Italy’s African Destiny | BETWEEN 2 WARS I 1931 Part 1 of 3
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Italy’s African Destiny | BETWEEN 2 WARS I 1931 Part 1 of 3

Since 1923, Benito Mussolini has been working
to fulfill his vision of a new Roman style Italian Empire by subjugating those large
parts of North Africa that had once been colonies under Roman rule two millennia ago, and now
in Libya this process concludes with a murder. Welcome to Between-2-Wars a chronological
summary of the interwar years, covering all facets of life, the uncertainty, hedonism,
and euphoria, and ultimately humanity’s descent into the darkness of the Second World
War.  I’m Indy Neidell. It is 1931, and since we last saw Mussolini,
he has increased his power and been dictator of Italy since 1927. Formally, he is only
Head of the Government and King Victor Emanuel III is still head of state, but without protest,
the monarch has signed into law one reform after the other that has granted Mussolini
absolute power, and turned Italy into a totalitarianFascist state. Now, ever since he started the fascist movement
he has been promoting a mythical connection between ancient Rome and Italy to justify
his expansive ideas for an Italian Empire to rule over vast parts of the central portion
of the Mediterranean, or as the Romans once called it, and the Fascists have now also
adopted; Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea”. A central part of that plan is to expand and gain full
control of the portions of North Africa captured from the Ottoman Empire just before The Great
War. Domains that Mussolini now styles as Libya, a name that harks back to the old Roman
name for its colonies there, which in turn was adapted from the ancient Egyptian name
for some of the tribes of the region. Mussolini starts this campaign, the “Riconquista
della Libia” – The reconquest or pacification of Libya- a year after he becomes prime minister
in 1923. But Italian interest in the region goes back to shortly after the creation of
Italy in 1861. The colonial interests of the European powers
are driven by the promise of increased natural resources and cheap labor, but there is also
the imperial concept of national greatness, and Italy wants its place in the sun too.
In the 1880’s, the young Italian kingdom becomes a late, and relatively weak addition
to the Scramble for Africa. She initially makes modest inroads in Eritrea and Somalia,
but after an attempt to colonize Abyssinia- the Ethiopian Empire, they face a disastrous
defeat against the Ethiopians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, effectively ending Italian
expansion for the next 15 years. In 1911 they make another attempt to gain
a foothold when they go to war with the Ottoman Empire to conquer the provinces Tripolitania,
Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. It is a financially costly war for Italy. Prime Minister Giovanni
Giolitti had predicted an immediate and decisive military victory, but that turns out to be
a miscalculation, and they spend 1.3 billion lire, a billion more than planned. However,
in October 1912 the first Balkan War breaks out. The Ottomans now need all their forces
in the Balkans, and a peace treaty is signed, with Italy as new master of what will in 1934
once again be known as Libya. But it turns out that not all new subjects
of the Italian King are delighted with their new rulers. Italy faces widespread unrest
and must deploy the military to keep control. Moreover, Italy’s entry into The Great War
in 1915 forces the Italian government to shift its attention to the war in Europe. In an
effort to keep power but spare their forces, they pull back to coastal cities such as Tripoli
and Benghazi. In the resulting vacuum, resistance to Italian
rule quickly grows into outright war. The leaders of the opposition to Italian rule
are the Senussi, a political and religious movement tracing back to a mystical Muslim
order founded by theologian Sayyid Muhammad Ibn Ali El Senussi in 1837. The Senussi are
at the core of the anti-colonial movement, and had effectively fought off eastward expansion
of the French in the naughts. At their head since 1911 is the teacher turned rebel Omar
Mukhtar, also known as the Lion of the Desert. He is a fierce, adaptive, and resourceful
military commander, and is dedicated to religious piety, swearing off personal gain and creature
comforts. Even his Italian opposing commanders come to admire him for his prowess and dedication. In an effort to weaken both Italy and Britain,
the Ottoman Sultan now encourages the thousands of tribesmen organized by Mukhtar to rise
up and carry out raids in both Libya and British-controlled Egypt. But the Ottomans are under increasing
pressure in the war and can’t give Mukhtar the support he really needs to prevail. So
the Senussi sign a peace treaty with both of those European powers in April 1917, but
this does not really cement Libya as an Italian colony. Although Italy is formally given dominion
at the 1919 Paris peace conference through the Treaty of Lausanne, in effect the region
continues to be controlled by the Senussi. Not much is done about it at first, as domestic
Italian concerns take center stage in the post-war instability, but in 1922 Italian
colonial power is under increasing threat. Stiffening Cyrenaican resistance and the nominal
Egyptian independence, which we covered in our Episode about carving up the Middle East,
pushes the Italian government to consider military pacification. For the Fascists this
is good news, with bitterness over the relatively minor territorial gains given in Paris 1919,
Libya now presents itself as the perfect opportunity for the nascent Fascist government to demonstrate
its military prowess. In 1923 Mussolini decides to go to war in Africa again. Now, all of that might sound like Italian soldiers
have been and are going to be fighting in Africa against indigenous soldiers trying
to regain control of their own lands, but it isn’t quite that simple. Already during the teens, most of the “Italian”
fighting done in Libya is actually done by Eritrean and Somali legionnaires. Attracted
by steady pay, an escape from the natural fluctuations of their agrarian economy, these
recruits turn out to be loyal and effective fighters. The Italian officers soon develop
the view that colonial troops are better suited to the climate and terrain than Italian soldiers.
Colonel Guglielmo Nasi, one of the senior figures in Italian East Africa, even goes
as far as to say that to say that Italian troops are a hindrance and a ‘ball and chain’
on military commanders in the field. These are positive attributes sometimes based on
vague racial understanding, even when meant to be praise, such as when General Ottorino
Mezzetti, one of the commanders of the troops in Libya, notes that ‘the Eritreans feel
excited and develop in the fight the bestial instincts of a warrior race’. But there are other more important factors
that pushes Italy to use local recruits; first of all- they are cheaper than Italian troops.
In 1926, an Italian private is paid 2.25 Lire daily with an additional 3.50 Lire if serving
in a colony. Those from East Africa get 1.50 Lire with an additional 1 Lire if serving
outside their native colony. They also get, and accept, smaller food rations than their
native Italian counterparts. Third of all it, enables the Italian government
to avoid opposition by the war-tired Italian population for sacrificing more Italian lives
in yet another war abroad. Or as historian Giulia Barrera puts it: “By using Eritreans,
and not Italians […] the Italian government was able to continue pursuing an expansionist
colonial policy in Somalia and Libya without running the risk of the political backlash
that the death of Italian soldiers could have caused.” But it poses a problem of over-reliance on
local manpower, which spills over to the Italian colonial administrators in for instance Eritrea.
Between 1912 and 1934, the East African colony’s small population of roughly half a million
will furnish 68 battalions and six artillery batteries in rotation. It causes concerns
about labor shortage in the largely agrarian but increasingly industrial territory. Officials
in Eritrea’s capital Asmara clash continuously with Rome about this throughout the 1920’s.
It is in only by 1929 that tensions are reduced after a plague of locusts makes the voluntary
two-year military service a means of reducing unemployment and destitution. While all of this fills the ranks of the Italian
forces, it is one of many factors that now wreaks havoc on social structures. Now, this is a war against insurgency, so
there are no clear fronts and few major battles. Instead, it plays out thorough repeated widespread
raids and attacks on Italian strongholds by the rebels. Mukhtar has organized the rebels
into highly mobile squads, and created a support network within the tribal communities in Libya.
Mukhtar and his men know the terrain like their own backyard, and are able to stealthily
move and strike without warning, much to the frustration of the Italians. From 1923 to
1930, Mukhtar’s rebels continue their actions, but the Italians respond with militarized
policing actions with increasing intensity and brutality, especially after the declaration
of jihad, holy war for all Muslims, by the most militant wing of the Senussi. To close off the possibility of retreat into
safe havens in British territory of influence in Egypt, they erect a 350 km long barbed
wired fence along the Libyan/Egyptian border and create a highly militarized zone, with
armored vehicles and aircrafts patrolling the sector continuously. The local population’s
livelihood is badly damaged as they depend on an open border exchange, especially the
partly nomadic Bedouins, who are also major supporters of the Senussi. In March 1930, General Rodolfo Graziani takes
command of the Italian forces in Libya. Graziani is determined to achieve a complete victory.
He starts carrying out organized retaliatory actions against rebel support by the widespread
slaughter of livestock, closing down the vital desert wells, and isolating 100,000 of the
Bedouin population in 11 concentration camps, surrounded by barbed wire and machine guns.
Tens of thousands perish due from the abysmal conditions in the camps. Throughout Libya,
contact with the rebels becomes a capital offense, leading to immediate execution. Through
systematic torture, deportation, and impoverishment, Graziani is hellbent on crushing the insurgency.
The amount of people murdered and “disappeared” is unclear as there is no census with which
to definitively determinate casualties. It is safe to say, though, that it is in the
high tens of thousands, possibly more. Graziani’s campaign of terror is efficient,
and by the end of the year the Senussi’s capacity to move and strike freely has been
reduced significantly. Despite that, Mukhtar continues to elude them and continues a limited
campaign harassing the Italian forces. During the summer of 1931 it becomes a main objective
of Graziani’s forces to capture Mukhtar. On September 11, he is wounded in battle near
Slonta, a town south of the city Bayda. Incapacitated, he is finally captured and brought to a PoW
camp in Suluq. On the 16th of September, 1931, the now 73 year old Omar Mukhtar is hanged
in front of his followers. He accepts his fate with the words “From Allah we came and
to Allah we must return”. His nemesis Graziani will later say: “Omar
was endowed with a quick and lively intelligence; was knowledgeable in religious matters, and
revealed an energetic and impetuous character, unselfish and uncompromising; ultimately,
he remained very religious and poor, even though he had been one of the most important
Senusist figures.” Historian Angelo Del Boca summarizes Mukhtar
like this: “Omar is not only an example of religious faith and a born fighter but also
the builder of that perfect military-political organization, which for ten years kept in
check troops under four governors. The execution of the Lion of the Desert is
met with widespread indignation throughout the Arab world, but the war is over for now
and the Italians proceed to consolidate their gains. The plan is to settle Italian farmers in towns
and villages either newly constructed or claimed from the indigenous population. It’s a mixture
of land seizure and forcing the sale of land at low prices. The state-run Libyan Colonization
Society has plans to settle half a million native Italians in Libya over the next three
decades. The original inhabitants will be relocated to less arable and less valuable
land, with lesser attractive model villages created in which to force the nomadic population
to settle. By 1939, some 110,000 Italians will have arrived so that around 12% of the
population will be native Italian. However they will be concentrated to the Mediterranean
coastline, mainly around Tripoli and Benghazi, where they make up 1/3 of the population. While the colonial masters also invest into
infrastructure like roads, electricity, railroads, irrigation, and ports, the indigenous population
will see little improvement and will continue to suffer from the wartime destruction and
ensuing attrition of the rural economic life. This creates the first major urban migration
wave in the region for many centuries, concentrating the social problems that have now arisen to
the cities. Though attempts will be made to expand health services for the locals, they
will be limited. The same goes for access to education, with only 120 Arabs attending
the only secondary school in Tripoli for indigenous students in 1939. However, the Italians have learnt from their
mistakes and do not continue a militaristic program of intimidation, instead seeking local
support for their endeavors, despite continuing inequalities between Italians and Libyans.
In fact, they want to integrate the northern shore of Libya, as the Quarta Sponda, “Fourth
Shore”, into Italy proper rather than a distinct colonial entity. The colony now begins
mirroring homeland institutions. So that when for instance mainland Italy has the fascist
youth organization Opera Nazionale Balilla (the Italian equivalent of the Hitler Youth),
Libya gets the Gioventù Araba del Littorio (“Arab Littoral Youth”). For some indigenous
adults, membership will even be open to the Associazione musulmana del Littorio, the local
Muslim branch of the National Fascist Party. Additionally, Libyans will be granted a middle
status of colonial citizenship. Though not fully equal, this does pave the way for a
theoretical path to a modified form of citizenship, conditional on a certain level of Italian
education and loyalty to Italy. You see, as odd as it might sound, Mussolini,
with his traditional catholic upbringing does not promote hatred of the Muslims. Instead
he makes a concerted effort to increase cooperation with the Muslim world. According to his son-in-law,
Galeazzo Ciano’s diary, Il Duce even wants to build a mosque in Rome as a projection
of its relationship to the Islamic world, though he backs down after papal opposition.
In Lybia he, titles himself protettore dell’islam “Protector of Islam” once the title of
the Caliphs of the recently abolished Ottoman caliphate. But, as always with Il Duce, there’s
a twist and a cunning plan in the making. You see, most of the Islamic world is ruled
by France and Great Britain at this point, and the leader of the Fascists wants to put
a wedge in that relationship. He also still has his eyes on Abyssinia, where there is
a long standing conflict between the Arab influenced Muslims and the Amharic-speaking
Orthodox elite that governs there. So, in essence, Mussolini is already making
plans for a new conflict with the other colonial powers, and continued colonial expansion. It’s all part of what Mussolini and the
Fascists calls the “destino affricano del Popolo Italiano” the African Destiny of
the Italian Peoples. A belief that they have somehow inherited the rights to the Ancient
Roman colonies. It is a belief and ambition that sets them on a path of conflict that
will tip the power scales in the entire world in 1935, when Italy once again wages war on
the Ethiopian Empire. During the ensuing Abyssinian crisis, Italy faces massive protests by the
League of Nations while the US, France, and Great Britain secretly try to appease the
situation. It ends in chaos as France and Great Britain’s underhand operation are
leaked to the public, massive sanctions are imposed on Italy, who quits the league of
Nations in protest, and still seizes three quarters of the Ethiopian Empire during the
Second Italo Abyssinian War. If the League of Nations had ever been a functioning organization
is doubtful, but it is this incident that puts the final nail in its coffin. Through all of that mess, Italy does get support
from their Nazi associates in Germany though. So that after the crisis the Fascists and
Nazis find themselves isolated together with the more democratic Western Powers as common
opposition. If this is a tipping point is questionable, but they will in any case soon
be full out allies, first under the anti-comintern pact, and then military allies under the Pact
of Steel, or Rome Berlin Axis. In Eastern Africa it makes Italy and Great Britain neighboring
enemy powers on multiple fronts. Come 1940 it is on these fronts that Italy and Great
Britain will begin that part of World War Two known as The North African Campaign, raging
for 2 years, 11 months and 3 days, it will once again cost thousands and thousands of
lives in yet another effort to control the valuable resources and strategic positions
in Africa and the Middle East. If you haven’t seen our episode about how
the Middle East was carved up after World War One, you will see a link to that in moment.
Also check out the Weekly episode of WW2 when hostilities between Italy and Great Brian
come to Africa in 1940. Our TimeGhost Army Member for this week is Troy Willis. It’s
thanks to the financial contribution by People like Troy that we are at all able to make our shows
– so do like Troy and join the forces at Patreon or Now activate that bell, otherwise
YouTube won’t notify you. Maa salama Don’t worry, it’s not alcoholic.

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0 thoughts on “Italy’s African Destiny | BETWEEN 2 WARS I 1931 Part 1 of 3

  1. As we approach one year of WW2 In Real Time we cannot express our gratitude for your support enough. It is the financial and spiritual involvement of the TimeGhost Army at and that has made it possible for us to do all of this – so thank you, once again! 

    This episode comes out as our WW2 series is covering the first battles in the North African theatre. The Second World War there will have major impact on world events between 1940 and 1944. And this is the second episode covering the background to the conflict in North Africa and the Middle East. We will return to Africa again, but before that we will look at what is going on in Germany, Japan and the USSR in the early 1930s – as some of you might already guess or know, those are dramatic times in those places and it is in these years that the world takes its first concrete steps towards the conflict that erupts into world war in 1939. And last, but not least; remember our rules:

    STAY CIVIL AND POLITE we will delete any comments with personal insults, or attacks.
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    HATE SPEECH IN ANY DIRECTION will lead to a ban.
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