Italian troops invaded Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, in October 1935, but at that time Italy already held control of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, in addition to much of present-day Libya. Italian leader Benito Mussolini saw his African colonial projects as a way of uniting Italian citizens at a time of great financial uncertainty. He also aimed to create a modern Roman Empire that would increase Italy’s prestige in Europe. Italian defeat in World War II formally ended colonial rule in 1945.

Creation of Italian East Africa

The conquest of Abyssinia, combined with the pre-existing colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, created a large continuous area of Italian-held territory that Mussolini brought together in 1936 under the name “Italian East Africa.” He named the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III, emperor of this new territory. The new colony issued its own stamps, banknotes (in Italian lire) and car license plates.

Immigration and Infrastructure

Mussolini encouraged thousands of unemployed Italians to emigrate to the new African colonies, while many other Italians lived there for shorter periods of time, either during military service or while helping to construct the regional infrastructure. These immigrants helped to create a distinctively colonial architecture in Italian East Africa, some of which still survives today. Italian planners laid out new urban centers using simple, fascist-style street layouts, and erected new public buildings intended to represent the power of the fascist regime, says David Rifkind of Florida International University. The Italian colonial center of Asmara in Ethiopia survives today virtually intact, according to Mia Fuller of the University of California, Berkeley.

Local People

Italian colonization had a serious impact on the lives of local people in Italian East Africa. Today, the period is remembered as one of “suffering, violence, lack of freedom, racial subordination and economic dependency,” according to Antonio Morone of the University of Pavia. The Italian military used banned mustard gas during the invasion and did not hesitate to kill civilian bystanders. During colonial occupation, the Italians moved quickly to suppress resistance, as in 1936 when 1,600 resistance fighters were executed by firing squad after several days of fighting.

World War II

Italy’s declaration of war on the Allied countries in 1940 led to Italian East Africa being drawn into World War II. In August 1940, Italian forces occupied neighboring British Somalia, but the following year the British returned, capturing Eritrea with a two-pronged strategy. They had captured Italian East Africa by the end of 1941. Italian soldiers held out longer in Libya, another of the country’s African colonies, but the three-year campaign cost the Italians and their German allies nearly 900,000 troops, cut off the Axis powers from oil reserves in North Africa and opened the way for the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.