France and the United Kingdom withdrew from the last of their colonies in the Middle East decades ago. Nonetheless, recent events illustrate how their imperial legacy continues to reverberate in the Arab and Western worlds alike. In early October, Algeria banned French flights from crossing its territory after French President Emmanuel Macron cast doubt on the existence of an Algerian nation prior to its colonization by France. Meanwhile, the British Museum still houses a number of artifacts from the United Kingdom’s own former colonies.
As an American-born citizen of Italy, I found it striking that the country from which my grandparents had immigrated to the United States appeared all but absent from these conversations. While British and French forces occupied the vast majority of the Arab world in the 20th century, Italy established toeholds in two strategic corners of the region: Libya and Somalia. Even so, this history seems to have faded from popular culture in Italy and Africa.
Italy negotiated a protectorate in what became known as “Italian Somaliland” in 1889 in the hopes that this colonial project might develop into a lucrative enterprise. In 1912, Italian forces captured Libya during the Italo-Turkish War. That brief conflict represented a devastating loss to the Ottoman Empire, derided back then as “the sick man of Europe,” but signaled Italy’s rise as a colonial empire.
Italy’s 20th-century nationalists viewed the creation of the Italian Empire and in particular the establishment of Italian Libya as an opportunity to rebuild the Roman Empire, which had ruled all of North Africa. Italian proponents of colonialism even dubbed Libya “the Fourth Shore,” viewing it as an integral component of Italy like the European country’s coasts along the Adriatic, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian Seas.
Despite Italian nationalists’ ambitions, the Italian Empire’s scope paled in comparison to its British and French counterparts. France and the United Kingdom controlled the rest of the Arab world and most of Africa for much of the 20th century, limiting Italy’s options for colonial expansion. In contrast to British and French colonialism, the Italian Empire also proved short-lived: Italy lost all its Libyan and Somali territories to anti-fascist forces during World War II.
Italy’s colonial misadventures rarely earn a mention in contemporary politics or popular culture.
Perhaps because Italian Libya and Somaliland occupied only a few decades in the wider, millennia-long arc of Italy’s history, the European country’s colonial misadventures rarely earn a mention in contemporary politics or popular culture. Whereas France cemented its influence in Algeria over 130 years, Italy found itself expelled from Libya after little more than 30 years.
Following the devastation inflicted by World War II, Italy had little time to reflect on the loss of its far-flung colonies and spent the decades after 1945 focused on reconstituting itself. The Cold War then introduced a new era of civil strife in Italy, the Years of Lead, during which right- and left-wing militants waged violent campaigns for social influence. In more recent times, the ongoing pandemic has made clear the cultural, economic, and political divides that continue to bedevil Italian society. Residents of Southern Italy, an underdeveloped region that my family used to call home, still struggle to access the same quality of jobs and public services that their northern counterparts enjoy.
In this environment, a dissection of Italy’s role in Libya and Somalia would appear to have little relevance to Italians’ current challenges. At the same time, an assessment of the motivations behind Italy’s colonial ambitions might offer Italians key insights into the national identity of a country wrestling with its place in Europe and the world.
The relative brevity of the Italian Empire notwithstanding, Italians must acknowledge their country’s colonial past as the British and French have if Italy ever hopes to atone for the darker aspects of its legacy in Africa. Beyond the issue of Italy imposing foreign rule on African and Arab countries in pursuit of economic and political ends, Italian colonialism grew synonymous with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Libya offers one of the most egregious examples.
Rodolfo Graziani, a top fascist general under the notorious Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, received the nickname “the Butcher of Fezzan” for the brutal methods that he employed to quell resistance to Italian control of Libya in the 1930s. Graziani erected concentration camps where malnutrition and starvation ran rampant. According to historians, between 60 and 70,000 Libyans died. Italy also built facilities in the Libyan cities of Benghazi and Tripoli to store chemical weapons that Italian forces intended to deploy during a bid to conquer Ethiopia.
Even colonial-era measures that might have appeared benevolent, such as Italy’s move to outlaw slavery in Somalia, betrayed the cynical nature of colonialism. Historians and human rights groups continue to debate whether the Italian colonists in Somalia employed forced labor after the apparent abolition of the Somali slave trade. Moreover, Italian officials only implemented that ban after facing pressure from constituents in Italy horrified by the pre-colonial practice of slavery in Somalia.
Even if most victims and perpetrators of these abuses passed away some time ago, the lack of discussion about Italy’s imperial history belies the topic’s contemporary significance. In 2012, the Italian village of Affile drew on $157,000 in taxpayers’ money to construct a mausoleum for Graziani. “You do these things in war,” an unnamed, unapologetic great-nephew of Graziani told a reporter for the newspaper Italian Insider at the time of the mausoleum’s inauguration. “You know how it is. You’re a soldier, you answer orders and you’ve got a job to do.”
The 21st-century construction of a mausoleum for a 20th-century Italian war criminal speaks to Italy’s failure to confront its colonial and fascist legacies. Unlike Germany, which has rarely relented in its commitment to acknowledging and atoning for the horrors of the Holocaust, Italy has only taken limited steps to analyze the consequences of fascist rule before and during World War II. Many Italians still venerate Mussolini and his acolytes, including Graziani. Just two years ago, an Italian party on the far right even recommended Mussolini’s great grandson as a candidate for a seat in the European Parliament.
Affile’s monument to Graziani echoes the ongoing celebrations of the Genoa-born explorer Christopher Columbus on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean — despite Columbus’ leading role in killing and enslaving the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Activists in the United States have pushed for the removal of Columbus statues only to face backlash from a number of Italian-Americans. Until nations account for the bloodiest aspects of their pasts, this type of nostalgia will likely persist.
Italy’s level of engagement with its former colonies has hardly faded, often to deleterious effect.
As Libya and Somalia lurch from one civil war and constitutional crisis to another, academic discussions about the legacy of the Italian Empire may appear trivial. At the same time, Italy’s level of engagement with its former colonies has hardly faded, often to deleterious effect. In the 1980s, Italian companies and officials used projects that they were sponsoring in the nascent Somali state to line their own pockets rather than to benefit Somalis. In more recent years, Italy has supported Libya’s coast guard, which has a reputation for abusing migrants.
While history can never explain every decision and event behind complex geopolitical relationships, Libya and Somalia’s past as Italian colonies no doubt informs their current interactions with the successor state of the Roman Empire.
If Italy revisits its history in Libya and Somalia, all three countries can begin to develop a relationship that will enable them to move beyond the bitter legacy of colonialism. To varying extents, France and the United Kingdom have already embarked on this difficult journey with their former colonies. By following in their footsteps, Italy can reconcile its status as a bastion of liberal democracy with its little-known past as one of Europe’s colonial empires.