US and World Politics

Imperialist Attacks on Africa

And the genocide you never heard of

By Chris Kinder

The Holocaust was born at the meeting point of two traditions that marked modern Western Civilization: the anti-Semitic tradition, and the tradition of genocide of colonial people. —Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, New York 2004

In January of 2020, a conference called by Angela Merkel of Germany was held in Berlin to promote a cease fire in the on-going civil war in Libya, and an embargo on arms shipments to the combatants. Germany, Russia, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) all signed on. But this was a big joke and they all knew it. On the very day that these “leaders” took their photo op at the conference, planes full of arms were heading to Libya from the UAE—backed by Russia and Egypt—to Khalifa Hifter’s forces in Benghazi, Libya. Turkey and Qatar were also deeply into arms shipments, including by sea, to the “UN recognized” government in Tripoli.1

Imperialist domination of Africa, and its oil wealth, is what is at the core of this. The overthrow, and murder, of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 is only the most recent event in this miserable saga today. This was done to protect U.S. and EU interests, and prevent Libya from using its oil proceeds to establish an African currency. The prosperous North African country was torn to pieces and divided up by gangs of Islamic extremists at the behest of European and U.S. imperialist powers.

In order to fully understand this, we must examine Libyan history, including the virtually unknown genocide, from the beginning. It starts with Italy.

Genocide in Libya began with Italy

The claims of Italy over the Libyan portion of North Africa date back to the 19th Century. In the first Congress of Berlin (1878), France and Britain claimed Tunisia and Cyprus respectively. Later, in a series of secret treaties, these two powers supported Italy’s claims on Libya, as a way to weaken that country’s connection to its Triple Alliance with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These agreements paved the way for Italy’s switch to the British-French-Russian Entente in the middle of the Great War. It was the only power ever to change sides in a major inter-imperialist conflict.

Imperialist contest for colonies
in Africa

By the early 1900s, the imperialist regimes of Europe were on a move to prepare for what they knew was coming, a war for imperialist domination of the world. That meant the struggle for colonies, largely for possessions in Africa. Italy—like Germany—only fully united as a country in 1870, was behind on asserting its colonial ambitions in Africa compared to Britain and France...that is, until its war with Ottoman Turkey in 1911-12.

This short war—a prelude to both the Balkan Wars and World War I—represented the beginning of the dismantlement of the Turkish-controlled Ottoman Empire, which at the time was still in control of North Africa.2 In it, Italy conducted a brutal massacre of thousands of civilians in Tripoli, systematically moving through neighborhoods with murders and destruction. It has been called the 1911 Tripoli Massacre. One of many such atrocities which accompanied European expansion into Africa for many decades, this slaughter included the burning alive of 100 refugees sheltering in a Mosque.3

Libyan resistance of colonization emerges

Italy won that war, and came into control of Libya...sort of. Libyans of differing ethnic groups united to oppose Italian occupation. The Kingdom of Italy never managed to conquer the resistance, and was forced to make agreements over territorial control with local groups. Groups such as the Sanusi, a Sufi-inspired reformist organization had developed into a social force, in the wake of the departure of Ottoman control in North Africa. While based on Islamic tradition and culture, the Sanusi, or Sanusiyya movement, organized social structure based on modernizing ideas such as education, promoting trade, and anti-colonial resistance.

The Italians shifted gears, organized Italian immigration to the colony, promoted cultural links with natives, including schools to teach Italian to locals and other cultural exchanges. But Italy directly controlled no more than the urban areas in the narrow coastal areas of Libya up to and during World War I.

Fascists defeat the Italian
working class

After the war, the Italian ruling class renewed their colonizing efforts, but to little avail. Largely, this was due to the Russian Revolution. The Revolution of 1917 inspired and created communist parties throughout Europe, and 1919 saw more rebellious movements throughout the world than any year before or since. Italy’s Communist Party was the biggest in Europe.

Workers were rebelling in strike waves throughout Italy, and colonial ambitions were on the back burner. But the communist leadership failed to mount a sufficient defense against Mussolini’s Black Shirts. These gangs of fascist thugs broke up strikes in their march across Italy, attacked communists and unions, and soon brought Mussolini to power in 1922.

Once in power, the Italian fascists moved to remake Italy, and that included an aggressive colonial policy. Mussolini declared that he was creating a “New Roman Empire” in North Africa.4 Mussolini ramped up Italian settlement in Libya, but was still frustrated by local resistance. He ordered the abolition of the former policies of cultural interchange with local groups, and imposed a violent conquest policy. Schools to teach Italian to natives and other cultural contacts were dropped, and education for natives was banned above the sixth grade. Based on an ideology of racist supremacy in which Arab Muslims were seen as sub-human, Mussolini’s military used tactics unmatched in brutality at any other time during colonial wars in Africa.

Fascist tactics target
native resisters

By 1930, Barqa’s (Eastern Libya’s) tribesmen were well organized under tribal leadership, including that of Umar al-Mukhtar, who was a leading fighter for many years. Mukhtar was captured and publicly hanged in 1931 before a coerced crowd of witnesses. He is still recognized in Libya today as a hero.

Italian tactics also included using tanks, closing borders, and dropping rebels to their deaths from airplanes. The fascists especially targeted civilians who provided food and other aid to the resistance fighters.

The worst of this violent repression among civilians occurred in the Eastern region of Barqa, where the Sanusiyya movement had posed the biggest threat to Italian troops. The rebels had developed a network of spies in Italian controlled cities, and they conducted hundreds of guerrilla raids. The fascists engineered a forced march of 110,000 civilian families over three months from Barqa across desert lands to 16 horrifying concentration camps in the desert of Sirte. There, most in six of these camps were starved to death; by 1934, only about one third of these victims were still alive.

Mussolini’s crimes in Africa impressed the Nazis

The Nazis were very impressed by this barbaric Italian repression, and looked at these genocidal policies as a model for success. The Nazis took in the lessons about forced transfer to concentration camps, and even the use of gas to kill people. The Italians mainly committed genocide by starvation, but they did develop the lethal gas method which the Nazis soon used massively in the Holocaust.

Nazi leaders like Heinrich Himmler (head of the SS) and others also used Italian fascism as a model for moving about 15 million Germans into conquered territory in East Europe. They sent SS officers to Italian colonial schools for trainings, and accompanied boatloads of Italian immigrants with great fanfare, as they headed to Libya to occupy the stolen land of the natives.5

U.S. and European imperialism are complicit

The condemnation of the German Holocaust after the war was of course justified, but it was hypocritical at the same time. The U.S. made no serious effort to stop the Holocaust during the war. U.S. President Roosevelt, for instance, refused pleas to order the bombing of the rail lines in Germany known to be used for transporting Jews and other victims to the camps in Germany and occupied Poland.

The U.S. itself was also guilty of genocide in the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and with the UK, in the fire bombings of Hamburg and Dresden in Germany. All of these bombings took place very late in the war, when both adversaries were already clearly defeated (Japan had been appealing for peace as early as 1943); and all of these bombings were aimed at civilians, not war production.

U.S. and UK genocidal atrocities

Before and during the war, there were financial and industrial connections in the 1920s with Germany by U.S. ruling-class elements, which continued right through the war. And under the guise of loans to help Italy pay its debts incurred under the Versailles Treaty of 1919 after World War I, J.P. Morgan bankers in the U.S., along with the Bank of England, decided in 1925 to help financially stabilize Mussolini’s regime in Italy. This was accomplished by the establishment of single central Italian bank, the Bank of Italy, in 1926.6

Italian fascism was minimized in western propaganda

In 1935, after the repression of Libyan resistance had mostly been completed, Mussolini expanded his imperial fantasies with the invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). This invasion also included crimes against humanity, though not on the same scale. It got much more international recognition than the genocide in Libya, contributed to the demise of the League of Nations, and was an immediate prelude to the Second World War.

At first, the lack of attention to the Libyan experience was due to the banning of all journalists except Nazis in Libya by the Italians during 1929-34. During this time, many public figures such as Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and poet Ezra Pound willingly added to that by expressing open support for Mussolini and Italian fascism.

Imperialist powers cover-up genocide…

After the war, U.S.-led Western attitudes toward Italian fascism was that it was moderate compared to German Nazism, and not capable of horrific genocidal crimes. These lies—a myth, actually—portrayed Italian fascism as not a serious problem. The post-war government of Italy went along with this. As late as 1981, a movie by Mustafa Akkad about the genocide in Libya made with real documentary footage—Lion of the Desert—was banned by Italy.

A 1989 documentary made in the UK on the same subject—A Fascist Legacy—was given a similar treatment by the “democratic” Italian government: they bought it and shelved it. This film was based on the work American historian Michael Palumbo, who had discovered classified files showing a post-war cover-up of war crimes by both Italian fascist generals and officials of the war-time allies.7

...and pursue colonialism

Just as the U.S. in 1945 wanted to recruit German scientists for the next war against the USSR—despite the horrific mass murder of Jews and others in Nazi concentration camps—it also wanted to recruit Italian rightists into the new war against communism. From 1943, Libya was under British and French war-time occupations, followed by an imposed Sanusi Monarchy in 1951; and all of these regimes were willing partners in the cold war.

This anti-communist entanglement helped prevent any exposure of the Libyan genocide. When post-war Libya demanded reparations from Italy for the genocide, Italy refused, arguing that Libya was part of Italy, and so ineligible for compensation. But Italy had earlier released all claims to Libya in a 1947 peace treaty with the Allies! The Italian denial of compensation was reinforced however, when the Allies allowed Italy to refuse demands for a war crimes trial by the Ethiopian and Yugoslav governments at the UN. The Libyan government formally maintained its claims due to pressure from the Shura (parliament), but didn’t push it because it needed financial support from the Allies.8

The occupying Allies also did little to stop the persecution—including quite a few murders—of Jews in Libya after the war. The Jewish population had mainly come from or aligned with Italy during the colonization; and many had remained there after the enactment of fascist anti-Semitic laws under Mussolini. Most of them fled to the new state of Israel in 1949-51 due to this pressure.9

U.S. domination of the world ramps up

After World War II, the U.S.—the only major nation in the war that escaped massive deaths and destruction—quickly moved to establish “the American Century” of world imperialist dominance. In an era of anti-colonial nationalist uprisings, particularly in Africa, the U.S. focused on capital penetration backed up with military support rather than outright colonial occupation. As Lenin explained in his seminal Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), the exportation of capital is at the core of imperialism.

Africa was at the stage in which the U.S. taught a lesson of its dominance to its allies. In 1956, Gamal Abdul Nasser—the head of a military coup which toppled the British-backed King Farouk of Egypt in 1952—nationalized the Suez Canal. British and French troops, soon invaded Egyptian territory in an attempt to reverse this affront to imperialist interests. The Soviet Union offered military aid to Egypt, but the U.S. stepped in to support Egyptian ownership of the Canal, keep it open to trade, and provide military support to Nasser. There was a new capo in town.

In the years since, this pattern of U.S. control of formerly colonial regimes expanded globally. NATO has been established as an instrument of U.S. control world-wide, first to threaten the USSR, and then to assert U.S. power everywhere on the globe. In 2006-08, AFRICOM was established to solidify that control in Africa.10

The regime of Muammar Gaddafi

Meanwhile, in Libya, the formal “independence” of that country was established with the imposition of the Sanusi King Idris under a UN-drafted democratic constitution in 1951. Idris kept Libya tied with Western imperialist powers by signing a 20-year treaty of friendship and alliance with Britain. This agreement allowed the U.S. and UK to establish military bases in Libya. Meanwhile, the monarchy rapidly chipped away at the democratic aspects of the constitution.

All this began to change with the bloodless military coup under the leadership of then Captain Muammar Gaddafi, in 1969. Gaddafi began as an anti-colonialist populist, who was not loyal to the Western connections of the Idris regime. He told the imperialist military bases to get out, banished Italian colonials, and returned the land seizures to original owners. He established free education and healthcare, provided clean drinking water and basic foods with state subsidies, and built roads.11

In 1971-72, Gaddafi’s regime passed laws to reverse the previous regime’s reactionary Islamist oppression of women. Laws affirming equality of the sexes, and insisting on wage parity, as well as banning forced marriage of under-age women were passed. Libyan women soon took many professional positions, and outnumbered men in institutions of higher learning.

Well before the overthrow of his government in 2011, standards of living were much improved, and Libya was the most literate and most prosperous country in Africa.

Libya’s oil and world politics

Massive oil reserves had been discovered and developed in Libya by U.S. and European companies in the late 1950s. Libya’s oil attracted European companies particularly, due to its closeness to the European market, and its “light sweet” crude. The Idris Kingdom benefitted and began to grow rich, but the masses only felt the effect under Gaddafi, and the oil nationalization was key to that.

Gaddafi nationalized much of the imperialist companies’ oil holdings; and required production-sharing ventures with others. The Libyan nationalizations were, predictably, a slap in the face to the “seven sisters” of big oil. Libya “had let in the independents to challenge the sisters; and it was aloof from the cautious attitudes of the rest of OPEC. It was the outsider at both ends and by ignoring the rules it changed them.”12

In the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, most Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Libya, imposed an embargo on oil exports to any countries that supported Israel, especially the U.S. In March of 1974, the embargo was lifted by all except Libya. And by 1979, the example of oil nationalization set by Libya had been followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Again, the sisters were taking notes. The U.S. had already declared Libya a potential enemy of the U.S. in 1977.

Libya in the cross hairs

While imperialist powers saw North Africa as part of the Middle East, Gaddafi was trying to Africanize it. He promoted formation of the African Union, and he proposed to create an African currency using Libya’s oil surplus capital to set up an African Bank. This was yet another threat to the imperialists: it meant that African resources might come to be sold to the world market in African currency. The U.S., European Union and the French particularly—still the holders of many interests in Africa if not actual colonies—saw a serious threat to the Euro and the dollar in this project.

The imperialist nations were also threatened by Gaddafi’s aid to pan-Arab, pan-African and third world national liberation movements.

Accusing Libya of “terrorism,” and fearing its close relations with the Soviet Union, the U.S. under Reagan slapped an oil embargo on Libya in 1982, froze Libyan assets in the U.S. in 1984, and bombed Libya with a clear intent to liquidate Gaddafi personally in 1986. Two years later, while Reagan was still in office, Gaddafi struck back with a bombing of a U.S. airliner, which crashed in Lockerbie Scotland. Although Gaddafi had been targeted for death by the U.S., this was clearly an error for Libya. When proof of responsibility came out, the UN imposed a new round of sanctions.

Libya in decline and under attack

With its oil boom, Libya had a radical transformation from rural to urban. High-paying jobs in the oil industries attracted thousands to the urbanized coastal regions, flipping Libya from a primarily rural nation to primarily urban. But Gaddafi’s regime remained based on its tribal allies in the South. Furthermore, with the decline in oil prices on the world market, the regime became corrupt. Gaddafi made himself “Leader Brother” and president for life, while healthcare, education, and democratic institutions such as courts suffered. All of this weakened Libya’s response to the crisis in 2011. But the main problem was still imperialism.

In January 2011 there were uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt. As the self-declared gendarme of Europe in Africa, France—under Sarkozy—moved first, planning, too late, to intervene in Tunisia. In March, the “Arab Spring” came to Libya, with mainly Islamic groups in Benghazi and other Eastern cities rebelling. France took the initiative for an intervention in Libya, by lining up Lebanon and the Saudis to support a no-fly zone over Libya in the Arab League. The U.S./NATO did the rest, with a devastating bombing campaign.

The U.S. war on Libya

In the U.S., a war on Libya was primarily promoted by Wall Street. This reflected the increased financialization of the energy markets under the Reagan administration. Financial control of the capitalist market is the determining feature of the imperialist stage of capitalism. With regard to Libya, this involved imperialist alarm at Libya’s use of its capital in promoting Africanization of North Africa.

Very few reports have linked the Libyan dominance in the Arab Banking Corporation to the seismic events in Libya. Those writers and analysts from Wall Street with links to the think tanks that Wall Street financed were front and center in the call for war.13

It was Hillary Clinton and other officials in the Obama administration—all with Wall Street connections—who primarily pushed for this war. The Pentagon generals were much more cautious, but the attack was launched on March 19th nevertheless. The seven-month U.S.-NATO bombing campaign demolished the most prosperous nation in Africa, and was the deciding factor in the elimination of Gaddafi’s regime. His brutal murder at the hands of Islamic rebels was the final note. Clinton said, “We came, we saw, he died,” in a disgusting rehash of an ancient Roman conqueror’s arrogant brag.

Now, Libya is a disaster. Its infrastructure is bombed to oblivion, and it is dominated by various cliques and militias, all in the service of various imperialist providers of weapons.

The U.S. is the new Roman Empire, the driving force of capitalist imperialism—this time of the whole world.

1 “Waves of Russian and Emirati Flights Fuel War in Libya,” New York Times, September 4, 2020.

2 Islamic domination in North Africa dates back to the expansion of Mohammedanism by armies coming out of Arabia in the late 600s and 70’s CE. The Turkish Ottoman Empire, beginning in the 15th Century, became the early-modern manifestation of the Muslim caliphates. The demise of this empire occurred with World War I, after which Turkey emerged as a modern nation, and Libya emerged out of two provinces of the Ottoman Empire: Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

3 Italy’s lame excuse for this slaughter was the death of some of its troops at the hands of rebels fighting against Italian colonization. The Italian government ineffectively tried to keep it a secret.

4 Mussolini wasn’t the first to make this “Roman Empire” claim: The Kingdom of Italy had mouthed it first. The ancient Roman Empire encompassed most of North Africa after the defeat of Carthage, its main North African rival.

5 Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, Genocide In Libya, Shar, A Hidden Colonial History, Routledge, New York, August 2020. Ahmida is a professor at the University of New England, and the grandson of Libyan militants who fought in the resistance against Italian colonists. The book is very useful on research of this little-known history, and the Eurocentrism of political leaders, academics and others who have white-washed Italian fascism as “moderate.” The term “shar” in the title refers to the “evil, starvation, death and depression” of the Italian colonial concentration camps.

6 F. William Engdahl, A Century of War, Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order, Wiesbaden Germany, 2011, p.93

7 Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, op cit, page 54. The author says he tried to obtain a copy of A Fascist Legacy through his university’s inter-library loan office, but was told he could not have it due to “legal arrangements.”

8 Eventually, Italy made a settlement for its genocidal actions, but it was little more than one fifth of what the Libyan government wanted, and it was mostly tied to Libyan purchases of Italian products. (see Ahmida, note 5, page 128).

9 Harvey E. Goldberg, “Rites and Riots: The Tripolitanian Pogrom of 1945,” Plural Societies 8 (Spring 1977): 35-56, referenced in “1945 Anti-Jewish riots in Tripolitania,” Wikipedia. (Goldberg was an ex-Communist Party socialist.)

10 Horace Campbell, Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, Monthly Review Press, 2013

11 Libya could tap into the North African aquifer, which is the largest water resource in Africa. The Gaddafi regime built the infrastructure to do it.

12 Anthony Samson, The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World They Made, quoted in Horace Campbell, op.cit, p.86.

13 Horace Campbell, op.cit, p.115. See this and following pages for more on the financialization of the U.S. energy industries.