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The Stresa Front was an agreement made in Stresa, a town on the banks of Lake Maggiore in Italy, between French foreign minister Pierre Laval, British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, and Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini on April 14, 1935. Formally called the Final Declaration of the Stresa Conference, its aim was to reaffirm the Locarno Treaties and to declare that the independence of Austria "would continue to inspire their common policy". The signatories also agreed to resist any future attempt by the Germans to change the Treaty of Versailles. Most importantly for Benito Mussolini, it was another opportunity to stage Fascist propaganda as the 'Duce' was portrayed as an elder statesman and a keeper of the peace (after the failed Anschluss of 1934).
The Stresa Front was triggered by Germany's declaration of its intention to build up an air force, to increase the size of its army to 36 divisions (500,000 men - much more than the amount prescribed by the Treaty of Versailles, the original figure set was 96,000 men) and to introduce conscription, in March 1935.
Mussolini believed that the signing of the Stresa Front would mean Britain and France would not interfere in the Abyssinian crisis.
Even though the ever increasingly belligerent Germany dominated discussions within the conference room, Mussolini was at his cleverest when outside. He discussed with Britain plans to pursue his aim of making Italy 'great, respected and feared' through the invasion and conquest of Abyssinia and ultimately create an all-powerful empire. Mussolini made sure not to discuss his expansionist plans within the confines of the conference itself due to the possible risk of the Western democracies issuing a veto over it. Furthermore, Mussolini couldn't risk the conference being sidetracked from its main aim of reaffirming Locarno and opposing any more breaches of international agreements. With this said, Mussolini got his way with his plans for invading Abyssinia not being brought up. The 'Duce' therefore took the silence as justification for colonial war and launched his invasion of Abyssinia in October 1935. The importance of this is not to be overlooked as it was the turning point for Mussolini concerning his foreign standing as he drifted away from Britain and France, and into the camp of Hitler's Germany.
The Stresa Front could be seen as a failure due to its vague terms and the fact that it wasn't clear how its aims should be upheld. It ignored all references to Germany as Britain was adopting a dual policy and did not want to antagonize Hitler. The hard line was provided by Mussolini, while Britain 'kept the door open' with Germany in order to obtain agreements. Hitler had used tactics that made Britain and France guess at what his next move would be. However, because of the vague terms, it kept Hitler guessing at what Britain would do. Britain didn't realize the advantage it had over Germany and this was lost with the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement.
Another reason for its failure was that Britain, France and Italy did not want to invade Germany. The only real way in which German rearmament could be ceased was by a full scale invasion of Germany. However, the British government was unwilling to pursue this option as it perceived anti-war sentiment to be strong among the British public.
The Front was not successful. Within two months the UK had signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, by which Germany was given the green light to increase the size of its navy to no more than 35% (by tonnage) of the Royal Navy and to build submarines. The UK had not discussed this with its Stresa partners and the front was seriously damaged. This highlighted the fact that the countries that made up the Stresa Front were pulling in different directions. It collapsed completely with Italy's invasion of Abyssinia.
Mussolini had harboured ambitions of controlling Abyssinia for a long time. He was enraged when Britain signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement without first informing him of its plans. Mussolini had held back on his invasion plans as Abyssinia bordered French and British Somaliland and he didn't want to anger his allies. However, he felt Britain had betrayed him and this removed all doubts he had regarding the invasion. He also believed that Britain's actions ended the conditions that were agreed in the Stresa Front.
On January 6, 1936, Mussolini told German ambassador Ulrich von Hassell that he would not object to Germany taking Austria as a satellite state so long as it maintained independence. Later, on the 22 February, Mussolini gave clearance for Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland, stating that Italy would not honor the obligations of the Locarno Treaty should Germany take such action.
- Richard Lamb. Mussolini as Diplomat: Il Duce's Italy on the World Stage, pg. 114
- Peter Neville. Mussolini, pg. 135