Rich and powerful people are prone to buying properties in the world’s most attractive places, whether that be the south of France, London or the Hamptons. Here, Christopher Benedict looks at one such property hot spot. He tells the fascinating story of King Zog I of Albania and how he purchased a mansion that he never visited in Long Island.

King Zog I of Albania.

King Zog I of Albania.

The Gold Coast

The handful of hamlets and villages which comprise the Hamptons are collectively associated with Long Island’s go-to getaway spot, second home, or den of iniquity for contemporary celebrities. An all-inclusive VIP playground with a guest list reading like a who’s who of the well to do and the ne’er do wells. Faces familiar from movie screens and television sets, concert stages and the rear flaps of dustjackets. Personalities whose images with accompanying tales of achievement and debauchery alike are routinely spread throughout the pages of Vogue and Variety, Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Time.

The Hamptons are a relatively recent phenomenon and not at all relevant to the not too distant past when Long Island’s North Shore was the place to be and be seen (or not be seen, depending upon one’s desire for privacy and seclusion) for those who could afford such ostentatious status symbols as the mansions and sprawling estates built on what came to be known as the Gold Coast between just before the birth of the 20th century with its financial windfall created by the Industrial Revolution and the sobering death knell for the inebriated obliviousness of the Jazz Age (which turned blissfully blind eyes away from the horrific aftershocks of the First World War and flaunted their ill-gotten alcoholic party favors in the absurd face of the Volstead Act) sounded by Black Tuesday and the Great Depression.

Among the original occupants of these opulent, custom-built dwellings were luminous names such as William Vanderbilt, Alfred DuPont, J.P. Morgan, the Guggenheims, Lewis Tiffany, Frank Woolworth, William Robertson Coe, Otto Hermann Kahn, Henry Clay Frick, and John S. Phillips. Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay served as Theodore Roosevelt’s permanent domicile and ‘Summer White House’ while president. Oscar Hammerstein, W.C. Fields, Ring Lardner, Eugene O’Neill, Groucho and Chico Marx, not to mention their father and mother Sam and Minnie, all maintained addresses up and down the Long Island Sound for varying lengths of time and frequent visitors like Charlie Chaplin, Ethel Barrymore, Dorothy Parker, Herbert Bayard Swope, and Winston Churchill, to name but a few, came and went as they pleased. 

The Gold Coast is most famous for its fictional depiction in The Great Gatsby, authored of course by short-term Great Neck denizen F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived with Zelda on Long Island from October 1922 through April 1924 and based the novel’s East Egg and West Egg on Port Washington’s Sands Point and Kings Point of the Great Neck peninsula respectively. Lands’ End, the manor many consider to have been Fitzgerald’s inspiration behind Daisy Buchanan’s home in Gatsby, was demolished in 2011, the property sold off for a five-unit sub-division. In fact, it is estimated that fewer than 400 of the approximately 1,200 mansions constructed from the 1890s to the 1930s remain standing, with some functioning today as national landmarks, historic sites, state parks, public gardens, and museums.

It is the dilapidated ruins of a massive structure once known as Knollwood in the Incorporated Village of Muttontown, however, and one of its intended residents in particular that concern us now.

 

Bloody Inauguration

Ahmet Zogu was born to a family of feudal landowners in their Burjaget Castle on October 8, 1859 in the Muslim province of Mati which had established an independence of sorts from its Christian neighbors eight years prior. Albania remained, at the time, under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire and young Ahmet was sent off to begin his studies in Constantinople, an academic endeavor which lasted for all of three years. Indeed, Zogu would live out his entire existence as a functional illiterate. His friend and future foreign diplomat Chartin Sarachi alleged in his unpublished memoirs that “Zog never learned Albanian grammar and…is unable to write a line in the Albanian language. He can write in the old Turkish alphabet, but indeed that very poorly.” Sarachi contends that Zogu had only ever read two or three books, and each of them biographies of Napoleon. Which itself speaks volumes.  

Unlettered though he was, Ahmet would not allow this minor nuisance to thwart his ambition and patriotic fanaticism. At the age of sixteen, Zogu succeeded his deceased father as the Mati Governor and would add his signature to the Albanian Declaration of Independence in 1912. After having volunteered for service in the Great War on the side of Austria-Hungary, Ahmet would return home to a country fallen to disorder amidst a revolving parliamentary door of provisional figureheads, all of which Zogu served in some capacity or other.

From out of this chaos Ahmet ultimately emerged as Prime Minister and initiated several progressive if controversial measures such as converting expansive graveyards into public parks, liberating Muslim women from religious and social restrictions, outlawing polygamy, and drawing a firm line between religion and state. Shortly after being shot at by a student representing a radical group of young Albanian intellectuals who plainly saw tyranny dressed as democracy (one of a supposed 55 assassination attempts, as Albanian legend tells it), Zogu was forced into Yugoslavian exile in early 1924. Backed by a group of paid mercenaries 5,000 strong, he fought his way back across the Albanian border and reached the capital of Tirana on December 24 following two weeks of intense battle and much spilled blood. Ahmet almost immediately proclaimed himself President and made his designation official by virtue of a perfunctory election thrown together the following January. Thus did Zogu become not only Albania’s inaugural President but also the first Muslim sovereign of a European nation.

Chartin Sarachi remarked in his unfinished autobiography that Zogu “liked flattery and expected godlike veneration.” Those who failed to comply with these lofty wishes or in any way opposed his autonomy met with lengthy prison sentences or more decidedly grisly fates, prompting the European press to refer to Zog as “Ivan the Terrible of the Balkans.”

 

The Bizarre King

In the wake of his expulsion for criticizing “the fanatical, cross-bred, cringing, corrupt, face-grinding Beys and Moslems”, Albanian newspaper correspondent J. Swire wrote of Zogu in 1933 that “the alarming thing is that this very able man, the ruler of a very able people, is still so insecurely seated on a rickety throne.” Swire went on to suggest, “His death alone would be enough to provoke the break-up of the army, an explosion among the clans, intervention by land and sea and, possibly, a major war.” The root cause of this diagnosis lay in the fact that the country’s financial situation was not only devoid of equity but wildly lacking in accountability.

Zogu treated the extremely finite resources within Albania’s Treasury Department as a bottomless cookie jar from which he helped himself annually to more than twice his self-allotted £35,000 salary. He cut quite the ostentatious figure in an all-white ensemble of military tunic, feathered Cossack cap, gloves, pants, and patent leather shoes and his paramour Francy, a Viennese cabaret dancer with whom Ahmet became acquainted in Belgrade during his pre-presidential banishment, wore gowns produced by the finest Parisian dressmakers complimented by scores of jewels which, as Chartin Sarachi surmised, would have won the envy of Cleopatra.  

When this malfeasance threatened to unravel into a national economic crisis, Zogu first sought relief from Russia’s ambassador in Vienna who refused to take the matter to Moscow much less any further than the consulate itself. With no Communist assistance forthcoming from the Soviet front, Ahmet turned his attention to Fascist Rome which proved much more receptive to Zogu’s entreaties. Having knowingly bought into the lie with ulterior motives already in mind, Benito Mussolini personally approved a £200,000 loan to help stave off what he was informed to be an imminent revolution. There was more than a scarce element of truth behind Zogu’s ruse, surrounded as he was not only by a discontented general population but by sycophants, illiterates, and traitors which Ahmet proudly yet contemptuously referred to as “my circus.”

The creation of an Albanian National Bank, established and kept solvent by international handouts and headquartered in Rome, was a laughable attempt at legitimacy and necessitated the signing of a formal alliance with Italy in 1927. What followed was the coronation of Zog I, King of the Albanians, in what could only have been an eerie procession. The monarch rode in an open-top automobile flanked by armed cavalry, traveling into Tirana past houses all adorned with Italian-made Albanian flags, inside of which the occupants were ordered to remain. The purpose of this was to keep the streets clear, eliminating any risk of assassination.

 

The Puppet Defies Its Master

If Zog was initially thought of as an easy mark who would exist contentedly and be manipulated effortlessly beneath the boot of Italy, Il Duce had another guess coming, particularly when the Balkan King brazenly rejected four of the seven demands included in a 1933 ultimatum drafted by Mussolini. The disputed points of contention called for “the dismissal of all Albanian high officials not of Italian origin, the removal of English officers commanding the police and their replacement by Italians, the reopening of Catholic schools recently closed by the government, and the replacement of the French school at Kortcha by an Italian school.”     

Zog ran further afoul of Mussolini by subsequently entering into a commercial agreement with Yugoslavia as well as initiating diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. However, growing financial instability and a resulting small-scale rebellion in the city of Fier in 1935 would force Zog to relent to Mussolini’s ultimatum in order to guarantee the continual flow of money into Albania from Rome. Zog additionally sought to curry favor with his benefactor by publicly protesting the sanctions imposed upon Italy by the League of Nations as a penalty for its annexation of Ethiopia.  

Ironically, it would be another annexation order issued by Mussolini - in 1939 against Albania - which would finally cause the two vainglorious dictators to come to loggerheads. Zog’s denial of Italy as Albania’s military protectorate would be his final act of defiance. Mussolini’s vengeful response arrived in the form of a naval bombardment from the Adriatic Sea which cleared the way for a boots-on-the-ground invasion over the Easter weekend. While the Albanian crown transferred to the head of Italy’s Vittorio Emanuel III, Zog escaped to Greece with his beautiful Hungarian bride Geraldine Apponyi and their infant son, Crown Prince Leka. From there, they re-routed to London where the royal family took sanctuary within the luxurious confines of the Ritz Hotel.

 

Knollwood

The famed Manhattan architectural firm of Hiss and Weeks drafted plans for the immense 60-room stone mansion which was constructed sometime between 1906 and 1920 as the centerpiece of Westbrook Farms, a 260-acre estate in Nassau County on Long Island intended for Charles Hudson who amassed his fortune through dealings on Wall Street as well as in the burgeoning steel industry.   

With the purpose of utilizing Knollwood as a by-proxy Albanian kingdom, the exiled Zog purchased the estate in 1951 for a reported amount of $102,800, which today would equate to slightly less than a million dollars. Pillagers and vandals, fueled by speculation that Zog had completed the transaction by means of rubies and diamonds and already had hidden for him within the mansion by low-level Albanian functionaries his money and multitudinous treasures, looted and destroyed beyond repair the vacant premises.

Never having laid eyes or set foot upon the property, Zog sold it four years later and the Town of Oyster Bay declared the unsafe structure condemned and had it all but leveled to the ground in 1959. Accessible - albeit difficult to find - from hiking trails winding through the present-day Muttontown Preserve, the ruins of Knollwood are still today a popular destination for scavengers and curiosity-seekers who may not even necessarily be privy to the story of the obscure Albanian king who very nearly lived there.

And, so, what of Zog? Rather than Long Island, he and his family relocated to Paris where he died in 1961 and was buried in the Thiais Cemetery. In 2012, the Albanian government - including Zog’s grandson Leka, a political advisor to President Bujar Nashani - commemorated the centennial of the nation’s independence from the Ottoman Empire by having Ahmet Zogu exhumed and repatriated to Tirana.

Committed to a specially built mausoleum, Zog’s remains have fortunately received far more reverential treatment than those of the Gold Coast’s ransacked and bulldozed mansion. 

 

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Sources

King Zog of the Albanians: The Inside Story by Chartin Sarachi (Unfinished and Unpublished Manuscript, 1940)

King Zog’s Albania by J. Swire (Liveright, 1937)

Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century and After by R.J. Crampton (Routledge, 1997)

In Albania, Mussolini’s Interference (Sunday Times of Perth, Australia-August 27, 1933)

Invasion of Albania by C. Peter Chen (World War II Database)

King Zog I of Albania by Richard Cavendish (History Today, 2014)

Bizarre King Zog’s Remains Repatriated to Albania by Robert Myles (Digital Journal-November 12, 2012)

Stumbling on the Abandoned Ruins of King Zog’s Long Island Estate by Nick Carr (Scouting New York-March 4, 2013)

Helen Saker-Parsons tells us the story of how Mussolini’s Italy systematically undermined Germans in South Tyrol, a region of Italy with a German majority – at a time when Italy and Germany were close Fascist allies. The article looks at Italian ethnic cleansing, the ban on the German language, the land of stolen treasure and counterfeit pounds.

 

In 1920s Europe, fascism was gathering strength. In Germany, the National Socialists were winning support on the basis of their belief in German superiority. Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1925 and wrote of the supremacy of the Aryan race. But in one German-speaking region of Europe all references to the German language were banned. This was not a socialist or communist led country, hostile to the ideas of Fascism: this was Fascist Italy. The region itself had removed its Germanic title of South Tyrol and had reinvented itself as Alto Adige. For 500 years it had belonged to Austria but after the First World War and the Treaty of St. Germain in 1919, Tyrol had been divided in two and the southern part handed to the Italians as ‘spoils of war’ in gratitude for Italy’s co-operation with the Allies during the war. Thus began a twenty-five year period in its history which saw it experience ethnic cleansing, local martyrs, and concentration camps - and ended as it became a dumping ground for Nazi lootings and the home to the production of counterfeit British pounds.

Following the rise of Fascism and Benito Mussolini in 1922, a policy of Italianization in the area was introduced, driven by Italian ultra-nationalists, such as Senator Ettore Tolomei who on July 15, 1923, presented his 32-point program for Italianization: Provvedimenti per l'Alto Adige ("Measures for the Alto Adige"), which he claimed was aimed “to clean the area which had been polluted by strangers for centuries.” Mussolini said in February 1926: “We shall Italianize this territory, because it is Italian, geographically and historically.” In fact 70% of the population spoke German and only 25% Italian. Amongst the measures were: the introduction of Italian as the only official language; the establishment of Italian kindergartens and schools; the dismissal of German-speaking civil servants and teachers; a complete stop on German immigration in South Tyrol; Italian as the juridical language; the closure of German banks; the Italianization of the names of places (towns, roads, rivers, mountains etc. – except Gries) as well as the Italianization of Germanized family names, with the list of new names being printed in 1926 in the Gazetta Ufficiale. Tolomei acquired the nickname ‘grave digger’ as he also proposed prohibiting the use of German in cemeteries and ordered that German words should be deleted from gravestones.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler together in Munich, Germany. 1937.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler together in Munich, Germany. 1937.

A BATTLE OF IMPLEMENTATION

These measures met with varying degrees of success. The settlement of Italians from other regions was encouraged through the building of thousands of new houses, especially in Bolzano. However the tricky terrain of high mountains and deep valleys hindered repopulation and prevented the new arrivals, especially from the south, warming to their new environment. The planned substitution of the German clergy with Italians failed because of the opposition from the Vatican. Another move that met with opposition was the ban on teaching in German - either in schools or in private lessons. School books were ‘cleansed’ of everything referring to German customs, traditions or history. The singing of German ‘Lieder’ was considered dangerous to the Kingdom of Italy. German teachers were systematically dismissed on the grounds of ‘insufficient didactica’, or transferred to the south, from where Italian teachers were recruited instead. One vehement critic of this policy was the priest, Canon Michael Gamper, long time editor of the newspaper Volksbote. In 1925 he used his paper to call for a continuation of German education, writing that it was their duty to imitate the early Christians who found refuge in the catacombs of Rome.

The clandestine establishments he encouraged became known as ‘Katakombenschulen or ‘catacomb schools’. A shortfall in suitable teachers was overcome by recruiting young women, without families or responsibilities. The first group of 25 teachers received training in Bolzano in 1925 under the auspice that they were part of a sewing circle. More young girls were approached until around 500 volunteers were eventually trained, usually by local clergymen and often in secret. Most of the teaching took place in barns, attics, kitchens or ‘stube’- the living rooms of rural houses. Up to five children at a time, sometimes 30 per day, received instruction in reading and writing in German. Often girls would arrive with knitting to disguise their true intentions but would leave having learned a new Tyrolean song. Books of fairy tales and songs were supplied by German cultural societies, and were smuggled from Austria, hidden in religious buildings and then taken from school to school. For the children of the catacomb schools, who also attended Italian public schools, there was a confusion of identity that lingered long in to their lives. 

After initial difficulties, secret seminars for the instruction of teachers were organized throughout the province, usually under the protection of the Catholic Church and from 1931 were also held as far afield as Munich. Despite the risks, there were many prepared to take them. One such teacher, Angela Nikoletti, has been hailed as a regional Joan of Arc. She received several warnings to stop but continued to teach undeterred. She was arrested on May 14, 1927 and sentenced to 30 days in prison. During her imprisonment she contracted tuberculosis, which worsened when she was banished from her home community on her release and forced to hide in a cave. Only once her weak condition had been diagnosed was she allowed to return home to live with her aunt. However, she was to die from her illness and her death created an almost myth-like legacy. In October 1930 her funeral turned in to a public rally and five years later a newspaper wrote:  “She had given her life for her homeland. Her German heart could bear no bonds.”

 

RESISTANCE

Between 1928 and 1939 various resistance groups formed to fight the fascist Italian regime and its policy of suppressing the German language. Catholic media and associations resisted the forced integration under the protection of the Vatican. The underground resistance movement, the Völkischer Kampfring Südtirols, was formed by a Nazi Party member and tailor from Bolzano, Peter Hofer. Then on October 21, 1939, Mussolini reached an agreement with Hitler that all inhabitants had until December 31, 1939 to choose between remaining in the region, accepting complete Italianization, or emigrating to Nazi Germany (including annexed Austria), the so-called "Option für Deutschland" (option for Germany). The population was deeply divided. Those who wanted to stay (Dableiber) were condemned as traitors; those who left (Optanten), the majority, were defamed as Nazis. Hitler commented on a plan to relocate the ‘Optanten’ to Crimea (annexed to Greater Germany) in 1942: “the transport of South Tyrolese to Crimea offers no special physical or psychological difficulties. They need only make a voyage down a German stream, the Danube, and they’d be right there”. But most were to be resettled in German-annexed western Poland.

The National Socialists put their successful propaganda machine into action, launching a campaign to encourage the South Tyrolean population to ‘opt’ for resettlement. Lies were deliberately spread amongst the people to incite hatred against one another, resulting in entire families being ripped apart and resentments resonating for many decades. The majority of people succumbed to Nazi pressure with 86% choosing resettlement - thus began a program of ‘ethnic cleansing’. The Optanten banded together in the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Optanten für Deutschland (Association of optants for Germany or ADO) that was founded on January 30, 1940 under the ubiquitous Peter Hofer. Those who chose to stay, the Dableiber, mainly banded together around local Catholic priests. The first families left their homeland in 1939, and up to 1943 a total of around 75,000 South Tyroleans emigrated (the original numbers curtailed by the outbreak of war), of which 50,000 returned after the war.

 

SWEET REVENGE?

In September 1943 Mussolini was deposed and Italy surrendered to the Allies who had invaded the country from the south. From the north the German Wehrmacht poured in its troops. On September 10, 1943 the Operation Zone of the Alpine Foothills was established, incorporating South Tyrol. The ADO was dissolved and joined with the Deutsche Volksgruppe. Peter Hofer was chosen as the Volksgruppenführer. Many German-speaking South Tyroleans, who had suffered years of linguistic oppression and discrimination by Fascist Italy, wanted revenge upon the ethnic Italians living in the area, particularly in the larger cities. There were also attempts to arrest fleeing Italian soldiers and attacks on the Dableiber. However, wide scale retribution was discouraged by the occupying Nazis who feared alienating Mussolini and the Italian Fascists. The man once described by Hitler as a ‘strutting peacock’ had been rescued from his high altitude imprisonment on the Gran Sasso by German paratroopers and had been instated as the puppet head of an Italian Social Republic in Salo. One sector of the community not considered safe, however, was the Jewish population, especially the large contingent of foreign Jews living in Merano. On September 16, 1943, the Nazis sent the first group of Merano Jews to Auschwitz.

Owing to its mountainous terrain and its remoteness, the region managed to escape much of the fighting between Allied and German forces as the former swept through the country. But the history of this tranquil region remained troubled. In summer 1944, a concentration camp was established in Bolzano, hosting around 11,000 prisoners. The area also became an extension of Switzerland as a dumping ground for Nazi lootings. The US 88th Infantry Division which occupied South Tyrol from May 2, 1945 uncovered vast amounts of precious items and looted art treasures. Among the items reportedly found were railway wagons filled with gold bars, hundreds of thousands of meters of silk, the Italian crown jewels, King Victor Emmanuel's personal collection of rare coins, and scores of works of art looted from art galleries such as the Uffizi in Florence. Furthermore, from this mountainous area, the Nazis attempted to wreck the British economy. Castello Schloss Labers (located above Merano) was used by an SS Task Force for ‘Operation Bernhard’, a plan to undermine the British economy by the mass production of fake pound notes using inmates of concentration camps as counterfeiters.

Fears the Germans might use the region as a last-ditch stronghold to fight to the bitter end were not forthcoming and following the German surrender in May 1945 Austria and Italy came to an agreement ratified under the Paris Peace Treaty that Austria would give up its claim to the region on the condition that Italy took steps to redress some of the cultural damage perpetrated under Fascism. None of the ADO leaders were tried for their crimes. Peter Hofer himself was killed during an Allied bombing raid on Bolzano in December 1943. Amongst the plethora of wreaths sent to his funeral was one from Hitler. Alto-Adige is now the wealthiest province of Italy, proud of its bi-lingualism, its diverse architecture, culture and traditions, yet for some the divisions are still raw and its troubled history too recent.

 

Helen Saker-Parsons is the author of a book about an Allied soldier who is captured and held prisoner in Italy during World War II. The fascinating book, A Captive Life, is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Helen has also written a historical fiction book related to World War I, Searching for Cecil. It is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

 

As always, your feedback is welcome below. Alternatively, like the article, tweet about it, or share it by clicking on one of the links below.

References

http://www.accenti.ca/online-archive/rocky-roads-northern-italy-s-jewish-heritage-by-deborah-rubin-fields

South Tyrol: A Minority Conflict of the Twentieth Century By Rolf Steininger

http://www.fembio.org/english/biography.php/woman/print_bio/angela-nikoletti

A Comparative Study of the Northern League, Plaid Cymru, the South Tyrolese People‟s Party and the Scottish National Party Emanuele Massetti

 http://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/italy/trentino-alto-adige/italianization-tyrol/#ixzz32uPFtv8t

The Italian Military Governorship in South Tyrol and the Rise of Fascism  By Giuseppe Motta

 The Hidden Frontier: Ecology and Ethnicity in an Alpine Valley  By John W. Cole, Eric R. Wolf

This is the second article we have chosen as we end the year by re-publishing some of our top blog posts.

In a follow-up to articles on the initial Italian colonization attempts and Mussolini’s bloody conquest, we continue the story of how Italy brutally conquered Libya here. 

 

Going a few years back from Mussolini’s invasion of Libya, one of the main reasons for the original Italian invasion of Ottoman Libya was to expand Italy’s comparatively small colonial empire. Another concern was the rapid emigration of Italians to the United States and other countries (650,000 were estimated to have migrated to the US in 1910 alone). After the end of the Italian-Ottoman war, the Italians began to create plans to transport thousands and thousands of Italian colonists into the country’s newest territorial acquisition.

An photo of the 1937 Tripoli Grand  Prix

An photo of the 1937 Tripoli Grand Prix

State-sponsored colonization

It formally began in 1913 with the establishment of the Ufficio Fondario (the Land Office), which had the job of assigning land to would-be Italian colonists. The Land Office initially assumed that all uncultivated land was private property and only assigned public lands to the colonists. However on July 18 1922, the Italian governor of Libya, Giuseppe Volpi (who would later order the Reconquista of Libya), issued a decree declaring all uncultivated land to be in the public domain, increasing the amount of land available to Italian colonists tenfold.  Further decrees issued caused the confiscation of land owned by rebels or those aiding the rebels, in an effort to crackdown on dissent.

In 1928, de Bono (Volpi’s successor) issued subsidies and additional credits to help attract more colonists. Despite these measures, Italian immigration rates were much lower than what the government had expected, with little capital being invested in Libyan lands.

The situation changed in the early 1930s as a result of the Great Depression. A negative balance of trade, rampant unemployment and a strong lira encouraged mainland Italians to emigrate. Libya provided the perfect solution. With Omar Mukhtar executed and the rebels defeated, many public-works and infrastructure project ideas could finally be undertaken, in addition to resettlement projects. Indeed, all of these projects required manpower. It was the perfect region for the typical poor Italian patriot.

In 1934, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were merged together to form a Tripoli-based province. Four years later, Mussolini would declare Libya an integral part of the Kingdom of Italy, forming the country’s nineteenth region, dubbing it La Quarta Sponda d’Italia (Italy’s Fourth Shore).

Mussolini, who was imprisoned in 1911 for his criticism of the original Italian invasion, had visited Libya three times; in 1926, 1937 and 1942. His 1937 visit was to open what was described as the largest public works project in Libya, the 1,132 mile long strada litoranea (coastal highway), which ran from the Tunisian border to the Egyptian frontier. Though the Italians insisted it was only to help improve tourism in the region, contemporaries saw the strategic military value of such a road. Indeed, this road proved to be crucial to victory in the North African front of World War II (and more recently, the Libyan Civil War). The press in Italy hailed it as a feat of Italian engineering, despite it being built on the back of Libyan laborers.

Two major waves of immigration occurred in the 1930s; one in October 1938 and the other in 1939. Both were organized by the Italian governor Balbo - he led a convoy of around 10,000 Italians to Libya in 1938 and another 10,000 in the following year. His plan was to settle 20,000 colonists annually for five years, with the ultimate goal of reaching 500,000 colonists by 1950. In what could be seen as a precursor to reactions against Jewish migration to British Palestine, Italian migration evoked resentment and protests in the Muslim World, with agitations against it appearing as far away as Baghdad.

More support for colonists emerged in the form of the agricultural corporation Ente which was meant to attract farmers. Using confiscated land, the colonists (numbering 50,000 in the late 1930s) worked on 2,000 farms. By 1939, the Italians had built 400 kilometers of new railroads and 4,000 kilometers of new roads. Until 1940, there was even a Tripoli Grand Prix organized annually, while Italian archaeologists excavated the ruined Phoenician settlement of Leptis Magna and sent artifacts to museums in the mainland.

 

The Libyan Side

Many of the colonists were poor, but were generally better off than the native Libyan population. Libyans, mostly paupers, resented Italian development, still remembering the virtual genocide committed by them. It was only in September 1933 that the concentration camps were finally shut – and they left a horrifying toll. 40,000 of the 100,000 total internees died in the camps. Though Libyans resented the foreigners, Italian propaganda portrayed a very different story. In Mussolini’s 1937 visit, he declared Libya to be “morally and profoundly Italian”, to which the Muslims of Tripoli greeted him by addressing him as “the greatest man of the century and a sincere friend of Islam.” He was even awarded the ‘Sword of Islam’ (a Florentine sword with a fabricated history) and was declared the “Protector of Islam.”

For the native Libyans, life was not easy. All Libyans, of whatever faith, were expected to give the Fascist salute. Most wore black shirts during Mussolini’s 1937 visit to Tripoli. And in an effort to spread the wonders of Fascism, the Italian government ordered the formation of a Fascist group for Libyan youths, the Gioventu Araba (Arab Youth), modeled after Italy’s Opera Nazionale Balilla.

In 1939, the Italians allowed Libyans to apply for Cittadinanza Italiana Speciale (special Italian citizenship) effectively relegating Libyans to second-class citizens. At the time, Libyans were not allowed to work professionally in jobs involving Italian subordinates. That said, it seemed unlikely to be a great problem anyway as soon enough there were only 16 Libyan university graduates in the country. All told, even if the Italian occupation led to significant improvements in infrastructure and agricultural output, it left behind a native Libyan population that was not skilled and largely uneducated, while the country lacked effective political institutions. The effects of this would be apparent in the following decades.

With the outbreak of World War II, Balbo’s plan was in tatters. Most of the fighting occurred on farms allocated to the colonists. By 1941, only 8,426 colonists remained. Within a year, this number had halved. Following the end of subsidies and government support, the colonists abandoned Libya. The Allied forces occupied Libya in 1943. Libya was to declare its independence in December 1951.

 

By Droodkin, the owner of the international history blog – click here to see the site.

 

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References

 

Further reading

If you would like to read in more depth about what life was like in Italian Libyan, I recommend Brian McLaren’s Architecture and Tourism in Italian Colonial Libya: An Ambivalent Modernism.

In a follow-up to articles on the initial Italian colonization attempts and Mussolini’s bloody conquest, we continue the story here..

Going a few years back from Mussolini’s invasion of Libya, one of the main reasons for the original Italian invasion of Ottoman Libya was to expand Italy’s comparatively small colonial empire. Another concern was the rapid emigration of Italians to the United States and other countries (650,000 were estimated to have migrated to the US in 1910 alone). After the end of the Italian-Ottoman war, the Italians began to create plans to transport thousands and thousands of Italian colonists into the country’s newest territorial acquisition.

Arab Lictor Youth, a Fascist youth organization in Italian Libya

Arab Lictor Youth, a Fascist youth organization in Italian Libya

State-sponsored colonization

It formally began in 1913 with the establishment of the Ufficio Fondario (the Land Office), which had the job of assigning land to would-be Italian colonists. The Land Office initially assumed that all uncultivated land was private property and only assigned public lands to the colonists. However on July 18 1922, the Italian governor of Libya, Giuseppe Volpi (who would later order the Reconquista of Libya), issued a decree declaring all uncultivated land to be in the public domain, increasing the amount of land available to Italian colonists tenfold.  Further decrees issued caused the confiscation of land owned by rebels or those aiding the rebels, in an effort to crackdown on dissent.

In 1928, de Bono (Volpi’s successor) issued subsidies and additional credits to help attract more colonists. Despite these measures, Italian immigration rates were much lower than what the government had expected, with little capital being invested in Libyan lands.

The situation changed in the early 1930s as a result of the Great Depression. A negative balance of trade, rampant unemployment and a strong lira encouraged mainland Italians to emigrate. Libya provided the perfect solution. With Omar Mukhtar executed and the rebels defeated, many public-works and infrastructure project ideas could finally be undertaken, in addition to resettlement projects. Indeed, all of these projects required manpower. It was the perfect region for the typical poor Italian patriot.

In 1934, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were merged together to form a Tripoli-based province. Four years later, Mussolini would declare Libya an integral part of the Kingdom of Italy, forming the country’s nineteenth region, dubbing it La Quarta Sponda d’Italia (Italy’s Fourth Shore).

Mussolini, who was imprisoned in 1911 for his criticism of the original Italian invasion, had visited Libya three times; in 1926, 1937 and 1942. His 1937 visit was to open what was described as the largest public works project in Libya, the 1,132 mile long strada litoranea (coastal highway), which ran from the Tunisian border to the Egyptian frontier. Though the Italians insisted it was only to help improve tourism in the region, contemporaries saw the strategic military value of such a road. Indeed, this road proved to be crucial to victory in the North African front of World War II (and more recently, the Libyan Civil War). The press in Italy hailed it as a feat of Italian engineering, despite it being built on the back of Libyan laborers.

Two major waves of immigration occurred in the 1930s; one in October 1938 and the other in 1939. Both were organized by the Italian governor Balbo - he led a convoy of around 10,000 Italians to Libya in 1938 and another 10,000 in the following year. His plan was to settle 20,000 colonists annually for five years, with the ultimate goal of reaching 500,000 colonists by 1950. In what could be seen as a precursor to reactions against Jewish migration to British Palestine, Italian migration evoked resentment and protests in the Muslim World, with agitations against it appearing as far away as Baghdad.

More support for colonists emerged in the form of the agricultural corporation Ente which was meant to attract farmers. Using confiscated land, the colonists (numbering 50,000 in the late 1930s) worked on 2,000 farms. By 1939, the Italians had built 400 kilometers of new railroads and 4,000 kilometers of new roads. Until 1940, there was even a Tripoli Grand Prix organized annually, while Italian archaeologists excavated the ruined Phoenician settlement of Leptis Magna and sent artifacts to museums in the mainland.

1937 Tripoli Grand Prix. Source: Rossana Bianchi

1937 Tripoli Grand Prix. Source: Rossana Bianchi

The Libyan Side

Many of the colonists were poor, but were generally better off than the native Libyan population. Libyans, mostly paupers, resented Italian development, still remembering the virtual genocide committed by them. It was only in September 1933 that the concentration camps were finally shut – and they left a horrifying toll. 40,000 of the 100,000 total internees died in the camps. Though Libyans resented the foreigners, Italian propaganda portrayed a very different story. In Mussolini’s 1937 visit, he declared Libya to be “morally and profoundly Italian”, to which the Muslims of Tripoli greeted him by addressing him as “the greatest man of the century and a sincere friend of Islam.” He was even awarded the ‘Sword of Islam’ (a Florentine sword with a fabricated history) and was declared the “Protector of Islam.”

For the native Libyans, life was not easy. All Libyans, of whatever faith, were expected to give the Fascist salute. Most wore black shirts during Mussolini’s 1937 visit to Tripoli. And in an effort to spread the wonders of Fascism, the Italian government ordered the formation of a Fascist group for Libyan youths, the Gioventu Araba (Arab Youth), modeled after Italy’s Opera Nazionale Balilla.

In 1939, the Italians allowed Libyans to apply for Cittadinanza Italiana Speciale (special Italian citizenship) effectively relegating Libyans to second-class citizens. At the time, Libyans were not allowed to work professionally in jobs involving Italian subordinates. That said, it seemed unlikely to be a great problem anyway as soon enough there were only 16 Libyan university graduates in the country. All told, even if the Italian occupation led to significant improvements in infrastructure and agricultural output, it left behind a native Libyan population that was not skilled and largely uneducated, while the country lacked effective political institutions. The effects of this would be apparent in the following decades.

With the outbreak of World War II, Balbo’s plan was in tatters. Most of the fighting occurred on farms allocated to the colonists. By 1941, only 8,426 colonists remained. Within a year, this number had halved. Following the end of subsidies and government support, the colonists abandoned Libya. The Allied forces occupied Libya in 1943. Libya was to declare its independence in December 1951.

 

By Droodkin

Droodkin owns the international history blog – click here to see the site.

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References

Libya: From Colony to Revolution by Ronald Bruce St. John, pages 1936-1939

Libya and the West: From Independence to Lockerbie by Geoff Simons, pages 12-13

 

Further reading

If you would like to read in depth about exactly how Italian Libya life was, I recommend Brian McLaren’s Architecture and Tourism in Italian Colonial Libya: An Ambivalent Modernism.