The Italian colonial question and the diplomatic clash for control of the Mediterranean (1945-1951)

(To Emanuele Di Muro)

Among the main issues that arose at the table of the peace treaty between Italy and the Allied countries, there was the colonial question.

The military operations of the Second World War had highlighted the importance of the Italian territories, especially Libya, in a large-scale conflict.

London could obtain total control of the routes through the Suez Canal, preserving its oil interests in the Middle East, by creating military bases that could be used to intervene in the European and Middle Eastern area in the event of an aggression by the 'Soviet Union. To implement this it was necessary to give it a favorable arrangement of the Italian possessions.

Location of Great Britain

Britain's main purpose was to limiting access to the Mediterranean Russia and strengthen the internal stability and external security of the Empire.

The postwar period was difficult for London. The great empire was beginning to creak. The conflict had brought major problems to the system: on the one hand the crisis in India, on the other that of relations with Egypt and the Middle East.

With the end of the Second World War from India to Palestine all the key points of the empire's routes were being undermined, a critical situation to which was added the age-old question of the former Italian colonies in Africa.

The possessions of the Beautiful country in fact, on the continent they cut the imperial lines of communication, effectively exposing them to possible interference by the Soviet Union.

Position of the Soviet Union

On the other hand, the USSR pressed for positions in the central and eastern Mediterranean. Her requests came to ask if she could install in Tripolitania and the Dodecanese Islands to balance British positions. During the war they had even asked the Badoglio government, after recognizing it as legitimate, to be allowed install Soviet bases between Bari and Brindisi.

The Russians cited as a reason for having contributed heavily to the victory in the Second World War, for this reason they fully demanded a place in the warm seas.

The Soviet claim of the Dodecanese islands would have facilitated traffic control towards the straits, also allowing to place strongholds in the air-naval control of the area. This aspect confirmed what was already proposed by Moscow in Yalta with the revision of the Montreux convention on the free navigation of the Straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.

Russia needed to ensure territorial contiguity to the territories of its bloc acquired with the war, protecting its borders as far as the Adriatic through the defense in depth implemented through the positions in North Africa.

The role of Italian possessions

As anticipated, Great Britain was the most sensitive power to the Italian colonial question. The main reasons were due to the crisis of the imperial system and the need to guarantee the freedom of navigation between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean that the Italian colonies could threaten.

The first London projects for the arrangement of Italian possessions already date back to the 1941 occupation of Italian East Africa. For this in the Horn of Africa, London hypothesized the creation of one Great Somalia (map) which was supposed to reunite the territories populated by Somali people (Italian Somalia, British Somaliland, French Somaliland or Djibouti, Ogaden - not yet returned to Ethiopia - and Somali territories in northern Kenya).

In the Mediterranean, the British target was Cyrenaica, which during the conflict had proved to be a strategic and important area for the control of Mediterranean traffic.

Moscow took a stand on the settlement of the Italian colonies during the Potsdam conference (July 17 - August 2, 1945), where Molotov advanced the Soviet right to obtain positions in the Mediterranean. Both Stalin and Molotov urged that the agenda relating to the Italian colonies be included in this conference, arguing the need to entrust those territories under trusteeship, in accordance with the San Francisco charter, jointly with the victors of the conflict, specifying L'Russian interest in Tripolitania.

Location of the United States

The US brought the proposal for a trusteeship, or a trust administration, which in the intentions of the San Francisco map of 1945, was supposed to replace the international mandate, applied after the First World War by the League of Nations. The political aspect of this proposal was to present the USA as a power far from the colonial aspirations of the European states, but above all disinterested in an area of ​​historical British control. The declared purpose of the USA was to bring all the territories controlled by foreign powers to administrative autonomy and independence.

Strategically, thanks to the experience gained during the landing operations in Sicily in 1943, the USA too had learned the importance of having positions in the middle of the Mediterranean. The growing international crisis with the Soviet Union, in fact, led, on January 21, 1948, the USA to restart the military air base near Tripoli (photo). In the Horn, the United States supported the Negus' policy towards Eritrea. From a territorial point of view, the US obtained the possibility of settling in Ethiopia with military bases to avoid Soviet entry into the area.

The signing of the peace treaty with Italy did not solve the problem, although Italy was forced to renounce sovereignty over the colonies. The so-called Truman Doctrine did nothing but complicate the situation. The United States tried to protect its own interests, especially oil, without ever making territorial demands, faithful to their formal anti-colonialism. The main victorious nations of the Second World War (USA, USSR, UK and France) did not find an agreement.

Between March 1947 and September 1948, the foreign ministers and their deputies held several meetings to try to resolve the matter. A commission of inquiry was set up, also wanted by the Arab League, aimed at testing the intentions of the populations.

It was during the commission's investigation that the facts known as "Massacre of Mogadishu" of 11 January 1948 (photo).

1948 was also important because of the Italian political elections, shifting the diplomatic confrontation into Rome's internal affairs. The victory of the Christian Democrats gave relief to the Western powers who began to see an Italy increasingly integrated into the system that a series of diplomatic and political initiatives were forming: talks for entry into the Brussels Pact, the Council of Europe, the Atlantic Pact.

The failure of the Paris Conference of Foreign Ministers (13-15 September 1948) brought the Italian colonial question to the General Assembly of the United Nations. The pro-Western and pro-Soviet blocs also began to take shape in this assembly. To the aspirations of the great powers we must add those of regional powers such as France which claimed that Italy had to regain control of its possessions - without the strategic Fezzan for Paris. Egypt and Turkey claimed, respectively, portions of Libya (oasis of Cufra and part of Eritrea to be united with Anglo-Egyptian Sudan) and the ancient Ottoman provinces stolen with the war of 1911.

Italy, although defeated, fully believed it had to return to its former colonies as a fiduciary power. This was presented through gods memoranda where the economic and demographic purpose of the Italian presence in Africa was specified and not strategic. In fact, in the defense plans of the Italian navy, the African coasts were not considered strategic for the defense of the peninsula, for this purpose the islands of Linosa, Lampedusa and Pantelleria were enough, once the alleys of the pce treaty were finished.

The final solution

Britain tried to guide the decisions of the Assembly in the spring session of 1949, through the secret Bevin-Sforza agreement (foreign ministers of Great Britain and Italy). This agreement provided for a three-way disappearance for Libya, divided into mandates on a geographical basis, all under the supervision of the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations. The plan included Cyrenaica administered by Great Britain, Fezzan from France and Tripolitania from Italy. This proposal was opposed by that of the Soviet Union which assumed Libya divided into three mandated administrations under the control of Moscow, London and Paris.

Italy began to seriously believe that it could return to Africa, also sure of the good propaganda work with South American countries, but saw the proposal fail, as did Great Britain, the main sponsor of the agreement. The assembly was thus updated in the autumn of 1949. The failure of the agreement brought out for the first time the movement of decolonization, supported by the Arab League, recently liberated countries and the Soviet bloc.

With resolution 289 of 21 November 1949, the General Assembly of the United Nations: assigned Somalia to Italy in International Trust Administration for ten years; he declared the Independent Libya no later than January 1, 1952 and assigned federated Eritrea to Ethiopia. Libya was subjected to the Senussite brotherhood, long supported by the British against Italy, which proclaimed Idris I king of Libya on December 24, 1951. The character of Idris's foreign policy immediately proved to be aligned with the Arab League which he joined in 1953. Towards the West, Libyan politics was very open, even providing some military bases to the US and Great Britain, while it kept secluded from the Soviet Union.

Thus ended the Italian colonial question which in fact sanctioned the decline of the British Empire to the advantage of the informal American one.

Images: web / Library of Congress

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