In May 1937, troops under Italian command moved into the remote area around the monastery of Debre Libanos 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 the 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 that became known by the date on which it began, Yekatit 12. People were burned alive in their homes or beaten to death in the streets. Others were placed in detention camps, where conditions were appalling, and tortured or executed. But this wasn’t enough for Graziani. He claimed that his attempted assassination had been planned by the Ethiopian Church and, as he recovered in hospital, began to plan the destruction of its most important centre, the monastery at Debre Libanos, founded in the 13th century. The pretext for the attack was that the two men who had tried to kill Graziani in Addis had supposedly passed through the lands surrounding the monastery as they made their escape (Debre Libanos is sixty miles or so 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 made up of Eritreans, Libyans and Somalis. It is an uncomfortable truth for those on the far right who look up to Mussolini, while also promoting Islamophobia, that the Italian army enabled a form of jihad against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Pilgrims gathered at the monastery every year to celebrate the feast day of its founder, St Tekle Haymanot, on 20 May. Maletti began to round up people as they arrived at the site. On 19 May, Graziani ordered the summary execution of ‘all monks without distinction’. ‘Please assure me this has been done,’ he went on, ‘informing me of the number of them.’ Orders were also given to burn the buildings and bodies. The massacre is described by Ian Campbell in Holy War, in horrific detail. In order to hide the extent of the killing, most of the victims were taken from the monastery in trucks. They were shot, mainly 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 all were unarmed. Campbell estimates that between 1200 and 1600 ‘pilgrims and clergy’ were killed that day. He shows that what happened at 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 were attacked; churches were burned down and sacked. Graziani reported back to Rome in bureaucratic language, repeatedly using the phrase ‘all prisoners have been shot.’ Italy’s ‘total war’ in Ethiopia prefigured the way the Nazi army would act; far from being a meek follower of Hitler, Mussolini was ahead of him.
Campbell underlines the parallels between historic crusades and the massacres, but there are closer comparisons. The burnings, the pleasure in violence, the extremity of the destruction are reminiscent of the methods used by the squads who brought fascism to power in Italy itself in 1921-22. In Ethiopia, these squads were given free rein against an ‘uncivilised’ and ‘heretical’ external enemy, and they went about their task with gusto and frightening efficiency. The violence and destruction seems to have brought pleasure to some of the perpetrators – many of them took photographs showing their victims with severed heads or limbs.
Despite this savage repression, resistance to the Italians continued. In fact, the strategy of massacres backfired, pushing the Church in Ethiopia (what remained of it) into a much more active role against the Italian occupiers. This, in turn, led to a policy reversal by the Italians, who tried to incorporate the Ethiopian clergy into the occupying regime. But the damage had been done. ‘Catholicism, now clearly identified with the enemy, had become as unpopular there as it had been after the religious wars of the early 17th century,’ Campbell writes. ‘For the Roman Church, the great crusade had been a disaster.’
In 1941, the Italians were kicked out of Ethiopia after a humiliating military defeat. Haile Selassie, who had lived in exile in Bath since leaving the country in 1936, returned and in his first speeches remembered the ‘young men, the women, the priests and monks whom the Italians pitilessly massacred’. Ethiopia tried several times in the 1940s to have named Italians charged through the UN War Crimes Commission, not just for these massacres but for the use of poison gas and the bombing of hospitals during the initial invasion, as well as the ‘total destruction of Abyssinian chiefs and notables’, as Graziani put it in a telegram to another army officer. But their efforts were thwarted by geopolitical considerations. Britain played a leading role in this: Ethiopia wanted Pietro Badoglio, Graziani’s predecessor as viceroy of East Africa and the prime minister of Italy between 1943 and 1944, to be tried, but after the war Britain considered him a valuable counterweight to Italian communism.
Campbell’s account of the massacre of Debre Libanos is the centrepiece of more than twenty years of work. He has travelled to many of the massacre and burial sites over a period of decades, talked to the last surviving witnesses and examined the 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. At times, this interpretation is pushed too far. The Church’s support of fascism – especially after the Lateran Pacts of 1929, which ended the historic split between the Catholic Church and the the Italian state – is sometimes seen as amounting to complete backing for Italy’s actions in Ethiopia. Certainly, some Catholics and clergy were in favour of the slaughter as part of a so-called ‘civilising mission’. But this wasn’t true of the whole Church; the pope, Pius XI, seems to have been reluctant to lend his support.
Graziani still has a reputation in Italy, and even abroad, as a heroic soldier, seen separately from the regime he served so faithfully. He is not often remembered as a war criminal. There is even a mausoleum and 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-carrying, reluctant invaders, still survives.
One of the most fascinating episodes in the book concerns the looting of artefacts and relics from Ethiopia (the Italians also purloined cash for their own bank accounts). When Graziani returned to Italy in 1938 he took 79 crates of stolen material with him. Campbell describes some photographs of an exhibition at the Museo Coloniale in Rome in 1939 in which a number of what look like Ethiopian crowns can be seen in a glass case. They were almost certainly pinched from Debre Libanos, which, as one of the holiest places in the Ethiopian Church, housed a number of treasures. But it is another photograph that really raises questions. This one depicts two famous Italian partisans next to what appear to be the same crowns, still with their museum labels attached.
As Mussolini and Graziani fled north in the wake of the liberation of Italy in 1945, they took as much money and as many treasures with them 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 Gold of Dongo. Mussolini was shot the next day, probably by the communist partisan Walter Audisio, who is one of the men standing in front of the crowns. 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 he surrendered to the Allies, rather than being captured by the partisans. This meant he survived, and despite being sentenced to nineteen years for collaborating with the Nazis he only served a few months in prison (there was no equivalent of the Nuremberg trials for 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 merely been ‘defending the fatherland’. For many, he remained a war hero, his image encapsulated in the much reproduced photo of him in uniform, hair swept back, jaw jutting, sleeves rolled up. At his funeral in 1955 there was an open show of fascism on the streets of Rome for the first time in years, with mourners raising their arms in the fascist salute. Nobody mentioned Debre Libanos.