On 6 July, Angelo Del Boca, the most honest and fearless historian of Italian colonialism and its crimes, died aged 96.
He was a lifelong socialist, a former partisan fighter and journalist. As a historian, his work was concentrated on the demolition of the presumed “humane and generous” character of Italy”s imperialist adventures. He was rewarded by the open and fierce hostility not just of the country”s reactionary Right but also of the intellectual and historiographical currents of social-democrats and Stalinists for ever in the search for a “progressive” patrimony.
The myth of the Italians as anthropologically decent, incapable by nature of violence and abuse of power against other people, was born with the onset of Italy’s colonial adventures in Africa, when it conquered Eritrea in the late 19th century.
The Italians, the johnny-come-latelys among the European imperialists, presented themselves as the most progressive of the bunch, incapable of “remaining inert spectators of the struggle between civilisation and barbarity”. Of course the barbarous were the indigenous population, the civilised the bearers of the tricolour.
Del Boca exposed that “civilisation” ruthlessly. 100,000 Libyans were killed between 1911 and 1932; tens of thousand of prisoners were deported; Italy took part in atrocities in China in the course of the Boxer war, alongside the English, Russians, Japanese and Germans.
Italy seized ports and commercial openings, massacred civilians in Ethiopia, used mustard gas and other chemical warfare to destroy the resistance of the Negus. It participated directly in the enslavement in Somalia, where companies from Italy and Britain shared the spoils. It took part in ethnic cleansing in the Balkans against the Croats and Slovenians.
None of those crimes were punished, or even recognised. Del Boca’s 2005 book Italiani, brava gente? has never appeared on a school curriculum. Italy’s occupation of Libya from 1911 until World War 2 has been systematically ignored by Italian historians. (The other text published on it is by an American).
The first poison gas offensive against the Berbers, the first “manhunt of Arabs” in Tripoli, with torture and severing of ears, nose and limbs the rule, and the mass deportations all occurred under the liberal-democratic regime of Giolitti, in tandem with the Bank of Rome, eager to grab a part of the spoils of the rapidly disintegrating Ottoman empire. The later reconquest of Libya in 1922-31 by Mussolini’s fascists followed the route and methods pioneered by its predecessor, while adding its own contributions to the horror.
Bourgeois historiography, conservative and progressive, still remains incapable of recognising the responsibility and culpability of the Italian State and its military hierarchy for the crimes of its colonial past.
Today amidst the ever-rising mood of Italian nationalism, with tricolour-waving, mass spontaneous outbursts of anthem singing, army generals presiding over vaccination centres, and the murderous toll of racism growing apace, ENI, the huge state energy company is returning to challenge Turkey and France in Libya. Italian troops police the Sahel against the hungry and desperate in flight from hunger and repression.
All that compels us to render homage to Angelo Del Boca and his testimony for the truth, needed more than ever in the battles ahead both in Italy and elsewhere.