Fascists' fierce 'peace'

Haile Selassie's War
December 5, 2003

Fascist Italy's invasion of Ethiopia was a unique event in world history. The war involved the first application of sanctions against an aggressor; the use of poison gas, banned by the Geneva Convention; and the collapse of the League of Nations. For Britain, the conflict was accompanied by an unprecedented upsurge of popular interest in international affairs. The Africa campaign marked the high point of Il Duce 's popularity. It was an attack on Africa's last independent state, an advance of colonialism that was challenged by Pan-African ideas. For Ethiopia, the struggle was a turning point, the end of an era in which the country had survived external pressures, including European imperialism, and the start of a new age of involvement in the modern world.

The conflagration was also memorable, as Anthony Mockler shows, in that it brought to the fore the reforming emperor Haile Selassie and the dictator Mussolini. Haile Selassie warned the League of Nations that it would ignore Italy's aggression at its peril - and within three years the second world war had broken out.

Mockler's work deals with the Fascist invasion of 1935-36; the ensuing occupation; and the country's liberation in 1940-41. He begins with the battle of Adowa in 1896 in which an invading Italian army was defeated by the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II. Adowa is of double importance as it marks the beginning of Ethiopia's emergence as a modern state, and was used by Mussolini as a rallying cry for revenge. Mockler traces Haile Selassie's prewar role as a moderniser and the building-up of the neighbouring Italian colonies, Eritrea and Somalia as bases for Fascist Italy's unprovoked invasion. The international community allowed Mussolini's soldiers through the Suez Canal and imposed only ineffectual sanctions when the league found Italy guilty of aggression.

Mockler's account of the occupation describes the ferocity of Fascist "pacification": the execution of "rebel" leaders; the Graziani massacre, in which an attempt on the life of the Fascist viceroy was followed by the killing of thousands of Addis Ababa civilians; the slaughtering of "witch-doctors and soothsayers"; and the introduction of racial policies on the subsequent apartheid model.

The final section charts Mussolini's declaration of war on Britain and France in June 1940, without which there is no telling when Ethiopia would have been liberated. The book's cover depicts the three planes of Ethiopia's tiny prewar airforce, one of whose pilots was a German, Ludwig Weber. This picture will be galling to some Ethiopians because Weber's plane, currently in the Italian Aviation Museum, has not been returned in accordance with the Italian Peace Treaty of 1947. It is wanted as a decoration for Addis Ababa's new airport.

Richard Pankhurst is the founder of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Haile Selassie's War

Author - Anthony Mockler
Publisher - Signal
Pages - 454
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 1 902669 53 3

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