the Spring of 42, Pavolini found the Germans depressed, the Nazi regime in crisis and jokes about Hitler’s incompetence circulating in Berlin. By now, there were those in the Italian leadership who were urging Mussolini to find a way out of the war and free Italy from its duplicitous and incompetent ally. Even the Japanese were having doubts about their supposedly “valiant” German allies. Ciano wryly noted that whenever things were going badly for the Germans, the normally overbearing Germans became more cordial and courteous!
By the summer of 1942, most Italians were heartedly sick of their German “allies”. In October, Mussolini bitterly complained to his son-in-law that “if we lose this war, it will be because of the political stupidity of the Germans.” Luccioli, who accompanied Lanza, Alfieri, and Ciano to Hitler’s eastern lair, also despaired of the Germans, noting that “one could not discuss art and literature with the Nazis, and to discuss ’politics with Hitler and his men was like playing the violin in front of a rabid dog”.
And the more the Germans failed, the more they blamed their Italian allies. Both in Russia and North Africa the Germans had a habit of deploying Italians in front-line positions whilst making their escape in Italian vehicles at the rear!
While Mussolini and the Italians pressed for a separate peace, the incompetent and ideologically blinded Germans continued to pursue their dreams of world conquest as their “Aryan birthright”, even when it became clear to all, they were incapable of winning. According to Sadkovich, it was Hitler rather than Mussolini who was the inept dilettante, who failed to grasp that war was as much a political as a military activity. Thus it was Hitler who was the “tragic buffoon”, not Mussolini. Whatever errors the Italians made, the Germans made just as many, but being the dominant power, the repercussions of their blunders were much more severe than any the Italians could have made.
The reality was that it was the Germans who were the bad allies of the Italians, and not the other way around. If they had listened to the more experienced Italians, especially in the political and diplomatic spheres in which Italian diplomats far excelled their German counterparts, then the Germans may not have made as many fatal mistakes and dragged Italy down with it.