Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Robert A. Ventresca


Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 ushered in a new imperial phase that aimed to radicalize Italian Fascism at home and abroad. But the military commanders entrusted with conquering and pacifying Fascism’s imperial dominion, and moulding the Fascist “new man” through war, belonged to a conservative monarchist institution with ambiguous ties to Mussolini’s regime. This dissertation explores the relationship between the Royal Italian Army and Fascist empire-building in Africa and Europe, focusing on the Italian military occupation of Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941 and of Yugoslavia from 1941 to 1943. Drawing on ministerial, gubernatorial, division, corps, and army-level archival material, it examines the behaviour, attitudes, and decisions of Italian senior officers through three analytical lenses: political-legal; ideological-cultural; and, military-strategic. The result is a portrait of a military institution that, despite misgivings about Fascist style and bombast, functionally “worked towards the Duce.”

Although the army’s involvement in uniquely Fascist policies was restricted by the regime’s expectations that civil authorities would predominate in imperial administration, indigenous resistance to Italian rule ensured that military officers remained involved in most aspects of imperial politics. Yet, despite frequent jurisdictional or tactical conflicts between military authorities and Fascist functionaries, Italian generals never challenged Rome’s principal objectives. Rather, the themes and rhetoric employed by Italian military commanders and propagandists reflected the regime’s official line, from racialized representations of local populations to claims of a “civilizing mission” on the Roman model. Military propaganda aimed to brutalize Italian conscripts on occupation duty by delegitimizing resistance and presenting enemy insurgents and populations in subhuman terms. The army’s counterinsurgency strategies relied on mass repression and violence. Confronted by effective resistance movements, Italian generals resorted to draconian methods that — while rooted in military culture and colonial doctrine dating back to Italy’s nineteenth-century unification — coalesced with Fascism’s exaltation of violence and obsession with the prestige of force. Equating imperial expansion with the status of their nation and institution, and facing military circumstances that elicited a harsh response, a relatively unexceptional group of Italian generals easily found common ground with Fascism.