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Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
13. The Patriot Resistance, 1939-1941
Despite Ethiopia’s military collapse in 1935-6, patriotic resistance continued throughout the occupation. Many patriotic Ethiopians were from the outset determined to continue the struggle. The first to do so was Lej Hayla Maryam Mammo, of Dabra Berhan, 130 kilometres north of Addis Ababa, who on 4 May 1936 attacked a group of invading forces on the way to capital. This action earned him the title the “first arbagna”, or, patriot, of Shawa. Other, more or less un-co-ordinated, attacks on the invaders followed.
“All Rebel Prisoners Must Be Shot”
In an attempt to crush such opposition Graziani, who had by then become the Italian viceroy, issued an edict in the middle of May, proclaiming that Italy was the “absolute master of Ethiopia”, and would “remain so at whatever cost”. He threatened that he would use “extreme severity” to rebels, but the “greatest generosity” to Ethiopians who submitted. Mussolini, agreed with this policy, and telegraphed , on 5 June, that “all rebel prisoners must be shot”.
Patriot Attempt to Recapture Addis Ababa
Undeterred by threats of vengeance numerous Ethiopian patriots determined to fight on. During the rains of 1936 several conceived the ambitious plan of re-capturing Addis Ababa. On 28 July one of the principal young Shawan chiefs, Dajazmach Abarra Kasa, son of Ras Kasa Haylu, attacked from the northwest, but was repulsed by Italian machine-gunning from the air. Almost a month later, on 26 August, one of Emperor Menilek’s former commanders, Dajazmach Balcha, launched a further unsuccessful assault from the south-west, which was likewise defeated on account of Italian control of the air. After the rains the invaders resumed the offensive, carrying out extensive bombing, and poison gassing, in Shawa, Lasta, Charchar, Yergalam, and elsewhere.
Abraha Deboch and Moges Asgadom
An attempt on Graziani’s life by two Eritreans, Abraha Daboch and Moges Asgadom, on 19 February 1937, opened a new phase of the struggle.
The Graziani Massacre
The fascists, reacting violently to the attempted assassination of their leader, carried out a three-day massacre in Addis Ababa, in the course of which, between 19 and 21 February, thousands of innocent Ethiopians were killed.
The Dabra Damo Monastery: “No More Trace Remains”
Three months later, on 20 May, Graziani ordered the execution of the monks at the historic Shawan monastery of Dabra Libanos. Two hundred and ninety-seven monks were accordingly shot, and 129 deacons were killed a few days later, after which Graziani proudly telegaphed to Mussolini, “of the monastery, there remains no more trace”.
Dajazmach Haylu Kabada, Dajazmach Mangasha, Balay Zalaka, and Ras Ababa Aragay
Many survivors fled the capital, and joined the patriots. Strengthened by this increase in their numbers patriot forces again took the offensive during the 1937 rains, in Lasta under Dajazmach Haylu Kabada, and in Gojjam under Dajazmach Mangasha and Belay Zalaka. Mussolini responded by ordering Graziani to “use all measures, including gas”. The Viceroy intensified his reign of terror, but, unable to crush the rebellion in Shawa, opened abortive peace negotiations with the area’s principal patriot leader, Ras Ababa Aragay.
Lej Zawd Asfaw, Blatta Takala Walda Hawaryat, and Shalaqa Masfen Seleshi
The occupying forces took the offensive again after the rains, but the patriots did not lose hope. Well aware of the increasing political divergence between the “totalitarian” and “democratic” powers in Europe, they were confident that the latter would ultimately be embroiled in a European war and as a result be obliged to come to their assistance. Graziani frankly admitted as much when he observed, on 9 November 1937, that the “rebels” were awaiting a European war.
Lej Zawde Asfaw, Blatta Takala Walda Hawaryat, and Shalaqa Masfen Seleshi
Some of the patriots at about this time also attempted to forge more integrated resistance, as indicated by the fact that three of the principal Shawan patriot leaders, Lej Zawde Asfaw, Blatta Takala Walda Hawaryat, and Shalaqa Masfen Seleshi at about this time drew up a manifesto urging the Gojjam people to rally behind them. Graziani, however, continued to insist on repression. Referring to the Shawan Patriots, he declared it necessary to “eliminate them, eliminate them, eliminate them”, as he had preached since assuming office.
“Inside” Patriots; Shawaragga Gadle
The patriot movement was centred mainly in Shawa, Bagemder and Gojjam, but drew support from almost all parts of the country. Some of the most resolute fighters included Eritrean desereters from the Italian colonial army. There was also an active underground movement, in Addis Ababa and a few other towns, composed of wust arbagna, or “inside” patriots. They helped to provide military, medical and other supplies to the patriots in the field, and to inform them of enemy movements. Many Ethiopian women, including one of the daughters of Ras Kasa and the renowned Shawaragga Gadle, were also prominent, either in the field or as wust patriots.
Lej Yohannes Iyasu
Continued patriot resistance was one of the causes of the Viceroy’s dismissal, and replacement, on 26 December 1937, by the Duke of Aosta, a member of the Italian royal family. Soon after his appointment the Duke’s chief-of-staff, Ugo Cavellero, admitted that “large parts” of Shawa and Amhara were then in rebellion, and that `pockets of resistance’ also persisted in the south-west. He added that the “rebels” enjoyed the “full support” of the people, who were ready to join them. The extent of opposition to the invaders was confirmed by the exiled Emperor Haile Sellassie, who claimed that patriot resistance was then “more extensive” than ever before. Menilek’s great-grandson, Lej Yohannes Iyasu, himself a patriot, observed that the invader, though in control of the major towns, had been unable to conquer the country.
Mussolini “Very Dissatisfied”
By 1939, the year of the outbreak of the European war, a stalemate had developed. The Italians had failed to crush the patriots, but the latter were unable to break into the wellguarded Italian forts. Mussolini’s son-in-law, Count Ciano, nevertheless noted, on 1 January, 1940 that the Duce was “very much dissatisfied”, for Amhara was in “complete revolt”, and sixty-five Italian battalions were “compelled” to live in forts. The situation was so serious that the Duke of Aosta advised Mussolini to avoid a European war “which would bring on the high seas the task of pacifying the country and jeopardise the conquest itself”.
“A State of Latent Rebellion”
A leading fascist, Arcanovaldo Bonacorsi, reported, in May, that throughout the empire there was “a state of latent rebellion”, which: “would have its final and tragic denouncement when war breaks out with our enemies. If at any point whatever, a detachment of English or French were to enter with banner unfurled they would need little or no troops for they would find the vast mass of the Abyssinian population would unite themselves to that flag to combat and eject our forces. In the case of such an emergency we should find ourselves unable to withstand our enemy given the state of unpreparedness and lack of equipment of our forces”.