March 2, 2017

1937. The Contrasting Personalities of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler

"The Two Dictators of Central Europe View Themselves Very Differently"
Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler watch military exercises in Mecklenburg during a state visit on September 26, 1937 (Photo by Heinrich Hoffman)
This article is part of a series of posts on how newspapers covered the rise of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Italy and Germany prior to World War II.

From The New York Times, September 26, 1937, pp. 4-5, 20:

Conference of Hitler and Mussolini Brings Together Strongly Contrasting Characters


The visit of Benito Mussolini to Adolf Hitler highlights the big question mark written on the international sky. The meeting was carefully timed by the best showmen in Europe to focus attention on that question, create dramatic suspense—and leave it hanging in the air, bolder, cleaner, but still unanswered—Will the Rome-Berlin axis hold?

There is no doubt about the interest, drama and suspense attending the meeting of the two most extraordinary figures thrown up by the backwash of the last war. They meet not only as men but as Governments, personified nations, in the most strictly private conference nations have ever achieved, and a curious hush and pause marks the conjunction, as if eyes and ears everywhere were strained to watch and listen.

For the encounter is even better timed than when it was first arranged. The Nyon accord, followed by a patrol very like Franco-British control of the Mediterranean, lends unexpected reality to what was meant to be a spectacular gesture.

The Rome-Berlin axis cannot be said to link two nations, or even two men who perform as nations. When Hitler and Mussolini met in Venice three years ago last June, nothing came of it but the tragic anti-climax of the Vienna putsch. The dictators failed to click, and any one acquainted with the two men would say that they must always fail to click. This is not only because one supreme being is not at ease with another supreme being. Nor because the shade of the murdered Dolfuss stalks in the background. Both the unsocial Roman and the gregarious German are direct and simple creatures who can be very agreeable when they wish. But they live on different planes, with different outlooks, different conceptions of themselves and their roles.

Mussolini is not Machiavelli. He is too downright, forthright and close to the ground. Hitler is not Joan of Arc. His kingdom is too much of this earth, too uncatholic. But if you can imagine the author of "The Prince" in conference with the Maid of Orleans, you get an idea of the points of contact in the current dialogues in Munich and Berlin.

If you searched the world you could hardly find two men more divergent in tastes, temperament, appearance, manner, mentality, habits, methods, range of interests. If Hitler and Mussolini have anything in common besides a lowly origin, a desperate early struggle and a meteoric rise to power, it does not appear either in private conversation or public performance. Both, to be sure, were corporals in the trenches—in opposite trenches—and twenty years ago neither had been heard of outside his native village. They are as much products of war as the mass despair and disillusion which they expressed, organized and put in the saddle.

•   •   •

As portents, freaks in the freakish tides of history, the two corporals are oddly alike. As persons they are very different. Mussolini is a writer. He started his career as a hack journalist and producer of pot-boiling serial stories in one of the Alpine towns he passed through on the way to Munich. But although he wrote his way to power and today dictates as many leaders for his paper as any working editor, and although Hitler began as art student and architectural draftsman in the city wherein he welcomes his guest, it is characteristic that it was the painter who wrote a book and the writer who built up his movement without any written program whatever.

The greater part of "Mein Kampf" was composed in prison, yet if Hitler had not been incarcerated he would have secluded himself anyway to pour forth his thoughts on paper. He is not by nature a man of action, physical or mental. He takes no part in active sports. He has never bothered to learn a foreign language. From his youth he has alternated between spurts of violent energy and periods of withdrawal, passivity and self-communion. He hates regular work, administrative detail, the daily decisions of the executive, the "political atmosphere" of Berlin.

Less and less as time goes on does the ruler of Germany appear in his capital. The periods of withdrawal grow longer each year. More and more does he become the Voice on the Mountain, prophet and symbol. Yet even in seclusion he cannot bear to be alone. He needs to be surrounded by his early disciples. He likes accustomed things, his old table in a Munich cafe, familiar faces, the profile of the Bavarian hills, classic music, working at architectural plans.

He needs, above all, periodic immersion in the crowd. Trailing him in his electoral campaign in the Rhineland last year, watching him night after night in huge meetings, I saw how he drew force, fire, emotion from his audiences. He starts as if he were in conversation, on a dead level, quiet, didactic, rather dull. As he proceeds he works himself up, comes alive. Finally he seems to plumb down and siphon into himself all the inarticulate feeling of the mass before him.

It is a strange manifestation, and helps to explain the power of a leader who by himself produces no impression of power. Face to face, in an interview or in a small group, he seems remote, wrapped in his own thoughts. Always, despite his passionate Germanism, he seems the leader of a party. A full-length portrait of the Fuehrer is the portrait of the National Socialist. One cannot imagine him at home in any other company, thinking in other terms or interested in extraneous ideas.

•   •   •

If the two dictators run true to form in the present exchanges, Mussolini will be asking Hitler questions, pumping him in reporter fashion, and Hitler will be expounding doctrines and theories. If the conversation takes a positive turn, Hitler will explain and elaborate at length and Mussolini will assert himself seldom and in few words. Contrary to the general impression, the Duce is not a talker. He reserves his speechmaking for public occasions. He can stand for hours at a stretch, reviewing a parade or at a reception, and usually he stands silent. He can sit silent for hours while the Grand Council or some industrial corporation debates. As a dictator he is a "natural," in the sense that he works alone, plays alone if possible, depends on nobody, is a born administrator, always on the job, and embodies the dictatorial qualities of force, energy and decision.

One striking difference between the two men is in their approach to the outer world. All dictators are prisoners of their own power, cut off from normal intercourse, their information as carefully filtered as that of their subjects. But Mussolini reads voraciously, while Hitler meditates, waiting for the spirit to move him. Mussolini sees more people in a day than the Fuehrer sees in a week, or a month, and he interrogates them all. I recall interviewing him once after I had seen Hitler. He was full of curiosity about the German leader, how the people regarded him, what he was interested in, what manner of man he was. As always, he asked endless questions.

"Is he a mystic?" he inquired at last.

"I think mediumistic would describe him better," was the reply.

"Ah, that is what nobody has told me!" he exclaimed, indicating how often he puts the same question. "And it explains. He is an instrument, a vessel through which emotion flows. Yes, that is it!"

•   •   •

Hitler, on the contrary, evinced not the slightest curiosity about Mussolini, Roosevelt, or any one else. He asked no questions. He was intent solely on explaining himself, his policies, his plans. No one listening to him for ten minutes, in public or private, could doubt that he is possessed by the idea of his mission.

The Italian is a different order of being, living on another level. He is pure pragmatist. He wrote no bible of fascism because he had no doctrine, and if he had, he would not have put it in a book for fear the printed program would belie the actual record and prove how flexible, after all, is the "inflexible will." Italian fascism developed its theory in practice. If the inventor had a theory fifteen years ago, it was only to create a Government strong enough to put an end to class conflict. This is the purpose of the Corporative State, which has evolved so gradually, by progressive transfers of power not from one class to another but from all classes to the State, that only now does it reveal that its inevitable end is to destroy free capitalism as well as free trade unionism.

Mussolini admits that capitalism is the economic form of democracy. He agrees that dictatorship means State socialism, or what Hitler calls National Socialism. The difference between them is a difference of degree—the "coverage" of Italian fascism after fifteen years is not so complete as that of National Socialism after four—a difference of national character. The Teutonic passion for "race" seems juvenile to the Latin, too old and blasé to cherish the illusion that any blood is "pure," and the equivalent emotion for "our sea" among a people Mussolini has made Mediterranean-conscious is as incomprehensible to the German.

The full-length portrait of Mussolini is not the Fascist but the Italian. To him fascism is not a religion, as National Socialism is to Hitler, but a method for the aggrandizement of Italy. Proof of this is seen in the care with which he has preserved pre-Fascist forms and institutions. The monarchy is intact. The church is strengthened by the settlement of the Roman question. Even the Parliament continues its regular sessions, remaining in abeyance, so to speak, if for no other reason than to dissolve itself and legalize the transition into the Council of Corporations. The framework of the Constitution and the general code of law are retained. Mussolini has at least provided for the possibility of an orderly end to the dictatorship.

Hitler, on the contrary, seems possessed to smash the whole governmental pattern, monarchy and republic to clear the ground for a design distinctively and exclusively National Socialist. It is believed that he is preparing to perpetuate the office of Reichsfuehrer as supreme head of the State and make Göring Chancellor or Premier of the Reich, charged with the administrative functions. Parliament he has practically abolished, even as a debating society. The courts function to apply the new code of the party rather than the old body of law. The campaign against the churches and in favor of a new party religion, like the dissolution of international organizations, indicates an intention to make a clean sweep of every old allegiance. Hitler aims to leave no alternative to a dictatorship. He sees himself succeeded by a line of Fuehrers a thousand years long.

•   •   •

Both dictators are gamblers. Neither would stop at anything to reach his objectives. The Italian undoubtedly considers himself a man of destiny, but not, like the German, a man inspired—a messiah. So far Hitler has won his victories more neatly and cheaply than Mussolini. Few leaders have gained so much without moving beyond their own borders. Up to now he has taken few risks in foreign policy. In a dangerous game Mussolini plays a poor hand recklessly but calculatingly—ready, if the odds go against him, to play to the end. This is what he did in East Africa; it is what he may be expected to do in Spain. The one taste they share points to the same sharp contrast. Both are lovers of music, but Mussolini performs and Hitler absorbs. He never tires of listening to music, and as a patron of this and all arts he bears an odd kinship to the Ludwigs of Bavaria. In the early years of his regime the Duce used to play his violin late at night in the little flat on a narrow street where he lived alone. Now he says he has no time to play. "The world is too much with us," he complains. But he has time for everything else. In middle age he has learned to pilot a plane, drive a racing car and a speed boat, ski, swim, ride, fence. Part of this display of athleticism is by way of example; he wants to set the pace and model to quicken an easy-going people. Part of it is sheer vitality, curiosity and vanity. Hitler does not have to make this effort. Germans love sports, and while he exhorts them to be strong, to marry and have children, he is not driven, like the Duce, to practice everything he preaches.

Both have a limited acquaintance with the world. Mussolini studied and starved in Switzerland, traveled in France and Germany, but except for a conference at Lausanne and visits to the African colonies, this trip to Germany is his first journey outside Italy since he came to power. Hitler campaigned up and down the land for ten years and knows Germany thoroughly, but he has never stepped beyond the German world except to visit Mussolini at Venice. His native Austria he yearns to see incorporated in Germany, and as the movement he heads is subjective, the outgrowth of personal experience, he imagines all Austrians share his feeling. This explains an obsession that will never wholly yield to reason or diplomacy.

The two, in short, are almost complete opposites, but the success of the present meeting hinges not on personal attraction. The political picture has changed drastically in three years, largely through the separate operations of these two men. Since Venice Mussolini has conquered Ethiopia, widened his orbit in the Mediterranean, become the chief backer of Insurgent Spain, and by these extensions of power alarmed and alienated Italy's former allies. Hitler has smashed the Versailles system, destroyed France's protective zone on the Rhine, recreated an armed Germany, and by this aggressive comeback has upset the balance of Europe and still further isolated the Reich.

So far the two dictators have not acted together except in Spain. They have not pursued common policies. They were divided by Austria, by antagonistic interests in the Balkans, by dissatisfied German minority in the Italian Tyrol, by Italian fears of German intrusion in the Middle Sea, by rooted German resentment of Italy's switch to the enemy in the World War, by the Stresa front, by memories of the past, rivalries in the present, dread of the future—by everything, in fact, that separates one people from another.

As late as last year Mussolini could agree that "the worst thing that ever happened to fascism was Hitler." Until the end of the Ethiopian war the National Socialist Government could refer to the Italian adventure in scathing and contemptuous terms. The Germans would not join the League in sanctions, but the Nazis were too bitter over Austria at the time to lift a finger to help Italy. One of the paradoxes of sanctions was that the Italians could get more supplies from Russia and England than from Germany.

•   •   •

The archaeological and sentimental love of Germans for Italy, its monuments, its climate and its mellow beauty does not extend to the living Italians cluttering up the classic landscape. The liking of Italians to Germans is almost wholly commercial; they welcome the "Tedeschi" as tourists and traders. Even the two systems of government admire one another with large reservations. Italy and Germany are two fundamentally unsympathetic nations whose fate is always to be drawn together until some crucial emergency as invariably tears them apart.

Today they are drawn together by a common isolation. Mussolini and Hitler are at once more powerful and more isolated than when they quarreled over Austria. Otherwise the purely strategic line they have drawn from Rome to Berlin would revolve in a vacuum. Unless one or the other finds another friend, this is one of the moments when the immediate advantages of hanging together far outweigh considerations based on a permanent conflict of interest.

The journey over the Brenner is meant to emphasize that fact. But Mussolini must have smiled as he passed from the Italian guard lined up on one side of the little intervening strip of Austria and was met by the stalwarts of Hitler's guard on the other. In the speech in Sicily last month he reaffirmed the strength of the Rome-Berlin axis and gave a most conciliatory response to Mr. Chamberlain's proffer of friendship. Also, he made another statement, perhaps more significant. He said that there were 100,000 Alpine troops on the Brenner and that if necessary the entire Italian infantry would be mobilized on that frontier. This reference to Nazi agitation among the 250,000 Germans of the Upper Adige, as persistent as in Austria, Denmark or Czechoslovakia, was not reported in the American press. It was headlined in Paris, however, and could not have been lost on Berlin.

•   •   •

Austria is bound to loom large in the background if not in the foreground of the conversations in Berlin. Austria is the touchstone of the reality of the Rome-Berlin axis. If the dependence of the two powers on one another at this moment is such that they can agree on a formula for Austria, then a new European platform is in the making. And that implies easing the tension between Berlin and another Rome, as powerful and persistent in its fashion as Mussolini's—the Rome of the Vatican. It is significant that on the eve of the Duce's visit the Pope has issued a thunderous prophecy of violent persecution of the church in Germany. It reads almost like a warning to Italy against entering an anti-Bolshevist alliance with a Government that encourages a Bolshevist attitude toward religion.

The dialogue is bound to reveal how tenuous is the natural affinity between the dictators as men and the nations as nations. The inherent weakness of the partnership is that it does not develop from within but as the result of pressure from without. It is essentially artificial. It depends largely on the attitude of Paris and London. And on forces more real than ideological bonds or political considerations. As the two corporals of the last war review the new German Army they may look back as well as ahead. If they do they will remember that alliances of convenience usually end in divorce.