Monday, March 10, 2008

Mussolini in Africa.


On March 17, 1937, Mussolini was greeted by notables from Tripoli and presented with a bejewelled sword, that was to symbolise his role as the 'Sword of Islam'. This is an interesting episode, because it is picked on by neoconservative authors such as Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer to give sustenance to their gripes about the Islamification of Europe and its inherent totalitarianism. Of course, it's absolute nonsense, as the notables in question were exhorted to greet Mussolini in this manner (the Duce did enjoy his parades and ceremonies). Libya had by then been re-conquered by Italian forces, and subjected to furious massacres including a bout of genocide. Mussolini's claim to be a liberator of Islam was as meaningful as Napoleon's claim to the same fame when he invaded Egypt in 1798, yet quite often his opportunistic manouevring is taken as a serious policy orientation - "pro-Arabism", it's called. Those lucky Arabs.

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.

In fact, Italy's capacity to wage war for its own glory was at the heart of Mussolini's political transformation. Having been a revolutionary and a pacifist who made his name opposing the 1911 Libyan war, he shifted rapidly to the right during the first few months of World War I, and was taken up and encouraged by sectors of Italian power including corporate interests, as well as by the French and Belgian governments. He advocated 'democratic interventionism' - instead of neutrality, or Italy fulfilling its obligations in the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austro-Hungary, Italy should support the 'democratic' states. There was no democratic content to the war at all, and Mussolini was in reality siding with the most reactionary elements in Italian politics. Once an opponent of the moderate Socialist leader Bissolati, Mussolini came to rely on him to keep him out of the conflict (he didn't personally enjoy the battle, unlike Hitler), and he was returned from battle to work on his paper, Popolo d’Italia, after a relatively slight injury in 1917. The claim to any kind of socialism, 'national' or otherwise, was shortly abandoned. Il Popolo embraced anti-communism and was the first publication to carry John Spargo's hostile accounts of the Russian Revolution. Whatever Mussolini's spurious appeals to the Italian proletariat, neither the Popolo nor the fasci di combattimento formed in 1919 showed much sign of working class involvement. The fascists had essentially shed the assorted socialists and syndicalists that had comprised part of the initial membership base in Milan, and became a pro-monarchical rightist party of petit-bourgeois and agrarian resurgence. Yet the appeal to some specious notion of 'progress' and workerism would stay in his rhetoric long after he had ideologically, formally and organisationally separated himself from radicalism of any stripe. Even in 1940, he was appealling to 'proletarians' to defend the "Revolution" against the "plutocratic and reactionary democracies of the West". The proletarians later killed him and hung him upside down from a meat hook.

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.



Mussolini's aggressive reassertion of Italian international power began in earnest in 1930 as the depression sank in. In Libya, the colonial authorities finally defeated the insurgency by imprisoning almost the entire "pacified" population in a system of brutal concentration camps from 1930 to 1932. Most of those captured died in the camps. Acting on the military doctrines of General Douhet, a Fascist supporter who advocated gassing, aerial bombardment and 'Total War', the colonialists could pound the 'inferior' natives from the seemingly limitless sky rather than getting down and dirty where the insurgents could mount some resistance. The Arab fighters were attacked with chemical weapons and bombs, destroyed and dispersed into the desert where the Italian air force could finish them off. Official Italian figures estimated a 37% reduction in the population, an authentic colonial genocide. The SGI's explorers were thereafter able to return to Italy with extensive ethnographic, cartographic and anthropological data, in its way 'proving' the progression of what had been a penumbral terra incognita into an enlightened Italian territory. Talk about power-knowledge. They produced studies of race types and a science of colonialism that would come to decisively influence the domestic politics of the Fascists.

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."