Review. It’s true that we can’t trust the Libyans, and that dealing with the factions and militias seems more fraught with risk than ever: but why should the Libyans trust us after everything we’ve done to them?

New book puts the lie to the myth that Italians were the ‘friendly colonizers’

There is a myth that stubbornly persists, deeply rooted in our collective imagination: that Italian colonialism was actually a “colonialism with a human face.” We hear it often repeated that in this regard, we were different from the French and the British. In reality, the difference lies in the fact that after the Second World War, Republican Italy soon lost its overseas territories and did not go through the bloody period of decolonization, of which the anti-French independence war in Algeria, which left a million dead, is the most notorious example in northern Africa. We have tended to assign all responsibility for crimes, massacres and oppression to the fascist regime, thus safeguarding the image of a colonial Italy that was supposedly gentle and mild-mannered.

But have the Italians really been so good? That is the question that Eric Salerno asks at the start of his book Genocidio in Libia (“Genocide in Libya,” published by Manifestolibri, 150 pages, €14), just published in a new, updated edition. Salerno’s answer is that the Italians have also done plenty of evil. This is the inevitable conclusion if we recall the over 100,000 Libyans who died in the jihad to defend their land from the occupiers, the 13 concentration camps in Cyrenaica and Sirtica, the deportation of Libyans to Italy in appalling conditions or the use of poison gas against the civilian population.

But how many people really know about the Italian colonial adventure in Libya? And why should we study this particular historical episode? Given that we are now negotiating with the Libyans and their international sponsors, it wouldn’t hurt to take a close look at the past from time to time. There are important considerations to keep in mind at a time when we are being criticized by both General Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan factions that are supporting al-Sarraj, albeit with opposite motivations—and furthermore, at a time when Erdogan’s Turkey seems to want to enact something like a neo-Ottoman revenge for the Italian occupation of 1911.

For such an investigation, we can rely on works by historians such as Giorgio Rochat and Angelo Del Boca. But it was Eric Salerno, a journalist and writer, who revealed to the general public back in 1979 the hidden atrocities of the Italian colonial adventure: massacres, the use of poison gas, kangaroo courts, public hangings and an extensive network of concentration camps in Cyrenaica where thousands of Libyans lost their lives.

In 2008, another book by Salerno (Uccideteli Tutti – Libia 1943, “Kill them all – Libya 1943,” published by Il Saggiatore) told the story of the concentration camp for Jews set up by the fascist Italian regime in Tripolitania, where 600 people died, while the others were transferred by the Germans to Bergen-Belsen and exterminated. This is another chapter of history that no one seems to remember anymore.

Today, many decades after those massacres, the Italian Republic is once again financing detention camps in Libya, negotiating with human traffickers and hiring Libyans as prison guards for African migrants.

Salerno’s book is full of interesting episodes that help us better understand the present day. For example, in 1928, according to a report by the Ministry of Colonies, General Graziani “captured 500 camels and executed 50 men from the Qadhadhfa tribe”—one of the historical reasons why Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who hailed from that tribe, insisted for many decades on the question of Italy’s colonial past and the famous dispute over war damages. The controversy was largely settled by the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Italy and Libya signed in August 2008. 

It is both exhilarating and instructive to read Salerno’s account from his trip to Tripoli with Tommaso Di Francesco in October 2008. Just two years earlier, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the US raids on Tripoli, the two had been there to attend a concert by Lionel Ritchie and witness others of Gaddafi’s bizarre extravagances.

Salerno recounts a scene from his 2008 trip where Gaddafi was waiting for the Italian delegation in his enormous tent. A few hours earlier, the Libyans had awarded their highest honor—the Al-Fateh Medal dedicated to the Great Libyan Jamahiriya—to Senator-for-life Giulio Andreotti, former Prime Minister Lamberto Dini, former Minister Giuseppe Pisanu, Vittorio Sgarbi and a number of historians and journalists, including Salerno himself and Valentino Parlato from il manifesto, for their “contribution to friendship and reconciliation between the two nations.” Green stripes and medals were also delivered to a number of prominent figures who were absent from the ceremony: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and their predecessors, Romano Prodi and Massimo D’Alema. In short, Gaddafi had practically awarded medals to the entire Italian ruling class, as well as intellectuals and journalists. 

The colonel, who had been in power since 1969, chose that moment to utter a saying that he surely hoped would go down in history: “We must remain forever at each other’s side.” In August 2010, he was greeted with great pomp and circumstance as he came to Rome to sign another trade agreement, this time worth tens of billions of euros, as well as an agreement on security and cooperation.

Just a few months later, the Italians reneged on all of this and sided with France, the UK and the United States in the bombing campaign against Gaddafi. Given the history between Italy and Libya, anyone would have understood if Italy had chosen to maintain neutrality—but instead, we chose to betray our biggest ally in the Mediterranean.

It’s true that we can’t trust the Libyans, and that dealing with the factions and militias seems more fraught with risk than ever: but why should the Libyans trust us after everything we’ve done to them?

It is also interesting to highlight an aspect that a Libyan director, Khalifa Abbo Khraisse, has pointed out. Thousands of Libyans lost their lives during the Italian colonization, but many others collaborated with the Fascists and fought alongside the Italians in Ethiopia.

This episode is never spoken of in Libya, just as there is no mention of the crimes committed against the Jews: in fact, some of the wealthiest Libyan families owe their prosperity to that period, when they confiscated the money and property of Jews forced to leave Libya, just as they later got their hands on the property of the Italians when they were driven out by Gaddafi.

And there’s more to the story. The money paid by the Italians to Gaddafi as war damages did not go towards compensating the victims of the Italian concentration camps: instead, it ended up rewarding their jailers. This is where the foundations were laid for the creation of the new camps of nowadays, financed by Italy to hold African migrants with the help of the Libyan collaborators we’ve been paying handsomely over the years. Such lessons are what the study of history has to teach us.

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