Compare and contrast Hitler and Mussolini's domestic policies

Past Questions:

Paper 3
  • Compare and contrast the foreign policies of Hitler and Mussolini.


Key Dates:

  • 1922 Mussolini comes to power in Italy
  • 1933 Hitler comes to power in Germany, takes Germany out of the League of Nations
  • 1934 Mussolini deters Hitler from seizing control of Austria by sending troops to the Brenner Pass
  • 1935 The Stresa Front: Mussolini forms a bloc with France and Britain against Germany
  • 1935 Anglo-German Naval Agreement: Hitler breaks up the Stresa Front by reaching a deal with Britain regarding German naval expansion
  • 1936-39 Spanish Civil War: Mussolini and Hitler give their support to Franco
  • 1936 Rome-Berlin Axis: Mussolini formally aligns Fascist Italy with Nazi Germany
  • 1938 Mussolini offers no resistance when Hitler announces the Anschluss of Austria with Germany
  • 1939 Pact of Steel: Mussolini commits Italy to supporting Germany should war break out, even if Germany is the aggressor
  • 1940 Mussolini brings Italy into World War Two on the side of Nazi Germany
  • 1943 Mussolini falls from power in Italy
  • 1945 Mussolini is murdered; Hitler commits suicide


Foreign policy was absolutely central to the thinking and rule of the two dominant fascist dictators of interwar Europe, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Both leaders rose to power, at least in part, by exploiting nationalist resentment towards the perceived injustices of the Paris Peace Settlements: with Mussolini coming to power in 1922 in Italy, while Hitler became Chancellor a decade later in 1933 in Germany. Putting into place an aggressive foreign policy was for both leaders a fulfillment of their radical fascist and Nazi ideologies, and also a means of trying to increase support and popularity for their regimes domestically. Looking at the foreign policies of the two leaders at a broad level, the most obvious contrast is that Hitler, in power for considerably less time than Mussolini, conducted his policies over a much shorter time scale. However, in both cases it was over-ambitious foreign policies that ultimately led to the leaders' downfall and the collapse of their much-vaunted new empires of ideology. This essay will compare and contrast the foreign policies of the two dictators, and argue that though there are many common features between them, Hitler's policies tended to be more focused on achieving pure 'power' while Mussolini was driven by a desire to increase the 'prestige' of Italy, and himself, in the eyes of the world.

Running Comparison: key similarities with nuances

Aims and planning
  • Both leaders based their respective foreign policies on opposition to the Paris Peace Settlements, with a shared grievance against the failure to apply Wilson's principle of self-determination. Uniting all German speakers for Hitler, and Italian speakers for Mussolini, was foundational for their thinking on foreign policy.
  • Both leaders also put forward a radical fascist ideology that put great stress on national expansion and military strength as proof of national vitality and strength in the international arena. Their respective societies were to be militarised - in term of re-armament, and the spreading of militaristic values to the youngest ages - in preparation for war and in pursuit of national conquest.
  • Historians have struggled to agree on how far both leaders had clear foreign policy aims and plans for action. Though A.J.P. Taylor dismissed Hitler's plans for world-domination as mere 'day dreams' and instead argued that he was an opportunist, Hitler consistently pursued his aims to over-turn Versailles and assert Germany as the dominant power in Central Europe throughout the 1930s. Mussolini, on the other hand, may have wished to make Italy "great, respected and feared", but the economic weakness of Italy determined that he was almost a pure opportunist in foreign policy decisions. He may have wished to become the dominant power in the Mediterranean, but there is at least some truth in A.J.P. Taylor's view of him as "a vain, blundering boaster without either ideas or aims."

Aggressively expansionist policies
  • Both leaders put their rhetoric about aggressive foreign policy into action, though Hitler did this over a more concentrated period of time in a more focused and coherent manner.
  • Hitler and Nazi Germany: 1936, re-miltarised the Rhineland; 1938, anschluss with Austria, and Sudetenland; 1939, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Thus persistently overturning the losses inflicted upon Germany after the Versailles settlement in 1919.
  • Mussolini and Fascist Italy: 1923, Corfu incident with Greece; 1924, port of Fiume obtained from Yugoslavia; 1926, puppet-state set up in Albania, to strengthen Italy's hold over the Mediterranean; 1935, invasion of Abyssinia; 1939, invasion of Albania.

Ideological intervention in the Spanish Civil War
  • With the increasingly clear ideological divide that emerged in the 1930s, between liberal democracy in the West, communism in the USSR and fascism in Italy, Germany and Japan, both Hitler and Mussolini were prepared to make a stand for their ideological opposition to Communism and support Franco in his struggle against the Popular Front to gain control of the Spanish state in 1936. In this way, both leaders actively intervened in the Spanish Civil War in support of fascism.
  • Nature of support - Hitler: helped to airlift Franco and his troops to mainland Spain in July 1936, offered air-support via testing out his new luftwaffe and military supplies to Franco's nationalists; Mussolini: gave the greatest amount of foreign support, in the form of 75,000 troops, planes, tanks and weapons supplied to Franco to assist the nationalist war effort.
  • However, a key contrast between Hitler and Mussolini's foreign policies can be identified through considering their differing motivations for supporting Franco. For Hitler, a central concern was with increasing his economic power. He thus supplied Franco with military materials in return for an agreement that gained him access to 75% of Spain's ores - key natural resources that Hitler needed to prepare for war. Mussolini, on the other hand, was more concerned simply with 'prestige', i.e. being seen by the rest of the world to be playing an important part in support of the fascist fight against communism and the left. He had little in terms of economic aims, and he made no economic benefits as a result of his intervention. This neatly shows what Russel Tarr has highlighted as Hitler's focus on power vs Mussolini's focus on prestige - an important difference that undermines the apparent similarities between the two dictator's policies.

Running Comparison: key differences with nuances

Nature of Empire
  • While both Hitler and Mussolini sought to embark upon imperialist ventures, the nature of their respective imperial projects differed importantly.
  • Hitler's drive for lebensraum in the East was based upon the Nazi's carefully developed racial theories, which also included an important economic element. According to Hitler's vision of the Aryan 'master race', the Slavic races of the East were intrinsically inferior to Germans and it was therefore in the natural order of things that they should be absorbed into the Third Reich as slave labour to work the land and provide food for the Motherland. Hitler's imperial expansion, like his intervention in the Spanish civil war, was clearly intended to increase the economic power base of Germany as the dominant power in Central Europe (i.e. Austria's key natural resources, the Skoda arms factory in the Sudetenland), and this economic justification for empire rested on a clear racial classification of fellow German speakers, and thus Aryans (in Austria and the Sudetenland), and the inferior slavs in the East.
  • If Hitler's imperial policy thus rested, as Hugh Trevor-Roper stressed, on a radically new idea of race, Mussolini's imperial thinking remained firmly backwards looking in its reliance on ideas that developed in the late nineteenth-century 'scramble for Africa'. Hitler was fuelled by his idea of an inevitable struggle between different races and the biological superiority of the aryans, but Mussolini had no clearly-defined theory of race beyond the vague idea of European superiority over Africans commonly shared among non-fascist colonial powers such as France and Britain. And where Hitler had wanted lebensraum in order to get clear economic benefits, Mussolini's colonial policy in Abyssinia was based more upon the desire to boost Italian prestige in the eyes of the world. A key factor motivating Mussolini's decision to invade just Abyssinia in 1935 was shaped by his wish to seek revenge for the defeat Italy had suffered there in 1896, suggesting nationalist pride was of far more importance than any desire for economic gain (and of course Italy's imperial adventures in Africa did very little to achieve any economic power for Mussolini, in striking contrast to Hitler's policy.)

Relations with the Western powers and 'collective security'
  • Though Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations in 1933, in feigned disgust at the failure of the Western powers to honour their earlier disarmament pledges, Mussolini had a more ambiguous relationship with the Western powers and the concept of 'collective security'. Indeed, as the Stresa Pact of 1934 with Britain and France suggests Mussolini was at first concerned to work together with the Allies in the face of the potential threat posed by the newly-elected Hitler. Alone amongst the European powers, Mussolini actually used military force to stand up to Hitler by sending troops to the Austrian border to prevent Hitler's early attempt at anschluss in 1934. So initially at least, Mussolini seemed to be siding with Britain and France, and thus by inference the League of Nations, against Hitler and Nazi Germany.
  • It was only after Britain and France refused to grant Mussolini his claims to Abyssinia, and the joint experience of supporting Franco in the Spanish Civil War, that Mussolini turned towards Hitler and formalised this allegiance with the Rome-Berlin Axis of 1936. In part this was a result of Mussolini's disappointments over the British betrayal of the Stresa Pact, and the Abyssinian crisis, but it also reflected his opportunism and pragmatism in as far as by 1936 he judged that the balance of power lay in Hitler's hands and not the appeasers. So while Hitler was fairly consistent in departing from the League and carefully pursuing his aims in contravention of the Allies, Mussolini swapped sides and followed a more opportunistic line of allegiances.

Foreign policy consistency and the lead up to WWII
  • While historians continue to disagree about the consistency of Hitler's war aims, it is possible to agree with Hugh Trevor-Roper that Hitler's policies from 1936 onwards followed a clear line towards war. Indeed, the thrust of the Hossbach memorandum, 1937, from a meeting between Hitler and his generals, is that Germany needed to provoke, fight and win the war for European supremacy before his opponents had the time to increase their military strengths. In this sense, it can make sense to state that though Hitler might not have expected this war to break out over just Poland in 1939 he was in general seeking such a war.
  • Such a determined and clear direction was, on the other hand, clearly missing from Mussolini. Though he had signed the 'pact of steel' with Hitler in 1939, pledging to support Germany in the event of any future war regardless of the circumstances, when the Second World War broke out in September over the issue of Polish independence Mussolini was unwilling to honour this agreement. Instead, and in contrast to all of his bold rhetoric, Mussolini kept Italy out of the war initially claiming military unpreparedness. Though this point about military weakness may well be true, Mussolini's failure to keep to the terms of the agreement hint at a level of uncertainty almost entirely lacking from the terrifying determination of Hitler. Here we see a vital distinction between the foreign policies of the two fascist leaders: Hitler the single-minded seeker of power - economic, military and diplomatic - and Mussolini the undecided opportunist - hoping to boost Italian prestige and create the new Roman empire, but restricted by military and economic weakness and his indecision (delightfully shown in Louis de Berniere's wonderful portrayal of him in the novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin from the mid-1990s).


  • Russell Tarr essay in History today: 'The foreign policies of Hitler and Mussolini' (2009), on questia here: link