Italy Annexes Libya Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Italy annexed Libya in a belated assertion of colonial power status, but its seizure of the old Ottoman dependencies resulted in a failed imperialist experiment.

Summary of Event

Italy’s annexation of the Ottoman dependency of Libya, comprising Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in North Africa, in 1911-1912 represented the fulfillment of some thirty years of Italian imperial aspirations in Africa. In keeping with the traditions of those imperialist years, by 1902 Italy had secured the concurrence of Germany and Austria-Hungary, its partners in the Triple Alliance, as well as that of France and Great Britain for an eventual move into the southern Mediterranean. Approval from Russia, the most enthusiastic of all given its incentive to hasten the demise of the Ottoman Empire, was secured by 1909. Italy had put forward its fairly tenuous claims for living space for its impoverished and overcrowded peasants in its southern region and its economic interests in North Africa, which it had started to develop in the early twentieth century. More important, Italy’s national ethos needed some balm to erase the memory of its embarrassing defeat in 1896 in its vain attempt to conquer Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in East Africa. Libya;annexation Imperialism;Libya Italy;annexation of Libya Libyan War [kw]Italy Annexes Libya (1911-1912) [kw]Annexes Libya, Italy (1911-1912) [kw]Libya, Italy Annexes (1911-1912) Libya;annexation Imperialism;Libya Italy;annexation of Libya Libyan War [g]Africa;1911-1912: Italy Annexes Libya[02720] [g]Italy;1911-1912: Italy Annexes Libya[02720] [g]Libya;1911-1912: Italy Annexes Libya[02720] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1911-1912: Italy Annexes Libya[02720] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1911-1912: Italy Annexes Libya[02720] [c]Colonialism and occupation;1911-1912: Italy Annexes Libya[02720] Giolitti, Giovanni Victor Emmanuel III Caneva, Carlo Pollio, Alberto Atatürk Aehrenthal, Alois Lexa von Conrad von Hötzendorf, Franz

For the expansionist-minded leader of Italy’s Liberal Party, Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti, there were additional reasons for annexing Libya. First, there was always the possibility that France, having absorbed Morocco and Algeria to the west of Tripolitania, might decide to move farther east. At the same time, having suffered diplomatic humiliation in a second major international crisis in Morocco, Germany could also conceivably opt for its own compensation in Libya. Giolitti also considered that it would be easier to take the land from a decadent Ottoman Empire than to press Italian claims to parity with the Austrians in Albania, whose location on the Adriatic Sea Rome viewed as strategically crucial to its “four-shores” policy. This policy anticipated the mare nostrum (our sea) drive of Benito Mussolini in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Giolitti’s other reasons had to do with internal Italian politics, especially winning the votes of the masses whom he was planning to enfranchise. Following an abrupt Italian ultimatum to the Turks on September 28, 1911, and with the concurrence of King Victor Emmanuel III while the Italian parliament was in recess, the government in Rome declared war the following day.

The Libyan War (also known as the Tripolitan War) was an ill-managed affair. Giolitti’s transparent excuses that the small number of Italian settlers were being ill treated or that Italian economic interests were being squeezed by the new government of Young Turks in Constantinople were not sustainable. In short order, Giolitti had Victor Emmanuel III issue a royal decree on November 5, 1911, placing Tripolitania and Cyrenaica “under the full and complete sovereignty of the kingdom of Italy.” The Italian parliament passed the corresponding enacting law on February 25, 1912.

Although the Italian forces had little difficulty overwhelming the coastal Ottoman garrisons after their initial bombardment from the sea, the Turks and Arabs offered spirited resistance in the interior. The Italian commander, General Carlo Caneva, and his chief of staff, General Alberto Pollio, made three serious miscalculations. First, they believed that the outnumbered Turks would quit after putting up a token fight. Second, the Italians had not anticipated that many native Arabs would side with their Turkish overlords, who had dispatched talented officers such as Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk) to lead the insurrection by Sanusi warriors. Third, the Italians had expected to fight a conventional war. After the initial engagements, however, the conflict degenerated into guerrilla action. General Caneva and General Pollio were forced to increase the size of the Italian force from some twenty thousand to nearly one hundred thousand soldiers. Despite this change, the hostilities seemed to drag on, with neither side establishing conclusive victory. Accordingly, the Italians decided to launch a second front, capturing Rhodes and other Dodecanese islands in the Aegean Sea that were also Ottoman dependencies.

The peace talks that opened between the two belligerents in July, 1912, concluded with the signing of a peace treaty in Ouchy, a suburb of Lausanne, on October 18, 1912. The catalyst, however, was not the Italian feat of arms but rather the outbreak of the First Balkan War, Balkan Wars (1912-1913) in which the Greeks, Serbs, Montenegrins, and Bulgarians decided to settle their own scores with the Ottomans. The Treaty of Ouchy Ouchy, Treaty of (1912) (also known as the Treaty of Lausanne) was an ambiguous document that left Italy in nominal control of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica but recognized some residual rights of the Ottomans, such as the supervision of Muslim religious affairs and the continuing acknowledgment of the Ottoman sultan as the Libyans’ spiritual leader.

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For the most part, the other Great Powers, which had generally shown indifference or political guile in tacitly or actively acquiescing to Italy’s conquest of Libya, exhibited similar ambiguity in accepting the fait accompli, even though some had gone through the motions of trying to mediate the conflict. Only Russia, which had the most to gain from a final solution of the “Eastern question” and the further weakening of the Ottoman Empire, gave Italy unqualified endorsement. France had also supported Italy’s action as part of its political maneuvering to annex Morocco, but its backing cooled in the wake of an incident in January, 1912, when the Italians boarded two French vessels suspected of aiding the Turkish war effort. Britain expressed concern over the further weakening and possible collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the consequent ascendancy of Russia in the Turkish Straits, which controlled the passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

The strongest objection to Italy’s conquest, however, came from its nominal partners in the Triple Alliance: Germany and Austria-Hungary. Many senior German officials mistrusted Italy as an ally, a policy that had been traditional since the days of Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Austria-Hungary was the power most concerned with the consequences of Italy’s aggressive stance. Austria’s foreign minister, Count Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal, announced that his government would not permit the extension of Italian military operations against the Ottomans into the Balkans, where the Austro-Hungarian Empire was perceived to have vital interests. Because the chief of staff of the Imperial Army, Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, wished to press Austrian opposition even further, Emperor Francis Joseph I was forced to relieve him of his command temporarily. Any relaxation of tensions that the European powers might have expected from the termination of hostilities between Italy and the Ottoman Empire in October, 1912, was entirely dissipated by the outbreak of the First Balkan War later that month.

An Italian desert outpost in Libya in December, 1911.

(Library of Congress)

In the meantime, Italy could glory in the feeling that it had finally acquired Great Power status through its conquest of Libya. This conquest proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, however, for Libya was costly to maintain, impossible to subdue for some two decades, and unattractive to Italian migrants, who preferred opportunities in the Americas over the prospect of living in a desert wasteland peopled by mostly hostile natives.

The conquest of Libya altered the pattern of domestic Italian politics. The moderate parties that had controlled the centers of power were giving way to even more vocal nationalist groups. These groups pressed for Italy to pursue a more forceful imperialist course, and such demands colored much of Italian policy leading up to its second invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. Libya;annexation Imperialism;Libya Italy;annexation of Libya Libyan War

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albertini, Luigi. The Origins of the War of 1914. Updated ed. Vol. 1. Translated by Isabella M. Massey. New York: Enigma Books, 2005. Explains how the Tripolitan War disrupted the unstable European balance of power and the shaky peace.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Askew, William C. Europe and Italy’s Acquisition of Libya, 1911-1912. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1941. Stresses not only the diplomatic history leading to the Tripolitan War but also the contributing factors of internal Italian politics and public opinion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barclay, Glen St. J. The Rise and Fall of the New Roman Empire: Italy’s Bid for World Power, 1890-1943. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973. Diplomatic history ridicules Italy’s stated excuses for invading Libya in 1911.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bosworth, R. J. B. Italy and the Wider World, 1860-1960. New York: Routledge, 1996. Presents an overview of Italian foreign relations from the mid-nineteenth century to 1960. Includes discussion of the Libyan annexation. Features tables and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giolitti, Giovanni. Memoirs of My Life. Translated by Edward Storer. New York: Howard Fertig, 1973. First published in 1923, this volume presents the recollections of the Italian statesman who was most instrumental in Italy’s decision to conquer Libya.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Lillian C. Libya: Qadhafi’s Revolution and the Modern State. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986. Well-written account stresses Italy’s difficulties in absorbing its Libyan conquest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowe, Cedric J., and F. Marzari. Italian Foreign Policy, 1870-1940. 1975. Reprint. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2002. Relates Italian policy regarding Ottoman Libya in 1911 to France’s policy in North Africa and Austria’s policy in the Balkans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">May, Arthur J. The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1867-1914. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. Includes discussion of the Austrian perspective on the Tripolitan War and the squabble between Aehrenthal and Conrad von Hötzendorf regarding Vienna’s policy during the conflict.

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