The Unfinished History of the Aksum Obelisk Return Struggle. 1
The Background of Post-Fascist Italy

By Dr. Richard Pankhurst

The struggle for the return to Ethiopia of the Aksum obelisk, looted by the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1937, is at long last apparently reaching a successful, and auspicious, conclusion. The time has therefore perhaps come for some of those involved in that struggle to publish views, and reminiscences, on the matter.

The Fascist Legacy

It was apparent to any serious observer of Post World War II Europe that Italy at the end of the war was still deeply influenced by its Fascist past. Despite the growth of the Italian Communist party, perhaps the strongest in the world, many Italians could not free themselves from their country's Fascist legacy. The Communists were more successful, but were no less principled in matters colonial, for they were quite prepared to give support to Italy's return to Africa if it would win votes.

War Crimes

Many Italians, "educated" by 20 years of Fascism, with a rigidly controlled press, failed to understand that Fascist Italy's invasion of Ethiopia was not a "Civilising Mission". They did not realise that Fascists had been guilty of war crimes. Italy's failure to understand this was in no small part the fault of the victorious Allies, who promoted the retention in power of Mussolini's immediate successor, Marshal Pietro Badoglio. As the Italian commander at the time of the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-6 had been responsible for the extensive use of poison-gas but, after Mussolin's fall, received the support of the British and Americans, who, preoccupied with the Cold War, were supremely uninterested in promoting historical justice in relation to Ethiopia. The British in particular consistently opposed any attempt to try Italians for war crimes committed during the invasion of Ethiopia, insisting that it was "another war". Nay, they went further. There was the occasion, little-known, but fully documented in the British Foreign Office archives, when the British Embassy in Rome actually gave Badoglio asylum to prevent him being apprehended by the post-war Italian authorities.

Thus was it that though the Allies instigated show trials for German and Japanese war criminals, not one Italian was ever tried for a crime in Ethiopia (though there can be no denying that many such crimes occurred). Italy, unlike Germany and Japan, was in this way denied the political education afforded by war crimes trials. Many Italians, denied access to the truth during Fascism, were left ignorant of the fact that their compatriots had been guilty of any atrocities.

Poison Gas

The post-war Italian Government, like its Fascist predecessor, furthermore consistently refused to admit that the Royal Italian Air Force had ever used poison-gas in Ethiopia. It was indeed not until 1995, almost exactly sixty years after the event, that the Italian Ministry of Defence finally admitted that gas had been used: on this see Angelo Del Boca's recent important study, I gas di Mussolini. Il fascismo e la guerra d'Etiopia.


Another consequence of Italy's failure fully to break with its Fascist past can be seen in the question of the ex-Italian colonies: Eritrea, Somalia and Libya. The post-World War British and French Governments, under pressure from unquenchable nation-liberation movements, were coming, albeit grudgingly, to recognise the inevitability of the end of colonialism. The Post-War Italian Government, by contrast, adopted a colonially grasping attitude, reminiscent of the Scramble for Africa, and struggled actively to regain the former Italian colonies. Italy was thus significantly out-of-step with much of colonial Europe. The British Premier Harold Macmillan, referring to decolonisation in Africa, coined the famous term "Winds of Change". His Italian contemporary, Count Sforza, was quoted as declaring, very differently, "Gentlemen of Europe, you have lost Asia by your stupidity; see that you do not lose Africa also!"

The Fascist Residue

Symptomatic of Italian continuity, in relation to Ethiopia and the ex-colonies, was the case of Enrico Cerulli, the leading Italian expert on Ethiopia (and unquestionably a scholar of distinction). In the immediate aftermath of the Wal Wal incident of 1934, which Mussolini had used as a pretext for the invasion of Ethiopia, Cerulli served as adviser to the Fascist delegation to the League of Nations. The delegation's objective was to gain time for Mussolini to build up his invasion forces unhampered by League action.. Cerulli later served as Vice Governor of Italian East Africa under Mussolini. Later again he served as adviser to the post-Fascist Italian Government, during its attempt, at the Paris Peace Conference of 1946, to regain Italy's former colonies. It was no less symptomatic that the Italian delegation to that conference had the effrontery to distribute a fascist publication entitled La civilisation fascist en Afrique Orientale Italienne, a highly partisan work, describing Italian construction and other activity in Ethiopia, which had been published by Mussolini's Government in 1943, the twenty-first year of the Fascist Era, as the title page stated.

The Italian Peace Treaty

Given the strength of the Fascist legacy, post-war Italian Governments, almost inevitably, displayed little good faith, in relation to either Ethiopia or the former Italian colonies.

By the Peace Treaty, of 1947, Italy was obliged to renounce its African colonies. However, on the day after signing the agreement, the Italian Government gave orders to despatch delegations all over the world, in a diplomatic drive to regain the very colonies over which it had renounced claim.

The Treaty likewise made provision for the trial of Italians charged with war crimes in Ethiopia. When, however, in the absence of diplomatic relations between Italy and Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Minister in London, Ato Abebe Retta, attempted to deliver a note on the matter to the Italian Embassy in London, on 6 September 1949, the Italian Ambassador refused to accept it. This the Ambassador, according to "The Times", had the right in international law to do, but was scarcely in keeping with the spirit of the Peace Treaty.

It was, and, as far as I know, still is, symptomatic that the film of the Libyan patriot Omar al-Muktar, murdered on orders from the Italian colonial commander Graziani, has never been shown in Italian cinemas.Lutz Becker's notable documentary film "Lion of Judah", depicting the Ethiopian war (and available at the British Council in Addis Ababa) has likewise been denied the exposure in Italy which it deserves.

The Missing Crowns, the Lion of Judah statue, and the Aksum Obelisk

The Italian Government's lack of good faith was no less apparent in the question of loot. The Peace Treaty specified, in Article 37, that Italy, within 18 months, should return to Ethiopia all loot taken after 3 October 1935, i.e. the date of the fascist invasion. The post-war Italian Government was, here too, scarcely distinguished for its cooperation. There was, on the contrary, much prevarication. Mussolini, when captured by Italian Partisans at Dongo, near the Swiss frontier, in April 1944, had been in possession of four Ethiopian gold crowns. These were duly photographed, but then mysteriously disappeared. Confronted by this loss of what should have been some of the most valuable items of loot due for return under Article 37, a Government wishing to display honorable intent would surely have hastened, as fast as possible, to return the remainder of the loot. Instead of this, the Italian Government, if we can believe the testimony of Ato Emanuel Abraham, Ethiopian Ambassador in Rome from 1952 to 1955, was almost insultingly uncooperative. In his recent autobiography, "Reminiscences of My Life", he recalls how officials of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told him that the statue of the Lion of Judah, looted from Ethiopia, and then in Rome, could not be found. This caused him to reply that of course the Italian Government could not find it if they did not look for it.

As for the Aksum Obelisk, Ato Emanuel also recalls, in vivid detail, how the Italian Government persistently tried to evade his requests for its return. When he raised the matter with Mendola, the Director-General of the Ministry, the latter "stared at the floor for about one minute but could not bring himself to utter one word". Another Foreign Affairs official suggested that the obelisk should be retained in Rome, with a small notice to say that it was a "Gift from the Ethiopian People".

The question of the obelisk could not, however, be dismissed so easily. A dramatic, and entirely unexpected, manoeuvre was, as we shall see next week, soon to take place!