The Italian colonial empire was created after Italy joined other European powers in establishing colonies overseas during the "scramble for Africa." Italy as a unified state had only existed since 1861, by which time Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, and France had already carved out large empires over several hundred years, and one of the last remaining areas open to colonization was on the African continent. At the same time, recently unified Germany also embarked on a colonial project. However, Allied forces eventually captured Italian overseas colonies and by the time Italy itself was invaded in 1943, its empire had all but ceased to exist. Without denying all the negative aspects of colonialism, enduring links have continued between some former colonies and their former colonizers. This is the case with the French and British colonial legacies, for example. This did not happen between Italy and its former colonies. Perhaps, while these other empires were at least partly motivated by commerce, which tends to ensure some degree of mutual benefit (even if one party benefits more than the other), in contrast, the Italian empire was solely motivated by the desire for imperial glory. This raises interesting questions about how the experience of colonialism is assessed and evaluated in terms of what lessons can be learned, if any, from this history. It may be invidious to adjudicate that some empires were more positive, less evil, than others. However, the world has been shaped and molded by the creation and break-up of Empires. That the world community can speak about shared values and universal human rights to a large degree follows from the fact that huge portions of the planet formerly lived under imperial rule. In that some empires made a greater contribution than others did to creating awareness of human inter-dependence, it may not be improper to evaluate them in more positive terms.
Italy actually acquired a larger African territory than Germany did although unlike Germany her colonies were limited to Africa. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Italy had annexed Eritrea and Somalia, and had wrested control of portions of the Ottoman Empire, including Libya, though it was defeated in its attempt to conquer Ethiopia. The Fascist government under Mussolini which came to power in 1922 sought to increase the size of the empire further, which it did via force or threat of force. Ethiopia was successfully taken, four decades after the previous failure, and Italy's European borders were expanded at the expense of its neighbors. Like the French empire in Africa, the Italian empire dropped South across the Mediterranean, known as "Our Sea" and was to some degree regarded as a natural territorial extension of the mother-land, rather than as "overseas colonies."
The unification of Italy in 1861 brought with it a belief that Italy deserved its own overseas empire, alongside those of the other powers of Europe, and a rekindling of the notion of Mare Nostrum (Our Sea). As in the case of France, this view saw the Mediterranean as an extension of the homeland, and territory in Africa was simply an extension of Italy. As the heir of the Roman Empire Italy had every right to recover long possessions. Benito Mussolini especially had a grand vision for Italy, which he regarded as a leading power destined to recreate the Empire that had once been governed from his nation's capital. However, Italy had arrived last to the colonial race, and its weakness in international affairs meant that it was dependent on the acquiescence of Britain, France and Germany towards its empire-building.
Italy had long considered the Ottoman province of Tunisia, where a large community of Italians lived, within its economic sphere of influence. It did not consider annexing it until 1879 when it became apparent that Britain and Germany were encouraging France to add it to its colonial holdings in North Africa. A last minute offer by Italy to partition Tunisia between the two countries was refused, and France, confident in German support, ordered its troops in from French Algeria, imposing a protectorate over Tunisia in May 1881 under the Treaty of Bardo. The shock of the "Tunisian bombshell," as it was referred to in the Italian press, and the sense of Italy's isolation in Europe, led it into signing the Triple Alliance in 1882 with Germany and Austro-Hungary.
Italy's search for colonies continued until February 1885, when by secret agreement with Britain it annexed the port of Massawa on the Red Sea from the crumbling Egyptian Empire, denying Emporer Yohannes an outlet to the sea for his Abyssinian Empire, and preventing any expansion of French Somaliland. At the same time, Italy occupied territory in the south of the horn of Africa, forming what would become Italian Somaliland. However, Italy coveted Ethiopia itself, and in 1887, Italian Prime Minister Agostino Depretis ordered an invasion, which was halted after the loss of five hundred Italian troops at the Battle of Dogali. Depretis's successor, Francesco Crispi signed the Treaty of Wuchale in 1889 with Menelik II, the new emperor, which ceded Ethiopian territory around Massawa to Italy to form the colony of Eritrea, and—at least, according to the Italian version of the treaty—made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate.
Relations between Italy and Menelik deteriorated over the next few years until the First Italo–Ethiopian War broke out in 1895 after Crispi ordered Italian troops into the country. Outnumbered and poorly equipped, the result was a humiliating defeat for Italy at the hands of Ethiopian forces in 1896, the first defeat by an indigenous people of a colonial power, and a major blow to the Italian empire in East Africa, as well as to Italian prestige.
A wave of nationalism that swept Italy at the turn of the twentieth century led to the founding of the Italian Nationalist Association, which pressed for the expansion of Italy's empire. Newspapers were filled with talk of revenge for the humiliations suffered in Ethiopia at the end of the previous century, and of nostalgia for the Roman era. Libya, it was suggested, as an ex-Roman colony, should be "taken back" to provide a solution to the problems of south Italy's population growth. Fearful of being excluded altogether from North Africa by Britain and France, and mindful of public opinion, Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti ordered the declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire, of which Libya was part, in October 1911. As a result of the Italo-Turkish War Italy gained Libya and the islands of the Dodecanese.
Italian imperialism does not appear to have shared the roots of French, British and Dutch imperialism which lay in commerce and trade. Interestingly, during the economic zenith of the Republic of Venice—alongside other Italian states before re-unification—trading stations had stretched into Ottoman territory, while, Cyprus, a number of Greek islands and territory along the Dalmatic coast has been under Venetian control. This mini-empire was fueled by commercial interest, although armed conflict did play a significant role in acquiring this territory. Genoa had small commercial enclaves, too, in the Crimea and around the Black Sea and colonies in North Africa.
In 1915, Italy agreed to enter World War I on the side of Britain and France, and in return was guaranteed territory at the Treaty of London (1915), both in Europe and, should Britain and France gain Germany's African possessions, in Africa. However, at the concluding Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Italy received far less in Europe than had been promised, and none at all overseas. In April 1920, it was agreed between the British and Italian foreign ministers that Jubaland would be Italy's compensation, but Britain held back on the deal for several years, aiming to use it as leverage to force Italy to cede the Dodecanese to Greece.
In 1922, the leader of the Italian fascist movement, Benito Mussolini, became Prime Minister of Italy after a coup d'état. Mussolini resolved the question of Dodecanese sovereignty at the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which formalized Italian administration of both Libya and the Dodecanese Islands, in return for a payment to Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, though he failed in an attempt to extract a mandate of a portion of Iraq from Britain.
The month following the ratification of the Lausanne treaty, Mussolini ordered the invasion of the Greek island of Corfu after the murder of an Italian general there. The Italian press supported the move, noting that Corfu had been a possession of the Republic of Venice for four hundred years. Though the matter was taken by Greece to the League of Nations, Mussolini successfully resisted its pressure, and it was only the threat of war with Britain that convinced him to evacuate Italian troops, in return for reparations from Greece. The confrontation over Corfu, and Italy's obvious determination never to give up Dodecanese sovereignty, led Britain and Italy to resolve the question of Jubaland in 1924: it was merged into Italian Somaliland.
After 1929, imperial expansion became a favorite theme of Mussolini's speeches. He argued that colonial settlements were a demographic and economic necessity for a country like Italy and promised that he would make Italy become a true empire, equivalent in power to that of the Roman Empire.
Many Italians were sent to colonize Libya between 1934 and 1939: the Italians in Libya were 12.37 percent of the total population when the 1939 census was completed. They were concentrated in the coast around the city of Tripoli (they were 37 percent of the city's population) and Bengasi (31 percent). The coastal areas of Libya were called Fourth Shore (in Italian: "Quarta Sponda") and were projected to be included in Mussolini's Greater Italia.
In 1935, the Second Italo-Ethiopian War occurred in which Italy captured Ethiopia in 1936, and merged Italian Eritrea, Italian Somalia and newly captured Ethiopia into Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, A.O.I.). The invasion had the tacit approval of France and Great Britain, who did not wish to alienate Italy as a potential ally against Nazi Germany. Victory was announced on May 9, 1936, and Mussolini declared the creation of the "Italian Empire". Mussolini dreamed of sending millions of Italian settlers to Italian East Africa, and Italians had high hopes of turning the area into an economic asset. However, by overrunning Ethiopia, a member of the League of Nations, Italy attracted widespread international hostility. The invasion was condemned by the League, although it was unable to take any remedial action. It also breached the Kellogg-Briand Pact on non-aggression, of which Italy was a signatory.
In 1939, Italy invaded and captured Albania and made it a protectorate. The region of modern-day Albania had been an early part of the Roman Empire, which had actually been held before northern parts of Italy had been taken by the Romans, but had long since been populated by Albanians, even though Italy had retained strong links with the Albanian leadership and considered it firmly within its sphere of influence. It is possible the Italian dictator simply wanted a spectacular success over a smaller neighbor to match Germany's absorption of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Italian King Victor Emmanuel III took the Albanian crown, and a fascist government under Shefqet Verlaci was established. The Albanian armed forces were subsumed into Italian units. Resistance to the Italian occupation grew rapidly at the end of 1942 and in 1943. By the summer of 1943, most of the mountainous interior was controlled by resistance fighters. The German Army and Albanian collaborators completed the seizure of Albania by the end of September 1943, three weeks after Italy signed an armistice with the Allies.
Mussolini entered World War II on Hitler's side with plans to enlarge Italy's territorial holdings: he had designs on an area of southern France, Corsica, Malta, Tunisia, part of Algeria, an Atlantic port in Morocco, French Somaliland and British Egypt and Sudan.
On June 10, 1940, Mussolini declared war on Britain and France, which had been at war with Nazi Germany since the prior year. Mussolini's troops invaded southern France, but an armistice was soon signed between France and Germany, and Italian troops pressed no further. Two days later, a separate agreement between France and Italy ceded Nice and parts of the Savoy to Italy. In October that year, keen to emulate the successes that Hitler was enjoying, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Greece, but his troops were soon pushed into retreat by Greek forces and the invasion had to be rescued by Germany. German forces were also forced to come to Italy's aid in North Africa, where the British Army had fended off an attempt by Italian General Rodolfo Graziani to capture the Suez Canal.
The Italian Empire effectively came to an end by fall 1943. The surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia on May 7, 1943, led King Victor Emmanuele III to plot the downfall of Mussolini, who was arrested on July 25. The new government began secret negotiations with the Allies, and on the eve of the American landings at Salerno, Italy announced an armistice with the Allies. In Albania and the Dodecanese, Germany's successful attacks on its erstwhile Italian allies ended Italy's rule.
Italy formally lost all her overseas possessions as a result of the Treaty of peace with Italy (1947). In November 1949 Italian Somaliland was made a United Nations Trust Territory under Italian administration until July 1, 1960, when it was granted its independence along with British Somaliland to form Somalia.
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