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6: The True Meaning of the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact

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IT IS said that Mussolini wished Italy to stay neutral in the second World War. This may be true because neutrality would have served her well. Why, after the breakdown of the French army, which he had certainly not expected, Mussolini hastened to enter the war is not yet sufficiently clarified. Most people think that he considered Hitler's triumph final and wanted to secure his share of the great redistribution of the world. Others think he could no longer dare to resist the orders of Hitler, who had wanted Italy's military collaboration from the beginning. This view seems to be refuted by reports according to which Hitler considered Italy a liability rather than an asset and, therefore, wanted her to remain neutral. It is probable that Hitler did not trust Mussolini and that, victory seemingly assured, he did not leave Italy a free choice. In short, I believe that Hitler would have tolerated neutrality on the part of Italy only under a material guarantee which would not have been to Mussolini's liking, as, for example, German control of her naval ports. If this is correct, the Duce was no longer a free agent when he decided to enter the war. For Hungary, it was a portentous event. After Hitler had seized power, what had been left of Hungary's freedom had hinged on the fact that two powers, Germany and Italy, wanted to influence her decisions. Now the two merged into one. Italy, as Germany's military ally and entirely dependent on German supplies, could no longer proffer even the little backing against German demands which she had given Hungary in the past. June 10, 1940 was a black day for Budapest. When I saw Mr. de Kanya, no longer foreign minister but still a power in Hungary, he took comfort in the thought that Hitler would now give more heed to the wishes of Mussolini. This did not sound convincing and I don't think de Kanya believed it himself, but he needed some comfort. In this same conversation, de Kanya with some bitterness accused Britain of having given encouraging pledges to Poland and Rumania without being prepared to come to their assistance. He wondered if America would be drawn in, and I told him we would. It was hard for him to believe this, or that if we were, we would join in time to influence the final decision. At this moment, the prestige of the so-called democracies was at a low ebb. The French catastrophe and the evacuation of Dunkirk were disheartening. From a Hungarian point of view, Mr. de Kanya could see nothing but disaster. He felt, quite rightly, that whosoever won, Hungary would lose. His position vis--vis the English and French can be exemplified by what he had previously told me, that he thought very highly of the Germans and Austrians because he had lived with them most of his life and he had found them good, hardworking, decent people. He had not had a great deal to do with the English, but enough to see that they were a lazy people with a superiority complex, and he did not particularly like them. However, he said he would not mind living under British hegemony, but he would rather be dead than to live under German. The British would allow one to live one's own life, whereas the Germans would regulate every minute detail. The man who coined the phrase "Rome-Berlin Axis" was in his grave when the Axis became a military reality. General Gombos had died in October, 1936. His death seemed to cause no regret. In fact, it seemed that every competent person from the Regent down was very much relieved. He had been prime minister when I arrived and for about three years thereafter. He was a professional soldier, but that did not prevent him from being a very keen politician. As a professional soldier, he was deeply impressed by the rebirth of the German army and air force, while as a politician, the man who had captured his imagination and admiration was Benito Mussolini. De Kanya, backed by the Regent, was supreme in foreign affairs, but this did not handicap Gombos when he spoke, and de Kanya was often obliged to mend the china smashed by the premier's irresponsible utterances. De Kanya was often annoyed at Gombos' indiscretions, as were his colleagues in the Foreign Office. I remember Apor, one day when I mentioned something Gombos had said, breaking out with the statement: "That man is the biggest ass that ever lived!" I laughed heartily, and he looked surprised. He said, "But he is!" De Kanya never used this exact expression, but he said repeatedly that nothing Gombos said about foreign affairs was of any interest because it meant nothing. In military affairs Gombos seemed to have more to say and he recommended for promotion to the general staff young officers who seemed to share his respect for the German army. This had serious consequences. Admiral Horthy, owing to his own tradition of an imperial and royal officer, stood above politics and did not interfere. By his acquiescence, the general staff was packed with Gombos' confidants who undermined the Regent's own policy of resistance to German demands.

There is little doubt that Gombos sabotaged Mussolini's efforts to develop a solid Italian- Austrian- Hungarian bloc, but history has proved him right because Italy was not strong enough to keep up her opposition to Hitler's expansion. If Hungary had become involved with Austria, Germany would have crushed her long before 1944. After all, Czechoslovakia, the only country in the Danubian Basin able to boast of a strong military organization, did not lift a finger to prevent the disappearance of Austria in March 1938.

Hitler's generals must have been afraid of a Czech move, otherwise Goering would not have concentrated upon giving solemn assurances to Dr. Benes during the invasion of Austria. If Prague trembled, how could Hungary, entirely defenseless, act as Italy's vanguard? On March 17, 1934, when Mussolini, Dollfuss and Gombos gathered in Rome to sign a Three Power Pact, providing for consultation and preferential trade agreements, everybody scented a far-reaching secret agreement. This became the occasion of a diplomatic stroke of luck. The Department of State was on tenterhooks because much depended on how far Mussolini would go in resisting Hitler. Thinking over the situation, I concluded that the Germans would be the ones most apt to have information as to what had happened at Rome, since they were the most interested party. The German minister at that time was Hans von Mackensen, a son of the great soldier who died in 1945. He was married to a young lady who was the daughter of Constantin von Neurath, and we knew them fairly well. He was very much more a soldier than a diplomat, and I didn't think that I would get much out of him. When I arrived at the legation, I was shown into the waiting room and had the feeling that someone had been spirited away with some haste. After a few minutes, he received me and answered my straight question directly. "The Rome Agreement doesn't mean anything; Gombos and de Kanya have just been here and in fact, were here when you arrived; they told me there was a secret reservation to the Rome Protocol to the effect that Hungary would not be a party to any, even defensive, alliance." That seemed like interesting news, so I telegraphed it to the Department. Later in the day I received a telegram from the Department asking me to go to the Foreign Office to see if I could get this confirmed. I called upon Baron Apor, then head of the political section, and had quite a session with him. I didn't want to say that von Mackensen had told me anything, so I didn't mention his name, but I did tell him that I understood there had been some secret agreement. Baron Apor at once said there had been no secret agreement of any kind. For a minute I didn't know what to do. I felt sure there had been an agreement and that von Mackensen had told me the truth; but on the other hand, I didn't think that Apor would lie about it. I kept insisting that there must be something of the kind, but Apor continued to assure me that there was not. Finally I had a happy thought and asked, "Well, what did you agree?" He said again, "Only to consult." I said, "So you agreed to consult. Did you tell them that even if you consulted, you would not do anything?" He said, "Well, yes." Of course, this meant that the consultation amounted to nothing, since all parties knew that it meant nothing. I wired this to the Department. Later I heard that Rome and Vienna had insisted to the contrary, but three months afterward, the information Apor had given me was admitted to be true. Neither Apor nor de Kanya ever gave me any false information, as far as I know. But they were very adroit in not saying what they did not want to say. Being prodded by the Duce to buttress Austria's resistance to German pressure, the Hungarians saw clearly the deep-seated antagonism between Mussolini and Hitler. Hence, they realized the folly of the British policy in connection with Ethiopia. They did not like Mussolini's African ventures. De Kanya said several times that Mussolini was very foolish, but the Hungarians felt that halfway measures would not accomplish anything except to force Mussolini and Hitler together.

Hungary and Austria incurred Mr. Eden's displeasure by refusing to join in the sanctions imposed on Italy in 1935, but it is an open secret that other states which pledged their co-operation kept on trading with Italy as before, surreptitiously. Mr. Eden seemed to care little for what was done privately as long as you followed his bidding publicly. The same lack of consistency prevailed during the whole Hitler period when small nations were permanently exhorted to display more pluck than the big powers could themselves muster.

Hungary did conclude a military understanding with Italy which, under certain circumstances, provided for military support by Italy in case of attack. Presumably this was in connection with the Little Entente, since the Treaty of Trianon left Hungary more or less unarmed. This plan provided that if Hungary were attacked, her army would retreat to a designated spot near Klagenfurth in the Austrian Carinthia. Here they would meet the Italians, who would come over the mountains with guns and enough military strength to protect the Hungarian army while it was in training. It was in effect a military alliance which at the time seemed impressive.

Its most interesting aspect was the apparent fear of German-Yugoslav collaboration, a fear which was by no means unfounded. Mr. Milan Stoyadinovitch, the prime minister under Prince Paul's regency, though loudly professing his loyalty to his Czech and Rumanian allies, was distinctly pro-German and a great friend of Goering, whom he pleased very much by treating Fraulein Sonnemann, with whom Goering traveled, as though she had already become his wife. This was something Regent Horthy refused to do, much to the annoyance of Mr. Goering, who, after that, was always very friendly with the Yugoslavs and correspondingly unfriendly with Hungarians. The Serbs, afraid of Italian support for the Croats, found it advisable to play ball with the Germans after the latter had occupied Austria and become Yugoslavia's neighbor. Stoyadinovitch was not misled by Czech assurances as he knew too well the weakness of the artificial state and could not have been surprised at Czechoslovakia's swift surrender. Hostility to Hungary had always been the sole tie of the Little Entente, but now that Germany had become a restless giant, Hungary's position as number one enemy had changed. During the sanctions against Italy (1935), a curious situation developed within the diplomatic corps in Budapest. The Italians did not want to meet the British, French or anyone else who was backing the sanctions, but they did not want to say this in so many words, In fact, the Italian legation in Budapest did not know quite what to do and, therefore, did nothing for fear of party watchdogs. Entertaining became very complicated. The diplomatic corps did not want to slight the Italians and made it a point to continue inviting them. Invariably the Italians did not answer their invitations. They did not like to refuse and they did not like to accept. The German diplomats were either much less timid or had better instructions. As far as I know, they went where they were invited, and this included many places where their host would have been much better pleased if they had declined. I think their attitude in this respect was correct. I feel that a diplomat's duty is to get information. He cannot do his full job if he avoids going out because of fear of embarrassing encounters. Naturally, after war is declared, the situation is entirely different, but up to that moment, it is the diplomat's duty to keep on the job. I never could understand calling home ministers and ambassadors because the country to which they were accredited had fallen into disfavor. It seems to me that that is the very time when we should have as much representation as we can get. Calling home the chief of a mission under such circumstances would seem to do most harm to the home nation. Eden's sanctions brought Mussolini and Hitler together as the Hungarians had foreseen, and accomplished nothing otherwise. From where I sat, the sanctions seemed intended only as an idle gesture -and a very costly one. The situation that developed took away what liberty of action Hungary had possessed. She could no longer balance between the two powers, because Italy, instead of urging her to keep away from Germany, began to urge her to do what Germany wanted. From the signing of the Axis Pact in October 1936, Mussolini seemed to have lost interest both in Hungary and in Austria. Early in 1937, Great Britain tried to repair some of the damage done by Mr. Eden. The result was the British-Italian agreement called the Mediterranean Pact. But things had gone too far. Italy between England and Germany was in exactly the same position in which Hungary had been between Italy and Germany. Mussolini was afraid of annoying Hitler by going too much toward Britain and at the same time afraid of being misused and deserted by the British; just as Gombos had been afraid of enraging Hitler by going with Italy and then being sold down the river by Italy. (This sentence ought to be read twice because it is the key to an understanding of that period. It also sheds light on the present. By appeasing the mightiest tyrant, we spread fear everywhere.) Concerning Italy's military power, the Hungarians had no illusions. In May 1937, the Regent made an official visit to Italy; on his return he told me that the Italian fleet was antiquated and consisted partly of ships he had commanded in the first World War. The return call of Italy's little king and his tall wife is in my memory like a grand theatrical event. The Hungarians as host were at their best. Some five hundred or more people attended the dinner in the grand ballroom of Franz Josef's palace under a ceiling of heavy silver, and a larger number attended the dance given the following night in the same room. Strict formality was observed at both events. The Hungarians wore their traditional uniforms to the dance, so it was extremely colorful. After dinner, the party left the ballroom and went up into the old palace which looked out on the Danube and Pest. Budapest had a very fine system of illuminating public buildings and bridges. As we looked out, we saw not only the city as it normally was, but all of the illumination, even up on the hills. It was extraordinary. The old palace itself was lit by candles, thousands of them in a long row of rooms, possibly a dozen, opening one on the other so that it made a long vista. When we were finally seated, the men were taken up and introduced to the king and the women to the queen. Apparently there had been much pressure put on the king by Italians living in Budapest -and there were quite a few- to give them some sort of decoration, because when I talked to him, the first thing he asked me was whether we had a large American colony. I told him no. He said, "Well, you are very lucky. We have a large Italian colony here and they are driving me crazy!" When he talked his mustache bobbed up and down and it was all I could do to keep from laughing. But he seemed to be a very nice man; we would call him democratic, since he put on no airs. I did not suspect at that moment that he would be capable of the heroism he showed in 1943. German troops had surrounded his house when he took Italy out of the war, and his courage should command our respect. During the Eucharistic Congress held some time later in Budapest, I had the privilege of making the acquaintance of His Holiness Pope Pius XII, when, as Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, he attended the Eucharistic Congress as the representative of the Pope. Foreign Minister de Kanya gave Cardinal Pacelli a luncheon and it so happened that I found myself seated next to him. I do not remember ever having received such a tremendous impression of anyone. When I came home, I said to my wife: "Today I met a really great man.

I had two or three conversations with him during his stay in Budapest and each time had the same reaction. I am, by nature and upbringing, not given to a feeling of awe in the presence of high priests, but seeing and hearing this man, whose features and bearing were more truly aristocratic than those of any noble-man I had encountered, I felt instinctively that in him there was burning a fire which did not devour, but purified.

When Italy, having given two years' notice, withdrew from the League of Nations in December 1937, Washington thought that Hungary, the "satellite," would follow suit. Despite the Axis, which was no longer called Rome-Berlin, but Berlin-Rome, the Hungarians did not think of following Italy out of the League. Afterward the Regent quoted to me the old fable of the two frogs in the milk pail, one of whom was drowned in despair whereas the other bustled until the milk turned into butter. The British way of life had always fascinated the higher strata of Hungarian society. There, England was the most popular nation, whereas Germany was considered with a mixture of respect and fear which is not conducive to love. Among the lower classes, the most popular country was the United States. There were then, and are now, a large number of Hungarians in this country -about one million- most of whom have relatives in Hungary with whom they correspond.

Hungary remained in the League of Nations not only because she had economic ties with the League which would have made it inconvenient for her to follow Italy, but also because she felt that it might displease England. The Anglo-Italian agreement of April 16, 1938, after Anthony Eden's resignation, was very pleasing to the Hungarians. Mussolini cabled to Neville Chamberlain that "to have settled in so frank and full a fashion questions outstanding between us places the relations between England and Italy on a solid and durable basis." How the Hungarians would have liked to believe it! Baron Apor, not usually given to undue optimism, expressed the view that the Axis was no longer what it had been, that Mussolini, like all Italians, was furious because of Hitler's entry into Austria and that the British-Italian agreement might prove stronger than the Axis pact. It has been said that Mussolini, in concluding the Axis pact, abandoned Austria. In spite of what later happened, I think this is not correct. All I know, and I think it will be borne out by documents, is that, on the contrary, the basis of the Axis pact was an understanding between Hitler and Mussolini not to change the status quo of Austria. Hence, by invading Austria, Hitler violated the pledge he had given the Duce, although before carrying out the invasion, he had forced Mussolini to agree to it.

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