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Series: Ethiopian Patriots
08. Mussolini’s Concern at Increasing Patriot Power
We saw last week that Mussolini, by the late summer of 1937, was seriously concerned by the fact that the Ethiopian Patriots were still unbeaten, and, on the contrary, that their “rebellion”, as the fascist Viceroy, Graziani, dubbed it, seemed indeed to be increasing in strength.
Mussolini’s Son-in-Law’s Diary
The Duce’s concern was later underlined by his son-in-law Ciano, the then Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who noted in his Diary, on 13 September 1937, that his master was “annoyed ” by the Gojam “revolt”, which, he noted, was “of a considerable size.” Later, on 17 September, however, Mussolini spoke “more optimistically”, on the grounds that the “revolt” was “not spreading”, and that “measures to suppress it- including gas – have been ordered”.
It is worthy of note that Ciano, in the privacy of his diary, freely refers to these orders for the use of gas, though the employment of that substance was rigidly excluded from all official fascist publications.
A few days later, on 23 September, the Minister of Italian Africa, Lessona reported to Mussolini about the position in person. He told the Duce, according to Ciano, that there were “numerous revolts, but localised.” The Italian Foreign Minister nonetheless noted that Patriot activity was “hindering demobilisation and was a burden on our finances”. He feared, moreover, that “at Mascal something on a larger scale may break out”.
The disarmament of the “native” population meanwhile continued to receive the highest fascist priority. Thus Graziani telegraphed Lessona, on 7 September 1937, that it was necessary “to make the population well understand that the only way of living in peace” was by delivering up their arms. Shortly afterwards he noted, in a report of 26 September on the situation in Lasta, that there was “only one end: to disarm the population.” The number of arms confiscated or surrendered throughout the country was by then reaching astronomical proportions. The London “Daily Telegraph” of 30 September 1937 quoted Italian sources as stating that they amounted to 283,954 rifles, 999 machine-guns, 196 cannon, and 1,422 pistols. It was, however, only too clear that large numbers of weapons were still in the hands of the population, particularly of Patriots, who had no intention of surrendering either themselves or their arms.
Graziani’s Claims and Admissions
The Italians were now struggling to their utmost to crush the Patriot movement. On 26 September, Graziani hopefully claimed that his forces had succeeded in strengthening their position in Lasta and around Debra Berhan. He added that the operations in those regions were “so favourable as to give me a clear feeling that in a short while the rebellion will be everywhere broken by the inexorable impetus of our force.”
The situation of the Italians in the north-west of Ethiopia was, however, far less promising, and on 28 September the Viceroy was obliged to admit that “with so vast a territory, and with two regions, Gojam and Begemder, in ferment” it was essential to ensure possession of the more important garrisons, for their abandonment “would signify a deterioration in our position,” and thus encourage the rebels who were “easily emboldened even ephemeral successes”.
“Cut Short Every Revolt” – Mussolini
Fascist impatience at the slow progress achieved was meanwhile on the increase. Mussolini, gravely disturbed by Patriot activity, returned to the need for a speedy conclusion of the fighting. On 1 October, he again telegraphed to Graziani, announcing the despatch of four new battalions, and added, emphatically, that it was “necessary to cut short every revolt as soon as possible.”
Lessona took up the theme a week later. “I repeat,” he declared in a telegram to the Viceroy on 8 October, “I am ready to send from here as many troops as your Excellency considers necessary because I repeat the rebellion must be cut short.”
Graziani, who had by now been attempting, unsuccessfully, to crush Ethiopian, resistance for two long years, was unimpressed by such apparently impossible demands. On the following day he bluntly replied that “situations in general cannot be resolved except gradually and methodically, because experience teaches us that a rebellion is easy to cause but difficult to resolve”.
Graziani had not, however, lost his old ruthlessness. On 21 October, he despatched a telegram to General Nasi, the fascist governor of the Harar region, in which he declared that at Garamulata, which he termed “the fortress of Negusism”, there “must not (I say not) remain a sole Amhara chief whatsoever. This is my conviction which seldom errs”. A fortnight or so later, on 3 November he was, however, obliged to report that, despite his earlier more optimistic statement, the rebellion was “almost total in the territories of new occupation”, by which he meant the whole of Ethiopia, as opposed to the earlier acquired Italian colonies, Eritrea and Somalia.
On the following day he telegraphed his recommendations for dealing with the crisis to Lessona. Noting that there were then 111,500 Italian soldiers in East Africa (which he considered, dear reader, a small figure) he declared that they were insufficient, as he had “always said”, and urged the need (1) that the capital be defended “in a secure manner”; (2) that in the area of the railway there should be a mobile force, as well as a fixed guard; (3) that in Shoa, which he termed “the most hostile and warlike region”, mobile forces should be massed at Debra Berhan and Fiche to protect the capital; and (4) that forces be stationed also in the west for the indirect protection of the capital, as well as to guard communication routes.
These proposals were particularly revealing, in that they show that their author was fearful even for the security of fascist power in Addis Ababa, and Shoa, let alone in remoter areas of the empire.
Fierce Italian attacks on the Patriots were launched towards the end of the year 1937. On 5 November, Graziani informed his superiors in Rome that he was about to make a demonstration into Gojam, and would issue a proclamation calling on the people to submit and give up their arms in return for a general pardon. On 7 November, he claimed that the situation in Western Shoa, between Ambo and the Ghibe river, was “improving,” and that, in Eastern Shoa, Italian forces had for the first time penetrated between Ankober and the Kassam river. He nevertheless admitted that there was still a significant rebel concentration at Guma, between Jimma and Lekemti.
Such hopeful reports, written perhaps mainly to please Rome, soon proved unfounded. The fact of the matter, as a correspondent of “The Times”, of London, reported, from Djibouti, on November 25, was that:
“The improvement in the internal situation that was expected after the rains is still far from apparent. The roads leading from Addis Ababa to Jimma and Gore have both been cut recently within 50 miles of the capital, with the result that transport has to proceed under convoy”.
“Wise Political Action… to Eliminate Amhara without Pity”
Conscious of the danger of a further expansion of the “revolt”, Graziani was obliged to warn the Italian commanders in Jimma and Harar, on 9 November, of the need for “wise political action towards the natives to avoid inducing them to rebel”. He nevertheless continued to urge them “to eliminate the Amhara without pity, according to my directives,” “military conquest,”he declared,” imperatively excludes sentimentalism”.
A Patriot Manifesto
The Patriot leadership, though now undoubtedly under strong pressure, had by no means lost heart, for it knew that, sooner or later, it could count on help from abroad. Graziani admitted as much on 9 November, when he stated that the rebels “clearly thought in terms of a European war, and the return of the Negus,” i.e. Emperor Haile Sellassie.
Patriot history, even then, was inextricably bound up with the Gathering Clouds of the European War, which was to break less than two years later.
At about this time three Patriot leaders, Zawdie Asfaw, Takale Wolde Hawariat and Mesfin Selashi, who were then operating in Gudru and Gindabaret, drew up a remarkable manifesto to the people of Gojam. The Patriots hurled copies of this document by slings across the Blue Nile into Gojam, where they came to the attention of fascist intelligence.
The document, as Graziani later reported it to Rome, was addressed to the “notables and elders of Gojam,” and declared:
“Through Christian prayer and by the will of God we stand ready to fight and overcome for the freedom of our country and our religion, advancing, and up to now always victorious, and not suffering any discomfiture”.
Turning to the actions of the Italians the document declared that they had come “to make our race disappear, and to take away our property”, for they “did not wish the Amharas and Gallas to live and rule”. As for Ras Hailu, the Italian’s closest collaborator, it asked what territorial command the invaders had given him, and declared that, while “the chiefs, notables and many of the people were being killed”, he had “betrayed the Ethiopian people,” for he piled up wealth in the capital, sought to register the inhabitants and cattle of Gojam for his own advantage, and, they asserted, had even begun to choose Ethiopian women as wives for the Italians.
“Children of Gojam and Walata Israel”, the manifesto concluded, ” fight for the Christian religion. The more patience you have the worse things will be for your soul, your property, your children and your religion. Now by the will of God the rays of the sun are coming to our country. We will very soon send you a great announcement. In the name of our religion, you must resist the enemy at the opportune time. Above all we advise you to fight, even with local weapons. If you do not have enough arms send us faithful persons, and receive arms from us. We beg you to send copies of this letter to all Gojam and Begemder. Pass on the word to the chiefs and nobles!”
Patriotic, and moving words, even when read sixty years later!