Libyan History: Italian Colonization (1911-42)


Figure 1.--This photo was taken in Libya during 1940. The occassion was a visit by Mussolini. The boys are wearing a uniform of short pants, bush jacket and white fez. There are no fascist badges and the uniform is quite different from other of colonial youth groups. Perhaps the clothing was provided to the boys specially for the Mussolini's visit. It was important for local officials to make a good impression on the dictator and, on the other hand, these celebrations were important for Fascist propaganda. Photos as this one illustrate the image that the regime wanted to give of its colonial policy. The Libyan children are acclaiming the Fascist authirities. The photograph also gives the impression of order important to the Fadcists and it uses the stereotype of the "African children in bare feet".

Italy seized Libya after a brief war with the Ottomans (1912). The Libyans resisted. Fighting broke out, but the British brokered a truce after Italy joined the Allies in World War I (1915). After the War, fighting broke out again leading to a prolonged colonial war. Italy continued efforts to colonize Libya. Mussolini with his dreams of reconstituting the Roman Empire would wage a merciless campaign to end Libyan resistance to Italian rule. The Italians seized control of the coast cities, but have great difficulty maintaining control of the interior. The Italians unified Tripolitania and Cyrenaica as the colony of Libya (1929). Mussolini employing brutal tactics, including poison gas, finally suceeded in crushing Libyan resistance. Mussolini saw Libya as offering the possibility of colonization by Italy's burgoning population. The Sanusis finally surrender to the Italians (1931). One of the goals of Italian colonism was the concern with over population. Italy called Libya "The Fourt Shore" and promoted Italian settlement there. Several projects with Italian colonists were launched.

Scramble for Africa

Italy did not become a unified state until after the mid-19th century (1860). Without a sizeable navy, Italy was unable to participate in the "scramble for Africa" in which Europe essentially partitioned Africa. Italy had largely missed out on the 19th cenury European effort to stake out overseas colonies. They did obtain some small, very poor colonies in East Africa. What they wanted, however, was Tunisia. Italians were outraged when France seized Tunisia and coverted it into a protectorate. Tunisia was only a few miles from Sicily and which many Italian nationalists had coveted. The location of Tunisia close to Italy convinced many Italians that Italy and not France had a right to Tunisia.

Italian Interest in Libya

Denied Tunisia, Italians began looking at Libya--the only bit of North Africa left. Libya was still nominally under the control of the Ottoman Turks. Libya until the early 20th century was nominally an Ottomon province, but the Ottomon's exerted only limited control. Italy saw Libya located as it was close to home as the ideal colony with a Mediterranean coast. The concept at the time was that every important European nation had colonies. Italy expanded already existing commercial interests in Libya. They also initiated a diplomatic campaign in Europe to win Great Power recognition that Libya was within the Italian sphere of influence. Italy proceeded to create a crisis, claining that the Turks were arming the Arabs and demanded the right to occupy Libya (The Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) to protect Italian interests (September 1911). When the Ottomans did not reply, Italy declared war.

Italian-Turkish War (1911-12)

Italy began the final assault on the Ottoman Empire by declaring war in this case to secure a new colony in North Africa--Libya. The Italo-Turkish War (1911-12) while fought outside the Balkans, weaked the Ottoman Army in the years just before World War I. The Italian Navy bombrded the major ports. They seized Tripoli (October 3). There was only minimal resistance. The Italians proceeded to occupy Tobruk, Al Khums, Darnah, and Benghazi. The Italian expeditionary force of about 35,000 troops did not moved beyond the coasual ports they seized. The Italians became the first country to drop ordinance from an airplane in warfare. They tossed grenades from a German-built monoplane. The small Ottoman force of about 5,000 troops withdrew inland. Commanders like Enver Pasha and Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) resisted the Italians, in part by arming the Arab tribes. They used the unifying force of Islam to motivate the Arabs to resist the Italians. This proved effective in creating a deadlock. The Ottomons, however, faced a more important war in the Balkans and thus decided to yield Libya. Under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne (October 1912). The Ottomon Sultan granted independence to the provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The Ottomons largely ceeded to Italian demands because of the worsening situation in the Balkans, an area of much greater importance to them. The Ottomons were unwilling to make a major military commitment to defending Libya. The Ottomons were, however, then further humiliated in the First and Second Balkan Wars (1912-13). The Sanusis had to resist Italian encroachments without Ottomon assistance. Italy immediately annexed both provinces. The Treaty permitted the Sultan who insisted on the position of caliph (leader of Islam) to have religious jurisdiction. The Sultan continued to appoint the qadi of Tripoli who was responsible for Islamic sharia courts. The Italians had agreed to this with fully understanding that these courts not only had authority over religious, but civil maters as well. This afforded the Ottomons continued influence in Libya.

World War I (1914-18)

Italy in years before World War I was a member of the Central Powers, but did not go to war with Austria and Germany. Italy joined the Allies in World War I (1915). The Ottomans who did join the Central Powers in the War allacked the British in Suez from Palestine, but were beaten back. The British who were then Italian allies attempted to mediate between the Sanusis and Italians. Libyan nationalists were torn during World War I. Some were pro-British, but since the Italians which were turning Italy into a colony joined the Allies, some were now more favorably disposed toward the Ottomons, their former colonial masters. The result was the First Italo-Sanusi War. Senussi tribesmen supported by the Ottmons staged an uprising against the Italians (November 1915). The uprising was a relatively limited action. It did, however, cause the deployment of a substantial Allied force--some 110,000 British, French and Italian troops. Peace or more accurately truce terms were reached (April 1917).

First Italo-Sanusi War (1914-17)

Italy found a very complicated political situation in Libya with the departure of the Ottomons. The Bedouin tribesmen in the interior were fired with Islam and not at all reconciled to Italian rule. Some Turks stayed on in Libya to assist Arab resistance. Thus the Italians found it difficult to extend their authority beyond the major coastal cities. Arab nationalism at the time was a largely urban movement, but the nationalists were badly divided, especially between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and there were major splits within these two areas, especially in Tripolitania. Sanusi units led by under Ahmad ash Sharif effectively resisted the Italians in Cyrenaica as well as Fezzan and southern Tripolitania. There was no group like the Sanusis in northern Tripolitania was thus the Italians were more effective in establishing their authority. In addition tribal rivalries made effective resistance to the Italians impossible. When both the Ottomons and Italians entered World War I these complicated divisions became a part of the War. Sansui resistance broke out into the First Italo-Sanusi War (1914-17). The Sansuis scorded some notable victories and manged to obtain Italian arms from defeated units. Turkey had joined the Central Powers (October 1914). Italy which had been a member of the Central Powers subsequently joined the Allies (1915). Thus the Italo-Sanusi War was folded into the larger World War. Germany and Turkey delvered small quantities of arms and advisers to Ahmad, who thus aligned the Sanusis with the Central Powers. The principal interest of the Central Powers was Suez. Ottomon officers convinced the Sanusis to strike into Egypt (1916). When they were defeated by the British, Ahmad turned over leadership of the Sanusi political and military leadership to Idris and escaped to Turkey on a German U-boat. This radically changed the political situation. Idris was more interested in fighting the Italians and in saw the British as a potential ally. He began negotiations with the Allies on behalf of Cyrenaica (1917). The negotiations ended in a truce. Neither the Italians nor the Sanusis entered unto a peace or compromised their claims. Britain and Italy recognized Idris as amir of interior Cyrenaica. Idris agreed to end Sanusi attacks on the coastal towns controlled by Italy and any future attacks into Egypt cease. The future satus of Cyrenaica was postponed until after the World war was concluded.

Colonial War: The Second Italo-Sanusi War (1923-31)

Italy after World War had only nominal authority away from the coast, except for areas of Tripolitania. Some in Italy were pressing for a major military campaign to pacify the Arabs. Idris somewhat against his better judgement accepted the amirate of all Libya (November 1922). He knew the Italians would consider this to be a provocative action. Mussolini and the Fascists seized control of the Italian Government (October 1922). Mussolini in his Socialist phase had criticised colonialism. As Italy new Fasist leader, he became a strong proponent of military pacification and accepted the assessment of army commanders in the field. The Treaty of Lausanne finalized the the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire (1923). This removed any international opposition to Italian annexation. The Italian Army moved to occupy Sanusi territory in the Benghazi area (early 1923) thus launching the Second Italo-Sanusi War. The Italians encountered severe resistance in Cyrenaica. They were more sucessful in northern Tripolitania (1923) and gradually in Fezzan. With Idris in Egypt, resistance to the Italians fell on Umar al Mukhtar whose limited forces suppoted by tribal groups mastered desert war. He would use small units to attack isolated Italian outposts and and coluns, thus cutting Italian supply lines. The war dragged on with no resolution. Mukhtar refused an large scale battles with the Italians. Mussolini placed a new comander in charge--Rudolfo Graziani (1929). Much of Graziani's force was composed of Eritreans. (Eritrea was a former German colony awarded Italy as part of the World war I settlement. Graziani intensified the counter insurgency campaign. He conducted search-and-destroy missions with armored vehicles and air support targeting the oases and tribal camps from which Mukhtar drew support. Graziani targeted the Beduins, setting up concentration camps. He destroyed oasis wells and slaughtered livestock. Graziani oversaw the construction of a barbed-wire barrier 9 meters wide and 1.5 meters high 320 kilometers along the border with Egypt. Mukhtar had been using Egypt as a sanctuary and to obtain supplies. The Italians patrolled their barrier with both armor columns and aircraft. Any one found along the barrier was attacked. Gradually the superior Italian military force ground down , was designated a free-fire zone. The Italians' superior manpower and technology Mukhtar's never very substantial forces. The last Sanusi position was Al Kufrah which the Italians took (1931). The Italians finally captured Mukhtar (September 1931). He was sentenced to death by a military court. The Italians assembled 20,000 Arabs to witness his hanging. The Italians succeeded in wiping out open Sanusi resistance and pacifing Libya. Mukhtar became, however, a symbol of Arab resistance to colonial rule.

Colonial Libya: The Fourth Shore

Libya under Ottomon rule was an extremly backward area without schools and modern hospitals. Italian anextation did not bring the modern rule to Libya as the Sanusi Wars has absorbed the Italians. With the elimination of Mukhtar and pacification, Fascist Italy began remaking Libya. Mussolini began calling Libya "the Fourth Shore". Roman Emperor Diocletian had referred to the area as Libya. Italy reorganized its new colony as Libya with four provinces--Tripoli, Misratah, Benghazi, and Darnah (1934). Fezzan was renamed South Tripolitania and remained a military territory. The governor general was given the title of first consul--another allusion to the Roman Empire. He was advised by the General Consultative Council which included Arabs representation, but traditional tribal councils were disbanded. The governor general or first consul appointed officials, including local officials. Government positions were filled by Italians. Border disputes with the British and French colonies of Sudan and Chad were settled. The Italians made major investsments in Libya, in both the economy and transportation infrastructure. These included improvements in the road, railway, and port infrastructure. Other improvements were made in irrigation. Two economic sectors developed. One was the traditional Arab village agricultural economy. The other was the Italian dominated modern sector to extract raw materials. A primary goal of Italian colonization was to use Libya to aleviate overpopulation and unemployment in Italy. Thus Italian settlement was a major element of Italian colonial policy. Mussolini and his Fascists planned to turn Libya into an Italian colony both politically and ethnically. This was, however, only possible after Libya had been passified. The first settlers only began to arrive only 1 year before the outbreak of World War II. Libya's governor, Italo Balbo, organized the beginning of this effort. A huge convoy was organized which brough 20,000 settlers to Libya. These colonists were called the ventimilli--meaning the 20,000 (October 1938). More Italian settlers followed. The Italians reported that there were 110,000 settlers (1940). The tootal after only 2 years was 15 percent of the population. The goal was 500,000 by the 1960s. The settlers were attracted by the offer of land. Italy at the time had a substantial peasant population thant hungered for land. This was especially the case in southern Italy. Italian authorities allocated the most favorable land to the new settlers. The land seized came at the expense of the Beduins. It was their tribal grazing lands. Italian authorities saw thais land as underutilized. It was purchased or confiscated and distributed to Ithe talian settlers. The Libyan Colonization Society (LCS), a Fascist state corportation, oversaw the project and promoted the planting of olive orchards. The LCS helped finance land reclamation and the construction of model villages. The LCS also provided credit to the settlers. Colonial authorities brought modern medical care and sanitation to Libya for the first time. Mussolini often called the Libyans as "Muslim Italians." The Italian investments in Libya, however, were made primarily to extract Libyan natural resources or to promote the settlement effort. Arab Libyans benefitted little. Schools were built, but for the Italian settlers, not for the Arabs. Thus the jobs created by development projects did not develop the Arabs who did not receive modern education.

Jews in Colonial Libya

Jews in Italy had full civil rights and the small Jewish community at first prospered under Italian colonial rule. Colonial officls saw the Jews as useful in developing the Libyan economy. Officials also gave the Libyan Jewish community the opportunity to develop a modern education system and reform its rabbinate.

Military Road

Italian dictastor, Benito Mussolini, with Libya fully pacified and with Ethiopia firmly in the Italian Empire, conducted a state visit to Libya (March 1937). The major event amid the elaborate pagentry was opening a highway--the Via Balbia. The new highway ran along the coast the entire length of the colony. It was Libya's first modern highway conecting the major coastal cities. It was essentially a military road. For Mussolini it was a road leading to French-controlled Tunisia and British-cointrolled Egypt, both colonies he coveted for the expanding Italian Empire. The road would play a major role in the World War II North African campasign. But in the end it would be the British that would use the road to conquer Libya.

The Axis and Arab Nationalism

Mussolini during his 1937 state visit had himself declared protector of Islam. He was presente with a symbolic sword as a symbol of his new role. In the upcoming world war, Islam would be a factor. Islam was an important element in Arab nationalism. Mussolini's while supressing Libyan nationalism initiated a major propaganda campaign against the British and French who had several colonies and various protectorate arrabngements in the Arab world. The goal was thus to promote Arab nationalism (except in Libya) as way of undermining the British and French position in the Arab world. The brutal supression of the Libyan resistance (including the use of poison gas) and the forcible seizure of land from Libyans to make way for Italian settlers was not of course publicized. Thus many Arab Nationalists bought Italian and German propaganda with little thought of what an Axis victory would mean for their countries. Here NAZI anti-Semitism was an important, but difficult to quantify factor.

World War II (1939-45)

Most of the Middle East was dominated by Britain and France thus the rise of European Fascism in Italy and Germany appealed to many Arab nationalists. Libya was an exception because the colonial power was Italy. As Europe moved toward war, Libyan nationalists began to see that Italian defeat in a war would create an opportunity for independence. After Germany invaded Poland and launched Wotld war II (Seprember 1939), Italian nationalists mets in Alexandria, Egypt (October 1939). Sayid Idris emerged as the most prominent leader, but the nationalist movement was badly divided. The early victories of Italian ally NAZI Germany were, however, not incouraging for the Libyan nationalists. Italy entered the War once the German victory over France was assured (June 1940). At first it seemed that the massive Italian army in Libya would easily overwealm the British in Egypt. Nationalist forces were divided on how they should react. Some (the Cyrenaicans and Idris) supported the British. Others (the Tripolitanians) were more hesitant, fearing that the Axis might win the War. Formal meetings in Cairo with Idris and some of the nationalists resulted in a formal afreement by the nationalists would support the British and the British would support a move toward independence after the WAr (August 1940). The Italians invaded Egypt (September 1940), but were defeated by a small British force which invaded Libya. This suprising British victory surprised the Libyan nationalists and first created the realistic prospect that the Italians would be defeated. The Libyan Arab Force commonly referred to as the Sanusi Army was small, but did assist the British during the campaigns in the Western Desert. German intervention in Libya resulted in a sea-saw battle that was not settled until the decisive Battle of El Alemaine (October 1942). The British 8th Army then proceeded to drive the Afrika Korps out of Egypt and Libya and liked up with the Allied Norces landed in Morocco and Algeria as part of Operation Totch. The German and Italian forces finally surremdered in Tunisia (May 1943). Possession of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) provided airbases from which targets in NAZI-domicated Europe could be attacked from the south. The first attacks on the vital Ploesti oil fields in Romania came from Libyan bases. After the Allied invasion of Italy (September 1943), Libya became a backwater of the War. The British divide Libya with France. The British assume control of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The French assume rssonsibility for Fezzan.

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Created: 1:46 AM 10/14/2007
Last updated: 5:24 PM 6/22/2009