Prelude to Liberation: Ethiopia’s Patriotic Resistance Against the Italian Empire


Steven R. DesRosiers

Jacksonville University


Fedor Eugenovich Konovalov, A White Russian and former officer of the tsarist army, served as a military engineer and advisor to the Emperor Haile Selassie[1] during the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935 and 1936. He has dramatically described the final hours of Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia and its capital, Addis Ababa, in May 1935.


For three days the town was in a state of agitation and disorder. For the first time in their millennia old history, the Ethiopian people found itself without its own accustomed authorities to guide them…At noon on May 5, the town became more or less silent as it was whispered that the enemy was near; toward three in the afternoon—first barely audible, and then louder and louder, a continuous throbbing of may engines was heard. The sound increased as the head of a seemingly endless column of big Italian lorries appeared on the main road, coming from the direction of the Italian advance. The conqueror, Marshal Badoglio[2], escorted by light tanks, arrived some time later….[3]


Konovalov continued his eyewitness account by describing the posters the Italians had hung around the town announcing Ethiopia’s annexation to Italy.


Before one of these posters stood an Ethiopian, with a smattering of French translating the test to others. When he reached Mussolini’s words, “Ethiopia is Italian, “ the poor man understood the importance of these words and, turning to me, exclaimed: “Why, why does he say that Ethiopia is Italian? Is it possible? Is it not a temporary occupation?”—What could I say?[4]


The Organic Law of June 1, 1936, formally established the Africa Orientale Italiana, the Italian Empire in East Africa. This legalism arguably deprived deposed and exiled Emperor Haile Selassie of a legal foundation to appeal to the League of Nations for help.


On June 30, 1936, nonetheless, Haile Selassie in Geneva warned the League that its members would imperil the security of smaller states if they tolerated aggression against his country.


I ask the fifty-two nations, who have given the Ethiopian people a promise to help them in their resistance to the aggressor, what are they willing to do for Ethiopia? And the great Powers who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small States on whom weights the rest that they may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia, I ask what measures do you intend to take? Representatives of the World I have come to Geneva to discharge in your midst the most painful of the duties of the head of State. What reply shall I have to take back to my people?[5]


The League rejected Haile Selassie’s plea and on July 6 voted to rescind the sanctions it had imposed at the onset of the war in October of 1935. Many states formally recognized Italy’s conquest.[6] As one contemporary historian explained,


The mere paper division of the country into governates and residences helped to convince both the Italian and European public opinion the war was won, the Empire conquered, and the Italian administration almost in place.[7]


The international community had sent a clear and discouraging message that Ethiopia’s liberation would rest entirely upon Ethiopian shoulders.


Lij Haile Mariam Mammo is recognized as the first patriot in Ethiopia who acted to regain his country’s autonomy. On May 4, 1936, he ambushed a group of Italians in route to Addis Ababa.[8] His attack earned him the title of “first arbagna” [patriot of Shoa]. Mammo’s attack showed that Italy’s successful conventional war to conquer Ethiopia was transforming into a popular resistance movement to challenge Italy’s control.


Before attacking Ethiopia, perhaps Il Duce, Benito Mussolini,[9] should have read more closely one of his favorite authors, Nicolo Machiavelli. In the sixteenth century, Machiavelli had written that nations with a strong, centralized, and organized governments are difficult to defeat. However, once defeated and the old government swept away, these countries are easy to control. On the other hand, those states without a strong, centralized government may prove easier to conquer, but their complete subjugation is more difficult.[10] Machiavelli had clearly posed the problem Mussolini now faced.


Haile Selassie only managed to maintain loose control over his Rases. A Ras is both a political and a military position in that it combined the responsibilities and powers of a governor and a general in a semi-feudal-like system. Even while the emperor reigned, his control was often tenuous, and the Rases had competed with one another. The emperor’s exile merely created greater opportunities to seek greater rewards in their internecine competition. Nonetheless, the Rases, despite their quarreling, helped organize, train, and equip the “patriots”—the name now accorded to all those who resisted the Italians. These patriots came from all social classes and included men and women, priests, peasants, servants, governors, and Eritreans.[11]


Despite a long tradition that extolled a military culture, how could the patriots be effective against a modern and mechanized Italian army supported by close air support and chemical weapons? The patriots dodged Italian technology by favoring exposed targets such as transportation and communication lines. The British journalist and novelist, Evelyn Waugh described one such attack:


A train was derailed and sacked, two bridges destroyed and a station besieged for a day and half. For ten days trains could not get through.”[12]


Operating in small bands that could disperse quickly and exploiting the rainy season, the patriots avoided large open battles where mechanized forces and air power were devastating. As the patriot’s tactics minimized Italy’s technological edge, the Italians replied with increasingly dubious and cruel counter insurgency tactics. On June 5, 1936, Mussolini declared that, “all rebel prisoners must be shot.”[13] And on July 8, 1936, an increasingly frustrated Mussolini authorized Viceroy Marshal Rodolfo Graziani,[14]


To begin conducting systemically the policy of terror and extermination against the rebels and the accomplice populations. Without the law of tenfold retaliation the wound will not heal quickly enough.[15]


Undeterred, the patriots attacked the railway to Addis Ababa many times in June 1936, cutting it and telegraph lines between Akaki and Mojjo and derailing several carriages near Adda.[16]


Within Addis Ababa, Italian anxiety soared. Maria Giaconia Landi, an Italian nurse in Addis Ababa, wrote on July 17, 1936,


There is always talk of attacks on the city. They say we cannot be quiet until the rainy season ends. It is thought the Abyssinians will try to make an invasion en masse or else infiltrate one day into the market.[17]


Viceroy Marshal Graziani faced a vexing tactical situation.[18] Difficult to defend, the shapeless sprawling city was surrounded by eucalyptus forests and lay in an amphitheater at the foot of Mount Entoto at an altitude of 7,600 feet.[19] Worse, the patriots could infiltrate the capital at any point because it had no definitive entrances and exits. Graziani estimated that to defend the city his troops would have to secure a twenty-five mile perimeter. In light of this, General Italo Garibaldi, the military governor, adopted a flexible defense in depth. Around the city he ordered small forts built to overlook the major avenues of approach such as roads and paths. He dispersed the remainder of his forces in small camps throughout the city ready to repel any breech along the cordon.[20] Such arrangements sought to draw concentrated numbers of patriots into the open where the Italians could use technology effectively against them.


Early success inspired the patriots to see the capital’s recapture as feasible. Their plan required precise coordination and an unprecedented cooperation between forces. Aberra Kassa was to lead the main attack force from the north and seize the market area of Arada. The plan required Dejaz Fikremariam’s forces to infiltrate the capital from the west and occupy the Great Ghebbi. Dejaz Balcha and Zaudi Asfau were to drive their forces into the southern part of the capital. Once reaching the Bole area, they were to destroy the railroad station and airbase. The plan’s final element tasked Blatta Takele and Gurassu Duke to overrun the garrison at Ambo in the city’s southwest quadrant. The patriots established July 28, 1936 as the attack date.[21]


The battle played poorly for the Ethiopians. Aberra Kassa’s patriots marched directly into the center of the city unopposed. Once the alarm sounded, however, the Italians implemented their contingency plans and repulsed the patriots. The other prongs of the assault were equally unsuccessful. The Italians halted Fikremariam’s advance short of the Great Ghebbi. Dejaz Balcha engaged the railroad station and airbase a day late. Asfau refused to penetrate the city’s defenses because poor communications had disconnected him from the other patriot leaders. Poor communication also compelled Gurassu Duke to abort his mission.[22]


The attack plan had been too ambitious considering the patriot’s poor communications capabilities, which depended on runners and priests transporting letters in their turbans. Italy’s air supremacy had also led to the patriot’s failure. The patriot leaders had not anticipated the effectiveness of Italian air power.[23]


Chastened, the patriots continued to conduct small, limited raids into the city. The perilous position certainly made the city’s Italian inhabitants insecure, buy the patriot’s prospects for taking the city never reached the same level they had on the first day of the attack.[24] Maria Giaconia Landi reported that on August 16 approximately 11,000 patriots were poised to attack the city. On September 26 she reported that 15,000 patriots were already on the march to threaten the Addis Ababa. [25]


The patriots generally did not gather in such large forces, but usually dispersed into the surrounding forests in small scattered bands. These bands enjoyed advantages in mobility and concealment over Italian mechanized units.


The end of the rainy season in September 1936 permitted the Italians to resume a more offensive posture.[26] The war became a glorified patriot manhunt.[27] Throughout the guerilla war the Italians tried to enlist the Rases aid. Graziani encouraged particular leaders to surrender, and when they did, he often left them unharmed. He specifically looked to Ras Hailu to persuade other Rases and lesser noblemen to surrender. Ras Hailu, with some success, persuaded other nobles to submit and the Italians to treat them humanly.[28]


After much fighting, the Italians forced patriot leader Ras Imru to surrender. Although Graziani courteously welcomed Ras Imru at the airport, he immediately imprisoned him in a small house on the island of Ponza. Seven years later, ironically, Mussolini would be imprisoned in the same house. Other leaders such as Aberra Kassa were tricked into believing that their lives were not in jeopardy. The Italians took him to see the General Tracchia and later that evening executed him.[29]


In order to raise morale, Haile Selassie dispatched false letters to patriot leaders. One such letter stated that Haile Selassie’s second son was engaged to a British Princess. Another promised British intervention.[30] Such promises spurred the patriots on.


Despite the patriots’ ability to interrupt Italian operations, in the field the Italian technology dominated. The Italians effectively used aircraft and freely dropped yperite canisters on the patriots. Yperite is a form of mustard gas, a blister agent, which was first used in France during World War I. General Guglielmo Nasi would order deliberate pauses in his attacks to encourage the patriots to regroup into compact bodies.[31] General Nasi’s tactics efficiently used the artillery, gas, and air power at his disposal.


A crucial milestone in the war was the attempt on Graziani’s life by two Eritreans, Abraha Deboch and Mogus Asgedom, on February 19, 1937. Graziani had ordered Ethiopians to come to the ceremony to receive alms—a hypocrisy which had incensed the Eritreans.[32] During the ceremony, they hurled as many as ten hand grenades at the Viceroy. One exploded near him, injuring his right leg. He was taken to the hospital to remove 365 shrapnel fragments. The Commander of the Air Force, General First Liotta, had to have his leg amputated.[33] In all, the attack killed one and wounded thirty. Konovalov described what happened next:


Believing that this was the signal for a general insurrection, the Italians began to shoot in every direction and this attempt led to the massacre of many hundreds of people, most innocent, and to the arrest of everybody who happened to be out to their house at that time.[34]


For the next three days the Italian militia, the Black Shirts, horrifically massacred Ethiopians. The total number killed is disputed. The Italians admitted to only a few hundred.[35] According to the Manchester Guardian, on the other hand, the French minister in Addis Ababa had reported that 6,000 Ethiopians had been murdered in three days and that the British Consulate knew the names of over 2,000 killed.[36] One historian has estimated that between 6,000 and 9,000 Ethiopian civilians were slaughtered.[37]


The assassination had scared Graziani causing him to lash out at any threat. The Viceroy had already earned a reputation as remorseless butcher in putting down the Sanusi revolt led by Omar al-Muktar in Libya a few years before. Graziani now directed his men to eradicate the all Ethiopian nobles regardless of age.”[38] A favorite tactic, as many have testified, was to set ablaze Ethiopian homes while the occupants were imprisoned inside. A Hungarian, Dr. Ladislav Sava, has recalled that “Ethiopian houses or huts were searched and then burnt with their inhabitants.”[39] Dejazmatch Rosario sworn, “I saw young boys coming from burning houses, but the Italians pushed them back into the fire.”[40] American missionaries Herbert and Dellas Hanson lamented, “It made us heart sick to see the devastation, especially where we learned that many of the huts had been burned with their owners in them.[41]


During the assassination investigation, the Italians connected the Debra Libanos Monastery and the two Eritreans. On My 19, Graziani ordered his forces to “execute summarily all monks without distinction including the Vice-Prior.”[42] Following their orders faithfully, the Italians executed 297 monks and 23 laymen. Graziani proudly telegraphed Mussolini, “Of the monastery, there remains no more trace.[43]


The massacres in Addis Ababa and the Debra Libanon Monastery, and elsewhere bolstered the guerrilla forces, in the end creating more of them than the Italians had killed. Ras Abebe Aregai, the principal Patriot leader in Shoa, saw his forces increase by al least 10,000.[44] The New Times and Ethiopian News correspondent reported on March 11 that “Those who fled from Addis well know what to expect from Italy and they will fight again.[45] The Ethiopian patriots continued to make trouble. In Dessye, a region located north of Addis Ababa, Italian claims that it was secure contradicted the fact they had to bolster outposts with more machine guns to guard against anti-Italian outbreaks.[46]


The Italians also tried to disarm the population. By March 21, 1937, the Italians had collected 170,795 rifles, 782 machine-guns, 165 cannon, and 1,380 pistols.[47] The London Daily Telegraph reported that by September 30, 1937, the Italians had collected 283, 954 rifles, 999 machine-guns, 196 cannon, and 1,422 pistols.[48]


Despite these efforts the patriots continued to rebel. The New Times and Ethiopian News reported, “Everywhere the Abyssinian Chiefs have collected bands, and sworn a solemn oath to liberate their country or die.”[49] On April 7, 1937 the New York Times reported that in the provinces of Kaff, Siodamo, Wollega and Ball large bands of Ethiopians were operating against the Italian forces.[50] The rebellion continued to spread much to the dismay of the Italians. In September 1937, Pirzio Biroli, the Italian governor at Gondar, reported that “the rebellion seemed to be spreading to Begemder.”[51] Mussolini ordered Graziani “to act with the maximum energy, using all means against the rebels, including gas.”[52] When he failed to quell the massive rebellion, the Duke of Aosta replaced him.[53] The Duke instituted new, more conciliatory policies and did much to ameliorate the situation.[54]


In the end, however, whether Graziani’s cruel repression or Aosta’s gentler conciliation, Italy failed to assimilate Ethiopia. The patriots had only to hang on until a general war broke out. This allowed the patriots a degree of flexibility regarding when, where, what, and how to fight. They had only not to lose so badly as to disable their ability to resist.


Once Rome declared war on Britain in June 1940, Italy’s empire became a minor outpost at the far end of an impossible supply route. In a combined effort the British Army and the Ethiopian patriots combined to throw the Italians out of Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie triumphantly reentered Addis Ababa on May 5, 1941, a mere five years after his ignominious flight. Konovalov witnessed this event too.


As the cars passed by me, another picture came involuntarily before my eyes. Only about five years ago, an apparently endless column of big Italian lorries and young, sunburnt, and happy Italian soldiers on them, had entered the same town from the North; they were looking around with vivid curiosity, satisfied with the campaign they had started and with its end. The short-lived…new Italian Empire belong to the past… Now, a British Military Administration was temporarily established and, a little while later, the Emperor himself entered his own capital.[55]




[1] Emperor Haile Selassie ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.


[2] Marshal Pietro Badoglio held many political and military positions throughout his career. He became Italy’s ambassador to Brazil in 1923 and in September of 1928 Badoglio accepted the governorship of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.


[3] Fedor Eugenovich Konovalov, “The Konovaloff Manuscript,” Hoover Institution. Stanford University, Stanford, CA., 346–47. Changes have been made to manuscript mostly for clarity and consistency while keeping the original meaning clear. Paragraphs have been indented. Hand-written corrections have been used rather than the typed original in the case of obvious spelling errors. Minor punctuation problems have been corrected. American punctuation styles and spelling are used consistently. Portions of version of this manuscript were published as Th. Konovaloff, Con le armate del Negus (Un Bianco fra I neri) [With the Army of the Negus (A White Among the Blacks)] trans. Stefano Micciche (Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli Editore, 1938). George Steer, In Abyssinia (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1937), 298–338, contains a portion of yet another version of this manuscript. An aviator, Konovalov had been a colonel in the tsarist armed forces during World War I. He was also a trained military engineer, and in this capacity he served as a military advisor to the Negus. His eyewitness account of the Italo-Ethiopian War is a most valuable resource.


[4] Konovalov, “Manuscript, “346–47.


[5] Summary of the Ethiopian Emperor’s Address to the League New York Times, July 1, 1936, 6c. See Anthony Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War: The Italian Ethiopian Campaign, 1935–1941 (New York: Random House, 1984), 151 and Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopians (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998),236.


[6] Alberto Sbacchi, “the Recognition of the Italian Empire 1936–1938, “in Ethiopia in Broader Perspective: Papers of the XIIIth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, 3 vols., K.E. Fukui and M. Shigeta, eds. (Kyoto: Shokado Book Sellers, 1997), 1:247–62.


[7] Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War, 148–49, quote 149.


[8] Pankhurst, The Ethiopians, 243.


[9] Benito Mussolini is the founder of fascism and ruled Italy as dictator from 1922 to 1943.


[10] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Robert M. Adams (New York: Norton, 19920,12–13.


[11] For a fictional account which discusses the various kinds of people drawn into patriotic resistance, see Abbie Gubegna, Defiance (Addis Ababa: Oxford University Press, 1975)


[12] Pankhurst, History of Ethiopian Patriots, 176.


[13] Richard Pankhurst, “A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia,” Addis Tribune, Apr.3 1997,–04–97/20cent–13.html.


[14]Rodolfo Graziani emerged World War I as Italy’s youngest colonel. He grew infamous from his cruel repression of the Senussi in Libyia. He became Viceroy of Ethiopia in 1936.


[15] David Shirreff, Bare Feet and Bandoliers: Wingate, Sanford, the Patriots and the part they played in the liberation of Ethiopia (London and New York: The Radcliffe Press, 1995), 9.


[16] Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War, 158; Pankhurst, History of Ethiopian Patriots, 176.


[17] Pankhurst, History of Ethiopian Patriots, 176.


[18] Ibid., 158.


[19] Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War, 156.


[20] Ibid., 158.


[21] Ibid., 159.


[22] Ibid., 160–161.


[23] Ibid., 160; Pankhurst, History of Ethiopian Patriots, 177.


[24] Pankhurst, History of the Ethiopian Patriots, 177.


[25] Ibid., 178.


[26] Ibid., 178.


[27] Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War, 173.


[28] Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War, 154.


[29] Ibid., 171.


[30] Ibid., 165.


[31] Ibid., 172


[32] To Feudalism (Addis Ababa, Ministry of Information, 1975),2.


[33] Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War, 174.


[34] Konovalov, “Konovalov Manuscript,” 349.


[35] Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War, 177.


[36] Pankhurst, History of Ethiopian Patriots, 186.


[37] Shirreff, Bare Feet, 10.


[38] Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War, 177.


[39] Pankhurst, History of Ethiopian Patriots, 184.


[40] Ibid., 184–85.


[41] Ibid., 185.


[42] Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War, 180.


[43] Pankhurst, Twentieth Century Ethiopia, 30.


[44] Pankhurst, History of Ethiopian Patriots, 186.


[45] Ibid., 186.


[46] Ethiopian Raiders Feared at Dessye New York Times, Feb. 25, 1937, 13d.


[47] Pankhurst, History of Ethiopian Patriots, 190.


[48] Ibid., 193.


[49] Ibid., 191.


[50] Only Vatican Runs Ethiopian Missions New York Times, Apr. 7, 1937, 17e.


[51] Pankhurst, History of Ethiopian Patriots, 191.


[52] Pankhurst, History of the Ethiopian Patriots, 192.


[53] Ibid., 196.


[54] Ibid., 200.


[55] Konovalov, “Konovalov Manuscript,” 366–67.