Dream that wilted in the sun

The Building of an Empire:
April 7, 1995

The leaders of Italy's renaissant fascist movement are currently lauding Benito Mussolini as the greatest European statesman of the 20th century. Perhaps his most important "achievement" was his "conquest" of Ethiopia in 1935-36.

Not a few works have been devoted to the tortured diplomacy of the "Italo-Abyssinian dispute", and to the resultant demise of the League of Nations. Little, however, has been written on the economic consequences of the occupation. We are therefore indebted to Haile M. Larebo, an Ethiopian scholar, who has devoted many years to examining fascist economic policy and practice in his country.

Mussolini launched his invasion to win for the Italians a "place in the sun". Central to this idea was the opening up of the country to massive Italian settlement. This policy also sought to divert Italian migration from America, which was draining away Italy's "surplus population". The fascist objective was to direct settlers to the newly won empire, where they could serve Italy, and fight for fascism. Marshal Pietro Badoglio, declared in 1936 that it "was not an exaggeration" to envisage the shipment of one million settlers within a year, while a prominent luminary talked of the speedy movement of 6,250,000 Italians.

Such grandiose ideas, as Haile Larebo shows, had their origin in 19th-century Italian colonial thinking, but failed to take account of Ethiopian realities: difficult terrain, rudimentary transport, ignorance of agricultural conditions, complicated systems of land tenure, and the continuing resistance of the Ethiopian patriots.

Despite the formulation by the colonial authorities of seemingly sophisticated plans, including a scheme to group would-be settlers on the basis of the regions of Italy from which they came, the good Italian peasants displayed remarkably little interest in toiling on African soil. By June 1940, the month of Mussolini's entry into the European war, no more than 400 peasants had settled in Ethiopia, and only about 150 had brought out their families.

The Duce's declaration of war on Britain and France spelt the end of the enterprise, for British forces willy-nilly soon came to the aid of the Ethiopian patriots. Mussolini's East African empire crumbled in less than three months.

The 400 or so settlers abandoned their farms, and were repatriated to Italy as paupers. One, addressing the authorities in Rome, wrote: "My relative Luigi Contini has left behind. . . a box of clothes, four pairs of shoes, a trunk of underclothes and a case of carpenter's tools. He asks if he will be able to get back whatever he left, at the end of the glorious victory of our army."

Given the settlement's failure, some half-hearted efforts had been made to encourage Ethi-opian farmers to produce food. This was urgently required to meet the consumption needs of Italian military and civilian personnel, the more so as Mussolini, with a view to his imminent entry into the European war, had decreed a policy of autarky aimed at making the empire self-sufficient. Here too, as the author explains, the Italian colonial authorities ran into almost insurmountable difficulties.

The result was that agricultural production in the empire was in a parlous state. The Italians in Ethiopia were obliged to import most of their food from Italy, and exports from the empire were derisory.

So, far from solving Italy's economic problems the empire merely aggravated them. The value of Italy's exports to the empire was nearly 20 times greater than that of imports from it. Felice Guarneri, the minister of foreign trade, complained sadly that the empire, instead of assisting the national economy, was "swallowing" Italy itself. Road-building, which was essential for the empire's "pacification", and was to contribute greatly to Ethiopia's post-liberation development, was all the while eating up a large proportion of Italian resources, with little visible economic return.

This study is exceedingly well documented though occasionally marred by misprints. It is a valuable contribution to Ethiopian economic history, and sheds light on Italian colonial policy, thereby admirably complementing Alberto Sbacchi's Ethiopia under Mussolini: Fascism and the Colonial Experience (1985).

Richard Pankhurst is professor of Ethiopian studies, University of Addis Ababa.

The Building of an Empire:: Italian Land Policy and Practice in Ethiopia 1935-1941

Author - Haile M. Larebo
ISBN - 0 19 820262 8
Publisher - Clarendon Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 350pp

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