Thursday, October 29, 2015

When conspiracy is not a theory: an example of a false flag operation in the Italian invasion of Greece in 1940

The Italian attack against Greece, that started in October of 1940, was one of the greatest military blunders of history and it may be argued that it cost the axis powers the whole war. Here, I discuss how this episode provides one of the few documented cases of a  strategic "false flag" operation designed in order to create a pretext for a military attack. (Image: Italian infantryman of the Italo-Greek war, from the front cover of "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" by Mario Cervi)

False flag attacks are a popular item, nowadays: secret operations carried out by governments to place the blame on their political or military enemies. However, if you try to examine the question in any depth, you immediately find yourself facing a wall of claims and counter-claims. On one side, there are those who simply laugh at the conspiracy theorists and at their funny antics, and, on the other, those who list case after case of presumed false flag attacks, including everything from the sinking of the Titanic to the blowing up of a tire of uncle Joe's truck. So, do strategic false flag attacks exist? And, if so, how common they are?

There are several cases of strategic false flag attacks that are almost certain or, at least, very probable. Perhaps the best example of a documented false flag attack is that of the "Gleiwitz incident" of Aug 31, 1939, when Nazi forces posing as Poles attacked a German radio station in order to justify the German attack on Poland. A more recent case is that of  "Operation Northwood" which, however, was only planned and never actually carried out. There are many more examples where false flag attacks are claimed, but cannot be proven. The best example, here, is the Reichstag fire, in Berlin, in 1933. It is likely that it was a false flag attack orchestrated by the Nazis in order to blame their political opponents, but many details of this episode are unclear.

Given the paucity of historical examples, I think it is worth adding here a case of a false flag attack that can be verified beyond reasonable doubt and that's not well known in English. It is the false flag operation that preceded the Italian attack against Greece, during the Second World War, carried out in 1940 under orders by the Mussolini government.

The story of the Italo-Greek war is described in detail by Mario Cervi in his 1969 book "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" (translated into English as "The Hollow Legions"). I won't go into the details in the story of how the Italian government decided to engage in this totally insensate campaign. Let me just say that  it is often reported that the Greek campaign cost to the Axis the war, forcing the Germans to intervene to rescue the Italians and postponing of some months the attack against Russia. This is certainly debatable, and it may well be that it is just an excuse that the Germans used to justify their failure with the Russian campaign. But it is true that with the Greek campaign the Italian government generated a true supermarket of examples of strategic stupidity. In addition, they disregarded the most elementary rules of the international law and even those of human decency. But, here, I'll focus on the "false flag" episode.

We have ample documentation about this war from the Italian side. The minutes of the reunions of the high command of the Italian government were approved by Mussolini himself and then filed. These documents have arrived to us, intact, and they tell us many details about the origins of the decision to start the campaign and about the false flag operation that preceded the attack.

The story starts with the occupation of Albania by Italy in 1939, which was a relatively easy military operation. From there, the Italian government started considering an attack to neighboring Greece as part of an effort to control the whole Balkan region. That involved a certain propaganda effort and, in 1940, the Italian press started reporting that the Albanian inhabitants of the region of Chamuria, part of the Greek territory, wanted secession from Greece in order to be reunited with Albania. But, of course, it was reported that they were facing a harsh repression carried out by the Greek government. The Italian viceroy of Albania, Francesco Jacomoni, provided reports - mostly purely invented - that fueled this propaganda operation.

Cervi reports how, on August 17, 1940, Jacomoni himself proposed to the Duce to create a pretext for attacking Greece by means of a false flag attack to be performed by "by personnel loyal to us against one of our border posts." The idea didn't have an immediate approval by Mussolini, but, in October, when the attack to Greece had been decided, Mussolini himself asked for "An incident at the border that could give to our action the aspect of provocation to justify our action." The answer was given on the spot by Galeazzo Ciano, foreign minister and son in law of the Duce, "the action will take place on Oct 24."

The "action" was delayed to Oct 26, but it took place as planned. The Italian press reported that "A Greek band had attacked with automatic weapons and hand grenades an Albanian border post near Corizia and that the attack had been repulsed; that six of the attacking Greeks had been captured, and that the Albanian troops had suffered two casualties and three wounded."

Cervi comments on this point that these Albanian victims had been "immolated, if they ever existed, on the altar of the ruthless needs of the state." Indeed, we cannot exclude that the attack was exaggerated, or even a pure invention, created out of thin air by the Viceroy of Albania and his staff. However, even though we can't be certain about the claimed victims, it is clear that some kind of attack took place. The Greek authorities set up an investigating committee and claimed that they were not responsible for it, but never claimed that there had not been an attack. Below, an example of how the incident was presented in the Italian press ("La Stampa") on Oct 28 1940. The title says "Murky Greek plan to provoke Albania."

Cervi also reports that Mussolini commented on the false flag attacks by saying that "No one will believe in this fatality, but for a reason of metaphysical character it will be possible to say that it was necessary to come to a conclusion," which, incidentally, shows how nearly 20 years of unopposed government had turned Mussolini from a sharp politician into a bumbling fool.

Whether it caused victims or not, the false flag attack served its purpose. In Albania, it was followed by manifestations against the "Greek aggression," and in Italy by a press campaign of insults and protests against Greece. There followed the Italian ultimatum against Greece and then the ill-fated attack.

From these documents, we can learn that "false flag" operations were an accepted and obvious component of strategic actions at that time. Note how nobody challenged Mussolini about the need of carrying out such an operation. It all seemed obvious to everyone involved and that tells us that in the period before and during the second world war, secret false flags were part of the strategic arsenal of at least some governments and were commonly used.

Note also how Mussolini doesn't think too much about signing and archiving documents that say that he had ordered and approved an action that can only be described as a war crime. Again, it seems that it was seen as wholly normal - not something that could have led anyone to be shot as a war criminal. Later on, that was exactly what happened to Mussolini, but to none of the other people who approved and carried out the false flag operation, including the Viceroy of Albania, Francesco Jacomoni.

Of course, this old false flag operation doesn't tell us anything specific about the many claimed false flags of modern times. It does, however, add another verified case to the number of known ones. Government conspiracies did exist in the past and it would surely be excessive optimism to think they don't exist any more. In the future, we may know more about the events that have shaped so much of the perception of the conflicts of our times.


As a final note, I think that this story may tell us also something about the dangers of the "story telling" approach to strategic decisions, as I already commented in a previous post. This is a kind of assessment based on assigning roles to the various actors involved, and then having them play out their part in a virtual world theater. In this case, Mussolini and his collaborators had decided that Italy's role was that of a "great power" and, as a consequence, Italy was in competition with the other great powers of the time. Seen in this light, it made sense for Italy to expand its power sphere to the Balkans in order to contrast the expanding action of Germany and of Great Britain. It even gave some sense to another monumental mistake of the Italian government of the time, that of declaring war to the United States in 1941. If Italy was a great power, indeed, the Mediterranean was to be seen as an Italian lake and the United States had no strategic interests there, no more than Italy had strategic interests in the Gulf of Mexico. The problem was that the definition of Italy as a "great power" was hopelessly wrong in quantitative terms; as the events that followed amply demonstrated. That is all past and gone, but unfortunately, story telling remains today the typical way to take  strategic decisions.   


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)