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The Addis Ababa MassacreItaly's National Shame$

Ian Campbell

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190674724

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190674724.001.0001

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(p.9) 1 Background
The Addis Ababa Massacre

Ian Campbell

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter points out similarities between Ethiopian and Roman empires in terms of their history, in particular the adoption by both empires of Christianity as state religion in the 4th century, their fragmentation into warring states, and their subsequent re-unification as sovereign states in the second half of the 19th century. Italy’s unsuccessful attempt at Adwa to occupy Ethiopia in 1896 is summarized. This event was followed by the rise of Fascism and Italy’s second invasion of Ethiopia, the geo-political aims of which are discussed. The chapter outlines the failure of the League of Nations to protect Ethiopia, one of its earliest members, and explains the role of the 6th Blackshirt Division in the suppression of Ethiopian civilians. The author dismisses the idea that the invasion of Ethiopia was a colonial expedition, pointing out that as a sovereign state, Ethiopia was not a candidate for colonialism. It was a victim of Fascist expansionist policy, along with other victims such as Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia.

Keywords:   Rodolfo Graziani, resistance, Mussolini, Blackshirts, League of Nations, Fascism, Ethiopia, Adwa, Haile Selassie


Ethiopia and Italy had a lot in common. By the early 20th century they were both inheritors of an ancient culture and an empire dating from pre-Christian times that over the centuries had shrunk and lost its prestige and glitter, although, unlike the ancient Roman empire, the Ethiopian empire had never ceased to exist. Both had a written language that dated back several millennia, was the root of their contemporary language, and was still used in ecclesiastical rites.

Both powers had adopted Christianity as official state religion in the 4th century, but it was Ethiopian Emperor Ezana at Aksum whose head appeared on the world’s first coin to carry the Christian cross. Both became theocracies, although Rome lost its pre-eminence to the ‘new Rome’ at Byzantium, while Ethiopia could claim unbroken adherence to the earliest canons of Orthodoxy. Rome boasted the relics of St Peter, while Ethiopia pronounced itself to be the guardian of the True Cross and the Ark of the Covenant. Both theocracies persecuted heretics during the 15th century, although the Ethiopian holy fathers never descended to the level of barbarity of the popes in burning them en masse and in public.

Both empires had been subject to invasion, had fallen on hard times and had fragmented into warring states. They had both made strenuous efforts at reunification in the mid-19th century, and had both been recognised internationally as nation states only in the second half of that century. By then many (p.10) of their citizens were living off the land as illiterate subsistence farmers in a largely feudal system, scratching a living from the soil as their oxen pulled antiquated ploughs around crumbling monuments of a bygone age. And by the 20th century both were monarchical sovereign states, although the Ethiopians could claim a far longer royal bloodline than the Italians.

For more than two thousand years these two ancient powers coexisted peacefully. Indeed by the 15th century a Pontifical Ethiopian College was operating in the Vatican, King Alfonso VI had dispatched artisans and artists from Naples to adorn the churches of Ethiopia, and a marriage pact had been proposed between the two royal families. And by the early 16th century a number of Venetians and their compatriots had achieved acclaim and distinction as members and employees of the Ethiopian imperial court.

Yet by the late 1930s, the despairing Emperor of Ethiopia was moved to declare, ‘The Italians have always been the bane of the Ethiopians.’ So what occurred in the interim to turn these two fading imperial powers with such a long history of peaceful cooperation into mortal enemies?

Paradoxically, the root cause of Ethiopia’s problems with Italy actually had nothing to do with Ethiopia. They originated with concerns in 19th-century Rome that the newly created nation-state of Italy was viewed as ‘the poor man of Europe’, and had been left behind in the European scramble for colonies and dominions overseas. The resultant inferiority complex led to a desire for expansion and conquest, and the roots of what was to become a pattern of unprovoked aggression towards Ethiopia can be traced to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. For the first time, Italians had direct access from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and this led to the purchase of the Red Sea port of Assab in 1885 by an Italian Lazarist missionary named Giuseppe Sapeto, on behalf of the Rubattino Shipping Company of Genoa. The transaction meant that the Italians now possessed a tiny and faraway but strategic outpost on a hot and humid coastal strip traditionally tributary to the Ethiopian emperors.

By 1884 a revolutionary Islamic anti-Western movement known as Mahdism was coming to power in the Egyptian Sudan, and its followers had besieged a number of Anglo-Egyptian outposts there. The British sent a diplomatic mission to the neighbouring Ethiopian Emperor Yohannis IV (r. 1872–89), requesting military assistance to relieve their outposts. The Emperor agreed, in return for the restoration to Ethiopia of the port of Massawa, an important Red Sea trading hub at that time nominally under Egyptian control but claimed by Yohannis, and certain Ethiopian borderlands (p.11) that had also fallen under the control of the Egyptians. Thus in June 1884 the Ethiopian and British governments signed a treaty.

Yohannis’s forces successfully relieved the Anglo-Egyptian garrison towns, thus allowing the British troops to depart unmolested. However, a few months later, in a shocking act of treachery, the British broke the treaty. Wishing to curb French expansion in Africa, and taking advantage of the fact that Italy now had a foothold (Assab) on the Red Sea coast, in February 1885 they facilitated an Italian occupation of Massawa. In turn, the Italians, who had already started shipping hundreds of soldiers into Massawa, took advantage of Britain’s strategy by seizing adjacent coastal areas, and making armed incursions into the interior. Yohannis had been deceived. Until the Italian occupation of Massawa he had welcomed Italians seeking to establish trade relations with Ethiopia, for he needed European technology and military hardware. However, Italian geopolitical and military imperatives were by 1885 overtaking the desire for purely economic ties. Outraged by Britain’s behaviour, and unable to dislodge the Italians in Massawa, Yohannis wrote a bitter letter of protest to Queen Victoria, but to no avail.

Having thus obtained control of Massawa with the connivance of the British, the Italians were not deterred by Yohannis’s claims on the port city. Although there was significant parliamentary and popular opposition at that time in Italy to expansion overseas, the government in Rome had already set its sights on the ancient empire of Ethiopia itself. The relatively lush and much more extensive Ethiopian highlands would be a much greater prize than the coastal strip, which consisted only of sweltering and unproductive lowlands. Italy seemed determined to occupy Ethiopia, Ethiopians or no Ethiopians.

By late 1886, the Italian military had penetrated inland and established themselves at a fort named Sahati. Yohannis was outraged. Troops under his redoubtable military commander, Ras Alula, twice tried to take the fort, but failed to make headway against the better-armed Italians. Hundreds of the Ras’s brave but lightly armed men died in the slaughter, while almost no Italians fell. On the night of 25 January 1887 the surviving Ethiopians withdrew and, after tending to their wounded and taking a few hours’ rest, rose to move away towards a location known as Dogali. However, in the early morning light the weary Ras and his men were surprised to learn that there were yet more heavily armed Italian soldiers in the vicinity. Climbing a nearby hill to check, Ras Alula was stunned to see coming towards him a column consisting of no less than 520 armed Italian soldiers and 50 askaris recruited from the coastal region getting into combat position, with machine guns at the ready. (p.12) Taken unawares, and having no machine guns himself, the quick-thinking Ras positioned his men strategically some 700 metres from the invaders, and not before time, for moments later the machine guns opened fire. Yet another battle had begun.

Fortunately for the Ethiopians, the Italian commander, like several of the military officers sent by Rome to Ethiopia, was a poor strategist. He had led his men across exposed and vulnerable terrain and, despite the advantage of his machine guns, was outmanoeuvred by the Ethiopians. By utilising the topography to their advantage, the ill-equipped Ethiopians managed to turn the tables on the smaller but better-armed enemy force. Staying as far as possible out of sight, and having put the machine guns out of action, the weary but still energetic Ethiopians gradually surrounded the invaders. After two hours of heavy shooting the Italians realised that much of their fire was falling short, they were running out of ammunition, they were outnumbered and in a serious situation. They attempted a retreat, but it was too late, for the Ethiopians chose that moment to make one of their traditional ‘do or die’ mass onslaughts. Fifteen minutes later it was all over; few Italian soldiers had survived. Although the Italians liked to refer to the incident as ‘the Dogali massacre’, the fact is that in an extraordinarily gracious gesture the victorious Ethiopians put the Italian wounded in the shade, gave them water, and allowed their compatriots to come from Sahati and collect them the next day.

It transpired that the Italian column had been sent from the coast to reinforce the troops at Sahati, and its destruction shook Italy. But in a move that came to be characteristic of the Italians whenever they overreached themselves in Ethiopia, the government in Rome disguised its aggressive intentions and military incompetence by striking a posture of hurt innocence. Amazingly, the Italians, who seem to have had a penchant for myth-making, managed to project themselves in Europe as the wronged party. The hundreds of valiant Ethiopian patriots who had been mown down at Sahati did not feature in the Italian narrative; it was the invaders, who had no business to be there in the first place, who were presented as the fallen heroes. According to the myth created in Rome, the Ethiopians were ‘treacherous’, and despite the fact that it was Ras Alula who had been taken by surprise by the sudden and unexpected appearance of the armed column advancing through his territory, the story was reversed, suggesting that it was the Ethiopians who had organised a ‘cowardly ambush’. The Ethiopians’ honourable treatment of the enemy wounded was not acknowledged; rather, according to the Italian media, the Italians had (p.13) had to confront ‘twenty thousand savage cannibals’.1 Finally, far from being deterred, the government in Rome presented their defeat at Dogali as a reason to extend their incursions into Ethiopia yet further, and even pressed for compensation. Indeed, the presentation by the Italian government of the débâcle as a ‘heroic stand’ by the invading force succeeded in stirring up such a groundswell of patriotism in Rome that domestic support for the government was strengthened, and popular opposition towards overseas expansion was largely silenced.2

Yohannis was not intimidated, or even moved, by the European reaction. When Britain joined the chorus of condemnation of Alula’s ‘cowardly ambush’, the Emperor treated the accusation with the contempt it deserved. He told Queen Victoria, ‘Ras Alula went down to enquire, “What business have you to do with other people’s country?”’, and told her envoy, ‘Ras Alula did no wrong: the Italians came into the province under his governorship, and he fought them, just as you would fight the Abyssinians if they came to England.’ But Yohannis’s logic failed to move the British government, which for political reasons was quite happy to see the Italians installed in the Horn of Africa. No sooner had the dust settled at Dogali than the Italians re-established themselves at Sahati, with the backing of London.

Alula, who told the British that the Italians could occupy Sahati only if he could go as Governor to Rome, was in favour of a military showdown with the Italians. But while the Emperor was apparently preparing to follow his advice, news came that the Mahdists, who since Ethiopia’s intervention in the Sudan on behalf of the British regarded Yohannis as their enemy, had swept into western Ethiopia, and sacked the former capital of Gondar. Distracted by the shocking news, the Emperor turned his attention to the Mahdist incursion. Although his armies succeeded in repelling them, the sovereign tragically died in the process, at the border town of Metemma in March 1889.

Meanwhile, desperate for an ally in their battle with Emperor Yohannis, and for an opportunity to see a pliable friend of Italy on the imperial Ethiopian throne, the Italians had entered into a treaty of friendship with King Menelik, then sovereign of the highland Ethiopian Kingdom of Shewa (r. 1865–89). Following the death of Yohannis, Menelik succeeded him as ‘King of Kings’, or Emperor, of Ethiopia. In 1889, desiring, like his predecessor, trade and the products of European technology—notably guns—the new Emperor signed an agreement with the Italians commonly known as the Treaty of Wichalé. Under the treaty, Menelik’s sovereignty was recognised, and he was granted rights to import arms through Italian territory, that is, (p.14) through Massawa. But the most significant provision of the treaty was the extension of Italian rule beyond the coastal strip to include part of the Ethiopian highlands, thereby creating Italy’s first colony and depriving Ethiopia of its own access to the sea—a move for which future generations of Ethiopians would pay a heavy price. Proclaimed in January 1890, the newly acquired colony was named by the Italians Eritrea.

The treaty also gave Ethiopia the right to communicate with other foreign powers through the Italian government. However, in a first step towards hegemony over the Ethiopian empire, but apparently unknown to Menelik, the Italian-language version of the treaty circulated to European governments made it mandatory for Ethiopia to conduct its foreign relations through Italy, thereby in effect turning Ethiopia into an Italian protectorate. Claiming he had been deceived, Menelik, now installed in his new capital of Addis Ababa, declared the treaty invalid. But even more alarming was the news that the Italians, whose government under Francesco Crispi had become increasingly authoritarian and militant, had crossed the Eritrean border and occupied much of northern Ethiopia, including most of Tigray. His patience exhausted, in 1895 the exasperated Emperor realised he had no choice but to check the Italian advance. Declaring a general mobilisation, he set out from Addis Ababa to march north in an extended campaign across more than 800 kilometres of Ethiopian territory, rallying around him fighting men from all parts of the empire.

The Ethiopians’ first engagement in this campaign was with a Major Toselli, who, in a display of extraordinary incompetence on the part of his superior officers, had been instructed to position just 2,000 soldiers—now mostly Eritrean askaris rather than Italians—on a mountain known as Amba Alage in the Ethiopian province of Tigray, to confront Menelik’s cousin, Ras Mekonnin, who commanded a force of some 40,000. The gentlemanly Ras, who had earlier received a royal reception on a state visit to Italy, tried to avoid a confrontation by imploring Toselli to retreat and leave Ethiopia. In the communications muddle that was characteristic of the Italian military, Toselli had reportedly been sent orders to retreat, but they had gone astray. So unaware of his new instructions, the dutiful major stood his ground.

Despite the advanced weapons of the Italians, which included exploding artillery shells that caused heavy losses among the Ethiopians, the outcome of the battle was never in any doubt. The Italian force was surrounded and obliterated. Toselli fought bravely, and despite their own extensive casualties, the Ethiopians buried him with full military honours. But true to form, Italy’s (p.15) invading forces were once again projected in Rome as blameless heroes whose deaths at the hands of the ‘treacherous’ Ethiopians should be avenged for the ‘prestige and honour of the motherland’.

The next move in Italy’s comedy of errors was to send 1,200 of its soldiers into Ethiopia under a Major Galliano, to entrench themselves in a hurriedly built fort at the former Emperor Yohannis’s capital of Meqele. Arriving with his army of 25,000 victorious Ethiopian warriors straight from Amba Alage, the ever-considerate Ras Mekonnin wrote to Galliano, ‘I pray you leave this land, otherwise I will be forced to make war.’ ‘Do what you have to do,’ was Galliano’s jingoistic reply—not unusual among the Italian commanders, who frequently behaved as if they had the upper hand even when common sense would suggest otherwise. Mekonnin encircled the fort, and in due course was joined by Menelik with his enormous force of another 100,000 men. Criticised by the Emperor for having waited too long without attacking, thereby allowing the Italians to complete their fortifications, the peace-loving Ras was obliged by the Emperor to commence battle. The Italians were well armed and well protected behind thick walls; hundreds of Ethiopians died in the attack that followed. This triggered a change of strategy by the Ethiopians. They pulled back, took control of the springs flowing into the fort, and waited.

Surrounded by Menelik’s forces, with dwindling food rations and no water supply, the Italians would have all starved to death, were it not for the Emperor’s astonishing magnanimity. After several days, despite the loss of life that the Ethiopians had suffered, Menelik allowed the Italians to evacuate the fort unmolested, with their women, children and wounded, all transported on several hundred mules that he personally provided. In Rome Menelik’s unparalleled generosity went unremarked and unappreciated. Instead, its beneficiaries became the heroes of the day, and Galliano was promoted in absentia.

Menelik resumed his campaign northwards, nonchalantly passing by some of the Italian garrisons, in a clear demonstration of his unquestioned authority as Emperor, and in an implicit rejection of the invaders’ claims to any part of Ethiopian territory. Finally, his armies took up a strategically advantageous position near the small town of Adwa—not far from the Eritrean border—and waited. Despite the new arrivals who had been disembarking at Massawa on a daily basis, the Italian force assembled to confront the Emperor was hopelessly outnumbered and, being without cavalry, was slow-moving. Thus one might imagine that having discovered to their cost on several occasions the formidable and agile enemy awaiting them, the Italians would have made (p.16) a strategic withdrawal back into Eritrea and reconsidered their options. But for the Italian High Command, discretion was not the better part of valour. Commitments had been made, and ‘honour’ was at stake. The Italians seemed determined to join battle, and decided to advance to a series of small mountain passes only a few kilometres from the Ethiopians, apparently hoping to draw the Emperor’s massed armies out onto open ground.

By now even the most generous-hearted commander in Menelik’s position would have found his patience wearing thin, and it is testimony to the Emperor’s fairness and desire not to shed blood that he once more attempted a peace settlement, only to be met yet again by haughty rejection. Nonetheless, the Ethiopians still did not want to be the ones to open fire. Accompanied by the Empress Taytu, who had never trusted the Italians, as well as other dignitaries of the empire and commanders of the troops, Menelik stood his ground and waited for the Italians to attack.

The earlier humiliating defeats suffered by the Italians had only increased the resolve of Rome for revenge and conquest, thus putting political pressure on the normally cautious commander, General Oreste Baratieri, whose brigadier-generals seem to have been overenthusiastic to engage the enemy, and had almost certainly underestimated the size and capability of the force they were facing. Fed with inaccurate—and sometimes false—intelligence on the geography and the enemy, and beset with jealousies, power struggles and poor communications between their commanders, Baratieri’s battalions failed to take up their prescribed positions. Instead, their commanders conducted a series of reckless manoeuvres, resulting in their fighting units advancing far beyond their allocated positions.

On the night of 29 February 1896, for reasons that have never been entirely clear, one of the Italian advance columns isolated itself from the main force, and early in the morning engaged one of Menelik’s massed armies. The engagement was a costly mistake, for greatly outnumbered by a wave of spirited, tenacious and well-armed men fighting for their nation’s survival on their home ground, the column was rapidly enveloped. Furthermore, instead of staying close to provide back-up, the other Italian columns had also managed to isolate themselves, and one by one they were also overwhelmed. The lessons of Dogali and Amba Alage had not been learned. For many, surrounded as they were, retreat became impossible, and the Italian army dissolved into terror-stricken pandemonium.

By the end of the day the invaders had paid a heavy price for their commanders’ recklessness and incompetence: the entire Italian army had been (p.17) routed, the majority of its soldiers had been slaughtered, and thousands taken prisoner. After marching them back to Addis Ababa, the honourable Emperor sent the Italian prisoners of war, numbering almost 2,000, back to Italy for the most part unharmed, and even allowed the Italians to retain the colony of Eritrea. But the Kingdom of Italy earned the scorn of Europe, for its repeated attempts to invade and subjugate Ethiopia had ended in decisive and ignominious failure. The government fell, and all thoughts of foreign conquest were banished. The humiliation of the Battle of Adwa, together with the shameful fiascos that had led up to it, was to haunt the Italians for decades to come.3

The Italians fared little better as a result of their involvement in the First World War (1914–18). Despite their staying out of the war until they were sure of joining the winning side, it left their economy in ruins, and in the Treaty of Versailles that brought the war to a close, their former allies—the French and the British—did not consider that the Italian military contribution had warranted the territorial rewards that the Italians were expecting.

Humiliation piled upon humiliation, the country was thus ripe for revolution, and ready for a hero who would restore national pride. One of the leading champions of socialism in pre-war Italy had been a young anti-war politician named Benito Mussolini. But as the war progressed, he changed his views and joined the army. In 1919, after the war, emerging as a fanatic with a flair for propaganda, he formed a new militant political party: the Partito Nazionale Fascista (Fascist Party), named after the fasces—an axe wrapped in a bundle of rods—the symbol of imperial unity and might carried by the magistrates of ancient Rome.

Backed by gangs of armed squadristi—largely battle-hardened ex-First World War servicemen for whom violence had become a way of life and who attacked and terrified the opposition—Mussolini won sufficient support to transform the party into a political force. In 1922 King Victor Emmanuel III, overestimating Mussolini’s popularity, asked him to form a government. The die was cast; Mussolini was now in control.

Mussolini was not simply a dictator; his aim was to create a totalitarian state in which every individual would fit, and which would be self-perpetuating. The agenda of Fascism, a form of political religion, included militarism, the glorification of war, and the revival of the grandeur of ancient Rome. Thus it is not surprising that the idea of yet another invasion of Ethiopia surfaced several times during the early years of his rule. In a bid for increased influence in Ethiopia treaties of friendship were tabled, and the King of Italy and (p.18) Mussolini himself hosted the future Emperor Haile Selassie in a state visit to Italy in 1924. In 1925 Mussolini formally declared Italy a totalitarian state, and in 1926 Minister of Colonies Luigi Federzoni told him that Italy’s possessions in north and east Africa (Eritrea, Libya and Italian Somaliland) should be considered as ‘a springboard for a vaster and more varied expansion of the influence of Italy in the world’,4 which would inevitably begin with the annexation of Ethiopia. In 1930—the year of Haile Selassie’s coronation as Emperor—Federzoni’s successor, Emilio De Bono, asked for a large increase in the budget for Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, stating that it would be ‘ridiculous to speak of the Romanity of the Empire if expansion beyond the confines of the Fatherland was not considered possible’.5

By the early 1930s, with Europe in the throes of the Great Depression, the case for invasion was growing stronger; the Duce needed a glittering military conquest to galvanise support for his government. He talked much about the need for more ‘living space’, and seems to have reconciled himself to the idea that Italians could live successfully only in other people’s countries. Indeed, Italy was unusual in Europe in having such large colonies of its nationals ekeing out an existence overseas; in New York alone there were over a million Italians who had fled their impoverished motherland, and in Argentina there were another million.

Despite Emperor Haile Selassie’s programme of modernisation, Ethiopia had not been part of Europe’s industrial revolution, and had not focused on manufacturing and the military to the extent that the European countries had managed to do. Ethiopia was thus Mussolini’s most obvious choice for an invasion, being a relatively softer target than it had been 40 years before.

Thus by the spring of 1934 Italy was making large-scale preparations in both Eritrea and Italian Somaliland to facilitate yet another invasion of Ethiopia, with the Duce presenting a variety of different reasons, depending on the audience. Many jumped at what they saw as an opportunity to restore Italian prestige and raise the nation to the level of the imperial powers of Britain and France. Notwithstanding Mussolini’s massive ongoing campaign for higher population growth (based on his claim that the population was far too low), his rationale for the intellectuals was that Italy was overpopulated, and that access to Ethiopia’s natural resources was therefore necessary for national development and expansion. Thus for the land-hungry peasants of the south, fertile and virgin farmlands would be theirs for the asking. For the liberals, he declared that conquest would constitute a ‘civilising mission’ to a ‘barbaric’ country, while the military was inspired by the prospect of (p.19) avenging Adwa. Finally, the Catholic Church expected the invasion to ‘open the gates of Ethiopia’ to penetration of the Catholic faith. There was a story for everybody.

The intended reality, however, was none of these. The attack on Ethiopia would actually launch the first phase in Mussolini’s expansionist drive linking Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, to be followed by the conquest of British-controlled Sudan and Egypt, constituting a bridge to Libya and eventually to the French colonies. What the Duce would refer to as ‘Fascism International’ would ultimately provide Italy with hegemony over the entire Mediterranean Sea, with control over its eastern and western access, and annexation of states in central and eastern Europe. To serve this purpose, Mussolini’s orders required the nation-state of Ethiopia to be annexed and dismantled, and the land turned into a vast military-industrial complex. One million able-bodied Ethiopians would be drafted into a new ‘black army’ to fight the other wars of conquest that were to follow, and the thousands of Italian labourers brought in to open up Ethiopia to the invading armies would be deployed to establish countrywide infrastructure to facilitate military and administrative control, including the construction of ‘fifty or so airfields’ and the development of a ‘massive metallurgical industry’ to support large-scale armaments manufacture, based on the rich mineral deposits thought by the Italians to exist in Ethiopia. The invasion, which was to be supported by the use of chemical warfare by the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian air force, was scheduled to be launched at the beginning of October 1935.6

To meet these geopolitical and military goals, the Ethiopians would have to be ‘pacified’, that is the existing polity would be destroyed, the ruling class and the intelligentsia would be liquidated, all actual and potential opposition would be crushed, and the consequently leaderless masses would be subjugated. Ethiopian secondary education institutions would be closed, and the major task of the primary schools would be to prepare men for the army.

There was only one problem: Italy had no justification for an attack on the faraway, peace-loving sovereign state of Ethiopia, which had been a member of the League of Nations since 1923, even before countries such as Germany, Russia and Turkey. Furthermore, Ethiopia hosted diplomatic embassies not only of all the major powers, but also Italy itself, which, in addition to its embassy in Addis Ababa, was unique in maintaining consulates in many of the secondary towns. Thus Mussolini needed an excuse to trigger the invasion.

Since the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930, the Italians had been making incursions into Ethiopia from Italian Somaliland, while striking (p.20)


Map 1. Addis Ababa before the Occupation

(p.21) a posture of innocence under the Treaty of Wichalé. In August 1934 Mussolini, worried that some observers might have seen through the charade, ordered his commanders ‘to put an end to the rumours … which make out the aggressive nature of our aims towards Abyssinia’, stressing that ‘the line to be adopted with regard to Abyssinia must be such as to create the general impression that we still continue to adhere faithfully to the Treaty’.7 A few weeks later, in November 1934, there was an incident at a remote desert oasis named Welwel, some 100 kilometres inside Ethiopian territory, where the Italians had unilaterally established a military post. Soon after an Anglo-Ethiopian border survey commission arrived, shooting broke out, in which more than 100 Ethiopians and 30 Italian colonial soldiers died. Once again striking a posture of hurt innocence, the Italians claimed that Welwel lay within their colony of Italian Somaliland, and even went so far as to demand apologies and damages. But the fact is that Mussolini’s claims were deliberately intended to provoke the Emperor, for the Duce wrote to the commander-in-chief of the Italian armed forces in Africa, ‘In case the negus [Emperor Haile Selassie] has no intention of attacking us, we ourselves must take the initiative.’8

The Emperor, who had a strong belief in the rule of law and, in particular, great faith in the League of Nations, took the case to the League. However, the League procrastinated for eleven months, thus allowing Italy to complete a massive build-up in military capacity. The League applied sanctions on the importation of weapons by both sides in the coming conflict, but since Italy had a well-developed domestic armaments industry, this strategy negatively affected only Ethiopia. The only sanctions that would have constrained Italy’s ability to invade Ethiopia were a ban on the sale of oil to Italy and closure of the Suez Canal to its ships. However, neither of these strategies was adopted.

Choosing appeasement in an attempt to ensure that Mussolini’s energy was focused on Ethiopia rather than Europe, where he was making threatening noises, the French and British declared themselves neutral, and on 3 October 1935 the Italians launched their long-awaited war of conquest. For his public pronouncement, and taking advantage of the fact that Ethiopia was situated in the Horn of Africa, Mussolini selected the rationale of colonialism. Although this was illogical, Ethiopia being a recognised nation-state in which Italy herself had diplomatic representation, he said that the justification for war was that Italy deserved to have an empire, and was not satisfied with ‘a few crumbs from the rich colonial booty gathered by others’. The Ethiopians, whose country was to be invaded, who were to be subjugated and slaughtered, and whose government was to be destroyed, were not considered. In fact, (p.22)


1. 13 Sept. 1935: The Emperor broadcasts an international appeal in the face of the impending Italian invasion. From right to left: Lorenzo Ta’izaz; Emperor Haile Selassie; Minister of Foreign Affairs Blattén Géta Hiruy Welde-Sillassé; Hiruy’s son, Feqade-Sillassé Hiruy; unidentified adviser

Ethiopia was not even mentioned, other than in the bizarre statement ‘With Ethiopia we have been patient for forty years! Enough!’

Addis Ababa on the Eve

Addis Ababa of the early 1930s was centred on the Emperor’s palace, or gibbi, with an urban ‘core’ to the north-west, and a collection of villages scattered far and wide on and around the surrounding hills.

In the city centre, known as Arada, were a number of public and commercial buildings of permanent and semi-permanent construction, several of which still stand. Taxis—of American or European manufacture and driven by Ethiopians or Eritreans—operated from taxi stations, but the majority of Ethiopians travelled on foot or, in the case of the nobility, by mule, followed by retainers. The Emperor and his courtiers travelled by limousine or mule, depending on the occasion. (p.23)


2. ‘Downtown’ Addis Ababa in 1935. The sleepy ambience of the city centre is highlighted by the number of vehicles on the pavements and the number of pedestrians on the roads—a pattern that still prevails in much of Addis Ababa today

The Emperor’s Swedish military adviser, General Virgin, captured in his memoirs a typical street scene in the city, observed from his house, which stood on a road just west of Amist Kilo. ‘Along the street’, he wrote, ‘among hooting cars, bleating flocks of sheep, sedately advancing camels and half-running pedestrians, comes a grand lady … riding slowly on her richly caparisoned grey mule.’ Wearing a white dress, the lady has her shamma drawn up over her face and she is protected by a retinue of servant-girls and armed men. From the opposite direction a man comes riding, and they meet outside the General’s house. ‘Both stop, take off their hats, and bow deeply in the saddle.’ The lady’s servants hold up their shammas to hide her completely from the eyes of passers-by while she is lifted from the saddle, and meanwhile the man has dismounted. They stop and bow several times, a conversation begins which lasts a few minutes, then after many more bows they return to their steeds. ‘With bared heads and renewed deep bows’, the General concludes, the parties pass each other, and proceed on their separate ways.9

Although most photographs of early Addis Ababa show the relatively modern buildings and streets of the urban centre, the majority of the approximately (p.24) 100,000 Ethiopians in Addis Ababa lived in urban and peri-urban ‘villages’, clustered into sefers. They or their parents before them had moved from the rural areas to the city and dwelt in traditional thatched cottages, which they built largely as they had done in the countryside. The destruction of houses and their occupants during the massacre of Addis Ababa would be focused principally on these communities.

Viewed from above, Ethiopia’s capital city looked like a large cluster of villages hidden in a vast forest, for the area had been planted with fast-growing eucalyptus trees imported from Australia by Emperor Menelik.

It is not suggested that Addis Ababa was a paradise. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the country was free, and Menelik’s original capital was now a rapidly expanding metropolis, with significant Armenian, Greek and Indian communities. A resident Hungarian doctor said of Ethiopia, ‘I think there is no country in the world where aliens have enjoyed greater liberty and more polite treatment.’ All the major powers had legations in Addis Ababa, and it was a reflection of the magnanimity of the Ethiopian government towards Italy that it allowed the Italians to establish consulates throughout the countryside.10 As the British war correspondent George Steer put it, ‘When I first came to Addis Ababa it was a peaceful town … Everybody was friendly, the


3. In the 1930s, most residents of Addis Ababa lived in traditional thatched cottages and preserved their rural way of life. The massacre of Addis Ababa was concentrated mainly in ‘urban villages’ such as this one

(p.25) town was orderly, prosperous, happy; the … population of Addis Ababa was healthy, for it had room to spread and breathe the uncontaminated air. Ethiopia was still free, and when the Emperor drove through the town the people applauded him …’

Ethiopia’s principal exports were hides, skins and coffee, and the main economic activity of Addis Ababa was trade. Near the Cathedral of St George was the city market, set out in three sections surrounding an area occupied by the customs administration. There was no armaments industry; one could scarcely imagine a city less equipped to face the onslaught of a military juggernaut such as the one now heading for its gates.

Invasion and Occupation

The invasion of Ethiopia was notable for its ferocity and brutality. Emperor Menelik’s fair and honourable responses to Italy’s earlier unprovoked attacks on Ethiopia’s sovereignty were rewarded by an almost complete disregard for even the most basic tenets of civilisation. Furthermore, unlike Ethiopia, Italy had been able to take full advantage of the upsurge in science, technology and manufacturing that had taken place in Europe since the Battle of Adwa, and so this time around the invaders were far better equipped than the Ethiopians.

In late 1935, as the invasion was launched, the Ethiopian government, in accordance with its international legal obligations, allowed the Italian ambassador, his several consuls-general and other diplomatic staff, to peacefully pack and depart the capital by train.

Virtually abandoned by the world, the Ethiopian barefoot levies, armed with little more than a few guns remaining from Adwa, put up a stubborn resistance to the invasion. But their bravery and pride were not enough. Using long-outdated military strategies, and with their traditional white clothes making them easy targets, they faced an enormous modern army that included elite Italian regiments as well as numerous battalions of well-armed colonial (mainly Eritrean) soldiers who constituted a formidable fighting force, the principal livelihood open to Eritrean men being the military. The Ethiopians were also confronted with overwhelming military superiority in the form of new weapons of mass destruction with which most Ethiopians were unfamiliar: tanks, machine guns, flame-throwers and, above all, a massive air force equipped with chemical weapons. In the world’s first mass aerial bombardment (p.26)


4. Emperor Haile Selassie, a firm believer in protocol and international conventions, permitted the Italian diplomats and their families to leave the Italian legation in Addis Ababa peacefully and depart from the country as their government’s invasion of Ethiopia was launched

of civilians11—a harbinger of what would become commonplace in Europe a few years later—entire settlements with their inhabitants were obliterated, with no distinction made between combatants and non-combatants, or between men, women and children. Despite vigorous and dogged resistance, which often slowed the invading forces to a crawl, ultimately all was lost in Tigray at the decisive Battle of Maychew, where, on 31 March 1936, led by Emperor Haile Selassie himself, the Ethiopians faced defeat. The sovereign’s retreating army was then methodically drenched by the Italian air force with asphyxiating gases.12

The journalist George Steer later summarised in a brief but bitter cameo the suffering and sacrifice of the Ethiopians in their desperate defence that cost a quarter of a million Ethiopian lives:

Remember the bombs, remember the sprayed yperite, the smoking circle of artillery and machine-guns that burnt the blood out of the Ethiopians as they sat on their mountains defending their country and their women. Remember the destruction of the Red Cross in the plains of the North and along the shallow rivers of the (p.27) South. Remember the revolutions, how western money was used to turn Ethiopian against Ethiopian; the villages in flames, the flies fat with man’s putrefaction, the paths stagnant with corpses, the caravans scattered and destroyed. Remember the tens of thousands that died in battle and bombing and the bitter retreat. These fell, remember, that civilisation should prevail.13

Having led his armies at Maychew, and having personally suffered from the effects of Italy’s chemical weapons, the Emperor realised that the enemy had launched an offensive beyond all the international rules of war, and that the fall of Addis Ababa was inevitable. Thus on 2 May 1936 he left to play the only card he had left: the pursuit of Ethiopia’s cause on the international stage. Departing by train, he travelled with a small entourage to Jerusalem and then on to exile in Britain.

Three days after Haile Selassie’s departure, General Pietro Badoglio arrived in Addis Ababa at the head of his invading forces. On 9 May 1936, following the fall of the town of Dessie, Mussolini appointed Badoglio Viceroy of Ethiopia, and on the same day General Rodolfo Graziani, who had been commanding on the southern front, was promoted to Marshal. The Occupation had begun.

For the Italians, Badoglio was the hero of the hour. As Mussolini appeared on a balcony in Rome’s Piazza Venezia the tumultuous crowd was delirious with joy and adulation. Fascism had finally launched its programme of international conquest, Pope Pius XI was overjoyed by what he declared to be a ‘beautiful victory by a great and good people’, Italians felt they now had an ‘empire’, and Adwa was avenged. It was the Duce’s finest hour. In characteristic style, King Victor Emannuel of Italy proudly but paradoxically assumed the title ‘Emperor of Ethiopia’, Ethiopia, according to the Italian government, having ceased to exist (being absorbed into Italian East Africa).

A few days after the Occupation began, in an unexpected turn of events, Badoglio’s proposals for running the newly conquered territory, based on governance through traditional local leaders—a policy consistent with that of the ancient Roman empire—was rejected by Alessandro Lessona, Minister of Colonies. Knowing Mussolini’s plan to use Ethiopia for strategic military purposes, he not surprisingly replaced the proposals with a strategy based on direct totalitarian rule. The rejection was followed by Badolglio’s resignation, and on 21 May Graziani was appointed Viceroy in his place.

The Duce now declared ‘demographic expansion’ as the purpose of the invasion. The modus operandi of the European scramble for Africa had been based on the taking over of large tracts of land where no nation-state was (p.28) deemed to exist, and establishing a polity with law and order that would be welcomed by the ignorant and grateful—and thus loyal—natives. Then a colony of Europeans in need of ‘space’ would arrive. The fact is, of course, that the Italian attack on Ethiopia was not a colonial expeditionary force taking over an unclaimed tract of land; it was nothing less than an unprovoked and ruthless armed invasion by one nation-state of another. Thus, not surprisingly, the idea never took root in the age-old empire of Ethiopia, any more than it would in any of the other countries that Mussolini would invade and pronounce to be Italian ‘colonies’. With the exception of a handful of souls who tried unsuccessfully to make a living in remote and besieged homesteads, the overwhelming majority of Italians fleeing the slums of Naples and the poverty of Sicily continued to seek their fortune in New York and South America rather than in the killing fields of occupied Ethiopia. That was, however, of no great concern to Mussolini, who actually had no real interest in Ethiopia per se, and never even visited the land he claimed to have conquered. For him the invasion had served its purpose. He had his glittering victory, and Graziani’s iron fist would ensure the necessary ‘pacification’. The Duce’s popularity was never greater, and his attention soon turned elsewhere. Albania would be next; it was announced that Nice, Corsica and Tunisia would follow;14 and before long Greece and Yugoslavia would resound to the cry of ‘Duce! Duce!

The de facto acquiescence that the invasion received from the League of Nations constituted a critical test case. It was an assurance not only for Mussolini, but more importantly for Adolf Hitler, who at that time held the Duce in high esteem and modelled his Nazi movement on Italy’s Fascism, that there would likewise be no resistance to Italy and Germany invading their weaker neighbours—an assurance that the international community was to bitterly regret having given, as Haile Selassie became only one of many forlorn heads of state gathering in exile in London in the years that followed.

Throughout the Occupation, Italian control in Ethiopia was limited principally to the locations where they were able to maintain garrisons, for while some of Ethiopia’s military commanders and traditional leaders submitted to the invaders soon after the beginning of the Occupation, many of the submissions were opportunistic, and several never submitted. As happens in any invaded nation, Ethiopian resistance groups dug in for a long war of attrition in the countryside.

Though poorly coordinated, the war of resistance was hard fought and brutal, for, upon his appointment as Viceroy, Graziani was given virtually unlimited powers by Mussolini, whereby any Ethiopian soldier who continued (p.29) fighting after Addis Ababa had been occupied, and any civilian who resisted in any way or was simply suspected of not welcoming Italian overlord-ship, was branded a ‘rebel’ and was either shot or hanged in public. It was the beginning of a five-year military occupation underpinned by a policy of terror—the creation of extreme fear—the technique used extensively by Graziani to ‘pacify’ the Libyans, used by Badoglio to cow Ethiopian civilians during the invasion, and now brought to perfection once again by Graziani.

Policies of Repression

The military machine that carried out the invasion of Ethiopia consisted of Italian officers and soldiers of Italy’s regular army, Blackshirt militia, carabinieri (military police), and colonial troops (Eritrean, Libyan and Somali askaris). The regulars were conscripts; the Blackshirts were volunteers. In all, including militarised workers, the invading forces totalled around a quarter of a million men. All Italian men over the age of 18 years were liable for compulsory military service, and the conscripts, some of whom were reluctant soldiers, were subject to quite tough military discipline. On the other hand, the Blackshirts had more freedom of action, higher pay, and were subject to considerably less discipline. So who were these Blackshirts, or Camicie Nere?

Mussolini had established the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (MVSN) in 1923, based on the ‘action squads’ he had used since 1919 to attack communists and destroy opposition to his Fascist Party. Initially the movement was made up of ex-servicemen aged 21 to 36, including many First World War veterans, supported by reservists up to the age of 56. Whereas regular army soldiers were conscripted into full-time service, the Blackshirts were called upon only when required. Nonetheless, in the second half of the 1920s they were increasingly deployed as a military fighting force, and by 1930 were being attached as a combat force to regular army divisions. The invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 provided a boost to the evolution of the Blackshirts as a military entity, deploying 97,500 of them to fight alongside 70,500 regular soldiers.15 In all, six Blackshirt divisions were deployed for the invasion of Ethiopia, incorporating several flame-thrower units.16

Having a semi-permanent structure with divisions and battalions that were created only after they were mobilised, the Blackshirts were mainly deployed as light infantry, and were largely limited to the weapons and equipment that they could carry.17 Of all their weapons, the dagger, or pugnale, was their pride and joy. Generally hanging from the belt in a scabbard on the left, it not only (p.30) symbolised the Fascist glorification of violence, but also had been a favourite of the soldiers of ancient Rome, who discovered that a quick stab to the soft parts of the body was more likely to be fatal than the sweep of a sword. Similarly the bayonet, suspended from the belt like a long sheathed dagger next to the pugnale, ready to be fixed to the barrel of the rifle, was another essential weapon. The dagger and bayonet would be used extensively against Ethiopian soldiers and civilians during the Invasion and Occupation.

While most of the regular military stayed on in Ethiopia during the Occupation, encountering continued resistance from the Ethiopians on a daily basis, most of the Blackshirt divisions were disbanded and sent back to Italy in 1936, many of them for redeployment in Spain. However, on 9 June 1936, Graziani, concerned about the extent of resistance around the capital, gave orders for the largest of the Blackshirt divisions—the 6th Blackshirt Division named the ‘Tevere’, which had fought under his command on the southern front—to move from Dessie to Addis Ababa, where it remained.18

The majority of the 14,567 men originally forming the ‘Tevere’ were stationed in the north of the city at the former Teferi Mekonnin School, which backed onto the French legation. The ‘Tevere’ also included a transport section garrisoned at the northern corner of the open field of Jan Méda (see Map 1), as well as many militarised labourers, the Centuria Lavorati, who were engaged in road-building and construction and were issued with shovels.


5. Blackshirts of the 6th ‘Tevere’ Division, 219th Legion, mobilised for action in Ethiopia

It is clear from the crimes against humanity that have been perpetrated during the 20th and early 21st centuries that no single race or nationality has a monopoly on wanton violence. Yet the astonishing level of brutality and cruelty of the Italians towards defenceless civilians during the Invasion and Occupation is at first sight baffling, and calls for an explanation. It is thus instructive to examine the extent to which Fascism provided (p.31) the essential ingredients for war crimes: nationalistic fervour, the glorification of war, dehumanisation and demonisation of the enemy, and a culture of brutality and impunity.

Patriotism, Adulation and Policies of Terror

There was certainly no shortage of patriotic fervour. Although some Italians had earlier expressed reservations about the wisdom and morality of invading Ethiopia, by the time the invasion was announced, the Italian public was, in the words of Professor Angelo Del Boca, so possessed by nationalistic frenzy that ‘when the sirens sounded and the church bells pealed, its people rushed shouting and cheering into the streets and squares in a passionate patriotic stampede unique in our history’. He continued, ‘thirteen years of Fascist propaganda and indoctrination had made an indelible mark on the Italians, particularly the younger generation’.19

As Professor Christopher Duggan points out, much of the enthusiasm for the invasion of Ethiopia stemmed from feelings that it would expiate the trials and tribulations suffered by Italy. He quotes a young recruit writing to Mussolini in early August 1935 a letter that shows how completely the young generation had swallowed the Duce’s propaganda. The invasion would gain a ‘most beautiful victory’ for Italy, would ‘avenge the error of Versailles’, and would make Italy a great nation. ‘Today’, he added, ‘the youth of Italy has leapt forward as one man, ready to bear arms and carry into the barbarian land the symbol of Rome, symbol of greatness, civilisation and strength.’20

Although Ethiopia did not participate in the First World War and thus had nothing to do with the Treaty of Versailles, the idea that annexing Ethiopia and handing over its resources to Italians would ‘avenge the error of Versailles’ was widespread among Italians. The vast majority of the invaders, many of whom were from poor peasant families, actually believed, absurd though it may seem today, that they were each entitled to a piece of far-away Ethiopia.

Furthermore, by the time of the invasion, there was no shortage of precedents in the Italian armed forces for atrocities against civilian populations. Although many of the more recent Blackshirt volunteers were too young to have fought in the First World War and had no prior military experience, most of their commanders (normally seconded from the regular army) were well versed in a tradition of cruel and brutal operations against civilians, particularly in the subjugation of Libyans. In pre-Fascist times Italy’s predilection for invading existing polities rather than focusing on ‘unclaimed’ lands had drawn them to (p.32) invade and attempt to conquer Libya, then a polity of the Ottoman Empire. Carried out in 1911, the invasion represented the world’s first military use of airpower and aerial bombardments. Later, under Fascism, in its attempts to ‘reconquer’ Libya, which had proved a hard nut to crack, Italy was the first country to widely use chemical weapons in violation of the 1925 Gas Protocol.21

Together with mass detentions, such aggressions laid the ground for what was rapidly to become a national tradition of extraordinary brutality in the suppression of unarmed civilian populations.22 In the initial conquest of Tripoli, the Italians had acquired a reputation for large-scale and indiscriminate civilian massacres,23 and in the 1920s under Fascism, which as we have seen glorified militarism and war, Graziani built on that reputation by the use of implacable force and the establishment of his favourite technique for separating a subject population from the potential influence of ‘rebels’: concentration camps. Graziani’s infamy in Libya as a champion of civilian abuse earned him appellations such as ‘the Butcher of Tripoli’ and ‘the Hyena of Libya’.

In fact, during the span of Fascism, from 1922 to 1943, with the exception of some of the fighting against Russia, the Italian army forces would be concentrated principally on attacking civilians and makeshift armies cobbled together to resist the invasion of their countries. Herding unarmed women and children into concentration camps, reprisals in the form of civilian massacres whenever they met resistance, and looting and burning of villages were the order of the day. From Libya to Ethiopia, and from Greece to Yugoslavia, the principal modus operandi of the Italian army was ‘counterinsurgency’.


6. Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani was a career soldier. Having fought in Libya and Austria during the First World War, he went on to achieve notoriety as military commander in Libya

To understand the ease and speed with which the Italians incarcerated innocent Ethiopian civilians during the Occupation, (p.33) it is necessary to digress briefly into the question of the role of penal camps in Italian colonial governance. All European colonial powers adopted, from time to time, measures of varying degrees of severity as instruments of control and punishment of colonial subjects, but the widespread use of penal camps, along with the deportation of subjects to such institutions, was a remarkable phenomenon in the countries that Italy invaded. It was a cornerstone of Italian government policy in Libya long before Fascism, and was subsequently written into the public security laws of 1926 and 1931. Used to ‘free a territory from its inhabitants’ as well as to separate subject populations from the possible influence of ‘rebels’, the camps were widespread, and many were very brutal. About half of the population of eastern Libya was interned in 16 concentration camps operating in the Cyrenaica region (north-eastern Libya) between 1930 and 1933. Considered to have constituted one of the grimmest aspects of Italian history, these camps experienced a death rate of around 40 per cent. Mandated by Mussolini, the camps were ordered by Badoglio and organised by Graziani.24 Thus the incarceration of Ethiopians in concentration camps did not constitute an isolated episode, for, far from being wartime improvisations, these camps had their origins in the well-established policies of pre-Fascist Italy.

Terror being one of the pillars of Italian governance in Cyrenaica, mass executions, deportation and internment of civilians were standard practice. However, under Fascism they were elevated to previously unknown levels. And even if they were not designed to be death camps, the conditions in many of the concentration camps were appalling, with death by starvation and disease, punishments and public executions daily occurrences. Explaining the principle that Italy’s subject populations were expendable, Badoglio offered as a rationale in Libya the need to create ‘a broad and clear territorial separation’ between ‘rebels’ and the general population. He declared, ‘I do not deny the extent and gravity of the decision which will amount to the ruin of the so-called subject population. But by now the path has been marked out and we must follow it to the end even if the whole population of Cyrenaica should perish’ (emphasis added).25

The experience gained by Graziani in Libya was promptly applied to Ethiopia. The principal concentration camp to be used for incarcerating Ethiopians—Danane, in Italian Somaliland—had been built by late 1935, when the invasion of Ethiopia was launched, and was thus ready for use before the Occupation had even begun.

The tradition of civilian abuse was maintained during the resistance that continued in Ethiopia after 9 May 1936. Once Haile Selassie’s military commanders (p.34) with their outdated strategies had been vanquished, their successors began adopting guerrilla tactics. In many ways, albeit on a limited scale, the Italians had now met their match, and their response was determined but shameful. Contempt for the enemy had been generated by the demonisation of the Ethiopians through the state-controlled media; the dapper, dignified and highly acclaimed Ethiopian Regent who had charmed the crowds and been given a royal welcome by King Victor Emmanuel and Mussolini on his official state visit to Rome in 1924—the Emperor to whose imperial court Italian diplomats had long been proud to be accredited—was transformed by Mussolini’s propaganda machine into a caricature. Haile Selassie was now a hideous, subhuman creature with an enormous beaked nose and gigantic deformed feet—a monstrous potentate ruling with revolting brutality over a horde of ignorant savages, who for their own good needed to be forcibly subjected to what Rome called ‘Italian civilisation’. Many of the Blackshirt volunteers swallowed the propaganda, and against such a background the Italian military commanders’ numerous written instructions for suppression of the local population through the spreading of terror, and demands for ‘merciless rigour’ and ‘the destruction of everything’, rapidly created a culture of brutality and impunity. It is not surprising that Italians who might not have been predisposed to abuse the Ethiopians often did so with enthusiasm, as can be seen from some of the photographs in this volume.

For those who might otherwise have pitied their victims, the high-flown objectives of Italy’s purported civilising mission meant that no pangs of conscience were felt, particularly as the Ethiopians were now claimed to be a grossly inferior species. In any case, the Blackshirts were, in effect, above the law. A recruit named Dom Pietro, who joined the Blackshirts at the age of 28, quickly rose to the level of sub-officer, and was deployed in Ethiopia in 1937. Recalling the impunity with which the Blackshirts behaved, he admitted that they maltreated Ethiopian women, and ‘quelled those poor people with force’. Citing an instance in which a Blackshirt had killed an Ethiopian for not cleaning the soldier’s boots, he said that he was unable to punish the soldier ‘because the militia couldn’t be punished, couldn’t make a mistake and were the living examples of the Roman legions—the glory of the “Empire”’.26

And if the required brutality proved too much for delicate Italian sensibilities, there were always the Libyan askaris standing by. A 26-year old medical officer, Manlio La Sorsa, wrote that the Italian soldiers delegated their ‘barbaric, ferocious and inhuman’ methods to the Libyans, owing to the apparent inability of Italians to bring themselves to commit the heinous crimes (p.35) required. ‘We Europeans,’ he wrote, ‘who are easily moved and readily forgive, would never have been capable’ of committing the ‘vandalic acts’ required.27 Although La Sorsa does not deny that the Italians authorised the ‘barbaric and inhuman’ excesses that characterised the invasion of Ethiopia, his claims that his fellow countrymen were not directly engaged in such excesses are belied by the numerous photographs showing them gleefully carrying out the most sordid and cruel atrocities.

Terror from the Skies, and Attitude Towards International Conventions

The Italian air force, or Regia Aeronautica, played a critical role in creating terror among the Ethiopians. As early as 1932 Emilio De Bono, then Minister of Colonies, was arguing that the invasion of Ethiopia would depend on having ‘a powerful Air Force, one that can bring terror to the [Ethiopian] empire’s capital and major cities’. In response to a letter from Mussolini in December 1934, he advised that the invasion should be prepared ‘by a violent bombing action on all the principal Ethiopian cities’, including Addis Ababa. ‘Everything must be destroyed with incendiary exploding bombs,’ he wrote. ‘Terror must be disseminated throughout the Empire.’28

When the time came, terror from the air was indeed the cornerstone of the invasion strategy. It was further strengthened during the Occupation, for the most common method of fighting the Ethiopian Patriots was to follow what had been done to their counterparts in Libya: blackmailing them into surrender by terrorising the civilian population. This was accomplished largely by the bombing and aerial spraying of Ethiopian men, women, children, animals, crops and drinking water with toxic chemicals provided by the Asmara-based Chemical Warfare Service known by the Italians as Section K. The use of these chemical weapons was not, however, an isolated decision or a panic reaction. Neither was it, as was later claimed, a response to atrocities committed by pastoralists against two Italian pilots who had had to make an emergency landing after carrying out a horrific and deadly bombardment of their remote community. The deployment of chemical weapons was all along intended to be a key component of the invasion strategy, to be deployed in the event that the Ethiopians put up serious resistance. To this end, as early as August 1935, before the invasion had begun, and despite Italy’s being a signatory of the Gas Protocol, Section K had set up an advance unit near Mogadishu in neighbouring Italian Somaliland. By October, when the invasion of Ethiopia was launched, an extensive chemical weapons facility (p.36) covering 12.5 hectares had already been established, with facilities for preparing deadly liquids and gases for the invasion. It contained no less than 17 warehouses for storage, together with 35,000 gas masks and decontamination materials for the protection of Italians.29

By December 1935, the Italian advances on both northern and southern fronts had virtually ground to a halt in the face of Ethiopian resistance, despite the fact that many of the Ethiopian rank and file were barefoot and often armed only with antique rifles or spears. The Italian response was the deployment of poison gas and the systematic bombing of Red Cross field stations.30

Until 1996, when the Italian government finally admitted having used chemical weapons, the reaction in Italy to charges of having used such weapons in Ethiopia was denial and, indeed, self-righteous indignation at such a suggestion. Yet the intention to use such weapons was common knowledge by September 1935, when Mussolini was being exhorted by members of the public to demonstrate to Britain Italy’s power and military might by displaying ‘diabolical savagery’ in Ethiopia, and ‘saturating the plains of Somalia and the forests of the Tigray in a week with gas bombs’.31

For the Italian military the great value of chemical weapons was as a means of destroying Ethiopians—soldiers and civilians—en masse from a safe distance without having to confront the enemy directly, but only from aeroplanes. That this policy was public knowledge in Italy is illustrated by the fact that in early October a group of Bologna university students, having swallowed the propaganda put out by Mussolini regarding Ethiopians, exhorted him to conduct ‘a war to the limits’, against the ‘inhuman, vile … bestial Abyssinian people’, and insisted that in the process the Italians should deploy chemical weapons to ensure that they themselves would not be put in harm’s way. In a telling admission of Italian martial spirit that probably infuriated the Duce, who always proclaimed multiple deaths on the battlefield as positive expressions of Italian valour, they wrote, ‘We are Italians, and we want to keep our sacrifice to a minimum—especially when it is a question of fighting animals like the Abyssinians.’ The students knew that chemical weapons were expensive but regarded them as the most effective method of dispensing death from a safe distance, in order to preserve the lives of young Italians ‘who will be needed as the productive forces of tomorrow’s empire’. Dismissing international treaties as applying ‘only to weak states’, they went on to reassure the Duce that, in any case, ‘How can anyone check if Italy does or does not use gas?’32

By January 1936 the application of poisonous chemicals had been further refined by the Regia Aeronautica to provide for high-volume discharge during (p.37) low-flying aerial spraying of Ethiopian civilians and their crops, animals and water sources, bringing the number of Ethiopian deaths during the invasion to an estimated total of more than a quarter of a million. After the Italians reached Addis Ababa in May 1936, chemicals were also used liberally on the remaining fighting units, as instructed by Mussolini in telegrams to Graziani marked ‘Secret’ and passed on, in, for example, Graziani’s orders to General Alessandro Pirzio-Biroli to secure the surrender of the Ethiopian commander Dejazmach Wendwessen Kassa in September: ‘Since it is now impossible to use troop columns owing to the rains, … the goal can be attained by use of all means of destruction from the air day after day, mainly using asphyxiating gases.’33 Poison gas, administered from the air, was used extensively and, after the Occupation began, became the principal weapon used against the resistance.

The reluctance of the Italians at the time, and for the next half-century, to admit the use of chemical weapons against the Ethiopians appears to have stemmed not from fear of being accused of breaking international law—of which, after all, the invasion of Ethiopia itself was already a massive breach. Rather, it was the shame of having to admit that they were deploying a weapon widely viewed in Europe as one of last resort. Thus, given the poorly armed Ethiopian army, and the absence of an Ethiopian air force, resorting to chemical weapons would suggest military incompetence in conventional warfare on the part of the Italians, or even cowardice. Since documentary evidence now shows that during the Occupation much of the gas was used on civilian targets, the reluctance to admit its use becomes even more understandable, as does the Italians’ decision not to use gas against the British during the war of liberation in 1941, which they would not have been able to hide from the international community.

One of the remarkable features of Mussolini’s government was its posture regarding the principles of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the international conventions to which Italy was signatory—not only the Gas Protocol, but also the Geneva Conventions, which included the 1929 Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Even before the invasion of Ethiopia, it was clear that there was a fundamental incompatibility between such conventions and Italian government policies. The Duce’s creed exalted war; chivalry, compassion and humanitarian service were regarded as weakness and cowardice. As Dr Edoardo Borra, who was director of the Ospedale Italiano (Italian Hospital) in Addis Ababa and representative of the Italian Red Cross during the Occupation, admitted many years later to the historian Rainer Baudendistal, there was at the time a widespread view in Italy (p.38) that ‘the Hague and Geneva Conventions and the Gas Protocol had no value, because this was a war that had to be fought’.34

Italy’s breaches of the Geneva Conventions in terms of her disdain for the symbol of the Red Cross in Ethiopia have already been analysed in meticulous detail by Baudendistal. While neither side can be said to have been above reproach, the Regia Aeronautica deliberately attacked Ethiopian, Swedish and British Red Cross field hospitals and facilities whenever it suited them for military reasons, for the carrying out of reprisals, or to silence doctors who might reveal Italy’s use of chemical weapons. And when later challenged by the international community, officials such as Graziani, in a face-saving exercise for Mussolini, had no qualms in falsifying pilots’ flight reports to make it appear that the strikes had been unintentional.35

Under Fascism, any service rendered to the Ethiopians—including the activities of the Red Cross—were viewed as acts against Italy, and thus both the Ethiopians and the foreigners working in the national Red Cross field hospitals in Ethiopia were treated as the enemy. As Dr Borra put it, many Italians considered the foreign doctors ‘as mercenaries, sell-outs and against us’.36

This belief is illustrated by the Italians’ treatment of two Polish Red Cross workers encountered on 16 February 1936, during the invasion of Ethiopia, when Blackshirts of the ‘23rd March’ Division overran a cave in an area they had raided the day before. The head of the Red Cross field hospital, Dr Maksymiljian Stanisław Belau, and his assistant, Tadeusz Medyński, were arrested, in contravention of the Geneva Conventions. Under threat of execution, they were chained and beaten, thrown to the ground, and made to kneel, before being photographed. After being put on a starvation ration and subjected to a series of mock executions, Dr Belau had a nervous breakdown. Detained and interrogated, they were both imprisoned in Massawa. Ironically, Belau was threatened with execution unless he retracted his previous reports of mistreatment of Red Cross staff by the Italians. Disavowing the reports under threat of death, both men fortunately survived.37

While theoretically the Italians adhered to the Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, the reality was a far cry from the principles they expounded. Conditions in the prison camps were typically abominable. But although thousands of Ethiopian civilians would be herded into camps, there were actually very few Ethiopian prisoners of war; during the Invasion none of the camps held more than a few hundred of them. Thus the question is: What happened to all the Ethiopians missing in action? It is a mystery. The Ethiopian army totalled between 250,000 and 350,000 men in the field, and (p.39) in many of the battles tens of thousands of Ethiopians lost their lives in action. One would thus expect that the Ethiopians taken prisoner would be numbered in many tens of thousands, yet the Italian sources confirm only a handful becoming prisoners of war. Baudendistal points out that in one day in the Battle of Adwa (1896) the Ethiopians took more prisoners than the Italians did in the entire war of invasion, which lasted some seven months.38

So far as the present author is aware, this issue, referred to by Baudendistal as an intriguing discovery, has never been closely examined. It is well known, and attested by numerous written instructions, that from the beginning of the Occupation in May 1936 combatants who surrendered or were taken prisoner by the Italians were shot. But were prisoners of war also killed en masse during the war of invasion, in flagrant breach of the Geneva Convention?

Dr Ladislas Shashka, a Hungarian medical practitioner who had been living in Ethiopia for three years before the Italian invasion, spoke fluent Italian, Amharic and Oromifa, and was to write a detailed account of the massacre of Addis Ababa under the pseudonym Dr Sava, attended and interviewed many wounded Ethiopians during the war of invasion, and also met many Italians during the Occupation. In the process, he was shocked to learn that indeed the Italians massacred their prisoners. He concluded that the Invasion was ‘a war of extermination’, and described the mode of Italian warfare as mass murder.39

Statements made by high officials of the Italian military confirm Dr Shashka’s conclusions, and give the impression that the Italians regarded the killing of prisoners as perfectly normal. For example, Graziani made a chilling comment in his report of a battle in the Ogaden in April 1936, when thousands of Ethiopians were slaughtered: ‘Few prisoners, as is custom of Libyan troops [fighting under Italian command].’40 Badoglio himself informed Minister Lessona that had the two captured Polish Red Cross medical staff been soldiers, they would have been killed. He wrote, ‘Your Excellency can rest assured that had they been combatants, there would be no need to talk about them now.’41 And according to none other than Mussolini’s son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, the Fascist Party secretary Achille Starace, a leading architect of Fascism throughout the 1930s and military commander responsible for occupying Gondar, not only shot Ethiopian prisoners, but used them for target practice, aiming at their hearts. Concluding that the victims were not suffering enough, ‘he shot them first in the testicles and then in the chest. Eye-witnesses reported these details.’42

(p.40) Impunity

It is not the purpose of this book to dwell on the atrocities carried out during the Invasion and Occupation prior to, or after, the massacre of Addis Ababa. However, the methods of implementing the Fascist policy of terror throughout Ethiopia constitute an essential part of the context in which the massacre of Addis Ababa was conducted, and so they cannot be ignored. These methods, for which written instructions were repeatedly issued, included the massacre of civilians, the destruction of entire villages, and execution on the slightest pretext. Neither were these atrocities committed in the ‘heat of the moment’; they were often ordered in writing, and frequently photographed at leisure.

The most common forms of execution were hanging, and shooting by firing squad. Other methods included skinning alive; beheading, followed by public displays of the severed head on a pole in the medieval manner; putting victims into aeroplanes and throwing them out alive; hanging victims in stress positions, leading to slow death by gangrene; and the burning alive of families in their houses using flame-throwers.


7. An Italian soldier and two askaris pose for the camera beside their Ethiopian victim, who is dying from gangrene

(p.41) The atrocities, carried out with revolting barbarity, are well chronicled, for the Italians left behind numerous written official instructions authorising them. It is not surprising that none of the many photographs of these excesses betray any sign that the perpetrators thought they were doing anything to which their superiors might object. On the contrary, those responsible were usually behaving with impunity, smiling, and clearly wanted the scenes to be photographed.

A modern Italian scholar, Professor Giuseppe Finaldi, identifies removal of the risk of punishment as one of the key contributing factors to a massacre. In the case of the massacre of Addis Ababa it was made clear that the perpetrators would not be held accountable for anything they did; their actions would, in fact, be lawful: ‘The more Ethiopians murdered, and the more brutality shown, the more one’s loyalty to the Italian viceroy was affirmed.’ ‘The Graziani killings’, he wrote, were ‘permitted on the direct authority of Rome’.43

Graziani himself frequently made it clear that when it came to dealing with his perceived enemies, there should be no restraint on the licence given to the


8. ‘We Europeans, who are easily moved and readily forgive, would never have been capable of committing the vandalic acts that were indispensable for keeping this treacherous and ignorant people in check.’—Manlio La Sorsa. Nevertheless, we see here Italians happily entertaining themselves with the grisly trophies hacked off their Ethiopian captives

(p.42) rank and file—both regulars and Blackshirts—to commit atrocities. On the contrary, he made it abundantly clear in his written instructions that they must suppress any residual feelings of sympathy, mercy or compassion, or what he referred to in his written orders as ‘false pity’.

That the Viceroy’s subordinates typically had no qualms in passing on such instructions may be judged from orders such as the one given by Captain Corvo, the Residente in Bahir Dar, to the chief of a group of askaris fighting for the Italians during the Occupation (in an area where for centuries all men traditionally carried guns, however ancient, albeit that few of them were serviceable): ‘You are to punish without pity all persons found in possession of arms and ammunition. I instruct you to burn not only their houses, but also the persons themselves.’44

Turning the Tables

It is often said that people who have lived at the lowest echelon of society, with no power over anyone, sometimes become cruel and notorious when put in uniform and given the power of life and death over others. So it was that in the 1930s, when Mussolini’s soldiers, many of whom were illiterate and from impoverished backgrounds, found themselves overnight superior in the pecking order to even the most distinguished and educated Ethiopians: ‘Suddenly removed from the deadly monotony of Italian provincial life, from dull drudgery, starvation wages, and unemployment, they found in Africa a breathtaking spaciousness and the individual right to at least a small measure of power.’45

Eager, like the Vikings of old, to swap their inconsequential lives back home for the adventure and plunder of the marauding invader, all that was now required to turn the party rank and file into warriors worthy of Mussolini’s ‘New Fascist Man’ was encouragement to be tough and assertive, as befitted their newly acquired ‘master race’ status. And such encouragement—and, indeed, compulsion—was definitely provided. As Christopher Duggan puts it, under Fascism every effort was made to get Italians to be ‘less nice’ and more masterful.46

The Graziani Factor

A significant factor throughout the Invasion and Occupation was a marked tendency on the part of the Fascist civilians, and particularly the lower ranks of the Blackshirts, for hero worship of the Viceroy. To understand this phenomenon (p.43) and its impact on the culture of impunity during the Occupation, we must digress briefly into the subject of Graziani’s background, appearance and character. As the scholar Dr Fabienne Le Houérou states, no general was ever as popular as Graziani. ‘Fascist supporters were very fond of heroes … The most amazing stories were told about him … Journalists liked to underline his romantic and exotic destiny in the desert.’ She points out that the international press was always flattering Graziani, and presented his image like a beautiful Latin medal. ‘Graziani was strong, slim, and his features were of marble.’47

Graziani shared with Mussolini an obsession with ancient Rome, and cast himself as, in effect, a reincarnation of a Roman emperor. In an Italian archive Le Houérou found a notebook in which Graziani’s worshippers endlessly praised and congratulated him, gave him noble titles and ranks, imagined being related to him, or called him a genius.

After interviewing Italian ex-soldiers who had fought during the invasion, attempted to become colonists, then stayed on in Ethiopia in reduced circumstances after the collapse of Italian East Africa, Le Houérou concluded that their social frustrations had led them to their extreme fascination for the Viceroy. ‘They deny their own mediocrity in liking an exceptional character. The feeling of being such losers—powerless, marginal, forgotten in a mental desert—leads to passion for strength and brutality.’48

Thus Graziani’s image of a handsome and heroic ancient Roman emperor fed Fascist values to the hilt, and in turn the rank and file of the party projected onto him the attributes of a superman—a ‘real man’, as one of Le Houérou’s interviewees put it. Nothing could have been more effective in exacerbating a culture of impunity among the Blackshirts, each seeking to outdo the other in demonstrating their commitment to the party ideal.


Finally, the existence of two parallel institutions, both reporting to Mussolini, complicated the situation in Addis Ababa, confusing the lines of responsibility and accountability. The military government of Mussolini in the ‘new empire’ was headed by Graziani (who as Viceroy also represented the King of Italy), while the Fascist Party was headed independently by a young but senior Blackshirt named Guido Cortese. Although Graziani was a member of the party, and would prove to be one of Mussolini’s most loyal supporters, he was never comfortable with the party apparatus that gave Cortese a direct channel to Rome, and which complicated the position of the regular army vis-à-vis the (p.44) buccaneering, freebooting Blackshirts. Although at times of military engagement the Blackshirts could be, and were, commanded by regular army officers under Graziani’s command, for the rest of the time Cortese had as much control over them as—and often more than— Graziani did.

Another, related factor was the position of the Italian civilians who had been shipped to Ethiopia, the majority of whom were labourers or drivers. Almost all them—at least those who had accompanied the invading forces— were card-carrying party members, and in fact had to be in order to obtain work on the government-financed projects. Furthermore, their ‘rest and recreation’ activities were organised overwhelmingly by the party. Their primary loyalty was to Cortese rather than Graziani. Thus, while on ceremonial occasions in public the two men would stand shoulder to shoulder, there was always an uneasy relationship between them, in addition to the generation gap (Graziani was 54 years old; Cortese was 34).


9. Graziani borne on the shoulders of his admiring soldiers during a military campaign he personally commanded in southern Ethiopia shortly before Yekatit 12

(p.45) Warnings and Forebodings

As we have seen, any Ethiopian soldier who continued fighting after Mussolini’s declaration of the Italian empire on 9 May 1936, and any civilian who resisted in any way or was suspected of not wishing to submit to Italian overlordship, was branded by Graziani a ‘rebel’ and was shot. Since many Ethiopian soldiers were still in the field fighting under their commanders, this policy led to the cold-blooded slaughter of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers taken prisoner during battle. Even those who surrendered were executed, and civilians who in due course joined hands with the remnants of the Ethiopian army to continue the struggle suffered the same fate.

As early on in the Occupation as 5 June 1936, by which time many Ethiopian soldiers, lacking radio and telegraph, would not even have been aware that Addis Ababa had been taken, Mussolini was instructing Graziani, ‘All rebels taken prisoner must be shot.’49 The Viceroy’s liberal interpretation of what constituted a rebel meant that he gave himself carte blanche to kill almost any Ethiopians he desired—whether military or civilian—for the flimsiest of reasons. Indeed, as we shall see, under Fascism the Italians routinely executed not only soldiers but even military commanders who surrendered, after solemnly promising them in the name of the King and government of Italy that they would not be harmed.

Werqineh Isheté (aka Dr Charles Martin), the Ethiopian minister in London, well aware of the implications of Graziani’s policy and familiar with the Italians’ strategies for civilian control in Libya, was outraged. The day after Mussolini’s telegram insisting that soldiers taken prisoner must be shot, he protested, ‘General Graziani has declared all Ethiopians still fighting for their country as “brigands” to be shot immediately, not combatants to be treated as prisoners of war. Against this illegal conduct, I make the strongest possible protest.’50 The envoy’s protests were to no avail, but he was right to be concerned. The Italian policy of killing prisoners is another factor critical to an understanding of the civilian slaughter that took place during the Occupation, and in particular the massacre of Addis Ababa.

Knowing the reputation of the Italian military in Libya, Dr Werqineh produced a pamphlet in London drawing attention to the likelihood of similar atrocities being conducted in Ethiopia. Published anonymously in the first half of 1936, the booklet stated that during Italy’s unprovoked invasion of Libya in 1911, the Italians had ‘disgraced and degraded themselves by committing shameful cruelties and atrocities on their defeated opponents’, and its (p.46) account of the massacre of Tripoli was to prove chillingly prophetic. It related how on 25 and 26 October 1911, the Italians began an indiscriminate civilian slaughter. ‘The troops seem to have gone 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 … 4,000 Arabs perished in this way, in the space of three days.’51 Dr Werqineh was explicit in his fears for Ethiopia: ‘judging from the horrible events of the war in Tripoli …, repetition of wholesale massacres of unarmed men, women and children is likely, only too likely, to occur.’52


10. In 1936, Dr Werqineh Isheté, Ethiopian minister in London, published a warning that Ethiopian civilians were likely to suffer atrocities similar to the 1911 three-day massacre of Tripoli

The Ethiopian envoy’s fears were widely echoed, for Italy’s reputation for civilian massacre as a means of ‘pacification’ was well known. It was certainly a cause for concern for the British legation in Addis Ababa, as may be gathered from a statement by the chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs in the US State Department, in July 1936, just a few weeks after the Italians had announced the conquest of Ethiopia. In a memorandum reporting a conversation he had had with the British envoy regarding the difficulties that the foreign legations in Addis Ababa were having with Graziani’s administration, the official wrote that the British ambassador fully expected ‘a first-class massacre’ in Addis Ababa in the not too distant future, and had said that one had only to recall the experiences of the Italians in subduing Libya to realise that ‘they were given to drastic action in times of near panic’. ‘It was the Latin way of doing things’, he said, ‘to resort to massacre in order to impress native populations with the authority of Rome.’53 As we will see, these fears, as expressed by both Ethiopian and foreign diplomats, turned out to have been well founded.

(p.47) Yekatit 12

In December 1936, seven months after the beginning of the Occupation, former Ethiopian government officials in Addis Ababa, in collaboration with members of the Emperor’s entourage in exile in England, recruited a number of activists to make a public strike against Graziani’s seat of power in the capital, the Governo Generale. The sovereign’s position in the League of Nations was precarious at the time, owing to the number of countries that were beginning to recognise the Occupation, and it was hoped that a dramatic public attack on the Italians would convince wavering members of the League that they were not in control of the country.54

When Graziani decided to imitate the former Emperor by holding a public alms-giving ceremony on Friday, 19 February 1937 (12 Yekatit 1929 EC), the plotters targeted this date for their strike. They had managed to recruit ‘insiders’ to lead the attack: two Italian colonial subjects of Eritrean origin who had left Eritrea for Ethiopia before the Italian invasion to pursue secondary education, which was prohibited for Eritreans in the Italian colony. Named Moges Asgedom and Abriha Deboch, both were employees of the Italian occupying authorities in Addis Ababa. In fact, Abriha was a member of Graziani’s


11. The site of the attack of Yekatit 12, Emperor Haile Selassie’s newly built Gennete-Li’ul Palace had been commandeered by the Italians for use as the seat of the Governo Generale early in the Occupation. The 3,000 Ethiopians present at the time of the attack were standing facing the portico at the front of the palace

(p.48) Political Office, which was responsible for clandestine intelligence-gathering from local informers. But, disgruntled, he had become a double agent.

The activists threw a number of hand grenades at the Italian officials on the dais. Apart from the intended killing or maiming of Graziani, the objective seems to have been temporary immobilisation of the Italian High Command, either to encourage a civilian uprising or to facilitate an attack by Ras Desta’s forces, or perhaps to trigger follow-up action such as hostage-taking.55

As a strike against the enemy in military terms, Yekatit 12 was unsuccessful; there was no uprising, and no follow-up. Furthermore, no Italians died—at least no senior officials of the Governo Generale, although some, including Graziani, were injured. Moreover, despite his injuries, which triggered the temporary appointment of his deputy and ten weeks of hospitalisation, Graziani remained as Viceroy.56

The strike of Yekatit 12 certainly met the requirement for a dramatic and public attack on the Italian High Command, but it was followed by a series of atrocities against the civilian population of the city that together constitute what became known as the Massacre of Addis Ababa. It is the story of those fateful days that is the subject of this book.


(3.) For a comprehensive and very readable account of the Battle of Adwa, see Jonas, R., 2011.

(5.) Great Britain, Public Record Office, Captured Italian Documents, No. 112809, cited in Pankhurst, R.K., 2001, p. 220, fn. 2.

(6.) Aloisi, P., 1957, p. 382, cited in Knox, M., 1986, pp. 34–5; Mussolini’s draft directive of 30 Dec. 1934, see Rochat, G., 1971, pp. 102–4, and doc. 92. See also (p.408) Robertson, E.M., 1977, pp. 112, 227 n. 65, and see Adamthwaite, A.P., doc. 14, for an English translation of the directive.

(7.) Mussolini to Min. of Colonies, Under-Secretaries for War, Navy and Air Force, and Chief of Gen. Staff, 10 Aug. 1934, Adamthwaite, A.P., doc. 12 (tr.).

(10.) There being very few Italians in Addis Ababa, and no significant Italian community outside the capital, the consulates, which Italy had set up under a treaty of friendship with Ethiopia, were used to disseminate propaganda and collect information on what was happening in Ethiopia.

(11.) In Libya, Italy had been the world’s first nation to carry out aerial bombardment of civilians, albeit not on the scale adopted in Ethiopia.

(13.) Steer, G., The Spectator, cited in New Times and Ethiopia News, 10 April 1937.

(16.) A 7th division was held in reserve in Libya. For the early history of the Blackshirts, see Crociani, P. and Battistelli, P.P., 2010, pp. 4–5.

(18.) Governo Generale, Stato Maggiore, A.O.I., 1939A, p. 14. See also Report No. T.27, from Major R.A. (Military Attaché, Addis Ababa) to His Majesty’s Chargé d’Affaires, Addis Ababa, 18 July 1936, stating that ‘the greater part of the 6th (Tevere) Blackshirt Division has now arrived from Dire Dawa’. Great Britain, Public Record Office, File FO/371/20167, p. 6.

(20.) Duggan, C., 2013, pp. 256–7, citing Archivio Diaristico Nazionale, DG/99, Espedito russo, ‘Diario 1935–36’, 3 Oct. 1935.

(22.) For an in-depth analysis of Italy’s primacy in the use of large-scale internment of civilian populations, see Labanca, N., 2008.

(23.) See, for example, McCullagh, F., 1912.

(24.) Labanca, N., 2008, pp. 27–8. Later, many more concentration camps of the same type, in which thousands were held in abominable conditions, were built and operated by the Italians throughout the Balkans. All the territories invaded by Italy featured concentration camps, and by the early 1940s the Italians were operating approximately 200 in a variety of locations including Italy, Yugoslavia and Albania. It is estimated that around 150,000 deportees passed through the camps set up in Italy, and that 10% of the population of Slovenia was interned in such camps. See, for example, Walston, J., 1997, pp. 173–6.

(p.409) (26.) ‘Book Reviews’, Ethiopia Observer, Vol. IV, No. 3, April 1960, p. 86, citing Maxwell, The Ten Pains of Death, London: Longmans, 1960.

(27.) Duggan, C., 2013, p. 270, citing Archivio Diaristico Nazionale, Pieve Santo Stefano, DG/95, Manlio La Sorsa, ‘Il mio viaggio in Africa’, 21 May 1936.

(29.) Ministry of Justice, Ethiopia, 1950, p. 24, quoting Italian sources. For a detailed review of the use of gas by the Italians in Ethiopia, see Del Boca, A., 1996.

(31.) Duggan, C., 2013, p. 254, citing ACS, Segreteria particolare del Duce, Carteggio ordinario, Sentimenti per il Duce, b. 2806, ‘Un fascista’, late Sept. 1935.

(32.) Duggan, C., 2013, p. 254, citing ACS, Segreteria particolare de Duce, Carteggio ordinario, Sentimenti per il Duce, b. 2806, ‘Goliardi Bolognesi’, early Oct. 1935.

(34.) Baudendistal, R., 2006, pp. 112–13, citing an interview with Dr Borra on 12 April 1996 in Alba, Italy.

(35.) Ibid., 2006, pp. 130–9.

(36.) Ibid., 2006, pp. 112–13, citing an interview with Dr Borra on 12 April 1996 in Alba, Italy.

(37.) Ibid., pp. 228–9.

(38.) Ibid., pp. 227–8.

(40.) Baudendistal, R., 2006, p. 223, citing ACS, fondo Graziani, carta 19, f. 21, Graziani to field commanders, 18 April 1936.

(41.) Ibid., 2006, p. 231.

(42.) Duggan, C., 2013, p. 263, citing Fondazione Mondadori, Archivio Bottai, b. 62, f. 2739, letters to wife, 28 Oct. 1935, 24 Feb. 1936.

(48.) Ibid., 1994A, p. 828.

(49.) Telegram, Mussolini to Graziani, 5 June 1937, Départment de la Presse et de l’Information du Gouvernement Imperial d’Ethiopie, c.1945, p. 11.

(50.) Del Boca, A., 1969, p. 214, citing New Times and Ethiopia News, 6 June 1936.

(55.) For a discussion of the possible motives behind Yekatit 12, see Campbell, I.L., 2010, pp. 375–82.

(p.410) (56.) General Armando Petretti was appointed Acting Viceroy when Graziani was admitted to hospital.