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On the evening of
11 June 2009 an Italian satellite television network (Italy's Sky affiliate) did the unexpected. It aired a film banned
in Italy since 1981. The movie, which deals with Italy's decades-long colonialist repression
in Libya, was belatedly brought to the attention
of several generations of Italians during the recent visit of the elderly
son of the hero it depicts, Omar al Mukhtar, known to his countrymen
as "the Lion of the Desert." But this was only the most recent
in a chain of events highlighted by, among other things, the first state
visit of the Libyan head-of-state Muammar Qadhafi (Kaddafi) during the same
Earlier this year (2009), the Italian government concluded negotiations
with Libya, a result of which will be cheap petroleum products for Italian
consumers (the African nation already provides about 25% of Italy's carbon
fuels) in exchange for five billion euros in aid. Most of this money will
be spent on construction projects in Libya --particularly a modern highway
system designed by Italian engineers and built by Italian companies-- over
the course of two decades. Italy, of course, is the more generous partner
in this bilateral enterprise, for reasons that far eclipse humanitarian
interest and inexpensive petrol.
Why? A good question whose answer lies in the historical events of a
century ago. Yes, it was in 1911 that Italy invaded Libya as part of a general
European conquest of Ottoman territories in the Mediterranean. Like Italy's
humiliating military defeat in Ethiopia in 1896 (under the mediocre statesman
Francesco Crispi), this, too, would be a disastrous
attempt at colonialism and, at best, a mediocre military exercise.
Thousands of Italian troops, mostly from southern
regions such as Sicily, were conscripted to die in the Libyan desert over the course of a war that
would last some twenty years. In the process, the Italians effectively decimated
Libya's civilian population. By the time the Allies liberated the nation
in 1943 as a prelude to the invasion of Sicily, kicking out Italian troops
once and for all, there were fewer Libyans than there had been in 1912,
despite general population trends reflecting an increase in neighbouring
nations. That's because the Italians massacred the Libyans in a process
of genocide rivalled (in modern Italian history) only by the Ethiopian occupation
--and led by the same infamous general, Rodolfo Graziani (1882-1955), convicted
of war crimes following the Second
|"So shamed were Italians by the inhumanity and incompetence of the
Libyan occupation that the best-known film about the debacle was banned in Italy for twenty-eight years following
its release in 1981."|
So shamed were the Italians by the inhumanity and incompetence of the
Libyan occupation that the best-known film about the debacle, Lion of
the Desert starring Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger, John Gielgud
and Irene Papas, was actually censored in Italy for twenty-eight years following
its global release in 1981. Yes, the Italian Republic was still banning
movies in the 1980s and, in effect, banned this one until June of this year.
The official reason for this was that the Italian army, never particularly
distinguished for its competence whether against the Africans, Russians,
Americans or British, was "portrayed in a negative way."
None of this seemed to embarrass prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and
for a very good reason: Italy lusts for a much-coveted permanent seat on
an enlarged United Nations Security Council so desperately that she can
practically taste it, and such a petition could easily be scuttled by an
objection from an offended nation like Libya if seconded by Russia, China
or even France. Some Italians lament that their country is relegated to
"second class" status by past events (having been an Axis nation),
but many of those same people don't even know that the Italian Republic
was admitted as a full member of the United Nations only in 1955. Italy's
aspirations to a more important role in the world begin in Tripoli.
| "Few Italians know very much at all about the Libyan
War or its consequences."|
What actually happened in 1911 and 1912?
Briefly, an Italian invasion against Turkish and Libyan forces was begun
in September 1911 with the Italians knowing that substantial reinforcements
were unlikely to arrive from Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire in its death throes
being pitifully overextended. To the Italians' surprise, the Turks, Arabs
and Berbers fought back remarkably well. Among them was a young Kemal Ataturk.
In November the Italians used aerial bombardment, the first time in history
this tactic was applied, in an attempt to defeat the enemy. The bombings
had only limited military effect but killed many civilians.
Despite a naval blockade, military equipment continued to arrive overland
from Tunisia and Egypt to assist the Libyans, while a few of Italy's more
outspoken Catholic bishops called for a "crusade" against Islam.
The Libyan people themselves showed no inclination toward Italian domination.
In the end, the Turks accepted a peace settlement in October 1912, though
more out of fear of potential hostilities in the western Balkans (stirred
to resistance by the Libyans' fervour) than out of fear of the incompetent
Italians, and Libya was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy. The Italians also
occupied the island of Rhodes.
Historians consider the circumstances of the Libyan War, combined with
its implications for the Balkan states, one of the immediate precursors
to the First World War. As Italy, following months of indecisive delay,
sided with the victors in that conflict, while the French and British had
their own colonies in Africa, little was said of Italy's Libyan occupation
in the two decades to come.
Unfortunately for our Italians,
the conflict really did not end in 1912. A guerilla war continued until
1930, led by the teacher-turned-warrior Omar al Mukhtar (1862-1931). While
the Italians regularly massacred civilians and prisoners alike, the Libyans were generally
reluctant to follow suit. When an Arab soldier suggested to Mukhtar that
he should authorise the killing of a prisoner, the leader refused, saying "We are
their teachers, they are not ours!"
Colonisation was attempted, and from 1920 a Sanusi emir was allowed to
rule the small desert enclave of Kufra (described by Idrisi) for a time. Graziani's forces all but destroyed Kufra in 1931. But the Sanusi brotherhood,
as a Muslim religious and social reform group, strongly opposed Italian
rule in any form. Indeed, during the Second World War, many of the Sanusi fought the Italians alongside
the British in Egypt.
Some hundred thousand Sicilians and other southern Italians settled in
Tripoli and its environs, but relatively fewer could be induced to do so than was hoped even
as many thousands arrived on American shores. In The Fall of the House
of Savoy, Robert Katz observes that, "the colonial governors built
roads, and those were the roads on which the Italians fled when the British
chased them home in World War II." Particularly in its earliest phases,
the Libyan War was not without geopolitical implications, but it soon became
an ugly side-show, and the likes of Rodolfo Graziani clearly were not up
to the task of fighting the "rebels" they so disdained.
Later, they negotiated (obviously in "bad faith") with Mukhtar's
representatives even as they sent more troops to quash the rebellion. Even
before the advent of Fascism (1922), summary executions (usually hangings ) without
formal trials were the norm, and under Graziani's administration (beginning in 1929) vast
concentration camps for civilians were introduced. Mukhtar's trial was itself ridiculous by any
acceptable judicial standard. The Italians eventually managed to suppress
the "rebels" by exterminating as much as one-fifth of the total
Libyan population or possibly as many as 150,000 civilians --a little like burning
an entire town to kill one stray dog. Precise census data are lacking but
there were probably some 900,000 Libyans in Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, Fezzan
and other Libyan territories circa 1912, and possibly 100,000 fewer by 1944.
The victims died through starvation or sickness in the camps, or in the
hinterland through the same kind of military reprisals that today's Italians
are quick to note were perpetrated upon them in Italy by the Germans from
late 1943 to early 1945. This was not the only Italian innovation later adopted by the Germans;
in Libya Graziani was the first military commander to use tanks against an enemy in the desert.
An astounding amount of documentary footage exists, including aerial films of the concentration camps as
well as burned villages. That's because, following their humiliating defeat at the hands of Ethiopia's Menelik II decades earlier, the Italians were anxious
to prove to other European colonial powers that, despite all appearances to the contrary, they
too could play at being imperialists. Functionaries in the Fascist government
were too shortsighted to realise that these same films would be woven into the rope that would hang them as effectively as they themselves
had hung the Libyan "rebels."
Omar Mukhtar, the "Lion of the Desert," was eventually captured
and executed, and he is a national hero today. Italy's new treaty with Libya
may bring a new name to the "Day of the Expulsion of the Italians,"
until now a national Libyan holiday, but this means little to most Italians
(and especially most Sicilians), preoccupied with more prosaic and immediate
concerns like horrendous unemployment and, in larger
cities, the social problems of a huge underclass.
Italians barely understand the meaning of their own national
holidays, let alone anybody else's, and precious little regarding Italy's
colonialist misadventures is taught in schools. (That's why the average
40 year-old Italian university graduate knows so little of the events described
on this page.)
Released in 1981, "Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert,"
directed by Moustapha Akkad, was a joint Libyan-Italian production and reputedly
one of the costliest films made until that time, eclipsing Star Wars
and Superman in that regard. The total budget is said to have been
around thirty-five million dollars. Because it was underwritten by the Libyan
government, which had poor diplomatic relations with the United States and
other nations, it was not reviewed for Academy Award consideration, and
it was shown theatrically only in a limited release, mostly in Europe and
the Middle East. It was not a profitable production, nor was it ever meant
to be. The film
is strikingly accurate, right down to the details of Italian weaponry, protocol
and military decorations, and the actors' performances are solid, as is the musical
score by Maurice Jarre, best-known for composing the Academy award-winning
music of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.
In 1982, at the urging of Christian Democrat politicians,
the version dubbed into Italian was denied the cinematic rating which would
have permitted the film to be shown commercially in theatres around Italy.
(The equally unflattering 1989 BBC documentary Fascist Legacy, directed
by Ken Kirby and based on historical research by Michael Palumbo, suffered
a similar fate, though it was finally aired in Italy on satellite television
a few years ago.) Comical though it may seem, at one point Giulio Andreotti
ordered police to sequester the copy of the film screened at a cinema in Trent.
However, importation of the movie was permitted, and it
was eventually shown non-commercially to some audiences before being aired
nationally in June 2009.
Yes, it is difficult not to see the bizarre comedy in the efforts of Italy's
politicians to prevent Italians from seeing this film. What did they fear?
While it is clear that few Italians know very much at all about the Libyan
War or its consequences, it is equally clear that in the Arab world it has
never been forgotten. It isn't easy to erase from collective memory a genocide
campaign that kills as much as twenty percent of a country's population.
Were it not for lingering ill-feeling on the part of the Libyans and other
Arab peoples, and of course Italy's nagging absence on the Security Council
while France enjoys a place there (a fact painfully annoying to Italy's
few nationalists), the tragic events of the Libyan occupation would be long-forgotten
and certainly not very relevant to Italians today.
In retrospect, one is struck by the Arabs' quiet dignity, even in defeat.
At Benghazi on 30 August 2008, Prime Minister Berlusconi apologised to the
son of Omar Mukhtar and the Libyan people. "It is my duty to express
to you, in the name of the Italian people, our regret and apologies for
the deep wounds that we have caused you," said the Italian premier.
Yet this new agreement does not reflect reparations, which were formally
remitted a decade ago to the tune of 200 million euros. At the March 2009
observances for the new treaty's ratification, the Italian prime minister
stated: "The past that with this treaty we wish to put behind us is
a past that we, children of the children, are guilty of and for which we
beg your forgiveness."
Many young Sicilians met their deaths in Libya between 1911 and 1943,
even if most of today's Sicilians are blissfully ignorant of that fact.
But the new treaty brings an end to an old story, relegating it to the realm
of a history which, if belatedly, should be studied.
About the Author: Historian Luigi Mendola has written
for various publications, including this one.