The Information Environment of the Italian- Abyssinian War by Michael O’Sullivan

Italian_soldiers_in_Abyssinia_1935Today’s post will be a quick discussion of points raised by Christopher Duggan’s excellent book Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy. Regarding the information environment of the regime and its impact on public perception. While it is indulgent, I feel it is important to stress how crucial a role information plays in any society.
Firstly, it is important to realise that Fascist policies regarding information, did not spring out of the ground.  As a result of the chaotic nature of the unification of Italy (Risorgimento) and the fractured nature of both, society and the polity, the Kingdom of Italy had a historical interest a special interest in promulgating an educational system (information landscape) in which ensured the population were both “content to remain in the condition that nature assigned to them, and not encourage them to abandon it”… while also being “honest, industrious, useful to the family and devoted to the king and the fatherland” (p.180). As noted by Duggan, the perceived failure of this experience, coupled with the “degree factory-esque” nature of the system created an army of unemployed graduates who vented their frustrations at the sluggish state economy, as well as failing to mould students morally and emotionally (p.181). The Fascist state successfully tapped into these concerns and set forth a new educational program in which: “(schools) at all level and in all their instruction should educate the Italian youth to understand fascism, to renew itself in fascism and to live in the historical climate created by the fascist revolution” (p.182).
Certainly, it could be argued that the success of the program may be seen in the lead up to, duration and conclusion of the Abyssinia war. As part of its policy to “renew fascism” the state celebrated the successes of ancient Rome, espousing the ideology of mare nostrum and imperial expansion (p.250). Clearly, popular images of fertile, wealthy African colonies which would provide resources and a home for thousands of settlers of the metropole was not unique to Fascist Italy. However, the proliferation of Fascist ideas in Italian society was such, that the war received universal public support (pp.251-52). Clearly, as articulated in Duggan’s argument, this attitude was born out of popular belief, that the war was Italy’s first step in replacing the decadent imperial powers of Europe. As the “theory” when, the new men and women of Italy would achieve spiritual renewal through conflict and emerge as disciplined, energetic individuals unbound by decadent materialism, bourgeois humanitarianism, “craven comforts” and sedentary ways of life” (p.126).
Obviously, such sentiments illustrate the success of the state in controlling the information landscape of the country, in turn shaping the behaviour of its citizens. Duggan describes how throughout the Abyssinia war and aftermath, the government utilised films, postcards, songs and advertisements to drum up popular support for the conflict, by illustrating orientalist exoticism and lurid press details of uncivilized practices such as slavery child sacrifice which Italian civilisation would sweep away (p.260). Moreover, the state created an environment in which it could mobilise its population to make sacrifices for the war effort, such as asking couples to donate the metal in their wedding rings, and encouraged, both the conviction that Italy was asserting itself on the world stage and myriad of rumours detailing Ethiopia was a fertile land rich in untapped oilfields (p.255, 258-9). As such, this resulted in a festive atmosphere within Italy complete, with a marked popularity in songs such as “Africannia” (Little African girl) and “Ti Saluto e vado in Abissina” (Farewell, I am off to Abyssinia”). Compounding these attitudes, was a blanket censorship of the use of chemical weapons against the African armies. (p.262).
Perhaps, the worst consequences of the information environment of the Italian regime were the atrocities committed against Ethiopians by Italian solider. Many soldiers were young men raised entirely, in a society in which devotion to the Duce, patriotism, hatred of humanitarianism, exaltation of military virtues, and the inherent “rightness” of Fascist values, Italy’s civilizing mission and the benefits that the conquest would bring Ethiopia. (p.261-2). Unquestioning adherence to these values, created both passive accomplices and active perpetrators of mass murder against the Ethiopian population. These policies persisted throughout, the colonial occupation, in one notorious instance, in the wake of a terrorist attack in Addis Abba ordinary Italian colonists responded “around armed with manganelli (wooden batons) and iron bars bludgeoning any natives they came across in the streets”, none of these instances of violence were allowed to be reported on in Italy (pp. 263, 289).
Ultimately, I agree with Christopher Duggans assertion, that the policies of Fascist Italy created the following situation as noted by Florentine law Professor Piero Calamandrei: “Alas… we are, without being, aware of it a bookish people, who see the world through fantasies… For decades we have been confusing our desires with reality, our poetry with history”.  Or put another way by Jewish writer Franco Fortini: “If Fascism was to fall tomorrow and it was up to us young people to rebuilt Italy, we would not know what we wanted”. (pp.336-7). In other words, the fostering of an information society, in which critical thinking takes a backseat to fantasy, rationality with pure emotion,  and blind certainty is the dominant force, only serves to create a society that is both intolerant, and normalises/perpetuates atrocity. Moreover, it is argument that must be had in every country, at every point in its history.







Duggan, Christopher. (2012) Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy. London: UK,  The Bodley Head.

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