Clashing Interests in the Mediterranean

To every other nation except Italy, the Mediterranean is a means, to Italy it is an end.

During the Ethiopian campaign the massing of the British Navy, to the surprise of everybody, failed to scare Mussolini, or to prevent Italy from using the “all-red route” for her Abyssinian war. The British fleet, under threat of hostilities with an air power, slipped out of Malta in search of a safer base.

The complacency of years was shattered, and the ruling class of Britain, caught by surprise, was forced into hasty thinking.

Elizabeth Monroe, in her book, “The Mediterranean in Politics,” sheds an enlightening gleam upon those hectic days. “If Malta was insecure in face of air armaments, were all small fortresses out of date, and, if so, what about Gibraltar, Cyprus, Aden? . . . Would not the Government do better to concentrate its money and energy on the securer passage round the Cape?”

There was confusion everywhere in the councils of our masters: strategists and experts expressed conflicting views. Some were for quitting the Mediterranean. Others pointed out that to quit was to weaken Britain’s position, because it reduced her power of attack.

“In the World War, when the enemy had boasted few or no Mediterranean bases, German submarines had been more successful in the Mediterranean than in any other sea. Five out of thirteen million tons of allied and neutral shipping sunk by submarine had been caught somewhere between Gibraltar and Port Said.”

The other side disagreed. They admitted that the route was impassable for merchant shipping in time of war, but they held that the despised bases had their uses. They might be open to attack, but they could also hit back. Blockade from Aden and Gibraltar was no substitute for attack, because a Mediterranean enemy—for instance, Italy or Turkey—could prosper within the blockade area, since she could procure there all essentials except rubber and tin. She could get plentiful wheat and meat and dairy produce from the Balkans, coal from Russia or Germany, oil from Russia, Rumania or Iraq, iron ore from French North Africa, Russia or Spain, copper from Russia, Yugoslavia or Cyprus, and cotton from Russia or Egypt. Obviously, some of these powers might join in the blockade, but Great Britain was far less likely to retain allies if she had retired to a distance. Italy, for example, would be in a position to browbeat her small neighbours into supplying her needs if there were no one left to dispute her local supremacy.

“We are quitting nothing,” said the Secretary of State for the Colonies. “Far from there being any question of our abdicating our position in the Mediterranean or scuttling from Malta, we intend to face these new and difficult problems—to make our future position secure,” said the First Lord of the Admiralty, after visiting Malta and Cyprus.

The result was that the ruling class drew up an armament programme staggering in its immensity and cost.

Mussolini, however, was in no way daunted; he knows the weakness as well as the strength of his opponents; he has a view of life totally different to that of his democratic antagonists, he cannot be bluffed.

The dictator’s pet aversion is said to be Eden; the latter personifies everything that Mussolini loathes—bourgeois respectability.

If there is any particular type the Duce admires it is the efficient proletarian. Mussolini has lived as a vagrant and knows from experience how hard is the lot of the wage slave; his early writings gave us a glimpse of his mind: when approached in the wrong way, his fury is immediately aroused, especially if there is anything in the manner of those who seek contact with him that recalls his bitter past. Read this and you can form an opinion of what he may have thought of the smug Anthony: the latter, probably, reminded him of a former boss.

“The following day I found a job as a bricklayer’s assistant; eleven hours of work a day, thirty-two centimes an hour. I made 121 trips with a load of bricks to the second story of a house under construction. That night the muscles of my arms were so swollen and sore that I could barely touch them. I ate some potatoes roasted in the ashes and threw myself, dressed as I was, upon my bed, a heap of straw.
At five in the morning I got up and went back to work. I quivered with impotent anger. The sight of the boss, with his fat, smug, self-satisfied face, gave me hydrophobia. On the third day he said to me, “You’re too well-dressed.” He meant that to be significant. I felt like rebelling and breaking the head of that newly-rich peasant who accused me of being lazy while my bones were cracking under the strain. But what if I had done it? The employer is always right.
When the end of the week came, I told the boss that I was going to leave and wanted my pay. He went into the office while I waited outside on the landing. When he came out he angrily thrust twenty-odd francs into my hand and snarled: “Here you are, it’s stolen money.” I was too dumbfounded to reply. What should I have done, killed him ? As a matter of fact, I turned away in silence. I was hungry and barefooted. A pair of almost new shoes that I had brought with me had been tom to shreds, on the rocks and bricks that had cut their way into my hands, my feet and my soul. I hurried, off to an Italian store-keeper and bought a pair of hobnailed shoes. The next morning I left for Lausanne.”

Mussolini is now a renegade, boastful and unscrupulous, but “the swollen bullfrog of the Pontine marshes” cannot altogether eradicate his proletarian past: when aroused he sheds all bourgeois culture and instinctively adopts the manner of the class from which he sprang.

He is said to hold the view that the system will never get out of the present debacle : in an interview with a former “Socialist” colleague, he expressed himself thus: “It is the crisis of capitalism. I have always said so.”

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Why did Italy interfere in Spain ? The author above referred to gives us her opinion: “They feared the Socialist tendencies of die Spanish left, and they were anxious as to developments in France. At the time when they first sent help to General Franco—in July, 1936—Monsieur Blum’s Government was dependent on seventy Communist votes, and factories all over France were being occupied by the workers. Probably their chief reason for intervening was their fear that a barrier of Communism might bar Italy’s vital route to the west. Strategically, therefore, they needed a friendly Spain. Doubtless they also reckoned that if, in addition, they could secure an indebted and subservient Spain, they stood to strengthen their position, not only as a Mediterranean, but as an Atlantic power, that they would weaken Great Britain’s hold over the Straits of Gibraltar and that they would command France’s communications, not only from north to south, but from east to west, along North Africa, where her road and railway run so near the Spanish Moroccan frontier.

“But Italy’s past motives for intervening are unimportant in comparison with the question of the future: will she see a return for her intervention? Among a host of conjectures, two facts are clear: the first, that she did not expect so long or so expensive a campaign; the second, that she did not lend men and material without hope of reward.
“The Spanish campaign dragged its length along at a pace which could only have been foretold by a student of the Napoleonic or the earliest wars. Spain was poor in war material. Most of her army I equipment dated from before the War, and the nations who helped either side began by exporting out-of-date armaments, which, while useless to themselves, represented trump cards to the Spanish forces. But from the moment in November, 1936, when the Russians began to supply first-line aircraft, the situation changed. Italy and Germany were obliged in their turn to put their best foot forward. Italy could not afford to do so. Her war material was already spread over Abyssinia and Libya, and she was short of the raw materials necessary for quick replenishment. The risk of war in Europe demanded that she should keep control over the equipment supplied to General Franco: she was therefore obliged to supply him with men as well. Hence her despatch of whole units of the Italian Army.
“When this assistance did not bring the quick victory for which she hoped, she was caught in a vicious circle. The more she hoped General Franco the more she increased his chances of success, but the more she ran the risk of general war with her own armaments in a depleted state. On the other hand’ to furnish insufficient help was to spin out a campaign the expense of which she could ill afford.
“By the end of 1937, voices at home were beginning to murmur against taxation for Spanish purposes. By 1938, when Germany had marched into Austria, they were suggesting that the Italians would be better employed in the Alps. But despite their murmurings. Signor Mussolini found difficulty in withdrawing his troops short of victory. He could not do so because a dictator must go from strength to strength. Like a man on a bicycle, he must keep moving or he will fall.”

Mussolini was able to compensate himself to some extent by obtaining some of the raw materials he so desperately needed. It is to be noted that business was carried on as usual during hostilities. Profit is never lost sight of, even during the horrors of a ghastly war.

The material and economic factors in the Spanish struggle have so far not received the attention they deserve.

France has the most at stake, inasmuch as French interests hold about sixty per cent. of the total foreign investments. The British share, representing about twenty per cent., lies chiefly in mining, and was in 1937 estimated at about £40 millions.

Great Britain and France, who hoped to preserve the status quo, tried to limit the struggle to small dimensions, and therefore championed non-intervention. Since their ideal was a weak Spain, the result that would have suited them best was a stalemate—a situation in which the two Spanish factions, sickened with inconclusive fighting, and with insufficient help from their respective patrons had turned to British and French bankers for reconstruction loans. Had this happened, the two powers would not only have remained strategically secure, but could have worked to recover any losses caused by the war among their considerable Spanish investments. From a purely self-interested standpoint, any other result was less satisfactory to them.

“A victory for the extreme left would have caused misgivings in Great Britain if it had encouraged Communist tendencies in France. But once the expansionist powers were openly helping General Franco, a victory for the extreme right presented even graver drawbacks. Won at the cost of Spanish subservience to Italy or Germany, or both, it threatened both the British and French Empires with strategic, diplomatic, and perhaps even economic difficulties.”

Certain diplomats held that the Italians would never retain a footing in Spain, because Spaniard and Italian could never agree, and that General Franco could be relied upon to eject his Fascist helpers as soon as he had won the war. The German menace they also dismissed. Spanish waters, they said, were an area in which British and French fleets could deploy with effect. Spain was easy to insulate, and any German forces operating from there could soon be immobilised.

Both these arguments are over-optimistic. The first disregards the tendency of totalitarian states to act together, despite human dislikes. Italy is immensely powerful in the Central Mediterranean, but weak at its either end, and, were she to gain any kind of foothold in Spain, would shatter the present delicate balance of Mediterranean forces. The second, though true as far as it goes, overlooks the main advantage that Herr Hitler can derive from dominance in Spain. His arms or influence there achieve their maximum potency, not as a war force, but as a pre-war nuisance. In the game of poker to which diplomacy is once more reduced, he heightens his chances of winning a hand if his troops can glower at France from the Pyrenees as well as the Rhine, if they can hang, spectre-like, over the French mobilisation channel, and if they can look briskly efficient on the hills on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar.

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The development which culminated in such a situation was the logical outcome of the policy adopted by the victors of the last war.

Debts, reparations and the irksome situation forced upon the vanquished led to the dislocation of world trade and the fall of the gold standard. The very day that Britain went from gold to a sterling basis saw Japan begin her invasion of Manchuria and the launching of her new Far- Eastern policy.

The Ottawa Conference of 1932 saw the Dominions and the mother-country meet together under the flag of Empire to devise ways and means of evolving an economic plan that would foster the interests of Imperial Britain, no matter what became of the rest of the world.

Her late enemy retaliated with totalitarianism, and the spectacular rise and subsequent moves of the German dictator are due to an attempt to remove the strangling grip which Germany feels upon her economic windpipe.

Italy, in the decline of world trade, fights for a place in the sun, but is forced by economic and geographical circumstances to play second fiddle to the Nazi chief.

As in Austria, so in Spain, it seems that Herr Hitler might rake in the Italian stake with the nonchalance of a croupier. German intervention in the Iberian peninsula has been more skilful and more telling than the Italian: the Germans concentrated upon quality: to the fighting forces they lent only pilots, yet, by providing technical civilian help, they have contrived to gain a hold on all Spain’s activities, from her police and post offices to her civil aerodromes and some of her industries and mines.

The German “help” will not come to an end with the end of the civil war, and the realisation of this fact has upset all Anglo-French strategic planning. Great Britain is now burdened with fresh defence liabilities in the Atlantic and at Gibraltar, and France will feel the strain, not only at sea, but in the Pyrenees and in North Africa.

The hungry German received payment in Spanish ores from General Franco for services rendered. There is danger to British capitalist interests looming in the distance; the German armament industry, so they fear, is moving to secure the whole mineral output of Spain.

The list of Spanish minerals is long and varied. The chief deposits lie on the Atlantic side of the peninsula. First among them are the great reserves of iron ore in the north, near Bilbao, and, second in importance, the copper and pyrite deposits in the south-west, behind Huelva. The same region, where the British-owned Rio Tinto Company is the leading concern, also yields manganese and sulphur. The biggest mercury mine in the world is at Almaden, in Central Spain; there are rich deposits in the northern Catalonia and subsidiary supplies of iron ore are mined in Spanish Morocco.

The battles in the civil war were mostly fought for the possession of mines, rarely for military objectives.

The rumour that Germany was in full possession of the mineral wealth of Spain was exaggerated, but the story that she was procuring increasing quantities of Spanish ores was true. The position was roughly as follows: The buyers and sellers of the international mineral market are not governments, but business houses and, during the war, brisk sales of all Spain’s minerals had continued almost without intermission. Most firms traded with their usual customers, regardless of the political colour of the part of Spain in which they were situated. Owing to rearmament and to the general business recovery which marked the year 1937, the whole world was buying more minerals, and Spanish sales were interrupted only when the mineral deposits were actually in the battle zone. For instance, the export of iron ore from the Bilbao district fell off while General Franco was actually capturing the area, but was resumed again, its direction little changed, as soon as the mines re-opened work.

A glance at Germany’s economic plight enables even the man in the street to perceive that the Germans were bound to try to increase their dominance in Spain. They were short of foreign exchange. Therefore, instead of straining to find francs and sterling in order to buy foreign ores from Lorraine or Canada, they were seeking a hold on mining areas which would accept a medium in which they could pay—that is, which could be made to take German goods or German services. Their object was to improve their general economic position rather than to swell their total import of ores.

From the British and French point of view, the prospect of greater German influence in Spain is less disquieting in the matter of minerals than in that of markets. If German experts were to secure all the key positions in the country Germany would be well placed for operating the device which she has already used so skilfully in south-eastern Europe—that is, she could run up bills, offer payment in German goods or not at all and confront the British, French or Italian exporter with crippling competition.

Economically, as well as diplomatically, therefore, Germany stands a chance of worsting the democratic countries and obtaining a substantial reward for her intervention policy. The recent occupation of Albania by Mussolini is probably due to an attempt to enhance the price he hopes to get from Britain and France when he withdraws from Spain.

British capitalism must get the European mess cleared up quickly: their interests in the Far East are in jeopardy. The war danger is exaggerated with a view of inducing men to line up to defend the country; they will more readily respond to an appeal for home defence than for service abroad. The French elections are due in 1940 and the United States goes to the polls during the same year.

The British ruling class want to be assured their friends are in power in these countries before they embark upon a hazardous enterprise, therefore our masters here will try to keep the peace until 1941.

But as G.B.S. says: “You never can tell.” Capitalism is in difficulties and the acid test finds our exploiters wanting: they are mentally bankrupt; this is our opportunity.

Practically all newspapers now contain horoscopes; astrologers are reappearing as the guides of statesmen. When men are in fear they go back to the superstitions of their childhood.

Capitalism is the enemy, and, whether he appears as a democrat or a dictator, he can offer nothing but wage slavery to the working class.

Socialists everywhere oppose the principles of Scientific Socialism to the war plans of the ruling class in such a way that the class issue is kept clear and the real aims of the ruling class exposed.

Their battle-cry is: “Working men of all countries unite.”

The true soldier of the proletariat replies to the war threat of capitalism by lining up his class for Socialism.


(Socialist Standard, May 1939)

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