A New Roman Empire: The Geopolitics of Fascist Italy in Africa, 1931-41

During the 1920s Benito Mussolini pursued a cautious foreign policy, trying to present his new fascist regime as a responsible and stable actor on the international scene. After the Corfu incident of 1923, in fact, the Italian leader adopted a conciliatory attitude toward France and Great Britain, even supporting the main tenets of the Treaty of Locarno in 1925. Meanwhile he also signed an agreement with Yugoslavia, which renounced to all Italian pretences over Dalmatia in exchange for the control of the city of Fiume (Rijeka). These diplomatic moves guaranteed widespread popularity to  the fascist regime both in London and Paris, and they also gave interesting colonial rewards to Italy, previously denied at the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919: in 1924, for example, the British government handed over the entire Somali Jubaland to Italian control, including the important port of Kismayu, while a subsequent exchange of notes confirmed the traditional spheres of influence of the two countries in the independent kingdom of Ethiopia. Four years later a formal Treaty of Arbitration and Friendship was concluded between Rome and Addis Ababa, allowing the construction of a great motor road from the colony of Eritrea to the heart of Ethiopia: Ras Tafari (later Negus with the name of Haile Selassie) also accepted the massive introduction of Italian military and economic advisors in his country, hoping to modernize the traditional semi-feudal structure of Ethiopian society. Anti-fascist intellectuals like Gaetano Salvemini were literally furious about all this condescension toward Mussolini’s requests, and they warned Western democracies of the violent nature of the fascist regime, ready to overthrow the Versailles settlement in favour of its own nationalist goals. These warnings were ignored by French and British authorities, but they proved dramatically correct after 1931, when the fascist regime launched a more aggressive foreign policy in Europe and East Africa.

The imperial Italian Project

Indeed, Mussolini had always been convinced of the “unfairness” of the Paris peace settlement, hoping to transform the Mediterranean into a “Latin Sea”, free from the presence of the British navy. This grandiose idea take the geographical form of a vast Italian sphere of influence – similar for extension to the ancient Roman empire – going from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, from Dalmatia to Sudan. And the final aim was to transform Italy into a self-sufficient nation, directing external emigration toward Africa and protecting the fascist corporative economy from the recurrent crises of modern Western capitalism. In 1922 Mussolini had already expressed these ambitions to his loyal lieutenants, showing an intellectual consistency later denied by modern historians: “The route is mapped – the Paris peace settlement had to be overturned and Italian rights recognised in the Adriatic. This was to be followed by Italian expansion in the Mediterranean and Africa.” Ten years later, after a careful consolidation of his regime, the Duce was ready to put in practice his beliefs, shaking the foundations of the new international order emerged after the Great War. And he did so with swift ruthlessness, without any kind of moral concern over the means employed in the pursuit of his new Roman empire.

The first aggressive moves of fascist Italy were in North Africa, where Mussolini wished to restore the regional hegemony lost by his country in the last decades of the nineteenth century. France’s position in Tunisia and Morocco was openly challenged, while Libya became part of the Italian metropolitan territory, ending twenty years of bitter anti-colonial resistance led by the Senussi. The methods of this “absorption” were extremely brutal: local religious leaders were hanged on the public square of Tripoli and Benghazi, while thousands of Arab farmers were deported in desert concentration camps, where they were compelled to choose between submission and starvation. In 1934 the country was completely “pacified” and opened to the regular flux of Italian settlers. Then, in autumn 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, using aerial bombing and toxic gases against the ill-equipped forces of Haile Selassie. Occupied Addis Ababa, the Italian army ruled the country with harsh measures, including frequent acts of absolute violence: in 1937, for example, Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani ordered the massacre of the monks of Debre Libanos in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt against his persona. Almost 300 men were killed in this brutal reprisal, and their unburied bones were still visible to the British soldiers who occupied the monastery in 1941. The event is still known in Ethiopia as Yekatit 12 (February 19 according to the Gregorian calendar), and there is a huge monument commemorating its victims in the core of Addis Ababa.

Strong of these early “successes”, Mussolini continued to pursue an aggressive political programme in Europe, supporting the Ustasha movement in Croatia and sending troops to help General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. From 1936 he also began to develop strong relations with Germany and Japan, two other powers interested in the violent overthrowing of the Paris peace settlement. Three years later, he still saw Italy as a prisoner of Western democracies in the Mediterranean: “The bars of this prison are Corsica, Tunisia, Malta and Cyprus – its sentinels are Gibraltar and Suez.” Thus, in June 1940, he decided to side with Hitler in the current war against France and the British Empire, dreaming to extend his political influence over the Balkans and the Maghreb. It was an ill-fated gamble, with terrible consequences for the Italian people: in May 1943 all colonial territories in Africa had been occupied by the Allies, while the same Italian mainland was the object of massive, devastating aerial attacks. With the ensuing invasion of Sicily, Mussolini was deposed and arrested by King Victor Emmanuel III, but this desperate move didn’t spare the country from a brutal war fought on its own soil. Thus a devastated Italy was completely liberated by the Allies only in April 1945, after other two years of national catastrophe.

This gloomy future was certainly unimaginable to Italian fascists in the late 1930s, when they were celebrating the new imperial consciousness of their country. Indeed, all the branches of culture were mobilized in support of Mussolini’s ambitious project, with a special focus on geography, seen as a crucial discipline in the promotion of Italian international power. In 1934 four great map tablets representing the expansion of the Roman empire were put on Via dell’Impero (Via dei Fori Imperiali), in the centre of Rome, establishing a direct parallel between Mussolini’s regime and the past glories of the Italian capital. Meanwhile an impressive national section was displayed at the Exposition du Sahara in Paris, where several maps of Libya were shown to the public as a symbol of the Italian success in surveying and measuring such desert land. Five years later, thanks to the favour of Minister Giuseppe Bottai, Ernesto Massi and Giorgio Roletto, both professors at the University of Trieste, created Geopolitica, a journal devoted to the investigation and exaltation of Italy’s position on the map of the world.

Inspired by the contemporary writings of Karl Haushofer, Massi and Roletto tried to blend all the physical, economic, and political factors of the Italian empire into a common analytical synthesis, useful for the propaganda campaign against British and French colonial rule in Africa. In one of their maps, for example, South Africa was represented as an aggressive state, ready to submerge the neighbouring colonies of Portugal and Belgium, while another chart stressed instead an ideal geographical axis between Berlin, Rome, and Tripoli, giving scientific sanction to the political alliance between Hitler and Mussolini in the Mediterranean region. In October 1940, after the declaration of war against Britain and France, Geopolitica also re-launched the idea of Eurafrica as a single geopolitical unit, following the original concept developed by Coudenhove-Kalergi and Haushofer ten years before: drawing upon the ancient notion of “Mare Nostrum”, in fact, Massi and Roletto emphasized the vision of a common economic space from South Africa to Scandinavia, closed to any influence from the Anglo-Saxon world and dominated in equal measure by the Italo-German axis. Presented at a time when the Italian war effort was encountering serious problems in North Africa, this scheme probably wished to restore Mussolini’s prestige in the eyes of the Italian public, insisting on the feasibility of the Duce’s imperial project.  Its propagandistic success is doubtful, however, because one year later even Massi and Roletto parted their intellectual ways due to public delusion and personal disagreement. Indeed, if Roletto insisted on a close affiliation with German geopolitics, Massi began instead to pursue an alternative scheme, more based on spiritual rather than material factors. With Mario Morandi, who substituted Roletto at the head of the magazine in 1941, Massi tried to promote a new geopolitics, free from the environmental determinism of the Nazis and open instead to the dynamic activity of the “human will”: “[We] intend to restore the importance of man in geographical studies, by considering also his spiritual, psychical and racial aspects…We intend to emphasize political will as a determining factor in the anthropogeographical field.”

Conscious of the limits of Italian racialism, quite different from the extreme theories so popular in Germany, Massi saw instead the Mediterranean as an economic living space, open to the peaceful integration of the different ethnic groups present in the region. And this space was basically independent from the German ally, favouring autonomy and neutrality in international affairs; there should be no external interference in it, preserving the original sphere of action of the new Italian empire. In this sense, Geopolitica supported a warm policy of friendship and cooperation with the Muslim peoples of the Middle East, condemning British imperialism in Palestine and presenting Italy as the liberating power of the Mashreq. This suggestion didn’t get lost to the regime: indeed, when Rommel’s army invaded Egypt in 1942, Mussolini flew immediately to Libya, where he made several speeches in favour of Mediterranean union and Arab independence. But the following disaster of El Alamein destroyed even this last imperial ambition in African territory. At the same time Geopolitica closed its editorial life, ending up on the dusty shelves of public archives.

Massi’s theoretical legacy, however, survived the catastrophe of the World War, inspiring sometimes Italian political actions during the 1960s. Helped by Giorgio La Pira, the mayor of Florence, Enrico Mattei established good relationships with the Nasser regime in Egypt, and he also tried to create a successful energetic partnership with other African nations, satisfying the rising oil demands of the Italian industry. After his mysterious death in 1962, this policy has been pursued by his main creature, ENI, which continue to challenge British, French, and American economic interests in the area, with the partial support of the Italian government. And this is probably the most interesting, unexpected development of Mussolini’s geopolitical ambitions in the Mediterranean.

Simone Pelizza, University of Leeds



The lion of the desert, 1981, directed by Moustapha Akkad.

Historical review of the movie by an Italian historian.

Suggested readings:

Marco Antonsich, ‘Geopolitica: The Geographical and Imperial Consciousness of Fascist Italy’, Geopolitics, 14:2 (2009), pp. 256-77.

David Atkinson, ‘ Arrows, Empires, and Ambitions: The Geopolitical Cartography of Fascist Italy’, in J.C. Stone (ed.), Maps and Africa: Proceedings of a colloquium at the University of Aberdeen (Aberdeen: University of Aberdeen African Studies, 1994), pp. 43-65.

Angelo Del Boca, L’Africa nella coscienza degli Italiani: miti, memorie, errori, sconfitte (Milano: Mondadori, 2002).

Stefano Fabei, Mussolini e la resistenza palestinese (Milano: Mursia, 2005).

Nicola Labanca, Oltremare: storia dell’espansione coloniale italiana (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2002).

Heather Hyde Minor, ‘Mapping Mussolini: Ritual and cartography in public art during the second Roman Empire’, Imago Mundi, 51:1 (1999), pp. 147-62.

Esmonde M. Robertson, Mussolini as Empire-Builder: Europe and Africa, 1932-36 (London: Macmillan, 1977).


About perspectivesonafrica

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One Response to A New Roman Empire: The Geopolitics of Fascist Italy in Africa, 1931-41

  1. Solea Ababora says:

    Just wanted to comment on this statement: “Occupied Addis Ababa, the Italian army ruled the country with harsh measures, including frequent acts of absolute violence”.” “Ruled” is not the right word for everything it suggested. As you know very well, the Italian army occupied Ethiopia in the same manner as Hitler occupied France and other European countries. But it should also be known that Italians occupied Ethiopia for much less time than Germans occupied France. For this reason alone, “RULED” should be substituted with “OCCUPIED”.

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