Italy in the “Great Game” of international politics. Geographical institutions, archeology and cultural diplomacy in the interwar period

Italy's cultural activism in the Middle East and Asia in the interwar period. An analysis by Leonardo Palma

The period between the First and the Second World War saw a phase of great activism for Italian policy in the Near East and Asia. In fact, the reorganization of the Ottoman territories after the fall of the Sublime Porte at the end of WWI seemed to open up unprecedented new opportunities for the Kingdom of Italy. The country had shown interest in those regions both during the negotiation of the London Pact (1915) and the discussions for the signing of the San Giovanni di Moriana agreements (1917). Moreover, Italy’s fascination with the East was already evident from the time of its participation in the China military expedition during the Boxer rebellion, in 1900, and the following acquisition of a trade concession in Tientsin. However, the outcome of the Paris Conference as well as the birth of the Republic of Turkey (1923) forced Italy to rethink the boundaries of its action. This led, for instance, to the abandonment of Italy’s expansionist ambition vis-à-vis the Anatolian Peninsula. Even the advent of Fascism, however, did not change the basic lines of Italian foreign policy, at least until the end of 1932. Mussolini always paid special attention to the Orient in its broadest sense, from Anatolia to India and Japan. His particular fascination with Japanese culture – a mutual sentiment – was not limited to the myth of warriors and power, but also extended to arts and literature. As the international situation deteriorated, and in the face of growing European antagonism, Italian diplomatic activity in the Near East, Central Asia and the Far East flourished. Italian diplomats established collaborative relations with the Yemeni and Egyptian authorities, with the newborn Saudi Kingdom and, through the secret services, also tried to penetrate Syria and Lebanon (under French mandate) and Iraq and Palestine (under British mandate). The results did not always meet expectations, partly because of the contradictory nature of some of the objectives pursued, and partly because of a lack of continuity in action and in those in charge of it. However, in spite of the looming war, Italy showed that it wanted to maintain a presence beyond the Mediterranean, towards Asia and Africa. For the Italian Government, technical and military collaboration represented one of the main activities for building relations with Near Eastern countries, through the supply of military equipment and training programmes, including those in the aeronautical sector. This was the case with Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Afghanistan, with the dispatching of personnel to those countries and the hosting of trainee pilots, mechanics and technicians in Italy.

Cultural diplomacy was a particularly privileged sector, with the involvement of public and (at least formally) private entities such as the Dante Alighieri Society, whose network of schools was, at the time, already a highly effective tool for propaganda and cultural penetration. This type of action was not only limited to the Near East and Asia, but also involved regions with large communities of Italians or Italian descendants, such as Latin America – with which Italy would later maintain a “special relationship” even after the advent of the Republic – and the United States. The presence of these institutions was not only an instrument to promote the image of the Fascist regime, but also to influence local public opinion and be a source of cultural, political, commercial and social information. In fact, the involvement of travellers, archaeologists, naturalists, linguists, and anthropologists in diplomatic and intelligence activities is well documented. From the Central Asian routes that pitted Britain and Russia against each other in the so-called Great Game, to the British-fuelled Arab revolt in the Middle East during the First World War, scientific research, cultural diplomacy and archaeology have always been influential tools of foreign policy.

These activities also played a central role in Italy’s international projection during the first half of the 20th century. The myth of Romanitas, amplified by Fascism, together with that of the Mare Nostrum, derived from 19th century Italian politician Giuseppe Mazzini, was used to legitimise Italian imperial ambitions, which underpinned most of the scientific and cultural activities financed by the regime between the 1920s and 1930s. On the contrary, the first phase of pre-fascist Italian colonial initiatives in East Africa had also been characterised by the intertwining of private-public initiatives. These were isolated, disorganised missions, often carried out by solitary adventurers, such as that of Giacomo Doria (1840-1913) to Persia, in 1862, Raffaele Rubattino (1810-1881) to Assab, in 1869, or the unofficial journeys of Orazio Antinori (1811-1882), Odoardo Beccari (1843-1920) and Arturo Issel (1842-1922) to the Horn of Africa. These early explorers, however, already saw the strategic dimension of this type of missions, especially in places where Italian or Italian-speaking people were present. Issel soon became convinced that it was opportune to coordinate the collection of information from the plethora of compatriots (hunters, sailors, soldiers, colonists, surveyors, cooks, viveurs and adventurers) who by choice, chance or necessity found themselves in some little-known parts of the globe. Their presence in these places could turn them into joints of a wider network, supporting Italian mercantilism and imperial hunger. Admiral Fulvio Martini, Head of the Italian military intelligence service (SISMI) from 1984 to 1991, recalled in his memoirs how the Italian communities abroad, similar to the Jewish communities for the State of Israel, had been very useful sources of information throughout his career. In the early 1960s, sailors serving on merchant ships in the Black Sea and the Bosphorus, many of whom had served in the Second World War, provided the Naval Intelligence Service with information on Soviet ship. Between 1978 and 1988. Italian technicians working in Iran and Iraq were first-hand sources of information on the Shah’s and Saddam Hussein’s regimes. In 1974, Italians still in Eritrea were extremely useful in exfiltrating compatriots stranded in Ethiopia through Sudan.

From 1910 onwards, the Foreign Ministry began to have stable, albeit informal, relations with the world of scientific and archaeological missions. Soon, the armed forces were also involved in revising their information structures. This was possible thanks to the work of people like Colonel Felice De Chaurand de Saint Eustache (1857-1944) who organized and directed an Information Office at the General Staff between 1897 and 1898. These informal links became increasingly systematic and structured over time, involving other state institutions, including ministries, such as the Ministry for Colonies or the Italian Geographical Society. The military expedition to Libya in 1911 was prepared by Italian diplomatic agents sent to Egypt and the Ottoman vilayet. From East Africa, Italian officials such as Vittorio Cremaschi, vice-consul in Berbera, passed on military and commercial news about the arms trade from Aden.

In the period between the First and Second World War, the scope of these activities broadened, facilitated by an international context increasingly characterised by insecurity and rivalry between countries. While the political-diplomatic weight of these initiatives increased, their military implications remained in the background.

The increase in these initiatives was part of a strategy, which fascism had inherited from liberal Italy but reinterpreted through revisionist lenses, to expand Italian presence in the Mediterranean area and the East. In January 1928, a Standing Committee for the supervision and coordination of archaeological missions and Italian institutions abroad was established within the Ministry of Education. The initiator of the Committee was Dino Grandi (1895-1988), Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1929 to 1932, who had always been an ardent believer in the political and strategic implications of Italian cultural diplomacy.

The idea of creating an institution that would be dedicated exclusively to cultural relations between Italy and Asian countries was born between 1925 and 1931, thanks to the conversations the orientalist and Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci (1894-1984) had during his period of teaching in various universities in India. The idea found a favourable reception in Italy and, thanks to the enthusiastic support of Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East (ISMEO) came into being in 1933. Tucci, appointed vice-president, held a conference the following year, entitled: “The East in Contemporary Culture”. His speech at the conference represented in some ways the manifesto and political programme of the Institute: a radical critique of the academic approach to Orientalist studies and the importance of mutual cultural understanding as a prerequisite for the development of economic, commercial and political relations. According to its statute, the ISMEO would focus on the development of cultural relations between Italy and the countries of Central, South and East Asia, also by examining economic problems in the area and sending bi-weekly reports on events in the Middle and Far East to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Popular Culture. From 1940, the dissemination of these reports was also extended to the Ministries of the Navy, Air Force, War and Africa, as well as the Army General Staff. The Institute then organized language courses and teacher exchanges, awarded scholarships, edited periodicals and magazines, including Asiatica and Yamato, and organised expeditions to Tibet, Lhasa and across the rugged passes of Central Asia. Captain Felice Boffa Ballaran (1897-1944) also participated in one of these missions, seconded by the General Staff’s Operations Office and selected by the Military Intelligence Service (SIM), as a photographer and cartographer. At the same time, the ISMEO played an important role in linking the different souls of Indian nationalism, an effort which was functional to the fascist regime’s anti-British policy in the Indian subcontinent. During the war, the Axis’ strategy of peripheral destabilisation of Franco-British positions in the Near East and Asia would make use, with mixed results, of networks created in the previous years by cultural diplomacy and scientific missions. The war, however, led to the suspension of the Institute’s activities in 1944. These would resume again in 1947, under Tucci’s presidency.

Reinvigorated and relaunched, albeit with the limitations dictated by the reality of a defeated and war-torn country, ISMEO rapidly expanded its field of action, organising scientific expeditions to Tibet (1948) and Nepal (1952 and 1954). In 1955, it began signing agreements with the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to start archaeological excavations and restoration works in the Swat valley, Ghazni, Isfahan and Persepolis. Similar agreements would also be signed with Nepal, Thailand, Oman, Yemen and Turkmenistan. In the post-war period, the Italian-African Institute (IAO) also played an important role alongside ISMEO. The heir and successor of the Italian Colonial Institute created in 1906, it changed to Italian Institute for Africa in 1947 and finally became the Italian-African Institute in 1971, carrying out important Africanist activities with a focus on human and social sciences. The activities of these institutes matched, between the 1950s and 1960s, with the political sensitivity of some important economic actors of the Italian post-war reconstruction such as AGIP, Finmeccanica, Montecatini, but above all Enrico Cuccia’s (1907-2000) Mediobanca and Guido Carli’s (1914-1993) Bank of Italy. The latter paid particular attention to the relaunch of economic diplomacy and the return of Italian capitalism to the African continent - which was close to decolonisation - by promoting collaboration between public and private capital in Senegal, Ethiopia, Algeria and Angola. These perspectives and strategies also took into account the tensions generated by the bipolar system and the need to prevent technical and financial assistance offered by the Soviet Union to Third World countries to make them leaning towards the Eastern bloc. In this context, the Italian-African Institute played an important role with its study missions, the funding of language courses and stays in Rome for African scholars, and the organisation of conferences and exhibitions with the presence of African diplomats and Italian ministers.

Unfortunately, part of the ruling class and parties of republican Italy lost sight of the benefits coming from the activities of these institutions, which began to suffer from increasing budget cuts and a declining level of integration with other state institutions. In 1995, ISMEO and IAO were merged into the Italian Institute for Africa and the Orient (ISIAO), which should have continued – in the wake of its two predecessors – to work for the promotion of Italian cultural diplomacy. Despite the difficulties, important results were achieved, especially in the ex-Soviet countries that, after the end of the Cold War, represented important new markets and areas of international competition, in particular, for the control of the Caspian energy resources. However, the dynamism expressed by these institutions in the early years of the 20th century and in the immediate post-Second World War period slowed down and almost halted, dispersing a heritage with a strong strategic and political content.

The history of scientific, archaeological and geographical missions in the age of empires and world wars shows how functional these initiatives were to the political ambitions of all major European powers. Moreover, at least from the point of view of the methods used and of the ability to combine economic, cultural, political and military aspects, they brought Italy closer to the other great powers. In fact, this type of cultural diplomacy enabled Italy to maintain a visible, stable and continuous presence in strategically relevant areas, accrediting the country’s international role and consolidating or deepening political contacts relevant for economic, but also military and political-diplomatic purposes.


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