Earlier this month Affile, a small town in the Italian region of Lazio, has inaugurated a Mausoleum dedicated to the memory of the fascist Field Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. The Marshal’s name is well remembered in Ethiopia for his use of chemical weapons and for ordering massacres which cost thousands of Ethiopian lives, including those of a sizable portion of the country’s intelligentsia, during the Italian invasion and occupation of the country in the 1930s. Coverage of these news in the Italian media has remained marginal and has largely centred on the exorbitant price tag of almost 130.000 €, paid for with regional funds. The erection of a monument to a fascist leader has been denounced by some, but the violent colonial realities created by that leader have received little attention. The memorial to Graziani powerfully illustrates Italy’s ongoing flirtations with far-right politics; but it also acts as a reminder of the systematic human rights abuses and war crimes on which Italian colonialism was built, and of the sad fact that these have never engendered the public debate and societal soul-searching that their gravity, and their victims’ dignity, demands.
The illegal use of chemical weapons in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, claiming thousands of lives, is well documented. For example, on the eve of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in March 1936, Graziani sent a secret memorandum on his preparations for the conflict to the Ministry of War in Rome. In this file, which has recently been purchased by the Library of Congress (see footnote 1), he outlined his strategy for overcoming the numerous but poorly-armed Ethiopian defense forces. Central to this strategy was the large-scale use of illegal chemical weapons:
“Condizione essenziale per la riuscita dell’ operazione: […] libero uso di bombe e proiettili a liquidi speciali per infliggere al nemico le massime perdite e sopratutto per produrne il completo collasso morale.”
[“Essential condition for the succeeding of the Operation: […] the free use of special-liquid bombs and shells in order to inflict maximum losses on the enemy, and above all to effect his complete collapse of morale”]
Graziani’s lack of hesitation in employing chemical weapons explains the success of his troops’ advance and discloses his indifference towards international standards of warfare, which also extended to the bombing of a Swedish Red Cross camp that was treating wounded Ethiopians (see footnote 2). But above all it reveals his disregard for the value of human life and his willingness to pursue the goals of fascist Italy at any human cost. That this disregard was not limited to the lives of Ethiopians is evident from his earlier actions in Libya, where his “pacification” campaign was built on concentration and labour camps in which thousands of Libyan detainees perished. In Ethiopia this will to kill was on constant display.
On the 19th of February 1937 – Yekatit 12 in the Ethiopian Calendar – two young Eritreans, Abraha Deboch and Moges Asgedom, sought to assassinate Graziani, who had been declared Viceroy of Ethiopia, and other leading Italians during a public ceremony. The ten grenades they threw injured more than thirty Italian notables, without killing any. Graziani was among the wounded and was rushed to hospital. The response was immediate: troops fired into the assembled crowd and the Italians in Addis Ababa, who had already perceived their new surroundings as a dangerous atrocity environment, went on an officially announced and authorised three-day spree of collective violence. From Friday until Sunday men were murdered, women were raped and in some cases disemboweled, houses were raided and burnt down, their escaping inhabitants shot. Educated Ethiopians, especially those belonging to the Black Lion resistance group which had recently surrendered and been disbanded, were specifically targeted. Estimates of the death toll vary, but even low estimates of those killed in gruesome fashion during those three days in the capital number the victims in the thousands.
In Ethiopian historiography, this massacre has remained closely associated with Graziani’s name. Graziani did later express his approval for the Yekatit 12 massacre, but he had not himself ordered it; he was being operated on at the Italian Hospital when the Federal Secretary Guido Cortese gave official sanction to the three days of carnage. The same cannot be said, however, of another major massacre of the Italian occupation, ordered by Graziani a mere three months later, in May 1937. Investigations had revealed that Abraha Deboch had taken his wife to the monastery of Debre Libanos days before the attempt on Graziani, and that both would-be assassins had stopped at the monastery during their escape. Graziani, who already mistrusted the Ethiopian clergy, had no doubts on the right course of action: “Execute summarily all monks without distinction”, he cabled to General Maletti (see footnote 3). 297 monks were shot, together with 23 laymen who had come to the monastery to celebrate the feast St. Tekle Haimanot, and whom the Italians considered accomplices. Graziani’s paranoid tenure as Viceroy was marked by executions and a reign of terror, to the point that he was considered a liability to Rome’s plans to establish a pacified colony in the Horn. In December 1937 he was replaced by the Duke of Aosta, whose gentler character stood in sharp contrast to Graziani’s violent methods, which had driven thousands of Ethiopians to join the growing resistance. Graziani’s presence in Ethiopia remains one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history.
This is the man to whom the town of Affile has dedicated a new Mausoleum. Fascist voices continue to find a hearing in Italy, and dark chapters of history are readily ignored or rewritten by those whose political views they do not suit. In a country in which historiography is constantly subjected to political allegiances, the irresponsibly laudatory biography of Graziani on the website of the Commune d’Affile, in which he is portrayed as a valiant soldier retiring to his beloved domicile in the company of his sisters after having heroically served his country, comes as no surprise. No surprise, either, is the limited extent to which the Italian media have engaged with Graziani’s role in the worst abuses of colonial Italy.
Such blatant historical amnesia is unlikely to help Italy’s reputation abroad. According to Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde, author of A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1991, “despite the record of hostility, including two wars, that have checkered the history of Ethio-Italian relations, Ethiopians bear no grudge against Italians. As a matter of fact, notwithstanding those wars, the two peoples have had cordial and warm relations. But such acts have the effect of disturbing such healthy rapport.” Italian scholars concur. Francesca Locatelli from the University of Edinburgh calls the monument “an insult not only to those Italians who fought for freedom and democracy, but also to the people of Ethiopia and Libya whose fight against fascist colonialism has been the root of their national pride.” And Alessandro Triulzi, professor of African history at the University of Naples, calls upon Italian academics to “reject and condemn such a strident gesture of institutional oblivion and renew our joint effort to throw light on Italy’s colonial past and its ambiguous inheritance for the postcolonial present”.
But according to David Anderson from the University of Oxford, Italy is not alone in its refusal to accept the full extent of its imperial legacy. “For the French and British, the memory of empire atrocities is an uncomfortable reminder that colonialism was ultimately about coercion and domination – but even that does not stop leading historians and other public intellectuals from jumping to the defence of empire”, Anderson points out. “Italy’s public veneration of an imperial war criminal takes things further than would be expected in France or in Britain, to be sure, but that there is still a need to promote a wider and better informed debate about this history of European empires is all too clear. It is an obligation that all serious historians of Africa and Asia should take very seriously”.
The systematic human rights abuses on which Africa Orientale Italiana was built have never been sufficiently acknowledged, and to this day many Italians remain ignorant of them. This silence needs to be spoken into, not least to prevent the revisionist neo-fascism which has brought about the monument at Affile. So while many Italian and international observers have called for the memorial to be removed, perhaps the Italian authorities should follow the advice of Alex de Waal, one of the initiators of the recently opened African Union Human Rights Memorial. “Let the mausoleum at Affile serve as a memorial to the victims of his crimes”, de Waal suggests, “and as a reminder that never again can such inhumane political ideologies and their barbarous acts be tolerated. Let this memorial be inscribed with the names of at least some of those who died at his hands, and let the judgment of their descendants and representatives be prominently displayed.”
Click here to read the statements by Bahru Zewde, Alessandro Triulzi, Francesca Locatelli, David Anderson and Alex de Waal in full.
(1) Memoria Segreta Operativa per l’azione su Harar, Africa Collection, Library of Congress.
(2) See the discussion in Alberto Sbacchi: Legacy of Bitterness: Ethiopia and Fascist Italy, 1935-1941 (Lawrenceville, 1997); p.68f.
(3) Anthony Mockler: Haile Selassie’s War (Oxford, 1984); p.180.