Italians Committed Terrible Crimes, Then Forgot Them

This week in 1937, Italian Fascists and colonizers began a three-day massacre in Addis Ababa, killing up to 20,000 Ethiopians. The slaughter is all but ignored in today’s Italy, where public debate remains steeped in indulgent views of colonial rule.

An Ethiopian war veteran walks to a memorial service commemorating the Addis Ababa massacre, February 19, 2018. (YONAS TADESSE / AFP via Getty Images)

Not even a year after the bloody occupation of Ethiopia that Benito Mussolini trumpeted as the “conquest of an Italian empire,” the invaders were still few in number, and not sleeping easily. The soldiers and the Fascists, together with the “native troops” enlisted in the colony, had never stopped fighting; for months they had crisscrossed the vast hinterland hunting down the still armed Ethiopian resistance. The other Italians, whether civilians or Blackshirts, were mostly holed up in the cities — and listened with apprehension to reports of dangerous “rebel bands” closing in.

Still, the repression of the resistance — euphemistically termed a “great colonial police operation,” but in truth responsible for a litany of killings, burnt villages, and destroyed crops — seemed to have borne fruit. Indeed, many resistance formations had been disarmed, their leaders and members eliminated or deported to the terrible internment camp at Danane, in also Italian-occupied Somalia. In short, the fledgling Fascist empire seemed to be on its way to slow normalization when the occupiers had a rude awakening.

On February 19, 1937 — Yekatit 12 according to the Ethiopian calendar — Rodolfo Graziani, viceroy of Ethiopia and governor-general of Italian East Africa, was on a stage in the capital Addis Ababa, in the middle of an official ceremony, when two patriots of Eritrean origin, Mogus Asghedom and Abraham Debotch, threw several hand grenades in his direction. Their action killed seven people and injured many others. Among the wounded was Graziani himself, who was quickly spirited away. On the Italian side, the bombing produced panic, a power vacuum, confusion in the chain of command, and a desire for exemplary revenge mixed with the need to fully reassert Italian authority as soon as possible. The result was a massacre — an atrocity that is still difficult to describe.

Brutality With Few Comparisons

In the moments immediately after the resistance action, the Italian troops took to firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Outside the city, troops in the garrisons received orders to begin marching toward Addis Ababa, shooting anyone they encountered on sight and setting fire to Ethiopian homes. In a letter sent on April 30, 1937, one Blackshirt spoke of what this march was like:

Dumbfounded, we also set out from our blockhouse, in full war gear, backed up by tanks and motorcycles with machine guns: we covered tens of kilometers, firing on any colored individual we met, and massacring, in their own huts, all the natives who we found in our path.

Having reached the outskirts of city, in front of the clusters of tuculs — small dwellings — in which the Ethiopians had shut themselves,

since we could not hit them all with rifles, our officers had the flame-throwers deployed: so, in ten minutes we set ablaze, like bonfires, hundreds and hundreds of tuculs, in which there were women, old people and children, who were toasted.

Meanwhile in the city, the highest remaining political authority, National Fascist Party federal secretary Guido Cortese, ordered reprisals — quite literally letting the Italian population off the leash. For three days, workers, truck drivers, civilians, and Blackshirts — given carte blanche by the Fascist Party — turned the city into a circle of hell in an orgy of brutality that has few comparisons even in the history of European colonialism.

Foreign diplomats provide vivid testimony of this in the stunned missives they sent to their respective capitals. On the first day of the massacre, US representative Cornelius Engert telegraphed to Washington:

Natives were beaten and machine-gunned indiscriminately and native huts were burned. Incendiary bombs have been dropped by planes operating in the outskirts of the city, and at the present is audible throughout the city a good deal of rifle fire and even field-gun fire. The streets have been cleared of natives, and all Italians, including civilian workmen, go about heavily armed and seem to be thoroughly alarmed.

The next day, he added, “Since the incident, disorderly bands of laborers and blackshirts armed with axes, clubs, or rifles have been roaming the streets and, in circumstances of revolting savagery, have been killing all natives in sight, even women.”

French diplomat Albert Bodard called it a pogrom, reporting that

there are so many corpses that no decent burials can be performed; bodies are piled up, doused with petrol and incinerated on the spot. Whole districts of Abyssinian tuculs have been set ablaze with flame throwers and hand grenades. In many cases, the native occupants, who were unable to flee, were burned alive in their homes. Every night, the town is surrounded by infernos. . . . Great confusion reigns in the city, where Blackshirts, troops and armed workers seem to be left free to act as they please.

And further:

Truck drivers also chased Abyssinians with their cars, or hurled them viciously at the natives in order to crush them. When the victims were slow in dying, truncheons opened up their skulls and brought the recalcitrant back to reason.

British witnesses offered a similar account:

For two and a half days the Ethiopians wherever found and however occupied were hunted down, beaten, shot, bayonetted or clubbed to death. Their houses were burnt and in some cases they themselves were pushed back into the flames to die by burning. With this slaughter were combined loot and pillage. The following incidents which are reported on good authority are illustrative of the conduct of the Italians. A band of eight blackshirts were seen beating with staves, apparently to death, an Ethiopian whose hands had first been tied behind his back. . . . An Italian colonel stopped his car in a main street to trash a group of three Ethiopians, one man and two women. After beating the man he started on the woman, but noticing the car of a foreign Legation nearby he desisted. . . . Perhaps one of the principle motives behind the action of the Italians was that of fear, for at no time since their occupation have they felt secure.

After three days, when the order finally came to halt the violence, the death toll was appalling: about three thousand dead were reported, but more recent calculations by Ian Campbell estimate a number six times that, perhaps close to twenty thousand people. This was just the beginning of an appalling reprisal over subsequent months that bloodied Ethiopia with gruesome episodes like the summary execution of two thousand monks and deacons at Debre Libanos monastery. But what happened between February 19 and 21 remains especially significant — not only because of its sheer dimensions or its brutality but because the protagonists were Italians, mostly civilians, who did not follow orders or respond to military logic but were simply given a free hand. In a later report, the British consulate commented that, in retrospect, “Addis Ababa was the scene of such horrors as can rarely if ever have been committed by the representatives of any modern civilised nation.”

Forgetting the Horrors

Who remembers those horrors? Ethiopia surely did. After World War II, it sought the extradition of Italian war criminals, later limiting itself to requests to try Graziani and Marshal Pietro Badoglio. But in the mounting Cold War climate, the Allies — most importantly, Great Britain and the United States — preferred to support the Italians’ line of having the right to try their own war criminals themselves, at home. This in fact never came to pass except in rare cases. Graziani was held to account for his role in the Nazi-collaborationist Italian Social Republic but not for his crimes in Ethiopia and before that in Libya. Ethiopia made one last, unsuccessful attempt in 1949, and then gave up, but did not forget. In 1955, Haile Selassie commissioned Croatian sculptor Antun Augustinčić to create the Monument to the Victims of Fascism. This monument survived the monarchy, the military dictatorship, and still towers over Sidist Kilo Square in remembrance of what happened in Yekatit 12.

Here in Italy, however, no one remembers February 19 anymore. What happened has prompted neither monuments nor mention in textbooks. As is well known, the lack of any Italian version of the Nuremberg trials had a powerful effect in entrenching the image of the “good Italian” in contrast to the Nazis. Moreover, in the postwar period, democratic and anti-fascist Italy sought to accredit itself as the bearer of legitimate interests in its former colonies (Ethiopia, the empire conquered by Fascism, excluded) by presenting its colonial past in a positive light. This relied on a version of events that eliminated all violence and discrimination, thus leaving only the work done by poor emigrants who, through sheer tenacity alone, built infrastructure and fertilized land that would otherwise have been left to the desert. This narrative survived even when, at the turn of the 1940s to the 1950s, the possibility of any Italian institutional involvement in the former colonies faded, except for the trusteeship of Somalia. Fueled by years of publications and talking points that found agreement across the parliamentary spectrum, the idea of the “good colonizer” established itself in Italian culture and the national imagination, from journalistic reconstructions to school textbooks, making it a pillar of republican national identity.

The events of February 19, or of Debre Libanos, went almost unmentioned — except for a few faint traces — until the late 1990s, when new studies, following in the footsteps of pioneering scholars such as Angelo Del Boca, Enzo Collotti, and Giorgio Rochat, brought to light certain dark sides of Italian history. This did not, however, have much effect on the collective consciousness or spark any real public debate. The reluctance to come to grips with this past has proven enduring. This is demonstrated by the weak echo of books such as the diary of journalist Ciro Poggiali, published in 1971 but never reprinted, and the memoirs of Hungarian doctor Sáska László, also an eyewitness to the massacre, published in English in 2015 but never translated into Italian. There is likewise no Italian translation of The Plot to Kill Graziani, the first volume with which, in 2010, Ian Campbell reconstructed the 1937 assassination attempt. It is perhaps a sign of some attention being stirred that Campbell’s next volume, The Addis Ababa Massacre, from 2017, was (finally) translated into Italian the following year, but did not give much of a jolt to the country’s anesthetized consciousness of its own past.

The events of February 19 and those that followed continue to be ignored by mainstream culture, neglected by school curriculums, and indeed essentially unknown to most Italians. This absence — of memory, of awareness, of debate — is reflected in urban landscapes throughout Italy, which are still pervaded with monuments, statues, streets, and squares celebrating colonial expansion, its battles, and its protagonists. In most cases, this exists without any public intervention to alter this picture, and without even a line explaining to the passerby that no, the street where he lives and works is not called Amba Aradam in reference to an Ethiopian mountain massif but in memory of a bloody battle. In his book Tainted Landscapes, Martin Pollack wonders if, when visiting a place, we should not always ask whether it has something to hide from us. Is it really as innocent and as idyllic as it seems? What do we find if we start digging? In Rome, we would find many such places. Strange, exotic names that are sometimes hard to pronounce, about which most Romans probably don’t ask questions even though they should be interrogated. Such names pose at least two questions. First, what do they represent? They are not just geographical places, dots on the map; each is connected to a historical event, and each event tells us a story. If we read all these colonial place names one after the other, we read the history of Italy and of its expansion into Africa. The second, equally important, question is, who decided that they should be there? Who decided that those places and events should be solemnly remembered by a street name, enduring in imperishable memory?

And yet the times they are a-changin’. We are reminded of this by the European Parliament, which in 2019 passed a resolution on the fundamental rights of populations of African descent. The document imputes the causes of racial discrimination to the failure to recognize phenomena such as “enslavement, forced labor, racial apartheid, massacres and genocides under European colonialism.” This is reiterated in the EU Anti-racism Action Plan 2020–2025, which states that “prejudices and stereotypes can first be addressed by recognizing the historical roots of racism. Colonialism, slavery, and the Holocaust are part of our history and have profound consequences for society today. Preserving memory is critical to encouraging inclusion and understanding.” And in the wake of grassroots movements such as Rhodes Must Fall and then Black Lives Matter, some countries such as France and Belgium have begun an intense public debate on the colonial legacy and the responsibilities attached to colonialism.

But what about Italy? Here, too, something has begun to shift. On October 6, 2022, Rome’s city council approved Motion 156/2022, which, among other things, calls on city hall to begin a process of re-signifying colonial place names. This move was followed by the councils of other cities, including Bologna and Turin. To call a location Via or Piazza Addis Abeba does not evoke just another city but the place where one of the worst massacres in Italian history began on February 19. It is a tainted place, and as such must be treated with caution, warning those who pass in front of it, defusing its charge of violence, and decolonizing it. The best way to make these places harmless, the first necessary step, is to educate people to be aware of what these names and sites represent.

This was the reason for founding the Yekatit 12–19 February Network. It informally brings together the galaxy of institutes, associations, and individuals from across Italy who have been dealing with this issue over the years. To promote the implementation of Motion 156, in February 2023 the network organized a week of events in Rome on Italian colonialism and its legacies. This year it is back — and bigger, with a full calendar of events spanning the next four months, no longer just in Rome but also in many other cities, including Bari, Bologna, Florence, Milan, Modena, Naples, and Padua. Conferences, debates, performances, historical walks, and concerts aim to spread knowledge and stimulate critical reflection on colonialism in Italy’s past and present, the crimes committed, and the weight of this history on forming national identity. Partly through this effort, perhaps, Italians will begin to remember February 19, the past it speaks of, and the present that it helped to build.