In May1937, troops under Italian command moved into the remote area around the Debre Libanos monastery in Ethiopia. They had been sent there by Rodolfo Graziani, one of the commanders of the Italian invasion of the country in October 1935 and now viceroy of Italian East Africa. In February 1937, he had survived an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa. In retaliation, the Italians had killed at least 19,000 people over the next three days (a fifth of the city’s population), a massacre which became known on the date it began, Yekatit 12. People claimed been burned alive in their homes or beaten to death in the street. Others were placed in detention camps, where conditions were appalling, and tortured or executed. But that was not enough for Graziani. He claimed his assassination attempt had been planned by the Ethiopian Church and, as he recovered in hospital, began planning the destruction of his most important center, the monastery of Debre Libanos, founded in the thirteenth century. The pretext for the attack was that the two men who had tried to kill Graziani in Addis were believed to have passed through the lands surrounding the monastery during their flight (Debre Libanos is about sixty kilometers north of the city). The plan – which survives in the archives of the Italian administration – was to kill the entire religious community there. Graziani’s subordinate, General Maletti, was chosen to carry out the massacre, commanding a Muslim battalion composed of Eritreans, Libyans and Somalis. It is an uncomfortable truth for those on the far right who admire Mussolini, while promoting Islamophobia, that the Italian military has enabled a form of jihad against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Pilgrims gathered at the monastery every year to celebrate the feast of its founder, St Tekle Haymanot, on May 20. Maletti began rounding people up as they arrived at the site. On May 19, Graziani ordered the summary execution of “all the monks without distinction”. ‘Please make sure that has been done,’ he said, informing me of their number. Orders were also given to burn buildings and bodies. The massacre is described by Ian Campbell in The holy war, in gruesome detail. In order to hide the scale of the killings, most of the victims were taken from the monastery in trucks. They were shot, mostly with machine guns, and buried where they fell in mass graves. Those who refused to get into the trucks were shot on the spot. Many of the victims were elderly, some were children, and not all were armed. Campbell estimates that between 1,200 and 1,600 “pilgrims and clergy” were killed that day. It shows that what happened in Debre Libanos was part of a series of massacres aimed at destroying the Ethiopian Church as an institution. Villages and homes in other parts of the country have been attacked; churches were burned and ransacked. Graziani reported to Rome in bureaucratic language, repeatedly using the phrase “all the prisoners were shot”. Italy’s “total war” in Ethiopia foreshadowed how the Nazi army would act; far from being a docile follower of Hitler, Mussolini was ahead of him.
Campbell points to the parallels between the historical crusades and the massacres, but there are closer comparisons. The fires, the pleasure of violence, the extreme destruction are reminiscent of the methods used by the squads that brought fascism to power in Italy even in 1921-22. In Ethiopia, these squads were given carte blanche against an “uncivilized” and “heretical” external enemy, and they carried out their task with fearsome spirit and efficiency. The violence and destruction seem to have pleased some of the perpetrators – many of them took pictures showing their victims with their heads or limbs cut off.
Despite this savage repression, resistance to the Italians continues. In fact, the strategy of massacres backfired, pushing the Church of Ethiopia (what was left of it) to play a much more active role against the Italian occupiers. This, in turn, led to a policy reversal by the Italians, who attempted to incorporate Ethiopian clergy into the occupation regime. But the damage was done. “Catholicism, now clearly identified with the enemy, had become as unpopular there as it had been after the religious wars of the early seventeenth century,” writes Campbell. “For the Roman Church, the great crusade had been a disaster.
In 1941, Italians were expelled from Ethiopia after a humiliating military defeat. Haile Selassie, who had lived in exile in Bath since leaving the country in 1936, returns and in his first speeches remembers the “young men, women, priests and monks whom the Italians ruthlessly massacred”. Ethiopia made several attempts in the 1940s to indict Italians through the UN War Crimes Commission, not only for these massacres, but also for the use of poison gas and the bombing of hospitals during the initial invasion, as well as for the “total destruction of Abyssinia”. chiefs and notables,” as Graziani put it in a telegram to another army officer. But their efforts have been thwarted by geopolitical considerations. Britain played a leading role in this: Ethiopia wanted Pietro Badoglio, Graziani’s predecessor as Viceroy of East Africa and Prime Minister of Italy between 1943 and 1944 , be tried, but after the war Britain saw him as a valuable counterweight to Italian Communism.
Campbell’s account of the Debre Libanos massacre is the centerpiece of more than twenty years of work. He visited many massacre and burial sites over decades, spoke to the last surviving witnesses and examined Italian archives. He argues that the systematic destruction of the Ethiopian Church was part of a holy war launched by the Catholic Church in alliance with the fascists. Sometimes this interpretation is taken too far. Church support for fascism – especially after the Lateran Pacts of 1929, which ended the historic split between the Catholic Church and the Italian state – is sometimes seen as full support for the actions of the Italy in Ethiopia. Certainly, some Catholics and members of the clergy favored the massacre as part of a so-called “civilizing mission”. But this was not true of the whole Church; Pope Pius XI seems to have hesitated to give his support.
Graziani still has a reputation in Italy, and even abroad, as a heroic soldier, seen apart from the regime he so faithfully served. He is not often remembered as a war criminal. There is even a mausoleum and a memorial park in his native village of Affile, south of Rome, opened only ten years ago and built with the help of public funds. Somehow, the idea of Italy as a nation of Captain Corellis, mandolin-wielding, reluctant invaders, still survives.
One of the most fascinating episodes in the book concerns the looting of artifacts and relics from Ethiopia (the Italians also stole money for their own bank accounts). When Graziani returned to Italy in 1938, he took with him 79 cases of stolen equipment. Campbell describes some photographs from an exhibit at Rome’s Museo Coloniale in 1939 in which a number of what look like Ethiopian crowns can be seen in a display case. They were almost certainly nabbed at Debre Libanos, which, as one of the holiest places in the Ethiopian Church, housed a number of treasures. But this is another photograph that really raises questions. This one depicts two famous Italian supporters next to what appear to be the same crowns, still with their museum tags attached.
As Mussolini and Graziani fled north following the liberation of Italy in 1945, they took with them as much money and as much treasure as they could carry. When Mussolini was captured by Italian partisans disguised as German soldiers in April 1945, near a place called Dongo on Lake Como, he had money and other possessions with him, which became known as the Golden name of Dongo. Mussolini was shot the next day, probably by Communist supporter Walter Audisio, who is one of the men standing in front of the wreaths. But what happened to the Gold of Dongo? Nobody knows. Where are those crowns now?
In defeat Graziani was much smarter than Mussolini. He made sure to surrender to the Allies, rather than be captured by the Partisans. This means that he survived, and although he was sentenced to nineteen years for collaborating with the Nazis, he only served a few months in prison (there was no equivalent to the trials of Nuremberg for the Italian Fascists). After his release, he became an active member of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano and wrote a bestselling memoir in which he claimed he had simply “defended the fatherland”. To many, he remained a war hero, his image encapsulated in the much-reproduced photo of him in uniform, hair swept back, jaw protruding, sleeves rolled up. At his funeral in 1955, there was an open spectacle of fascism on the streets of Rome for the first time in years, with mourners raising their arms in fascist salute. Nobody mentioned Debre Libanos.