Monday, September 7, 2020

The lure of imperial dreams: What are our leaders going to do to us?

Donald Trump is often represented wearing some kind of imperial garb. Actually, his presidency may have been less imperial than that of his predecessors. Yet, his style as president is very much "imperial" and his winning slogan in the 2016 elections, "MAGA," (make America great again) has a deep imperial ring to it. Earlier on, Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Italian government between the two world wars, was destroyed (and with him Italy and not just Italy) by his Imperial ambitions.


When things get tough, people seem to think that they need tough leaders and this is a clear trend in the world, nowadays. It is a deadly mechanism that tends to bring dangerous psychotic personalities to the top government positions. I already noted in a previous post how imperial ambitions coupled with incompetence (both common conditions in high-level leaders) can destroy entire countries. 

Here, let me examine an interesting feature of how Benito Mussolini (1883 -1945) ruled Italy. Despite his warlike rhetoric, during the first phase of his government he pursued a moderate foreign policy, avoiding wars. Then, the second phase of his rule was characterized by a series of disastrous wars that led to the destruction of Italy (and not just of Italy) and to the downfall of Mussolini himself. Whether this story can tell us something about a possible second term for Donald Trump as president, is left to the readers to decide. 

Benito Mussolini and the Italian Empire: How Leaders' Absurd Decisions Lead to Collapse.

Benito Mussolini ruled Italy for 21 years after the "March on Rome" of 1922. Many things happened during those years but, on the whole, you could think of the Fascist rule as having two phases: one before and the other after the turning point that was the invasion of Ethiopia, in 1935. 

During his first 12 years of rule, Mussolini pursued a relatively moderate foreign policy, carefully avoiding major conflicts. He didn't even increase the military budget that the previous government had slashed down after that WW1 was over. Things changed abruptly in the early 1930s. Maybe it was because of the financial crisis of 1929, maybe because the British coal production was starting to show signs of decline -- and Britain was the main exporter of coal to Italy. Or maybe it was something else that went on in the high ranks of the Fascist Party, or perhaps inside Mussolini's head. In any case, the government started increasing the state budget, and that involved doubling the military expenses that reached over 20% of the government budget. The government was putting the economy on a war footing.

Preparing for war usually leads to starting one. It happened with a bang (literally) when Italy sent a large contingent of troops to attack Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa. It was no minor affair: the sources speak of more than half a million troops engaged in the campaign. After a few months of war, a few hundred thousand civilians exterminated, and various war crimes on both sides, (all things we don't do anymore, as we all know). Ethiopia was defeated and annexed. The King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III was proclaimed "Emperor of Ethiopia," and the "Italian Empire" was born. As you can see in the image, the Italian propaganda of the time wasn't too shy in showing that chemical weapons had been used against the Ethiopians  (of course we don't do that anymore), even though that was never officially admitted.

What's written in history books acquires a certain aura of inevitability and that's true for Italy conquering Ethiopia. It happened, so there had to be a reason for it to happen. But let's pause for a moment to consider the logic of the event. Why exactly did the Italian government take this decision? That's not an easy question to answer. Take a look at the map below, and see how the Italian Empire was arranged in the years that followed the Ethiopian conquest:

The first thing you note is how the Italian Empire was formed of two chunks of land not connected to each other. In between, there was the Sahara desert, practically impossible to cross. By sea, Ethiopia was reachable from Italy either by going through the Suez Canal or by circumnavigating Africa, both impossible if opposed by the main naval power of the time: Britain. And it was not just a question of distance: the Italian colonies in the Horn of Africa were part of a puzzle of different regions controlled by potentially hostile, and surely more powerful, empires: the British and the French. Setting up a major colony in that region was risky, to say the least. More correctly, it was a completely stupid idea, as it was to be clear in a few years.

Let's take a look at the situation from the viewpoint of Britain. At that time, the British Empire was the largest and the most powerful in the world, but it was not unchallenged. The rivalry was especially strong with the French, who maintained a smaller empire and who never had completely renounced to their dreams of world domination. In the Horn of Africa, France controlled an area, French Somaliland, that was strategically crucial for the control of the maritime traffic in the Red Sea. That, of course, could negate the advantages that the British had with the control of the Suez canal.

So, the Horn of Africa was a three-player strategic game involving Italy, France, and Britain (Ethiopia had no outlet to the sea). The British traditionally excelled in this kind of game and their strategy, in this case, was to play Italy against France. It was a strategy that had already worked in stopping the French expansion into the Mediterranean Sea. For the British, the best way of ensuring that the ports on the Red Sea stayed out of French hands was by having the Italians move in. 

One further reason for this attitude was that the British tended to see Italy as their traditional ally. Probably, in 1935, they couldn't imagine that Italy would turn on them just a few years later, but they may have reasoned that even if that were to happen, that couldn't have been a big problem. By far, the Italians were the weakest player in the game being played in the Horn of Africa. Their colonies there could continue to exist only as long as the British navy allowed them to be resupplied from the mainland. They were, at all effects, hostages to the British. That explains why, in 1935, Britain didn't do anything to stop Mussolini's plans of conquest, except engaging in a series of ineffective economic sanctions that only succeeded in enraging the Italian public and strengthening the Italian resolve to defeat Ethiopia. 

Did the Italian government, and Mussolini in particular, realize that they were being played by the British as an anti-French tool? Probably not, but it is also possible that they did, but they greatly overestimated the advantages of the Ethiopian conquest.

Reviewing this story nearly one century later, it is impressive to see how naive and overoptimistic the Italian expectations were. Incredibly, Ethiopia was expected to produce precious metals and even crude oil -- but it was pure illusion. Even more incredibly, Italy was sitting over the petroleum resources of Libya that years later were to become among the most abundant of the world -- but these resources were not exploited at that time. As a further layer of incredibility, the existence of these Libyan resources was at least suspected in the late 1930s. It is an interesting speculation to think of what the history of the world would have been if the Italian government had dedicated to Libyan oil just a one-hundredth of the resources it had wasted in Ethiopia. The concept of the "Italian Empire" would have been completely different (and maybe you would be reading this post in Italian). 

But the Italian government, and Mussolini in particular, were stuck in an obsolete view that saw Italy as the "Proletarian Nation," perpetually in need of a "Place in the Sun" to host its burgeoning population. Even worse, most people in Italy seemed to be affected by a collective form of delusion that made them believe that, somehow, Italy was actually rebuilding the ancient Roman Empire. No joke: everybody loved the idea. The enthusiasm was nothing less than stellar and the documents of that time are still widely available for us to look at and scratch our heads about. 

It goes without saying that Italian peasants never flocked to Ethiopia to build a new imperial province there. Even though the land may have been free, setting up farms in a foreign country requires economic resources to invest in the task, and those resources just weren't there. The Ethiopian conquest remained a horrendous burden for the Italian state that was forced to keep there an army of more than 100 thousand troops to "pacify" the region, plus an even larger number of civilians to take care of the administration. 

The whole madness came to an end when Italy declared war on Britain in 1940. Did the Italian government realize that they were condemning to death or captivity the whole army of Ethiopia? Didn't they realize how badly they would have needed 120 thousand fully-equipped troops closer to home? One can only imagine that if these troops had been available in North Africa, maybe the Italian defeat at El Alamein wouldn't have taken place (and, again, you might be reading this post in Italian). 

As things stood, the British were surely happy to see that the Italians had renounced to a sizeable fraction of their armed forces just when they badly needed them. The British could simply have starved the Italians in Ethiopia. But let's say in honor of the Perfidious Albion that they allowed to the Italian troops a chance of a honorable fight before surrendering. It was hopeless anyway: it was over in just a little more than one year. The Italian Empire disappeared just about five years after its creation. At least, it may have gained a place in the historical records as the shortest-lived empire ever. 

What did Mussolini have in mind that led him to such a monumental mistake? What we can say is that the Ethiopian campaign was just one of the several mistakes that followed: afterward, Italy's armed forces intervened in Spain, in Albania, in France, in Greece, in North Africa, in Russia, in England and, in a final disastrous mistake, Italy declared war on the United States in 1941. Too many wars for a small country that dreamed to be an Empire, but wasn't one.

What was going on in Mussolini's head at that time? From what we know from the documents available, Mussolini was a lone man in power. He had no friends, only adulators. No collaborators, just yes-men. No disciples, only adorers. And no close family, except his lover, Claretta Petacci, a woman of honor who was the only person faithful to him up to the last moment of his life. 

It may well be that, already in the 1930s, Mussolini had passed the "criticism barrier." No one could contradict him and what he said was supposed to be obeyed without questions. Over the years, that was enough to turn a shrewd politician, as the young Mussolini had been, into a bumbling idiot. I wrote in a previous post about Mussolini that:

There is the possibility that his brain was not functioning well. We know that Mussolini suffered from syphilis, an illness that can lead to brain damage. But a biopsy was performed on a fragment of his brain after his death and the results were reasonably clear: no trace of brain damage. It was the functional brain of a 62 year old man, as Mussolini was at the time of his death. . . . the case of Mussolini tells us that dictators are not necessarily insane or evil in the way comics or movie characters are described. Rather, they are best described as persons who suffer from a "narcissistic personality disorder" (NPD). That syndrome describes their vindictive, paranoid, and cruel behavior, but also their ability of finding followers and becoming popular. So, it may be that the NPD syndrome is not really a "disorder" but, rather, something functional for becoming a leader. . . . An NPD affected leader may not be necessarily evil, but he (very rarely she) will be almost certainly incompetent. . . . The problem with this situation is that, everywhere in the world, NPD affected individuals aim at obtaining high level government positions and often they succeed. Then, ruling a whole country gives them plenty of chances to be not just incompetents, but the kind of person that we describe as "criminally incompetent."

Translating all this to our times, the impression is that we are watching a horror movie in which you don't know exactly who can turn into a monster as the story unfolds. We elect leaders on the basis of what they did in the past and on what they tell us they will do. But of what they'll decide to do once they are in power, what can we say? And the Titanic keeps steaming ahead in the night. 




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)