When Benito Mussolini met Adolf Hitler

first encounters sorel and sorel; Illustration by Edward Sorel Text by Nancy Caldwell Sorel Next week: Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini

Saturday 03 February 1996 01:02 GMT

As his plane put down in Venice on 14 June 1934, Adolf Hitler felt himself at a decided disadvantage. For one thing, he had neglected to wear a uniform. It was he who had requested the meeting, but still new to dictatorship, he had not foreseen that his brown gabardine and limp fedora would be overshadowed by the snappy attire of the commander-in-chief of the Italian Fascist militia. Then there were the facts that Mussolini spoke German, while he himself did not know Italian, and that this was foreign territory. In spite of stiff-armed salutes, heel-clicking, and the "Horst Wessel Song", Hitler could not quite control a nervous tick.

For his part, Mussolini planned to be a perfect host. He had the confidence of a man who, after declaring himself minister of war, the navy and the air force, then learned to swim and fly, and to ride a horse so that he could review his troops. Neither he nor Hitler had risen above the rank of corporal in the last war, but there was no need to bring that up. It was the fate of Austria that Mussolini wished to discuss. To that end, he conducted his guest by car to Stra, near Padua, where they secluded themselves in the drawing room of the royal palace.

At that point all formality - and civility - ceased. Opposition brought out the maniacal in Hitler. "It is my will, and the indomitable will of the German people," screeched the Fuhrer, "that Austria become an integral part of the Reich!" Il Duce blasted back with Italy's equally indomitable resolve that Austria remain independent. Anxious attendants heard fists thumping, and increasingly frenzied rantings. Finally the door flew open and both men tramped through. They did not look at each other. They acknowledged the cheering crowd and returned to Venice in separate cars.

Yet to be endured were formal dinners, a concert of Wagner, the obligatory military review. Goodbyes were frigid. What was his impression? Mussolini was asked afterwards. "A mad little clown," he said

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