Image credit: Federico Patellani & Salam 2009/ Wikimedia Commons
On July 17, 2023, a series of wildfires erupted on the Greek island of Rhodes, with residents of the villages of Dimilia, Salako, Laerma, and Eleousa ordered to evacuate. The blaze soon expanded in scope, with dramatic images of tourists forced to flee their accommodations and, in some instances, even seek shelter in the Mediterranean Sea. Such terrible scenes have been repeated this summer around the world, with ten major wildfires in Greece alone (followed by deadly floods) and the conflagration on Maui that killed over 100 people in a few devastating hours.
Even as state officials, insurance companies, and relief agencies struggle to put dollar figures to the costs of such catastrophes, the loss of life is ultimately incalculable. Discussions of the cultural and historic patrimony at risk in such disasters typically focus on the most visible and beloved forms of culture and nature.
It’s precisely that visible patrimony that draws so many visitors to Rhodes each year. This tradition of tourism is deep-rooted, with the island occupying an important spot on the itineraries of visitors in the classical era who came to Rhodes for its massive Colossus, built in 280 B.C.E. to honor the sun god Helios. Even after an earthquake toppled it some 54 years later, it retained its fame as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Today, visitors to the island still marvel at the ancient acropolis at Lindos, situated in an area threatened by the fires of July 2023.
The heart of the tourist complex, however, is the Old Town, radiating out from the citadel and palace built by the Knights Hospitaller in 1309, located in Rhodes until their transfer to Malta in the sixteenth century. In addition to museums, a synagogue, and mosques (dating to the Ottoman period inaugurated by the 1522 Siege of Rhodes), the Old Town is home to the State Archives of the Dodecanese. I was there in May of this year, just a month or so before the blazes broke out. As a historian of modern Italy, I have visited Rhodes multiple times over the last decade, studying both the documents and architecture left behind by the Italian administrations that governed the broader archipelago for nearly three decades. Indeed, among the cultural patrimony threatened by the wildfires on Rhodes was that left by the Italian fascists, who hoped to turn the island into an advertisement for the virtues of fascist rule.
The young Italian state (founded only in 1861) had acquired both Libya and the Dodecanese Islands as a result of the Italo-Turkish war of 1911. Italian rule over the Dodecanese consisted in military administration until 1920. When Greek efforts at annexing the islands after World War I foundered, Italy acquired the archipelago through the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
The establishment of civilian administration over the newly christened Possedimenti Italiani dell’Egeo or Italian Possessions of the Aegean coincided with the rise of the Italian fascist regime a year earlier. The islands’ status as a “possession” rather than a formal colony signaled the archipelago’s elevated position within the hierarchy of Italian overseas territories.
In contrast to Italy’s pre-fascist colonies in Eritrea and Somalia and the 1935 fascist conquest of Ethiopia, the Dodecanese were European and “white,” if still suitably exotic owing to their supposedly “Levantine” character and their mixed population of Greek Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews.
The creation of a particular form of citizenship in 1926 acknowledged the special status of the islands, though this citizenship would not prove sufficient to protect the archipelago’s Jews from either the Italian fascist racial laws of 1938 or the deportations carried out by the Nazis in July of 1944. While Italy lost actual control over the islands in 1943, the territorial status of the islands was only resolved by the 1947 Peace Treaty with Italy, which awarded them to Greece. This followed two years of British Military Administration (1945–47) during which the British served as a “placeholder” power. Although generally considered settled by international law, tensions over the sovereignty of the islands still flare up between Greece and Turkey. Turkey is tantalizingly close and clearly visible from Rhodes town, just a mere 25 kilometers across the blue Sea of Marmara.
The fascist regime had quickly set about turning the islands of Rhodes, Leros, and Kos into desirable destinations for Italian and foreign tourists alike. The city of Rhodes, in particular, experienced a visibly dramatic transformation.
On the one hand, Italian conservation specialists and archaeologists undertook work in the Old Town that largely stripped it of its Ottoman layers and “restored” it to a vision of medieval Christendom under the Knights Templar. On the other hand, the authorities oversaw construction of a modern New Town just outside the gates that included a governor’s palace, new port, market, Art Deco–style apartment buildings and palm tree–lined squares, and the Grand Hotel of the Roses and casino fronting the city beach.
Elsewhere on the island, Italian archaeologists privileged the classical past, undertaking work at sites like the Lindos acropolis. This accorded with propaganda depicting fascism as the new Roman Empire. Claiming itself as heir to a Graeco-Roman (and subsequent Christian) past, on Rhodes the regime tapped into a popular belief that Italians and Greeks shared deep cultural affinities (“one face, one race”) ultimately rooted in antiquity.
These infrastructural investments and cultural projects did not go unnoticed by local people. In the 1990s, historian Nicolas Doumanis conducted a series of oral histories about the Italian period in the Dodecanese islands. While a Greek nationalist narrative had long depicted the fascists as brutal occupiers, Doumanis uncovered a much more ambivalent memory about the Italians when he began to speak with everyday people who had grown up under Italian rule.
Greek islanders often lauded the Italians for bringing improvements like modern sewage systems and facilities that helped Rhodes launch its post–World War II tourist industry. They also remembered the Italians (or at least some of them) as “chivalrous” and “romantic fools.” Like any researcher who has studied Italy’s role in the islands, I heard similar sentiments expressed by acquaintances—“the Italians knew how to build”—when I spent time working in Rhodes.
Doumanis found that such characterizations were situational. That is, islanders often praised the Italians in comparison to their other occupiers: the Ottomans before them, the German Nazis and British military after them. Likewise, at the time of fascism and subsequently, residents of the town of Rhodes benefitted disproportionately from investments. Places largely excluded from this spending bonanza proved much more restive and some island communities proved openly hostile when the regime tightened its grip. And even on the island of Rhodes the story was mixed, as the building of villages intended for Italian settlers required land expropriations and displaced local shepherds.
Doumanis also noted a split in islanders’ memory that many other observers have confirmed: those islanders who praised Italian achievements conveniently blamed the bad stuff on “fascists.” As in some older Italian apologetic narratives about the regime, the fascists thus stood either as a group apart or as a moment apart, with many locals attributing problems to “when fascism came.”
This typically referred to the more hardline Cesare de Vecchi’s assumption of power as governor in 1936, when he took over from the “softer,” putatively more liberal Mario Lago. In some sense, then, we might see a parallel move in the recognition of certain forms of “Italian” cultural heritage on Rhodes with the simultaneous dismissal or forgetting of others, notably those that encoded much more directly the reality of fascist rule. This includes the village of Campochiaro, built to house timber and woodcutter specialists from Italian Trentino, Alto Adige and Friuli; today known as Eleousa, much of it is abandoned. Similarly decrepit is the nearby villa built for Mussolini but later inhabited by De Vecchi, the so-called fascistone (big fascist) governor. This is not, then, the case of “difficult heritage” provoking debate that characterizes so many other remnants of dictatorship and violence, including the forest near Rome whose trees famously spelled out DUX (for Mussolini, the Duce) and whose destruction in a 2017 fire sparked controversy about whether to replant it. Rather, this is an altogether forgotten heritage.
Interestingly, this distinction in memory between the good and bad, the non-fascist and the fascist, marks not only the remembrances of ethnic Greeks in the islands but also Italian settlers and their descendants, like those from Campochiaro who keep the legacy of their village alive in their publications.
There is a sad irony in this summer’s blazes beginning in the zone around Eleousa, which was a site of intensive reforestation under the Italians. Indeed, Campochiaro differed from many of the regime’s settlements for colonists in its overseas territories in that it focused not on agriculture or mining but on wood and timber products. This did, however, parallel much-publicized efforts on the Italian peninsula itself, where influential agronomist Arrigo Serpieri tied projects of land reclamation with those of forestry, and Mussolini’s brother Arnaldo mobilized reforestation teams into a militia. It was this very forestry corps that planted the trees in homage to the Duce.
Former Italian settlers at Campochiaro on Rhodes remembered fires there as a perennial danger, given the tendency of locals to light fires in the spring in order to clear the ground for planting grain. Not surprisingly, such anecdotes highlight claims to Italy’s “civilizing mission” in bringing rational forestry techniques to Rhodes. Yet fascism’s environmental choices had limitations, too.
On the Italian mainland, reforestation privileged trees over goats, even though the latter proved an important source of protein and income for many mountain residents. On the slopes of Rhodes’ Mount Profitis Ilias, Italian colonists planted many maritime pines, eucalyptus, cypress, and oaks. While the latter two may help create fire barriers, the first two are highly flammable. In stating this, I don’t intend to blame the regime for engaging in the act of reforestation but rather point out the continued impact of its environmental policies.
Sadly, there seems to be plenty of blame to go around for this summer’s fires: slow responses by the local and central authorities, decades of neglect of forests, delays by travel companies in urging evacuation, and the broader specter of climate change that is impacting the Mediterranean as a whole.
The complicated heritage of fascism in the Dodecanese reminds us that beyond the glitter of new hotels and bathing establishments left by the Italians were profound interventions into the landscape that continue to figure into the islands’ environmental vulnerabilities.
Pamela Ballinger is Professor of History at the University of Michigan.