The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Friday, May 13, 2022

Ukraine: does history repeat itself, or just rhymes?


Greek Artillery in 1940, fighting the Italian invasion

I have no more information available than the average person connected to the Web, nor can I claim to be more than an armchair strategist. For these reasons, I haven't written anything about the war in Ukraine, so far. But I have studied Italian history, and I have a special fascination for the incompetence of leaders. So, I thought I could propose to you a retelling of the Greco-Italian war of 1940, one of the clearest demonstrations of incompetence that a government ever provided. Can it provide us with insight 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.  

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 a victorious blitzkrieg campaign. It was at this stage that the idea of attacking Greece appeared. It made some sense because Greece was a potential ally of Britain (**), 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 the invasion at all costs, and his military staff seemed to be engaged mainly in the game of pleasing him. So, a plan was devised to use the Italian troops stationed in Albania to attack Greece. Everyone seemed to be convinced that it would be a cakewalk and that Greece would fall at the first push. So, in the Summer of 1940, Mussolini set the date for the start of the invasion in October. Nobody dared tell him that the plan implied crossing the Epirus mountains and that doing that in winter was 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. It was 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. What could go wrong with 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 mud and the snow, but they took heavy losses, and they seriously risked being thrown back into the sea. That could be avoided only throwing everything available in terms of troops and equipment at the Greeks. The struggle lasted about six months, and even with a numerical superiority of 2 to 1, the Italians couldn't get through. It ended when the Germans intervened in the spring of 1941. At that point, the combined pressure of the German and Italian armies forced Greece to surrender. 

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

But Italy suffered the strongest blow in terms of propaganda. Mussolini had built his reputation as 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 (which he was), but also as a bumbling idiot (which he was, too). 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:

  1. Having won the previous war doesn't mean automatically winning the following one.
  2. Invincible leaders often turn out to be just lucky leaders. Until their luck runs out.
  3. Aging leaders may turn into bumbling idiots. Or maybe that's what they were all along.
  4. No mistake made by a leader can be so big that his followers will not praise it as evidence of superior strategic savvy.
  5. A victory obtained at too high a price is worse than a defeat. 
  6. Propaganda is mightier than the sword.
  7. 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 fastest way to enormous mistakes. Whatever happens in the world, happens for a reason, and Tolstoy correctly said that "a king is history's slave." History made Mussolini able to make enormous mistakes only because a series of factors had converged in making these mistakes possible. Other factors led to what's happening right now in Ukraine. And history moves 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 ancient war 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. 


(*) The story that the Italians were responsible for the failure of the German attack on Russia in 1941 is, most likely, just a piece of propaganda. It may hold something true, though, and it opens a number of fascinating questions about leader control. Why exactly did Mussolini decide to attack Greece in winter? Just because he was completely stupid? Or was the idea somehow "planted" in his mind by a foreign agency? We'll never know that, but it is remarkable how often leaders don't just make huge mistakes, they make the kind of mistakes that play in the hands of their enemies. 

(**) Formally, in 1940, Greece was neutral. But, in international politics, form and substance are always different. When Italy invaded Albania in 1939, it sent to Greece a clear message: "you are next." In the complex mosaic of the Balkan politics, that had pushed Greece into the uncomfortable position of being surrounded by potential enemies (Bulgaria, Italy, and Turkey) and, as a consequence, to seek for closer links to its traditional ally, Britain. The British saw Greece mainly as an ally against German expansion in the Balkans and, in 1934, had created the "Balkan Entente" that implied military support in case of threats on the signatories’ territorial integrity. All that gives a certain strategic logic to the events of 1940-1941. 


  1. Interesting insight on Mussolini, I think he bears remarkable similarity to Zhelensky who has brought down a war on his country for ego and warped logic. Contrary to the Western media I see Putin as a coldly rational leader who has put the Russian people first.

    Like 1941 the empires behind the conflict dont give a damn for Ukrainian nor Russian lifes. They will promote this proxy war regardless of the death toll.

  2. Hello Ugo,

    Thanks for this perspective. Indeed, the aging "World Leaders" all seem to act more and more like Mussolini.

    Most wars are lose-lose propositions. Occasionally, however, it is more like theft.
    The only ones who profit are the merchants of guns and cannons and tanks and planes, who divert more and more of the common resources from productive to destructive use.
    (Not to forget the acceptance of limitations of individual freedoms during wars...)

    Maybe an article about war as an expression of Cippola's Laws of Stupidity?


  3. Italy attacked Greece without any strategic reasoning and Greece wasn't threat to Italy. On the other hand Russia tried to reason with Ukraine and its masters for 8 years and intervened due to exhaustion of non-kinetik options and the real strategic threat that Ukraine was turning into (or more accurately has been turned into).

    1. Allow me to disagree, Anonymous. Greece was allied with Britain and it was close to Italy, even sharing a border with an Italian possession, Albania. From Greece, British bombers could easily attack Italy. You see that there are many similarities with the Ukraine/Russia situation. Controlling Greece made a lot of sense in strategic terms. Then, of course, one thing is "should", another is "will"..............

    2. greece was generally friendly to britain but the greek dictator metaxas had declared neutrality and even if most of greece was leaning towards britain, by no means was it overwhelming. there was a sour taste about britain betraying greece in 1922 left in a lot of people and even beyond international diplomacy, for internal greek politics neutrality was the safest choice for the government. mussolini tried for months to provoke some kind of conflict (the famous elli incident where a ship was torpedoed, but the greek government insisted on 'not knowing' who did it. one of the torpedoes missed and rode up onto the shore, it is in front of the military museum in athens on display all these years) to no avail, and finally on 28 october, sent his ambassador to metaxas' house to demand that he allow italian forces to enter greece. metaxas of course refused, and a state of war was declared on the spot. in greece this day is now the 'holiday of No', even though supposedly the conversation was held in french and metaxas' response was 'alors, c'est la guerre'. It seems late october had been some kind of deadline from el Duce, that if you cant get a war stared by other means then just do it formally.
      if mussolini's invasion had not taken place greece would have likely remained neutral.
      Reportedly, that very night, hitler was visiting in italy and there was a big party for various bigshots. mussolini on getting the word from his ambassador that a state of war now existed with greece, went proudly boasting to the fuhrer that at that very moment his armies were invading greece. reportedly hitler threw a fit that he would risk opening another front with a country otherwise unlikely to enter the war (the dictator metaxas had actually studied in germany, spoke german, and probably his personal sentiments were pro-axis, though there was not public support for such a stance) when he was busy planning an invasion of the ussr.

    3. Ugo, Greece was neutral at that time and stated it many times. And yes Greece was close to UK but millitary access and basing rights for warships weren't granted to UK. With all my due respect the situation was completely opposite from ukraine-russia situation. Drawing historical parallels between italy's unprovoked invasion of Greece and Ukraine's 8 years of provocation amd daily warcrimes againat civilians does not suit your station in my humble opinion.
      You can call me Geno, i am still trying to figure oit how ro not publish as anon.

    4. Geno: I thought I had answered, but somehow my message didn't appear. And, yes, you are right in pointing out that formally Greece was not an "ally" of Britain. But in foreign politics, forms and substance are different things. The strategic game is an always changing thing: when Italy invaded Albania in 1939, it sent a clear message to Greece, "you are next." Then, Greece reacted seeking protection from its traditional ally, Britain. It was not formal, but the Italian newpapers reported that the Metaxas government had promised to the British that they could use the Greek bases when they needed that. Was it true? Impossible to know, but not unlikely. If we want to be kind to Mussolini (something he doesn't deserve) we could say that his attack had a certain logic as a pre-emptive strike, before Britain would actually use Greece as part of its Mediterranean military system.

      On the other hand, you are perfectly right in noting that Greece never shelled Albania, like Ukraine did with the Dombass (if you look at the photo at the start of this post, you can see that with that kind of artillery the Greeks couldn't hit far away targets!). But, again, there are parallels and the Italians commonly accused Greece to be supporting a nationalist guerrilla in the regions of Albania bordering with Greece. Was it true? Or just Italian propaganda? Impossible to say.

      So we can play the game of similarities, or the one of differences. It is sure that we don't want to use the similarities to explain what's happening: history can rhyme, but it never repeats.

      Thanks for your note, I slightly modified the text of the post to take your points into account.

  4. Mussolini was envious of Hitler's conquests, otherwise he probably would never have thought of invading Greece. I wonder what would have happened if Hitler had not rushed to save Mussolini? Would he have succeeded in conquering parts of Russia? Or would the war have rolled on into the 1950s?

    Part of me is sad that Hitler never defeated the Soviet Union. Russia is far too big and should have been smashed into tiny pieces, so that it would never be a threat to any country. Hitler would still have overreached himself eventually and likewise been smashed.

    See my old blog post: a potted history of Mussolini, alongside images of Italy's coins of the Fascist era:

    1. I dont agree with your concept of Russia being smashed into bits so it may no longer be a threat. Threat to whom? Seems to me the invasions always go east from the West.
      A further note is that the empirical evidence is that culture and nationalism will always trump ideology. So smashing a country apart wont necessarily help, it will reemerge.

    2. "Seems to me the invasions always go east from the West."

      So how did Russia grow so big in the first place?

      Why is Russia smashing Ukraine? Little Ukraine is hardly a threat to big Russia.

      "A further note is that the empirical evidence is that culture and nationalism will always trump ideology. So smashing a country apart wont necessarily help, it will reemerge."

      You'd need to expand on that sweeping statement. And nationalism is a relatively modern force, anyway.

    3. Russia wasn't afraid of "little Ukraine" or even of European NATO forces. Russia is concerned that NATO membership results in US basing rights and forward deployment of nuclear strike forces in an attempt to avoid MAD. I'm sure Russia would have no problem with Ukraine and Sweden and Finland coming under Article 5 umbrella, if the US agreed to return all it's nuclear forces to Continental US. I think that was probably the gist of Moscow's joint security proposal that they issued to US and EU before the war kicked off.

    4. K a quick answer, how did Russia get so big? To the east the same way the USA grew from New York to California. To the west there has been constant pressure from Western expansionism. Try the German term "drang nach ost".
      Nationalism trumps ideology. Simple examples which are too numerous to count. Ask the questions, "Did Russians fight for Russia or communism in the Great Patriotic war"? Conversely in the same war were all Germans Nazis or were they defending their nation? How about why do Germans go the World Cup matches and cheer for their team?

  5. In the 1970s English author Ian McEwan wrote a short story entitled "Solid Geometry". In it, the narrator and his wife are feuding. In one scene, she destroys his some of his most prized possessions. In the garden, she smashes a jar of formaldehyde that contains Napoleon Bonaparte's penis. What?! Where did the author get such an idea?

    See: - quotation from Wikipedia follows:
    Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean after losing the Battle of Waterloo. He died on the isle on May 5, 1821. After his death, an autopsy was conducted and Francesco Antommarchi, the doctor conducting the autopsy, cut his penis off, along with several other body parts. It is unclear whether the cut was intentional or accidental; Antommarchi may have been bribed to cut it off by Napoleon's chaplain as revenge for Napoleon calling him "impotent".
    ... ...
    The penis went on display in 1927 at New York City's Museum of French Art. A reviewer present at the exhibition from Time described it as similar to a "maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace." Others present considered it to look like a "piece of leather or a shriveled eel".
    A urologist and artifact collector named John K. Lattimer purchased the item in 1977 for $3,000 (equivalent to $13,415 in 2021) and it is currently owned by his daughter. She has been offered at least $100,000 for it.
    End of Wikipedia quotation.
    I wonder if one day Vladimir's most precious part will be sold on ebay. How many people would bid for it? ;-)

  6. Two images help define the conflict in Ukraine. The first is of Putin, just before the invasion. He is in his gilded palace; his ministers and advisors are seated in a semi-circle a long distance from him. He is literally a dictator — he is dictating/speaking what he believes to be the truth. He is not listening to other points of view.

    The second image is of Zelenskyy dressed in military fatigues huddled with his advisors in what looks like a bomb shelter. In that environment he is almost bound to hear different points of view. (That image is supplemented by videos of him visiting the front lines. Once again, he will see and hear different messages and stories.)

    1. ChemEng, images paint powerful stories, but stories are not necessarily truth. Contrasting a man in a suit with a man in military fatigues can tell many stories. For example Roosevelt always wore a suit, he remained separate from his military on purpose, to signify his role as a democratic war leader as opposed to a belligerent warlord.
      Watching Putins separation from his cabinet indicates he may be first, but is he first amongst equals? Watching him over years and reading his speeches indicate that he does take advice, he does have constraints to his power. Images are great but need substantiation. If theres a problem with the Western approach to Putin it could be summed up in one phrase. "Know your enemy".

  7. ....Biden also decided to extend the state of emergency in Iraq, stating that it is to continue in effect beyond May 22. ....."Iraq continue[s] to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” he said in a letter to the Federal Register.

    Our Western Civilisation goes in circles and one of its primary centres is Iraq, since 1914 when Britain invaded that helpless, miserable nation for its oil and other resources...

    This is not History repeating itself, but rather History frozen and rendered dead....

    As long as oil remains the prime mover of our Western Civilisation, the future is dead - no matter how the future appears unfolding before our eyes afresh every second.

    It is not History that is repeating itself - but the future itself has become History, even before it born.

    This circular dead future-walking will never end - before the end of the age of mass-extracted and socialised oil - traded not on the basis of being finite - as if looted.

    "Energy, like time, flows from past to future"