Ian Campbell on the Addis Ababa Massacre of 1937

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Yekatit 12 Monument in memory of the 1937 Massacre, Siddist Kilo, Addis Ababa

This week, Oxford’s Horn of Africa Seminar hosted Ian Campbell to present his research on the events surrounding both the assassination attempt on Italian commander Rodolfo Graziani in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 19 February 1937, and the reprisal killings and massacre that occurred in the days and months which followed.

Ian presented a harrowing and detailed account of the extent of the massacre which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 18-20% of the population of Addis Ababa, the majority of whom were women and children. While Graziani lay in a coma at Ras Desta Hospital following the grenade attack, a killing force comprised of members the Italian Army, 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 in the Greek and Armenian neighbourhoods of the city 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. Hundreds of intelligentsia and young Ethiopians were rounded up and shot opportunistically, despite their obvious lack of involvement in the plot against Graziani.

The killings in Addis went on for three days, until Mussolini himself sent orders to stop. Graziani emerged from his coma, but remained in recovery in hospital for months. Reprisal killings were then taken outside city borders – mobile gallows were erected and transported across the countryside, with the Italians targeting local aristocracy and community leaders. 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.

Ian Campbell has spent twenty years amassing documentary evidence on the extent of the reprisal killings in the months following February 1937. While the massacre has been memorialised in Addis at Yekatit 12 square in Siddist Kilo, the extent of the destruction has largely been hidden over the last decades. Ian 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 Sylvia Pankhurst for her anti-fascist newspaper, New Times and Ethiopia News, in addition to other foreign diplomats and Ethiopians living in Addis in the late 1930s. Ian has also unearthed critical documents within the national archives in Rome demonstrating that the massacre was deliberately planned and orchestrated by senior Italian leadership, and was not, as often asserted, a random act by a group of belligerent Black Shirts.

Ian’s careful collection of evidence demonstrates the extent to which the full picture of this massacre has largely been erased from history, and the way in which its erasure has contributed to the myth of Italy’s “benign” occupation of Ethiopia. Why was such an atrocious series of events forgotten in time? Not only by the international community, but to a large extent by Ethiopians themselves? Ian argued that the forgetting was a deliberate political tool, both by prominent British politicians intent on securing Italy’s alliance at the end of World War II, and even Haile Selassie himself. The Emperor’s quick forgiveness of the Italian occupiers is striking given the widespread destruction, violence, and oppression they enacted in Ethiopia, but is symptomatic of Haile Selassie’s desire to merely move on and begin industrialising his reclaimed empire. Territorial disputes with the British, both Eritrea and the Somali Ogaden region, also left the Emperor with little choice but to capitulate to foreign pressure to not pursue justice against the Fascist occupiers.

Post-war political juggling aside, the fact that no war crimes trials were conducted for the Italian occupiers of Ethiopia is striking, especially given the new evidence unearthed by Ian Campbell. His scholarship begs larger questions about the politics of memory in relation to acts of violence, especially in colonial contexts. In the wake of ongoing revelations about the extent of organised killings and brutality across colonial Africa, we must continue asking why certain acts of violence are allowed to be committed with impunity, and how to most effectively memorialise atrocities from the past.

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Filed under Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Haile Selassie

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