Updated: March 21, 2017
Italy, at the dawn of the 20th century, was Europe’s poor man. Rome looked with bitterness at its European neighbours. They had vast colonial possessions abroad. Italy, recently unified, was an upstart. Its greatness lay behind it. An intense desire to reclaim what was lost ignited the imaginations of Italy’s most revered luminaries.
Gabrielle D’Annunzio, Italy’s greatest poet and dramatist, exhorted his compatriots to restore their nation’s illustrious past through territorial conquest. His play The Ship mixed sex and violence with an hypnotic message of empire and glory. Its premiere in 1908 culminated with crowds spilling out into the streets chanting the most memorable dialogue from the performance: “Fit out the prow and set sail for the world.”
In 1911, on the 50th anniversary of the country’s founding, Italy proceeded to conquer Libya. Italy’s brutality stands out even in what became the most brutal century in human history. Italian forces in Tripoli, in the words of one observer, went “mad with the lust for blood.
All the Arabs they met, men, women and children, even babes at the breast – were shot down without trial.” About 4,000 Arabs, it is estimated, were butchered by Italians in Libya over three days in October 1911.
The zealous rush to restore Italy’s lost greatness through conquest not only predated fascism by a decade but fascism, it might be argued, grew in part from the bruised national ego that prompted Italians to impose themselves on defenceless people in faraway lands.
“Remember,” the Italian military commander Rodolfo Graziani told his forces as they “pacified” Libya by rounding up Arabs into concentration camps, “you are Italians, Romans, and remember that your forebears were once in this country”.
Italy, in its self-conception, had not only been destitute by virtue of not having an empire. It had also to confront the humiliating fact that it had been routed by an African power when it set out to build an empire in the 19th century. Italy’s military defeat in 1896 to Ethiopia was a special wound in the long list of grievances that underpinned its renewed search for grandeur on the world’s stage. This time, it made extensive preparations before advancing on Ethiopia.
It built a chemical weapons factory on 30 acres of land near Mogadishu in Somalia. The quantities of lethal gases produced at that facility were so large that no fewer than 17 warehouses had to be propped up to store them. The Italians stockpiled 35,000 gas masks for their own safety.
Ethiopians stood no chance as the Italians showed up in 1935. They were gassed on the ground and strafed from the skies. Ethiopia was overwhelmed. Bruno Mussolini, son of the Duce, wrote newspaper articles about clusters of Ethiopians “bursting open like a rose” when bombed from above. He admitted to finding this spectacle “most amusing”.
Despite its savagery, Italy regarded itself as an agent of civilisation in Africa. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians were exterminated, the journalist George Steer wrote bitterly, so “that civilisation should prevail”.
Pope Pius XI congratulated Italians on a “beautiful victory by a great and good people”. The defeat of 1896 was avenged and Italy now had an empire.
Much of this history forms the background to The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy’s National Shame, Ian Campbell’s blow-by-blow account of the killings supervised and undertaken by Italian forces in the Ethiopian capital in 1937.
Empire, Campbell shows in this masterly history, did not temper the bloodlust of Italians. Ethiopia’s invasion, for all its horrors, had been swift. Its occupation was a protracted calvary. Ethiopian prisoners were frequently used for target practice, shot first in the testicles and then in the chest. Graziani, installed as fascist Italy’s viceroy in Addis Ababa, was under strict instructions from the Duce to execute all prisoners.