No. 90 NAI DFA 219/5

Confidential report from Colman O'Donovan to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)
(MP39/39) (Confidential)

Holy See, 13 December 1939

Whilst the Communiqué issued after the Grand Council meeting of the 7-8th inst. does not appear to say anything very new or momentous it cannot be regarded as having left positions unaltered. The most significant passages are those referring to the Balkans and to relations with Germany. The former would appear to contain a warning to Russia, and perhaps also to Germany, of direct Italian interest in the Danube-Balkan basin. As regards Italo-German relations the Communiqué says that they remain 'as they were fixed by the Pact of Alliance and by the exchange of views which took place – before and after – at Milan, Salzburg and Berlin'.

The passage underlined above obviously contains the whole meat of the message. It is true that the public has been told nothing of what transpired at the meetings in question, but news manages to travel here as elsewhere and the Italian public has by now become expert at reading between the lines of official pronouncements. It will therefore no doubt conclude that relations with Germany have been modified in a way of which they may be informed later if and when the need arises.

What happened at the meetings referred to has been a well-kept secret, though it became known at an early stage that a rift had appeared in the lute. On his return from his last visit Count Ciano1 was not to be seen for five days. The American and other Ambassadors who wished to see him were told that he was too busy, when everyone knew that he was spending the greater part of his time on the beach at Ostia. The truth appears to be that he required some time for reflexion and re-adjustment of ideas after the shock of his last encounter with Herr Hitler.

I was given some days ago what I believe to be a reliable account of what happened on that occasion. According to my informant Herr Hitler gave Count Ciano a hysterical description of the treatment of the German minority by the Poles ('The man actually believes his own Propaganda Department' Ciano is said to have reported to Mussolini) and said that he would stand it no longer. He would wipe out the Poles. Ciano vainly tried to dissuade him from violent action and finally told him that if he was determined to take that course Italy would have to modify her position. Hitler enquired why, and Ciano replied that if Poland was attacked England and France would fight and it was Italy which, to start with at any rate, would have to bear the brunt of their attack. At this point, the account continues, Hitler lost all restraint and screamed at his guest for a quarter of an hour as they walked in the garden of his retreat. He held forth in the most violent language:- 'Du bist ein Esel, und dein Sohn ein Esel!'2 England would not fight over Poland. Herr Ribbentrop, who was a very intelligent man and who knew England and the English people, was certain of it. And without England France could do nothing. But Ciano was not to be moved.

Unless the war extends to the Balkans it seems certain that Italy will be very slow to depart from her position of non-belligerency. Whilst the papers give great prominence to the protests of neutrals and the damage done to their trade by the Franco-British blockade nothing is said – at least in the papers – about the serious interference with Italian shipping at Gibraltar where their ships have been held up for as much as ten or twelve days and mails and other cargo impounded. It may be that as a result of the recent discussions between Count Ciano and the British Ambassador a way will be found of reducing the delays, but it is not thought that the control will be relaxed. Some days ago the entire mails for all countries on the 'Saturnia'3 were seized at Gibraltar and retained.

[signed] C.J. O'Donavan

1 Gian Galeazzo Ciano (1903-44), Italian Foreign Minister (1936-43), son-in-law of Benito Mussolini; executed for treason on 11 January 1944.

2 While the wording means little more than 'You are a fool', the telling insult was the use of 'Du' instead of 'Sie' to an adult who was neither a relation nor a friend, the form usually being reserved for children.

3 Saturnia was an Italian liner which entered service in 1927 and sailed the North Atlantic and the South Atlantic until the 1960s.

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