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Teaching the Natives a Lesson

Patrick Bernhard

Collision of Empires, ed G Bruce Strang, Ashgate, 360 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-1409430094

“The Führer is happy,” a seemingly cheerful Joseph Goebbels noted in his diaries in early 1935. As the German propaganda minister explained, war had become inevitable. What Hitler and Goebbels were referring to was not the imminent outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, or Japan’s brutal expansionism in East Asia, but fascist Italy’s impending invasion of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. Abyssinia, led at that time by Emperor Haile Selassie, was the only state in Africa that had successfully resisted European colonisation. Mussolini wanted to incorporate the country by every means into his nascent fascist empire and thus create new “living space” for the Italian nation; yet the international community met his expansionist policies with sharp resistance.

To Hitler, Italy’s impending attack on the country offered a significant chance to revise the Versailles postwar order in Europe. The massive international crisis Mussolini’s claims on the Horn of Africa had created would allow for Germany to “break her chains”, as Hitler said a few weeks later. With France and Britain absorbed by the African conflict, the Reich had a free hand to expand in Europe. “Our finest hour is soon to come,” Goebbels remarked, concluding that the inner circle of the Nazi regime was deeply impressed by the war. Thus for Hitler, the invasion of Abyssinia was much more than a traditional colonial war; it was the antecedent of violent expansionism in Europe.

The German dictator was not the only one to think that the war had a meaning that went well beyond Africa. The Abyssinian conflict of 1935/36 attracted huge international attention and was seen as a major event in world history. Certainly, the military conflict marked the climax of international interest in fascist Italy. The fascination Mussolini’s dictatorship stirred all over the world can hardly be overestimated. One has to keep in mind that Mussolini took the stage early – in October 1922 – and it was his regime, not Nazism, that first set the standard for right-wing dictatorships in Europe and beyond. It has been largely forgotten today that when talking about totalitarianism in the years after 1918, people did not refer to Nazism and Communism, but to Mussolini’s regime as Bolshevism’s “enemy twin”. As a radical new political order, fascism seemed to offer a fundamental alternative to the liberal system in crisis as well as to the rising threat of communism.

Mussolini’s regime was regarded by many as the best form of government for mastering the challenges posed by modernity. International interest was aroused by the ostensibly modern character of fascist Italy in many social and political realms, including – to name but a few – its comprehensive social and family policies; its highly efficient security apparatus, which crushed left-wing resistance within just a few years; its grandiose urban visions for the remodelling of entire cities; as well as its corporatism, which promised peaceful labour relations after years of massive social tensions following World War I. Yet it was one issue in particular that attracted international attention: the vast state-run colonisation programme that the fascists tried to implement in its colonies, which foresaw the resettlement of up to six and a half million Italians.

Italian fascism used the colonisation programme to pursue its imperial and demographic ambitions. The first purpose of settlement was to bind a “rootless” population to the soil and end the rural exodus, seen as a malign consequence of modernity. Italian demographic experts firmly believed that the drop in Europe’s birth rate since 1900 was due to urbanisation and that a consistent policy of rural settlement would increase fertility levels. Fascist settlement policy was more than merely pro-natalist, however. The regime also saw it as bringing a qualitative enhancement to the Italian population. The underlying assumption was that improving the soil would improve those who worked it. For Mussolini’s regime, the quantitative and qualitative improvement of the Italian people was a precondition as well as justification for conquering new territories. The country had to expand, as it needed an outlet for its “surplus population”. This was an idea that became an increasingly popular theme in Mussolini’s speeches as early as the late 1920s.

Yet at the same time, the brutal war of conquest in Abyssinia marked a turning point in the international reception of fascist Italy, becoming an eye-opener to many who had deceived themselves for a long time on the nature of Mussolini’s regime. During the conflict, which began in October 1935, an Italian army of more than 200,000 men under the command of Emilio De Bono and Pietro Badoglio not only made ample use of modern tanks, artillery and aircraft against a poorly equipped Ethiopian army, they also crushed military resistance with naked terror: they bombed undefended villages and towns, killed hostages, mutilated enemy corpses, established several forced labour camps, committed numerous massacres as reprisals, deported the indigenous intelligentsia and used poison gas not only against combatants but also against cattle – the idea behind that being to use hunger as a weapon. By the end of the Ethiopian campaign in May 1936, the Royal Italian Air force had deployed more than three hundred tons of arsenic, phosgene and mustard gas. Fascist Italy was thus the first European state after World War I to make use of this weapon of mass destruction against people deemed racially inferior. No doubt, this war transgressed boundaries: Fascist Italy’s rationale was not just the conquest of new territory, during which probably as many as 700,000 Ethiopians died; the war was also directed against an entire civilisation. The deportation of the local elites was an attempt to eradicate local culture. Italians also systematically killed Coptic monks and storytellers; in a society of illiterates, they constituted the cultural memory of the nation. In the final analysis, the fascist regime committed cultural cleansing in Abyssinia.

The Canadian historian G Bruce Strang’s fine volume on the international reaction to this extremely violent colonial war features essays written by eleven historians and political scientists and focuses on the political dimension of the war. Collision of Empires it looks primarily at how diplomats and governments in Britain, Japan, France, Canada, the United States, the Soviet Union and Germany responded to the invasion. The international community was forced to react to Fascist Italy’s war of aggression, as independent Abyssinia was officially a member of the League of Nations. Thankfully the book also contains contributions that deal with responses to the Abyssinian war in other colonial contexts and with the consequences the war had for Ethiopian society. What the contributions demonstrate is that Western powers failed in their crisis management. Instead of containing fascist aggression, as envisaged by the statute of the League of Nations, its members gave in to what British officials retrospectively called “colonial appeasement”. The half-hearted sanctions imposed on the aggressor did little to dampen Mussolini’s lust for expansionism. The main reasons for western reluctance to engage fully in the conflict were an unwillingness to go to war; their own strategic interests in Africa as colonial powers; and animosities and power rivalries among them. Indeed, already difficult British-French relations further deteriorated as a consequence of the Abyssinian crisis.

These insights are not completely novel. What is new and exciting about Collision of Empires is its reinterpretation of fascist Italy’s expansionist policies on the one hand and the way Strang and his contributors position the conflict in a wider historical context on the other. Strang’s own contribution on fascist Italy’s war aims is particularly fascinating. Based on new documents, he shows that social Darwinism and racism were the guiding ideas behind Italy’s policies of conquest. He also makes clear that the idea of violent expansionism was not limited to Mussolini, but relied on a consensus within the upper echelons of state and party bureaucracy that Italy had a genuine right to conquer.

This perspective is still quite sensational, as common wisdom holds that fascist Italy, in sharp contrast to Nazi Germany, was only marginally interested in questions of race and largely lacked the backing of both its functional elites and Italian society. Indeed, Strang fundamentally revises previous benign interpretations of fascist Italy by scholars like Richard J Bosworth, who claims that the country’s expansionism had much more in common with the traditional European colonialism than with Hitler’s politics of conquest. Strang is in fact part of a much larger scholarly revisionism of fascism. For many researchers indeed racism is now viewed as an essential element of the Italian dictatorship, not a point of difference between Italy and Hitler’s state but a common element. Researchers such as Robert S. Gordon and Christopher Duggan have developed this idea, highlighting the close relationship between racism and the brutal and expansionist character of the Italian dictatorship.

The second major insight that Collision of Empires provides is that it debates the long-term effects of the Abyssinian conflict and, more generally, colonialism for European history. Here, Martin Thomas’s contribution is particularly illuminating. Thomas, a specialist in colonial history from the University of Exeter, in his contribution exemplifies the considerable backlashes twentieth century colonialism had on the Old Continent. Instead of preserving peace in Europe by not supporting Abyssinia, the European powers opened the road to the fatal fascist alliance of 1936 between Nazi Germany and fascist Italy and thus for Hitler’s and Mussolini’s rape of Europe during the Second World War and the collapse of the Versailles order. From this perspective, the Abyssinian War is not an isolated colonial case and the last chapter in the history of European imperialism, but marks the beginning of a new era: the era of decolonisation in which the colonial periphery destabilised the metropolitan centres and led to the downfall of governments and political systems.

The clear focus on the international political dimension of the war is certainly one of the major strengths of the essay collection, yet it is at the same time also a minor shortcoming. The war in Ethiopia cannot be understood in diplomatic terms alone. It had a huge social and cultural meaning for European and non-European societies as well. Fascist Italy’s African endeavours stirred colonial fantasies and, more generally, raised hopes of rejuvenating allegedly decaying societies in many parts of the world, be it among academics, artists or ordinary people. In Britain, for instance, leading geographers lauded Italy’s vast settlement programme not only for being carried out on the strictest scientific lines. As its purpose was demographic rather than purely economic, it also differed fundamentally from anything that had previously been put into large-scale operation, the British agriculturalist and director of the Rothamsted Experimental Station, Edward John Russell, said in 1939 in a quite anti-capitalist tone. This fascination with the massive state-run colonisation project of fascist Italy went so far that British crofters, who wanted to improve their economic situation, asked for a permission to settle in Libya as colonists.

In Germany, the interest in Italian colonialism was even greater. One must keep in mind that the country had lost all its overseas possessions in the Treaty of Versailles. As the Abyssinian campaign seemed to demonstrate to German observers, even after the First World War the Age of Empire was anything but over. Rather, fascist Italy showed how a late-coming nation of “have-nots” could prevail against the dominant colonial powers of France and Britain.

What impressed leading Nazi officials and the German military alike were, foremost, the new settlements and the colonial infrastructures the Italians set up in Abyssinia. One of the first to articulate his admiration was Colonel Heinz Guderian, who played a crucial role in developing Germany’s modern armoured tactics. Even though the Wehrmacht could not learn much from the Abyssinian campaign in terms of armoured warfare (as Guderian rightly remarked, there had been no panzer battles, for the Ethiopian forces did not possess a single tank), Guderian was “most impressed” by the communication systems developed by the Royal Italian Army and private companies. Guderian’s remarks were by no means mere lip service to Germany’s ally.

But even more than that, Italian colonial violence also helped to legitimise Nazi plans for the brutal conquest of Eastern Europe and served as an inspiration for their own rule in the region. The references to fascist conquest are almost countless in German accounts of the time and clearly relate Africa to Europe. A very good example is Carl Schmitt. The famous political theorist and leading jurist explicitly linked Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia to the Reich’s aggression against its eastern neighbours. Following the Wehrmacht’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and the Nazis’ annexation of the country, Schmitt wrote that the Reich’s expansionism was justified by international law, just as Italy’s expansionism had been justified in Abyssinia. According to Schmitt, a minimum of order was required to call a state a state. Yet this essential precondition had not been met in East Africa or in Bohemia, for “not all people are able to give proof of their abilities in terms of nation building”. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany thus had a natural right to annex these territories as protectorates, and to dominate the Slavs and Africans living there. In this way, Schmitt advanced a highly tendentious reading of international law, harnessing it as a weapon in Nazi Germany’s struggle for ascendancy.

Thus, to conclude, the Italian “example” helped to radicalise traditional notions of colonialism and to translate them into a fascist context. We find that Italian colonialism was a case study of sorts for the transformation and modernisation of German expansionism along totalitarian lines. The German fascination is just one example of possible topics future research might deal with; research that puts Italy’s colonialism under fascism in its wider European and international context and shows how Mussolini’s murderous politics in Africa clashed but also intersected with the imperial ambitions of other powers. Collision of Empires has paved the way and it is to be hoped that many scholars will follow its example.

Patrick Bernhard is lecturer in nineteenth and twentieth century international history at University College Dublin and the author of various books and articles on Italian colonialism, Mussolini’s dictatorship and racist population management in fascist regimes. He is currently writing a study on the transnational interrelationships that shaped racist social engineering in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.