The British Lion and the Duce
THE British Lion has had a bad summer. He has not been wounded or attacked in any vital spot, but he has suffered a certain diminution of pride and prestige. All last winter he had roared impressively at the troublesome covenant-breaking Italian who was skirmishing on his flank, and thought that this demonstration, combined with a policy of abstinence from lemons and Gorgonzola, would suffice. It did not. The Duce went resolutely ahead, and twisted the Lion’s tail. It was not particularly painful for the Lion, but it was none the less humiliating.
Nor was the twisting confined to one short sharp operation. It was not over when Haile Selassie fled from his country, and King Victor Emmanuel of Italy was proclaimed Emperor of Ethiopia. Signor Mussolini protested that he could not be expected to sit at the same table with British and French delegates so long as sanctions were in force. The British Government took the lead in withdrawing sanctions.
Still unsatisfied, Signor Mussolini proclaimed that the presence in the Mediterranean of a strongly reënforced British fleet was an eyesore to Italy. The reënforcements have been brought back to their home stations.
Then Signor Mussolini made a protest against Mr. Eden’s declaration at Geneva that Great Britain would maintain, during ‘the period of uncertainty’ which would follow the withdrawal of sanctions, the special undertakings which she gave last winter to come to the help of Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey if Italy attacked them. The Duce gave a solemn assurance that nothing was further from Italy’s mind than to attack these Mediterranean countries. Nobody was rude enough to compare this assurance with Italy’s assurances of her pacific intentions in regard to Ethiopia not much more than a year earlier. The British undertakings have been allowed to lapse.
The effects were soon seen elsewhere. When a conference met in June at Montreux to consider Turkey’s demand for permission to refortify the Straits, the Turkish Delegation put itself firmly under the protection of M. Litvinov, and Great Britain was completely isolated. Admittedly no vital British interests were at stake; but it is rare for British delegates to retreat from so many positions as they did during that conference.
Herr Hitler drew the same moral. He felt that he could afford to pigeonhole that rather superior British questionnaire about his intentions, and made a deal with Signor Mussolini over the defunct — or almost defunct — body of independent Austria. Herr Hitler’s mind is a sensitive barometer. His action registered that Britain counted for less in Europe than he had thought a few months before.
But what of Britain herself? The British are not an introspective people. They think far less about their prestige than any other European nation. They have been told so often (mostly by British politicians belonging to the Opposition of the day) that British prestige has touched vanishing point that they no longer take that charge quite seriously. Something more substantial than a little mild tail-twisting and loss of face is required to move them.
The Englishman has for more than half a century regarded the Italian with a kindly, tolerant liking, mixed with just a spice of contempt. The Duce has gone a long way to kill the liking, without, fundamentally, having much diminished the contempt. The British public has not yet learned to think of Italy as a potential danger. At most, she is a potential nuisance. The famous ‘Maffey report,’ which the Italians stole and so obligingly published, declared that it did not matter to British interests whether Italy conquered Ethiopia or not. In some respects Italians might make rather better neighbors than Ethiopians, in others rather worse. It is significant that nearly all the prognostications about Italy’s threat to British supremacy in the Mediterranean and in Africa have come from foreign observers.
Nevertheless there is a growing uneasiness among well-informed people in Great Britain. When in the past the Duce assured the world that ‘ fine words are good, but guns better,’ and that ‘the future of Italy lay in Africa and Asia,’ few Englishmen took these remarks seriously; for there has always been a strong disinclination to believe what Signor Mussolini says. After all, the Italian himself never believes other people’s official pronouncements. But it seems that in this case the Duce was perfectly frank. War, and colonial war in particular, is Italy’s policy. The realization of this fact has at length begun to sink in. There is as yet no desire in Great Britain to retaliate on Italy or even to take concrete precautions against her; but there is a certain undercurrent of anxiety.
Two days after the Italian troops occupied Addis Ababa, Signor Mussolini sent for the correspondent of one of the only two London daily newspapers which had supported Italy over the Ethiopian question, and gave him an interview for publication. He said, in brief, that he had no more colonial ambitions and that ‘the conquest of Ethiopia put Italy into the group of satisfied Powers’; that Italy ‘had not the least or remotest hankering after Egypt’; that she had no political interest in the Sudan; and finally, that she had no responsibility for the troubles between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine. These declarations increased rather than allayed the anxiety. The Duce had put his finger on some of Britain’s most vulnerable points; and the British public has, as I have said, a long-standing inclination to disbelieve what Signor Mussolini says.
It is a commonplace of international politics that the Suez Canal is to the British Empire what the Panama Canal is to the United States. The Mediterranean is the corridor leading to the Suez; and access through the Mediterranean is no less vital to Britain than the Canal itself. Gibraltar looks safe enough, though an unpleasant impression was made by the discovery that Italian airmen were giving help to the Spanish Fascists in the civil war. Malta, on the other hand, is in a highly precarious position, and will hardly avail, in these days of air power and submarines, as a permanent bulwark against a hostile Italy. There are alternatives — Cyprus and Haifa among them. But Britain will have to take a bigger hand in Mediterranean politics than she has taken in recent years if she wants to remain secure.
Egypt remains, of course, a crux. There are 60,000 Italians in Egypt — more than twice the number of British subjects; and Italian propaganda there in the past has been active and none too friendly to Great Britain. Happily, however, for Britain, recent Italian policy has had an unpremeditated result. When Signor Mussolini shipped troops to Italian Libya and massed them on the Egyptian frontier, his motive was to impress Britain. In fact, he frightened Egypt. Egyptians who, ever since the proclamation of Egyptian independence in 1922, had been protesting against the presence of British troops in their country now began for the first time to see some virtue in this solid defense asset.
Fear of Italy greased the wheels of the negotiations for an Anglo-Egyptian treaty. Common interest suddenly became more apparent than the petty causes of friction which had held up the conclusion of the treaty for the past fourteen years. The signature of the treaty — which, at the moment of writing, seems almost certain — will mean a substantial benefit to Egypt and increased security for Britain. Italy’s annexation of Ethiopia gives special importance to the more harmonious working of Anglo-Egyptian relations over the Sudan.
But even if the British position in Egypt becomes internally more secure, this does not altogether blunt the edge of the Italian threat. A recent writer in a Berlin newspaper spoke of the ‘Italian pincers’ which now hold Egypt and the Sudan in their grip. A glance at an up-to-date map (if one already exists) will show that he is right. On the west, Egypt is wholly bounded by the Italian province of Libya; and since January 1935, when M. Laval visited Rome and gave away a slice of French Equatorial Africa, the Italian frontier runs for some distance down the western border of the Sudan. On the east, the land frontier of the Sudan is now entirely covered by Italian possessions. Italy has a solid block of territory on the Red Sea.
The western arm of the pincers is the less immediately threatening. Except in the coastal region, the frontier runs through a tract of almost uninhabited desert. But the most impenetrable of deserts is no barrier against movement by air; and it was the Italian air force that gathered most of the laurels of the Ethiopian campaign. It will be surprising if one or two of the Libyan oases do not soon blossom with a new form of vegetation: the landing ground and the hangar.
More uncomfortable pressure is likely to come from the eastern arm of the pincers. Here, thanks to the Italian annexation of Ethiopia, British colonies and dependencies have now 2000 miles of common frontier with Italy. If Italy should turn out to be an inconvenient neighbor, the opportunities for friction have been multiplied tenfold. British Somaliland and French Somaliland form a tiny enclave surrounded by Italian possessions. They could certainly not be defended against a hostile Italy. The Cape-to-Cairo ‘All-Red’ air route will now skirt Italian territory on the hop from Kenya to Khartum.
Across the Red Sea, Italy looks with whetted ambition and with enhanced self-confidence toward the Arabian peninsula. It has always been a bitter grievance that she did not participate with Great Britain and France in the share-out of the former Turkish dominions. The secret Treaty of London held out hopes to Italy of territorial acquisitions in Asia Minor. That promise could not be fulfilled, and Italy failed to secure compensation elsewhere. Alone of the Principal Allied Powers, she received no colonial ‘mandate’ at the Peace Conference.
This circumstance has always made Italy a rigorous scrutinizer and critic, at Geneva and elsewhere, of the doings of the ‘mandatory Powers,’ particularly where ex-Turkish possessions are concerned. At one time the French in Syria bore the brunt of Italian jealousy. But when Great Britain took the lead in the sanctions policy last autumn, the picture changed. Throughout the winter the Italian wireless station at Bari poured out a flood of virulent antiBritish propaganda in Arabic. Whether, like the boy in the nursery rhyme, they ‘simply did it to annoy because they know it teases,’ or whether these broadcasts were part of a deep-laid plan of anti-British intrigue in Arabic-speaking countries, will probably never be known. This form of activity appears to have been dropped for the moment. But it would be rash to predict that Italy will miss any opportunity of counteracting and, if possible, supplanting British influence in the Arab world.
It is significant that Signor Mussolini should have gone out of his way to deny to the Daily Mail correspondent that he had any part in stirring up the troubles between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. I have before me as I write a recently issued Jewish propaganda leaflet which asserts that ‘it is now certain that much of the financial assistance that has reached the rebels in Palestine has come from Italy.’ The grounds for this certainty are not stated; and Jewish propagandists have an obvious motive for wishing to show that the Arab disturbances in Palestine have been fomented from without. Nevertheless, it is not improbable that Italian agents have been discreetly at work. Such activities accord sufficiently well with the time-honored Italian policy of turning to good account any temporary embarrassment of the British Government in the Near and Middle East.
Much of this, it will be said, is speculation. These are some of the cards which Signor Mussolini holds in his hand; there may be others of the same kind up his sleeve. But will he elect to play them? This is a question which, in all probability, he is not yet in a position to answer himself. Let us speculate a little further about the answer.
The Duce has told us that from now on he intends to be a good European and citizen of the world, and looks forward to ‘a new period of mutual cooperation among all nations.’ For the moment he probably means it. But will he continue to mean it? Some people think that he will; and there are certain strong arguments in support of that belief.
In the first place, his new empire may keep his hands full for some time to come. History teaches that it is often a long step from defeating an army to conquering a country. The military pundits in the present case exaggerated the difficulties of the first operation. Perhaps, argue a good many experts, we are now underestimating the difficulties of the second.
There are 350,000 square miles of territory in Ethiopia, and seven or eight million inhabitants. Italy holds the three or four towns (if such they may be called), the few roads, and the one railway. The rest is primitive chaos. Throughout the summer the rainy season prevented the Italians from extending ‘pacification’ beyond the occupied area. It also precluded any organized attack on the Italian positions by Ethiopian bands. But now Italy must make a move to extend her effective control; otherwise she can neither govern the country nor develop its resources. You cannot make your empire a paying proposition — and this Italy certainly needs to do — unless you have it thoroughly in hand. This operation will require large bodies of men and material, and will absorb Italian energies for more than one winter.
That is the strongest argument for supposing that the Duce may be content for some time to come to play the good boy. Exactly how strong it is will depend on the course of events in Ethiopia this winter, and on how easily the Italian plan of conquest is realized. Other arguments are of a less tangible kind. Signor Mussolini, it is said, needed glory — above all, the glory of a colonial empire. Now he has got it, he can afford to rest on his laurels. He has liked to talk big in the past. But in action he has shown sufficient sense of reality to go only for objectives within his reach. However pleasant the pastime of twisting a lion’s tail, his native shrewdness will keep him out of the temptation to try serious conclusions with the forces of the British Empire. His position in Europe — where Yugoslavia sullenly watches Italy across the Adriatic, and Germany keeps a covetous eye not only on Austria but on the Southern Tyrol — is not solid enough to permit of more dangerous ventures overseas.
But it is time to look at the arguments on the other side. Some of them are permanent and fundamental. Italian soil is among the poorest in Europe in natural resources, especially in minerals. Coal, oil, and copper are lacking; and the iron ore of Elba is not of the best. Yet Italy is an industrial country, and carries more than three hundred and fifty inhabitants to the square mile — a greater density of population than any other European country except Great Britain and Belgium. Its population of some forty millions is increasing by four hundred thousand every year. The Americas, North and South, which used to absorb the surplus prior to 1914, are now virtually closed. There is little possibility of more intensive economic development in Italy itself. The standard of living is already so low that it cannot be depressed much further without reaching famine level. Italy must expand — and where, if not in Africa or Asia?
Ethiopia is, no doubt, a first attempt to solve this problem. But will it be enough? The hard-working, hardliving, much-enduring Italian can admittedly establish himself in conditions and climates where the Anglo-Saxon, the German, or the Frenchman could not hope to survive. But there has been no colonization worth the name in Eritrea or Italian Somaliland. It is difficult to believe that there can be a large influx of Italian settlers into Ethiopia, even when the country is completely subjugated.
On the contrary, the reestablishment of peace in Ethiopia will face Signor Mussolini with the problem of what to do with the 300,000 Italian troops now under arms there. They cannot remain indefinitely mobilized and on a war footing. But the heroes of a victorious war are apt to expect, when they return home, to find a land fit for heroes to live in. Italy already has too many mouths to feed, and there is unemployment everywhere, except perhaps in the armaments industries. A quarter of a million demobilized soldiers will not ease the situation.
This brings us to Italy’s economic problem. The war, reënforced by sanctions, has played havoc with her foreign resources and her credit abroad. Her gold reserve has been halved, her foreign credits and foreign securities have gone, and her exports have sunk to an insignificant figure. She has large commercial debts in all the important trading centres, and no means of liquidating them. In Great Britain alone her unpaid coal bill, dating back to the presanctions period, amounts to more than a million sterling. Despite her strenuous efforts during the past year to develop self-sufficiency, Italy must have foreign imports unless her whole economic life is to break down. How to get them is a problem which is likely to give Italian economists and Italian financiers a good many sleepless nights in the near future.
Unfortunately poverty is not, in international affairs, the guarantee of a stay-at-home policy. The Duce, flushed with military success, will not be content to sit by his own fireside and wait for a domestic explosion. He is far more likely to seek the remedy in another bout of glory, which will at any rate have the merit of carrying the explosion abroad. One suspects that a good many régimes to-day enjoy the same kind of equilibrium as the spinning top. So long as they keep moving fast enough, all is well. The difficulty is to keep them upright in a state of repose.
If this diagnosis is correct, the danger lies in the fact that the Duce’s next move must almost inevitably bring him into conflict with some ‘vital’ British interest. In the eastern Mediterranean, in Egypt, in Arabia, in Central Africa — everywhere he will find British garrisons or British influence ensconced at the important strategic points. His sense of a righteous grievance will be once more kindled. And next time it will be not merely the twisting of a tail, but a pinprick somewhere in the flank. Then the reaction may be very different. Will Signor Mussolini risk it?
At first sight, anyone who measures the opposing forces will reply: ‘No, it would not be a risk; it would be suicide.’ And that perhaps is, after all, the right answer. But there are hints of another possibility. The Italian newspapers during the past year have been full of disquisitions on the familiar theme of British degeneracy: the British Empire, that overripe fruit, is decaying and is almost ready to drop into the lap of young and virile Fascist Italy; Ethiopia is only the gateway to tropical Africa; Italy’s future is over the seas; the Mediterranean must become an Italian lake.
A good many of these journalistic diatribes were, of course, only examples of the familiar process of cheering to keep one’s spirits up. But they are nevertheless uncomfortably reminiscent of the writings of the late lamented Bernhardi and other German patriots of the pre-war epoch. The growth of pacificism in Great Britain has made a profound impression in Italy. To a nation whose leader professedly regards war as the noblest form of human activity, a country which attaches so much importance to peace must necessarily seem degenerate. A British correspondent in Italy was told recently that the Italians were not afraid of British rearmament because most young Englishmen would refuse to fight. Up to a point, the Italian calculation may be right. It will take a lot of provocation — a good deal more than before 1914 — to rouse the lion. But, taking a long view, any such calculation would, nevertheless, be the most dangerous of illusions.
The future of Anglo-Italian relations is not an isolated problem. It is intertwined with the whole course of European, or perhaps of world, history during the next thirty years. Italy, if she saw before her the prospect of becoming involved in serious trouble with Great Britain, would quickly look for allies. It might not be altogether easy to find them. Italy has pursued too consistently her policy of ‘sacred egoism’ to have a good record as a friend. Last winter France, under M. Laval, was ready to impair her good relations with Britain for the sake of Italy. It is hard to believe that she would do so again. For Italy, once she had achieved her purpose, soon turned her back on her new friend; and the last few months have deprived France of all that she thought she had gained by the Rome agreements of 1935.
Would Germany be ready to support Italian designs? She has not forgotten how Italy turned against her in 1914, and again in 1933. Herr Hitler’s policy has been to avoid at all costs the cardinal error of 1914, and to eschew any course which might embroil Germany with Great Britain. It would be difficult to induce him to abandon this sheet anchor of common sense. Moreover, he too has his colonial ambitions; and two claimants for the same treasure, if they are in agreement at the beginning of the quest, are not unlikely to fall out by the way. A joint lion-hunt by the two dictators does not seem on the whole a very probable contingency.
This article can, then, only be rounded off with a question mark. Signor Mussolini as a docile citizen of Europe, and a loyal, law-abiding supporter of a revivified League of Nations, is a picture which carries no conviction. Such a transformation would be as much at variance with the laws of nature as for the leopard to change his spots. Unless the devil is very sick indeed, he will not turn monk. That seems a safe prediction. But how long will Ethiopia keep the Duce occupied? How long can he rest on his Ethiopian laurels? Where next will his restless ambition light? All these are questions which the future must answer. But geography tells us that his next shaft, at whatever target it is aimed, is likely to land somewhere in the imperial British flank.