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Mediterranean Quarterly 14.2 (2003) 137-140
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Reynolds M. Salerno: Vital Crossroads: Mediterranean Origins of the Second World War, 1935-1940. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002. 285 pages. ISBN 0-8014-3772-5. $35.
The essence of this book is that in the years leading up to the Second World War, Great Britain wanted desperately to maintain the empire its government was not psychologically certain it deserved, that the megalomaniac dictator Benito Mussolini was thoroughly convinced he deserved an empire he did not have the power to acquire, and that Nazi Germany would help him get it to the detriment of French imperial possessions. Not convinced that Britain deserved an empire and should be willing to fight for it, Chamberlain's British government deceived itself that Mussolini would be a mediating factor tempering Hitler's territorial aspirations and be enticed at the same time away from a military alliance with him. The end result was a British policy of appeasement vis-à-vis Italy that was immensely far more preposterous and morally repugnant than the one vis-à-vis Hitler (the British Mediterranean armada in conjunction with the French navy could have easily thwarted or squashed Italian imperial aspirations). The fact that best illustrates the absurdity of Britain's diplomatic blunder is that British [End Page 137] diplomacy ended up infuriating Mussolini on the grounds that it insulted his devoted commitment to Hitler. Subsequently, British policy allowed Mussolini to be evasive and opportunistic, surrendered all initiative to Hitler, left France between a rock and a hard place, forced Chamberlain's government to walk the political and moral plank, and obviously failed to explore the opportunity of preventing war in the Mediterranean and using the Mediterranean political climate as a deterrent against Hitler.
The book makes the valid claim that the analysis of the Mediterranean origins of the Second World War should be indispensable to the understanding of the overall causes of that war. Since the different regions are interconnected via the vested interests and interactions of the actors, historical interpretations that focus exclusively on developments in specific regions, with only peripheral attention to others, tend to "misappropriate historical responsibility." Utilizing cross-national and multilingual archival research, the book does a wonderful job in cautioning against the pitfalls of regional-centric historiography, especially when dealing with political developments of world proportions. Indeed, it would appear that the vast amount of World War II historiography has been relegated to the "Anglo-German perspective." One can appreciate the causes and consequences of the appeasement policy better when bringing into focus both the implementation of Mussolini's Mediterranean strategy and the international reaction to that strategy.
The book makes its case by creating the following interested impression. Although one could have seen how in a militarily weak position the British government might have misunderstood Hitler's tactical elasticity strategy of expansionism in the Rhineland, Austria, and the Sudetenland as justifiable German national aspirations, one could not possibly have done so regarding Mussolini's strategy and behavior. After all, how often does a country blatantly invade a sovereign state like Ethiopia, engage its naval forces in a pirate campaign of terror against commercial transport in the Mediterranean, conduct secret submarine warfare in all of the Mediterranean during peacetime, provide an aspiring dictator like Franco with unlimited military assistance, ruthlessly conduct an aerial bombardment of a city like Barcelona, invade and take over a sovereign state like Albania, promote a fascist regime in Croatia, make direct territorial demands for expansionism in North Africa, embrace the Nazis' anti-Semitic policy, and still face no immediate consequences?
Not only was Mussolini not called to account, he was given by the British government special trade privileges in full knowledge that these privileges allowed Mussolini to supply Hitler with vital resources, in clear violation of the British economic blockade against Nazi Germany. Great Britain continued sharing military information with Italy even after Hitler invaded Poland. Considering that in comparative terms Mussolini's foreign policy contact dwarfed Galtieri's adventurous behavior in the Falklands and certainly...