A brief history of modern Italy's failed African adventure

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Pax Romana
A brief history of modern Italy's failed African adventure.


To the ancient Romans, the Mediterranean was mare nostrum, "our sea" -- a claim that not only pertained to its waters, but to much of the territory that bordered it. At its height, the Roman Empire spanned from Britain to Mesopotamia. But when the modern state was eventually founded in 1861 -- bringing together a number of independent monarchies and city-states on the Italian peninsula -- Italy was a shadow of its former self, more a collection of duchies and principalities than anything resembling a modern nation.

Eclipsed by more powerful, more established European neighbors, Italy came late to the colonialism game and was, to put it rather bluntly, left to pick up the scraps -- the yet-uncolonized areas of Africa, including the places now known as Libya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Italy's occupation of these countries was undoubtedly brutal -- Italian security forces were constantly suppressing insurrections in each -- and all of its former colonies have struggled since gaining their independence. But Italy's influence in these areas, in the way of culture, architecture, and political identity, is still unmistakable. Above, a mosque in the Eritrean city of Asmara.


Italy first set its eyes on Ethiopia, but its attempts to seize the territory were spurned by Ethiopian forces in 1895 and 1896. Italian efforts were more successful in 1911, when they defeated the Ottoman Empire in the Italo-Turkish War, gaining Libya as a colony. Above, Italian forces treat a wounded soldier in Tripoli in 1911.


Early in the 20th century, thousands of Italian colonists arrived in Libya, referring to it as land "taken back" from the Turks and citing ancient Rome's history in the region. Above are some of the 20,000 Italians who arrived on the shores of Tripoli.


When the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini became prime minister in 1922, he placed an immediate emphasis on strengthening Italy's colonial presence. In 1923, Mussolini signed the Treaty of Lausanne, which formalized Italy's still-disputed administration of Libya. Above, Mussolini (second from left), on a visit to Libya in 1940, listens as a leader of the Muslim community pays homage to him.


Mussolini's political culture migrated across the Mediterranean to Libya. Above, a group of Italian girls, members of a Fascist organization, march on the streets of Tripoli in 1935.


In October 1935, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, launching the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. Above, an Italian troop ship passes through the Suez Canal en route to Ethiopia, surrounded by local boats.


The Abyssinian imperial guard tried to repel Mussolini's onslaught, but in May 1935, seven months after conflict began, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie fled the country and Italian troops moved into the capital, Addis Ababa. Above, members of the Abyssinian imperial guard man an anti-aircraft gun against Italian bombers in January 1936.


Italy merged Italian Eritrea, Italian Somalia, and newly captured Ethiopia into Italian East Africa. On May 9, 1936, Mussolini declared the creation of an "Italian Empire"; Italian King Victor Emmanuel III added the Emperor of Ethiopia to his titles. In its first five years as a colony, Ethiopia absorbed 300,000 arrivals from Italy. Above, native Ethiopians salute a portrait of Mussolini in November 1935.


Mussolini forged an alliance with Germany's Adolf Hitler, joining the Axis powers in World War II, with hopes of extending the Italian empire into Yugoslavia, southern France, and across the whole of North Africa. Above, representatives from Italy's African colonies were brought to the Italian city of Santa Marinella to meet with Hitler during a state visit.


World War II, however, was a disaster for Italy. British troops decisively defeated Italian forces in North Africa in 1940, freeing Libya and Ethiopia from Italian rule. Above, townspeople in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and Italy's second-largest naval base in Africa, watch as the town is formally handed over to British and Australian forces on Feb 8, 1941.


A South African soldier stops to read an Italian road sign in Libya during World War II.


Italian Somaliland had to wait until 1960 to gain its independence, when it was allowed to fuse with British Somaliland to form the modern state of Somalia. Above, Somalis celebrate their independence under an Italian banner in 1964.


Unlike France's former colonies in Africa, Italy's holdings were quick to turn their backs on their European masters after gaining independence. Italy's presence -- particularly the architecture -- is among the last vestiges of the European power in its former colonies. Above, Libyan soldiers stand in 1985 in front of the Tripoli Cathedral, built by Italians in 1928.


Cameron Abadi is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.


Field Marshal
Jul 13, 2004
Not bad...

though it leaves out the impact of the Italian interference in Spain, and the failure of the League of Nations (most notably to actually apply meaningful sanctions like steel for aggression against Abyssinia). i will grant that a photo for the latter might not have been very eye-catching.


Field Marshal
Jul 13, 2004
Be that as it may, it was a goal of the Italian state's foreign policy. e.g. when perfidious Albion failed in delivering up the promised bits of other people's territory to Italy, there was much sense of aggrievement in the imperialist camp there.