The early years of Fascism saw a general attempt by Mussolini to work within the existing international system rather than challenge it. This is not to say that Mussolini did not take opportunities to increase Italian power and influence. However, he did so cautiously and with an eye to the attitudes of the British and the French. Most of the events were relatively minor affairs, which were presented by the regime’s propaganda machine as great successes. Undoubtedly, however, they helped to consolidate Mussolini’s domestic position. In August 1923 an Italian general and four of his staff were assassinated in Greece.
The Corfu incident of 1923 was an exception to this cautious approach, but the British led the other European powers in opposing this Italian Aggression, and Mussolini was forced to give up Corfu. The episode showed that Italy was not strong enough to resist the more powerful countries of Europe. Mussolini would clearly need to work with Britain rather than against her in pursuing his ambitions – at least in the short term. He was fortunate that Austen Chamberlain, Britain’s Foreign Secretary for much of the 1920’s, was an admirer of the fledging Italian regime and was inclined to look tolerantly on the Duce’s actions.
This episode was hailed in Italy as a great success for dynamic Fascism. Another incident in which Mussolini had to be cautious was the Fiume incident of 1923. Within 2 weeks of the settlement of the Corfu crisis, Mussolini tried again to regain territory, this time more successfully. He installed an Italian military commander to rule the disputed Italian-speaking port of Fiume. In this instance, Yugoslavia had no choice but to accept Italian occupation as her main ally, France, was militarily involved elsewhere. This port had long been a target of Italian territorial ambitions.
At the advice of the liberal foreign office staff, Mussolini was prepared to temporarily abandon his hopes for Dalmatia. The Duce’s success over Fiume persuaded him that Yugoslavia could be pushed around. Mussolini resented French influence in Yugoslavua and was keen to demonstrate to this new state, which had only been formed in 1919, that Italy was the dominant power in the region. An opportunity to intimidate Yugoslavia came in 1924 when an Italian-sponsored local chieftain, Ahmed Zog, managed to take power in Albania on Yugoslavia’s southern border.
By the time a Treaty of Friendship was signed in 1926, Albania was little more than an Italian satellite. This was clearly a potential military threat to Yugoslavia, a threat reinforced by Mussolini’s funding of those ethnic minorities, notably the Croats, who wanted to break away from the Yugoslav state. However, Mussolini remained cautious during the 1920s and waited until the 1930s before occupying most of Yugoslavia. Ultimately Mussolini pursued his aggressive foreign policy rather cautiously up to the end of the 1920s because he did not want to arouse great opposition from the Big Powers: France and Britain.