The causes of World War Two are varied, but some factors are more important than others. Here, Seth Eislund explains that fascism was the primary factor that led to World War Two. He considers Mussolini’s fascist Italy, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and Horthy’s fascistic Hungary.

Seth has previously written an article on whether the Nazis achieved their domestic aims – here.

Miklos Horthy and Adolf Hitler in 1938.

Miklos Horthy and Adolf Hitler in 1938.

From November 1918 to September 1939, Europe existed in a fragile state of peace known as the interwar period. Political frustration and economic woes plagued European countries, especially Germany and Hungary, both of which endured a crippling defeat at the hands of the Allies. Germany and Hungary lost large swathes of territory to the Allies and faced grave economic depression and inflation. Even Italy, which had been on the winning side at the end of the First World War, endured “an inconclusive but costly victory.”[i]Hoping to return their countries to greatness, many Italians, Germans, and Hungarians eagerly adopted an ideology called “fascism,” which was promulgated by a former syndicalist named Benito Mussolini. Fascism emphasized expansionism, extreme nationalism, anti-Marxism, and anti-liberalism.[ii]Ultimately, due to its nationalist, expansionist, and warlike tendencies, fascism was the primary factor that shattered the fragile peace of the interwar period and incited the Second World War.


Italian Fascism

Benito Mussolini’s fascism promoted a love of warfare, nationalism, and expansionism, values which were implemented in Italian foreign policy and helped instigate World War II. In 1932, Mussolini wrote that fascism “believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace… War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it.”[iii]Mussolini stated that fascism was inherently violent, and that violence unleashed peak human potential. Peace, on the other hand, neutered human potential and was therefore detrimental to humanity as a whole. Thus, in Mussolini’s worldview, war was a moral good that must be constantly waged to further human progress. Mussolini linked this line of reasoning with imperialist rhetoric, saying that “the expansion of a nation… is an essential manifestation of vitality.”[iv]To Mussolini, fascism was centered around a “nation,” or a “people,” which needed to expand their territory through any means necessary. Unsurprisingly, Mussolini’s fascism saw the Italian people as destined to expand throughout the world. These expansionist and nationalist motives explain why he invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and ultimately sided with Hitler in his conquest of Europe. Hence, Italian fascism aimed to foment conflict, and, as such, it exacerbated the tensions that ignited World War II.


German Nazism

Similar to Italian fascism, German Nazism combined a policy of nationalism, expansionism, and racism that aimed to start another war on European soil. Like Mussolini’s fascism, Adolf Hitler’s Nazism was a nationalist and expansionist ideology. Nazism claimed that Germans needed to conquer new territory and supplant the people who lived there. This was because Germans were members of the Aryan race, which was superior to all other races.[v]Days before he invaded Poland, Hitler articulated his desire to obtain more “living space,” or lebensraum, for the German people. He emphasized that war was necessary to obtain land for the survival of the Aryan race, and only by exterminating the Poles “shall [Germans] gain the living space which [they] need.”[vi]Hitler’s words show that the invasion of Poland, and consequently World War II, were inextricably linked to his Nazism. Waging war enabled the Aryan race to take the land it so desperately needed, purge “inferior races,” and achieve hegemony over the world.


Hungarian Fascistic Ideology

While not as fascist as Italy or Germany, Hungary adopted a fascistic ideology that contributed to the outbreak of World War II. Suffering tremendous territorial losses following World War I, Hungary became “barely one-third of its prewar size.”[vii]Consequently, many Hungarians were enraged at the punitive peace imposed upon them by the Allies, vowing to restore Hungary’s territorial and political status. Fascistic ideas gained traction, and under the auspices of Admiral Miklós Horthy and Captain Gyula Gömbös, Hungary became increasingly authoritarian during the interwar period. Gömbös allied Hungary with Italy and Nazi Germany, since he wanted to restore the territory Hungary lost after 1918.[viii]As a result, Hungary participated in the German annexation of Czechoslovakia by annexing regions with Hungarian nationals, which drew international outrage and panic.[ix]Ultimately, by abetting Germany’s dissolution of Czechoslovakia for its own gain, Hungary helped destabilize the already fragile peace in Europe and initiate World War II.


In Conclusion

Fascism was primarily responsible for causing the Second World War, as its emphasis on nationalism, expansionism, and warfare escalated tensions in interwar Europe. Mussolini’s fascism saw war as a moral good and proclaimed that the Italian people needed to expand their territory, which led Italy to invade Ethiopia in 1935. Similarly, Nazism viewed Germans as members of the “master race” which needed “living space” to survive, a belief that led Adolf Hitler to invade Poland in 1939 and start World War II. Lastly, Hungary aligned itself with Italy and Nazi Germany, annexing parts of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Therefore, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and fascistic Hungary plunged the continent into the most devastating war in history.

What do you think was the primary cause for World War Two? Let us know below.

[i]Robert O. Paxton and Julie Hessler, Europe in the Twentieth Century, 5th ed (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth - Cengage Learning, 2012), 180.

[ii]Paxton and Hessler, 179.

[iii]Benito Mussolini, “Benito Mussolini: What is Fascism, 1932,” Internet Modern History Sourcebook, edited by Paul Halsall (New York, NY: Fordham University, 2019), accessed May 5, 2019,


[v]Paxton and Hessler, 284.

[vi]Louis P.  Lochner, What About Germany?(New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1942), 1-4.

[vii]Paxton and Hessler, 191.

[viii]Paxton and Hessler, 302.

[ix]Paxton and Hessler, 345.





Lochner, Louis P. What About Germany?New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1942.

Mussolini, Benito. “Benito Mussolini: What is Fascism, 1932.” Internet Modern History Sourcebook, edited by Paul Halsall. New York, NY: Fordham University, 2019. Accessed May 5, 2019.

Paxton, Robert O., and Julie Hessler. Europe in the Twentieth Century. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth - Cengage Learning, 2012.


Episode 4 in our Spanish Civil War history series looks at the key stages in the war.

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We left you last time in 1937 in a Spain that was increasingly reflecting the great divide that had occurred in Europe between right and left. On one side were the Nationalists, under the strong conservative leadership of General Franco. On the other, were the Republicans, with a Socialist Prime Minister, but increasing Communist influence.

The Nationalists had the upper hand in the first stages of the war, although the situation was starting to become more complex. The Republicans were trying to smash the Nationalist lines, while the Nationalists were trying to take the Republican’s territory in the east and north. This episode considers events as 1937 turned in to 1938, and ends by considering the greatest battle of the war.

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See you soon,

George Levrier-Jones



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Hi all,

The second episode in our series on the Spanish Civil War is out now!

rss feed | iTunes | Spanish Civil War Page | Other listening options

Spain’s true democratic experiment was tearing the country further and further apart. Traditionalist, conservative, Catholic Spain was increasingly at odds with urban, liberal, secular Spain. And in the fervent, charged atmosphere of 1930s Europe, both sides were increasingly viewing the other as an extremist enemy. Then in February 1936 an election was called.

This episode looks at that election and how its aftermath led to a very international civil war.

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See you next time,

George Levrier-Jones

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.


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.”



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.



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.


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

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

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

We continue our story of Italian colonialism in Libya, following our previous article on the Italian invasion.


The 1912 peace treaty between Italy and the Ottoman Empire may have ceased the two state’s hostilities but the Libyans persisted in their guerilla-warfare struggle against their new Italian occupiers. This transfer of sovereignty meant little to the average Libyan, as one commentator later stated:

The legal transfer of sovereignty… seemed meaningless to Muslims, who fought the war not in the name of Ottoman sovereignty over Libya, but in the name of Islam.

From 1912-1915, Libyan resistance was strongest in the eastern province of Cyrenaica, where the organized Sanussi Order rallied tribesmen under the leadership of Ahmed al-Sharif, equipped with arms left by the Ottomans. Their Libyan counterparts in Tripolitania weren’t as effective, having failed to muster a sizeable Berber army. In the resulting power-vacuum, Fezzan (Libya’s south) was vulnerable to French occupation. Indeed, in 1913, a French army was already en route to occupy the regional capital of Ghat.

Once again, Italy had to respond to provocative French actions in North Africa and hurriedly arranged an expedition numbering thousands into the Fezzan in July 1913. Despite capturing several key towns and oases, the Italian supply lines were overstretched and vulnerable to attack by Libyan resistance fighters. The commanding colonel, Miani, knew he had as little hope of conquering Fezzan as the Roman general Balbus did over 2000 years earlier. The Sanussi tribesmen struck under Ahmed al-Sharif’s brother, in August 1913. Within weeks, the brief Italian occupation of Fezzan had ended and the tide began to turn in favor of the Libyans. The garrisons in the towns of Edri and Ubari were massacred and the fort of Sabha retaken. The Italians, numbering just one thousand, had to flee to French Algeria for protection.

Image from the El Agheila concentration camp

Image from the El Agheila concentration camp

After several skirmishes, the Sanussi-led fighters began to push towards the coastal city of Sirte in April 1915. The Italians counter-attacked with a force of 4,000 soldiers under colonel Miani, to be supported by 3,500 Libyan auxiliaries under the leadership of Ramadan al-Suwayhli of Misrata. Ramadan had initially fought and later collaborated with the Italians, who by now had assumed he was loyal towards them. On April 29, the two sides met at Qasr Bu Hadi (south of Sirte). Just as the battle started, Ramadan ordered his soldiers to open fire on his Italian comrades. Sources described the battle as a massacre, with only a handful of Italians (Miani included) escaping. The Libyans captured thousands of rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, as well as artillery, and marched on to capture Misrata. The Italians panicked, with several garrisons abandoning their posts. On July 5, the Italians issued a general withdrawal order to the coastline, where they could be protected through Italian naval bombardments.


World War I and the British

Italy was already preoccupied with the outbreak of World War I, which resulted in much of the Italian force in Libya being recalled to the mainland. With the withdrawal of active Italian units, factional disputes began to arise amongst the tribal allies of Libya. Several ‘regional governments’ were set up across newly liberated territories, each headed by militant leaders. For example, in 1915, Western Tripolitania was controlled by Suf al-Mahmudi, and Eastern Tripolitania and Misrata was controlled by Ramadan al-Suwayhli, while Khalifa al-Zawi controlled Fezzan until 1926. Even though these regional governments were short-lived, it highlighted the fractured nature of the Libyan fighters. This fracture arose due to socioeconomic differences and quarrels over revenue.

Aid would soon arrive to Italy in an unexpected form though - the United Kingdom. As nominal allies in WWI, an enemy of Italy was therefore the UK’s enemy. In 1915, a British army inflicted a heavy defeat on the Sanussi army in the Egyptian desert, a defeat that saw Ahmed al-Sharif surrender his title as Grand Master of the Sanussi Order to Muhammad al-Idris (who would later go on to be King Idris in 1952).  In 1917, the British mediated an agreement between the Italians and Idris wherein the Italians acknowledged Idris’ control of Libya’s interior and also gave autonomy to Tripolitania’s numerous regional governments. Later that year, Idris (with the support of the British government) negotiated another agreement with the Italian government, which called for an end to all hostilities, the recognition of Italian and Sanussi zones in Cyrenaica, outlined security responsibilities of both parties, and called (ambiguously) for the disarming of the tribes.

Why would Italy make these concessions? After going through decades of peaceful penetration and years of war, why? The answer is simple. The Great War in Europe forced Italy’s hand; peace, or at least a ceasefire, would free up thousands of Italian soldiers to defend the Italian homeland. The ends justified the means and the Italians had to compromise with the Libyan nationalists, this did not leave the Italian government free from criticism for being “too impractical”. Italy passed statutes that gave limited self-governance to Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and elections for an ‘advisory parliament’. A more liberal approach to Libya was adopted. For now.


The first Arab Republic and the rise of Mussolini

In 1918, the Arabs of Tripolitania capitalized on Italy’s weakness and declared the independence of the Tripolitanian Republic (which is also the Arab World’s first republic) under the leadership of the Committee For Reform, based in Misrata and headed by Ramadan al-Suwayhli, the dominant figure in Eastern Tripolitania. Largely symbolic and seen by contemporaries as the “seed for an independent Libya”, the republic was very unsuccessful. Once again, tribal infighting prevented a united response against the Italians. The Tripolitanian Assembly failed to convene at all due to petty rivalries and the assembly was dissolved in 1923. In contrast, the Cyrenaican parliament of the same period met five times and was generally more effective than its counterpart. However, the establishment of political entities in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania was a significant attempt at establishing political unity between the two regions, although by the 1920s, Italy had other intentions.

August 1921 marked the arrival of the eleventh governor of Libya in 10 years, Giuseppe Volpi, to Tripoli amidst the raging wave of Fascism sweeping the Italian mainland. On October 28 1922, Benito Mussolini marched into Rome and began what would be a 21-year Fascist dictatorship of Italy. Mussolini, eager to gain domestic triumphs, set his eyes upon reconquering Libya. He authorized Volpi to conduct a Reconquista of Libya. Volpi arrived in a Libya where the Italians controlled nothing beyond the barbed-wire fences and where Libyan nationalists demanded even greater self-rule. By April 1922, Volpi amassed an army of 15,000 soldiers (20,000 by 1926) and made his intentions clear. The only way to rule Libya was direct rule from Rome. He summarized his policy as;

“Neither with the chiefs nor against the chiefs, but without the chiefs”

In early 1923, Volpi’s campaign began. What happened during and in the aftermath of the campaign was later described as textbook genocide by historians.

Supporting Italy’s soldiers were an armada of airplanes, artillery and even poison gas. Though Italy was a signatory of the 1925 Geneva Convention that banned chemical weapons in battle, Italian forces were recorded to have used poison gas as early as January 1928.

By the end of 1924, Tripolitania was subdued and the republic dissolved. It would take four more years before the Sanussi of Cyrenaica would surrender to the Italians. In 1929, the two regions and northern Fezzan were united into one entity, Libya, under the control of a military governor. Idris had fled to Egypt by then.


Fascist Italy’s Victory

Libyan authorities placed the casualty figure at 750,000. Large number of communities were uprooted and sent to concentration camps, where they were slaughtered. Contemporary sources describe the situation in the camps and major cities. Von Gotbery, a German visitor in Tripoli, stated:

“No army meted out such vile and inhumane treatment as the Italian army in Tripoli. General Kanaiva has shown contempt for every international law, regarding lives as worthless”

Knud Holmboe, a Danish Muslim, described a concentration camp he visited that was said to contain six to eight-thousand people:

“The children were in rags, half hungry, half starved…. The Bedouins…looked incredibly ragged…many of them seemed ill and wretched, limping along with crooked backs, or with arms or legs that were terribly deformed.”

In the spring of 1923, over 23,000 Libyan nomads were rounded up in concentration camps. The imprisoned Arabs would suffer from repeated armored charges, killing an average of 500 men, 30,000 sheep, and 2,300 camels.

By 1930, the rest of Fezzan was reconquered. By this time, General Graziani was in charge of Libya. He was praised in Italy as a national hero; in Cyrenaica he was called “Butcher Graziani”. The ‘credit’ should not be his alone though. Historian Geoff Simons argues that the Italian Colonial Ministry, the military governor, the Italian press, and the Italian Fascists all played their part in the genocide.

In March 1930, Graziani landed in Benghazi where he discovered that Libyan nationalists were still engaging in skirmishes, under the leadership of Omar al-Mukhtar. Omar himself was injured and Graziani believed he had a mere 600 guns at his disposal. Calling Omar a ‘poisoned organism that should be destroyed’, he believed that disposing of Omar al-Mukhtar would destroy the Libyan rebellion. Observers believed that Graziani had a personal vendetta against Omar but in fact, he was intent on destroying all Libyan resistance.

Graziani had no limits to his plans to destroy the Libyan resistance. He proposed bombing suspected rebel encampments with mustard-gas bombs. In June 1930, Graziani proposed the mass deportation of Libyans as a means of separating civilians from the guerilla fighters. The Italian general (and later Prime Minister) Pietro Badoglio wrote to Graziani and told him that the mass deportations of tribes were “a necessary measure”. In a letter, he went on to say:

“We must, above all, create a large and defined territorial gap between the rebels and subject population. I do not conceal from myself the significance and gravity of this action, which may well spell the ruin of the so-called subject population. But for now on the path has been traced out for us and we have to follow it to the end even if the entire population of Cyrenaica has to perish”


The end of the resistance

Graziani’s final move in Cyrenaica was the construction of a 200-mile long barbed wire fence along the Egyptian border in 1930. This was meant to restrict the movement of Omar al-Mukhtar’s guerilla forces into neutral Egypt.  On September 11 1931, Omar’s group of 12 was intercepted by Italian forces after being spotted by an Italian airplane. Omar was captured while the rest were gunned down. On September 12, he was sent to Benghazi on board an Italian destroyer and was correctly identified by Italian officials. The Italian general Badoglio relished the moment. He wanted to put Omar on show-trial and execute him in a concentration camp. Graziani organized a trial and the general consensus amongst Italians was that Omar should be executed. After an extremely short court hearing, in which the prosecutor was very sarcastic and partisan, the death sentence was handed to Omar.

Omar Mokhtar arrested by Italian Fascists

Omar Mokhtar arrested by Italian Fascists

At 9am on September 16 1931, Omar al-Mukhtar was hanged in front of 20,000 inmates in the Solouk concentration camp.

It took exactly 20 years to subdue Libya. The Italian Reconquista was brutal. Civilians and their livestock were deliberately bombed. Prisoners were thrown alive outside airplanes in mid-flight. There were reports of inmates being crushed to death by tanks. Thousands of suspected rebels were arrested and shot.  Though no definitive casualty number is available (the Italian colonial archives are still restricted), two-thirds (110,000 people) of Cyrenaica’s population were interned into concentration camps, of which 40,000 perished. On January 24 1932, General Badoglio declared that the war was over. The colonization of Libya could begin.

By Droodkin

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

And the next in the Libya series is here: 

Fourth Shore - The Italian Colonization of Libya


PS - Why not join our mailing list to hear about more great articles like this? Click here!



Libya: From Colony to Revolution by Ronald Bruce St. John, pages 1930-1936 (I recommend a read if you would like a greater detail of the events above)

Libya and the West: From Independence to Lockerbie by Geoff Simons, pages 7-12