The Second Italo-Ethiopian War
On October 2, 1935, Benito Mussolini—Fascist Italy’s “Duce,” or Leader—delivered an impassioned speech from the balcony of his office in Rome to a mass of Italians assembled below in Piazza Venezia. Proclaiming the dawn of a glorious new age for Italy, Mussolini outlined what he imagined would be a “gigantic spectacle” the entire world would jealously admire. Italy had for too long sat along the sidelines of imperial expansion and watched passively as Africa was conquered by the so-called “plutocratic powers.” Italians had been deprived of a “small place in the sun,” the Duce contended, receiving nothing but “a few crumbs of the rich colonial booty” gathered by others, which all the more prompted his regime to begin searching for an opportunity to join in on the so-called “Scramble for Africa.” No longer a politically and culturally fragmented, boisterous Southern European country—as many had characterized the peninsula’s variegated populations during previous centuries—Italy would rise from the ashes of the approaching inter-imperial confrontation and reclaim its rightful place alongside the other Great Powers of Western Europe. Perched confidently atop his headquarters’ balcony, Mussolini clarified his position: “We have been patient for thirteen years, during which the circle of selfishness that strangles our vitality has become ever tighter. With Ethiopia we have been patient for forty years! It is time to say enough!” The following day, Italy’s armed forces poured over the border between Italian Eritrea and Haile Selassie I’s Kingdom of Ethiopia, marking the beginning of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.
In response, Italians worldwide took to the streets of their respective villages, towns, and cities celebrating their homeland’s “heroic” conquest of the East African country. Between December 1935 and May of the following year, for instance, Manhattan’s Italian-American “colony” held several pro-war rallies at Madison Square Garden, attended by tens of thousands of supporters and bringing in some $14,000 in support of the Duce’s campaign. In January 1936, the Italian immigrant community of Lima, Peru donated $20,000 worth of weddings rings and other “gold ornaments” towards Mussolini’s ongoing conquest of Ethiopia. For Italians living both within and beyond the peninsula, therefore, the Duce’s forceful assertion of Italy’s “rights” against the “selfish machinations” of the Great Powers community symbolized the Southern European country’s palingenesis from a so-called “proletarian” nation, battered back and forth on the proverbial waves of international geopolitics, to a decidedly imperial, and therefore modern, national community.
For many non-Italian audiences around the Western world, however, the dictatorship’s invasion of Ethiopia was widely viewed as an illegal, and decidedly merciless, conquest of the last independent African polity by yet another bloodthirsty European imperial power. The Black communities of North America and the Caribbean, in particular, organized anti-fascist rallies and marches in vociferous opposition to Italy’s conquest of Selassie I’s kingdom. In Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood, various pro-Ethiopian military defense groups were spontaneously established, such as the United Aid for Ethiopia, which raised money for the besieged East African country and actively lobbied the United States Congress to provide support to Ethiopia both diplomatically and militarily. On October 26, 1935, some fifteen thousand New Yorkers, led by a “contingent of Negro swordsmen,” held a march from Harlem to Central Park West and 63rd Street in protest against the regime’s military campaign. Black opposition to the Duce’s military conquest of Ethiopia, however, was not limited just to the African-American communities of North America. In British Jamaica, the members of the so-called “Rastafarian Cult” began preparing for what they believed would be a forthcoming Rapture, in which the Emperor of Ethiopia would miraculously release the scattered members of the African diaspora from their “Babylonian captivity” and bring “his people” back home to Ethiopia, the prophesied “Black Zion.”
Faced with economic sanctions by the League of Nations and growing anti-Italian sentiments among the international community during the early months of the military conflict, Mussolini’s dictatorship began searching for potential collaborators overseas for a forthcoming propaganda campaign intended to reshape public opinion with respect to the regime’s mission of carving out a “small place under the sun” for Italy in East Africa. One such figure, whose story I recount in some of my below-mentioned publications, was an interwar, pro-fascist American woman by the name of Ruth Williams Ricci, who served the Duce's regime as a quasi-professional propagandist on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean between 1935 and 1941.
In juxtaposing these contrasting responses to Fascist Italy’s imperial aggression against Ethiopia, therefore, the various publications I have planned in conjunction with this research project will shed significant light upon our understanding of the origins, impacts, and consequences of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, from a decidedly transnational methodological perspective.
- "'Propaganda for Our Italy': Ruth Williams Ricci, Gendered Mobility, and Fascist Italy’s African Empire, 1935-1941," in Andrea Germer and Jasmin Rückert, eds., Gendering Fascism: Organisations, Bodies, Representations (forthcoming with Brill)
- "Journey to Fascism," Hoover Digest: Research + Commentary on Public Policy No. 4 (Fall 2022): 201-219
- "Sorella fascista": The Collected Writings of Ruth Williams Ricci (in development)
- The Ethiopian Crisis: A Transnational History (in development)
A multi-publication project on the transnational historical dynamics behind the so-called "Ethiopian Crisis" (1935-1941).