- 75th anniversary of Italian declaration of war against France
- Italian invasion and occupation of France often neglected
- Many in France saw it as a betrayal
The Italian declaration of war against France on 10 June 1940 has often been forgotten or neglected, as attention focuses instead upon the German invasion and occupation. Seventy-five years on, however, it is now time to reassess the significance of this episode. Italy’s invasion of France allowed Mussolini to proclaim victory over the French army and so occupy parts of southern and eastern France, as well as Corsica. Being more concerned with the war on the continent, Hitler handed Mussolini control over upholding the armistice terms in the Mediterranean. In practice, this meant that Italy extended its jurisdiction over the crucial territories of French North Africa. With Italy threatening to annex the French territories of Nice, Savoie and Corsica, and with Mussolini seeking to realise his ambitions to create a new Roman empire, the Italian declaration of war against France on 10 June 1940 had far-reaching consequences.
In many respects Italy and France were not natural enemies. If Germany was popularly regarded as France’s ‘hereditary enemy’, linguistic and cultural affinities made Italy seem like France’s ‘Latin sister’. Indeed, France’s relationship with Italy seemed the very opposite of its relationship with Germany. French intervention in the wars against Austria helped to bring about Italian unification in 1860 and many French veterans of the First World War remembered fighting alongside Italian soldiers when Italy entered the conflict in 1915. By contrast, German unification resulted from a bitter war against France in 1870-71 and, of course, the two nations fought against each other again in 1914-18.
Yet some in Italy harboured simmering resentments towards France. This bitterness came to a head when Italy emerged from the Paris peace talks of 1919 without the gains it had been promised by Britain and France. In 1935, French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval attempted rapprochement with Italy, but his efforts were largely thwarted by the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1937. After the Munich crisis of 1938, France sought to repair the damage, but the initiative was cut short when on 29 November 1938, the French ambassador André François-Poncet’s visit to the Italian chamber of deputies was rudely interrupted by loud shouts of ‘Nice, Savoy, Corsica, Djibouti’. Despite the Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano insisting that the incident was spontaneous, the provocation had been planned and signalled an aggressive new tone to Italy’s dealings with France.
Despite signing the Pact of Steel with Germany in May 1939, Italy was not militarily ready to engage in conflict when war erupted in September. Historians have therefore debated the reasons that Mussolini decided to dismiss the protests of his political and military leadership to enter a war for which Italy was not prepared. Many historians have accepted Badoglio’s suggestion that despite the Italian entry to the war, Mussolini intended to leave the road open to future rapprochement with France as a counter-balance to Germany in Europe. However, Magregor Knox has rejected the notion of a kind of Italian phoney war in which Mussolini would declare war but not wage it, arguing that this was little more than a claim fabricated by Badoglio. On 1 June 1940, Badoglio pleaded with Mussolini to delay engaging in action against France, so that the army could prepare itself. His calls went unheeded, however, as Mussolini realised that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in the east and rapid German success in the west offered a golden opportunity to realise his territorial ambitions. Observing the rapid collapse of the French army in May 1940 and calculating that the fall of Britain could not be far behind, on 10 June 1940, Mussolini declared war on France and Britain.
A week passed, and still the Italian army still not ready for action. Hitler told Mussolini that France had agreed to enter negotiations for an armistice and that not having contributed towards the campaign, Italy would not be able to participate in the negotiations as a victor. Against the opposition of Badoglio, General Graziani and Ciano, Mussolini therefore ordered his forces to launch an immediate offensive against France in the Alps.
Between September 1939 and the Italian declaration of war, the French government remained divided on how to treat Italy. While long-running rivalries over Tunisia and Italian bitterness over the peace terms of 1919 cast a shadow during the interwar years, there remained a good deal of fluidity in French relations with Italy. Indeed, in 1935, France had signed an important set of political and military accords with Italy in the hope that it would serve as a counterweight to Germany and Britain. French support for sanctions against Italy over its invasion of Abyssinia, the rise of the anti-Fascist Popular Front in 1936, and the Spanish Civil War may have strained relations, but they did not end hopes of agreement. Over the course of 1939, the Italian army under Marshal Badoglio remained in contact with French military chiefs, and continued to regard Germany as the common enemy. The French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet therefore believed that Italy might still be persuaded to switch its neutrality into an active partnership and even alliance with France as it had done during the First World War.
The nature of the Italian declaration of war combined with the character of the armistice meant that between 1940 and the Italian surrender in 1943, relations between France and Italy were conducted within a very different framework to those between France and Germany. Widely perceived as representing a ‘stab in the back’ for a French nation that was already on the verge of defeat by Germany, the Italian government’s actions poisoned relations between the two states for the remainder of the war. The weak performance of the Italian army against French forces in the Alps only added insult to injury. As a result, the government of Paul Reynaud and the Vichy regime which replaced it openly and explicitly refused to accept that France had been defeated by Italy. The contrast between acceptance and even grudging respect for Germany’s military achievement in defeating the French army, and disdain and denial for Italy’s unscrupulousness could scarcely have been greater.