War, butchering and memory: remember Graziani?

Rodolfo Graziani was a military commander in the Italian colonial wars during Benito Mussolini’s regime. He led the invasions and became governor in Libya, the Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Due to his intention of mass murdering the Abyssinian civilians and authorities, he earned the international nickname of “the butcher of Ethiopia”. Internationally, but not in Italy.

Graziani was one of the leading figures of the Italian colonialism in the 1920’s and 1930’s (the phase of conquering and developing the colonial empire). Badoglio was one of his contemporary military outstanding figures, being known for his success and fastness comparing to previous Italian commanders in Abyssinia. Later it would be discovered that Badoglio’s expedition won mainly due to the use of chemical warfare. Badoglio was named Prime Minister of Italy after the fall of Mussolini, being supported by the Allied against Germany and by the League of Nations, mainly through the British government, as a guarantee of anti-communism during the Cold War. Due to this later protection, Badoglio was never tried for war crimes in Africa, and the attempts to try Graziani for mass murdering did also fail.

Graziani is actually the name attributed to one of the bigger massacres in Ethiopia, occurred in February 1937. This marshal was also considered, alongside Mussolini, the leader in the colonial military field, and therefore responsible for the crimes committed against humanity in the colonial conquest of Ethiopia (even though the poison gas had only been used by Badoglio in the northern front of the battle, this was a part of the disingenuous collective amnesia to serve the defense of Badoglio for international purposes). Later on, Graziani was considered in the discussions of the United Nations to be a privileged example “of the whole Italian policy of systematic terrorism” (Leijonhufvud in Pankhurst, 1999: 127), considering his admitted intention to execute all Amharas and the Abyssinian chiefs and notables; the charge of mass murder was considered the most appropriate for his case. The committee would also agree to list Graziani for pillage, considering the systematic plundering of Addis Ababa, of the Dabra Libanos monastery and the deliberate bombing of Red Cross units.

This was the basis for the Ethiopian government to ask for the surrender of marshals Badoglio and Graziani, so that they could be tried and judged, but these attempts have been continuously dissuaded. Graziani was not a priority, but Badoglio was seen as an international security, and the cautious communication on the matter has pervaded through time. In 1950, Italy tried Graziani for his collaboration with the Germans: he was considered guilty and sentenced to 19 years in prison, but was released less than a year after the imprisonment. Up to his death, in 1955, Graziani lead a neo-fascist organization.

Post-war Italy, as well as many other countries, did not want to admit having committed war crimes during the colonial decades, and other European powers preferred to maintain silence instead of assuming European crimes overseas. Only in 1996 did the Italian authorities recognize to have committed crimes in the colonial history, namely using poison gas.

It was with unpleasant surprise that the world knew about a monument in honor of Graziani. A mausoleum and a park have been built with public money supplemented with private funding by Ettore Vire, Affile’s mayor. This memorial, in the Lazio region, is opened since August 2012 and costed 127 000€, highlighting the “patriotism” and “honor” of Graziani. This building originated scandal in the international press, but not particularly in Italy.

It is also surprising that a group of 43 Ethiopians that protested in Addis Ababa against the Affile’s memorial have been jailed. Allegedly, the Ethiopian police had no notice of this demonstration, occurred in the 17th March 2013. Nonetheless, some citizens claim that the authorities knew but did not inform the denied authorization of the protest in valid time. Some voices emerge stating that the position of this Ethiopian government towards other countries (especially in the European context) is subservient, paradoxically trying to contribute to the collective change of the memory about former crimes against the Ethiopian population.

Angelo del Boca (2009) Gli italiani in Africa Orientale. II. La conquista dell’impero, Milan: Oscar Mondadori.

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