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Rodolfo Graziani: A Fascist Hero and the Butcher of Africa

                                    Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D.

IDEA Viewpoint

November 2, 2012

Rodolfo Graziani has been dead for the last fifty-seven years, but in 2012 the village of Affile in Italy attempted to resuscitate him by erecting a monument on his behalf and the lingering fascist sympathizers. The mayor of Affile, Signor Ettore Viri has been criticized for deciding to dedicate a bust for Graziani, but contrary to negative public reaction, he bragged about his commitment to Graziani by saying, “the head is a dedication of a citizen.” Yes, Graziani could be a citizen and a hero to Ettore Viri and the fascist riffraff, but to Africans he is a butcher fascist murderer.

Ethiopians, in particular, are outraged by the adamant behavior of the mayor of Affile, the silence of the Italian Government, and the acquiescence of the Vatican. Ethiopians want justice to be served and Graziani to be tried post-mortem in the international criminal court for the heinous crimes he committed in Ethiopia. The Global Alliance for Ethiopia, an advocacy Ethiopian Diaspora group in the United States, time and again have contacted the Vatican and requested apology for the atrocities and massacres committed against Ethiopians, but the Pope has never responded.

While the Vatican openly apologized for the Nazi crimes against the Jewish people, it was either reluctant to consider the Ethiopian demand for apology and closure or simply opted to ignore the matter altogether. The Vatican’s silence on the Ethiopian cause could be interpreted in only two ways: 1) At this juncture, Ethiopia is not a strong nation despite the resolve, determination, and pride of Ethiopians; 2) Ethiopians are dark-skinned and the Ethiopians that are members of the catholic faith are few and far in between. I could not think of any other reason why the Vatican should not publicly apologize to Ethiopia, unless it has a hidden agenda in justifying the crimes of Mussolini and Graziani in Ethiopia.

Why did Italy attacked and invaded Ethiopia in 1935? One of the reasons is imply political vindication on the part of Italy. Ethiopians defeated the invading Italian troops at the Battle of Adwa on March 1896; the decisive Ethiopian victory was a pride for Ethiopians and other Africans in the continent and the Diaspora, but a shame and disgrace to Italy and the disgrazia vergognoso Italians came to avenge themselves forty years after Adwa. The second reason, not quite salient in history books and the political literature of the time, is that Mussolini had a major agenda to revive the dying Italian economy – and that was the prime goal of the fascist party – by creating an Italian empire and turning Ethiopia into a granary for Italy.

Thus, on October 3, 1935, Italian troops crossed the Mereb River and invaded Ethiopia, but Ethiopians, though caught by surprise, were determined to defend their country and preserve their independence. Stiff Ethiopian resistance in Tigray, particularly in the Tembien and Amba Alage area, met Italian troops; heavy fighting broke out in Wer’ee River valley, in which hundreds died on either side. The Emperor Haile Selassie himself came to Mai Chew to fight the Italians, but this time, unlike Adwa, the Italians had a distinct advantage of air power and the use of mustard gas that was blinding and killing the Ethiopian fighting forces on the ground.

By January 1936, Graziani unleashed military offensive from the Somali-Ethiopian border while Badoglio was still fighting the Ethiopians at Amba Alage, and it was after February that Ethiopian patriots began to retreat and regroup in South and Southwestern Ethiopia. Ethiopian patriots from Tigray, Gondar, Wollo, Shewa, Gojjam, Sidamo, Jimma, and other areas converged in Wellega and Illubabor; and some defecting Eritreans also joined the rank-and-file of the Ethiopian resistance movement. The patriots decided Gore to be as a temporary capital of Ethiopia or the headquarters of the patriotic movement. Graziani, cognizant of Ethiopian resistance movement around Gore, stationed himself and his troops at Yirga-Alem with the intention of either containing the fighting forces or encircling and defeating them. 

The more Italians seem to have the upper hand, the more Ethiopian troops were on the retreat; on the Gore front alone, Italians continuously bombarded the villages and farms where Ethiopian patriots are suspected to harbor. At one point fifty Italian Air Force planes bombarded Southwestern Ethiopia, and at this stage of the resistance the Emperor decided to go on exile. Incidentally, Graziani have been informed about Haile Selassie’s flight and he planned to bombard the train that was carrying the Emperor and his family, but since he did not get approval from Mussolini he did not execute his plan.  

Interestingly, even without the Emperor, Ethiopians continued to resist and new guerrilla forces and organizations such as the Black Lion, the Ethiopian Youth Association, and the Ethiopian Women’s Association were established. Despite the formation of these organizations, however, Ethiopian resistance had begun crumbling on several fronts due to lack of coordination. On top of this problem, some patriots have retreated to lands outside Ethiopia, to Kenya and Sudan; others have surrendered to the Italians; and still others have gone underground and opted to become inactive or semi-active. Very few patriots like Desta Damtew fought till the last minute and till they die or they were captured. But since Badoglio and Graziani did not trust the Ethiopian patriots, they have decided to exile the even the surrendering Ethiopians to Eritrea and Italy, that is to Nacura (west of Dahlak Kebir on the Red Sea) or Asinara (a small island on the Mediterranean) respectively.

By sending patriots into exile and weakening the Ethiopian resistance the Italians thought they could now proclaim Ethiopia as part of their East African colony, and Graziani and his fascist associates had planned a major reception in Addis Ababa, in which they would celebrate the victory over Ethiopia. It was not meant to be! The grim moment for Adolfo Graziani and his comrades-in-arms had arrived on February 19, 1937 when two patriots, of Eritrean origin, namely Abraha Deboch and Moges Asghedom made a surprise attack on Graziani by throwing hand grenades. Graziani was wounded and taken to the hospital but survived with some 350 stitches on his body; General Aurelio Liotta, who was sitting near Graziani, however, lost his right eye and his right leg while many died.

For any attack the Ethiopians inflicted upon Italians, counterattack was habitually conducted by the Italians and in most instances, the fascists had retaliated without mercy. They even shot and killed Abuna Petros, massacred the monks, priests, and deacons of the monastery of Debre Libanos, and have ordered to murder all resisting patriots.

Graziani also ordered the wanton killings of Addis Ababans and the burning of the city in retaliation to the attempt of his life. Some observers of the day argued that he was not in a position to do so because he was recovering in the hospital, but this argument is untenable because his subordinates could not act on their own without the order of their commanders. Other observers of the time contend that Graziani was neurotic and out of his mind (“by reason of insanity” as we say in modern parlance) when he carried out the massacre of Addis Ababa in 1937, but this is not true either. Mussolini, in fact, posted Graziani in Ethiopia because the latter was known for his bestial cruelty and for his murderous action against the people of Libya (the Senusi resistance) in 1922, in which 60,000 Libyans were massacred. Graziani indeed is the butcher of Africa and perhaps a hero to some Italians.

While Italians were massacring innocent Ethiopians, bombed villages and towns, and used extensive mustard gas against Ethiopians in the mid-1930s, the Vatican was silent. If at all, it was collaborating with the fascists in their occupation of Ethiopia. In some instances, Vatican envoys served as go-between Mussolini and Haile Selassie and offered the Emperor some compensation in lieu of his abdication or surrendering to the Italians. “The Pope confirmed that the secretary of state of the Vatican Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII) offered Haile Selassie £1 million on behalf of Italy in return of his abdication. In late 1936, the negotiation failed when the negus refused to accept the Italian terms.”1          

It is with the full approval of Mussolini and the acquiescence or collaboration of the Vatican that Graziani and his subordinates carried out the massacre of Addis Ababa. Here below is how Sbacchi summarizes it:

The Carabinieri and soldiers on duty fired into the crowd and rounded up everyone within the precincts of the palace. Wholesale executions followed at once in the grounds and the adjoining filed. A large number of innocent spectators lost their lives. For two and half days, there followed reprisals against the Ethiopians. It was an orgy of murder, robbery and arson on the part of the Italians. No one was spared. Ethiopians were hunted through the streets and into their dwellings all over the town and beaten, shot, bayoneted or clubbed to death; their dwellings were burnt by flame-throwers and petrol, and in some cases people were burnt inside their huts; women, children, and priests, received the same brutality. Ethiopians were thrown over the parapet of a bridge onto the boulders below, a fifteen meter drop, and those still alive were finished off with rifles. Extensive areas in every quarter were ablaze, and more than 4000 huts were destroyed. The Italian reaction in burning Ethiopian huts was intensified by the explosions of ammunition hidden in the burning dwellings. The church of St. George was set on fire and twenty mines had been placed to blow it up. As if this barbaric fury was not enough, Graziani planned to destroy Addis Ababa and place its inhabitants in concentration camps. Mussolini forbade this draconian measure for fear of negative world public opinion.2

The bust of Graziani at Affile is not going to hide the crime against humanity perpetrated by the fascists in Ethiopia and elsewhere. The mayor of Affile and the provincial as well as national governments of Italy are advised to rethink the erection of the monument and rather reconcile with Ethiopians before it is too late. On the other hand, it is gratifying to witness some progressive Italians file charges against Ettore Viri and Affile and we invite readers to read the attached document of the Attorney General of the Republic of Prato.

Notes: 1. Alberto Sbacchi, Ethiopia Under Mussolini: Fascisim and the Colonial Experience, Zed Book, 1985, p. 123

            2. Alberto Sbacchi, Ibid, p. 190


All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2012. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org