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The First World War from Tripoli to Addis Ababa (1911-1924)

Shiferaw Bekele
Uoldelul Chelati Dirar
Alessandro Volterra
et al.

Colonial Policies

Why did the Italians go to Libya?

Andrea Ungari


This article explores the motivations behind the Italian occupation of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in 1911-1912, a conflict which, some scholars claim, ignited a chain of events that eventually led to the outbreak of the war in Europe at the end of July 1914. It illustrates the attitude of the political forces in Italy but also the international context in which the war was decided and took place, and it confronts the question of whether, from a military point of view, the war was modern or not.

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1The Italian decision to conduct a military operation against the Ottoman Empire to occupy Cyrenaica-Tripolitania stemmed from a series of variables ranging from European Powers’ relations to internal political demands; from Italy’s status claims as a Great Power to economic issues; from the “sensibility” of the bourgeoisie’s intelligentsia to the desire to set foot on the “fourth shore.” All these variables were considered between 1910 and 1911, and contributed to Giolitti’s government and the king’s final decision to occupy Cyrenaica-Tripolitania, seizing it from the Ottoman Empire “nominal” control. This decision, of course, led to a war that was far from easy and ended in 1912 only after having exported the conflict to the Aegean, causing a certain degree of irritation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

  • 1 Cardini and Valzania 2014.

2The Ottoman Empire’s ultimate decision to reach peace with Italy was also due to the beginning of the first Balkan war, during which the Sublime Porte faced some of the Balkan states, initiating a series of events that would lead to the First World War. For these reasons, some historians consider the 1912-1913 Balkan wars as the prodrome of the First World War, because it weakened and shook the Ottoman Empire’s foundations and started the irredentism and nationalism movements in the Balkans.1

3For this reason it seems to be important, from a scientific point of view, to analyse the motivations behind the conflict, underline the modalities of the intervention, and identify the consequences this conflict had on the European and Middle Eastern scenarios; especially since the Libyan was the last true colonial war of the 19th century and was thus conceived by a colonialism, the Italian one, which paid for the delay of its own unification process and for being the last country to participate in the 19th-century “Scramble for Africa.” Even if the scope allowed by this paper is limited, we will try to take into account all such variables, hoping to shed some light on scenarios often overlooked by international historiography.

An Unavoidable Choice?

  • 2 In general terms, for an analysis of the connections between internal, foreign and colonial politic (...)

4In 1910, the Italian diplomacy suspected that Libya would escape Italy’s sphere of influence. The danger was not insignificant as it would not only be a threat to the Foreign Ministry’s thirty years long work on the two Ottoman vilayets of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, but also a repetition of the 1881 Tunisian fiasco, with all the internal political consequences that this could lead to. In other words, such a failure could not only mark the end of Italy’s plans as a “great power, but also the decline of the monarchy and of Italy’s liberal system.2

  • 3 For an analysis of the treaties between Italy and great power nations see: Tommasini 1934; Peteani (...)

5It is known that through a series of pacts, starting from the 1887 treaty with Germany to those with England in 1887 and 1902, with France in 1900 and 1902, with Austria-Hungary in 1902, and finally with Russia in 1909, Liberal Italy had obtained the Great Powers consent to incorporate Libya into its colonial possessions. It was a consensus given by using different diplomatic formulas, some more explicit than others, but all nevertheless clear.3

  • 4 On Libya’s pacific occupation see: Mori 1957, 1, 102-108; Alessandro 1968, III, 491-508; Malgeri 19 (...)

6Having obtained this, Italy then sought a concrete expression of this diplomatic recognition by installing, from 1906, its industrial, agricultural and financial companies in Libyan territories. In doing so, Italy wanted to follow the major states’ model of colonialism, assuming that a power should first prove able to economically develop an African or Asian territory which had not been subjugated by others before extending its actual political domain.4

  • 5 In his 2 December 1910 speech he declared: “Turks, he said, have not yet managed to understand one (...)

7However, in 1910 it was clear that this economic penetration in Libya – carried out in particular through the Banco di Roma – was not enough to bring Tripolitania and Cyrenaica under Italian control, due to two reasons: the financial resources mobilised by Italy could not compete with those employed by the other Powers, and the Ottoman government opposed this project. Foreign Minister Antonino di San Giuliano, who had full knowledge of that, asked the Ottoman government to recognise that Italy was entitled to consider Libya under its exclusive sphere of influence.5

Fig. 1: Italian military camp in front of Benghazi Castle, Libya c. 1911-1912 (postcard, private collection).

  • 6 Trinchese 2005.

8The Young Turks regime perfectly understood the sense of the Sicilian minister’s words but, relying on the support of the German and Austrian Governments, refused to meet San Giuliano’s requests, fearing to instigate a dangerous domino effect of possible requests from other European powers.6

  • 7 Caccamo 2015, 21-40.

9This demonstration of force by the foreign minister between the end of 1910 and the beginning of 1911 aimed at testing the water regarding the European Powers’ possible reactions, evaluating the hostility of the other Triple Alliance members and, more generally, the European Powers’ reluctance towards actions that could overthrow the Ottoman Empire’s delicate equilibrium. In 1911 the context began to change, and it did so from a variety of aspects. From the international point of view, the second Moroccan crisis undoubtedly constituted an element of acceleration for the Italian political and institutional upper echelons to achieve the Libyan endeavor.7

10The arrival of the SMS Panther in Agadir Bay and the beginning of negotiations between France and Germany for the delimitation of the reciprocal spheres of influence in Africa prompted the Italian government to accelerate its plans. Foreign Minister Antonino di San Giuliano, in his long memorial sent to the king and Giolitti at the end of July 1911, expressed how:

  • 8 Confidential note from Foreign Minister Di San Giuliano to the King Vittorio Emanuele III and to th (...)

Today France honestly fulfills the 1902 agreement, having not yet turned Morocco. It has an interest in fulfilling it. France’s interest will cease once it has conquered Morocco, when France will have exhausted its end of the Franco-Italian agreement and only the part applying to Italy will remain.8

11In the foreign minister’s eyes, this could lead France to put a term to its commitment with Italy, which in turn would lead to Italy having to face on its own both the Central Empires’ attempts to prevent a war with the Ottoman Empire (with whom Germany had good relations) and a German aggressive commercial penetration policy in Cyrenaica-Tripolitania. This was conducive to convincing Giolitti, very reluctant to venturing into colonial enterprises, to decide in favour of an intervention in Libya.

  • 9 Ferraioli 2013, 276.
  • 10 Rogari 1998, 199.
  • 11 Giolitti 1922.
  • 12 Volpe 1973, III, 315-439.
  • 13 According to Gentile, “proponents and apologists of the enterprise, the nationalists certainly had (...)
  • 14 Corradini 1911.

12While international events had a significant weight in the decision, it does not exclude that Giolitti, though reluctant regarding the intervention until the end,9 decided to proceed for internal political reasons as well. Indeed, the government’s program submitted by Giolitti to the Chamber of Deputies in April 1911 was the most left-winged program submitted since the unification fifty years before: universal male suffrage, permission for Members to allow even the less privileged to run for and carry out Parliamentary activity, and life insurance monopoly to gather financial resources for the old-age and invalidity fund.10 The Socialists would not enter the government directly but the goal was to create a solid axis with the left wing. In his Memorie,11 Giolitti confided that, along with San Giuliano, he had thought of resolving the Libyan question since the beginning of his fourth ministry. This was however not mentioned in his presentation speech to the Chamber. So it is likely that after the “left wing” reforms of its fourth ministry, the decision to intervene in Libya was used by Giolitti to steer his government toward the “right wing, trying to reunite it after two reforms perceived as too progressive. These needs linked to domestic policy were not motivated only by dissonances created within Giolitti’s majority but also by a nationalistic and patriotic “mood,” precisely one of the other motives that led to the war against the Ottoman Empire. In 1911, the 50th anniversary of the unification was celebrated, and many thought that having a successful colonial venture would honour the celebrations and mark the definitive entering of Italy among the Great European Powers, more alleged than real. This willingness to reaffirm Italy’s status as a Great Power particularly suited the campaign of the newly born Associazione Nazionalista Italiana (ANI, the “Italian Nationalist Association”) founded in December 1910, which started from March 1911 a continuous, pervasive and insistent press campaign to push for the conquest of Libya. This press campaign and the role played by nationalists, as recalled by Volpe12 and, more recently, by Gentile and Perfetti,13 did not only force Giolitti to act on the war with Turkey, but above all created a political climate that went far beyond the question of the conflict for Tripoli, determining the concrete inclusion of the ANI in the Italian political arena. This campaign in favor of the intervention took off in 1911 with the birth of the bimonthly periodical L’Idea Nazionale, first released on 1 March 1911. Though not ANI’s official mouthpiece, the periodical represented its core ideology. In the first issue of the new periodical, one of the two editorials, Il dovere di ricordare (“The duty to remember”), was providing a historical background to the urgency of reaching the intervention. Shortly after that, following a visit to Cyrenaica and Tripolitania between June and August, the nationalist leader Corradini illustrated his impressions in a book, L’ora di Tripoli (“Tripoli’s hour has come!”), a collection of his articles and lectures.14

Fig. 2: “Turco-Italian War. Making the treacherous Arabs prisoners in the oasis,” Italian War propaganda postcard, c. 1911-1912 (postcard, private collection).

  • 15 Confidential correspondence between the Foreign minister Di San Giuliano and Council President and (...)
  • 16 Ferraioli 2001.
  • 17 The fact that the ultimate decision to go to war was taken by a small circle of people, given what (...)
  • 18 Mola and Ricci 2009 III/I, 15.

13The press campaign continued in the following months and undoubtedly prodded the government into dealing with a matter that in the eyes of the Italians was becoming more and more relevant. The nationalists picking one of the battle horses of the meridionalists (experts on the problems of Southern Italy), Leopoldo Franchetti, underlined the need for favouring the settlement of Italians in Libya to solve the social question of the Southern countryside and diverting the Italian migratory flows from the United States to their own colonies. In short, these factors, in addition to the pressure exerted by the Banco di Roma that asked for greater protection of its interests, to the point of hinting at possibly yielding its financial investments to Austro-German banks,15 prompted the government to invade Libya at the end of September.16 The foreign minister, the prime minister, the chief of staff and the king made the final decision to approve military action.17 Indeed, as it has recently been pointed out, as far as the Libyan endeavor was concerned it was hard to distinguish between royal and governmental actions.18 It could not escape the king’s attention that the country wanted war and that a victory on the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the unification would symbolise the consolidated national unity and represent the finest homage to the process initiated by his ancestors. The king’s initial hesitations about the Libyan campaign certainly had not all disappeared at that time.

  • 19 “On a prétendu, en effet, que le Roi était hostile à une action en Tripolitaine. Cela est vraisembl (...)

14The statements of the French Chargé d’Affaires in Rome, Laroche, concerning the sovereign hostility towards military action,19 though carefully weighed, would prove the persistence of many doubts in the king’s mind. Even Gioacchino Volpe, an author above all suspicion, who was not known for his loyalty to the Monarchy, declared:

  • 20 Volpe 2002, III, 399-400.

We do not know what part the sovereign had in the determination of the Libyan endeavor, other than what stemmed from his duties and rights as a constitutional King and as interpreter of the widespread sentiment of the nation. Not a Tripolitanian enthusiasm, at least not as far as economic prospects were concerned. And in the Chamber, a deputy was able to refer to a ‘high character’ who had described Lybia as a land of no value. Just persuaded, even he, that we could not wait to be closed in the Mediterranean; And pleased, moreover, that this offered the opportunity to raise the army’s morale, still burdened by the weight of Adua. Sure, less warmth than what King Umberto had given to Ethiopia fifteen years earlier. The same remembrance of his father and of the crisis that the monarchy went through after that tragic campaign could make King Vittorio very circumspect now, in front of another colonial endeavor.20

  • 21 When Giolitti called Chief of Staff General Pollio to warn him that he should get ready for action, (...)

15This being said, it is beyond doubt that the king, after getting over his last resistance (in which Giolitti and San Giuliano played a part), made sure that the preparation of the military campaign was sufficient and adequate for the challenge.21

How Did We Go to Libya. Was it a Modern War?

  • 22 On the Libyan War see: Rachel 1987; Vandervort 2012; Micheletta and Ungari 2013.
  • 23 Stato maggiore dell’esercito, 1923.

16The ultimatum was communicated to the Ottoman Empire on 26 September 1911. Three days later Italy declared war and the military operations started.22 About 40,000 men were deployed in the operations, both land and water based, that continued until the Treaty of Ouchy with the Sublime Porte. While the description of military operations would lead us far from the interpretive nature of this essay and probably be boring, the question we would like to ask is whether the Libyan war was a “modern war” or not. A possible answer, given with some degree of soundness, is that the African conflict was in many ways a modern conflict. From a military standpoint, comparison between the two armies clearly highlights the nowadays visible gap between European, African and Middle-Eastern armies; a gap created by the support of a stronger industrial apparatus capable of engaging in constant war production and a technological superiority that would necessarily make a difference. Does this mean that this gap made the war easier? Actually, no, because the campaign of Libya was characterised by the Ottomans’ constant attempts to draw Italy into the wide spaces of the Libyan desert and to employ guerrilla tactics. This motivated the Italian attitude of maintaining the main control of the coast, to avoid falling into ambushes. The limited nature of the operations, the lack of large financial resources and the absence, especially in the early months, of colonial troops, all prevented Italy from undertaking large-scale operations.23 Only later, thanks to the arrival of colonial troops from the Horn of Africa, was it possible to carry out counter-insurgency operations during which the Italian army took advantage of an intelligence service that helped locating and possibly better understanding the opposing forces (yet another example of the modernity of the war).

17From a technological point of view, land operations in Libya saw one of the first use in combat of armaments and equipment made available by the rapid technological evolution associated with the industrial revolution which would a few years later become common fighting tools of the Great War. Indeed, mindful of the 1896 Italian defeat in ‘Adwa, the army’s top brass leaped at the possibility the new colonial conflict gave them, eager to redeem the previous painful experience. Therefore, no expense was spared in the preparations for the invasion of Libya, employing the most advanced pieces of military hardware. The purpose was to appear to foreign powers and international public opinion as a modern army, trained in the use of the most advanced military technology. The Libyan war theatre was therefore used since early stages, to test new weapons in an operational and real context; weapons which, for the most part, had not known the baptism of fire until then, neither on the Italian side nor abroad.

  • 24 On the use of aircraft see in particular Pedriali 2008; Ungari 2010.

18Thus for the first time aircrafts were deployed, and their use had a worldwide resonance. Furthermore, Italian aviators’ actions became legendary.24 From a military standpoint, planes turned out to be irreplaceable in aerial reconnaissance on enemy positions, while the dirigibles carried out effective ground bombardments and the Arab-Turks soon learned to fear them.

Fig. 3: “Italian Tripoli. The aircrafts for the first time in war service”, c. 1911-1912 (postcard, private collection).

19Exploratory and offensive reconnaissance missions were carried out with both airplanes and dirigibles: with exploratory missions, observers could observe the desert roads and trails; appreciate caravan traffic to spot supply columns and the destination or origin of enemy troops; find out which oases were inhabited and frequented by insurgents and their defence capacities; evaluate the nature, the extent and the development of the enemies’ field supplies; find Ottoman and Arab camps; identify the deposits; and so on. Offensive reconnaissance was carried out by launching bombs during autonomous missions or during ground forces actions. Aircrafts frequently helped land and naval actions by directing their artillery. The meteorological conditions and the difficult equipment maintenance implied frequent equipment failures due to heat and sand. Therefore, not all troops manoeuvres were boosted by the aircraft cooperation, nor was the bombing technique advanced enough to have considerable effects. However, aerial support always boosted the morale, and to this day the Italian Army remains proud of having been the first to experience such an innovative means of offense.

Fig. 4: “Italian Tripoli. Cap. Piazza’s aircraft returning from a reconnaissance mission into the interior”, c. 1911-1912 (postcard, private collection).

20Alongside the aviation, trucks and armored cars were used for the first time in military operations. Practical experiments on the soft and sandy terrains of oases and caravan routes with various types of trucks fitted with either metallic rims or pneumatic wheels suggested the most appropriate technical specifications to destine to Tripolitania. There was, therefore, an important amount of work and experimentation, all passed with flying colors, with long daily travels even in desert and uneven terrains, that inspired the troops’ confidence in these new means of transport, in any circumstance and with great distances, saving much time and effort. The main battle they were involved in was the conquest of the oasis of Zanzūr on 9 June 1912. For the occasion 54 Fiat 15 Bis (also called “Libya”) trucks, divided into four columns, transported the engineer corps’ sanitary and equipment materials as well as explosives. After 19 hours of uninterrupted driving on various terrains, sometimes under enemy fire, all trucks returned still functioning to their starting bases. Also developed specifically for the Libyan campaign was a type of armored and armed car called Automitragliatrice Corazzata Fiat-Arsenale. Its construction began at the end of June 1912 in the Artillery Arsenal of the Royal Army of Turin according to a project of the Chief of Staff of the Italian Army. However, off-road travel problems were never completely resolved, be it with pneumatic or full rubber tires. Their expected autonomy for water and petrol was around 100 to 200 kms. Two prototypes were produced and sent for test to Libya in September 1912.

  • 25 On these issues see: Rosati 2000; Zaccaria 2003; Nardi and Gentile 2009; Benadusi 2013; Parlato 201 (...)
  • 26 Goglia 2001.

21In Libya alongside these vehicles, which attracted the general public’s attention, landmines appeared for the first time, known at that time as “land-based torpedoes” (torpedoni terrestri), of which a foreign production model was acquired. These inventions, together with barbed wire passive barriers, served as close range fortification protections, preventing melee assaults of the enemies. As field fortification protections against enemy rifle shots, a range of solutions was adopted: parapets, observatory and sniper shields, as well as an interesting metal modular system for the rapid priming of small fortified enclosures. These aids, designed to reduce combat losses and the exposed soldiers’ vulnerability to enemy fire, would be widely employed throughout the Great War, as was the chest armor. Also worthy of note was that the bulk use, and the way it was employed permitted to assess the grade of deformation sustained in the field by artillery, machine guns and rifles mod. 91. Furthermore, the mission in Libya saw the deployment of photoelectric cells and radio stations, tested by no less than Guglielmo Marconi sent to Libya with officer stripes as a Genius Specialty Transmissions officer. An undeniable military modernity, which was associated with the modernity of propaganda and the “interventionist” intellectuals’ efforts to decant the wealth of the “fourth shore. Journalists, war correspondents and literates described Libya as a rich land, able to welcome Italian colonists and to solve the migratory problems of Southern Italy. The Arabs were depicted as eager to get rid of the Ottoman domination and therefore ready to welcome an Italian intervention; an intervention that was part of the Roman civilising mission, which exported, in addition to the Roman pax, its know-how in the territories it occupied and dominated.25 Along with the efforts made by newspapers, one cannot forget the vast propaganda carried out by the illustrations of the weekly periodical La Domenica del Corriere, a myriad of propaganda postcards, many conveying a clear racist message, which circulated within the country and to and from Libya, and finally Luca Comerio’s first newsreels.26 Nor can we forget the Italian intellectuals’ commitment, which usually promoted the interventionist cause, with the relevant exceptions of Papini, Prezzolini and Salvemini’s periodical La Voce. Gabriele D’Annunzio, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Ada Negri, Giovanni Pascoli, Umberto Saba and Matilde Serao, to name a few, offered impressive literary contributions to the interventionist cause and celebrated Tripoli’s campaign in prose or verse, presenting the war as a rite of passage, an energy-generating event that would redeem ‘Adwa’s shame through the sacrifice. They added the conviction that to take part in the conflict would prove to be a positive and irreversible turning point in Italian history to the exaltation of the history of Rome described as a predecessor of modern colonialism, to the Italian nation’s entitlement to a prominent role in the international scene myth, and to the racist reflection about the enemy’s inferiority. This was what Giovanni Pascoli and Gabriele D’Annunzio expressed with words that would remain in the nation’s collective memory. The former had actively participated in the celebrations of Italy’s Unification, showing himself particularly involved in the exaltation of the Risorgimento’s ideals, which legitimised the national state. On 21 November 1911, at the Barga Municipal Theatre, the poet expressed his enthusiastic support to the Libyan war and, beginning his speech La grande proletaria si è mossa (“The Great Proletarian Moved”), asserted:

  • 27 Baranello 2011.

The great Proletarian has risen! In the past, she sent her workers away because in the Motherland there were too many and they were forced to work for too little. She sent them over the Alps and across the sea to cut canals, to dig tunnels, to raise embankments, to erect piers, to mine coal, to clear jungles, to plow new fields, to sow new crops, to erect buildings, to populate factories, to mine salt, to quarry stone. She sent her workers to do everything that was most difficult and tiring, everything that was most humble and therefore more difficult. She sent them to open paths through the impassable, to construct cities where there had been virgin forest, to plant orchards, citrus groves, and vineyards where there had been desert, and to shine shoes on street corners.27

22On 8 October, five days after the beginning of operations in the port of Tripoli, D’Annunzio published La Canzone d’oltremare on the Corriere della Sera, filling the entire third page of the newspaper. The poem contained all the nationalist propaganda themes. More poems would follow in 1912, published as a collection entitled: Laudi del cielo, del Mare, della terra e degli eroi, “In Praise of Sky, Sea, Earth and Heroes.” The ten poems imitated the rhythm of Dante’s terzina and celebrated the Italian greatness, its imposing historical tradition and the genus italicum, legitimising it with references to communal, medieval, and Christian history as a guarantee of the revival of a past splendor. Analysing what has been said, it seems clear that the Libyan war was a modern war which, ahead of its time, brought forward cultural and ideological themes, weapons and instruments of war that would be essential in the European conflagration of 1914, causing millions of deaths.

How Italy Came Back From Libya

23Despite the technological advantage, the progress of military operations was not always easy for the Italian army. Due to the extension of the Libyan territory, only coastal cities and part of the hinterland were quickly occupied, but moving into the interior prove to be much more difficult and the army had to confront unexpected and stiff resistance by the Libyan population. To their dismay, Italian politicians and military officers discovered that the Libyans were not ready to welcome the invaders as liberators. Already in October 1911, these considerations, together with further logistical problems, pushed the military leaders to contemplate extending the conflict to the Aegean. To bring the military threat closer to the heart of the Ottoman Empire, and above all to acquire enough territories to induce the Sultan to negotiate peace, Italy’s considered operations started in October. On 5 October, the annexation of Cyrenaica-Tripolitania was declared, in order to rule out any hypothesis of a possible peace negotiation with the Ottoman Empire and the other European countries.

24Set on moving the conflict into the Aegean, which was not a particularly complex military operation, Italy faced the problem of gaining European consensus to the initiative. All the European powers had reconciled themselves to such an idea, but the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had formed the Triple Alliance with Germany and Italy since 1882, raised an objection under article 7 of the Triple Alliance Treaty. This article, which Italy will invoke to proclaim its neutrality in 1914, provided that:

In the course of events, the maintenance of the status quo in the regions of the Balkans or of the Ottoman coasts and islands in the Adriatic and in the Aegean Sea should become impossible, and if, whether in consequence of the action of a third Power or otherwise, Austria-Hungary or Italy should find themselves under the necessity of modifying it by a temporary or permanent occupation on their part, this occupation shall take place only after a previous agreement between the two Powers, based upon the principle of a reciprocal compensation for every advantage, territorial or other, which each of them might obtain beyond the present status quo, and giving satisfaction to the interests and well founded claims of the two Parties.28

  • 29 Stampalia, Rodi, Scarpanto, Khalki, Kos, Casos, Piscopis, Leros, Patmos, Nisiros, Simi, Lipsos, Kal (...)

25There was, therefore, a necessity to first reach an agreement with Austria-Hungary regarding the Balkans before proceeding with an intervention in the Aegean. It was only thanks to the pressing intervention of Germany that the Austrian stop was overcome and, in April, they were able to begin operations. Between the end of April and May, all the islands that would later become the Italian Islands of the Aegean (Isole italiane dell’Egeo or Dodecanese) were conquered,29 thus providing a political pledge, but being utterly irrelevant from a military point of view. The Italian conquest of the Dodecanese was irrelevant to the Libyan war. As it is well known, the Ottoman Empire decided to end hostilities only after a much serious threat appeared in the Balkans, when Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece seemed ready to wage war against the Sultan. The Ouchy peace preliminaries as well as the Treaty of peace of Lausanne in October 1912 ended for good the Libyan issue in relations between Italy and the Ottoman Empire and at an international level.


26If these were the motivations that led to the invasion of Libya and the specific aspects that this intervention had, what were the consequences of the Libyan war on Italian politics and the international scene? As for the Italian political scene, the Libyan war undoubtedly seems to be a turning point for Giolitti’s Italy: the decision of the President of the Council of Ministers in fact sanctioned the definitive rupture with the Italian Socialist Party, which Giolitti had tried to incorporate into its majority (or at least its reformist component). The Congress of Reggio Emilia of 1912 and the prevalence of the radical ideology of the maximalist current that found in Mussolini its new figurehead sanctioned the ultimate failure of the Giolittian strategy of dialogue with the left wing. At the same time, the role taken by the nationalists during the Libyan campaign sanctioned the definitive entry of this movement into the Italian political system; a movement that would contribute to put Giolitti’s system in jeopardy, placing itself as a “right-wing” alternative to Giolitti’s strategy.

  • 30 Parlato 2013.

27Above all, the Libyan war animated an internal political debate between and within parties, causing breaks, rifts and splits that anticipated those divergences that would be re-enacted and amplified in 1914, when facing the need to choose between going to the war or not. As recalled by Giuseppe Parlato, the propaganda conducted by the nationalists introduced a concept that, a few years later, would animate the country’s political debate. Indeed the nationalists began to speak of pro-national forces, who chose to go to war against the Ottoman Empire, and anti-national forces who had appeared either perplexed or hostile. This is how they appropriated an idea that would be exalted during the 1914 choice and would carry an ideological de-legitimisation excess right on the nationalist/anti-nationalist sentiment that would become pivotal not only during the war, but in the later fascist ascension.30 The Libyan war therefore had disruptive consequences on the Italian political landscape, favoring a patriotic and partly nationalist climate that, combined with the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Unity, facilitated the 1915 radioso maggio (“radiant May”) climate at the eve of the First World War. In this context, Giolitti’s leadership was undoubtedly shaken and weakened, so much so that in March 1914, following the collapse of his parliamentary majority, Giolitti resigned. Salandra, his successor, had the dauting task of attempting to form a liberal government seeking in nationalists and Catholics the alternative to the leftist version of liberalism followed by Giolitti.

28Given this political framework, the consequences on the international scene were no less problematic. First of all, the shift of naval operations in the Aegean created a further element of tension with Austria-Hungary. Even though Austria-Hungary had to accept the Italian request due to the pressure of Germany, the relations between the two allies worsened. These new causes of frustration, in part already present since the beginning of 1900, later contributed to push Italy to maintain neutrality in August 1914. The affair of the two French cargo ships, the Carthage and the Manouba, intercepted while carrying troops and equipment to the Turks in Libya, created tension between Italy and France as well, slowing down the process initiated by the Prinetti-Barrère agreements of 1902. While the impact of these matters was felt internally, the Italo-Ottoman war had repercussions at a European level as well. Indeed, the coalition of the first Balkan war (Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro) decided to intervene against the Ottoman Empire when it was still at war with Italy, taking advantage of the weakness of the Sublime Porte. It was, therefore, the defeat at the hands of Italy, the difficult course of military operations and a certain loss of international prestige that ignited the Balkan wars, which were undoubtedly at the origin of the First World War

29Does this mean that the Libyan war was the conflict that anticipated the First World War? As we tried to demonstrate, in some ways it was. During the war for Cyrenaica-Tripolitania, weapons, devices, and logistic tools that would be widely used and improved during the first world conflict were tested. Similarly it showcased the propaganda effort of government, newspapers, and intellectuals to advance their own ideological-cultural struggle, which would be an important weapon during the Great War, employed to justify its historical destiny on the one hand, and to denounce “Teutonic barbarism” on the other. Consequently, in this respect, the Libyan war certainly anticipated the First World War.

30From a purely political standpoint, this effort of going backwards presents a scientific value, but stemming from the assumption that history and politics are a series of closely related causes and effects, this effort could still lead us back to the Moroccan crisis, to the turmoil of the Young Turks, or to the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and, if we wish, to the 1866 defeat, which resulted in the definitive Austrian-Hungarian orientation towards the Balkans and the friction with Serbia and Russia.

31Therefore, the Libyan war, like many historical events of those years, should be carefully contextualixed, thinking of it for what it really was: the colonial and conquest war of a young nation, Italy, who wanted to redeem its previous defeats with a success that would allow it to claim the status of a “Great” European Power; a settler colonialism, surely lagging behind those of other European countries. This can be explained by the fact that the process of unification of Italy was late, and consequently so was its colonial venture, but this is another story.


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1 Cardini and Valzania 2014.

2 In general terms, for an analysis of the connections between internal, foreign and colonial politics employed to solidify the Italian state after unification, examples are found in Chabod 1951; Gentile 2006.

3 For an analysis of the treaties between Italy and great power nations see: Tommasini 1934; Peteani 1938; Salvatorelli 1939; Volpe 1939; Albertini 1942; Serra 1950; 1957; Donnini 1983; Pastorelli 1997, 53-70.

4 On Libya’s pacific occupation see: Mori 1957, 1, 102-108; Alessandro 1968, III, 491-508; Malgeri 1970, I; De Rosa 1982; Grange 1994. In general terms, on economic colonialism see: Bagnato 2006, 46-47, 85 ss.

5 In his 2 December 1910 speech he declared: “Turks, he said, have not yet managed to understand one thing, even if it is obvious, Italy does not want to take Tripolitania and wants it to stay Ottoman. But that region, between Egypt and Tunisia, that is being economically developed so grandiosely, would not stay with its resources untapped forever and our intention is that Tripoli’s development would not be under other European influences but under the actions of either real Ottomans or Italian.Atti Parlamentari, Camera dei Deputati (hereafter AP, CD), XXIII Legislatura, Discussioni, I sessione, 2 Dec. 1910, vol. IX, p. 10175.

6 Trinchese 2005.

7 Caccamo 2015, 21-40.

8 Confidential note from Foreign Minister Di San Giuliano to the King Vittorio Emanuele III and to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Giolitti, Fiuggi 28 Jul. 1911, in Mola and Ricci, 2010, II, 205.

9 Ferraioli 2013, 276.

10 Rogari 1998, 199.

11 Giolitti 1922.

12 Volpe 1973, III, 315-439.

13 According to Gentile, “proponents and apologists of the enterprise, the nationalists certainly had some influence in the government’s decision for war, which was, however, the decisive act of a long preparation,” Gentile 1977, 48; see also Perfetti 1984, 148.

14 Corradini 1911.

15 Confidential correspondence between the Foreign minister Di San Giuliano and Council President and Minister of Internal Affairs Giolitti, Vallombrosa 9 Aug. 1911, in Mola and Ricci 2010, III/II, 207-09.

16 Ferraioli 2001.

17 The fact that the ultimate decision to go to war was taken by a small circle of people, given what has been said in this paper, should not be surprising. As far as Colonial issues are concerned, Colombo rightly points out that “the colonial affair stands alone, marked by the notorious theory, successfully supported by Crispi in Parliament and then criticized by the doctrine that the statutory provision for the Chambers intervention in Territorial Treaties refers exclusively to the national land, which would be different than the colonial one. At the end of the brilliant syllogism [...] Parliament is not competent for international agreements concerning colonies. Moreover, as example of the changeable approach to the problem, in 1912 Parliament approved the peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire and, in so doing, authorized the government to execute it. In conclusion, it seems possible to essentially sustain a “diminished competence” of the Chambers when pertaining to Territorial Treaties, limited to legitimizing ministers to issue the executive orders of the treaties themselves within the country. The Royal prerogative is almost entirely affirmed and there are few cases where the government believes it has to ‘share news’ with the Parliament about ongoing negotiations.” See Colombo 1999, 321.

18 Mola and Ricci 2009 III/I, 15.

19 “On a prétendu, en effet, que le Roi était hostile à une action en Tripolitaine. Cela est vraisemblable, et s’explique par la sympathie qu’il témoigne (certains disent par un sentiment de conservation dynastique) aux socialistes, qui sont résolument contraires à l’expédition et menacent de proclamer la grève générale. L’événement prouve que le Souverain a dû s’incliner devant un courant d’opinion plus fort encore, et on peut supposer que sa conversion définitive date d’une visite que lui a faite il y a quatre jours M. Giolitti. C’est le lendemain, en effet, que le Ministre des Affaires étrangères est revenu à Rome, et que l’affaire est entrée dans une phase résolutive,” Documents Diplomatique Français (hereafter DDF), Deuxième série (1901-1911), Tome XIV (1er Juillet-4 Novembre 1911), Imprimerie Nationale, 1955, M. Laroche, Chargé d’Affaires de France à Rome, à M. de Selves, ministre des Affaires Étrangères, Rome 23 Sep. 1911, 490.

20 Volpe 2002, III, 399-400.

21 When Giolitti called Chief of Staff General Pollio to warn him that he should get ready for action, he was told that twenty thousand men would be sufficient. On the king’s orders, the President decided to prepare forty thousand of them. About forty thousand men, in fact, were deployed in two rounds. See Consiglio 1970, 89.

22 On the Libyan War see: Rachel 1987; Vandervort 2012; Micheletta and Ungari 2013.

23 Stato maggiore dell’esercito, 1923.

24 On the use of aircraft see in particular Pedriali 2008; Ungari 2010.

25 On these issues see: Rosati 2000; Zaccaria 2003; Nardi and Gentile 2009; Benadusi 2013; Parlato 2013; Bertellini 2016.

26 Goglia 2001.

27 Baranello 2011.

28 Text of the Amended Version ot the Triple Alliance available at: <>, acceessed on 8 Jan. 2018.

29 Stampalia, Rodi, Scarpanto, Khalki, Kos, Casos, Piscopis, Leros, Patmos, Nisiros, Simi, Lipsos, Kalymnos.

30 Parlato 2013.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1: Italian military camp in front of Benghazi Castle, Libya c. 1911-1912 (postcard, private collection).
Fichier image/jpeg, 380k
Légende Fig. 2: “Turco-Italian War. Making the treacherous Arabs prisoners in the oasis,” Italian War propaganda postcard, c. 1911-1912 (postcard, private collection).
Fichier image/jpeg, 336k
Légende Fig. 3: “Italian Tripoli. The aircrafts for the first time in war service”, c. 1911-1912 (postcard, private collection).
Fichier image/jpeg, 452k
Légende Fig. 4: “Italian Tripoli. Cap. Piazza’s aircraft returning from a reconnaissance mission into the interior”, c. 1911-1912 (postcard, private collection).
Fichier image/jpeg, 440k


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