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Book Review: The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy’s national shame by Ian Campbell

Jan 3, 2020, 2:07 PM

Reviewed by Kapil Komireddi 

Italy, at the dawn of the 20th century, was Europe’s poor man. Rome looked with bitterness at its European neighbours. They had vast colonial possessions abroad. Italy, recently unified, was an upstart. Its greatness lay behind it. An intense desire to reclaim what was lost ignited the imaginations of Italy’s most revered luminaries.

Gabrielle D’Annunzio, Italy’s greatest poet and dramatist, exhorted his compatriots to restore their nation’s illustrious past through territorial conquest. His play The Ship mixed sex and violence with an hypnotic message of empire and glory. Its premiere in 1908 culminated with crowds spilling out into the streets chanting the most memorable dialogue from the performance: “Fit out the prow and set sail for the world.”

In 1911, on the 50th anniversary of the country’s founding, Italy proceeded to conquer Libya. Italy’s brutality stands out even in what became the most brutal century in human history. Italian forces in Tripoli, in the words of one observer, went “mad with the lust for blood.

All the Arabs they met, men, women and children, even babes at the breast were shot down without trial." About 4,000 Arabs, it is estimated, were butchered by Italians in Libya over three days in October 1911.

The zealous rush to restore Italy’s lost greatness through conquest not only predated fascism by a decade but fascism, it might be argued, grew in part from the bruised national ego that prompted Italians to impose themselves on defenceless people in faraway lands.

“Remember,” the Italian military commander Rodolfo Graziani told his forces as they “pacified” Libya by rounding up Arabs into concentration camps, “you are Italians, Romans, and remember that your forebears were once in this country”.

Italy, in its self-conception, had not only been destitute by virtue of not having an empire. It had also to confront the humiliating fact that it had been routed by an African power when it set out to build an empire in the 19th century. Italy’s military defeat in 1896 to Ethiopia was a special wound in the long list of grievances that underpinned its renewed search for grandeur on the world’s stage. This time, it made extensive preparations before advancing on Ethiopia.

It built a chemical weapons factory on 30 acres of land near Mogadishu in Somalia. The quantities of lethal gases produced at that facility were so large that no fewer than 17 warehouses had to be propped up to store them. The Italians stockpiled 35,000 gas masks for their own safety.

Ethiopians stood no chance as the Italians showed up in 1935. They were gassed on the ground and strafed from the skies. Ethiopia was overwhelmed. Bruno Mussolini, son of the Duce, wrote newspaper articles about clusters of Ethiopians “bursting open like a rose” when bombed from above. He admitted to finding this spectacle “most amusing”.

Despite its savagery, Italy regarded itself as an agent of civilisation in Africa. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians were exterminated, the journalist George Steer wrote bitterly, so “that civilisation should prevail”.

Pope Pius XI congratulated Italians on a “beautiful victory by a great and good people”. The defeat of 1896 was avenged and Italy now had an empire.

Much of this history forms the background to The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy’s National Shame, Ian Campbell’s blow-by-blow account of the killings supervised and undertaken by Italian forces in the Ethiopian capital in 1937.

Empire, Campbell shows in this masterly history, did not temper the bloodlust of Italians. Ethiopia’s invasion, for all its horrors, had been swift. Its occupation was a protracted calvary. Ethiopian prisoners were frequently used for target practice, shot first in the testicles and then in the chest. Graziani, installed as fascist Italy’s viceroy in Addis Ababa, was under strict instructions from the Duce to execute all prisoners.

No self-respecting people could endure the sadism that passed for civilised governance. And in February 1937, grenades were hurled at Graziani as he delivered a speech before an Ethiopian audience. Graziani survived. No Italians were killed. But amid the confusion, Italian soldiers opened fire with heavy machine guns at the Ethiopian audience.

As the crowds dispersed, the exits were sealed off. What ensued, Campbell writes, was a holocaust. This was not a moment of madness. Throughout the day, Italian soldiers and Blackshirts ran amok in the streets and suburbs of the city. They split the heads of Ethiopians they captured with pickaxes and shovels. Every native was a target.

“Men, women and children were taken unawares and killed indiscriminately and without explanation. Going home for lunch or stopping for a chat, unsuspecting and defenceless, they were ruthlessly struck down in broad daylight in the main streets … among the eucalyptus groves and the hedgerows, around market stalls, on bridges, in tiny lanes and narrow alleys.”

The killings were accompanied by loot. Italian Blackshirts made trips to the bank to cash in the jewellery they seized from their victims. Upper-class neighbourhoods of Addis Ababa were spared only because Italians coveted the properties.

More than 19,000 Ethiopians were killed in Addis Ababa by the time the Italians had exhausted themselves. (Across Ethiopia, the figure is north of 30,000.) Eyewitnesses to the massacre gathered ample evidence, including photographs of Italians posing with severed heads of Ethiopians.

The English suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst led an heroic effort to indict Graziani and the Italian apparatus of occupation. It was only when Britain went to war with Italy that Addis Ababa was liberated and Haile Selassie, the exiled Ethiopian emperor, made a triumphant return to his capital.

Campbell, in one of the most affecting passages in this arresting book, contrasts the magnanimity of the emperor with the conduct of the Italians, many thousands of whom still lurked around in Addis Ababa.

In a passionate speech that enumerated the many crimes committed by Italy, the man cast by Rome as a primitive barbarian urged his people not to “repay evil with evil”. “Do not indulge in the atrocities which the enemy has been practising,” he told them. “Take care not to spoil the good name of Ethiopia by acts that are worthy of the enemy.”

A militia of 10,000 Ethiopians was among the crowd that listened to emperor Selassie; they went home without harming a single Italian.

Selassie sought justice through legal means. His efforts were frustrated by London. Campbell has unearthed a top-secret letter written by Winston Churchill in 1944, after the fall of Rome, instructing his envoy in Italy to protect Pietro Badoglio, the man who had gassed Ethiopians and was listed in Addis Ababa’s dossier of evidence as the top war criminal. The British government headed by Churchill went to extraordinary lengths to discredit eyewitness accounts of the Addis Ababa massacre and London eventually thwarted Selassie’s bid for Ethiopia’s inclusion in the UN War Crimes Commission.

The British government’s behaviour, in contrast to the solidarity and activism of its people, was a shameful coda to the story of Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia. Campbell delicately calls Churchill’s actions “curious”. But the unwillingness to see white Europeans prosecuted for crimes against black Ethiopians was in keeping with Churchill’s overall world view. He was an unabashed white supremacist who mobilised his nation against Nazi Germany, and not, as his hagiographers relentlessly strive to portray him, a champion of universal freedom and neutral justice. An early advocate, by his own admission, of “using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes”, Churchill would have seen Graziani and Badoglio as kindred spirits, not embodiments of evil.

The consequence of Churchill’s prejudice was that no Italian was ever prosecuted for crimes in Ethiopia. For its part, Italy, far from exhibiting remorse, clamoured in earnest for sovereignty over Ethiopia. And the United Nations, rather than throwing out this demand, debated it. And finally, when Italy and Addis Ababa restored diplomatic relations, the Italians did not feel the need to apologise for their past.

It’s as if the occupation of Ethiopia and the massacre of Addis Ababa never occurred. In 2012, a right-wing mayor in an Italian town erected a statue to Graziani. It has since become a site of protest, drawing crowds of Italians who want their country to own up to its record in Africa.

Ian Campbell has performed a tremendous service by rescuing from historical neglect and European propaganda the stories of the victims of 20th-century Italy’s homicidal push for greatness. Eighty years have passed since the massacre of Addis Ababa. It is still not too late for Rome to make a full apology to Ethiopia.

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