Tag Archives: WWII

Italian Colonization in Africa

Flag of the Italian Empire

When we think of the colonization of Africa, the British and the French are the key empires that first come to mind, followed by the Portuguese, Belgians, Dutch, and Germans.  In the Scramble for Africa, Italy was not considered a key player in comparison to other major European powers. Italy did come to occupy Libya, Somalia, modern-day Eritrea, and later on Ethiopia briefly (although Ethiopia can boast to have had the only army to successfully repel an European force, the Adwa victory in 1896). As a student of Nigerian history, I have spent the last several years analyzing the nature of British rule in West Africa, especially in comparison to the French style. An overly simplified description would be that the British were comparably hands-off, I emphasize comparably, preferring to use indirect rule by bribing local chiefs and maintaining pre-existing structures of indigenous rule.  France however took a more top-down approach, centralizing its governments in Africa using officials from France, ousting local rulers, and imposing oppressive law known as IndigenatSince arriving to Florence to write my Niger Delta findings, I have spent more time thinking about how a European power could have been comparably less successful in its attempts to colonize African territories. Italy is an example of this.

At lunch with a noted Italian historian yesterday, I asked, “Why was Italy so poor at colonization?” His answer was direct, that Italy simply arrived too late to the colonization game to be able to compete with the firmly established empires that were already occupying most of Africa.  He emphasized that Italy did not become united as a country until 1861, and by then European colonizers had already been exploiting African peoples and resources for centuries.  At this time Italy barely knew how to govern itself, let alone far away foreign lands.

I would add to his account that there was a resurgence in the idea of an Italian Empire during WWI, a war during which Italy secured its stronghold in Libya particularly.  There existed a popular rhetoric of nationalism, in which interlocutors described Libya as still part of the ancient Roman Empire, and by extension of that as being part of Italy. Giovanni Pascoli, a great nationalist writer, stressed the importance both in his written works and speeches of forging an expanded national identity through conquest and praising of the proletariat. Yet still, Italy could never quite “catch up” with other Europeans in the colonization of Africa.

Mussolini‘s regime sought to regain a foothold in Africa starting in the 1920′s, and did so with his conquering of Ethiopia 1936, when he declared an official “Italian Empire.” However, WWI had depleted the resources of the Italian government and Mussolini failed to understand realistically what was necessary to successfully maintain rule over African colonies. It was only a matter of time before his fascism was brought to an end, and WWII created such reverberating changes in the European-African relationship that Italy essentially no longer had any power in Africa by the end of the War.

There is a bridge in Addis Ababa that I have heard about which has Mussolini’s inscription on it, essentially marking it as his future domain.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and apparently makes rulers have totally unrealistic goals for their conquests.

Benito Mussolini

Nigerians in WWII

During one of my interviews recently, I spoke with a wonderfully open elderly woman whose husband had fought in WWII. She told me that he traveled by foot from his village in the Niger Delta, in present day Rivers State, to the port city of Calabar to board a boat for Europe around 1940. As the youngest of many children, going to war was the best opportunity he had of gaining employment. I have read about the million or so African troops who fought in WWII on the side of the Allies. West African soldiers, including many Nigerians, were instrumental in liberating Ethiopia (the only African country to successfully resist colonization) from fascists. I have known that the British offered inducements to subjects in their African colonies to convince them to fight in Europe against Germany, of course in worse conditions and for less pay than their white counterparts.

However, I was surprised when the widow told me that her late husband fought on the side of Hitler. I reworded the question several times and she seemed certain that he had been employed by the Germans during WWII. Perhaps she is confused, as she was just a child during the war, but if she isn’t, then that is very intriguing. I have done some follow up reading and found that Nazi violence was directly almost totally against Jews and gypsies and less against Blacks in Europe. Although Nazi doctrine indeed preached the inferiority of Blacks, they were not enough of a political or economic threat to merit the systematic killing that Jews suffered. So, perhaps the utility of African troops would have justified their employment by Nazi Germany? For a politically conscientious Nigerian soldier, a German victory may have seemed to be a way to weaken Britain, thus increasing the chances of Nigerian independence.

Regardless of which side they fought on, engagement in WWII changed the way most African soldiers viewed their nation and the balance of world power. After the war, they received little compensation or thanks for their service to their European colonizers. This disillusionment combined with their new understanding that their colonial rulers, whether British, French, Portuguese, were not all-powerful. These African men had traveled the world, sometimes fought alongside white comrades, and their political consciousness had changed. They had a deserved sense of entitlement to their own freedom. They would not return home and accept the oppression of colonial rule. The golden year of independence for British colonies, 1960, followed fifteen years after the end of the war.

Here are some of the photos that the widow shared with me.  In the group photo you will see that the seven white men seated in front have kept their hats on, which I presume is a sign of their authority since the others have their caps off.  I am interested in the African sitting in front just to the right of the white men, as he is the only black with his hat still on.  I wonder what his rank was. The date written on this back of this photo was September 6, 1945. The truce was signed on September 2, so presumably this is a photo taken just before soldiers were sent home.

Although it is very blurry, the eight African soldiers in this other photo below were the troops who fought with her husband, who is on the bottom right.

I am not a historian, so can anyone with a stronger background in this history offer any information on the possibility of Africans fighting for the Axis Powers?