Historical story

Marina and admirals of Mussolini interview with Fabio De Ninno

Last updated:2022-07-25

This week I decided to interview Fabio De Ninno, author of a book published a few weeks ago Fascisti sul Mare (Laterza, 2017).

It has been some years since there were no publications on the Italian armed forces during fascism. What new sources have you been able to use?

In Italy, especially for the Fascist period, naval history was often made thinking that it was the history of ships, believing that this offered the level of understanding of naval politics. Instead, in both cases, I wanted to deepen the use of documentation referring to the political level of the institution, that of the minister / undersecretary and the bodies connected to it that determined naval policy through relations with the fascist government, to highlight its depth, hitherto little explored, of the regime-navy relationship and how it determined the development of the institution and therefore naval policy. Basically, in addition to the originality of the sources, the methodological approach was important, different from previous works on the marina.

My research mainly referred to the documentation concerning the Royal Navy kept in the Archives of the Historical Office of the Navy and the Central Archives of the state of Rome. In both cases, these are enormous collections that have never been fully explored:the Navy archive is one of the largest in the world, among those relating to its kind, and is perfectly preserved, thanks to the work of the institution, but perhaps not very much. explored by the scientific literature.

Consequently, I have frequently used the minister's cabinet documentation to understand relations with other military and civil institutions, as well as with the Fascist party. The correspondence between the minister, the duce and the admirals for naval policy. Planning to understand the strategic determinants affecting naval policy. Reports of commanders of naval bases and squads to understand the level of preparation and problems of the fleet.

In addition, I made use of a precious source of which up to now there was not even a mention in the literature on the navy:the documentation of the library of the Naval Academy of Livorno. Also in this case, the institution has preserved the material very well, which scholars will be able to exploit effectively. Here are kept the unpublished typescripts of the texts used in the institute during the Fascist period, a fundamental source for understanding the institution and its culture.

Finally, my research also included foreign archives, in particular the National Archives of London and the Service Historique de la defense of Paris, where I had access to the papers of the diplomatic and military observers who were present in Italy, usually people with a large knowledge of the Royal Navy and with personal relationships with Italian officers, who guaranteed a privileged observation point on the institution.

What were the reasons that led to the Washington Treaty? What limits did the Washington Treaty impose?

To understand the Washington Treaty, we must first understand the role of navies in international politics, a fact that is very often underestimated by Italian studies and the public:navies are only the pillar on a country that builds its status as a great global power.

From the end of the nineteenth century (and still today it is) it was an established fact that the global projection capacity of a state (it was the age of imperialism) essentially depended on the strength of its own navy. The Great War was due, not only, but in large part, precisely to the explosion of the naval rivalry between Great Britain and Germany and the entire conflict was determined by the maritime dimension:the British blockade of the Central Powers was fundamental for the defeat of the Germany.

In 1918, the end of the war redefined the balance of international relations. The disappearance of the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires and the rise of two great non-European powers, the United States and Japan, reshaped the geopolitical landscape of the planet. Immediately, the new world order fueled the tensions between the surviving great powers, risking to unleash a new competition in the field of naval armaments. The financial difficulties of war-weary Britain, the opposition of American public opinion to new arms spending after the end of the conflict, and Japan's awareness of not being able to compete with the United States in the Pacific, opened up the possibility of negotiations. relating to naval disarmament.

The Washington Treaty (January 1922) was the consequence of the desire to "formalize" the global political arrangements born of the conflict, while establishing a "hierarchy" of powers that reflected their balance of power. The treaty established relativity in terms of capital ships (battleships and aircraft carriers) among the great powers, according to the formula:5:5:3:1.75:1.75. These coefficients indicated the proportion of the tonnage due to each of the great powers:Great Britain and the United States (5), Japan (3), France and Italy (1.75).

The treaty effectively established an Anglo-American "diarchy" in international relations, frustrating the ambitions of Japan, which aimed at a more favorable balance of forces in the Pacific, and those of France, which considered its position in the Mediterranean threatened by Italy, so much so that Paris, parity with Rome was perceived as a genuine diplomatic slap. The treaty, however, did not cover light ships (cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats and submarines) and to increase their naval power, the disgruntled powers of the agreement launched extensive programs to build this type of ships, fueling a new competition that subsequent attempts regulations (the naval conferences of Rome 1927, London 1930 and London 1936) failed to contain.

In fact, the treaty, in addition to establishing a "hierarchy" of powers, made the navies a central object of diplomacy and the question of naval disarmament a fundamental element of international relations between the two world wars. A fact that Mussolini was well aware of when he stated that in peacetime the hierarchy of states was determined by their navy.

How did the Washington Treaty affect the Royal Navy?

Carlo Schanzer, the senator who had led the Italian delegation to Washington, stressed that following the signing of the agreement, the Royal Navy immediately saw its importance increased among the world fleets (and with it the country), because parity with France established an alleged diplomatic-military parity between the two powers. In reality, the treaty guaranteed parity only in terms of capital ships, to show that Italy was not actually able to maintain general parity, the French launched naval programs to obtain superiority in light shipping, in order to question the Italian position in subsequent conferences on disarmament. After 1922, therefore, the Royal Navy found it necessary to support an expansive naval policy, able to compete with the French one in terms of shipbuilding. Consequently, the issue of parity became a central prestige problem for the fascist regime, which in the 1930s began to support it even at the expense of a balanced growth of the fleet between new constructions and improved preparation and technological level.

What influence did Minister De Stefani's economic policy have on the army and the Royal Navy?

De Stefani's ministry (1922-1925) coincided with the first phase of the fascist government. A phase in which Mussolini's power over the state was not yet fully consolidated and whose economic policy was aimed above all at stabilizing the state budget and promoting liberal policies. In this sense, the containment of public spending had a strong impact on the military and consequently also on the relations of fascism with the armed forces. The army and navy had supported Mussolini's rise to power in the belief that this would make it possible to carry out the reform and expansion projects desired by the military top. In the specific case of the navy, he mainly counted on the desire to launch naval programs in response to the French ones, since the growth of the Marine Nationale following the Washington Treaty was considered a substantial threat to the defense of Italian communications. The budget restrictions imposed by the Mussolini government on the Navy instead led to the containment of the programs and, together with the establishment of the Regia Aeronautica (1923), fueled the tensions, even in public form, between the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Navy, the Admiral Paolo Thaon di Revel, Duke of the Sea and Grand Admiral of Victory in the Great War. This conflict was part of the more general political crisis that followed the Matteotti murder, which led to the definitive transformation of fascism into a regime and also to the redefinition of relations between the armed forces and the Duce, in a subordinate sense. The tensions due to De Stefani's economic policy were central to this change in fascism-armed forces relations.

In one part of his book he compares the Italian Navy to that of Japan and to the German one, are there any differences between these three navies?

All three of these navies were born in the sixties and seventies of the nineteenth century as a product of the national unification / modernization processes crossed by the three countries and in all three cases they were configured as propulsive centers for geopolitical elaborations and national political and economic modernization. Although in Italy we do not have full knowledge of it, the construction of national naval institutions was an important agent of economic development and nationalization of the masses between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A trait that the three navies maintained in the following decades and which also explains the close link they developed with nationalism, accepting the radicalization of this policy in the post-war period. Above all, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy offer interesting parallels for the relationship that developed between their navies and the Nazi and Fascist parties, which were allowed to enter the institution by elites convinced that the two regimes would have allowed the realization of a foreign policy. and naval such as to ensure the ambitions of which the two institutions were bearers.

The three navies, however, also had three different political, economic and social realities behind them that reflected on the three institutions. In Italy and Germany, the polychratic structure of dictatorships (a context in which institutions are more in competition than in coordination) played a decisive role in the emergence of conflicts between armed forces that prevented the creation of a fully efficient naval air force. in both cases. In Japan, on the other hand, the navy was a very remarkable center of power, given the nation-archipelago nature of the country, and this allowed it to maintain its autonomy with respect to the army and also to equip itself with a large naval air force. This aspect is just one of the many possible examples that can be made to understand how political and social contexts affect the development of military institutions.

- What was the relationship between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, which was one of the most fascistized armed forces?

The conflicts between the two institutions, which began in 1923 with the establishment of the second, are due to two problems rather than to the correlation between a more or less greater fascism:the political structure of the regime and the more general conflict between the newly formed air forces and the traditional armed forces, a problem more or less common to all the great powers.

The air force-navy conflict was allowed above all by the nature of the fascist regime, as the Duce prevented the creation of effective coordination bodies between the armed forces, fearing that a too strong chief of staff would be a threat to his power. This divide-and-rule logic ended up damaging the possibilities of cooperation and the construction of an integrated and coherent military policy between the three weapons. However, even when the dictator had the effective power to impose his will on the three armed forces, with the radicalization process of the regime in the second half of the 1930s, his personal convictions in aeronautics and navy, such as the he idea that Italy was a “natural aircraft carrier”, had a decisive impact on the relationship between the two weapons.

To this we must add that in Fascist Italy, at least on a theoretical level, the impact of Giulio Douhet was considerable. Perhaps more politically used than doctrinally listened to, Douhet was the first theorist of the decisive strategic role of aviation through the use of massive strategic bombing to strike the enemy civilian population. Especially in the period of Italo Balbo (1926-1933), the Royal Air Force used Douhet to justify the absolute independence of the air weapon from uses considered "secondary" such as support for the army and navy. The regime had actively supported the creation of an independent air weapon and the support enjoyed by the air force in fascist government circles was crucial to depriving the navy of the ability to build adequate aircraft carriers and naval aviation. The admirals who forcefully re-proposed this problem in the mid-thirties, as part of a more general reminder of the need to correlate ambitions and means for the future war in the Mediterranean against Western powers, ended up being isolated and excluded from the management of politics. naval, with the connivance of the very top of the institution, now dominated by the charismatic power of the dictator.

- I would like to conclude now with a somewhat personal question. It is customary for "Historical Eye" to ask the interviewed scholars a little about their personal path and the reasons that led them to undertake the difficult profession of historian. We believe it is very important to understand “why” one studies history or becomes historical. So, ultimately, doctor, what were the reasons that led you to choose to study history?

Of course the first element was passion. An aspect that I matured in adolescence, simply because it was oriented by reading to the study of war and military phenomena, which began almost by chance. Strategies, men, tactics, means became my daily bread.

Intellectual interest prompted me to study history at university, despite the concern of many people, who claimed I was making a mistake, given the difficulties of entering the academic or cultural world and the poor employment prospects. Although these problems are a nagging issue for those who are setting out to study the humanities, in my case the passion prevailed, rightly or wrongly, we'll see.

Following my interests, at university, I chose to devote myself to the study of military history because I think, perhaps trivially, that in war men give the best and the worst of themselves and at the same time because the study of military institutions of the twentieth century century allows us to interlace with every aspect of contemporary society:foreign policy, internal politics, economics, technology and society are all problems that I found myself facing in the course of my research.

Specifically, I devoted myself to the history of the navy for two reasons. The first is my belief that Italy, despite not being fully aware of it, is a maritime country. I am originally from Naples and when I periodically find myself staring at the Gulf I do not see Vesuvius, but the lines of communication that depart from the city to Suez, the Indian Ocean and the Far East, or to Gibraltar and the Atlantic. Yesterday as today, our trade and our prosperity in general depend on the sea, without there having been a parallel increase in awareness of this relationship both for the past and for the present.

The military navies have been and still are responsible for the defense, opening and preservation of these spaces and communications, while no other instrument has the ability to carry out their work with equal effectiveness and flexibility. Naval history serves to understand the causes of successes and failures in the country's external projection, but it must be considered that, to build its navy, the country made use of the best of its human, economic and technological resources. Consequently, naval history can tell us a lot about the history of contemporary Italy, its politics, economy and society. A fact frequently underestimated by both scholars and the general public.