Articles in this series:
Series: Ethiopian Patriots
10. The Spirit of the Patriots in 1938, and the Advent of the Duke of Aosta
The Emperor’s statement observed further that “the resistance of the population” was “more intensive, united and effective than at any time since the Italian Army extended its invasion in the autumn of 1936”. There was, moreover “every reason to believe that armed resistance” would “be intensified on a greater scale during the coming rainy season when the Italian Air Force could not be “effectively employed… The present situation in Ethiopia,” the statement concluded, “will be appreciated if it is realised that over at least three-quarters of the country the Italian authorities have no military control beyond an area varying from roughly 10 to about 30 miles radius around the larger towns. In fact, over at least half the country there is no military control, the military posts only maintaining their existence through fortifications, and the troops being unable to venture to a distance or to penetrate the hilly and mountainous regions.”
Discussions in Rome
The Patriots’ “revolt” meanwhile continued to be the subject of much discussion in Rome. Graziani, according to Mussolini’s son-in-law Ciano, declared himself, on 26 May, “not very convinced of the possibility” of the Duke of Aosta as Viceroy, on the grounds that the latter was “weak and too much in the hands of subordinates.” Gasparini, a former governor of Eritrea, according to Ciano notes, expressed “a rather similar opinion”, but was “more hopeful than Graziani, about the possibility of pacifying the Empire within a relatively brief period.” Another case of false optimism!
The Russian, Colonel Konovalov
For a glimpse of the actual situation in fascist-occupied Ethiopia we may conveniently turn to the memoirs of a Russian emigre Colonel Konovalov. He records that there were then “still many areas of disaffection” against Italian rule, and adds:
“Even the principal roads, such as the Addis Ababa-Dessie and other main arteries were always shaken by the blows of the strong guerrilla bands, the principal of which was under the leadership of the famous Ethiopian patriot and leader, the Balambaras Abeba Aragai.”
Italian lorries and cars, he explains, had therefore to travel “mostly in day-time, and in guarded columns.”
The Views of George Steer
The Emperor’s above-quoted assessment was later corroborated by the distinguished British journalist George Steer. After making careful inquiries at Djibouti, he informed the “Manchester Guardian”, in August 1938, that the Patriots of Gojam had succeeded for a time in “mastering the whole of that province west and north-west of Debra Markos”, though they had been dispersed in May, albeit after fierce fighting. “For the whole of this year indeed from October last,” he declared, “the Italians have had to face really strenuous resistance in at least three parts of the territory – Gojam, Ankober, and Nonno.” Until the previous month indeed two Patriot leaders, Abebe Aregai and Takale Wolde Hawariat, had never been more than eighty miles from Addis Ababa. Rebutting the repeated Italian claim that these and other leaders were merely “rebels”, he declared that on the contrary they included “men from the greatest and richest Amhara families, accustomed to a life of ease and comfort, who have found guerrilla warfare all but intolerable, but go on fighting,” One could therefore, he said, “still talk of a bitter resistance by leading Amharas.”
Steer’s analysis was accepted by a contemporary historian, L. Isaacs, who concluded: “The facts show that the conquest of Ethiopia is far from complete. Violent fighting is going on – most of it centred in Amhara.”
Cavallero, the Italian commander-in chief in East Africa, nonetheless churned out another optimistic report, and informed Ciano, on 6 September, that he expected “to be able to liquidate the last centre of rebellion before Christmas.” Two more Christmases were to come and go without his fulfilling that hope. He also declared, with similar misplaced optimism, that “in the event of a general war”, i.e. a European conflict he was “not afraid of a large-scale rising of the inhabitants.”
Ethiopian View of the Situation
The attitude and aspirations of the Patriots in the middle of 1938, that is to say a year or so prior to the outbreak of the European war, is apparent from a number of petitions which they despatched to the Emperor Haile Sellasie, who duly submitted them to the league of Nations, in Geneva.
One such document, an anonymous one, dated 12 July 1938 , declared:
“The Italians occupy the towns of Debre Tabor and Gondar in the Province of Begemder; Lalibela and Waldia in the Province of Yejou; Dessie and Worreylou in the Province of Wollo. With the exception of these fortified districts all the Italian garrisons that had taken up positions in these three Provinces have been destroyed by us. All that territory is in our hands.”
Notwithstanding this confident note, the authors recognised the virtual invincibility of the Italian forts, and urged the need for modern weapons. “During the season of the rains,” they declared, “we tried to attack the enemy in their forts, but they were too well guarded with their artillery and machine-guns and the barbed wire which encircles them from the plain onwards. For the future, what your humble servants need most of all are aeroplanes, also arms, as well as ammunition for the rifles we have captured from the enemy. Your people is not in want of soldiers.”
Another letter, written on 25 July 1938 by Lij Yohannes Iyasu, a son of the Emperor Menelik’s grandson Lij Iyasu, was designed to emphasise the unity of the Ethiopian people in opposing the invader. The letter declared it “evident that the Italians wish to exterminate the people of Ethiopia and not to establish justice there.” The actions of the Italians, the prince continued, had in this way unified the Ethiopians: ” Our people”, he claimed, “are united with one heart in this war. The Italians in Ethiopia live in little forts surrounded by barbed wire entanglements. But they have not been able to conquer the country.”
Another document, addressed to Haile Sellasie, at about this time was more declamatory in tone, and declared:
“Our sufferings are mitigated and our hopes are raised by the knowledge that Your Majesty is standing before the Assembly of Nations, the Sceptre of Solomon in your hand, to proclaim to the world how your defenceless people are being unjustly exterminated, to beseech the League of Nations to come to our aid, and, pointing out the unheard of atrocities that we are undergoing at the hands of the Italians, to obtain an equitable judgment, and to put an end to the scourge which has fallen upon us.
“Woe to those nations which will not accord equitable justice to this Emperor of Ethiopia, respectful and loyal to his engagements, who stands before them in his pure majesty to demand justice – for they will incur the responsibility of inciting the wrath of God…
“Let the Roman Caesar stay quietly in Rome; Ethiopia belongs to the Ethiopians.”
Further Statements to the League of Nations
Further evidence of the spirit of the Patriots was afforded in a petition, dated 1 October 1938. from three of the leaders of Shoa: Dejazmatch Mangasha Wosseni, Dejazmatch Abebe Aragai, and Fitawrari Zewde Abbacorra. Rejecting the Italian claim to be in effective control of the country, they too declared:
“This is false. Apart from those dwelling in the neighbourhood of her fortifications and roads, the Ethiopian people – from the low-lying plain to high plateau – have not submitted to Italy. For this reason human blood flows in a stream each day… We do not cease to shed our blood for the independence of our country, appealing for justice and hoping to obtain it from the League of Nations.”
Letters were also submitted to the League by several other Patriot leaders, among them Dezjazmatch Mangasha Jambere and Lij Tafari Mangasha.
A “Liberal” Viceroy
Conscious of the failure of Graziani’s policy of terrorism the Duke of Aosta adopted a somewhat more “liberal” policy, and mitigated some of the worst excesses of his predecessor. One Eritrean observer, Fitawrari Asfaha Walda Mikael, later noted: “one could notice a tendency to reduce the number of crimes against the Ethiopians. Qualifying this statement he nevertheless observed:
“That moderation was limited to Addis Ababa and other principal cities and areas immediately dominated by Italian garrisons. The policy in areas of active patriot resistance remained relatively unchanged… Burning, pillaging and murders were there regarded as a `military necessity’.”
Graziani’s old policy of executions without judicial process nevertheless now came in for official criticism. Thus on 12 January 1939, General Martini reported that “recently two gravely illegal acts have taken place, committed by officers and officials against natives who have been executed summarily without observance of judicial procedure.” Explaining the new policy, he added, “Persons who are not killed in action or are not surprised in a criminal act must not be subjected to summary treatment and executed. They must receive the treatment prescribed by the regulations of the Viceroy [i.e. Aosta] or be brought before the judicial authority.”
Underlining the politically undesirable consequences of arbitrary repression, as formerly practiced by Graziani, the memorandum continued: “Acts of this kind caused revolt last year with well known consequences an repercussions, perpetrating the general conviction of absolute lack of any judicial security provided by the Authorities”.