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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Italian Empire: the Nasty Side

Yes, Italy once had an empire. The new nation acquired its first colony, Eritrea, in 1890 and remained a colonial power until 1947, when, having lost the war, it was forced to cede all its possessions, including Eritrea, Ethiopia (acquired 1936), Libya (taken in a war with Turkey in 1912), and Somalia (1889). [The 1947 date is the legal one, but Italians lost de facto control of most of their colonial possessions in 1941, to the British armed forces].

 Italians valued their empire as a way of impressing the major world powers; as a way uniting a fractious nation under the banner of Italian manifest destiny; in some cases, as a place to settle its unemployed; and for its role in linking Fascism with the imperial glories of ancient Rome. One can see Fascism's pride in the empire in the massive map at left, a permanent feature of the Casa del GIL (House of the Italian Fascist Youth), completed in Rome in 1936. We take our readers there in Rome the Second Time.

Perhaps because all or most of these seemed like good and progressive ideas, the story developed that Italian colonialism was more humane and benign, and less violent, than that of other countries. And there were some accomplishments, including the Cinema Italiana Mogadiscio, the first one in the city. It opened in 1937.

Not surprisingly, most people don't like to be conquered and colonized, and there was plenty of resistance to Italian expansion in North Africa. To suppress that resistance, Fascist Italy fought military campaigns--on the ground and in the air--in Libya and Eritrea in the 1920s and in Ethiopia and Somalia after 1935.

What is surprising is how nasty these campaigns were. In the Cyrenaica region of Libya, the Italians used forced marches, sixteen concentration camps, and massive population transfers in what some historians consider the first 20th-century use of genocidal tactics outside a World War. In Eritrea, they deported leaders opposed to colonization and jailed their families and relatives. By the late 1930s, Mussolini and his lieutenants favored execution over deportation. And during the Ethiopian conflict in the late 1930s, Italian aircraft bombed twelve Red Cross hospitals, violating international law.

When World War II was over, Italians were shocked to learn that their government had used poison gas, and lots of it--again in violation of an international agreement, this one made in 1925. As the English-language newspaper reveals, others knew much earlier. The material was mustard gas; its vapors were deadly, and so were the drops that got under the skin, causing blisters and lethal lesions inside the body.

The photo below right shows the effects of mustard gas on an Ethiopian being treated by the Norwegian Red Cross.

The Italian air force dropped thousands of mustard gas bombs in its Italian colonies--about 2000 in Ethiopia alone, many on civilians. To be sure, the Italians weren't alone; France used poison gas in Morocco, and the Japanese used it against China in 1937. And we all know what the Germans did, and, in August 1945, the Americans. We've attached a video of the Italian use of mustard gas in Ethiopia in 1936.

Here's the point: despite its bellicose Roman heritage, in the 20th century the Italians have developed a reputation as a likable, rather timid people, unsuited to war and lacking the inclinations to brutality possessed by some other nations. The truth is more complex. Bill

(The material above is adapted from Italian Colonialism, ed. Ruth Ben-Ghiot and Mia Fuller (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). We thank the editors and authors.)


Marco said...

I'd like to point out a few errors in this post. Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1882 to 1947, Somalia from 1890 (not 1920) to 1960 and Ethiopia was acquired in 1936 (not 1908)after the war you mentioned.

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

After some initial embarrassment, and a bit of research, RST has made some changes. We don't agree on every date with Marco-there's more complexity to these issues than one would think--but we are pleased to have astute readers like Marco who keep us on our toes.

Marco said...

Of course, the dates are subjected to various interpretations... I am certainly not proud of some of our past "accomplishments" (such as the Abyssinian War) - plus, I don't agree with the "unsuitable for war" thing, because our troops fared well when they had a just cause and a decent leadership 8and modern equipment, too); as you said, "the truth is more complex".

by the way, the architecture of Asmara (Eritrea) might interest you - it preserves some interesting (and still intact) Modernist/Fascist-era buildings such as the "Cinema Rex".

Some last suggestions: the cinema was called "Italia" (not Italiana)
and Somalia was officially a trust territory and remained under Italian administration until 1960.

Anyway, as a Roman I think this is an excellent blog - there are so many things to see in Rome beside the city centre. Keep up with the good work!