Most folks know of fascist Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia in the 1930’s. The conquering of Abyssinia was greeted in Rome with wild celebration culminating in Il Duce’s famous balcony speech from the Palazzo Venezia – “I have given you empire!”.
It was wildly celebrated because the war against Ethiopia was the second conflict between Italy and Abyssinia.
The First Italo-Abyssinia war occurred in 1895 – 1896 when Italy as we know it today was only 35 years old. Italy, the least of the “great powers” was seeking her “place in the sun”.
The Italy of the late nineteenth century was barely a “nation”. The northern cities of Turin and Milan cultivated the intellectual elite while south of Rome, Italy was a country of peasants and land owners. The intellectuals didn’t even speak the same language as the peasants. Millions of the destitute were illiterate. Malaria and cholera regularly swept Sicily, Calabria and Apulia.
The peasants had no faith in government and no feeling that they were “Italian”. Soon they would begin to emigrate by the millions.
The nationalist intellectuals raged. “These people are unfit to call themselves Italian!” “Rome is a city of waiters and prostitutes!” relying on German and English tourists who treated them with disdain. Venice which relied on tourists “is a tomb that should be fired on; shelled into the sea!”.
By every measure Italy was not a “great power;” it had only pretensions. Her production of steel and heavy industry was minuscule; her people mostly uneducated; her fighting ability derided.
Among the well to do bourgeois classes a fervent nationalism had developed. Italy must be made a “nation” to be reckoned with – and the way to do that was war. Along with this thinking came a racism – Slovenes and Croats were “yokels” needing a firm hand. The eastern shore of the Adriatic, especially the city of Fiume was “unredeemed Italy”. War would unite Italians, spur heavy industry and bring discipline to a chaotic nation. A new Italy would be forged in war as it had forged Germany.
Italy had a colony in Eritrea and used it as a base to pick a fight with Menelik II, ruler of the Shewa tribe and Emperor of Ethiopia.
In December 1894, Bahta Hagos, a local chieftain and underling of Ras Mengesha Iohannes led a rebellion against the Italians. Units of General Oreste Baratieri’s army crushed the rebellion and killed Bahta. The Italian army then occupied the Tigrian capital, Adowa, across the border from Eritrea. The Italians suspected that Mengesha would invade Eritrea, and met him in battle in January 1895. The victorious Italians chased a retreating Mengesha, capturing weapons and important documents, which they said, proved the complicity of Menelik. The victory in this campaign, along with previous victories against the Sudanese Mahdists, led the Italians to underestimate the difficulties of a campaign against Menelik
The next clash came in December 1895, when Ethiopian soldiers overran Italian positions and forced a retreat back to Eritrea. The Italian troops reached the unfinished Italian fort at Meqele.
Emperor Menelik besieged the Italians for 15 days trying in vain to storm the fort on several occasions, until the Italians surrendered with permission from the Italian Headquarters. Menelik allowed them to leave Meqele with their weapons, and even provided the defeated Italians mules and pack animals to rejoin their units. While some historians read this generous act as a sign that Emperor Menelik still hoped for a peaceful resolution to the war, it has been pointed out that this escort allowed him a tactical advantage: Menelik craftily managed to establish himself near Adowa where the mountain passes were not guarded by Italian fortifications.
Heavily outnumbered, Baratieri refused to engage, knowing that due to their lack of infrastructure the Ethiopians could not keep large numbers of troops in the field much longer. However, the Italian government of Francesco Crispi was unable to accept being stymied by non-Europeans. The prime minister specifically ordered Baratieri to bring about a battle.
The result was the Battle of Adowa on March 1, 1896. The Italian army comprised four brigades totaling approximately 17,700 men, with fifty-six artillery pieces; the Ethiopian army comprised several brigades totaling approximately 120,000 men of which only 80-100,000 had firearms.
The Italians planned to surprise the larger Ethiopian force with an early morning attack expecting that the enemy would be asleep. However, the Ethiopians had risen early for Church services, The Emperor was dressed in the white robe of an ordinary soldier, his Queen, Taytu beside him on the battlefield Upon learning of the Italian advance, the “great host of Ethiopia” swept forth to meet it, and crushed the Italians. In the battle that ensued, wave upon wave of Menelik’s warriors attacked the Italians.
The Italians suffered about 7,000 killed and 1,500 wounded in the battle and subsequent retreat back into Eritrea, with 3,000 taken prisoner; Ethiopian losses have been estimated around 4,000–5,000 killed and 8,000 wounded. In addition, 2,000 Eritrean askaris (locals who fought with the Italians) were killed or captured. Italian prisoners were treated as well as possible under difficult circumstances, but 800 captured askaris, regarded as traitors by the Ethiopians, had their right hands and left feet amputated.
The crushing defeat at Adowa at the hands of an African army exposed Italy for what it was – and became the event never forgotten by the nationalists. They had their work cut out for them.
In the run up to World War I the socialists had become a force to be reckoned with – the outbreak of war would split the socialist camp. The party would not support entry into the war and would not “subvert the war effort”. “Why fight a war for Princes? What’s in it for the peasants and workers?” Thousands however became interventionists, including Benito Mussolini. The socialists, in the eyes of the nationalists, became the “other” – not fully “Italian”.
The interventionists won the day and Italy entered the war on the side of the allies. Millions of peasants were conscripted, 40% illiterate, and sent to the trenches against Austria-Hungary in the Alps.
In 1916 came Caporetto. German and Austrian armies, using poison gas, routed the Italians and came within 30 miles of Venice before they were stopped. The nationalists sang the praises of those who halted the advance – “Italy will be forged In battle!” – while attacking the socialists for standing on the sidelines. More socialists began to waver and support the war.
By 1917 – 1918 Italian industry was transformed by Agnelli at FIAT and the Jewish industrialist Olivetti. Italy had suffered 900,000 dead and wounded in the “side show” theater of the war but was on the victorious side. Italy wanted parts of Slovenia, Croatia and most importantly the port city of Fiume.
At Versailles, Italy got nothing. Woodrow Wilson’s “self-determination” carried the day for “Yugoslavia”. Prime Minister Orlando went home.
Meanwhile millions of peasant soldiers were being discharged with no jobs and little hope for the future. They came home to the same old Italy of patronage, land owners, intellectuals. Their war at the front was over – but they carried it home with them and with the same tactics.
By 1920 squads of ex-soldiers (squadristi) began attacking socialists and their organizations led by Mussolini and others – the poet D’Annunzio, Italo Balbo, Roberto Farinacci – all who began calling themselves “fascists”. Supported by the industrialists, land owners and bourgeois, they regarded themselves as defending Italy from Bolshevism.
Mussolini would “march on Rome” and with the approval of the King take power. Parliament was dissolved. “Everything in the State! Nothing outside the State! No one opposed to the State!”.
He would have the socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti murdered in the streets.
And to the cheers of millions of Italians everywhere he would avenge the humiliating defeat at Adowa with the conquest of Abyssinia. And local fascist strongmen like Farinacci would begin referring to themselves with a new title – “Ras”.
Less than a decade after Adowa my grandparents along with their first three children, realizing there was no future for them, sailed away from Italy for good.