War Crimes and Historical Awareness: The Italian Case

By Elena Colonna

Amba Aradam Street can be found in the city center of Rome, not too far from the Colosseum. While for the majority of people it might sound like a funny and exotic name, the ones that attempt a quick research will see that the name “recalls the victory of Italians over Ethiopian forces”, as guidebooks of the city briefly state. However, it is not at all known that behind this name hides a massacre, sulphur mustard gas bombs, and war crimes that for decades have been disregarded and forgotten. As an Italian myself, I have been unaware of this chapter of my country’s history for a long time, a chapter of which we cannot take pride in for. As I become more aware of the persistent refractoriness in Italian public opinion to confront itself with the Fascist wars, the experience of colonialism and war crimes committed by Italians, I realized the importance that media and education play in the construction of historical consciousness and in the perception of war crimes.

The name of the Roman street refers to a battle which happened in the context of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. This was a colonial conflict which started in October 1935, when the Fascist Italian State invaded the Ethiopian Empire, and was concluded by May 1936, when Ethiopia was conquered and annexed to the Italian colonial possession known as Italian East Africa. It was especially since December 1935, however, when the general Pietro Badoglio was put in charge of the campaign, that the use of sulphur mustard bombs- authorized by Mussolini himself- became systematic. Chemical weapons were not only used on the battlefield, but civilians were also targeted by the Italian forces in an attempt to terrorize the population. Furthermore, the Italians carried out gas attacks on Red Cross camps and ambulances. In total, the Italians deployed between 300 and 500 tons of mustard gas during the war, despite having signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, a treaty prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflicts. The use of chemical weapons played an important role in shifting the fighting in favor of the Italians and in demoralizing the Ethiopian forces, resulting in many long-lasting injuries and a significant number of deaths. Amba Aradam is precisely the name of one of these battles, which took place on the 15th of February 1936, in which the Italian forces violated international law and massacred the Ethiopian population.

Not only did the former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie repeatedly reported the use of chemical weapons to the League of Nations, as a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, but also foreign observers and the International Red Cross denounced war crimes perpetrated by the Italians. However, the Italian public has been completely unaware of these crimes for decades: in fact it was only in 1965 that the historian Angelo Del Boca published the first book on the use of chemical weapons by the Italians. His studies, that were supported by research and evidence, faced nevertheless harsh opposition and fierce negationism by other Italian journalists. For decades, this lacuna in the historical memory of the Italians characterized the narrative of Italian colonialism and of the Fascist wars, creating a long-lasting and widespread collective consciousness of a good and humanitarian Italian colonialism, different from other countries’ brutal and exploitative colonialism. This narrative, which deeply marked the historical identity of the country and the national self-image, did not shatter even against crushing proofs of the use of poison gas, finally admitted by the Italian Ministry of Defence in February 1996.

This idea of the “Italians as good people” over the years would become an authentic identifying myth, making the country and the Italian people impermeable to a sincere examination of their actions regarding the whole Italian colonial experience as well as other foreign interventions. The lack of public awareness does not involve only the use of chemical weapons, as other war crimes and violations of international law occurred during the occupation of Ethiopia. An example of the many brutal and unknown acts carried out by the Italian colonial forces is the massacre of Debre Libanos. This event happened after a failed attempt to assassinate the Italian viceroy in Ethiopia in February 1937 led to the murder of an estimated 30.000 Ethiopians by the Italian forces in retaliation. As part of it, between the 21 and the 29 of May 1937, an estimated 1500 to 3000 innocent Ethiopian monks were killed in the monastery of Debre Libanos. This event has almost been completely removed from the collective Italian memory as its account is limited to mainly academic and specialistic reports, contributing to the lack of public awareness and the disregarding of responsibilities regarding war crimes carried out by the Italians.

Not only has the Italian government of the postwar period failed to recognize and admit its high amount of war crimes, it also failed to condemn the Fascist war criminals who carried out these acts, or to provide any sort of reparation to Ethiopia. In fact, in the list of war criminals of the UN War Crimes Commission, 1200 Italians were reported as responsible for massacres in Ethiopia, as well as in Libya and Slovenia. However, none of these Italians responsible for genocide and war crimes have been condemned: the Fascist general Badoglio himself, responsible for the war crimes of Amba Aradam as well as an abundance of other crimes, never faced any trial. The lack of a significant trial and the failure to bring justice to those affected by these war crimes lead to the development of an image that hinged off of the misleading portrait of the “Italians as good people”, a myth fiercely defended by popular culture. It is from this myth and unwillingness to reflect on and discuss crimes committed by Italian forces that allow for places and street names of all Italian cities to still carry the legacy of unknown war crimes: Amba Aradam Street is nothing more than the testimony of persistent historical negationism.

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