How Italy’s Colonial War in Ethiopia Foreshadowed the Barbarism of World War II

The Booker Prize shortlisting of Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King is the latest sign of rising interest in Fascist Italy’s colonial war in Ethiopia. The genocidal violence perpetrated against Ethiopians in 1935–6 was soon turned back onto European soil — and united Italian anti-fascists with the Africans resisting colonial aggression.

Abyssinian soldiers in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1936.

In early 1934, with the United States and Europe mired in the Great Depression, Italy’s Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, was widely hailed by any number of Western media barons and public intellectuals. Faced with the dramas of the economic crisis, they praised the “successes” of Mussolini’s corporatist state — supposedly overshadowing the economic model used by the Western democracies.

Eminent author Sir Philip Gibbs informed New York Times readers of Mussolini’s “acute, subtle and far-seeing mind.” Britain’s King George V spoke of Italy as being “under the wise guidance of a strong statesman.” And academics from all over loyally churned out papers supporting Mussolini’s “creativity” in boosting Italy’s domestic economy. But not all were deceived. A. L. Rowse, the somewhat snobbish scholar at All Souls College Oxford, shrewdly described him as a “short, stocky butcher, with a heavy, ill-shaven jowl.”

Mussolini had long been a favorite of British and US establishment figures like press mogul Lord Beaverbrook, Adolph Ochs of the New York Times, Henry R. Luce of Time, Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler, and Winston Churchill. This latter remarked in 1927 that he could not help being charmed “by Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing.” Even American progressives, including Lincoln Steffens and New Republic editor Herbert Croly, publicly applauded Mussolini.

Such admirers acknowledged Mussolini’s success in “saving” Italy not only from bankruptcy after the Great War, but from a Bolshevik takeover. Two “red years” of strikes in 1919–20 known as the “biennio rosso” had horrified Italian bankers, industrialists, and landowners; their response was to finance the recently formed fascist paramilitary troops to destroy the powerful labor movement. In the May 1921 elections, Mussolini made quiet political deals with the government parties and whipped up many peasants’ and lower-middle-class Italians’ fears of leftist power-grabbing and violence. On October 28, 1922, the King — by some accounts, fearful of a civil war — invited Mussolini to form a government.

This had drastic consequences — and by 1926, a one-party Fascist regime had taken form. By the end of the decade, Italy’s diverse political left, made up of socialists, communists, and anarchists, had been eviscerated. They had been murdered, exiled, or imprisoned, in a campaign of ceaseless brutality largely unremarked upon across much of the West. International press did not want to be associated with the anti-fascists; it was imagined Italians were too politically “immature” to live in a real democracy anyway.

The Italian left was in a state of trauma. It was the bloody death of popular socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924 — kidnapped in broad daylight and murdered — that had really terrified them. Mussolini initially professed sorrow at Matteotti’s death, claiming that he had had nothing to do with it. Revered University of Florence historian and socialist activist Gaetano Salvemini secured documents proving Mussolini’s key role in the heinous murder. But he himself soon fell victim to arrest and imprisonment.

A big-boned man, at this point boasting a long, heavy, dark beard, Salvemini came from Molfatta, Puglia, a village deep in the Mezzogiorno — not a typical background for a literary figure or academic, in this period. Fascists had been disrupting his lectures for weeks before the arrest, waving their truncheons and yelling “the Ape of Molfetta” at the historian while the students tried to protect him. Salvemini told a friend that he never knew if he would make it home alive from one day to the next; he had already experienced deep personal tragedy years before, in 1908, when his wife and five children were killed in an earthquake.

The trial against Salvemini had a surprising outcome: the judge granted Salvemini “provisional freedom,” and through a large network of anti-fascists, he escaped into exile in 1925. After nine years in London and Paris, he moved to the United States in 1934, teaching at Harvard. The first chair of history of Italian civilization was created just for him — an especially prestigious platform from which to continue his ceaseless battle against Mussolini. Decisive in this regard were the events of the Italo-Ethiopian war, a brutal onslaught of colonial violence that served as a prelude to the great confrontation of World War II.

Wag the Dog

Already in 1927, Salvemini had published The Fascist Dictatorship in Italy, contradicting the view that Mussolini had “saved” Italy from Bolshevism. But public opinion abroad did not shift. This began to change in 1934, as Mussolini announced that he was planning to invade Ethiopia in order to “civilize” its population. This threw the League of Nations into a dither; for while Ethiopia was its only African member state, there was little international reaction or support for it. In October 1935, Mussolini invaded.

Already prior to the invasion, Salvemini had finished work on Under the Axe of Fascism, which was then published a few months into the war. It offered a meticulously documented critique of Fascism, aimed at what a deeply frustrated Salvemini saw as totally clueless Europeans and Americans — though the book soon became a best seller.

In it, he describes profound unemployment, ongoing wage cuts for working-class Italians, and relentless brutality by police and the OVRA secret service. Supported by reams of statistics and anecdotes about individual shattered lives, the book concluded that Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia in order to divert attention away from his failing domestic economy — a political hoax, famously dramatized in the late 1990s in Wag the Dog. And, for the first time since Mussolini’s 1922 coup, there began to be a shift in public opinion.

For decades, the Italian-Ethiopian War was largely ignored, at least in terms of Anglophone academia. But in the last two decades there has been a growing number of important studies, along with original, English-language literary works that further illustrate Salvemini’s long-held view of the essential brutality of Italian fascism. Belying the notion that Mussolini was relatively benign as compared to Hitler or Stalin, this growing cache of research and literary work has helped to produce a detailed, clear-eyed — if profoundly painful — view of an invasion that killed an estimated 760,000 Ethiopians and wounded countless others.

Just in the last two years, two high-profile Ethiopian women have produced acclaimed works describing the war, as seen by relatives who lived through it. (A number of other, mostly male Ethiopians have previously published works, generally about their own “coming-of-age” experiences.) Aida Edemariam’s memoir, The Wife’s Tale, and Maaza Mengiste’s novel The Shadow King — this latter shortlisted for the Booker Prize — highlight the importance of this colonial war for understanding fascist violence and contemporary racism.

Ethiopian Perspective

The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History is the story of Edemariam’s paternal grandmother, Yetemengu, whom she grew up with, learning her story little by little throughout her own childhood years. Later, Edemariam left Ethiopia to study at Oxford and eventually become a senior feature writer and editor at the Guardian. Her book is a lyrical, subtly written memoir that spans most of the twentieth century, although the Italian invasion and occupation plays a key role in her grandmother’s story. (In 2019, Edemariam won the coveted Ondaatje literary prize, given to a work of literature that best evokes the “spirit of a place.”) In her grandmother’s voice, she wrote of the moment of the Italian attack:

The town had emptied of people and then one day, finally an answer: six specks in the sky, specks moving faster and faster and straighter than any bird, growing bigger and bigger, until she could hear the roar . . . the streets ran with women, children, clergy, the infirm, as the thundering drew near they threw themselves into ditches, huddled against walls, behind trees . . . a dark rain fell from them, a hail of metal that exploded with a terrible noise as it hit the ground. How many huts caught fire, and the women and children inside them.

Mengiste’s novel, The Shadow King, revolves around a protagonist based on her great-grandmother Getey — here named Hirut. Mengiste, born in Ethiopia, moved to New York with her parents as a child but returned often to her native land. A Fulbright scholar, she spent years researching the war in both Addis Ababa and Rome.

Only late in her research did Mengiste learn about her great-grandmother’s life as a warrior. But as historian Bahru Zewde notes in A History of Modern Ethiopia,

Not only were there Ethiopian women warriors, but they played a major role in the very strong resistance movement after the Italians took over the government. By reason of their capacity to arouse less suspicion, they played a predominant role . . . inside the enemy’s organizational network, passing on crucial information about enemy strength, troop movements and planned operations.

In Mengiste’s novel, Hirut is captured, disrobed, and photographed for postcards Italian soldiers sent home — supposedly demonstrating “the whorish qualities” of the African women they encountered. Hirut was an impoverished teenage orphan, fighting for her country with a gun from 1896. Her father had used this same weapon almost four decades before in the successful fight against an earlier Italian invasion — a resistance that had humiliated Italy’s hard right and provided Mussolini with a certain base of support for the unprovoked invasion in 1935.

“The Italian state was almost bankrupt when the Italian Empire was officially proclaimed in 1936,” write Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor at NYU, and Mia Fuller, a professor at Berkeley, in their introduction to their 2005 co-edited volume Italian Colonialism. “For Italian believers in colonialism, empire promised an escape route from a subordinate international position and a means of advertising Italian power and modernity.” As they explain, this “modernity” adopted the most brutal forms:

The Italians used industrial killing methods (mustard gas) that are more commonly associated with Hitler’s and Stalin’s soldiers than with Mussolini’s rank and file . . . Indeed, the slaughter in Ethiopia was so out-of-keeping with the Italians’ self-perception as the more “humane” dictatorship that it has been edited out of popular and official memory. Until 1995, the Italian government and former combatants . . . denied the use of gas in East Africa.

Indeed, in an article in this same collection, scholar Alberto Sbacchi writes of how:

On December 23, 1935 the Italians dropped barrels that broke up upon hitting the ground . . . projecting a colorless liquid . . . and a military officer comments, “a few hundred of my men were hit, their feet, their hands, their faces, were covered with blisters . . . I did not know how to fight this rain that burned and killed” . . . By the end of January, 1936, soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes and pastures were systematically sprayed with gas.

This barbarism was perpetrated in the lowliest of causes. “The Ethiopian War was willed neither by the Army chiefs nor by big business,” wrote Salvemini in Under the Axe of Fascism:

The war was willed primarily by Mussolini and by the leaders of the Fascist Party . . . because something had to be done to restore the prestige of the regime . . . An increasing number of people in Italy were asking themselves what was the good of a dictatorship . . . During 1934 a deadly and unconquerable inertia had become apparent all over Italy among the bulk of the population.

War Comes Home

Already by the summer of 1935, the looming war had attracted journalists from around the world to the Ethiopian capital. Many grew bored in Addis Ababa, as Italian troops were held up in remote areas dealing with bad weather, local dissidents, and logistical problems. Evelyn Waugh — at that time a young reporter for London’s Daily Mail — was known as pro-Italian. He wrote that the Ethiopians were as “naïve as children with noses pressed at the nursery window-pane longing for the rain to clear.” The scenery, he added, “was ramshackle squalor.” Waugh believed wholeheartedly in the great benefit colonization would bring to “unruly dark-skinned nations.”

But George Lowther Steer, a highly regarded reporter for the London Times (whom one observer called “flamingly pro-Ethiopian”) clearly did not buy into Mussolini’s lies — and was extremely upset at the sheer injustice of the war. He wrote that the Ethiopian army “resembles so little any other army in the world,” and noted:

Dressed each according to his taste, wearing no military insignia; followed by a welter of pack animals, donkeys and mules, and by their womenfolk; by their children who carried their rifles; and by their servants and slaves, this army looked more like the emigration of a whole people.

This violence would soon come back to Europe. As Neelam Srivastava explains in her recent Italian Colonialism and Resistances to Empire, 1930-1970, by the time Steer completed his Caesar in Abyssinia, a book damning Mussolini, he was already reporting on the Spanish Civil War. It was Steer’s article “on the bombing of Guernica by German airplanes that caused a global outcry and inspired Picasso to paint one of his most famous works of art, Guernica.” But Srivastava also fascinatingly makes clear the small window of opportunity anti-fascists had to draw attention to the horrors of the Ethiopian war. The international press corps was anxious to move on to Spain and the Germans — considered a far more important event.

All Roads Lead to Rome

It was during this period that the New Times and Ethiopia News, or NTEN, became a major factor in the campaign to bring attention to Ethiopia. It was written and published by former suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, a good friend of Salvemini and longtime partner of Italian anarchist Silvio Corio, who had also worked to overthrow Mussolini.

Pankhurst’s readership was small but influential, in some ways similar to I. F. Stone’s Weekly, established fifteen years later. Despite the big budgets of major Western publications, it was Pankhurst’s NTEN that black activists like Marcus Garvey and many Harlemites read to get the inside story on causes which would help establish the Pan-African movement.

Pankhurst’s role is explained in an excellent and brief 2013 biography by historian Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire. Despite the censorship and the fascists’ suspension of telegraph services, NTEN carried stunning reports of a three-day murderous rampage in Addis Ababa in retaliation for the attempted murder of fascist commander Rodolfo Graziani — well known in a previous action in Libya for his sadistic actions against Africans.

And some surprising things did happen. In January 1936, Time magazine named Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, its Man of the Year. This, after more than a decade of swooning over Mussolini. Hard-right Time foreign editor Laird Goldsborough began to be marginalized by the magazine’s publisher, Henry Luce. He finally left in 1938 after insisting — and being turned down — on an effort to make Mussolini a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, a step over the top even for right-wing Luce.

As James Dugan and Laurence Lafore point out in Days of Emperor and Clown, “The old liberal tradition of sympathy for fascism still lingered toward the end of 1935, but it had begun to change.” In November of that year, the New Republic proposed a more sophisticated explanation of the war, one that showed a much clearer and more hostile understanding of the nature of fascism. And by January 1936, it gave great prominence to an article by Salvemini and Max Ascoli, excoriating Mussolini.

“The strange destiny of Ethiopia had begun to realize itself,” add Dugan and Lafore. “It was paradoxically creating the Rome-Berlin Axis, making it terrifying and therefore strong. But it was also commencing the work that would eventually invoke the conscience of the west and bring an end to fascism . . .”

It would take until much later for that confrontation finally to come. For his part, the anti-fascist Salvemini’s determination was only deepened in 1937 when Mussolini had his close friend Carlo Rosselli and his brother, Nello, murdered in Normandy, France. True to form, it was Salvemini, among all of the Rosselli brothers’ many friends, who published a piece formally accusing Mussolini of having them murdered, as Stanislao Pugliese explains in his Carlo Rosselli: Socialist Heretic and Antifascist Exile.

“Salvemini’s view was ‘all roads lead to Rome.’” And, as Pugliese adds:

The fascist press tried to link the assassinations to conflicts within the antifascist community. The recent murder of the anarchists Camilo Berber and Francesco Barbieri at the hands of Stalin’s agents in Spain gave this story “credibility.” It soon became clear (though) that the assassins were members of the French Cagoule, a secret extreme right-wing sect. Despite attempts by the regime to accuse the Left, proof of fascist (if not Mussolini’s) authorship of the assassinations was provided by the regime itself.

Despite the mounting confirmation of his accusations against the Mussolini regime, Salvemini was hated by many figures on the Right across the West, including in the United States. There, many Italian émigrés were pro-Vatican and pro-Mussolini. But Harvard was, in many ways, a sanctuary for the Italian anti-fascist. One colleague recounted, “He has only friends here. No enemies.”

In 1945, the Fascist regime finally came to its end. After living in exile for almost twenty-five years, in 1948, Salvemini returned to Italy and was invited back to his old university job, although he was already in his mid-seventies. He resumed his teaching job, starting with the words, “As I was saying in my last lecture.” There, he taught for a few years, surrounded by students and anti-fascist friends happy to have him home again. But if Mussolini was at long last dead, this did not mean the end of Salvemini’s struggle. Now, the socialist could turn his attention to the omnipresent Americans — and the quickly emerging Cold War.