Death To Fascism, Then and Now: How Ethiopia Fought Back Against Mussolini

Ethiopians were the first to fight fascism. With right wing nationalism on the rise again we can take a page from their book.

Weeks back, shortly after the horrific display of white supremacist violence that took place in Charlottesville, I had a conversation.

I yelled and ranted to a poor non-drunk soul about how fascists should be treated harshly and with no sympathy. I might have said something about utilizing methods they historically used to deal with those they said were inferior.

The conversation around the rise of white supremacist fascists, as exacerbated by the Trump regime, has taken a clever rhetorical turn where, instead of us speaking about the brutality and injustice and evil that these people clamor for, we out here talking about “free speech."

Free speech is cute and good and necessary, but when that speech advocates for the genocide of a group of people, when it turns into saying they should be subject to cruelty and oppression because of this faux-biological reason and that faux-biological reason, when that talk turns physical, fuck that, because we should not allow it to turn physical, we should be shutting that shit all the way the fuck down with whatever tools are at our disposal. We can't be out here allowing fascists to grow, giving them platforms to spread their dangerous yacubian ideologies. Because, when we do, really, really bad things happen to people.

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, in his study at the palace via Wikimedia

In 1936 the King of Ethiopia was in Geneva waiting to speak in front of the League of Nations, an international organization that was the precursor to the United Nations. Standing somewhere between 5'2 and 5'4 and sporting a short afro, the King of the then feudal empire of Ethiopia made his way to the podium. He readied himself to make a solemnly impassioned plea to the gathered body to aid his country against an invasion from Mussolini's fascist Italy.

A group of fascist Italian journalists waited for the Emperor to touch the stage.

During the onslaught of European colonialism known as the Scramble for Africa, Italy, failed to colonize Ethiopia, eventually being beaten back by Emperor Menelik II's forces at the decisive Battle of Adwa in 1896.

With the help of the fellow Orthodox Christian nation of Russia, who sent advisers and weapons, and diplomatic support from France and Great Britain, Ethiopia retained its independence, making it the only country in Africa to do so.

Defeated and demoralized, a stain on their twisted imperialistic European hubris, Italy would try again to take and rule Ethiopia in the twentieth century under the leadership of Benito Mussolini and his newly established and armed ideology of fascism.

Benito Mussolini inspecting troops during the Second Abyssinian War. via Wikimedia

In 1930, in violation of the Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1928, Italy constructed a fort in Ethiopian territory, near the Italian Somaliland border. Ethiopia protested the incursion. Tensions grew and a fight between the two sides erupted, taking the lives of around 110 Ethiopians and 30-50 Italians and Somalis. The League of Nations took a stance of neutrality, a neutrality that benefited Italy, deciding that neither side was at fault. Hoping to keep alive the possibility of Italy as an ally against the growing threat of Germany, France and the U.K. did not condemn the Italians.

A string of developments in the region, particularly Hitler's militaristic intentions, allowed Italy to operate freely in East Africa, their colonial ambitions unimpeded, they began to prepare for their jingoistic pursuits.

It was a green light for the fascists to begin a massive military buildup on the borders of Ethiopia, to finally, after the embarrassment of defeat in the 19th century, take what they believed to be rightfully theirs: Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Army 1935 via Wikimedia

With an Italian invasion imminent, Selassie readied the Army of the Ethiopian Empire, a force of around 500,000 poorly armed soldiers, many carrying just swords and spears. Understanding his country's stark disadvantage, Selassie issued a Mobilization Order that read, “Women with babies, the blind, and those too aged and infirm to carry a spear are excused." Everyone else was to head to Addis Ababa to defend the country.

“Anyone found at home after receiving this order will be hanged."

Though he could speak French, the official language of the League of Nations, the Emperor symbolically choose to address the body in his native Amharic. The Fascist Italian journalists in attendance broke out with loud jeers as the exiled Ethiopian leader began to speak. Pandemonium ensued.

The fascist were eventually removed by police, order restored. The Emperor then began again:

“I, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to claim that justice which is due to my people, and the assistance promised to it eight months ago, when fifty nations asserted that aggression had been committed in violation of international treaties."

With no official declaration of war, Italian General Emilio De Bono crossed the Mareb River into Ethiopia from Eritrea in the early morning hours of October 3, 1935. A few months later, the Ethiopians would win a victory in what became known as the Christmas Offensive, beating back the Italian forces. The defeat brought about the introduction of chemical warfare into the conflict. The Ethiopian offensive was eventually halted and rain of poisonous gas devastated Ethiopia and its population.

The emperor continued, “The very refinement of barbarism consisted in carrying ravage and terror into the most densely populated parts of the territory, the points farthest removed from the scene of hostilities. The object was to scatter fear and death over a great part of the Ethiopian territory. These fearful tactics succeeded. Men and animals succumbed. The deadly rain that fell from the aircraft made all those whom it touched fly shrieking with pain. All those who drank the poisoned water or ate the infected food also succumbed in dreadful suffering. In tens of thousands, the victims of the Italian mustard gas fell. It is in order to denounce to the civilized world the tortures inflicted upon the Ethiopian people that I resolved to come to Geneva."

Haile Selassie in Jerusalem via Wikimedia

The much larger country of Italy would be successful in their conquest, occupying Ethiopia from the end of the colonial war in May 5, 1936 until their defeat in WW2 during the East African Campaign in 1941. A diverse range of Allied forces from the British Empire, in addition to Ethiopian irregulars, the Free French and others participated in the campaign against the Axis power. At the war's end hundreds of thousands of civilians and combatants were killed or wounded.

Spain, who in 1936 erupted into a civil war after a group of conservatives known as the Nationalist orchestrated a coup against the democratically elected left leaning government, along with Ethiopia, became the first arenas of large scale war against the authoritarian ideology of fascism. With the large western powers that would come to form the Allied forces refusing to take decisive and concrete action to help the socialist, communist, and anarchist units that made up the Spanish Republicans or the Black African Ethiopians, the European fascist movement grew emboldened and stronger, expanding their fascists atrocities from Ethiopia and Spain further into Europe and the world, a conflict that would develop into the catastrophic loss of life that was WW2.

As he wound down the speech, Selassie asked the assembly, “what measures do you intend to take?"

As he walked away from the stage, he has been reported to have said “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow."

Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Maia & The Big Sky LP cover.

Start Your Week Off Right With This Soulful Kenyan Collaboration

Maia & the Big Sky connect with Blinky Bill for "Pawa."

Maia & the Big Sky's music routinely blends soul and funk influences with the coastal rhythms of Kenya and features singing in both English and Kiswahili.

Maia's recently tapped into the vinyl revival wave as her 11-song Maia & the Big Sky LP is reportedly the first Kenyan album released on vinyl since the 1970s.

The Nairobi-based artist is now sharing the new music video for "Pawa," the album's leading track, which we're premiering here today. Directed by Chris King, the beautiful new clip sees Maia & the Big Sky taking over the TV airwaves and minds of all of those watching, freeing them from the "power" that controls them.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo: Mídia NINJA

The Assassination of Marielle Franco and the Dawn of Brazil's New Civil Rights Movement

Marielle Franco was one of a new generation of black activists trying to overturn Brazil's entrenched and violent racism

The violence in Rio de Janeiro right now is akin to a war zone, with per capita death tolls resembling those from Afghanistan and Syria. Two weeks ago I traveled there for business and stayed in the relatively safe and trendy neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Each night of my stay, was abruptly awaken by long streams of gunshots and also fireworks from the nearby favela of Falett. The fireworks—as I learned from my local friends—were not a result of any celebration, rather a signal that either drugs, guns, or the police have arrived. This is the norm for many of the 763 favelas in Rio which houses nearly 25 percent of the city's population.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox