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History continues to define and transform our world. Events in 1940s China continue to causes tensions between China an America. The legacy of Communism and Colonialism continue to cause stability and instability, problems and agreements the world over. In short, history is so very important. The lessons you can learn from it, the events that happened, the differences between different ages and countries. Understanding where we as human beings have come from.

So that’s why we’ve decided to start History is Now, the global modern history magazine. Much like our other productions, the focus of the magazine will be on the 19th century, 20th century, Communism, civil war, and Colonialism. That said, from time-to-time we may be tempted to veer slightly off that course. Our articles will come from a variety of sources. We will be providing you with articles from some of our favorite history writers, while at other times we shall be trawling the archives of some of the best sites online to hand-pick the very best pieces just for you. You see, very often the best history has already been written – it’s just finding it that’s almost impossible. And as some of you will know, before our horizons expanded, we were making history podcasts - so in each magazine we will be telling you a bit more about one of our podcasts and inserting it in the magazine.

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The USA, China, the USSR and the nearly-nuclear Taiwan Straits Crisis is the main article! But what else is there in issue 1?

The first edition features articles on:

  • How the US, China and the USSR nearly became involved in a nuclear war over Taiwan
  • The story of the early stages of the brutal Italian colonization of Libya
  • Death in the Eastern Bloc - The harrowing tale of a freedom fighter in Communist Czechoslovakia
  • A number of bizarre tales involving lions in Western Europe
  • The life and times of the 'log cabin President' William Henry Harrison
  • Our first ever podcast!

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George Levrier-Jones

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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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.

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


This article was previewed on the site for a time and the full article is now in the magazine. Click here for more information!

Meanwhile the next articles in this series are here: 

The Libyan Experiment and Italian Subjugation under Mussolini

Fourth Shore - The Italian Colonization of Libya


And here is the start of the Italian invasion of Libya article...


The Derna, a cargo ship, departed from Turkey in September 1911. Its cargo hold was filled with 20,000 rifles, 2 million rounds of ammunition, and machineguns. These arms were destined for the Ottoman-Libyan port of Tripoli, where they would be distributed amongst loyal Libyan tribesmen. On September 24, Italy caught wind of the ship’s journey and issued a warning to the Ottomans that “sending war materials to Tripoli was an obvious threat to the status quo” and endangered the Italian community in Libya. The ship started unloading its cargo at Tripoli harbor on September 26. Infuriated, the Italian government issued a 24-hour ultimatum to the Ottoman Empire on the 28th: let the regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica fall under Italian jurisdiction and military occupation or else war would be declared. The Ottomans gave a reasonable and conciliatory reply but Italy would have none of it. On September 29, Italy declared war on Ottoman Libya, a decision described by the Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti as fulfilling una fatalia storica – a historical destiny.


And remember, the follow-up articles are here: 

The Libyan Experiment and Italian Subjugation under Mussolini

Fourth Shore - The Italian Colonization of Libya


The Italian siege of Tobruk

The Italian siege of Tobruk