Italian Occupation (1933 – 1941)

Posted: May 28, 2016 in Ethiopia - the Secret of Africa
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Ethiopia was still the only state in Africa not to have been colonised. However, the country’s position – between the two Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia – made it a very interesting country to ‘have’. From 1933, under the expansionist regime of Mussolini, more and more Italian agents spread across the country to bribe local chiefs and to stir up ethnic tensions. Britain and France saw this, but did not take action and turned a blind eye.

In 1934 there was a small incident that gave Italy its pretext to invade Ethiopia. An overwhelming Italian army attacked the country. It was a dirty war: not only military targets were attacked, but also civilian targets and hospitals and large quantities of the internationally forbidden mustard gas were used. Ethiopian resistance was stiff – there were impressive counter offensives, but they were not strong enough to hold the Italians back. Supposedly 4350 Italians were killed – against 275.000 Ethiopians who lost their lives. Only in 1996 did the Italian Ministry of Defence admit the use of mustard gas in this war.
The League of Nations was obliged to issue sanctions against Italy, which happened, but the sanctions were very weak and hardly effective.

Emperor Haile Selassie fled Ethiopia to both escape from the invader, as well as to present the case of Ethiopia to the world. On June 30 1936, he made his famous speech to the League of Nations in Geneva, to which the League responded by organising serious sanctions against Italy.

Ethiopia was merged with Eritrea and Somalia and the three countries were called Italian East Africa. During this time, one of the Aksum stele was taken away and brought to Rome – its return is still under discussion.
Ethiopia kept up a strong resistance, but Mussolini’s response to this was brutal. All rebels were ordered to be shot and insurgencies were put down using heavy bombing, poison gas and machine gunning from the air. In 1937, there was an attempt to assassinate the much-hated Italian vice-roy Graziani. A three-day massacre followed in Addis Ababa: thousands of Ethiopians were shot or beheaded.
Resistance kept on growing and the Italians, though in control of the major towns, never succeeded in conquering the whole country.

In 1939, the Second World War started and Italy declared war against Britain. The British, from Kenya, Sudan and British Somaliland, launched a number of attacks on Italian strongholds to try to liberate Ethiopia. One of the buildings within the Gondar Castle enclosure, used as a military headquarter by the Italians, was actually bombed by the British. The Ethiopian patriots played a major role in the campaign for liberation. On 5 May 1941, the emperor came back to Ethiopia and the Italian occupation was over.


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