Making Italy Great Again

In Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia, Italians saw a chance to strengthen their national character and improve their international standing.

Benito Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel III, and high officials of the Italian military photographed in Ethiopia in 1936.

Alinari via Getty Images

Excerpted from Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945 by Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Published by the University of California Press.

This article supplements Fascism, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit slate.com/fascism.

Traveling through Ethiopia on assignment for the newspaper Il Lavoro in the spring of 1936, the writer [Enrico] Emanuelli highlighted the humanity of the Italian troops and the “discipline and civility” that governed their behavior toward the Ethiopians. “Indignant and vindicatory, yes; uncivil and barbarians—we Italians—never,” Emanuelli asserted.

Foreign journalists and relief workers were free to tell a different story about Italian colonialism—one that archival documents corroborate. As in Libya, gassings formed a prominent part of the fascists’ conquest strategy. Between 1935 and 1939, in defiance of the 1925 Geneva Protocol bans on the use of chemical weapons, 617 tons of gas were shipped to Ethiopia. Together with slaughter from conventional weapons, gassings caused a quarter-million Ethiopian deaths by 1938.

As Ethiopian resistance continued after the proclamation of empire, the Italians combined old-fashioned savageries (decapitations, castrations, and burning and razing of civilian quarters) with industrial killing methods (aerial gas bombings and efficient open-grave executions) that are more commonly associated with Hitler’s and Stalin’s soldiers than with Mussolini’s rank and file. Indeed, the slaughter in Ethiopia was so out of keeping with Italians’ self-perception as the more “humane” dictatorship that it has been edited out of popular and official memory. Until 1995, the Italian government, and former combatants such as Indro Montanelli, denied the use of gas in East Africa.

If the Ethiopian war hardly lived up to the Duce’s boast that it constituted “the most gigantic spectacle in the history of mankind,” it did bring the dictatorship a new level of popular acceptance and acclaim within Italy. The victory of May 1936 not only seemed to settle an old score with the Africans (Italian troops had been defeated at Adua 40 years earlier) but also avenged Italy’s mistreatment by European powers at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. With League of Nations sanctions in force against Italy after November 1935, Mussolini depicted his country as a “virtuous victim” of the dominant powers. Even as he ordered gas attacks on the Ethiopians, he lashed out at the League of Nations’ unjust punishment of Italians who, he claimed, were merely trying to “bring civilization to backward lands, build roads and schools[, and] diffuse the hygiene and progress of our time.” Such statements united many Italian intellectuals in patriotic outrage during the war and brought forth a show of support for fascism once empire was declared.

For Italian intellectuals, the Ethiopian war offered a chance to finally translate their political faith into concrete action. A special Universitarian’s Battalion allowed young writers, journalists, and others to serve as volunteers. For these men, the Ethiopian war confirmed, rather than contradicted, the regime’s intention to carry out its long-promised social revolution. Provided that capitalist speculation and individual greed did not gain the upper hand, they asserted, Italian Africa could become the site of a great social experiment. Exporting Mussolini’s revolutionary movement to Africa, youth believed, would convince the world of fascism’s modern and progressive nature.

Fascist officials envisioned Ethiopia as a laboratory of another sort. For this generation of men, whose lives had been irremediably marked by their participation in World War I, the battlefield remained the supreme arena for the refashioning of Italians. Calling the Ethiopian invasion the start of a “gigantic work … of human reclamation [bonifica umana],” Mussolini posited the war as a practicum for the disciplinary education received in schools and fascist mass organizations. Combat and the collective nature of military life, his followers asserted, would eliminate tendencies toward “moodiness,” “impulsiveness,” and “romanticism” in the national character, producing a new breed of hard-edged Italians. To set an appropriately tough and virile tone, the press was forbidden to depict “sentimental and tearful” family scenes that accompanied Italian troops’ departure for Ethiopia, as well as any emotionalism shown by soldiers in Africa.

Although the conquest of Ethiopia was to accelerate the creation of a fascist model of modern existence, it led to heightened fears of social disintegration and degeneration. Concerns over white population numbers had informed fascist social policy since the late 1920s but took on new urgency with the diffusion of crisis ideologies during the depression. By 1934, the Duce worried aloud that the “numeric and geographic expansion of the yellow and black races” meant that “the civilization of the white man is destined to perish.” The Ethiopian invasion was seen as an opportunity to correct this situation. Fascist policies of “demographic colonization” that foresaw the creation of permanent Italian settlements would not only solve Italy’s land hunger problem but begin the repopulation of East Africa as a white European space. More broadly, the conquest of Ethiopia created a new forum for the expression of existing fears about mass society and modernity. Building on worries about the loss of hierarchies, intellectuals and functionaries had argued that Ethiopia’s “unimaginable ethnic confusion” was responsible for its social chaos and political disintegration.

The agenda of maintaining racial boundaries, which lay at the heart of fascist colonial culture, motivated many intellectuals to place their skills at the service of the regime. Architects and urban planners utilized race as the overriding criteria of spatial organization in Ethiopia, following mandates to keep Italian and African cultures separate and unequal. Laws passed in 1939 “for the protection of racial prestige” regulated interracial social contacts, and a new city plan for Addis Ababa enforced racial segregation. Sponsored by the Italian Academy and the National Council of Research, ethnographers and scientists who had earlier mapped Italian ethnicity as part of the regime’s “revival of tradition” now began to investigate the inhabitants of East Africa. Demographers designed a vast census of the tribes that would allow for the compilation of a massive “ethnographic atlas” of Italian East Africa, and colonial experts displayed their classification of East Africa’s “racial types” in periodicals such as Etiopia and Africa Italiana. The development and exhibition of these taxonomies of colonial knowledge drew on technologies of social control and population management that had informed official blueprints for a fascist modernity since the inception of the regime.

In reality, racial boundaries proved difficult to police and administer, especially in the sphere of sexual relations. As we saw in the 1933 film Treno Popolare, the regime demanded that its unmarried “new men” learn the virtues both of continence and conquest and worked to reroute female sexuality into procreation. Once Italian troops invaded Ethiopia, the specter of miscegenation imparted a new urgency to ongoing state efforts to modify comportment and primal drives. Now, the true fascist was less a fearless conqueror than a man “with the attributes of his virility firmly in place.” Miscegenation thus received much media attention as a practice that caused physical and psychological decrepitude. Journalists warned Italians that many Ethiopians were of “beautiful appearance and noble bearing,” and speakers at colonial preparation courses for women reminded their audiences that heat caused the female sex to “put up less resistance to men.”

The filmmaker Giulio Brignone delivered a similar warning to Italian men with his 1937 film Sotto la Croce del Sud (Under the Southern Cross), which was filmed on location in the colony. The movie narrates the temptations faced by Paolo, a normally disciplined young engineer who stands for fascism’s ideal modern subject, when he meets Mailù, a mixed-race former prostitute who embodies the threat of degeneration.

Such messages did little to alter the realities of colonial life. Very few women accompanied their husbands to Ethiopia, ensuring that sexual relationships between Italian men and African women were frequent and enduring. In 1937 miscegenation became a criminal offense for all Italians, punishable by five years in prison; women who were discovered having relations with African men were publicly whipped and sent to concentration camps.

Official desires for the new colony to perform as a laboratory of the fascist social engineering projects produced codes of collective comportment for other spheres as well. Many Italian colonial authorities and experts felt that assimilationism on the French model led to the loss of white prestige by encouraging the colonized to mimic their European rulers. They advocated the propagation of a politics of difference that would continually remind the Africans of their inferior status. Put another way, it was no longer enough for Italians to know how to “believe, obey, and fight”; now, they also had to learn the art of command. Even though the colonies often attracted the poor and those who wished to escape rigid social norms.

Indeed, Mussolini and his officials believed that Italian colonists’ ragged appearance and crude manners had cost them Africans’ respect and routinely blamed them for the ongoing Ethiopian rebellions. “The Italians present the indigenous with a quite unimperial spectacle,” Roberto Farinacci complained to Mussolini after a trip to Ethiopia in 1938. Colonial manuals and laws for the protection of “racial prestige” thus ordered Italians to abandon behaviors that “diminished the Italian in native eyes.” Asking Africans for loans, carrying their bags, having sexual or social relations with them, and exhibiting public drunkenness and excessive emotion were prohibited as practices that undermined Italian authority.

The notion of prestige occupies a central place in all colonial discourse but may have held a special meaning for Italians, who viewed empire as an escape route from a subordinate international position. Remaking Italians in the image of imperious commanders became an important theme of the dictatorship’s colonial culture, and “civilizing” Africa presented an opportunity for the fascists to refashion and modernize Italians in ways that would improve their image and prepare them for the demands of total war.

 Excerpted from Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945 by Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Published by the University of California Press.