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Series: Ethiopian Patriots
07. The Duce and the Patriots, in 1937
We saw last week that, during the Italian fascist occupation of Ethiopia, the fascist Viceroy, Graziani. decided to eliminate what he called the “witch-doctors and soothsayers”, because they opposed the fascist regime. Mussolini gave the resultant murders his personal approval. He telegraphed back to Graziani, on 20 March 1937: “I approve what has been done concerning wizards and rebels. It must continue until the situation is radically and definitely peaceful”, i.e. until the country was what he called “pacified”.
Shootings and Deportations
Shootings and deportations of “witchdoctors and sooth-sayers”, accordingly continued apace. On 21 March, Graziani reported to the Duce that, “excluding the repressions of February l9th and 20th,” i.e. those connected with the massacre associated with his name, there had been 324 summary executions in a month, and that 1,100 men, women and children had been deported to the concentration camp at Danane, in Somalia.
“In Large Measure Eliminated”
A couple of days later the Viceroy despatched further telegrams to his commanders in various parts of the country to state that the “hermits, wizards, soothsayers and travelling minstrels,” whose “stupid prophecies ” had created ” excitement or at least perplexity” among the population of the capital, had been “in large measure eliminated.” Those who enjoyed the greatest credit, and who were hence considered the most dangerous, had been shot, while the others were deported. He went on to urge that, “while this work of purification continued at Addis Ababa, “it was “necessary that it should be extended to all the territory of former Shoa”, as well as to “the various governorates in the case that preachings or prophecies are directed against the Government or interfere with public order in any manner at all.”
“Will Be Shot”
General Nasi, the fascist Governor of Harar, replied on 23 April: “Wizards and soothsayers will be shot without trial.” Other official Italian telegrams of this period provide details of numerous executions of persons considered guilty of “spreading false news”, carrying out “anti-Italian propaganda,” especially by “predicting the return of the reign of the Negus,” and, in the case of two “vagabond prophets,” predicting “for the next rainy season the return of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia.”
Such prophets paid for their boldness with their lives, and on 31 March Graziani proudly informed the Minister of Italian Africa in Rome that the number of executions, since the assassination attempt, had reached 1,439.
The Viceroy’s vengeance fell shortly afterwards on the monks and deacons of Debra Libanos, the principal monastery of Shoa. On 20 May 1937, Graziani ordered the summary execution of “all monks without distinction”, and on the following day reported that orders had been given for the shooting of “two hundred and ninety-seven monks, including the vice-prior and twenty-three others also deemed guilty of complicity”. In a later telegram, he noted that “the complicity of the deacons also being proved I have given orders to shoot them to the number of 129, at Debra Berhan. Thus there are left alive only 30 schoolboys, who have been sent to their native homes in various districts of Shoa. Thus, there remains no more trace of the Debra Libanos monastery.”
The recent researches of Ian Campbell, of Addis Ababa, indicate that the enormity of the fascist action was in fact even greater than Graziani’s telegrams suggest. Campbell claims that the number killed was significantly more than Graziani stated; that the schoolboys did not go to their homes, as the telegram said, but were deported to Danane; and that graves had actually been dug for the victims almost a week before their “complicity” was supposedly proved.
Efforts to disarm the Ethiopian population continued throughout this period, and led, on March l8, I937, to the issue of a governatorial decree stating that Italians and “assimilated foreigners” could own no more than two long guns and two pistols, and were prohibited from disposing of them without permission.
A few days later, on March 2l, it was announced that up till that time the Ethiopian population had surrendered a total of 170,795 rifles, 782 machine-guns, 165 cannon, and 1,380 pistols. Polson Newman, one of Mussolini’s British sympathisers, claimed later in the year that he had seen “the natives bringing in their arms”. He adds that “most of the piles looked more suitable for museum use than anything else”, though others included “most modern weapons”. “The only natives allowed to carry arms”, he explains, were “the Askaris, or `native’ irregulars, and those with special permits,” and that, as a result, “the natives no longer carry rifles”.
Opposition to the regime throughout this period, the fascists realised, was still very strong, Graziani recognised this when he complained, on 7 June 1937, that anti-Italian propaganda was being “intensified”, by Ethiopian exiles in Djibouti, Berbera and Aden.
Fighting in Many Areas
The first half of 1937 witnessed fighting in many parts of Ethiopia. The battles of this period, as reported by the Italians, included a fascist attack on the Patriot leader Haile Mariam Mammo on 20 February, followed by a “rebel attack” at Tarmaber, and “rebel incursions” on 27 February in various areas of Shoa. Fighting in Harar province was reported to have culminated, on 5 March, in a “bloody battle” at Gure, while on the following day the “rebels” are said to have suffered “very heavy losses” at Tarmaber.
Fierce fighting by the Patriots was also reported by the Djibouti correspondent of “New Times and Ethiopia News”. On 9 April he wrote that “everywhere the Abyssinian Chiefs have collected bands, and sworn a solemn oath to liberate their country or die”. He added that “strong Abyssinian bands” had re-appeared at Garamullata, as well as between Hawash and Dire Dawa.
In June, just before the rains, the Italians launched a fierce assault on Ras Abebe Aregai’s positions in Shoa. “While we were staying in the districts of Morat and Inuari”, that chief later recalled, “the Italians attacked us four times, and these attacks we repulsed. On the fifth the Italian army armed with tanks and heavy weapons supported by aeroplanes, attacked us and forced us to retreat. After that they began to exterminate the population of the said districts, including children and the aged.”
The Rains of 1937 Immobilise the Italians, and Bring the Patriots Some Respite
The rains of 1937 saw the Italian army once more seriously immobilised, with the result that the Patriots again grew more daring. The official Italian publication “Gli Annali dell’ Africa Italiana” admits that “rebel bands” increased in August, and became more “menacing”, particularly in Lasta, under Dejazmatch Hailu Kebede, and in Begemder and Gojam where there were numerous “rebel bands,” the most “active” being those of Dejazmatch Mangasha in southern and Belai Zeleke in eastern Gojam. Salome Gabre Egziabher later commented that “it was around August 1937 that the people of Gojam seeing the atrocious deeds of the Italians decided to fight and liberate first Gojam and then the rest of Ethiopia”.
The fascist air force was, however, once more very active. Graziani, reporting on fighting near Ambo, only 130 kilometres from Addis Ababa, noted on August 24, and again two days later, that aviation had given “the maximum possible assistance and destroyed without mercy”.
Situation of Fascists “By No Means Healthy”
The overall military situation of the fascists was, however, by no means healthy. Pirzio Biroli, the Italian governor at Gondar, observed on 2 September that the Italian position, especially in Gojam, was becoming graver. He added, on 5 September, that “the rebellion seemed to be spreading to Begemder”, while Graziani noted, on 3 September. that there was “rebellion throughout Shoa”. He added, on 10 September, that “the revolt in the territory of the Amhara Governorate assumes ever larger proportions”, and that Dejazmatch Hailu Kebede had proclaimed a holy war against the invaders, with the result that the “rebels adherents” were becoming “ever larger”.
Lessona, in Rome, who could not close his eyes to these developments, observed on 2 September that the “progressive kindling and spreading” of the rebellion in Lasta, Begemder and Gojam had led to “sad episodes”. He added, on 4 September, that “the situation, especially in Gojam, was becoming graver”.
“Speedy “Pacification” Demanded
The fascist leadership, alarmed at these events and by the seemingly unending character of the war, now intervened with the Viceroy to insist on the speedy “pacification” of the Empire. On 5 September, Lessona sent Graziani the first of several telegrams on this score. Explaining that incidents like those recently reported became known in the international field, and were therefore harmful to fascist policy, he declared that “the situation created in these last days in many parts of the Empire necessitates decisive measures of a military and political character. It is necessary at all costs to cut short the activities of the rebels in the shortest possible time”.
Their words were almost reminiscent of the famous telegram of Prime Minister to General Baratieri on the eve of the battle of Adwa, in 1896.
A few days later, on September l2 1937, Lessona despatched the Viceroy another telegram, in which he stated that “given the international situation it is necessary that Your Excellency uses maximum energy in order that conditions in the Empire return to normal within the present month”. He also quoted Mussolini as ordering that the Viceroy should “act with the maximum energy, using all means against the rebels, including gas. It is absolutely necessary”, he added, “to recapture the infected areas as soon as possible because prolonging the uncertain situation favours extending the rebellion”.
Three days later, the Duce himself telegraphed to Graziani. “I am prepared”, he declared, “to send battalions and aeroplanes, but the revolt must be cut short with the greatest energy and in the briefest possible time. Do not lose any more time”. It was almost a year and a half since May 1936, when he had declared to the world the victorious end of hostilities.
Conditions at this time were in fact so serious for the invaders that Graziani, in a report of 15 September 1937, found cause to note that “in the present situation of agitation it is necessary that the movement of the railway does not suffer any interruption”.
Negotiations were shortly afterwards opened with Ras Abebe Aregai, in the hope that he could be persuaded to lay down his arms. Graziani, however, commented on 19 September that he had no illusions as to the chief’s real intentions, but that he, for his part, would leave no stone unturned in order to obtain the “pacification of the territories of Shoa”.
But that, as we will see next week he could not do.