Italy's role during WWII can seem puzzling, as the country gave the appearance of switching allegiances more than once during the course of the conflict, at times ostensibly siding with the Axis powers, at others supporting the Allies. This contradiction, though, can be seen as a reflection of a volatile period in Italy's history, as various political factions sought to gain control.
King Victor Emmanuel III (1869 – 1947) ascended the throne of Italy on 29 July 1900. Reforms were already well underway to convert the country to a constitutional monarchy with the king as head of the government. Most governing decisions were reached via consensus between the two chambers of parliament – an appointed Senate and an elected Chamber of Deputies, both of which were presided over by a prime minister appointed by the King. The country underwent a substantial economic depression after WWI, and the Fascist party took advantage of the population's unrest to gain influence, with Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945) at the party's head. King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini prime minister in 1922.
Mussolini gradually gained more and more power eventually claiming he was responsible only to the King and rejecting any attempt by parliament to rein him in. The King did nothing to discourage Mussolini's assumption of authority, feeling that to counter him in any way would spark a revolt. Mussolini implemented harsh tactics to establish control over the people, including using secret police, imprisonment and torture to discourage anyone from defying – or even questioning - his supremacy.
When WWII broke out, Mussolini supported the Nazi party but didn't officially commit Italian troops to the hostilities until 10 June 1940, after Hitler invaded Poland. Ignoring advice that Italian forces were ill-prepared for war, he sent forces into North Africa, Greece and Russia in support of Germany. They experienced humiliating defeats and were eventually forced to surrender all territories in North Africa to the Allies.
The Allies invaded Italy on 3 September 1943 and immediately after the Grand Council of Fascism voted overwhelmingly to return all constitutional powers to King Victor Emmanuel. Mussolini was relieved of power and arrested, and Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio was appointed prime minister. He and the King tried to convince Hitler that they remained loyal to the Axis powers, all the while secretly negotiating Italy's surrender to the Allies. They signed an armistice with the Allies on 8 September and fled the country, leaving the army without clear orders.
Hitler, who expected the move, took full advantage of the resulting confusion and swept in, systematically disarming all Italian ground troops. Approximately 600,000 soldiers were arrested, some of whom were summarily executed while most were shipped via rail car to prison camps. Many escaped or deserted and joined the partisan groups - civilians who banded together to fight both the Nazi invaders and their fascist supporters.
The Nazis freed Mussolini and created a puppet state around him headquartered in Salo in northern Italy, which again publicly supported the Axis powers. As the Allies closed in over the course of 1945, Mussolini retreated with the German army only to be captured by communist partisans and executed.
WWII ended for Italy on 2 May 1945, when fascist forces surrendered to the Allies. The government returned to its constitutional monarchy form. The war left the economy completely wrecked, though, with the blame and a lot of anger directed at the country's rulers. Popular opinion forced a referendum on whether Italy should remain a monarchy or become a republic, and on 2 June 1946 the Italian citizens voted to oust the king and Italy officially became a republic.
This article is from the February 6, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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