Eighty years ago a colonial massacre of over 20,000 people was carried out by Italian fascist forces in Ethiopia in north east Africa.
In three days and nights of arson, murder and looting, thousands of men, women and children were burned alive, shot, beaten senseless, stabbed to death or blown to pieces.
It has been systematically covered up in Italy—and so has Britain’s role in hiding the truth. A particularly vile role was played by Winston Churchill.
A recent book by Ian Campbell has revealed in terrifying detail what happened.
Italy, led by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, had invaded Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia) in October 1935. Mussolini claimed it was a humanitarian intervention to wipe out slavery.
In fact he hoped it could be the beginning of a “new Roman empire”. Bruno Mussolini, son of Benito, wrote newspaper articles about clusters of Ethiopians “bursting open like a rose” when bombed from above. He admitted to finding this spectacle “most amusing”.
Italy repressed resistance by brutal means, including the use of chemical weapons.
The rest of the world did virtually nothing in response.
Indeed there was widespread support for the fascists from reactionaries. Ward Price, the foreign editor of Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail, argued that if Britain opposed war on “one of the last and most backward of independent nation states, we should be hindering the progress of civilisation”.
Pope Pius XI congratulated Italians on a “beautiful victory by a great and good people”.
In contrast Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, “If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere.”
In 1937 there was an attack by Ethiopian freedom fighters on Mussolini’s high command. It included an assassination attempt on Italian commander Rodolfo Graziani in the capital, Addis Ababa.
It was followed by a murderous rampage which resulted in the deaths of one in five of the entire population of Addis Ababa.
Researcher Julianne Weis writes, “While Graziani lay in a coma following the grenade attack, a killing force comprised of members the Italian Army, [fascist] Black Shirts, and civilians was organised. Forces were loosed on the city as the Italians feared the grenades thrown at Graziani were a precursor to wide-scale Ethiopian insurrection.
“Ethiopian servants were dragged out of houses and shot in the street. Black Shirts began burning down whole residential sections of the city, targeting Ethiopian homes with the residents still inside, and throwing any babies or young children who tried to escape back onto the flames.”
Further reprisal killings were then taken outside the city. Mobile gallows were erected and transported across the countryside.
Graziani also targeted the Debre Libanos monastery for its symbolic link to the Orthodox church and Ethiopian cultural heritage, killing 3,000 monks, priests, and local residents.
Campbell argues that this was a methodical effort to wipe out Ethiopian resistance to Italian rule. Though unconscious when the killing began, Graziani took control of the subsequent reprisal executions.
He was never prosecuted for his crimes in Africa.
The Economist writes, “Britain, wary of setting awkward precedents, played an outsized role in sheltering Italians with blood on their hands. Mr Campbell cites a telegram written by Winston Churchill to his ambassador in Rome in 1944, instructing him to protect Marshal Badoglio, Italian commander of the Ethiopian northern front, who used poison gas, and is considered the top war criminal by Ethiopia.”
If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism
After the war, Churchill and then the 1945 Labour government both pressured Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, not to seek justice. They used territorial disputes in Eritrea and the Somali Ogaden region to make him capitulate and not demand a reckoning.
Campbell has spent 20 years amassing documentary evidence on the extent of the reprisal killings in 1937. While the massacre has been memorialised in Ethiopia, the extent of the destruction has largely been hidden over the last decades.
Campbell has collected film and photographic evidence of the burnings and murders, the majority of which were taken by Black Shirts themselves as souvenirs of their time in Ethiopia.
The photos were initially gathered by the British revolutionary socialist and anti-imperialist Sylvia Pankhurst for her anti-fascist newspaper,New Times and Ethiopia News.
There are also documents from the national archives in Rome demonstrating that the massacre was deliberately planned and orchestrated by senior Italian leaders, and was not, as often asserted, a random act by a group of belligerent Black Shirts.
Ethiopia in 1937 is another warning of what fascism looks like
And when people talk about “European values” and “British values”, remember Addis Ababa in 1937.