Fascism’s European Empire: Italian Occupation during the Second World War

TitleFascism’s European Empire: Italian Occupation during the Second World War
Publication TypeBook review
AuthorsMiljan, Goran
Book reviewed (all data)Rodogno, David. Fascism’s European Empire: Italian Occupation during the Second World War. Translated by Adrian Belton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 497 pp.
ISSN NumberISBN: 978-0-5218-4515-1
Full Text

The book Fascism’s European Empire: Italian Occupation during the Second World War by historian David Rodogno aims to provide new insight into Fascist Italy’s strategies and politics of occupation during the Second World War, specifically focusing on the period between 1940 and 1943. In dealing with various conquered territories, especially with those regarded as the Fascist spazio vitale (living space), the author draws on diverse archival sources, including some unpublished diaries and correspondences, to analyze Italy’s own “drive to the east,” since the book focuses largely on developments in the territories of Slovenia, Croatia, Dalmatia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, western Macedonia, and mainland and insular Greece (with slight diversions into metropolitan France and Corsica), that is, those places which comprised the Fascist imperium. The informational tables, in which the author presents various information about the population of occupied and annexed regions, their administrative structures, economic data, as well as information regarding people interned by the regime, are contained in the Appendix. All this information allows the reader to gain closer insight into the diverse structures of these territories and the regime’s recurring problems during the period of occupation.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, entitled “The Time of Idiocy,” the author emphasizes the differences between how the “Fascist regime envisioned a world organized” (42) and the actual outcome of the conquest and occupation of territories, regarded either as “piccolo spazio, which would be inhabited only by the Italian ‘race’ and a grande spazio, inhabited by other populations under Italy’s dominion” (48). The main argument is that the Fascist regime envisioned the conquest of its spazio vitale in what Renzo DeFelice described as the “logic of afterwards” (42), but it had to modify its plans because of diverse factors such as “Italy’s diplomatic, military and economic subordination to its [German] ally” which hampered its plans for achieving the Mediterranean domination (3). Therefore, the author rightly calls for an evaluation of Fascist Italy’s foreign policy aims within the broader context of its subordinate relationship with its more powerful Axis partner, Nazi Germany.

With this in mind, the author examines the distinctions between policies adopted and implemented in the occupied or annexed territories, which he attributes to the character of the territory. Issues such as whether a territory was annexed or occupied militarily, whether it belonged to piccolo spazio or grande spazio, and whether the territory was important to Nazi Germany’s foreign policy aims were most significant to the treatment of a particular holding. The author argues very convincingly that the Fascist regime saw its policies as vastly different from overseas European imperialism, which acted exclusively in its own interest, as well distinct from Nazi Germany’s plans of expansion and domination in Central Europe. For Italian Fascists, “Rome would rule its imperium like an enlightened despot,” or as Guiseppe Bottai stated in his book, Contributi dell’Italia al nuovo ordine [Italian contributions to a new order], “with the methods that the degree of civilization of the conquered peoples suggested” (49). The author effectively demonstrates that the Fascist regime created an international hierarchy of its own, in which the Italians would be the “organizer nation,” and within whose empire there would be territories “which were to become Italian provinces, or those which would obtain independence or autonomy under the aegis of Rome” (53–54). Therefore, Rodogno argues, unlike Nazism, Italian Fascists’ imperial strategy acknowledged the continued presence of various ethnic groups and nations within its imperial community, and indeed regarded this diversity as unproblematic, “provided they (non-Italians) submitted to Fascist domination” (298).

In the second part of his book Rodogno explores the importance of the economic valorization of the occupied territories, and the duel processes of the forced Italianization and collaboration of non-Italians and non-Fascists to the imperialist drive of Italy. He also examines the various attempts to implement the abstract political and ideological goals of the Fascist regime, coming to the conclusion that there was a tremendous amount of variety within Fascist imperial policy that was largely dependent on the economic development and social/ethnic composition of the population in the particular occupied territory. Rodogno highlights the collaboration of Fascist Italy with various ethnic, military, and religious groups within conquered territories as a major point of difference between the occupation policies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. He argues that such choice was made “by identifying a disaffected political faction, ethnic group or religious minority and fomenting its grievances so that it would sever its political, economic and social ties with the rest of the occupied society” (302). Ultimately, Rodogno argues persuasively that “it was circumstances and Italy’s weakness in the Axis that made the Italian forces more tactically flexible and opportunistic than the Germans” (331).

Drawing on a typology of collaboration, Rodogno explores the differences in Italy’s collaboration strategies with various groups and in different territories. He fleshes out the factors that contributed to distinctions in treatment, emphasizing the Fascists’ own evaluation of a group or territory’s significance to the wider political and military aims of the regime. The clearest example of such policies can be seen in the relations between Fascist Italy and the Croatian Ustasha, who established the Independent State of Croatia in April 1941. Although the Independent State of Croatia was a Fascist ally, Nazi Germany overwhelmed and used it as a pawn in its drive towards total domination of the Balkans. The presence of the Nazis encouraged collaboration between various anti-Ustasha groups, like the Četniks, with the Italian Fascist regime. However, this extensive collaboration was mostly restricted to military assistance. This reliance on collaboration stemmed not from some grand plan, but rather from the pragmatic needs of Fascist Italy attempting to mitigate the effects of the military superiority of Nazi Germany in the Balkans.

In the final chapters of the book, Rodogno deals with the issue of repression, refugees, and the Jewish Question. He examines the Fascist policy towards these issues, while simultaneously challenging the widely accepted notion of italiani brava gente (Italians, good people). In his opinion this notion of Italians as good people, constructed by the young Italian Republic “to promote the national myth of italiani brava gente, by exploiting the purported ‘humanity’ of the Italian people and soldiers during the war, was uncritically accepted and needs to be reexamined” (362). His argument is that the anti-Semitic laws implemented by the Fascist regime aimed to exclude the Jews from employment and prevent them from exercising their rights, “thus turn[ing] them into the pariahs of society” (407). Furthermore, Fascist anti-Semitism “whose aim was the ‘civil death’ and emigration of Jews” was different from the Nazi “redemptive anti-Semitism,” a fear of racial degeneration combined with the religious belief in the redemption of the Volk through the extermination of the Jewish population (416).  Thus, creating a “final solution” to the Jewish Question akin to that of Nazi Germany was not the primary concern, nor was it an essential element of Fascist Italy’s imperial policies.  However, on the basis of his examination of anti-Semitic laws, as well as the Fascists’ attitudes towards the Jews in the occupied territories, Rodogno concludes that “[a]fter the conquest of the spazio vitale, there would have been no place in the nuovo ordine [the New Order as it was envisioned by Fascist imperial politics] for either the Italian Jews or the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean” (407). Based on analysis of the available sources and the interpretations of various historians, Rodogno’s conclusion seems a plausible outcome of the Italian imperialist policies. Even though anti-Semitism was not central to Fascist imperial ideology, it was nevertheless present as such, and cannot be “described as aimless” (406).

In conclusion, the book presents an interesting and well documented explanation of Fascist foreign policy aims and achievements, and its strategies and policies regarding collaboration, refugees, and Jews. Drawing on various sources such as military and administrative documents, personal observations, and official correspondence, Rodogno manages to successfully outline the main aims and achievements of Fascist occupation, as well as show how a variety of unforeseen obstacles altered ideas on how to achieve Fascist imperium and nuovo ordine, or ordine nuovo, as the two were interchangeable. David Rodogno’s book presents an important reference for anyone dealing with the Second World War, especially in the Balkans where the Fascist influence and its politics had tremendous impact and significance.


Goran Miljan

Central European University