November 16, 2017

1935. Fascist Italy Dreams of a New Roman Empire

Fascist Propaganda Stokes Italian Irredentism
Benito Mussolini marching among troops in Rome, 1936 (Getty)
This article is part of a series of posts on how newspapers covered the rise of fascism. The New York Times ran two separate articles about Mussolini's imperial ambitions, one by Shepard Stone in 1935 and another by Herbert Matthews in 1940, both entitled "Italy Dreams of Empire."

From The New York Times, October 13, 1935:
Il Duce's Propaganda Campaign Has Turned All Minds to Visions of Old Greatness
Stirred by their modern Caesar and his soldiers marching into battle, Italians are once again dreaming of empire. While Italian legions fight their way forward in the attempt to plant their banner over large portions of Ethiopia, visions of the grandeur that was Rome fascinate Italian minds. Never before has the modern Italian turned the pages of ancient history with so much pride as he does today.

To the Italian of 1935 the rise of Rome to dominance in the world of 1,900 years ago is a challenge flung down dramatically by Mussolini. A keen student of the psychology of his people, Il Duce is playing the tune of Roman grandeur with all the instruments at his command. In newspapers, magazines and books, over the radio, in movie houses and at the theatre, Romans are being reminded of their former power. Throughout Italy maps of the Roman Empire have been set up, so that Italians may be inspired by the glory of their heritage.

What was the grandeur of Rome which Mussolini is trying to revive?

At the time of its greatest geographical extent, in the days of the Emperor Trajan (98-117 A. D.), the Roman Empire spread from the hills and moors of Scotland to the mountains of India; from Gibraltar to the Caucasus; from the Rhine and Danube to the Nile and the sands of the Sahara. Rome was more than a great power in the Western world. It was the Western world.

All Bowed to Rome

Nothing like the Roman Empire had ever been seen before its rise; nothing like it has been seen since its decline and fall. Black Sea, Mediterranean, Adriatic, Aegean and the English Channel were all domestic waters.

The territories which British, French, Spaniards, Belgians, Swiss, Austrians, Hungarians, Yugoslavs, Rumanians, Greeks, Bulgarians and many other peoples now rule were then Roman provinces. From Jerusalem to London and from Paris to Thebes the Western world bowed to Rome. Britons, Gauls, Latins, Libyans, Babylonians, Greeks—they were all proud to call themselves Romans.

It was an empire populated by perhaps 100,000,000 people; rural and urban, warriors, administrators, traders, farmers, workers and scholars. The seas provided a connecting link to the provinces separated from Rome by water. Military roads, built with the genius of the Roman engineers and soldiers, were the arteries of traffic overland. In ancient days these roads were trod by Roman legions, marching to hold together the far-flung territories of the empire; they were also used by traders and administrators who traveled widely in the performance of their duties.

History Repeats

Just as Il Duce is trying to extend his empire today by warfare the Roman Empire was conquered by armies. When Rome had consolidated its position in Italy, about the middle of the third century B. C., it turned its eyes to the Mediterranean.

Here Rome came into conflict with Carthage, the powerful city-state of Northern Africa. The long Punic wars settled the contest. Not even Hannibal, with his cavalry and elephants, who marched through Spain and made his way across the Alps, could overthrow Rome. "Carthago delenda est!" cried Cato in the Senate. Carthage was destroyed and the ground on which it had stood was turned by the plow. Henceforth Rome ruled the Mediterranean world, with its islands and the territories along the North African coast.

Macedonia and Syria also felt the power of Roman arms and were conquered. Julius Caesar carried the Roman banner to Gaul and Briton. When the conspirators plunged their daggers into Caesar, Rome was already a world empire.

Roman law and customs became the standard of the ancient world. The seeds of Roman culture were planted hundreds of miles from the Forum. They grew and even today there are many striking differences between the lands where Rome once ruled and those which never came under its influence.

Of this empire in the days of its glory Mommsen, the great historian, wrote: "If an angel of the Lord were to strike the balance whether the domain ruled by Antonius were governed with greater intelligence and greater humanity at that time or in the present day, whether civilization and national prosperity generally had since that time advanced or retrograded, it is very doubtful whether the decision would prove in favor of the present."

The Dark Side

But there was another side to the picture. While the free population of Rome was wasted in wars, slavery crept in and weakened the fabric of the population. Conquest and corruption played their part; military and financial power finally crumbled; degeneracy weakened cultural and social life; the extent of the empire made it difficult to control from a central point; agriculture declined. Under repeated blows of the "barbarians" the empire fell apart. Many of the nations which last week at Geneva cast their vote against Italy's modern dictator were united under his predecessor, who ruled 1,900 years ago.

The empire of Benito Mussolini today is not the Roman world of Julius Caesar or of Trajan. Great Britain and France, not Italy, are the leading colonial powers. Italy possesses only Libya, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, exclusive of what she may conquer in her present adventure.

Italy herself is poor in natural resources. Her colonies, which have failed to attract large numbers of Italians, are also mediocre. They cover, in area, approximately 946,734 square miles. They are inhabited by 2,200,000 people, mainly natives. In economic value they suffer by comparison with the other great colonial empires.

Libya, on the northern fringe of Africa, produces tropical fruits, lemons, almonds and figs. Eritrea, on the east, is unimportant economically, though it has strategic value, as Il Duce has demonstrated during the past two weeks. Italian Somaliland is somewhat more fertile. Here cattle and camel raising are the chief industries. Half of the world's consumption of incense comes from this region.

The Riches of Ethiopia

But of gold, rubber, cotton, diamonds and other less precious minerals or raw materials Italy's colonies are relatively bare. That is one reason why Il Duce is stretching out for Ethiopia. The Italians say that Haile Selassie's kingdom is rich in natural resources and economic possibilities.

Should the Italian dictator, despite the efforts of Ethiopia and of the League powers to stop him, conquer Haile Selassie's domain, he will have added to his colonial empire a region approximately 350,000 square miles in area, or more than one-third of his present possessions. In addition, 10,000,000 Ethiopians would come under his rule.

Whether Il Duce will be as successful as the Caesars of ancient Rome only the future will disclose. But, as the maps reveal, he still has a long way to go.
From The New York Times, October 13, 1935 (click to enlarge)
From The New York Times, May 19, 1940:
Street Demonstrators Hope for Colonies as Rome's Reward for Helping Germany
ROME, May 18 — Dazzling visions are being seen by Italian Fascists these days. All the riches of the Mediterranean and Africa seem to be stretching out before them as they see the glories of the Roman Empire revived. All they need do is help Germany defeat the Allies.

It is only in such terms that one can explain what Italy wants. She has no Alsace-Lorraine to conquer. She herself is not going to be attacked by anybody. She cannot even claim a great Italian Empire like the German one because, except for Malta and to a much lesser extent Corsica and Tunis, there are no territories with Italians to be "freed from foreign domination." The French have just as strong claims from the racial point of view to Tunis and Corsica as the Italians have.

Yet there are things that Italy wants and above all is domination of the Mediterranean. Premier Mussolini has repeatedly stated that Italy is a "prisoner" in the Mediterranean and so long as that status lasts he is going to struggle to free her. As the Italians keep saying "the Mediterranean is a route (via) to Britain but is life (vita) to us." The objections are that Gibraltar and Suez are in the hands of the British and French and the Dardanelles indirectly is controlled by them through Turkey.

Allies and the Canal

So far as the Suez Canal is concerned the Allies assert that the question is fictitious because the canal has always been internationalized and, when it comes to high tolls, British shippers and exporters have worked just as hard as Italians to get them lowered.

Gibraltar is another matter and if the Allies are defeated or being defeated the Italians expect Generalissimo Franco of Spain to take the Rock back, in which case it will be in friendly hands.

But the gateways to the Mediterranean are only one part of the Italian aspirations. Whenever there are demonstrations, as there were this week, some of the demonstrators dutifully take up the cry "Tunis, Jibuti, Corsica, Nice and Savoy." This is a large order to be sure, and one may doubt whether even the most sanguine fascist hopes to see them all in Italian hands at the end of the war. But if the Allies suffered a complete defeat and Italy could get what she wanted at least some of these places would change hands.

Italy lost Tunis to France because the French grabbed it first and were strong enough to hold it. The Italians would certainly like to have it but thus far the only demands made seem to have been to improve the status of Italians there. Jibuti would have great value to Italians since it is the port and terminus of the railway from Addis Abada. Corsica is one of those historic problems which can always be brought up when convenient. Geographically speaking, it should belong to Italy and its people were once more Italian than anything else although now they are Gallicized. An Italian victory over France might well result in Corsica's becoming Italian. What is true of Corsica is even more true of British-owned Malta, just south of Sicily, because the people still are predominantly Italianized.

Nice and Savoy would be another matter since in the reigning house of Savoy there are sentimental reasons, as well as the fact that ethnically the people, like the Piedmontese, are part French, part Italian, to make annexation desirable, One even hears the Italians say that since one of King Victor Emmanuel's titles is "King of Jerusalem," Palestine also should be absorbed by the new empire. However, neither of these demands is likely to be pushed far.

Dalmatia Demanded

Another of the "street cries" heard in Italian cities this week is "Dalmatia." The possession of the Dalmatian coast would be of enormous strategic value to Italy quite aside from its commercial importance and the fact that it would link Albania to Italy by land.

The Italian Navy might well have its say about the Mediterranean, for it does not like the threat of French and British naval bases in ports like Algiers, Bizerta and Alexandria. Then there is the colonial-minded Fascist who dreams of connecting Libya to Abyssinia across the Sudan and even Egypt.

In short, there is almost no end to what the Italians could hope for in a successful war. Meanwhile they are not specifying anything.