addis book

The Addis Ababa Massacre reveals a major atrocity committed by Fascist Italy, in which the imperialist calculations of Britain and others are implicated, finds Martin Hall


Ian Campbell, The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy’s National Shame (Hurst & Company 2017), xliv, 478pp.

On Friday February 19th, 1937 (12 Yekatit 1929 in the Ethiopian calendar), some nine months after the beginning of Italy’s colonial occupation of Ethiopia, during an alms-giving at the Gennete-Li’ul Palace in the capital of Addis Ababa, an attempt was made to immobilise the Italian High Command via the killing of the viceroy, Rodolfo Graziani. A number of grenades were thrown towards the Italian dignitaries by two Eritrean men who actually worked for the occupying force. Graziani and others fell to the floor, injured. The crowd, which numbered three thousand and was predominantly made up of the Ethiopian nobility and priesthood, was immediately fired upon by heavy machine guns from the balcony.

The doors to the compound were closed and those not slain by the machine guns were killed by a mixture of Fascist Party militia, regular army and civilians, some armed with shovels and spades. Very few Ethiopians escaped the slaughter. This set in train a weekend of murder and mayhem that led to a death toll of approximately 19,000 men, women and children, and which has come to be known in Ethiopia as Yekatit 12. Despite reports at the time from various embassies, little of what happened came to the attention of the outside world for many years, predominantly due to the whitewash at the time by the League of Nations (with Britain’s help), and the subsequent post-war cover up by the United Nations, once again aided and abetted by the British government.

Ian Campbell’s account of these events is an exhaustive narrative history, and the culmination of 25 years’ research. Through a mixture of interviews, the study of written primary sources and the small amount of secondary ones in existence, he has compiled a book that manages to give the reader the most accurate picture of Yekatit 12 and its aftermath currently available to historians, alongside an examination of the context of imperial conquest and violence, and an analysis of the reasons for its relative lack of exposure. What is particularly impressive is the extent to which the voices of survivors are present in the text. Throughout, first-hand accounts of the atrocities bring to life the organised mayhem that occurred that weekend, as do the book’s 166 photographs, many of which are atrocity images, some of which were first published in 1944-45 in a campaigning newspaper and a later pamphlet, thanks to the effort of Sylvia Pankhurst to bring to light the horrifying actions of Italy’s fascist imperial regime in Ethiopia.

Italy’s imperialism

Prior to the main body of the book that forensically details the killings, Campbell provides the reader with a background chapter (pp.9-48) that outlines the shared history of Italy and Ethiopia, specifically the former’s failed imperial adventures there in the period 1885-96. There were three major Ethiopian victories, in 1887, 1895 and 1896: all can be attributed to a mixture of tactical acumen and larger numbers on Ethiopia’s part, along with incompetence and bad communication on Italy’s. In each case, the victorious Ethiopians looked after the prisoners gracefully, allowing many men to leave unharmed. Menelik, emperor since 1889, even allowed the Italians to keep their colony of Eritrea, which had been granted to them in 1890.

Despite this, the European press referred to one battle as a ‘cowardly ambush’ (p.13) and the Italians to another as the ‘Dogali massacre’ (p.12). Campbell also gives an overview of the rise of fascism and Mussolini in the 1920s, and the regime’s glorifying of empire, for both ideological and strategic reasons. The desire to conquer Ethiopia was amplified by the national embarrassment that had been engendered by the reporting of the battles of the 1890s in the Italian press. In terms of empire, Rome had been worried since Italy’s unification as a kingdom in 1861 that it was the poor man of Europe in terms of imperial territory. Mussolini was determined to remedy that, via adding Ethiopia to Italian Somaliland and Libya, both of which it had taken previously, in the 1880s and 1910s respectively. In its continued attempts to pacify Libya it had illegally used chemical weapons and waged an extraordinarily brutal campaign against its people. Campbell’s discussion of this is very useful in providing the reader with a political context for what happened in Addis Ababa.

The atrocities

What follows in the next six chapters is a chronological description and analysis of the events of the weekend. These were as follows:

·      The initial slaughter at the palace, begun by Guido Cortese, federal secretary of the Fascist Party, firing his pistol into the crowd.

·      An hour of indiscriminate, reactive violence from much of the Italian community, both military and civilian, inside what Campbell names, ‘the Circle of Death’ (p.59).

·      A violently implemented curfew, including arrests, murders and detention, followed by the Regia Aeronautica (the Italian Air Force) bombing the periphery of the city, to prevent people leaving, and any rebels entering. In terms of the latter, the rumour was being put about that the attack at the palace was the prelude to a larger armed insurrection.

·      Carta bianca [carte blanche, known to the Italians as ‘the order of do as you please’ (p.111)] being given for three days by Cortese to a large crowd of Blackshirts, regular military and askaris, who were colonial soldiers. This was expected by the Blackshirts and had been given before in the various campaigns in East Africa. After this, all Ethiopians found on the street were killed, and all tukuls (houses) were burned, usually with the inhabitants inside. No restraining of this was attempted, unlike prior to the order, when moderate carabinieri and civilians had to some degree tempered the worst excesses of the Blackshirts on occasion.

·      Two nights and two further days of killing, until an order came from Rome ordering it to stop.

What Campbell relays skilfully is the heart-breaking tales of cruelty and violence. People were burnt alive in their homes, and there are many accounts of babies crawling out through gaps in walls and being thrown back into the flames through the roof. Flamethrowers were used that sprayed liquid fire on to the houses and huts. People, again including children, had their heads staved in with a variety of blunt instruments. Many were shot or stabbed to death in the street. There are reports of the disembowelling of people, including pregnant women. Women were raped, often in front of their castrated husbands. Overall, women and children were killed in disproportionately large numbers.

Various eyewitnesses on both the Italian and Ethiopian side have speculated that without Sunday’s order to desist, all Ethiopian residents of the city would have been killed. Robbery was also prevalent, including via the prevention of burial in order to rob the dead, a tactic used consistently over the weekend. The murder of the population was led by Blackshirt Divisions, while the arrests, detentions and executions of ‘undesirables’ were led by the regular army and carabinieri and went on for many weeks.

Campbell tells us that the order to execute detained people had come straight from Mussolini on the Sunday, and along with the military tribunals set up to give a retrospective legality to proceedings and to present to the outside world a judicial face, can be described as a state-led, systematic attempt to wipe out the intelligentsia and the Ethiopian middle and upper classes. It had predominantly been citizens of higher standing who had been detained and not murdered, though this ‘luck’ was dependent on geography as much as class, as there were zones that were off limits for burning, due to the quality of the buildings and their proximity to foreign embassies (and therefore the representatives of the ‘normal’ exercise of power). Campbell describes this secondary action against the Ethiopian intelligentsia as ‘one of the 20th century’s most carefully orchestrated and cold-blooded pogroms against a nation’s educated youth’ (p.256). Of those not executed, many were sent to concentration camps, and some of the highest class of families were deported to prison in Italy.

Cover up and denial of history

The final sections of the book (chapters 8-12) detail the immediate aftermath, and discuss the attempted wiping out of the intelligentsia in more detail, including the arrest, torture and execution of supposed ‘plotters’ (often members of the nobility or intelligentsia). Campbell also makes an attempt to come up with a reliable estimate of victims, and discusses the cover up at the time, after World War II, and the current place of the massacre in the historical record. There are also excellent appendices detailing what happened to the various figures mentioned in the book, plus some reproduced documents from the time.

In chapter 10, Campbell analyses the likely casualties of each phase of the massacre based upon the various testimonies, and then weighs this against two other estimates: one based on demographic data; one upon the number of bodies transported by truck. This method allows him to create a range of 17,840 – 20,538 with a rounded to three figures mean of 19,200 (p.327). This number does not include the various victims of the concentration camps, nor the massacres that took place in other towns over the same weekend and after, and which can be traced back to Yekatit 12. If all those numbers are added on, a figure of 30,000 can feasibly be estimated.

The chapter on the cover up will have particular resonance for the reader, allowing as it does some comprehension regarding how such an historical event can be so relatively unknown. As is detailed throughout the book, missives had been sent at the time by foreign correspondents and by representatives of the British, US, French and German governments, and each embassy had, to a greater or lesser degree, functioned as a safe haven for any Ethiopian lucky enough to get there. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, living in exile in England, appealed to the League of Nations for an inquiry and was denied one.

Italy, of course, went to great lengths to deny that anything beyond a restoration of law and order after an attack upon its viceroy had happened. In this, it was helped by people like Louise Diel, a German author and fascist sympathiser who wrote a book soon after about life in the colony (Italy’s presence there had been recognised by the League of Nations in 1936) that made no mention of it. There was also an immediate moratorium on photographs or reports pertaining to the massacre being sent out of the country.

Britain’s responsibility

Furthermore, the British government took the decision to withhold all documents from the public, including a thirteen-page report by the Acting Consul-General. The Foreign Office falsely claimed in parliament to be in a state of ignorance regarding the details of the massacre. The position taken was due to the government’s desire to appease Mussolini and can be seen in tandem with its attitude to Nazi Germany at the time. Similarly, Washington swept under the carpet the reports of its envoy, Cornelius Engert. Both he and William Bond, his British equivalent, were swiftly transferred out of Ethiopia.

After World War II, the newly-formed United Nations also had little interest in any sort of inquiry into the events of Yekatit 12. As Italy had got rid of Mussolini, moved from the Axis to the Allied side, and re-joined the international community, it was seen as a valuable ally in the new front of the Cold War. Anything which might destabilise it, and allow the Communists to have any chance of taking power, had to be avoided. This strategic aim led to tactics in Britain in particular that included the discrediting of eyewitness accounts, the concealment of evidence, the obstruction of an independent inquiry, and the continued blocking of Ethiopia’s membership of the United Nations War Crimes Commission. After the Commission had eventually decided in 1948 that there was a case to answer for the ten suspects identified by Ethiopia, Britain’s final betrayal was to blackmail Ethiopia to drop proceedings via a threat not to support it in its attempts to get a favourable outcome on the return of Eritrea.

The survival of evidence beyond the oral testimonies of survivors can be put down to the efforts of Sylvia Pankhurst, who smuggled photographs out of the country in 1944, prior to the publication of them detailed above, and to the tenacity of Ethiopia in its attempts to get its story heard.

Campbell’s book is an excellent piece of historical research which leaves no stone unturned in its efforts to get to the truth of what happened and to contextualise the massacre within European imperialism. It is difficult to see how it will be surpassed as a document of one of the most appalling acts of violence of the twentieth century.