Memorials, the butcher of Ethiopia and simmering hatred

In October 1935, Italian troops launched a massive onslaught against the forces of Abyssinia, today known as Ethiopia. The Italian fascist regime of Benito Mussolini wanted to establish an ‘African empire’, and acquire ‘great power’ status for Italy in competition with the other imperialist powers. Britain, France, Germany and other countries had already brutally conquered vasts portions of the African continent, and Mussolini was eager to ‘catch up’ with the other imperialist states in this macabre contest. Italy already occupied Italian Somaliland, and launched its invasion of Abyssinia from that territory.

The conquest of Abyssinia was noted for its savagery, with thousands of Ethiopians killed, herded into concentration camps where they died of disease and starvation. Chemical weapons were used in that conflict, drawing heavy criticism from the international community. While the Italian government tried to keep its use of poison gas a secret, groups such as the Red Cross exposed its deployment, which the Mussolini government and his generals authorised.

One of the commanders in this Second Italo-Abyssinian war was General Rudolfo Graziani. He had made a name for himself back in the 1920s, when Italian forces used brutal force to attack and suppress the resistance put up by Libyans in that north African country. The Italians were still unable to completely defeat the Libyan resistance to foreign rule since they attempted to capture that country from the Ottoman Turkish empire in 1911. Graziani was the commander of Italian forces in Libya, and he suppressed popular revolts against Italian rule with indiscriminate bombing and pacification campaigns – what today would be euphemistically called ‘counterinsurgency warfare.’ Graziani was responsible for establishing concentration and labour camps, and he eventually had the leader of the Libyan insurgency, Omar al-Mukhtar, publicly hanged. For his efforts, the Libyans came to call him the Butcher of Fezzan, after the region of Libya devastated by Graziani’s murderous campaign. Having gained experience in subjugating the rebellious populations of Cyrenaica and Tripolitana (today part of Libya), he applied his considerable skills in mass murder to the population of Ethiopia. Ordering the use of poison gas, he claimed that Mussolini would have Ethiopia, with or without the Ethiopians.

The Italian generals laid waste to entire villages, resettling Italian immigrants in the conquered territories, and dispossessing the indigenous population. In Libya and Ethiopia, Graziani used weapons of mass destruction, including the authorisation of an aerial campaign of terror. He deliberately poisoned crucial oases and water supplies, and executed thousands of civilians in a campaign of mass reprisals against the civilian populations.

After having a free hand to commit genocidal crimes in Africa, Italian forces were eventually pushed out of North Africa. Graziani returned to Italy to become the defence minister of the short-lived Republic of Salo, the rump state commanded by Mussolini in northern Italy after the Allies occupied the south of the country in 1943. The Republic of Salo’s main achievement was to act as a puppet force for the Germans, and Graziani, along with the overall German commander Albert Kesselring, used the same terror tactics against the Italian anti-fascist partisans. Forced to surrender in 1945 with the defeat of the Axis powers, Graziani was convicted of war crimes and given a 19-year sentence. He was released after only serving two years, thanks to high-level sympathisers in the post-war Italian government, and he died in 1955.

How does this history tie in with contemporary events? In August this year, a mausoleum and memorial park were opened to honour the memory of Rudolfo Graziani in a village east of Rome. As the BBC reported, the mayor of the town of Affile, Ercole Viri, declared to the gathering of 100 people that the memorial was of national importance. Viri even donated a bust of Graziani for the memorial, which is strongly reminiscent of the fascist style of architecture that dominated Italy during Mussolini’s rule. A representative of the Vatican consecrated the mausoleum, and members of the rightwing People of Freedom (PDL) party, were in attendance with appropriately somber declarations and Italian flags. The PDL is the party of the former premier of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi.

The memorial and accompanying ceremony did indeed attract heavy criticism from various political quarters and historians. A councillor in Affile criticised the memorial, underlining that Graziani was indeed a convicted war criminal and the Butcher of Ethiopia. But this ceremony raises disturbing questions about the rehabilitation of fascist war criminals, at first quite underhanded and confined to the Baltic states, but now occurring more openly in Europe. The political row over the monument, while heartening to see, underscores the need to confront the clandestine restoration of fascist war criminals, and the underlying prejudices this brings to the surface. Under Berlusconi’s premiership, right-wing forces escalated the whitewashing of fascist crimes, and promoted the cult of honouring the war criminals who committed them.

As Europe is going through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the financial aristocracy is utilising the social prejudices and national chauvinism to divert the anger of the working class onto the more vulnerable sections of the population, namely immigrants and refugees. Hate crimes and Islamophobic attacks are rising in America and Europe, dividing working class people and encouraging a political climate of surveillance and mutual suspicion. The Italian ruling class is lining up its own austerity programme, corresponding to the package of socially reactionary attacks on the working class and its living standards currently being applied to Greece, Spain, Portugal and other economically struggling capitalist economies. Deep cuts to wages, living standards, health care and education are already in place in Europe, and will be continued in Italy, all aimed at eliminating the social gains made by working people since the end of World War Two. But there is one industry that is doing well in these economically stressful times – armaments sales. The United States registered world-record armaments sales of 66.3 billion dollars in 2011, according to the Congress Research Service. The main customer of US arms was its dependable client, the royalist dictatorship of Saudi Arabia.

Not only must we remember that the Italian bourgeoisie has consistently camouflaged the crimes of the Italian fascist state, we must also remember that they have had strong enablers. After the end of World War Two, the Italian Communist Party had a massive electoral following, and was poised to win the 1948 elections through the ballot box. Powerful financial forces, namely the US ruling class and its proxies in Europe, mobilised their considerable financial resources to undermine the 1948 Italian elections, running a massive scare campaign that thwarted the democratic aspirations of the Italian people. Politicians were bought off, and the leader of the Christian Democrat Party, Alcide de Gasperi, made several trips to Washington to make sure he knew on which side his bread was buttered. After all, the Cold War was on, and Europe had to made secure for imperialist imperatives.

Those who had been second-tier officials in the fascist government were quietly coopted by the US and its servants, the CIA, into subverting a democratic election with scare-mongering, stereotypes and propagandistic images of the ‘good-old American way of life’ – that is, capitalism. The Italian ruling elite has certainly had powerful benefactors, and the 1948 elections went the way that the Americans wanted. The demands of the Italian population were irrelevant. Hollywood ‘razzmatazz’, in the words of William Blum, was activated in the service of capitalist interests.

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