As the Germans had feared, the British began landing soldiers and aircraft in southern Greece as early as November 1940. Had Mussolini delivered on his claim that he would stroll into Athens within a month, then the Balkans (with the exception of Greece) would probably have remained an island of peace for most of the war. But with the planned invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler could not afford to have his rear threatened by British forces. Mussolini’s failure to subjugate Greece provoked the Nazi military sweep through the Balkans.
Mussolini was able to pay Hitler back ‘in his own coin’ at their summit meeting in Florence on 28 October, the day of the attack on Greece. Far from admonishing Mussolini, as il Duce had expected, Hitler congratulated him briefly and advised him to concentrate on grabbing Crete. Mussolini ignored the advice. Although he did not know it, his casual announcement of the invasion had not taken Hitler by surprise. The Führer’s information-gathering network was too good for that. On receiving the same intelligence, Ernst von Weizsäcker, Undersecretary of State at the Außenamt, ‘set about making a very clear demarche. I drew up an unambiguous instruction to Rome that we should not allow our ally, who was weak enough in any case, to bring new countries into the war without our advice and consent as allies. Ribbentrop approved this, but Hitler said he did not want to cross Mussolini. Hitler’s silence meant indirectly giving Italy the sign to go ahead with her . . . step in the Balkans.’
Hitler even offered Mussolini paratroop support for an operation against Crete. ‘People are too prone to think of the Mediterranean as an east–west channel for shipping’, observed ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, the head of America’s intelligence service, the OSS, in a memo to Roosevelt sent from the Balkans a month after the Italian offensive had begun. ‘It should be thought of primarily as a no-man’s land between Europe and Africa, with two great forces facing each other from the north and the south. Germany controls, either directly or indirectly, most of the northern battle-line on the continent of Europe. It is imperative for the British – or the British and the Americans – to control the southern front along the Mediterranean shore of Africa.’ Donovan had not quite read Hitler’s mind, but it was a passable summary of what the Führer was thinking.
Hitler could have blocked the Italian invasion of Greece but did not. First, he wanted to prevent Britain from establishing an airbase in Thessaloniki from which British bombers could reach the oil fields in Ploeşti. But he had a still grander reason. Operation ‘Seelöwe’, the invasion of Britain, had failed, and Hitler had dropped the idea of a second attempt. He had switched instead to the so-called ‘peripheral strategy’ which involved cutting communications between Great Britain and its imperial outposts. At the time of the Italian invasion, Hitler was planning an assault on Gibraltar and a push, with the Italians, towards Suez. If Germany and Italy could seize Crete, then they would control the main naval and aerial staging post in the Mediterranean. They could monitor and regulate traffic along an east–west and a north–south axis. Hitler accepted and even supported Italy’s Greek operation within the context of the ‘peripheral strategy’ against England. But his modest enthusiasm for the offensive soon soured when he realized it had been planned and executed by a clown. The British occupied Crete on 6 November while the Italians were still bogged down in the mud of Epirus just 24 kilometres from their base camp. ‘A matchless dilettantism’, fulminated Goebbels in December when the extent of Italy’s failure became clear.
The Italians have ruined the military prestige of the Axis. This is why the Balkans have become such a stubborn problem . . . So we must now intervene. Not to help them but to run the English out of Crete where they have installed themselves. They must get out of there. The Führer would prefer to see a peace deal between Rome and Athens but it is a difficult policy to sell. Mussolini has really messed this one up . . . If only he had occupied Crete straight away as the Führer had advised. But Rome is incorrigible.
By this time, Germany’s need to intervene in the Balkans had become still more pressing. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, arrived in Berlin on the afternoon of 12 November 1940 for two days of talks. Hitler wished to invite the Soviet Union to join Germany, Italy and Japan in the Tripartite Pact. Were Stalin to accept the offer to join the Axis, this would create the mightiest political alliance in history, stretching from the Atlantic and Mediterranean to the Pacific. Hitler had hit upon the idea of incorporating the Soviet Union into his scheme partly to pre-empt a future alliance of the Soviet Union, Britain and, possibly, the United States, and partly because he had become anxious about the gradual westward expansion of the Soviet Union through Finland, the Baltics, Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. In the Molotov–Ribbentrop accord of August 1939, Hitler had effectively recognized the Balkans as a Russian sphere of interest. Meanwhile, however, Germany’s interest in the region had become more urgent. By persuading the Soviet Union to sign up to the Tripartite Pact, Hitler hoped, among other things, to extinguish Soviet influence in the Balkans. Berlin offered to compensate Moscow by supporting Soviet expansion in what Hitler termed the ‘Großasiatischer Raum’ (greater Asian space). When Molotov asked what ‘Großasiatischer Raum’ actually meant, the Germans were unable to give him a concrete answer; it has been assumed that it meant India, Central Asia and Iran.
As Hitler unveiled his vision of the new order, covering half the globe, Molotov sat impassively and, having heard the Führer out, stated he agreed ‘in principle’ to the idea. He then proceeded to raise difficulties about all the individual issues that Hitler had hoped to resolve in Germany’s favour. The Foreign Minister mentioned Finland, Poland and Romania but he also raised for the first time the question of Bulgaria. Molotov claimed that Britain was threatening the security of the Black Sea Straits, which had prompted the Soviet Union to consider an offer ‘of a Russian guarantee to Bulgaria’.
Molotov’s intervention threatened Wehrmacht plans to invade Greece, which included sending its divisions through Bulgaria. Stalin’s response to the Tripartite proposal arrived by letter two weeks after Molotov’s visit. The Soviet leader was adamant on the issue of Bulgaria: ‘2. Provided that within the next few months the security of the Soviet Union in the Straits is assured by the conclusion of a mutual assistance pact between the Soviet Union and Bulgaria . . . and by the establishment of a base for land and naval forces of the USSR within range of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles by means of a long-term lease.’
Hitler needed the Balkans for economic reasons. He could not tolerate Soviet interference in the region, and certainly not a Soviet military presence there. Persuaded that Stalin was becoming too conceited and dangerous as an ally, Hitler decided to destroy the Soviet Union once and for all. The great gamble was begun.
This momentous decision . . . had immediate and far-reaching consequences. Firstly, the war against Britain now turned into a secondary matter, and the ‘peripheral strategy’ was therefore eliminated at a stroke. Secondly, the mess created by Italy’s failure in Greece turned from a secondary nuisance within the framework of the ‘peripheral strategy’ (and not wholly unqualified, as it had presented the Germans with the opportunity to install themselves in the eastern Mediterranean while circumventing Italian objections) into a first-class blunder from the point of view of the future war against Russia.
After Greece’s seizure of Korçe, an optimistic editorial in the New York Times suggested that ‘it probably needs only a comparatively small number of British divisions with accompanying artillery, tanks and airplanes to bring it [victory over the Italians and control of the northern Mediterranean] to fulfillment. But where are the divisions and whence are they coming? Is British land armament and trained man power yet sufficient to spare enough for this providential chance? If the answer is affirmative, this may prove to be a turning point of the war.’ The answer was negative; it was a turning point nonetheless.