JUST BEFORE HE WAS MURDERED under mysterious circumstances, Danish journalist Knud Holmboe let loose a damaging eyewitness account of European colonial rule in North Africa. First published in 1931, Desert Encounter (Ørkenen Brænder) became popular in Europe (though banned in Italy) and received favorable comments in European newspapers. It was less popular in the United States, but a 1937 New York Times review of the English translation said the narrative was a "dreadful indictment ... not only because of the injustice and cruelty and oppression which it portrays but because these things are shown to exist behind and beneath so vainglorious a spirit of conquest, so glittering and meretricious a superstructure of material 'progress.'"
Holmboe's book brought to light the violent grip of Mussolini's new "Romans" in Libya. During his stay in Cyrenaica, the eastern region of the country, he wrote, "[T]hirty executions took place daily, which means that about twelve thousand Arabs were executed yearly, not counting those killed in the war." Bedouins also saw their wells cemented useless by the Italian military and livestock mowed down by machine gun fire, which forced the desert-dwellers by threat of privation to choose either slow death or humiliation in decrepit encampments. "The land swam in blood," Holmboe wrote. In the densely populated and well-guarded encampment:
The Bedouins gathered round us. They looked incredibly ragged. On their feet were hides tied with string; their burnouses were a patchwork of all kinds of multicolored pieces. Many of them seemed ill and wretched, limping along with crooked backs, or with arms and legs that were terribly deformed.
The executions were held in public, and Holmboe was close enough to describe the faces of the condemned and learn of their preference for a bullet or a noose over Italian rule.
The Italians bizarrely saw their mission in Libya as some kind of restoration of the heritage of the Roman Empire's senatorial provinces in North Africa, but it really had more to do with the rise of fascism and the dissemination of Mussolini's cult of personality. Everywhere in Libya, Holmboe wrote,
one saw the Fascist symbol, the bundle of rods, and below was inscribed the year of the new Italy: Anno Mussolini VIII. The head of the dictator was painted in black on every wall, giving the appearance of a huge collection of deaths' heads, and underneath blazed posters with the inscription: "Those who are not for us are against us."
When Holmboe arrived in the region, the 28-year-old reporter had no intention of writing an exposé of any kind. He was in Ceuta, a Span...