Monday, March 12, 2012

The Italian Colonial Empire

It would be easy for modern Italian monarchists to try to dismiss anything to do with imperialism by associating it solely with the Fascist era and thus condemned in unison with the popular majority. That would not be entirely true of course, nor would it be feasible for those of us who do not see imperialism as something to be condemned as inherently terrible at all. The period of Italian colonial expansion long pre-dated the rise of the Fascists though it certainly reached its peak during the Fascist era when the Kingdom of Italy held sway over all of modern Italy, Libya, the Dodecanese Islands, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Albania, Montenegro, Dalmatia, southern Slovenia, Kosovo, most of Greece, Corsica, Tunisia, Nice, Savoy and other areas. Wider aims were hinted at by Mussolini, and others, but as we know, never came to fruition. However, this was nothing new and, in fact, the areas where Italian power expanded during the Fascist era were all areas which Italy had long had interests in prior to Mussolini coming to power. Ethiopia, Albania and even Spain and Greece were areas Italy had extended or tried to extend influence over in various forms since Italian unification.

This should not be surprising given the nature of the birth of the modern, united Italy, which was always pushed forward by a drive for a more great, cultural revival and restoration of Italian glory. From the very beginning, along with the drive to unite all Italians into one nation also came the ambition to recover all lands that had once been ruled by the Italian people. This only later seemed outrageous because of, frankly, historical ignorance on the part of many who overlooked the vast influence held by Italians long before the creation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 by the House of Savoy. For instance, one of the major sources of pride and inspiration for Italians fighting for reunification was the glories of the Italian Renaissance. That included the magnificent cultural-artistic accomplishments most are aware of but also the political and economic influence of the Renaissance Italian city-states which many are not familiar with. The most obvious example was the city-state of Venice which ruled an empire of islands and coastal enclaves that stretched down the Adriatic, across much of southern Greece, including Cyprus, holdings in the Middle East and even the Black Sea.

Imperial aspirations were thus present from the very beginning, even if much of the rhetoric could easily be taken out of context such as talk of “setting fire to the four corners of the world” or the boast that, “we Italians have conquered the world before and can do so again”. Such phrases were certainly not meant to be taken literally but were simply an effort to inspire the Italian people to pursue greatness for the nation. There were, though, very real and concrete aspirations for expansion, both in terms of territory and influence. King Vittorio Emanuele II sought to have a prince of the House of Savoy on the throne of Greece, which did not come to fruition, and later to have an Italian King of Spain, an ambition which was achieved, albeit only briefly, in the person of his second son King Amadeo I, previously (and afterwards) Duke of Aosta. It is also significant to note that Italy, not exclusively but for the most part, was quite different from the other colonial powers in the lands she set her sights upon for expansion and development. Italy was intent on re-taking rather than taking and must be set apart from the rest of the imperial powers.

Whereas the venerable empires of Portugal, Spain, France, England, Belgium, Holland and Germany reached out across the globe to control lands totally unknown to their people, indeed often where no European foot had ever trod before, Italy focused on areas that had a long history of Italian association. One of the earliest areas of interest was Tunisia, which was closer to Italy geographically than to any other European power, which had a sizeable Italian community already living on its shores and which had been the target of an Italian naval expedition in 1825 under King Carlo Felice of Piedmont-Sardinia. However, to the outrage of Italy, France beat them to the prize and Italy was left out of the “scramble for Africa”, being advised by the other great powers to look to Albania for a potential colony. Here too Italian roots ran deep. In the days of ancient Rome, Albania was actually brought under Roman rule even before the same could be said of the extremes of the Italian peninsula. The famous Italian Prime Minister (and ardent imperialist) Francesco Crispi had been born in Albania and, many years later, it was the intervention of Italian troops which kept Albania out of Greek hands during the First World War (before Greece joined the Allies). Today the fact is often ignored that when Italian forces occupied Albania in 1939 the annexation was little more than a formality since Albania was already an Italian protectorate and, in fact, had been dependent on Italian aid for some time previously. It is also worth noting that the occupation was carried out with hardly any loss of life at all.

The most far-flung Italian expansion came in East Africa and also began peacefully through purchase and diplomatic negotiation with the local chieftains, first in Eritrea and then in Somalia. A protectorate over Ethiopia was arranged at that time as well but, of course, the defeat at Adowa set that effort back for a few years. The biggest single piece of expansion, prior to the conquest of Ethiopia, was the addition of Libya and the Dodecanese Islands after the Italo-Turkish War of 1911. The islands were held mainly for their strategic naval importance and as a foothold in the event that some opportunity for further expansion could be found in Asia Minor (which was almost realized in the aftermath of World War I when the partition of Turkey was drawn up but never realized). Libya was the focus of much greater attention, being hailed as the national “fourth shore” and it was, in fact, the Italians who “created” Libya. Previously it had been merely a collection of remote Ottoman provinces. Italy grouped these provinces together and named the colony Libya, resurrecting the old Roman name for the region and thus establishing what became the country of Libya we know today.

Here again was Italy re-gaining rather than gaining a colonial territory. The sands of Libya had heard the march of Roman legions and lived under Roman law long before the first Arab ever set foot in North Africa, many hundreds of years before the Prophet Mohammed was ever born. Whereas the British who raised their flag over North America, India or Australia were operating in environments totally alien to them and their people, the Italians who extended the rule of Rome over Libya were simply returning to lands their distant ancestors had occupied, ruled and developed long ago. One would be hard pressed to argue that the peoples who arrived and conquered the region much later would have had a better “right” to Libya than the Italians whose forebears had held the region long before anyone else ever had. The point could also be raised as to what “right” any might have to land they do nothing with. This was something well understood by the colonial powers of their era, be it the “White Man’s Burden” of Great Britain or the “Mission of Civilization” of France.

Here again, Italy cannot be held to quite the same standard as the other colonial powers. Italy was the last to gain a colonial empire and the first to lose it, however, even then, the record of Italian accomplishments compares favorably even to that of Portugal who, contrarily, were the first to have an empire and the last to relinquish it. In the minor clashes and pacification campaigns that accompany colonialism usually, in the case of Italy being confined mostly to Libya, outsiders often criticize Italian forces for having so many unfair advantages over their enemies. This is no different than any other colonial power of course, but the fact that Libyan rebels rode horses while Italian troops made use of trucks, armored cars and airplanes does serve to prove the point of how backward these territories were prior to Italian rule. In terms of social and technological advancement these areas were virtually stagnant. However, as part of the Italian colonial empire the foundations were set down for the first modern infrastructure in any of these lands. Sticking with the example of Libya, it was the Italians who built the first roads, the first modern ports and schools and hospitals, model farms and spread such things most take for granted such as electric lights, telephones, hygienic standards and disease control. Even to this day many of the structures still in use in Libya, from roads to airfields, were actually built by the Italians during the colonial period.

The case of Ethiopia is usually the one most used to criticize and shame the Kingdom of Italy, yet, here again, the situation was not so simple as most are led to believe. The “incident” which sparked the conflict was a battle over that minor dot on the map called Wal Wal. It is usually stated, or at least implied, that Mussolini provoked this clash in order to obtain a pretext for invading Ethiopia. The facts, however, do not support such a conclusion. Although victorious, the small Italian force at Wal Wal was outnumbered by the Ethiopians by at least 4-to-1, hardly the sort of odds one would favor to provoke a fight with anyone with. Wal Wal had been held by the Italians for many years at that point and Ethiopia had never claimed the area nor made any hint of doing so prior to the battle that started the ball rolling toward war. The Ethiopians had also been building up, enlarging and modernizing their armed forces for some time prior to the conflict, something which Italy had not done as is evidenced by the fact that so many Italian divisions had to be rushed to East Africa from Italy when the fighting broke out and even then were vastly outnumbered by their Ethiopian enemies. It was easy for people in Italy to believe that the Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie had been planning a war against them for dominance of the horn of Africa for some time considering how rapidly he carried out this military build-up, after seizing power by force and, it must be said, eliminating his own tribal enemies in the traditional fashion for that part of the world in doing so.

Criticism over how the war was conducted is another story. Italy was roundly condemned for using weapons which gave them an unfair advantage in the eyes of the world. The fact that every country, in every war always seeks to use any advantage they may have over an enemy is often ignored. Accounts of attacks against peaceful posts can also not always (and I say not always) be taken at face value. It is known, for example, that some of the missionaries (mostly Scandinavian Lutherans) were importing rifles hidden in crates of Bibles and that some things, like air attacks on hospitals, were exaggerated or outright fabrications. Noted English Catholic author Evelyn Waugh wrote as much in his own first-hand account of visiting Ethiopia. He noted how bored journalists were quick to inflate the most minor occurrence into something sensational in the hope of advancing their careers.

Waugh also notes the look of Ethiopia in the immediate aftermath of the 7-month war. In Harar he sees the local market doing good business, roads being built and sees a school in Asmara freshly built by the Italians as well as noticing Italian soldiers happily playing with Ethiopian children. Waugh wrote in his book, “The Italians had accomplished in six months a task which they had expected to take two years. They now found themselves faced with opportunities and responsibilities vastly greater than their ambitions at the beginning of the war…It was a severe test of morale and they stood up to it in a way which should dispel any doubts which still survive of the character of the new Italy.” During the period of Italian rule some 11,678 miles of the first modern asphalt roads were built in Ethiopia, connecting the major cities of Italian East Africa. Additionally, 559 miles of railroads were built, new dams and hydroelectric plants were constructed, many new schools and rural clinics and many new industries were established in addition to the expansion and modernization of agriculture. Plans to update and expand Addis Ababa were only halted by the outbreak of World War II.

HM King Umberto II had hoped that, after joining the Allies against Nazi Germany, Italy would have at least been permitted to keep those colonies she had held long before the Fascists ever came to power but this was not to be. It is also important to note that those colonial Italians had their voices suppressed in the pivotal referendum on the future of the monarchy. In any event, when assessing the history of the Italian empire is it revealing to see what happened to those territories after the Italians were gone and their independence was achieved. The oldest colony, Eritrea, was annexed by the Ethiopians under Haile Selassie. Their language was suppressed as were all signs, symbols or expression of national distinction. This resulted in a long and ugly war for independence, guerilla bands of Eritreans fighting Soviet-backed Ethiopians with final independence not coming until 1993. Even since then violence has been almost constant, poverty crippling and social problems persist ranging from HIV to female genital mutilation. The years of Italian rule would seem a paradise in comparison.

The most stark example is surely Somalia which, under Italian rule had law, order, religious liberty, growing industries and model plantations. Since independence Somalia has been through a communist dictatorship, massive famines, brutal civil war, religious killings and terrorism. Today it is perhaps the most cited example of a failed state, existing in near total anarchy with terrorist gangs controlling most of the country and the coast being the best known haven for pirates in the world. Any Somali who is able flees the country at the first opportunity. Then there is Libya which, only shortly after becoming an independent kingdom, fell under the rule of the dictator Qaddafi who staged a military coup to seize power. He ruled for decades after with an iron fist, massacring any who opposed him and fomenting terrorist attacks around the world. When his own people finally rose up against him, he turned his military on them and was only finally overthrown with the intervention of the U.S. and E.U. (with the Italian Republic being a hesitant partner despite Qaddafi having a long history of blackmailing Italy). Today much of the country is in ruins and it remains to be seen whether things will get better or worse under the new administration.

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