As Europe Reckons With Racism, Italy Still Won’t Confront Its Colonial Past

Italian forces used chemical weapons and committed war crimes in Africa—but the country’s sordid history is not taught in schools and is rarely discussed by politicians or intellectuals.

Protestor holds a Black Lives Matter sign in Italy
Hundreds of demonstrators march to support the Black Lives Matter movement during a protest against police brutality and racial inequality in the United States and other parts of the world in Turin, Italy, on June 27. Mauro Ujetto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When people get loud, Italians say it’s an “ambaradan.” The word, which can be translated as “messy situation,” comes from Amba Aradam, a mountain in Ethiopia, where Italian troops crushed the local resistance in 1936 using mustard gas, in violation of the Geneva Protocol.

Most Italians ignore the fact that the word’s etymology stems from a colonial war crime. In fact, Italy’s colonial past is largely absent from public debate in the country.

Even in the past few months, while other European nations have reckoned with their colonial past as a reaction to the protests inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, in Italy the topic has remained on the fringes and is barely mentioned.

Last month, an anti-racist group in Milan asked for the removal of a statue of the journalist Indro Montanelli, pointing out that he bought a 12-year-old Eritrean girl as a “temporary wife”—that is, a sex slave—when he was a young colonial soldier in the 1930s. It was no secret. Montanelli, a celebrity conservative journalist who also enjoyed a following among the left, repeatedly bragged about the episode until his death in 2001. He resorted to overtly racist tropes, describing the girl, whose name was either Fatima or Destà, as “a docile tiny pet” and stressing that he was repulsed by her smell. He dismissed the charges of pedophilia, claiming that African girls are different from Europeans: “At 14, they’re women; at 20 they are old.”

During Italy’s occupation of the Horn of Africa, it was fairly common for Italian soldiers to take local girls as temporary wives, a practice known as “madamato” (from the word “madama,” or mistress), which Italians authorities considered legal—and even encouraged.

With such a repertoire, one would guess that Montanelli would be quite unpopular with liberals. But when the anti-racist group, I Sentinelli, made its request, Milan’s progressive mayor, Giuseppe Sala, dismissed the request because, he said, “Everyone makes mistakes.”

Both the right and the mainstream left were quick to defend Montanelli’s memory. “If an isolated episode were enough to disqualify a life, not a single statue would remain standing,” wrote Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for Corriere della Sera and a contributor at the New York Times. A more left-leaning commentator, Luca Telese, said that the world was different back then: “To see Montanelli’s marriage as a violence, and his actions as an isolated case of rape, one needs not to understand anything.”

On one count, Telese was right. Montanelli’s actions were far from isolated. During Italy’s occupation of the Horn of Africa, it was fairly common for Italian soldiers to take local girls as temporary wives, a practice known as “madamato” (from the word “madama,” or mistress), which Italians authorities considered legal—and even encouraged—until 1937, when the Fascist regime outlawed it in the name of racial purity. Obviously the only possible union was between Italian men and African women: The local male population wasn’t even allowed to have contact with white women.

Italy’s colonial endeavor came late, compared to its European neighbors, partially because modern Italy is a recent creation. In 1882, the Kingdom of Italy, which was founded only two decades earlier, invaded Eritrea, and seven years later, it conquered Somalia. Between 1895 and 1896 Italy also tried to conquer Ethiopia, but it failed spectacularly, with the Ethiopian troops inflicting on the Italian attackers the worst defeat ever suffered by a European nation in Africa. In 1911, the Italians took Libya.

When Benito Mussolini came to power, he vowed to further expand the colonies—and to avenge the defeat in Ethiopia. The Fascist troops conquered Ethiopia in 1936, with the help of chemical weapons, and took Albania in 1939.

At the time, Italians were very proud of having an empire at last; they saw it as a way to overcome their inferiority complex toward wealthier and more powerful European nations, noted Nicola Labanca, a historian at the University of Siena and the author of the book Oltremare (“Overseas”) on Italian colonialism. “Having colonies was seen as a way of being modern,” he said.

But that idea of modernity also included brutal repression.

It’s estimated that during the 60 years of Italian colonialism, almost 1 million people died due to war, deportations, and internment. In the 1920s, when the Italian Army started a military campaign to recapture the Libyan territories controlled by rebels, they resorted to widespread summary executions, torture, and mass incarceration. To crush the Libyan resistance, in 1930 the Italian general Rodolfo Graziani, nicknamed “the butcher of Fezzan,” put the civilian population in concentration camps. In Ethiopia, the Fascists deployed chemical attacks. When Ethiopian rebels tried to kill him, in 1937, Graziani had 19,000 Ethiopian civilians executed in retaliation.

Unlike in Germany, which has had a public reckoning with Nazi-era crimes, or France, which is belatedly addressing the brutality of its colonial rule in Algeria and elsewhere, such atrocities are hardly discussed in contemporary Italy.

After the end of World War II, Italy’s new ruling class, largely composed of anti-Fascists, created two intertwined myths: the myth of the “good Italian colonialist” and the myth of the “good Italian soldier.” Italian soldiers, so went the narrative, were poor and generous, reluctant to fight the war, and always willing to help the natives, as opposed to the true villains, the Germans. The point was that Italians, as a people, were good-natured, and that such good nature persisted even when they were misled by an evil regime. The aim was to create a sense of cohesion between the new anti-Fascist government and the general population, by reassuring the latter they don’t share the blame of the dictatorship’s deeds.

“The good Italian soldier was good also in the colonies,” said Filippo Focardi, a historian at the University of Padua and the author of the book Il cattivo tedesco e il bravo italiano (“The Bad German and the Good Italian”). The myth of the good Italian soldier was created, Focardi said, to try to convince the Allies to grant better peace conditions for Italy. The myth of the good colonialist was devised as a propaganda tool to make the point that Italy should keep its colonies that were conquered before Fascism, which didn’t work out.

For decades, Italy didn’t admit that it had used chemical weapons in Africa. Only in 1996 did Italy’s defense minister finally acknowledge it.

Even if they were staunch opponents of Mussolini’s regime, the new ruling class chose to forget the atrocities it committed in Africa, because admitting to them would have clashed with their narrative. After all, how could Italian troops, who were of course always eager to help the natives, even think of committing a war crime?

When Ethiopia requested the extradition of Graziani in 1949, Italy refused, despite the fact that he was included in a list of war criminals of the United Nations for the use of toxic gases and the bombing of some Red Cross hospitals.

For decades, Italy didn’t admit that it had used chemical weapons in Africa. Only in 1996 did Italy’s defense minister finally acknowledge it.

That year, a left-leaning lawmaker formally asked the minister of defense if the Italians used gas in the Ethiopia war, to which the minister replied yes; that was the first time that an Italian official had ever acknowledged the use of chemical weapons. A year later, then-President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro formally apologized for the occupation of Eritrea.

In 1952, the Italian government commissioned a study of its past colonial activities from a group of 24 scholars, largely former colonial officials, including governors and geographers. The committee, known as “Comitato per la documentazione dell’Opera dell’Italia in Africa,” (Committee for the Documentation of the Italian Activities in Africa) continued its work until 1984, producing 40 volumes, most of them hagiographies.

To be fair, since the 1970s some historians have tackled the dark side of Italian colonialism (for instance Angelo Del Boca and Giorgio Rochat) but their work didn’t get much attention beyond academia. Italian colonialism was never a hot-button issue, points out Labanca, the historian, and Italy certainly didn’t have a Jean-Paul Sartre.

Unlike other European countries, Italy never had prominent voices confronting its colonial crimes. France had at least two famous public intellectuals who restlessly campaigned against colonialism, namely Sartre—the rock-star philosopher who wrote strong opinion pieces against the war in Algeria—and the Martinique-born psychiatrist and political theorist Frantz Fanon, whose Wretched of the Earth, a book on the dehumanization of non-Europeans under colonialism, became a political classic. But Italy had none: “The French public might not have agreed with the position of Sartre or Fanon, but they knew who they were,” said the historian Focardi.

It’s not that Italy removed all the sins of colonialism from its collective conscience. On the contrary, colonialism was considered an interesting topic—as long as it did not involve Italy.

Indeed, colonial brutality is the subject of a classic of Italian cinema: Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and a nomination at the Academy Awards, chronicled the brutal French repression of Algeria. It posed no problem, because the bad guys were the French.

By contrast, the Italian governement intervened in 1982 to prevent the distribution of a movie that would have put Italy’s colonialism in bad light: Lion of the Desert, chronicling Italy’s repression of the Libyan resistance led by Omar al-Mukhtar, was not aired until 2009, during a state visit by Muammar al-Qaddafi.

As recently as 1997, Italy formally protested against the United Kingdom because the BBC aired a documentary, called Fascist Legacy, about Italian war crimes. The Italian state TV channel RAI bought a copy of the movie but never aired it.

Then, in 2012, a mausoleum honoring Graziani, the war criminal, was erected near Rome. A court ordered it to be taken down, because it violated a law against “Fascist propaganda” (Graziani also headed the pro-Nazi army of the Salò Republic), but the order was never carried out. While it has been defaced and mocked with graffiti, the mausoleum still stands.

Today, Italian streets are still full of references to the colonial past, names of the streets or monuments that celebrate the soldiers who died building the Italian empire. For instance, there’s an Amba Aradam Street in Rome; Milan and Palermo both have streets dedicated to Vincenzo Magliocco, the general who launched mustard gas attacks against the Ethiopians.

But, in practice, most Italians don’t know where such names come from.

Labanca, the historian, also attributes this lack of knowledge to the fact that for Italy decolonization was “a passive process, not an active one.” Italy did not go through a lengthy independence war, as France did in Algeria, nor did it witness a large-scale civil rights movement, as Britain did in India: Italy simply lost its colonies because it lost the war, and that, Labanca says, didn’t spur a heated debate.

The Italian Somali writer Igiaba Scego, the author of the book La Linea del Colore (“The Color Line”) that will soon be published in English, said that there were “two types of removal: one from the authority but also one from the Italian people.” She points out that many Italian families have recent ancestors who fought in colonial wars in Africa. “If people were to check in their attics, they will likely find memorabilia of that period,” but they ignore it, she said.

Scego sees herself as part of a small but growing number of Italian authors who are tackling Italy’s colonial violence head on, including Giulia Barrera, who studied the practice of madamato, or Giulietta Stefani, who has studied gender and Italian colonialism. Some best-selling fiction writers, such as Carlo Lucarelli, the Wu Ming collective, and Francesca Melandri, have recently set their stories during the colonial era.

But Scego says these are just small steps. To overcome the general oblivion about colonialism, she argues, Italian authorities should build monuments to the victims and start teaching about colonial violence in schools: “Many high school books still claim that Italy went to Africa to bring civilization.”

Given the reactions to the Montanelli statue controversy, this doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. Despite the fact that Italy is fast becoming a multiethnic society, and despite the fact that its colonies came to an end almost 80 years ago, the country doesn’t seem ready to face its own past.

Giorgio Ghiglione is a freelance writer in Milan. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Al Jazeera, and Internazionale. Twitter: @giorgioghiglion