Italy’s Colonial Past Amid the Lies, Racism, and Selective Amnesia

Italian colonial troops march in Libya, 1911 (stock image)

Excerpts from But We Built Roads for Them: The Lies, Racism, and Amnesia that Bury Italy’s Colonial Past, from the English translation by Domenic Cusmano of Noi però gli abbiamo fatto le strade: le colonie italiane tra bugie, razzismi e amnesia


Some Parts Went Missing
In the 20th century, Italy experienced a series of major upheavals on the path to building what we will call “a collective memory,” that is, the construct of historical facts that we consider part of our society’s heritage. The way of remembering what is intended as a common past underwent many abrupt changes of direction in a relatively short period of time. Generations of Italians saw many different narratives pass before their eyes: the value system of a nascent unified Italy; the different “battles of memory” put forth alternately by the Fascist regime, the Resistance, and the democratic reorganisers of the country; and the accounts emanating from the political and social upheavals of the mid-1990s. After many acrimonious debates over the many fractures of the past, the result is a reshuffling and revision of the major themes of Italian history.

During these ongoing machinations, all aspects of the past have been discussed, rehashed and reconstructed time and again. Countless texts have been written, dramatizations filmed, and social media channels created – on the Unification of Italy, on the Fascist massacres, on the discovery of America, on Dante, on the upheavals of 1968 – all dedicated to the many ways of revising, refreshing and re-analysing events that are indisputably part of our common past. All of our country’s “important” moments have been read and re-read over time.

Actually, no; almost all of them. There is one aspect of Italian history, in the period in question, that has not substantially been part of the public discourse with the aim of fostering a new interpretation, bringing about a new collective awareness, or even just making it a rhetorical weapon of daily political debate. We are talking about Italian Colonialism. This was a historically long and complex period. It began with the creation of the first Italian colonial outpost in 1882, when the government of Prime Minister Agostino Depretis acquired the rights to administer an area in Assab Bay on the Red Sea; it ended when the Italian flag was lowered for the last time on African soil in Mogadishu, Somalia, on July 1, 1960. Lasting nearly eighty years, Italian colonialism can be regarded as one of the most substantial undertakings, both in terms of existence and continuity, in Italy’s troubled history. It has had obvious repercussions on the country’s history, politics and society. Yet, at the level of collective memory, it is virtually undetectable.

As far as its place in the public memory is concerned – memory that not only constitutes a community’s heritage but is regarded as foundational for a common identity and value system – even less can be said. None of the many significant dates of Colonial Italy’s prolonged epic have in any way entered the list of holidays or public remembrances and reflections – not dates that celebrate purported glories, nor dates that should recall the certainty that crimes were committed …

The debate on the colonial legacy, which other Western countries have undertaken – often compelled by their own long-festering social issues and occasionally with less than encouraging outcomes – is only at the embryonic stage in Italy. A number of obstacles still prevent public opinion from grasping the importance of the debate and making it central and widespread: namely, scant media interest in a subject that seems to have no bearing on the present, mainly because it is not very exploitable in today’s political environment (as opposed to other topics such as Fascism); and scant public attention to Italy’s past attempt to enhance its global influence, which is probably the result of a lack of awareness that our country too left its imperialist “imprint” on the world, indelibly deviating the historical path of the countries it had sought to subjugate and, in turn, changing its own worldview.

In fact, it is commonly believed that Italy was only marginally involved in the great white assault to acquire global wealth, and that, above all, this assault involved very few Italians. In the collective memory, then, this limited involvement, especially after the loss of the colonies following World War II, is sometimes transformed into an implicit sense of disconnection. That Italians adhered “late and poorly” to the assault on other continents is offered as proof that Italians “by their very nature” are not inclined to domination over the Other …

Undoubtedly, Fascism imposed a violently disastrous end to Italian imperialism, but it was nonetheless just one of a number of phases of a phenomenon that was anything but peaceful – from the attempted invasions of Ethiopia in the 1890s, to the Libyan War in 1911-12, to the subsequent years of guerrilla warfare and reprisals. The violence against rebel populations in the Horn of Africa in the late 19th century and the massacres of civilians in Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan occurred well before 1922. One can see many more instances of continuity than of disconnection in the overseas policy between liberal Italy and the Fascist regime. Yet, it seems that when it comes to the colonial question, only certain narratives find a place for debate in our country’s public square, thus flattening the complexity of a political, military, cultural and social movement that characterized the very development of Italy on the international scene.

There are many factors, over the years, that have led an entire country to feel not only blameless, but even detached, from what have been its most enduring contours of foreign policy and international development… A collective amnesia was fostered in large part as a political and cultural choice. When one speaks of colonialism, one’s thoughts most easily go to the affairs of powers such as Britain and France or, further back in time, to the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas.

Yet, for many years, that determination to jump on the European bandwagon to invade the planet is what drove Italy’s awareness of its place in the world. Beginning in the 1880s in particular, Italy’s status as a great power depended in large part on this very aspect of its foreign policy, characterizing its choices of alliances, its national and international political crises, and the diplomatic victories (few) and defeats (many) of its various governments. It constituted a major part of the country’s difficulties in dealing with peace after both World War I and World War II, and for decades to come it influenced its place in the major post-war international organizations, the first among these the United Nations.

The Rush to Conquer
When describing the phenomenon of Italian colonialism, for the sake of brevity, one often resorts to a rather peremptory statement: the Italians were the last ones in the “Scramble for Africa” and sought to occupy territories that were still free, that is, not already occupied by established colonial powers.

Although this definition succeeds in outlining rather precisely some of the destinations of made-in-Italy imperialist expansionism, it also reveals a misunderstanding of the situation in the territories that were gradually being conquered. While it is true that Italy invaded areas that were not subject to European domination, this does not mean that there were no forms of government there prior to the invasion.

In the public narrative that took root in the second half of the 19th century, the widespread idea was that “white government” was the only conceivable form of government. This is why many people believed that colonialism, and more so the Italian version, was exporting “civilization,” in the broadest sense, to places where a more or less defined “state of nature” prevailed. The mission was perceived as not just worthy, but actually welcome – as a propaganda piece from 1892 explained:

Our influence in Africa expands peacefully by the mere fact of our intellectual and moral superiority, and thanks to our abilities. Achieving this civilizing mission is the only thing that can legitimize Europe’s conquests in Africa. There, we no longer have enemies. The tribes close to our possessions fall one after another into our sphere of influence out of empathy, out of interest– we would almost say, by force of gravity – and our friendship is sought by the more distant tribes. (In La Cultura: Rivista Critica diretta dall’on. Bonghi. M. Pasini Editore, Rome 1892, p. 155.)

A few years later, these assertions would have to reckon with the debacle at Adua.

This conception, the export of civilization as a real “mission,” bordering on the religious, was one of the pillars of colonialism. Unfortunately, it continues as one of its posthumous justifications to this day. Moreover, for years the idea of dealing with “savages” was largely used as a justification to explain even the massive failures of Italian colonialism, and sway Italian public opinion. From Somalia to Libya and from Eritrea to Ethiopia, crises, clashes and the responsibility for violence were most often attributed to the “natives,” who refused to understand how much good the white man was bringing. By foolishly rebelling, they unleashed the “just punishment” of the dominator. Yet, it is precisely in the Italian model that this would-be axiom proved far from realistic. In almost every case, the opposite was true – in the panoply of Italy’s shoddy assaults on the lands belonging to others, one of the most complex operations was that of rooting out civilization in order to bring civilization.

It’s All Mussolini’s Fault
Following the redefinition of the country’s political priorities, it also became necessary to find a common interpretation of past colonial rule. The answer was quite simple: the massive propaganda effort aimed at exalting the imperial ideal of colonialism, especially after 1930 – the high point of which was the invasion of Ethiopia – was carried out by the Fascist regime. Once Fascism was defeated, marked by the failure to dominate Ethiopia, the only possible conclusion was that colonialism was one of the great failures, one of the great shames, foisted on the country’s conscience by Mussolini’s totalitarianism.

By repudiating the Fascist regime and proclaiming itself anti-Fascist, the new democratic republic born of the Resistance seemed serene in claiming that it did not have to come to terms with its colonial past – it did not even recognize it as its own. This was a conceptual scheme already in place with regard to the memory of Fascism itself. The aim was to offload any and all guilt onto Fascism, and then declare it expunged from the legacy of memory, and thus from the historical responsibility of Italians.

The conservative, right-wing media organizations that survived the end of Fascism and the monarchy – and which in post-World-War-II Italy still carried considerable weight – gladly contributed to the description of “made in Italy” imperialism as divided between “Fascist” and “pre-Fascist.” As historian Andrea Ungari explains, the pro-monarchist press, for example, “always liked to hark back to liberal colonialism with an emphasis on historical figures, events and themes dear to the collective imagination. Even when referencing the period of Fascist colonial expansion, the focus was not on the upper echelons of Mussolini’s hierarchy, but on members of the House of Savoy who had operated in Africa – in particular, Luigi Amedeo of Savoy-Aosta, Duke of the Abruzzi, and Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of Aosta.”

This scheme was particularly successful, given that in the cauldron of Italian colonialism and government structures, the 20-year Fascist period is remembered more vividly than the 50 years of liberal rule and the 10-year mandate in Somalia in terms of relations with the subjugated territories and the crimes perpetrated.

It is no coincidence that the lion’s share of the criticism of the methods, practices, and consequences of 19th- and 20th-century “made-in-Italy” imperialism were directed at the Fascist regime, and rightly so. The use of poison gas during the invasion of Ethiopia comes to mind. But the late 19th-century massacres on the Eritrean border or the mass executions in the Libyan cities “liberated” in 1911-12 were not so easily recalled.

In Italy’s public memory, already clogged by the difficulties of trying to rework the country’s totalitarianism, the history of colonialism simply had no place – as if eighty years of forced exchanges and, as we have seen, reciprocal influences, had left no trace in the public consciousness and in the daily life of millions of people. But these traces, though unacknowledged, continue to condition many aspects of the country’s life and temperament.

The Myth of Goodness Requires Proof: The Roads
What immediately stands out in the Luce documentaries and newsreels from the 1930s is the amount of footage devoted to public works carried out by the Italians in the Horn of Africa. As of 1935, in particular, there is an explosion of images showing the “new roads” opened by the colonizers.

Fascist propaganda was particularly focused on infrastructure projects in preparation for the invasion. In almost all the regime’s newsreels there are shots of roads, bridges and other road works that were built or were being built by the Italians. Entire photo reportages by the so-called East Africa Department of the Istituto Luce, dispatched to the colonies, were devoted to the roads laid out by the regime. Based on this propaganda, one might think that in the 1930s the Italians in Africa did nothing but build roads.

Given the very limited sources of information available on the colonies at that time, the building of roads became an uncontested colonial leitmotif – to the point that it survived the loss of the overseas empire. To this day, construction of the road network is among the supposed positive features of Italy’s invasions, particularly in Africa.

The myth of Mussolini building roads was a particularly powerful propaganda tool, as it clearly harked back to the ancient Roman tradition: just as the Romans laid out roads to bring civilization across the empire, so too were the Italian Fascists. In actual fact, the effort to build infrastructures was enormous, and – beyond the propaganda – was dictated above all by military necessity. Good roads meant the ability to move troops quickly to the various areas of the colonies to control them more effectively. On the eve of the war, the dictatorship unfurled a series of plans for the construction of an “imperial” road network 5000 kilometres long, to be overseen by Mussolini himself who, from 1937 to 1939, also held the post of Minister of the Colonies. This is a remarkable number, one that must be seen without the halo of propaganda to be interpreted correctly.

In actual fact, of 5000 kilometres announced by the regime, 400 had already been built in Eritrea for military purposes before the 1935 invasion. The ancient Ethiopian imperial road leading from Addis Ababa to Asmara, which was more than 1000 kilometres long, was also included in the count. Renamed “Victory Way” (Via della Vittoria), the road was partially renovated and the rougher parts made more accessible to motor vehicles. However, it could hardly be called a Fascist creation. It was in fact used by the Italians for the invasion, partially upgraded to accommodate automobiles.

The remaining 3000-plus kilometres of so-called state highways in Italian East Africa consisted mainly of caravan trails mended to accommodate motor vehicle traffic. Only a very small part of the road network was actually paved, and gradients and substrates were conceived with military vehicles in mind. The sections in and around population centres were given extra care so as to maintain the image of an efficient roadway system. But numerous casual travellers mentioned the inefficiency and hazards of the network, and the outright embezzlement in the awarding of contracts. In 1938, the high-ranking Fascist Roberto Farinacci indignantly wrote to the Duce that even on the much-vaunted Asmara-Addis Ababa Highway the road conditions were so poor for hundreds of kilometres that they could “give one a varicocele or a hernia.” In another note to Mussolini, he put his finger on the cause of the problem, namely that the road construction was mere propaganda, and the fact that the procurement system had become a form of illicit enrichment for the few:

Whatever comrade Cobolli Gigli [Minister of Pubic Works from 1935 to 1939] may say, the thousands upon thousands of kilometres of paved roads were a tremendous rip-off for the treasury… The permanent roads are being built solely so that they can be presented to the Duce, and the builder can say: “Today, I did this and I did that.” Today, after just two years, the roads are mostly in very poor condition. You can’t blame it on the rains, because different segments of the Asmara-to-Addis Ababa road have held up and others have not, depending on the companies that built them. There was no one to seriously supervise the technical standards, and billions were lavishly and foolishly spent … Too many people, too many firms are criminally sucking at the teats of the motherland.

The degree of inefficiency and waste was also recognized in another roadworks project that the regime boasted about – namely the road across the entire Libyan coastline – from Tunisia to the Egyptian border, and named, as per Roman custom, “the via Balbia,” in honour of the Fascist leader Italo Balbo (1896-1940), who had advocated for its construction. The opus was inaugurated in 1937, and was undertaken primarily for reasons of prestige

What the ultra-fascist Farinacci brutally highlighted was a system of power typical of the Fascist period: political-industrial lobbies taking advantage of the regime’s policies to get rich via public contracts. The result was a much-flaunted imperial road network consisting mostly of expensive infrastructures used as propaganda, and a reality of neglect and waste. Italian roads in East Africa accounted for more than half of the empire’s expenditures, but they produced no tangible benefit for the economy. They became a huge sinkhole that diverted money away from works that could have been more useful for the development of the territories. The tragic irony is that the few usable stretches of road connecting the hubs of Italy’s possessions also became the main conduits of attack at the outbreak of World War II. In 1941, British troops used these very roads to breach the Italian Empire, and accelerate the collapse of Italian East Africa

It seems clear, as dusk was settling over Fascist rule in the 1930s and 1940s, that the main problem lay in the enormous disparity between the declared goals and the actual resources available to realize them. The empire imagined by the colonialists was too vast for the means of the state, and too unprofitable to constitute a real economic opportunity. The aim, then, “was to keep up appearances,” and ignore or conceal the problems that could not be handled.

But thanks to the iron grip over information and the distance between Italian public opinion and colonial reality, the facade of conscientious civilization-building remained in the collective imagination – even after the dreams of empire crumbled. Like many other propaganda myths about the Ventennio or the 20 years of Fascist rule, road-building remained a memory almost impossible to contradict in the collective consciousness of Italians. This narrative leitmotif has helped shape the perception of the entire imperialist experience of the Bel Paese.

Memories of the damage were deliberately forgotten or ignored, and written over by recollections reinforced by nearly a century of propaganda that extolled the ephemeral achievements of Italic civilization – but hopelessly distant from the reality of the countries that were devastated and plundered by the occupation. Even when the postcolonial discourse identified Italians as violent white imperialists perpetrating brutalities, the fall-back response was to invoke the arguments conceived by the invaders: “but we built roads for them…,” as if these – which at the time were more useful to the occupiers than to the occupied – could compensate for the massacres, the erasure of entire cultures, and the loss of independence for millions of people.


Francesco Filippi is a historian of mentalities and an educator who has specialized in the relationship between memory and the present. He is co-founder of Deina, an association that organises trips of memory and training courses all over Italy. Filippi is the author of five books including the Italian bestseller Mussolini Also Did A Lot of Good (Baraka Books 2021). He lives in Trento, Italy.

Domenic Cusmano is the publisher Accenti Magazine and occasional literary translator.

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