Episode 13. Why London presented Hitler with Vienna and Prague (II)

Part I

Any discussion of Hitler’s takeover of Austria must include the important role Mussolini played in the Anschluss.  Since Italy was one of the victors of WWI, that country was one of the primary guarantors of Austria’s neutrality and sovereignty.  The reason for this was simple: according to Article 36 of the Treaty of St.Germain, Italy received significant territorial concessions from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and therefore had the greatest interest in preserving Austria’s sovereignty.

Thus Vienna placed particular hope in Mussolini, which at first seemed warranted: in 1934, when the local Nazi movement reared its head and became unusually active, Italy deployed troops to the Austrian border, making it clear it would not tolerate any German domination of Austria.  However, Italy did nothing to help its neighbor during the Anschluss.  Looking at Mussolini’s altered position, we must remember that although a formal alliance existed between Berlin and Rome, the leader of Italy still had no reason to feel compelled to prove that thefriendship was a serious one.[1] Mussolini, a fascist,was under no obligation to unconditionally support Hitler, a Nazi! A shared psychological and ideological affinity is one matter, but the potential return of formerly Austrian (currently Italian) territories to a country inhabited by ethnic Germans was quite another.[2]

Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini

Why did Mussolini behave this way? Italy was richly rewarded for taking this position on the Austrian question …by England and the US. 

The fact is that Mussolini was enthralled by the heroic feats of ancient Rome and had decided to build a new empire for Italy as well.  The fascist state’s first test of strength was the attack on Ethiopia, known at the time as Abyssinia.  Italian troops invaded the country on Oct.4, 1935.

Abyssinia demanded that Italy face international sanctions.  On October 7, 1935, the Council of the League of Nations recognized Italy as the aggressor, but this did not result in any tangible consequences for Mussolini’s regime, because the “sanctions” that were imposed allowed it to continue to steadily wage war.  Indeed, the question of serious actions, such as a rupture in diplomatic relations or military pressure on the aggressor, was never even raised.  It’s telling that no mention is made in any League of Nations documents about an embargo on the most important raw materials for Italy: oil, iron ore, and coal.  In addition, the US and Germany were not members of the League of Nations and were therefore under no obligation to comply with the regime of sanctions.  On the contrary, the United States dramatically increased its oil shipments to that aggressor nation between 1935-1936, and the British government rejected a proposal for a naval blockade of Italy and the closure of the Suez Canal to its vessels, which could have been used as a significant form of pressure.[3]

Ethiopean Dessie town after bombardment by Italian interventionists, 1935
Ethiopean Dessie town after bombardment by Italian interventionists, 1935

Although their forces were unequal, the poorly armed Ethiopians offered stubborn resistance.  In response, the Italian army used toxic gases against the civilian population of Ethiopia.[4]Instead of condemning this savagery, Britain adopted quite an odd position: not only did it refuse to toughen the sanctions,it actually began to fight to have them completely revoked.  On June 18, 1936, the minister of foreign affairs, Anthony Eden, spoke in the House of Commons claiming that the sanctions imposed against Italy had not yielded the hoped-for results.  As we have often seen, it was London that acted as the political trendsetter on the world stage.  And thus, on July 4, 1936, after the Italians had occupied the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the League of Nations resolved to forgo future sanctions.

But what is the connection between the seizure of Abyssinia and the Austrian Anschluss? They are directly linked.  Mussolini’s accommodating attitude that made it possible for Hitler to devour his neighbor was immediately rewarded.  On March 12, 1938, every road leading to Vienna was crawling with German tanks, and on April 16, 1938 the Anglo-Italian Agreement was signed in Rome with little fanfare.  England and Italy pledged to establish “good, neighborly relations” between them.  But most important was England’s recognition of Italy’s seizure of Abyssinia.  Those British gentlemen literally traded Addis Ababa for Vienna.

 The list of European capitals that were unabashedly “handed over” to the Fuhrer should by all rights include Spain’s Madrid.  Hitler was creating a huge new army at breakneck speed and urgently needed a testing ground for new technology, officer training, etc.  And this testing ground was created for him.

The backdrop for the Spanish Civil War was by no means the battle between communism and fascism.  It was a dress rehearsal for the future all-out military confrontation between the USSR and Germany.  And Britain and France, having covered themselves with a fig leaf of neutrality, were in fact actively helping one of the parties to the conflict – General Franco’s insurgents, not the legitimate government of Spain.  This assistance provided by the “democracies” to the Spanish fascists was sometimes indirect, but frequently quite straightforward.

Francisco Franco
Francisco Franco

Naturally the gentlemen in London did not care for General Franco himself or his ideas.  But the victory of the fascists in the Spanish Civil War allowed British diplomats to resolve several very important issues:

• Hitler and Mussolini were given the opportunity to fight and win to their hearts’ content, to gain confidence in their accomplishments, and to test out their armies and military equipment in a real-world setting.

• if they won, the potential aggressors would gain an important source of raw materials[5]

• a keystone of the Nazi ideology –battling and destroying communism- was graphically confirmed

The insurrection against the Spanish government began on the evening of July 17, 1936, in Spanish Morocco and in the Canary and Balearic Islands.  Less than two weeks after the coup began, two German military squadrons arrived on the shores of Spain, and German transport planes flew to Morocco.  With Hitler’s assistance, Moroccan troops safely landed on the Spanish mainland.

How could the international community have responded to the intervention of a third country in Spain’s internal conflict?  Especially if that country is preparing to support military units rebelling against the legitimate government?  They could have reacted quite strongly with sanctions, a boycott, or the demand for an immediate end to the intervention.  Let us not forget that the Olympics were scheduled to be held in Berlin in August 1936 – an event that was extremely important for the Nazi regime.  And only a month beforehand Hitler was engaged in a civil war in Spain!  And the New-York-based civil committee to boycott German Olympics was desperately needing these arguments! But international community obstinately disregarded the signs reading “No Admittance to Jews or Dogs” hanging on the doors of public toilets in the Third Reich.  And then Hitler himself provided a gift to those who were eager to deprive him of the Olympic flame – he intervened militarily in an independent country.  Perhaps now the boycott of the fascist Olympics would begin?

Why did Hitler take such a risk? Because he knew that the Third Reich held most-favored-nation status!As long as it was acting in accordance with its agreements with its British partners.

The town of Guernica after bombing by German Luftwaffe and Italian Fascist Aviazione Legionaria, April 26, 1937.

On September 9, 1936, the international Non-Intervention Committee began its work within the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressing the Spanish Civil War.  The committee focused on blocking any help to the Republicans under a facade of false neutrality, while goading the Soviet Union to independent action that would “violate” international law.  And events were moving in exactly the right direction for the English.  On October 22, 1936, the Soviet ambassador in London sent a note to the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposing to recognize and restore the Spanish government’s right to purchase weapons.  The note warned that otherwise the Soviet government would not consider itself to be bound by the Non-Intervention Agreement to a greater extent than the other parties to the agreement.

And the Republican government simply had no choice.  It was in possession of a gold reserve, but the principle of “non-intervention” meant that no one was willing to sell.  Stalin’s Soviet Union was the only country where Spain could buy weapons.  There was also the United States of course, but in 1935 the US Congress adopted a “neutrality” act.  What did that mean? This meant that Spain could not buy arms from the United States, but Germany could.  Thus the Republicans were not provided with American weapons, while their opponents were abundantly supplied through German firms.

One question exists that has never been studied: Franco’s sources of financing.  A single German Condor Legion included 250 aircraft, 180 tanks, hundreds of anti-tank guns, and other weapons and cost more than 190 million Reichsmarksbetween Nov.7, 1936 and Oct,31, 1938, according to the Nazis’ own calculations.  Anyone familiar with military spending knows that the most expensive weapons are not the planes or tanks.  Warships are the most costly armaments.  And guess what? The rebel fleet was regularly replenished with supplies from Berlin and Rome.  The total value of the aid sent to Franco’s forces by Germany and Italy is estimated at no less than $1 billion.

A meeting between Franco and Hitler on the Spanish-French border, 1940. The Spanish dictator refused to fight on behalf of his German and Italian “benefactors” in the Second World War, because he owed his debt of gratitude for his seizure of power to entirely different nations.
A meeting between Franco and Hitler on the Spanish-French border, 1940. The Spanish dictator refused to fight on behalf of his German and Italian “benefactors” in the Second World War, because he owed his debt of gratitude for his seizure of power to entirely different nations.

So how did General Franco pay for such generous help?  Where did he get such huge sums of money? After all, Franco had no financial resources – Spain’s entire gold reserve was in the hands of the Republicans.  The leader of the insurgents had no way to pay.  But as it turned out, Germany, which was carrying the burden of the enormous growth in its own military spending, might as well have beenflinging buckets ofmoney into the wind.  And Italy was doing the same.  In the end, they received no economic dividends from Franco’s victory: Spain would sell its strategic raw materials to Germany and Italy during the war, not give them away.  Nor would there be any political dividends: several years later Franco would refuse to fight for his German “friends” against Britain, France, and the Soviet Union.[6]

He was the only dictator who not only survived the Second World War intact, but also remained in power until his death.[7]

However, neither Hitler nor Mussolini ever presented Franco with any bills, nor did they bear him any ill will.  Why was this? Because the bills for the Spanish war and the German military supplies sent to the Spanish rebels were paid by the same mysterious sponsors of the Nazis who were responsible for Hitler’s “economic miracle.”

To be continued…


[1] The alliance between Berlin and Rome known as the Axis was born on Oct.25, 1936 during a visit to Germany by the Italian foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano.  Japan joined the Italo-German alliance much later – on Dec.11, 1940.

[2] The region known as the South Tyrol, which is inhabited by ethnic Germans, is still part of Italy today.

[3] Thus, US oil exports to Italy in 1935 increased by 140% compared to the previous year, while supplies sent to Italian-occupied Africa skyrocketed by 2,000-3,000%.

[4]“The civilized world” took almost “no notice” of the massacre committed by Italian fascists at Lake Ashangi on April 3, 1936, when 140 airplanes dropped chemical weapons on civilians.  No one paid any attention to the crimes committed by Japan during its attack on China.  Without going into the details of that terrible war, we offer only two illustrative facts:  During the siege of Shanghai, the Japanese so thoroughly slaughtered the civilian population that one witness described the carnage as follows: not one person was left alive in an area of 4.5 squarekilometers.  During the capture of Nanking, the Japanese killed 200,000 people – half the city’s population.

[5] Spain produced about 45% of the world’s mercury, more than 50% of its pyrite and was a major exporter of iron ore, tungsten, lead, zinc, potash, silver, and other minerals essential for the war industry.  Control of these sources of strategic raw materials allowed Hitler to significantly bolster his economic potential.

[6] Hitler and Franco met in Hendaye in 1940.  The “grateful” Franco claimed it was time for his siesta and forced Hitler to wait for 30 long minutes.  Later, the Fuhrer said that he would sooner agree have three or four of his teeth pulled than meet with the caudillo again.  All that Hitler was able to wrest from Franco was the dispatch of “volunteers”- a single Blue Division – to the Eastern Front.

[7] In accordance with a decree dated Aug.4, 1939, Franco was declared the lifelong “supreme ruler of Spain, responsible only to God and history.”In 1973, Franco surrendered his post as prime minister, retaining only the titles of head of state and commander-in-chief of the army.  The Spanish dictator died on November 20, 1975.

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  1. Pingback: Episode 13. Why London presented Hitler with Vienna and Prague (I) | Oriental Review

  2. Pingback: Episode 14. How Adolf Hitler turned to be a “defiant aggressor” (I) | Oriental Review

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