Italian Empire

Italian Empire
Italian Empire
Green: Kingdom of ItalyLime: Italian colonies/possessionsDark gray: Italian occupied territory and protectorates
Green: Kingdom of Italy
Lime: Italian colonies/possessions
Dark gray: Italian occupied territory and protectorates
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The Italian Empire (Italian: Impero Italiano) was created after the Kingdom of Italy joined other European powers in establishing colonies overseas during the "scramble for Africa". Modern Italy as a unified state only existed from 1861. By this time France, Spain, Portugal, Britain, and the Netherlands, had already carved out large empires over several hundred years. One of the last remaining areas open to colonisation was on the African continent.

By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Italy had annexed Eritrea and Somalia, and had wrested control of portions of the Ottoman Empire, including Libya, though it was defeated in its attempt to conquer Ethiopia. The Fascist government under Italian dictator Benito Mussolini which came to power in 1922 sought to increase the size of the empire further. Ethiopia was successfully taken, four decades after the previous failure, and Italy's European borders were expanded. An official "Italian Empire" was proclaimed on 9 May 1936 following the conquering of Ethiopia.[1] Italy sided with Nazi Germany during World War II and initially enjoyed successes. However, Allied forces eventually captured Italian overseas colonies and by the time Italy itself was invaded in 1943, its empire had all but ceased to exist.


Birth of a Nation and Scramble for an Empire (1861–1914)

Francesco Crispi promoted the Italian colonialism in Africa in the late 1800s.

The unification of Italy in 1861 brought with it a belief that Italy deserved its own overseas empire, alongside those of the other powers of Europe, and a rekindling of the notion of mare nostrum.[2] However, Italy had arrived late to the colonial race, and its relative weakness in international affairs meant that it was dependent on the acquiescence of Britain, France and Germany towards its empire-building.[3]

Italy had long considered the Ottoman province of Tunisia, where a large community of Tunisian Italians lived, within its economic sphere of influence. It did not consider annexing it until 1879 when it became apparent that Britain and Germany were encouraging France to add it to its colonial holdings in North Africa.[4] A last minute offer by Italy to partition Tunisia between the two countries was refused, and France, confident in German support, ordered its troops in from French Algeria, imposing a protectorate over Tunisia in May 1881 under the Treaty of Bardo.[5] The shock of the "Tunisian bombshell", as it was referred to in the Italian press, and the sense of Italy's isolation in Europe, led it into signing the Triple Alliance in 1882 with Germany and Austro-Hungary.[6]

Italy's search for colonies continued until February 1886, when by secret agreement with Britain it annexed the port of Massawa in Eritrea on the Red Sea from the crumbling Egyptian Empire. Italian annexation of Massawa denied the Ethiopian Empire of Yohannes IV an outlet to the sea [7] and prevented any expansion of French Somaliland.[8] At the same time, Italy occupied territory on the south side of the horn of Africa, forming what would become Italian Somaliland.[9] However, Italy coveted Ethiopia itself, and in 1887, Italian Prime Minister Agostino Depretis ordered an invasion. This invasion was halted after the loss of five hundred Italian troops at the Battle of Dogali.[10] Depretis's successor, Prime Minister Francesco Crispi signed the Treaty of Wuchale in 1889 with Menelik II, the new emperor. This treaty ceded Ethiopian territory around Massawa to Italy to form the colony of Eritrea, and — at least, according to the Italian version of the treaty — made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate.[11]

Relations between Italy and Menelik deteriorated over the next few years until the First Italo-Ethiopian War broke out in 1895 after Crispi ordered Italian troops into the country. Outnumbered and poorly equipped,[12] the result was a humiliating defeat for Italy at the hands of Ethiopian forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, the first defeat by an African indigenous people of a colonial power,[13] and a major blow to the Italian empire in East Africa, as well as to Italian prestige.

On 7 September 1901, a concession in Tientsin was ceded to the Kingdom of Italy by Imperial China. It was administered by Rome's Consul. Several ships of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) were based at Tientsin.[14]

A wave of nationalism that swept Italy at the turn of the 20th century led to the founding of the Italian Nationalist Association, which pressed for the expansion of Italy's empire. Newspapers were filled with talk of revenge for the humiliations suffered in Ethiopia at the end of the previous century, and of nostalgia for the Roman era. Libya, it was suggested, as an ex-Roman colony, should be "taken back" to provide a solution to the problems of south Italy's population growth. Fearful of being excluded altogether from North Africa by Britain and France, and mindful of public opinion, Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti ordered the declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire, of which Libya was part, in October 1911.[15] As a result of the Italo-Turkish War Italy gained Libya and the Dodecanese Islands.

World War I and its aftermath (1914–1922)

In 1915, Italy agreed to enter World War I on the side of Britain and France, and in return was guaranteed territory at the Treaty of London, both in Europe and, should Britain and France gain Germany's African possessions, in Africa.[16] However, at the concluding Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Italy received far less in Europe than had been promised, and none overseas. In April 1920, it was agreed between the British and Italian foreign ministers that Jubaland would be Italy's compensation, but Britain held back on the deal for several years, aiming to use it as leverage to force Italy to cede the Dodecanese to Greece.[17]

Fascism and the Italian Empire (1922–1940)

Ambitions of Fascist Italy in Europe in 1936 (Dark blue represents Italy, mid-blue represents territories to be annexed, light blue represents territories to be client states).[citation needed]

In 1922, the leader of the Italian fascist movement, Benito Mussolini, became Prime Minister of Italy after a coup d'état. Mussolini resolved the question of Dodecanese sovereignty at the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which formalized Italian administration of both Libya and the Dodecanese Islands, in return for a payment to Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, though he failed in an attempt to extract a mandate of a portion of Iraq from Britain.

The month following the ratification of the Lausanne treaty, Mussolini ordered the invasion of the Greek island of Corfu after the murder of an Italian general there. The Italian press supported the move, noting that Corfu had been a possession of the Republic of Venice for four hundred years.[18] Though the matter was taken by Greece to the League of Nations, Mussolini successfully resisted its pressure, and it was only the threat of war with Britain that convinced him to evacuate Italian troops,[19] in return for reparations from Greece. The confrontation over Corfu, and Italy's obvious determination never to give up Dodecanese sovereignty, led Britain and Italy to resolve the question of Jubaland in 1924: it was merged into Italian Somaliland.[20]

In Eastern Europe, the Fascist regime held imperial designs on Albania, Dalmatia, large parts of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Greece based on the precedent of previous Roman dominance in these regions.[21] The regime also sought to establish protective patron-client relationships with Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.[22]

During the late 1920s imperial expansion became an increasingly favoured theme in Mussolini's speeches.[23] He argued that Italy needed an outlet for its "surplus population", and that it would therefore be in other countries' best interests to aid in this expansion.[23] Among Mussolini's (not-publicly proclaimed) aims were that Italy had to become the dominant power in the Mediterranean which would be able to challenge France or Britain, as well as attain access to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.[23] Mussolini alleged that Italy required uncontested access to the world's oceans and shipping lanes to ensure its national sovereignty.[24] This was elaborated on in a document he later drew up in 1939 called "The March to the Oceans", and included in the official records of a meeting of the Grand Council of Fascism.[24] This text asserted that maritime position determined a nation's independence: countries with free access to the high seas were independent, while those who lacked this were not. Italy, which only had access to an inland sea without French and British acquiescence, was only a "semi-independent nation", and alleged to be a "prisoner in the Mediterranean"[24]:

"The bars of this prison are Corsica, Tunisia, Malta, and Cyprus. The guards of this prison are Gibraltar and Suez. Corsica is a pistol pointed at the heart of Italy; Tunisia at Sicily. Malta and Cyprus constitute a threat to all our positions in the eastern and western Mediterrean. Greece, Turkey, and Egypt have been ready to form a chain with Great Britain and to complete the politico-military encirclement of Italy. Thus Greece, Turkey, and Egypt must be considered vital enemies of Italy's expansion... The aim of Italian policy, which cannot have, and does not have continental objectives of a European territorial nature except Albania, is first of all to break the bars of this prison... Once the bars are broken, Italian policy can only have one motto - to march to the oceans."
—Benito Mussolini, [24]

This goal entailed a vast programme of colonial expansion toward Ethiopia in the east and Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Guinea coast in the west.[23] Mussolini professed that Italy would only be able to "breathe easily" if it had acquired a contiguous colonial domain in Africa from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans, and when ten million Italians had settled in them.[23]

In both 1932 and 1935 Italy demanded a mandate of the former German Cameroon and a free hand in Ethiopia from France in return for Italian support against Germany (see Stresa Front).[25] This was refused by French Prime Minister Édouard Herriot, who was not yet sufficiently worried about the prospect of a German resurgence.[25]

In October 1935, Mussolini launched the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and invaded Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie fled the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on 2 May 1936 and the Italians entered the city on 5 May. The Italians merged Italian Eritrea, Italian Somalia, and newly captured Ethiopia into Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, A.O.I.). The invasion had the tacit approval of France and Great Britain, who did not wish to alienate Italy as a potential ally against Nazi Germany.[26]

Victory was announced on 9 May 1936 and Mussolini declared the creation of the "Italian Empire".[1] Italian King Victor Emmanuel III added Emperor of Ethiopia to his titles. Mussolini dreamed of sending millions of Italian settlers to Italian East Africa, and Italians had high hopes of turning the area into an economic asset.[26] However, by overrunning Ethiopia, a member of the League of Nations, Italy attracted widespread international hostility.[26] This did not affect Italy's economy drastically, since the US, Germany and Japan were not in the League of Nations and did not follow the economic sanctions of the League of Nations.

During the Spanish Civil War, Italy intervened with the intention of annexing the Balearic Islands and Ceuta and creating a client state in Spain.[27]

During the 1930s, emigration to the colonies was encouraged due to a belief that Italy was suffering from "excess population". Most went to Libya which by 1938 contained 89,098 Italians, primarily concentrated in the coastal cities of Tripoli and Benghazi. The coastline of Libya was referred to as Italy's "Fourth Shore" (in Italian: quarta sponda).

There was emigration to Italian East Africa as well. According to the 1931 census, there were 4,188 Italians in Eritrea and 1,631 in Italian Somaliland.,[28] but by 1939 their number increased to more than 75,000 in Italian Eritrea and nearly 20,000 in Somalia. During the five-year occupation of Ethiopia, roughly 300,000 Italians were absorbed into the conquered East African Empire. But fully one-third of these Italians were military personnel.[29] After a difficult period under Rodolfo Graziani, Italian East Africa was ruled more successfully by Amedeo, 3rd Duke of Aosta. The Duke brought a program of progressive improvement that included 2,000 miles of new paved roads, 25 hospitals, 14 hotels, dozens of post offices, telephone exchanges, aqueducts, schools, and shops. Even so, the tight grip on security that the Italians maintained did not extend far beyond the main population centers of Ethiopia.[26]

In 1939, Italy invaded and captured Albania and made it a part of both Greater Italy as well as the Italian Empire as a separate kingdom in personal union with the Italian crown. The region of modern-day Albania had been an early part of the Roman Empire, which had actually been held before northern parts of Italy had been taken by the Romans, but had long since been populated by Albanians, even though Italy had retained strong links with the Albanian leadership and considered it firmly within its sphere of influence.[30] It is possible that Mussolini simply wanted a spectacular success over a smaller neighbour to match Germany's absorption of Austria and Czechoslovakia.[31] Italian King Victor Emmanuel III took the Albanian crown, and a fascist government under Shefqet Verlaci was established to rule over Albania.

World War II (1940–1943)

Italian Empire in 1940-41, including Savoy, Nice, Croatia, Dalmatia, Greece and Egypt (Italian Territory of Tientsin in China not shown).
Prince Amedeo of Savoy-Aosta led the resistance at Amba-Alagi, having military honours from the British[32].

Mussolini entered World War II on the side of Adolf Hitler with plans to enlarge Italy's territorial holdings. He had designs on an area of western Yugoslavia, southern France, Corsica, Malta, Tunisia, part of Algeria, an Atlantic port in Morocco, French Somaliland and British Egypt and Sudan.[33] Mussolini also mentioned to Italo Balbo his ambitions of capturing British and French territories in the Cameroons and founding an Italian Cameroon, in hopes that Italy could establish a colony on the Atlantic coast of Africa.[citation needed]

On June 10, 1940, Mussolini declared war on Britain and France. Both countries had been at war with Nazi Germany since September of the prior year. Mussolini's troops invaded southern France. But an armistice was soon signed between France and Germany. As a result, Italian troops pressed no further than a few miles into France, with the city of Menton being the only considerable gain from the offensive. Two days later, a separate agreement between France and Italy ceded Nice and parts of the Savoy to Italy.[34]

In October 1940, keen to emulate the successes that Hitler was enjoying, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Greece from Albania. But the invasion faltered, and the Italians were soon pushed back into Albania.[35]

In April 1941, Germany launched an invasion of Yugoslavia and then attacked Greece. Italy and other German allies supported both actions. The German and Italian armies overran Yugoslavia in about two weeks and, despite British support in Greece, the Axis troops overran that country by the end of April. The Italians gained control over portions of both occupied Yugoslavia and occupied Greece. A member of the House of Savoy, Prince Aimone, 4th Duke of Aosta, ruled over the newly created Independent State of Croatia as the King Tomislav II.

During the height of the Battle of Britain, the Italians launched an attack on Egypt in hope of capturing the Suez Canal. By 16 September 1940, the Italians advanced 60 miles across the border. However, in December, the British launched Operation Compass and, by February 1941, the British had cut off and captured the Italian 10th Army and had driven deep into Libya.[36] A German intervention prevented the fall of Libya and the combined Axis attacks drove the British back into Egypt until summer 1942, before being stopped at El Alamein. The was followed by a slow retreat by the Axis and a subsequent occupation of Tunisia.

The East African Campaign started with Italian advances into British-held Kenya, British Somaliland, and Sudan. In the summer of 1940, Italian armed forces successfully invaded all of British Somaliland.[37] But, by the end of 1941, the British had counter-attacked and pushed deep into Italian East Africa. By 5 May, Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia had returned to Addis Ababa to reclaim his throne. In November, the last organised Italian resistance ended with the fall of Gondar.[38] However, following the surrender of East Africa, some Italians conducted a guerrilla war which lasted for two more years.

In November 1942, Italian-occupied France was expanded even with the occupation of Corsica, when the Germans occupied Vichy France during Case Anton.

End of Empire (1943–1960)

Italian war cemetery in Keren.

By the fall of 1943, the Italian Empire (and all the dreams of a Greater Italia) effectively came to an end.

On May 7, the surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia and other near continuous Italian reversals, led King Victor Emmanuel III to plan the removal of Mussolini (who was officially not a dictator like Hitler, but a prime minister). Following the Invasion of Sicily, all support for Mussolini evaporated.

On July 25, after a meeting of the Grand Council of Fascism ended in the night of the 24th, where Dino Grandi organized the opposition, Mussolini was deposed and arrested by the King in the afternoon. Afterwards Mussolini remained prisoner of the King, only to be rescued on the 12 of September on the orders of Hitler by German paratroops and become leader of the Italian Social Republic.

Outwardly, the new Italian government under the King and Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio remained part of the Axis. But secretly it started negotiations with the Allies. On the eve of the American landings at Salerno which started the Allied invasion of Italy, the new Italian government secretly signed an armistice with the Allies. On September 8, the armistice was made public.

In Albania, Yugoslavia, the Dodecanese, and other territories still held by the Italians, German military forces successfully attacked their former Italian allies and ended Italy's rule.

Some Italian troops in the Balkans chose to join the resistance fighting against the Germans there. During the Dodecanese Campaign, an Allied attempt to take the Dodecanese with the cooperation of the Italian troops ended in total German victory.

In 1947, the Republic of Italy formally lost all her overseas colonial possessions as a result of the Treaty of Peace with Italy. There were discussions to maintain Tripolitania (a province of Italian Libya) as the last Italian colony, but were not successful.

In November 1949, Italian Somaliland was made a United Nations Trust Territory under Italian administration. This lasted until July 1, 1960, when Italian Somaliland was granted its independence along with British Somaliland to form the Somali Republic.


See also



  1. ^ a b Lowe, p.289
  2. ^ Betts (1975), p.12
  3. ^ Betts (1975), p.97
  4. ^ Lowe, p.21
  5. ^ Lowe, p.24
  6. ^ Lowe, p.27
  7. ^ Packenham (1992), p.280
  8. ^ Packenham (1992), p.471
  9. ^ Packenham, p.281
  10. ^ Killinger (2002), p.122
  11. ^ Packenham, p.470
  12. ^ Killinger, p.122
  13. ^ Packenham (1992), p.7
  14. ^ Map and information
  15. ^ Killinger (2002), p.133
  16. ^ Fry (2002), p.178
  17. ^ Lowe, p.187
  18. ^ Lowe, p.196
  19. ^ Lowe, p.198
  20. ^ Lowe, p.191,199
  21. ^ Robert Bideleux, Ian Jeffries. A history of eastern Europe: crisis and change. London, England, UK; New York, New York, USA: Routledge, 1998. Pp. 467.
  22. ^ Robert Bideleux, Ian Jeffries. A history of eastern Europe: crisis and change. London, England, UK; New York, New York, USA: Routledge, 1998. Pp. 467.
  23. ^ a b c d e Smith, Dennis Mack (1981). Mussolini, p. 170. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.
  24. ^ a b c d Salerno, Reynolds Mathewson (2002). Vital crossroads: Mediterranean origins of the Second World War, 1935-1940, pp. 105-106. Cornell University Press
  25. ^ a b Burgwyn, James H. (1997). Italian foreign policy in the interwar period, 1918-1940, p. 68. Praeger Publishers.
  26. ^ a b c d Barker, p.152
  27. ^ R. J. B. Bosworth. The Oxford handbook of fascism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. 246.
  28. ^ Howard (1998), p.95.
  29. ^ Barker, p.154
  30. ^ Dickson (2001), pg. 69
  31. ^ Dickson (2001), pg 69
  32. ^ Time Magazine Aosta on Alag?
  33. ^ Calvocoressi (1999) p.166
  34. ^ Calvocoressi (1999) p.142
  35. ^ Dickson (2001) p.100
  36. ^ Dickson (2001) p.101
  37. ^ Dickson (2001) p.103
  38. ^ Jowett (2001) p.7


  • Betts, Raymond (1975). The False Dawn: European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century. University of Minnesota. 
  • Barker, A. J. (1971). The Rape of Ethiopia. Ballantine Books. 
  • Bosworth, R. J. B. (2005). Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945. Penguin Books. 
  • Calvocoressi, Peter (1999). The Penguin History of the Second World War. Penguin. 
  • Dickson, Keith (2001). World War II For Dummies. Wiley Publishing, INC. 
  • Fry, Michael (2002). Guide to International Relations and Diplomacy. Continuum International Publishing Group. 
  • Howard, Michael (1998). The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press. 
  • Jowett, Philip (1995). Axis Forces in Yugoslavia 1941-45. Osprey Publishing. 
  • Jowett, Philip (2001). The Italian Army 1940-45 (2): Africa 1940-43. Osprey Publishing. 
  • Killinger, Charles (2002). The History of Italy. Greenwood Press. 
  • Lowe, C.J. (2002). Italian Foreign Policy 1870-1940. Routledge. 
  • Packenham, Thomas (1992). The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912. Harper Collins. 
  • Mauri Arnaldo,(2004) Eritrea's early stages in monetary and banking development, "International Review of Economics", Vol. LI, n. 4, pp. 547–569.

External links

  • Speech of the proclamation of the empire, 9 May 1936
  • [1] "La Somalia Italiana", written in 1925 by Romolo Onor (in Italian).
  • [2] "Atlante delle colonie italiane". Detailed Atlas of Italian colonies, written by Baratta Mario and Visintin Luigi in 1928 (in Italian).

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