Monday, March 10, 2008
Mussolini in Africa. posted by Richard Seymour
There are some reasons why people might feel ill-equipped to deal with this topic. On the one hand, colonial policy, far from being epiphenomenal, was central to Mussolini's ambitions for Italy. On the other, the topic is actually touched on only rather lightly in histories of the Middle East and Africa, as well as in the histories of fascism. In several mainstream histories of the Middle East that I possess, for example, little is even mentioned about the Italian occupation of Libya, and the only one that mentions the genocide is Ilan Pappe's 'Modern History of the Middle East'. It is not discussed at all in Roger Eatwell's book on fascism - Ethiopia is touched upon, Libya glanced toward, but beyond vague adumbrations about 'repression', there is little detail. Even Alexander De Grand's valuable short introduction to the topic of Italian Fascism doesn't spend a great deal of time talking about colonial policy, and has nothing at all about Libya beyond a few references to the 1911 war. Robert Paxton's history, The Anatomy of Fascism, does at least mention some of the policies in both Libya and Ethiopia. In Italian histories, the colonial policy of the fascist regime tended to be overlooked almost entirely right up until the 1970s. It seemed that with the Treaty of Paris in 1947, the Italian elite simply gave up the colonies and agreed not to say too much about it, and the historians followed suit (although there was a fifty volume history produced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was ecstatic about the whole business and Italy's civilizing role). Chemical weapons, concentration camps and genocide are apparently touchy subjects. In some cases, this could be related to the disturbing efforts to resuscitate the Duce's reputation. Where there isn't outright resuscitation, there is a general argument that he was a moderate who transcended left and right, and if only he had stopped in 1936 and resisted the Hitlerian nemesis, then all would have been perfectly fine. For an example of the latter, you might consult the Spectator journalist Nicholas Farrell's biography, Mussolini: A New Life, or Richard Lamb's Mussolini and the British, which argues that Mussolini was essentially a good chap who could have been won to the allied side if he hadn't been so bewildered by the unsporting criticism of his invasion of Ethiopia.
I don't need to go into detail about the rise of fascism and the March on Rome, but suffice to say that the reformist Prime Minister Giolitti's attempts to hold the liberal state together in the face of working class insurgency, in part by forming a coalition with the fascists, failed. The elections in May 1921 demonstrated that the Socialists and Communists remained a powerful electoral bloc, and the traditional liberal political class was wilting. Only the fascists could hold back the Left, and when the state began to collapse, the Italian capitalist federation Confindustria indicated support for a combined Mussolini-Giolitti government. Mussolini was able to reassure capital, clergy and monarchy that he was serious and would not attempt any radical experiments, and so he was given permission to sieze power in October 1922. Given difficult international conditions and Fascist Italy's lacklustre economic performance, colonial policy had to be placed on the backburner throughout the 1920s: the siezure of Ethiopia, which Italy had failed to conquer in 1896, would have to wait until 1935. But that didn't mean that Mussolini was uninterested. The Italian Geographical Society (SGI), long a major pillar of the state's expansionist ambitions and provider of explorers to scope out potential territory for conquest (first in Tunisia and Morocco, then Abyssinia/Ethiopia and Somaliland), was patronised early on by Mussolini. Several of its officials were integrated into the administration and the organisation provided much of the vital information for the ongoing wars to reconquer Libya, since Italian control had been reduced to the coastal cities and towns since 1915.
Ethiopia, the sweetest plum in East Africa as far as Mussolini was concerned, was one of those territories as yet unoccupied by France, Britain or Germany. It was seen as available - dare I say virgin? - territory. Further, Fascist Italy was still on good terms with Popular Front France, and it would not have expected criticism from Britain for a colonial endeavour of this kind. However, Ethiopia was a member of the League of Nations and could claim its protection. So when Mussolini went to war on October 3 1935, the League voted for sanctions. Britain and France offered a compromise: Italy could have a large part of Ethiopia if it would accept the fiction of a rump Ethiopian state. Italy accepted, but the deal was leaked to the press and died in the exposure. Sanctions were applied, but at any rate without much commitment, and Italian forces proceeded into Addis Ababa to put the crown on a new Italian Empire. The atrocities perpetrated in the war generally passed without comment. Poisonous gas sprayed from airplanes, the bombing of Red Cross hospitals, massacres, summary executions, hundreds of thousands of deaths - these were not matters that other colonial powers had an opinion about unless Mussolini crossed them. Even after WWII, a seventeen-member UN War Crimes Commission specifically excluded Ethiopia, mainly because it was only concerned with crimes committed against European powers, Russia and the United States. How could a British government whose wartime leader approved of gassing natives, and was actually rather fond of Mussolini at times, raise the issue? At any rate, Italy's successes in East Africa radicalised the Fascist regime. Race theory, largely eschewed in its biological variants until 1935, became increasingly important to the regime. The Fascist 'new man' was to be shaped in the new order, and colonial racism became the basis of domestic racism. Just as in Ethiopia racial intermarriage was outlawed, so in 1938 the new 'Manifesto of Fascist Racism' forbade 'racial' intermarriage along the lines of Hitler's Nuremberg Laws. Mussolini had once enjoyed a small amount of Jewish support, and he had no objection to the Zionists - he particularly admired of Jabotinsky, who returned the compliment - but the regime began to discriminate against the country's ancient, well-integrated Jewish community. That persecution, of course, was not to become extermination until the so-called Republic of Salo. Unlike the Nazis, who could buy off business and popular constituencies throughout their spiralling derangement with the booty of pillage in Eastern Europe, Mussolini had little to show for his involvement, and nothing to offer either worker or parasite. The Italian ruling elite, desperate at the failure of supporting the German side in the war, tried in 1943 to oust Mussolini and have him arrested. The Nazis rescued him, occupied the country, and formally restored Mussolini's dictatorship, albeit within the confines of a puppet state. The agents of the Republic were the most radicalised and vicious sections of the fascist elite, and pursued the extermination of the Jews far more vigorously than most Italians were prepared to, and waged an unusually savage war of repression to stymy the leftist insurgency beginning in 1944.
Fascism did not need colonialism in order to be vicious and repressive. But the colonial idea gave it an impulse of radicalisation that led to its most destructive, and self-destructive phase. There could hardly be a more chilling example of Aime Cesaire's reminder that before Europeans were the victims of fascism, they were its accomplices; that "they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps and trickles from every crack."