A Historical Perspective on the War in Ukraine





Greek Artillery in 1940, resisting the Italian invasion

I have no more information available than the average person connected to the Web, nor I can claim to be more than an armchair strategist. For these reasons, so far I haven’t said anything about the war in Ukraine. But I have studied Italian history, and I have a special fascination for the incompetence of leaders. I have an even stronger fascination for how incompetent leaders tend to be obeyed and revered, at times even worshiped, by their subjects. So, I thought I could propose to you a retelling of the Greco-Italian war of 1940. It was one of the clearest demonstrations of incompetence that a government ever provided. Can it provide us with some insights into the current situation? I leave that to you to decide.  

In the late 1930s, Benito Mussolini, the prime minister of Italy, had reached the stage in which he could not be contradicted by anyone. And not just that: he was like a child who, when he wants a toy, wants it immediately. Since Mussolini was the absolute ruler of the country, this combination of incompetence and arrogance was the perfect recipe for disaster. Which took place in multiple forms.  

We have several documents about how decisions were taken by the Italian government, for instance the diary of the foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, and the minutes of several of the high-level government reunions. In 1940, when World War II had just started, it seems that Mussolini’s main concern was to show his ally, and also rival, Adolf Hitler, that Italy, too, could engage in victorious blitzkrieg campaigns. 

It was at this stage that the idea of attacking Greece appeared. It made some sense because Greece was allied with the British, and also a relatively weak target. After all, Italy had been able to subdue the Albanian Kingdom, in just a few days the year before. So, why should things be different with Greece?

The problems with this idea were several: the main one was that — unlike Albania — Greece had a serious army.  But Mussolini wanted that invasion at all costs, and his military staff seemed to be engaged mainly in the game of pleasing him. So, the plan was to use the Italian troops stationed in Albania to attack Greece from the North. The Generals all agreed that it would be a cakewalk and that Greece would fall at the first push. Mussolini set the date for the start of the invasion in October. Nobody dared tell him that the plan implied crossing the Epirus mountains in winter — not exactly a good idea for a blitzkrieg, German style. 

Duly, on the chosen date of October 28 1940, the Italian infantry advanced into Greece from Albania, and it was an instant disaster. The Greeks were waiting, well-entrenched, supplied with weapons and ammunition by the British, and ready to fight. The list of mistakes made with this campaign is so long to be worth a whole book (which exists, it is titled “The Hollow Legions” by Mario Cervi). Let’s just say that the Italian attack was carried out by insufficient troops, insufficiently equipped, insufficiently prepared, and led by incompetent generals. The Italian high command seemed to think that they were still fighting World War I. Just attack en masse the enemy’s front line. What could go wrong by running against an entrenched enemy with fixed bayonets? 

During the first weeks of the campaign, not only the Italians could not advance, bogged in the snow, but they seriously risked being thrown back into the sea. The struggle lasted about six months until the Germans intervened in the spring of 1941. At that point, the combined attack of the German and Italian armies forced Greece to surrender. 

It was a victory for Italy, but it was one of those victories that one almost wishes had been defeats. The cost of the Greece campaign had been enormous: more than 100,000 casualties for Italy. The Greek front had also absorbed five times more troops and equipment than on the North-African front, where they would have been badly needed — one of the reasons for the Italian defeat in that region. 

But Italy suffered the strongest blow in terms of propaganda. Mussolini had built his reputation as that of an “infallible” leader (the slogan was “Mussolini is always right”). After all — up to then — he had won all the wars he had engaged Italy in. But the failure of the Greek campaign offered the Allies a chance to paint him not just as an evil dictator, but also as a bumbling idiot. To say nothing about the blow to the reputation of Italy as a military power. Even from the Axis side, Mussolini received plenty of flak. The Germans used the Italian blunder in Greece as an excuse for the failure of their 1941 campaign against the Soviet Union, which they attributed to the delay caused by the need of helping the distressed Italians. Only in Italy, the press continued to praise Mussolini’s leadership and his clever strategic insights.  

So, history always teaches you lessons, often fascinating ones. In this case, we can learn that:

Having won the previous war doesn’t mean autmatically winning the following one.Invincible leaders often turn out to be just lucky leaders. Until their luck runs out.Aging leaders may turn into bumbling idiots. Or maybe that’s what they were all the time.No mistake made by a leader can be so large that his followers will not praise it as the result of superior strategic savvy.A victory obtained at too high a price is worse than a defeat. Propaganda is mightier than the sword.History pardons no mistakes. 

Now, does the story of the Italian attack on Greece in 1940 offer us insights into the current situation in Ukraine? Maybe, but only in part. Evaluating ongoing events by comparing them to historical ones is the best way to make enormous mistakes. Whatever happens in the world, happens for a reason, and Tolstoy correctly said that “a king is history’s slave.” If Italy attacked Greece in 1940, was it because a dumb leader in Rome wanted to play a trick on another dumb leader in Berlin? Really? The reasons for what’s happening right now in Ukraine are still obscure for most of us. But history will move on anyway. 

The main reason why I told you about the Greco-Italian war is that, more than 80 years later, we can pause for a moment to consider why tens of thousands of Italian and Greek men fought against each other so hard and died in such large numbers. Thinking about how useless that was may give us some perspective on how useless the current war is. We can only hope that it will end as soon as possible. 


Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More