Friday, March 17, 2017

Birth (or Rebirth) of the Kingdom of Italy

It was on this day in 1861 that the first Italian parliament, assembled in Turin, proclaimed the birth of the Kingdom of Italy, the united country as we know it today (though sadly now as a top-heavy, lower tier republic). The timing of this momentous occasion was quite conservative. With revolutions, a declaration of independence or proclamation of a new country generally comes before such a thing is an actual reality, while the struggle is still in progress. With the Kingdom of Italy, however, this was not the case. By the time HM King Vittorio Emanuele II assembled the first Italian parliament in Turin, the Austrians had been expelled from Italian soil everywhere except for the area around Venice, Garibaldi's victorious campaign had united the south with the north, finished off by the final victory by King Vittorio Emanuele's forces at the siege of Gaeta so that, other than Venice, the only other major Italian city that remained out of reach was Rome itself. The Eternal City was then still under the rule of Pope Pius IX, propped up by a French army sent by Emperor Napoleon III. As such, the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy was the recognition of an established fact. The further designation of Rome as the capital city, despite it being under papal rather than Italian national control, was a hopeful expectation.

Nonetheless, with the notable exceptions of Rome and Venice, Italy was at last one united nation under one government for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. It was the culmination of a long struggle that Italian nationalists had been waging to take back control of their own destiny and once again become more than a battleground for foreign powers to fight over. It was a long time coming and might have come about in a number of ways. There were certainly better ways in which it could have happened but none of those came to be. However, that it finally happened at all was thanks to the monarchist faction and that is a truth that should not be ignored. The republicans under Mazzini had tried to do things their own way and had failed completely. Even Garibaldi, a republican by inclination, was obliged to accept that Italy could be united only by the monarchy. It is something to be thankful for that men such as the future prime minister Francesco Crispi were sufficiently nationalist to put the ultimate aim of national unity and national greatness above their own previous political opinions. As Crispi himself said, the monarchy unites while the republic divides. It was true then and it is true now. Hopefully the day will come when the Kingdom of Italy, proclaimed on this day in 1861, can be restored as a fully Italian, Catholic monarchy which can regain its place as a major player on the world stage.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Second Italo-Abyssinian War

Today the Second Italo-Abyssinian War of 1935-36 is generally viewed as a prelude to World War II but, of course, no one at the time could view it in that way. It was a strange conflict in many ways that brought to light some rather strange bedfellows on the part of the nations of the world at that time. It was one of the last of the colonial wars that had been fairly common in the previous century and yet you had the largest colonial power on earth, Great Britain, denouncing this campaign of colonial expansion. On the other hand, you had the Empire of Japan, which was growing increasingly vocal in denouncing European colonialism in Asia, taking the side of the Italian colonialists. The officially atheist and egalitarian Soviet Union was cheering for Ethiopia, an officially Coptic Christian feudal absolute monarchy. The British, for that matter, who had long been at the forefront of the anti-slavery campaign, likewise cheered for Ethiopia in which slavery was both legal and extremely widespread.

This conflict, which is today usually given little attention and simply mentioned as part of the build-up to the Second World War, one name on a list alongside the Mukden Incident, the occupation of the Rhine and the Sudetenland, the annexation of Austria and the occupation of Albania. However, at the time, it dominated world attention and had far greater implications and ramifications than most people think. It was the great test of the League of Nations, the existential threat to the post-World War I world order and, in a broader sense, it was the conflict which actually determined both the fate of the former monarchy in Austria and the alignment of the Fascist-ruled Kingdom of Italy with the National Socialist regime in Germany. Prior to this war, Italy was still aligned with France, Britain and the other World War I allies. Hitler had long idolized Mussolini but the Duce had until then kept his distance from the Nazi leader. The war between the Kingdom of Italy and the Empire of Ethiopia changed all of that.

Many misconceptions continue to be held about the conflict and many of the facts will doubtless come as a surprise to most people. Italy did not actually start the war, nor was it a pre-planned event. The Ethiopians were not a horde of ignorant primitives fighting with sticks and stones, despite what you may have heard. The outcome was not a foregone conclusion, indeed many in the international community expected the Italians to be defeated or at least that any victory would be so difficult to obtain that the Fascist regime would be brought down by a combination of a long, drawn-out war with heavy losses and the crippling effect of League of Nations sanctions on the Italian economy. Today, the war is often portrayed as an almost effortless military parade with the Italians crushing the backward Ethiopians like insects with the African natives having no hope for victory. That is certainly not how it looked at the time and the conclusion of the war, far from being preordained, took most people by surprise, certainly in how quickly events unfolded. It was the war which solidified the Fascist hold on Italy and which brought an end to the independence of the last un-colonized corner of Africa.

The war was first sparked, as many people may be at least vaguely aware, by the Wal Wal Incident in 1934 but this requires some background information. Much has been made of the fact that many Italians still seethed with indignation over the stunning defeat of the Italian colonial army at the Battle of Adowa in 1896 which brought down the Crispi government and, it is true, that loss to the Ethiopia of “King of Kings” Menelik II lingered in the Italian national consciousness but much had happened since then. Ethiopia had fallen into civil war, had briefly allied with the Ottoman Turks in World War I after which the ruling emperor, who had converted to Islam, was overthrown. An empress ruled the country but was ultimately surpassed by one chieftain Ras Tafari Makonnen who prompted another civil war with his efforts to centralize power, remove the power of the other chiefs and implement progressive taxation. After crushing the forces who tried to restore the empress, upon her rather mysterious death in 1930 Ras Tafari took the throne outright as Emperor Haile Selassie.

In 1932 Haile Selassie crushed another revolt in Gojjam and waged what some historians have called a genocide against the natives of Azebu Galla, the Oromo people having long been the victims of enslavement and persecution. Earlier, in 1928, Haile Selassie had signed a friendship and trade treaty with Italy but after coming to power made it clear that he was no more interested in friendship than Mussolini was. Some historians question whether his immediate campaign to build up and modernize the armed forces, particularly his personal troops, was intended to suppress internal rivals or to dominate the Horn of Africa and absorb the Italian colony of Eritrea in particular with its port facilities. The Italians, at that stage, had no designs on Ethiopia but simply wished to keep it out of the hands of any other foreign power. Toward that end, it was Italy which sponsored Ethiopia joining the League of Nations, a decision they may have come to regret eventually, because of their fear that the British would bend to the powerful anti-slavery societies in that country to launch an expedition into Ethiopia and annex it to the British empire. The British had no such plans but it was for that reason that Ethiopia, a tribal absolute monarchy that practiced widespread slavery, was brought in to the supposedly liberal and democratic League of Nations.

Once secure on his throne, Haile Selassie sought to modernize and strengthen Ethiopia as quickly as possible and invited in various European powers to help with this though it rankled in Rome that he made a point to exclude the Italians. The latest weaponry was purchased from the French, Belgians, Swedes, Czechs and Swiss. European military officers were brought in as advisors to train the Ethiopian military as Haile Selassie built up his own Imperial Guard that would be armed with the latest modern weapons and he sent Ethiopian officers for these units to train in the military academies of Europe. The colonial army of the Belgian Congo had a particularly formidable reputation and Belgian officers were hired to oversee the modernization of the Ethiopian army. All of this was going on long before there was the slightest hint of any actual trouble with Italy on the horizon. Unlike Hitler and his many speeches about the Germans living outside of Germany that preceded his annexations, one would be hard pressed to find Mussolini ever mentioning Ethiopia as an area of concern or even particular interest.

That only changed with the Wal Wal Incident of 1934. Several years before, the Italians had built a fort at this remote oasis and the Ethiopians said nothing about it. Then, on November 3, 1934 an Ethiopian military force of about a thousand men approached the fort and demanded its surrender, saying it had been built within Ethiopian territory. Why this was not mentioned at any time in the roughly four years since the fort had been built was not explained. In any event, the Italian commander refused. Tensions were raised but nothing immediately happened. That changed when a column of reinforcements for the tiny garrison arrived and on December 5, 1934 fighting broke out between the two sides. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Italian colonial troops held their own and the Ethiopians retreated. Ethiopia protested to the League of Nations and before the month was out, Mussolini had dispatched one of the leaders of the Fascist “March on Rome”, General Emilio De Bono, to Eritrea to take command of the forces being assembled for an invasion of Ethiopia.

This reveals the little-discussed truth behind one of the major misconceptions of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. It is usually stated or at least implied that the Wal Wal Incident was something instigated by the Italians with the sole purpose of serving as a pretext for Mussolini’s pre-planned conquest of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). However, it is quite obvious that this cannot be true. The Italians did not initiate the engagement nor did it lead immediately to conflict. If this had all been staged, surely Mussolini would have had the Italian army already deployed and ready to attack. Instead, it would take the better part of the following year before the war actually started, before the Royal Italian Army could be transferred to Africa, deployed, equipped and supplied to begin the invasion. Clearly, this was not a pre-planned event. Mussolini did not set this up. However, he was certainly more than willing to take advantage of the situation and use this opportunity to conquer Ethiopia and take revenge for the past defeat at Adowa.

In January of 1935, Mussolini obtained the assurance of the French that they would not intervene in any conflict in East Africa. It was not until July of 1935 that Emperor Haile Selassie announced to his people that a danger of war existed. And, all the while, the League of Nations delegates and the assorted foreign ministers tried to work out some sort of compromise that would prevent the whole thing from happening. The British and French foreign ministers, Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval, made a proposal that Mussolini seemed agreeable with which would have seen Abyssinia partitioned, Italy taking one portion and Haile Selassie retaining control of the rest. However, the Abyssinian crisis had become the fashionable cause of the day and public opinion in the liberal democracies of the west was solidly opposed to Fascist Italy and firmly on the side of Emperor Haile Selassie and the proposed agreement was leaked to the press. Immediately there was a huge public outcry and the public in France and Britain denounced this as a shameful caving in to the hated Fascists. The agreement was immediately dropped, Hoare and Laval were both forced by public pressure to resign (Laval would be shot after World War II for having participated in the Vichy regime). Compromise was off the table.

The aim of Hoare and Laval had been to keep Italy on side in a cordon of opposition around Nazi Germany and this, they reasoned, was more important than who ruled Abyssinia. They feared, and rightly so as events unfolded, that British and French opposition to Italy would drive Mussolini into the arms of Adolf Hitler. This would prove to be of particular importance to the British given that the Kingdom of Italy, possessing a powerful fleet, sat astride the primary artery of the British Empire through the Mediterranean to Asia. No one wanted war but all were willing to join in economic sanctions against Italy by the League of Nations. Events there also had a profound impact on world opinion with Emperor Haile Selassie addressing the delegates, appearing regal and dignified, while he was heckled by Italians who came off as childish and bullying. The sanctions were enacted, though oil was not included, and Mussolini was infuriated. The more force the League of Nations leveled, the more belligerent Mussolini became. He denounced the organization as a bunch of elite, liberal hypocrites, particularly singling out the British and French, rulers of the first and second largest colonial empires in the world, for suddenly condemning Italian colonialism. The coming clash would determine whether the League of Nations would govern world affairs or not.

By October of 1935 the Royal Italian Army was in position. The primary force was deployed in Eritrea under General Emilio De Bono. A secondary front was prepared in the south, out of Italian Somaliland, under General Rodolfo Graziani, known in Italy as “the Pacifier of Libya” and in Libya as “the Butcher of Fezzan”. De Bono was an affable, old fashioned old soldier, one of the ‘Quadrumvirs’ who led the Blackshirts “March on Rome” but also a fervent monarchist who only joined the Fascist Party when Mussolini made it clear that he would remain loyal to the King. He planned a cautious, traditional sort of colonial campaign that would be conservative with the lives of his soldiers, advancing slowly, establishing defensive positions as they went, using their superior firepower to decimate Ethiopian attacks on their lines. General Graziani was a highly experienced colonial soldier, had been the youngest colonel in the Italian army in World War I and had a reputation for being a hard man who got results. An ardent Fascist, he said bluntly that, “The Duce will have Ethiopia…with or without Ethiopians”.

On the Ethiopian side, Emperor Haile Selassie mustered his forces, conscripting all able bodied men. Newsreels of the day showed hordes of barefoot Africans wearing loincloths and waving swords and spears. However, Haile Selassie had forbidden his army from wearing shoes and had uniforms but reserved most of these for his personal troops, the Kebur Zabagna, or Imperial Guard which also had the latest weapons. Despite the popular image, most Ethiopians had rifles and the army was equipped with a fair amount of artillery and machine guns. They also had trained officers, European advisors and European officers fighting as mercenaries. One of the most prominent foreigners was the Turkish General Mehmet Wehib Pasha, leader of the Turkish advisory mission to Abyssinia, who referred to himself as the “hero of Gallipoli”. He served as chief-of-staff to Ras Nasibu, Ethiopian commander of the southern front and oversaw the construction of a fortified line nicknamed the “Hindenburg Wall” in reference to the famous Hindenburg Line of World War I. Wehib Pasha was of course a Muslim as were the vast majority of the Eritreans and Somalis in the Italian colonial army. However, he was happy to fight for Abyssinia as he had an intense hatred of Europeans and would fight them anywhere under any flag.

On October 3, 1935 the Italian invasion began, slowly and cautiously. The same day, Ethiopia formally declared war on Italy, Rome never having issued such a declaration. The following day, on the northern front out of Eritrea, Italian forces occupied Adigrat, Inticho and Daro Tacle while on the southern front, out of Italian Somaliland, Graziani occupied Dolo Odo and Maladdaie on the Genale (Jubba) River. On October 6, in a moment of particular satisfaction though no real military significance, the Italians marched into Adowa, site of their former defeat. That historic battle had an impact on both sides. The Italians were being careful, taking nothing for granted, having a healthy respect for the fighting ability of their enemy. The Ethiopians, on the other hand, because of their previous victory, tended toward over-confidence and underestimating their enemy. They reasoned that they had defeated the Italians before and could do so again, having an even larger and better armed army than before. Emperor Haile Selassie planned to let the Italians move in and then overwhelm them in a massive attack with his superior numbers. The Ethiopians did have the advantages of fighting a defensive war on their own ground, they had the advantage of numbers and outside support. However, the Italians had the more modern force, greater discipline and an arsenal which included weapons Ethiopia lacked. Their greatest advantage was the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian royal air force, which the Ethiopians had no answer for. The Ethiopian air force was miniscule and mostly served to move Haile Selassie from place to place.

The international community largely favored Ethiopia. Military experts predicted that, due to Ethiopian superiority in numbers, the harsh terrain, lack of modern infrastructure and the opposition of the general public, it would take the Italians at least two years to conquer the large country, if they could manage it at all. By that time, they were confident that huge Italian losses and the crippling effect of the League of Nations sanctions would bring down the Fascist regime, removing Mussolini from power in much the same way that the defeat at Adowa had brought down Crispi. However, this war would be different from the first. The same day that Adowa fell, Italian forces in the south captured the fortress of Gedlegube and pushed up to the K’orahe minefield in the Ogaden Desert. On the northern front, Italy was handed a propaganda victory when Degiasmacc Haile Selassie Gugsa, son-in-law of Emperor Haile Selassie and commander of the Mek’ele sector, defected to the Italian side. He had been married to the Emperor’s second daughter and after her death the two had fallen out, the Emperor blaming Gugsa for the loss of his daughter and Gugsa resenting the Emperor for not giving him the title of Ras (chief) while a junior cousin was so honored. This was all the more a major event given that Gugsa was a prince of the Imperial Family, a great-grandson of Emperor Yohannes IV who had seized the throne in 1871 following the disgrace and suicide of Tewodros II.

Within five days of this stunning event, the historic capital of Abyssinia, Axum, was taken by Italian forces. The war was going good for Italy, progress was steady and casualties were, so far, minimal. However, it was not happening fast enough to please Mussolini. The sanctions were causing pain at home and the longer the war lasted, the worse things would get. At that point, there was no grumbling, only a shared sense of sacrifice and a determination not to give in to the demands of the international community. Following the example of their Queen, more than half a million Italians donated their golden wedding rings to the war effort, the government replacing them with a band of steel to show their sacrifice for the nation. The Catholic Church joined in as well with the Bishop of Civita Castellana handing over his gold pectoral cross to Mussolini personally, followed up with a Roman salute before a cheering crowd of 12,000. Eventually, however, the sanctions would begin to bite and such stop-gap measures would not be enough to maintain the needs of the country and the war effort.

Meanwhile, in the south, the Italian advance continued, helped by their Somali allies who often had a personal grudge against the Ethiopians. On October 21 the Sultan of Olol Dinle, commanding his own forces, occupied Geladi and by the end of the month Italian and Ethiopian forces were locked in battle along the Dawa River. In November, on the northern front, the Italians captured Mek’ele and then Salaclaca. Again, good progress, but things were still moving too slowly for the increasingly frustrated Duce. By the end of the month, De Bono was ‘kicked upstairs’ with a promotion to Marshal of Italy and replaced with Marshal Pietro Badoglio with orders to shift the offensive into high gear. De Bono had been methodical, certain that Ethiopian forces would soon attack in huge numbers but, while the fighting was fierce and almost constant, such a major attack never occurred. Soon enough, all would learn that De Bono had not been wrong in his estimation of the enemy. Haile Selassie had been massing his forces and planning a major offensive that would split the Italian army, conquer Eritrea and eradicate the Italian presence in the Horn of Africa. On December 15, 1935, with about 200,000 men, the Ethiopians launched what became known as the “Christmas Offensive”.

Massed attack was the preferred fighting method for the Ethiopians and as the offensive began, the Italians were overwhelmed. At the Dembuguina Pass the Italian Gran Sasso Division was forced to retreat and Ethiopian forces recaptured the Scire area. It looked as though the victorious onslaught at Adowa was being repeated on a larger scale. However, toward late December an Italian pilot, Tito Minniti, was captured by the Italians, tortured, mutilated and finally beheaded. The Ethiopians have since denied this but mutilation of captives was an age old custom in the country (as photos of those captured in the first war after Adowa show) and such things doubtless occurred. This happened on the southern front and General Graziani ordered immediate retaliation. Later, this was also used to justify Italian use of poison gas, banned by international law, against the Ethiopians. However, Marshal Badoglio had requested and, indeed, already began using poison gas days before Minniti was shot down. In all likelihood, Minniti was tortured and executed, as were many other Italian and African colonial soldiers, however the use of poison gas also likely had less to do with this than with the ferocity of the Ethiopian offensive that Badoglio had to deal with.

Despite attempts at justification (following denials), the Italians used poison gas for the simple reason that it gave them an advantage (or at least they thought it would), it would mean killing more of the enemy and sparing the lives of more of their own troops. It was ugly and it was brutal but not really different in principle from the British using Maxim guns against spear-tossing natives or the United States using the atomic bomb against the Japanese. If one side has a weapon that will give them an advantage over their enemy, especially a weapon that the enemy cannot defend against, chances are they will use it. When it comes to accusations of cruelty and war crimes in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, the truth is that neither side was blameless nor always guilty. The Italian claim that the Ethiopians used forbidden Dum-dum bullets was likely untrue and simply a reaction to poor quality ammunition. However, Ethiopians did break the rules, killing and mutilating enemy prisoners, trapping Italian soldiers in their tanks and building fires underneath to slowly cook them alive. The noted English Catholic author, Evelyn Waugh, reported that the Ethiopians did use Red Cross insignia to cover themselves and that other reporters, going on only what the Ethiopians told them, reported to their readers Italian attacks on hospitals that did not exist. It is also likely that many of the Italian colonial soldiers practiced the same sort of mutilation on the enemy as some of the Ethiopians did and the use of poison gas by Marshal Badoglio was something he requested, not something prompted by moral indignation.

In any event, while the Italians were being hammered by the Ethiopian “Christmas Offensive” in the north, in the south, General Graziani continued to make steady progress. In early November his forces intercepted and defeated an Ethiopian motorized column (a fact which will doubtless surprise those who think the Ethiopians had no modern means of transportation at all) near Hamaniei. In December, the Sultan of Olol Dinle set his warriors against the Ethiopians at Golle and Italian forces occupied Denan by the end of the month. A major breakthrough followed shortly thereafter when Graziani crushed the southernmost Ethiopian army at the Battle of Genale Wenz in a fight lasting from January 12-16, 1936. The Ethiopians did win a bit of a propaganda victory of their own in the aftermath though, when a number of Italian colonial troops deserted to the Ethiopian side. This was mostly done for religious reasons, African Coptic Christians feeling little solidarity with the largely Muslim Somalis and their Catholic Italian officers. However, by the end of January, the Italian forces had taken Borana and reached the Ethiopian military base at Negele.

In the north, Marshal Badoglio went back on the offensive with the first Battle of Tembien. It was not much of a success but did at least bring the Ethiopian offensive to a halt. The Ethiopians reacted adeptly, moving around to encircle the Italians at Warieu Pass, keeping up relentless assaults. However, before the end of the month, the Italians had fought their way back and the Ethiopian “Christmas Offensive” was stopped for good. Badoglio seized the initiative and intended to keep it. Amba Ardam was taken in early February and in a long and hard fought battle lasting until March 2, the second Battle of Tembien, the Italians captured Worq Amba. This was quite a decisive engagement, shattering the armies of Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum. Responsibility for the defeat on the Ethiopian side remains something of a controversial subject but it left Haile Selassie with only one army of his original four on the northern front. The remnant was crushed in the Battle of Shire under Ras Imru Haile Selassie, the Emperor’s cousin and one of his most trusted subordinates. A royal cousin was also present on the Italian side at the battle in the person of Prince Adalberto, Duke of Bergamo, fourth son of the Duke of Genoa, who commanded the Gran Sasso Division.

Witnessing the situation falling apart, Haile Selassie worked frantically to organize a counter-offensive to halt the Italian advance. On March 31, 1936 the Ethiopian chieftain threw all the forces available to him at the enemy in a desperate gamble known to history as the Battle of Maych’ew. This time, Haile Selassie commanded his troops himself and even committed his prized Imperial Guard to the battle. However, Marshal Badoglio had intercepted a message Haile Selassie sent to his wife, telling of the planned attack. This allowed Badoglio to call off his own planned attack and take up carefully prepared defensive positions. The Ethiopians would be walking right into his trap. The initial Ethiopian attack was bloodily repulsed in hard fighting, after which the main assault shifted to the Italian left flank which was hit repeatedly but all to no avail. Finally, Haile Selassie committed six battalions of his Imperial Guard but despite being the best armed and equipped, they fared no better. In desperation, Haile Selassie ordered all units to attack all along the line but the only result was that they were all wiped out, most already being greatly weakened by that point anyway.

The Ethiopian army broke and began to retreat and it was at that point that insult was added to injury. Prior to the battle, Haile Selassie had tried to buy back the support of the Azebu Galla (the people he had nearly wiped out prior to the war) with a cash bribe for each man and lavish gifts for their leaders. They pledged support but had remained on the sidelines during the battle. Then, when the Ethiopian army began to flee, they suddenly joined in, attacking the Ethiopians and cutting them down as they ran away, only intermittently deterred by Italian bombers who also joined in attacking the fleeing army. Haile Selassie has seen his forces devastated, ordered the remainder to disperse and sent the Crown Prince to Dessie where he hoped to organize a new army to carry on the war. However, the Crown Prince later abandoned Dessie without a fight and the hoped for widespread resistance failed to materialize.

Meanwhile, on the southern front, the Ethiopians attempted to regain the initiative with an attack they hoped would culminate in an invasion of Italian Somaliland. However, this offensive was bloodily repulsed at the Battle of Genale Doria. General Graziani adopted the policy of offense being the best defense and made heavy use of Italian control of the air, decimating the Ethiopian forces with attacks from the sky. Graziani came up with an operation he called the “Milan Plan” and within five days all of his attacking columns had reached their objectives. In the Battle of the Ogaden, the vaunted “Hindenburg Wall” of Wehib Pasha was broken through and the last organized Ethiopian resistance in the south was utterly destroyed, the survivors fleeing into the countryside to wage guerilla war against the invaders. Graziani pushed on for Harar but while he met little Ethiopian resistance, bad weather and a lack of modern roads delayed his advance.

The climax of the war came in the north with what the Fascist propagandists touted as the “March of the Iron Will”. This was a rapid advance by a large mechanized column from Dessie to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. It may have been inspired by a similar advance led by the prominent Fascist leader, the “Panther Man”, Achille Starace on Gondor, covering 120km in three days. The advance on Addis Ababa was swift, powerful but also largely unopposed. Haile Selassie gathered his family and entourage and fled the country prior to the Italian attack and Addis Ababa fell into a state of anarchy and looting before order was restored by the arrival of the triumphant Italian army on May 5 (though advance units of the Eritrean colonial brigade arrived the day before). Marshal Badoglio staged a triumphal entry into the city and sent word to Rome that the war was over and Abyssinia was conquered. As soon as the news hit Italy, widespread celebrations broke out with cheering crowds calling Mussolini back to the balcony no less than ten times. A war that was supposed to be a 2-year long quagmire that would bring down the Fascist regime, which had set Italy against the prevailing international order of the League of Nations, had ended with Ethiopia being conquered in seven months.

King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy was given the title of Emperor of Ethiopia and Mussolini crowed to his Blackshirts, “…lift on high, legionnaires, your standards, your steel and your hearts and salute, after fifteen centuries, the reappearance of the EMPIRE on the fatal hills of Rome!” Of course, the significance of this victory need not have been so great but the importance that the international community had heaped on it made it one that changed the course of history. More than just an Italo-Abyssinian War, the popular fervor for the Ethiopian cause made this a confrontation between the Fascists on one side and the League of Nations on the other. The League was defied by Italy and with the victory in Africa, the League was humiliated. The tragic figure of Haile Selassie went into exile in England, though King Edward VIII refused to meet with him, as he found the League of Nations more objectionable than Mussolini. Of course, he would soon give up his crown and never regain it while Haile Selassie would ultimately be placed back on his former throne by the Allied armies in World War II.

For the time being, however, the Italian victory over Ethiopia changed everything. Mussolini, stung by the opposition of France and Britain in the League of Nations, infuriated by their economic sanctions, broke from their anti-German front and finally accepted the extended hand of Adolf Hitler. On a visit to Germany, Mussolini told a stadium full of people that Italy would “never forget” how Germany had refused to join the sanctions regime when so much of the world had turned against them. His opposition to the German annexation of Austria evaporated and the plan of Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg to restore the Austrian monarchy under Archduke Otto was stopped cold. Previously, Mussolini had approved of the plan, even talking about another Habsburg-Savoy royal marriage to cement their alliance but the reaction of the western powers to the war in Ethiopia changed all of that. In Italy, Fascism was more popular than ever and Mussolini more confident in the military prowess of the armed forces. Soon he would be sending tens of thousands of Italian troops to Spain to aid the nationalist forces of General Franco against the Spanish Republic.

Haile Selassie, perhaps strangely given how the system had failed him, doubled down on his support for collective security and international bodies. In his last appearance before the body, he criticized the League of Nations for not taking more forceful action to stop the Italians, effectively for not using force to see that their rulings were abided by. He ended with the ominous warning that, “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.” Perhaps his words were remembered when the League of Nations was succeeded by the United Nations which could and has used military force to see its decisions implemented. However, the same United Nations which he had supported, including sending Ethiopian forces to participate in the Korean War, took no action to save him when he was overthrown and most likely killed in 1975 by communist traitors. It was largely the forces of the British Empire which, in World War II, had seen him restored to his throne after the Italians were defeated and by 1975 the British Empire was no more (and Haile Selassie himself had been more than happy to see it go at the time) and the Soviet Union could be counted on to block any UN move to take action against the Marxist clique that had seen Haile Selassie lose his throne the second time.

For a seven-month colonial war, the second clash of Italy and Abyssinia had proven to be quite consequential. The last un-colonized corner of Africa was conquered, Britain and France made an enemy, Germany gained an ally, the post-World War I world order embodied by the League of Nations was shattered and the last realistic hope for the restoration of the Habsburg monarchy was brought to ruin and Germany gained control of Austria all as a result of this conflict. It is also not a great leap to imagine that had the war ended differently, had Italy lost, there might have been no help for Franco in Spain and the Second Spanish Republic might have carried on, at least until the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Second Italo-Abyssinian War was a conflict that warrants greater study and understanding. It was far more significant and had many more far-reaching consequences than most people realize.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Emperor Valentinian II

The history of the Roman imperial monarchy is complete with stories of every kind; dramatic, bizarre, occasionally comic and tragic. The story of Emperor Valentinian II is one of the tragic ones. To set the scene, a good place to establish the background of this unfortunate monarch is with the glorious reign of Emperor Constantine the Great. As most know, it was Emperor Constantine who reunited the Roman Empire under one emperor, built the second capital city of Constantinople, established a policy of religious freedom for Christians and who was, at the end of his life, the first Christian Emperor of Rome. He also established a dynasty that carried on into the 360’s with his last male descendant being Emperor Julian, better known as “Julian the Apostate” who tried to revert Rome back to paganism rather than Christianity. A new imperial dynasty was then established, in the west, by Emperor Valentinian I, a man who rose from humble origins in Pannonia in what is today Croatia. He was a staunch Christian, a military-minded man who established the Valentinian dynasty, ruling the west himself while his younger brother Valens ruled as Emperor of the East.

Valentinian I
Valentinian I was succeeded by his son, Emperor Gratian, the man who would hand over the title of “Supreme Pontiff” to the Bishop of Rome. However, Emperor Gratian ruled only from 367 to 383 AD when he was assassinated at Lyons with most of the empire north of the Alps left in the hands of a renegade general named Magnus Maximus. However, he died in 388, a year after invading Italy. The young man who was in charge, or at least who was supposed to be, was Emperor Valentinian II. The son of Valentinian I by his second wife, Justina, he was only four years old when he came to the throne on November 22, 375 AD and had inherited a perilous position. The generals loyal to his father had proclaimed him emperor immediately upon the death of his father, taking no account of his half-brother Gratian or his uncle Valens. It is often assumed that the Frankish commander of the Roman forces in Pannonia, Merobaudes, intended to disregard Gratian, whom many in the military distrusted, in favor of Valentinian II who was, obviously, too young to rule and could not oppose them.

Emperor Gratian was thus left with what is now France, Britain and Spain while the nominal Emperor Valentinian II reigned over Italy, most of the Balkans and Africa. His imperial court was in Milan but tensions were thick. The most influential figure in his life was his mother Justina, an adherent of the Arian heresy, who clashed with the preeminent religious authority, St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and prefect of Liguria and Emilia who was an adamant opponent of Arianism. This was a dangerous combination as the young Valentinian II became the pawn of those wishing to push their own agendas. Justina used his authority to try to suppress the orthodox Christians in favor of the Arians, though St Ambrose had the local populace on his side. Magnus Maximus, who was trying to claim the throne for himself, also used Arianism as his tool, casting himself as a champion of orthodoxy in order to take power from Valentinian II or, more precisely, those who ruled in his name. After Emperor Valens in the east came the reign of Emperor Theodosius the Great who was also opposed to Arianism and so would be of no help.

Valentinian II
When Maximus crossed the Alps into Italy, Justina and the teenage Emperor Valentinian II fled to Thessalonica (Greece) from which they obtained the support of Emperor Theodosius to restore Valentinian II in the west by offering in marriage his sister Princess Galla. In 388 AD Emperor Theodosius dutifully launched a military campaign that saw Maximus defeated and Valentinian II restored and though he would begin to establish his own dynasty through his sons Arcadius and Honorius, Emperor Theodosius remained faithful to his agreement with the last of the Valentinian dynasty. However, the young monarch’s troubles were far from over. While Theodosius held court in Milan, Valentinian II was installed in Vienne (in France) with Emperor Theodosius acting as his guardian since Justina had died around 391. As the East Roman Emperor had plenty to keep himself busy, he delegated his duties as guardian to his Frankish general Arbogast.

Emperor Valentinian II occupied himself with peaceful pursuits in Vienne while Arbogast marched off to fight the Germans along the Rhine in his name. However, it was clear that Arbogast was the real ruler in the west, not Valentinian II who he jealously guarded. Though nominally answerable to Emperor Theodosius, it is likely that the Eastern Emperor would not have approved of his tyrannical treatment of Valentinian. Anyone who became too close to the isolated young man could be expected to meet an unhappy end, always with the justification that the person had been guilty of some crime. Harmonius, for example, was a friend of Valentinian who was murdered by Arbogast personally and in the presence of the young emperor himself. Arbogast justified this by asserting that Harmonius had been guilty of taking bribes, but then as now many suspected that he simply wished to keep Valentinian isolated and under his power.

St Ambrose
All of this, naturally, greatly disturbed Valentinian who was, by then, certainly more than old enough to be ruling on his own without a “guardian”. He saw an opportunity when word came that barbarians were preparing to attack Italy. Valentinian II planned to lead an army into Italy himself, no doubt hoping that he could establish a source of military strength for himself that would enable him to stand on his own. However, Arbogast could see where that might lead as well as anyone and refused to allow the Emperor to leave. Valentinian II then attempted to simply dismiss Arbogast from imperial service but Arbogast openly defied him on the grounds that he had been appointed by Emperor Theodosius and Valentinian II had no authority to relieve him of his command. Emperor Valentinian II was still little more than a prisoner but did manage to write for help, appealing to St Ambrose in Milan and Emperor Theodosius that he was being overruled by a barbarian general. He also requested to get right with the Church and for St Ambrose to come to Vienne to baptize him in rejection of the Arianism of his mother.

However, none of that was to happen and it may be that Arbogast was informed of what had been written in those letters for on May 15, 392 Emperor Valentinian II was found dead, hanging in his palace in Vienne. He was only twenty-one years old. Arbogast said that he had committed suicide and certainly his life had been one to encourage depression and despair. However, many people, then as now, believe that Arbogast had the young emperor murdered, with many accepting this as a matter of fact. Given what he had just written to Theodosius and St Ambrose, it does seem that, while in despair, Valentinian still held out hope for redress of his situation. The timing of his sudden death certainly points to Arbogast being the guilty party. We also know that St Ambrose eulogized him and praised him highly as a virtuous, young monarch, a Christian Roman emperor who should be an example to others. It seems highly unlikely he would have done so if he had harbored any suspicion that the Emperor had killed himself.

So it was with that air of mystery and suspicion that the reign of Emperor Valentinian II came to an end. His body was carried, with full imperial Roman pomp and ceremony, to Milan where his remains were met by St Ambrose and his weeping sisters Justa and Grata. He was buried alongside Emperor Gratian in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Arbogast, though first claiming to remain loyal to Theodosius by proclaiming his son Arcadius emperor, eventually set up his own puppet usurper in the person of Eugenius. Emperor Theodosius came west, defeated Eugenius and Arbogast and placed his son Honorius on the throne as Western Roman Emperor.

Valentinian II
As for Emperor Valentinian II, his tragic death marked the end of his dynasty and its replacement with the Theodosian. His all too short life had been spent dominated by others, often treated as a rather well kept prisoner but thanks to St Ambrose, when he is remembered at all, he is generally remembered well, as a good-hearted young man who could have made for a great emperor if he had truly been given a chance. The account of St Ambrose is convincing given that he had no reason to distort the truth and would have gained nothing by it. During the young of Valentinian II, the two had often been at odds. Influenced by his Arian mother, orders given in his name were defied by St Ambrose and he also met Church opposition when Valentinian wished to preserve the monuments of pagan Rome, an act which caused the pagans to try to gain more, such as the restoration of the Altar of Victory in the Senate but to this Valentinian II could not agree. His eventual renunciation of Arianism seems to have been genuine and under different circumstances he may well have become one of the great lights in the twilight era of the Roman Empire. That he was not is unfortunate but, according to St Ambrose, he nonetheless set a worthy example in his own tragic life of strength of character in the face of great adversity.