Fascist Mussolini attacked Ethiopia with mustard gas.
(The following material is from my book “The Hearts of Darkness, How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa. The revised corrected second edition will be published in May 2018).
The Italians had to wait for 40 more years after their defeat at Adwa to launch another invasion of Ethiopia.
The two main protagonists of the 1896 war were long gone by then. Baratieri, who had resigned from the Italian army soon after surviving the court martial, died in 1901. Emperor Menelik II died in 1913. He had been enfeebled for years after suffering a stroke.
The outcome of this new conflict was not as spectacular as in 1896; yet, eventually, the Ethiopians again prevailed and the invaders were driven out.
But during the years of occupation, before their defeat, Benito Mussolini’s fascist army committed grave war crimes against the Ethiopians. Mussolini’s army used mustard gas to destroy whole divisions of the Ethiopian military and kill untold numbers of civilians.
Years later, through the duplicity of the Western powers, which needed to work with Italian military officers after Mussolini’s defeat, the top general responsible for the crimes against Ethiopians was never prosecuted.
The storm clouds of war hovered over Ethiopia by 1934. On December 23 of that year, The New York Times reported in an article under the headline, “Abyssinia Encircled by Covetous Powers,” that Italy was competing with Germany and Japan for control of Ethiopia. These countries, The New York Times’ article explained, “coveted the vast potential sales to Abyssinia’s millions of people, quantities of the cheap gimcracks which so fascinate semi-civilized populations.”
The Times’ article also reported that the Italians still held deep bitter feelings from the 1896 defeat at the hands of Menelik’s army. “The insult of defeat has rankled in the breasts of Italian militarists these many decades,” the Times article added. “Fully as strongly as burned the Ethiopian conviction that, having once beaten Europe at her game of war, Abyssinia could do so again.”
The Times article described the Battle of Adwa –using the alternate spelling Adowa– inelegantly, and tried to diminish the Ethiopian victory. “There was a fast and fierce clash,” the newspaper reported. “The battle of Adowa, in which a quarter of a million savage black warriors, equipped mainly with spear and shield, slaughtered nearly 40,000 Italians practically in their tracks and in spite of the Italian rifles and artillery.”
Here was The New York Times, which had reported the original Ethiopian rout of the Italian army in detail almost 40 years earlier, now denigrating that victory by making it appear as if the European invaders had simply been overwhelmed by superior numbers—victims of an accidental defeat at the hands of “savage black warriors.”
In fact, the Ethiopians had defeated Italians because they too were in possession of modern firearms; and they had mastered the art of war. The author of the 1934 article could have benefited from reading The NewYork Times’ own accounts from four decades earlier.
One New York Times account from 1896 had placed Ethiopian forces, at the most, at 70,000, which was also probably inflated to diminish the significance of their victory. Now, in 1934, the Times claimed there had been 250,000 Ethiopian fighters at Adwa.
Even though the Times’ article referred to the Ethiopians as “savages” it cautioned its readers not to underestimate the psychology of the “true Abyssinian” who “was Amharic and considered himself vastly superior to a white man…”
Earlier, on December 14, 1934, hoping to forestall war, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie urged the League of Nations, the predecessor organization to the United Nations, to prevent Mussolini from ordering an invasion.
The following year, Selassie penned an Op-Ed article published in The New York Times on July 14, 1935, still calling upon the League of Nations to restrain Mussolini. Selassie vowed that he would resist any Italian aggression and criticized the fascist dictator for refusing to submit any disputes between the two countries to a neutral arbiter.
Selassie was to make the bitter discovery that the collective world security espoused by the League of Nations did not apply to Ethiopians; or, to borrow from The New York Times’ characterization, to “semi-civilized populations.” Nothing was to stop Il Duce from invading.
On October 3, 1935, a massive force of 30,000 troops invaded; there were 1,000 trucks and abundant supplies of mustard gas which the aggressors used mercilessly. The Ethiopians had never been conquered during the Scramble for Africa and they resisted valiantly.
However the chemical weapons took a heavy toll and as the Italian army broke through Ethiopian defenses, on May 5, 1936, Selassie was forced to flee his capital as 50 planes swept over Addis Ababa in a show of air prowess.
The New York Times’ account of the Italian conquest was once again written from the perspective of the aggressor and in a tone similar to that of the February 2, 1890 article celebrating the earlier imperial invasion.
Herbert L. Matthews, the reporter, had traveled with the Italian convoys. The headline of the May 6, 1936, article in the Times read like a press release from the Italian military command: “Ethiopia Is Italian, Says Mussolini, as His Troops Occupy Addis Ababa.” A second sub-headline read, “Raises Italian Tricolor,” and a third, presumably to justify the invasion, claimed, “Finds Miserable Scene.”
“Ethiopia’s era of independence, which had lasted since biblical times, ended at 4 o’clock this afternoon when the Italians occupied Addis Ababa,” Matthews wrote. “This account is being written in the automobile in which this correspondent came to Addis Ababa from Dessye with Marshall Pietro Badoglio,” he continued, revealing that he had been embedded with the Italian army. Marshall Badoglio, the Italian commander, was boastful as Selassie fled.
“The Negus, following his great victories, has been obliged to flee from his capital,” Badoglio told Matthews, sarcastically, using the Amharic honorific for the Emperor. “We, following the defeats we received, have arrived here. You have seen the welcome the populations have given us along the road,” Marshall Badoglio continued.
“They feel themselves freed of the heaviest yoke. Now begins the labor for us, as arduous as that of the war we won, to give civilization and progress through peace and tranquility to these people for all.” Italy’s King, Victor Emmanuel III, was declared “Emperor of Ethiopia” and Badoglio himself became “Duke of Addis Ababa.”
Another article in The New York Times, by P.W. Wilson, published on May 10, 1936, under the headline, “Conquest of Africa Completed,” placed the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in a broader imperial context. “The Italian victory,” the article reported, “completed four centuries of a territorial transition that now embraces the whole of the once-Dark continent of Africa with its 12,000,000 square miles and about 150,000,000 inhabitants,” with the “comparatively unimportant exception of Liberia, a Negro republic on the Atlantic seaboard….”
The article concluded: “The evaluation of Africa as a white man’s empire is subject to emotional factors and especially pride of possession.” So, from the imperial perspective, Africa’s centuries of “darkness” ended once European conquest was completed.
Meanwhile, Selassie set up a government in exile in London. Ethiopians continued guerrilla warfare resistance throughout the five-year occupation. The Italians responded with brutal retribution against civilians.
Later, when Italy declared war on France and Britain during World War II, British forces in Africa invaded Italian-occupied Ethiopia and Somalia and fought with Ethiopians to defeat Mussolini’s army. Selassie was able to re-enter Addis Ababa triumphantly.
After Mussolini’s regime finally collapsed the Western Allies needed a government to fill the power vacuum in Italy. Marshall Badoglio who had presided over the use of mustard gas against Ethiopians became prime minister in post-Mussolini Italy. Badoglio and other commanders eluded justice for their war crimes.
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