One way Mussolini tried to make Italians proud of their nation was by acquiring an empire in East Africa. After conquering Ethiopia, he brought an obelisk back to Rome, thus likening himself to the Ancient Romans. Today we review Mussolini and the monuments celebrating the imperial efforts of modern Italy.

Show Notes

Our three previous episodes on Mussolini focused on the ways he changed the look of Rome and on his attempt to promote enthusiasm for his regime by making more visible the past greatness of Rome and the Italian people. He could use this past greatness to highlight the failures of Italy’s half-century of parliamentary government and to promise that the decisive, ordered, and nationalistic goals of the Fascists could make Italy a country of which modern Italians could be proud. With boasts like this, and other claims related to the especially challenging circumstances of the period just after World War I, Mussolini became the first of three major European leaders to reject liberal democratic principles and embrace Fascism.

European Imperial Possessions in Africa before World War I

Not surprisingly, he tried to demonstrate Italian greatness by reference to the present as well as to the ancient past, and one way in which he tried to do so was by seeking a new empire for Italy. Let me be quick to add that the allure of empire was not a Fascist invention. Great Britain, France, Belgium, and other European nations had empires well in advance of the arrival of Italian Fascism. And Italy too had sought an empire in the pre-Fascist decades before World War I. As they had earlier competed against one another in the Americas, so European nations engaged in what got called “the Scramble for Africa.” Different parts of Africa were sought out for different reasons, such as strategically located ports, valuable natural resources, or a source of new soldiers. Thucydides said of the ancient Athenian Empire that it was first motivated by fear—that is by considerations of national security—but also by the desire for honor and profit. These motives were also at work in newly united Italy, as she sought an empire to catch up with her European rivals. If this is true for Italy’s pre-Fascist scramble for an African Empire, I think it’s also true for Mussolini’s imperial push a half century later.

I do not know of a monument still standing in Rome today that directly celebrates Italy’s imperial efforts, but Mussolini erected two. Both were later removed, one in late 1960’s, the other not until 2003. An indirect tribute to Italy’s pre-Fascist imperial efforts still stands today, about a hundred yards in front of the Termini Train Station, a tribute to soldiers who were killed in a town called Dogali in Eritrea.

Dogali Obelisk (Fontema-Public-domain-via-Wikimedia-Commons)

Fought in 1887, the Battle of Dogali was a major victory for the Ethiopians and a setback for Italy’s imperial ambitions in East Africa. Italy had occupied coastal Eritrea but then tried to move inland into Ethiopia. A force of over 500 soldiers was taken by surprise and almost completely annihilated, which stunned Italy but did not yet lead to an abandonment of the imperial enterprise. It was decided to honor the defeated soldiers, and it happened that another ancient Egyptian obelisk had been discovered in Rome just 4 years earlier, one that was grouped in ancient times with the two obelisks now standing in front of the Pantheon and Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

It was quickly given a base and inscribed with the names and ranks of the fallen soldiers. I presume that, in contrast to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Washington Mall, part of the purpose of the Dogali obelisk was to strengthen the resolve of the nation and its soldiers, for the defeat at Dogali did not deter Italy from continuing the fight in Ethiopia. The obelisk stands in the Piazza dei Cinquecento, the Piazza of the Five Hundred, a reference to the 500-plus soldiers who died in the battle. Although I find it an instructive reminder of Italy’s past as a would-be imperial power, it has more recently become a place for some of Rome’s drunks to pass their days and nights, so the overall effect is not at all what was first intended.

Ethiopia, Adowa, and the Capital City, Addis Adaba

This obelisk remembering Dogali was inaugurated on the anniversary of Italy’s constitution in 1887. (We’ll soon see again that Mussolini dedicated his monuments on Fascist holidays, not on traditional ones.) In inaugurating the Dogali obelisk, the mayor of Rome declared, “This Egyptian granite shows the values of the Italians and that we know how to die when the honor of the national flag calls for the sacrifice of life.” As it happened, the Italian flag continued to call for the sacrifice of life in the Scramble for Africa, and it would be 9 years before Italy suffered a defeat so devastating that it led to a decisive retreat. This defeat occurred in the Battle of Adowa, in which at least eight times as many Italian soldiers were killed as at Dogali. This costly drubbing toppled the government and led Italy to abandon its operations in Ethiopia. Although the losses at Adowa were much greater than those at Dogali, no Roman monuments were built to remember them. Perhaps this is because Dogali was thought to be a defeat on the way to an eventual victory, whereas the humiliation at Adowa was so intense as to mark the end of Italy’s African adventure, at least for the foreseeable future.  It’s tricky for a nation to erect a monument to a costly failure.

A quarter of a century later, the gnawing memory of Italy’s inability to keep pace with her European rivals in the quest for empire offered an opportunity for Mussolini to show that Fascism could succeed where parliamentary democracy had failed, and he embraced the challenge warmly. His imperial ambitions extended to Albania and other parts of the Balkan Peninsula, but he summarized the core of his policy as a “March to the Oceans.” He claimed Italy was in effect imprisoned by other European powers and needed a way out. His “march to the oceans” set out his goal of securing outlets to both the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans by acquiring imperial possessions that stretched across northern Africa. He began the march by invading Ethiopia in 1935, 39 years after Italy’s first such invasion had been abandoned. He wanted a rapid and decisive victory to show the world the strength of Fascism and to obliterate the memory of Italy’s earlier defeat. To achieve this rapid victory, he sent a huge army of 500,000 soldiers, and Italian troops did in fact succeed in taking Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, in early May of 1936. The Italian Empire was promptly declared into existence on May 8.

Newsreels from the period suggest that the new empire was widely experienced in Italy as a proud moment, though this enthusiasm was possible only because the horrors and costs of the war were hidden or denied. Mussolini could hardly claim that he was bringing the virtues of civilization to Ethiopia if it were known that he had authorized the extensive use of poison gas, and he could not claim victory if he admitted that fighting continued outside of the capital. The Italian losses were not negligible, about ten times the 500 memorialized by the Dogali Obelisk, but the brutality of the war was felt especially by Ethiopian soldiers and civilians. Estimates vary widely, but is seems safe to say that a half-million or more were killed, with aerial bombardment and poison gas having been especially lethal. Or so it seems, but some Italian sources claim that poison gas was not used extensively. No one, so far as I know, denies that on December 28, 1935, Mussolini sent the following message to his leading general, Pietro Badoglio: “Given the enemy system I have authorized Your Excellency the use of any gas, even on a vast scale.”

A distinguished scholar and one I turn to for everything having to do with modern Italy, Dennis Mack Smith, reported that Mussolini held the view that in politics, success was the only morality. But even in such a callous view, trying as best we can to leave its barbarity aside for the sake of a thought experiment, can the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia be considered a success? Italy controlled the better part of the country and called itself an empire for six years, but the invasion was fabulously expensive and, as far as I can tell, produced few tangible gains. It drew much of the Italian army out of Italy at a time when tensions in Europe were rising. And it alienated the western democracies and thus pushed Italy closer to Hitler, with whom Mussolini soon joined in a disastrous alliance.

Mussolini nevertheless managed to present the acquisition of an Italian Empire as a great achievement. He seemed to succeed where the old regime had failed. His marches and rallies drew huge and enthusiastic crowds, and whatever some may have thought to themselves, his public reputation was such that he could get away with publishing, and republishing, a so-called “Fascist Decalogue” or “Fascist Ten Commandments,” which boldly declared, “Mussolini is always right,” for example. His name was sometimes invoked in lieu of anesthetics before surgical procedures, and he was often asked to bless babies. On top of the restrictions of a controlled press, if Mussolini insisted that the new empire in East Africa was a great thing for Italy, the climate of opinion made it virtually impossible for anyone who thought otherwise to point out its high cost or the atrocities committed in its name.

Obelisk of Axum in Rome

To call attention to the declared success of his imperial venture, Mussolini imitated Augustus and brought back an ancient obelisk from the conquered people. Italian soldiers found the obelisk in Axum, the capital city of an ancient empire in northern Ethiopia. He even published a photograph of this obelisk side by side with a photo of the obelisk in Piazza del Popolo, which Augustus had brought from Egypt. The photos make them appear to be the same height, though in fact the obelisk from Axum is much shorter, the sort of distortion necessary for Mussolini to make himself a second Augustus. Popular literature echoed Mussolini and claimed, for example, that the obelisk showed “an ideal continuity of tradition and significance between the glory of the ancient Empire and that of the new.”

Technically, the obelisk from Axum is not an obelisk but a large stele, for obelisks have a pointed pyramid on top, whereas it does not, and it is also made of basalt, rather than the granite typical of Egyptian obelisks. One of about fifty obelisks or steles in the city of Axum, at the time of its discovery it was partially buried and broken into three pieces. To make it easier to move, two of the three pieces were cut to produce five more manageable pieces, and it was then transported to Rome and reassembled at Piazza Porta Capena, at the southern end of the Circus Maximus and in front of what would become the large offices from which Italy planned to administer its growing empire. Like so many other Fascist celebrations in other years, the unveiling of the Obelisk of Axum took place on October 28, the anniversary of the March on Rome that brought Mussolini into political power. The unveiling was in 1937, and the event is captured in a short film which shows that the obelisk was located where it would suggest—however implausibly—a close connection between Italy’s new empire and that of the ancient Romans, for it stood in direct view of the Arch of Constantine, the Colosseum, and the Palatine Hill. This visual connection was also stressed in the popular press, and a radio manufacturer called one of its new models the “Axum” and featured the obelisk in its ads.

Mussolini did not leave it at seizing the Obelisk of Axum. He also had other prizes taken back to Rome. The second most important came from Ethiopia’s capital

The Lion of Judah, seized from Ethiopia and placed beneath the Obelisk of Dogali

city. It was a gilded bronze statue of a lion, the Lion of Judah, which was a symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy he had just overthrown. As a way of calling attention to this victory, while also showing that Fascist Italy had succeeded where liberal Italy had failed, Mussolini had the statue of the lion placed at the base of the obelisk that honored the 500 soldiers killed at the Battle of Dogali a half-century earlier. It was unveiled in a triumphant celebration on the first anniversary of the Italian Empire, on May 8, 1937. I’ll put a picture of it on the Get Ready for Rome website, as I will also of the other monuments discussed today.

As the Obelisk of Axum and the Lion of Judah reminded Italians of the victory their Duce had brought them, changes were made back in Addis Ababa to show the Ethiopians that Italy had now avenged her earlier losses. Emperor Menelik II was Ethiopia’s leader at the Battle of Adowa, which was such a humiliating disaster for Italy. He had died a quarter of a century earlier, but an equestrian statue of him stood proudly in the capital city, as a constant reminder of his glorious victory. Mussolini insisted that it come down within 24 hours of the arrival of Italian troops. Fear of the local reaction and the difficulty of the dismantling the statue led to delays, but it was taken down, as were other less conspicuous signs of Italy’s past humiliation. As evidence of other looting, three ancient crowns disappeared from Addis Ababa, but they were found in Mussolini’s possession at the time he was captured and executed in northern Italy.

Less than 7 years after Mussolini had the Obelisk of Axum and the Lion of Judah brought to Rome, Italy lost its East African Empire, Fascism was overthrown, and Mussolini was shot and his body subjected to abuse. After World War II ended, Italy agreed at the Paris Peace Conference of 1947, that within 18 months they would restore “all works of art, religious objects, archives and objects of historical value belonging to Ethiopia or its nationals and removed from Ethiopia to Italy since October 3, 1935.” In the case of the Lion of Judah, it took not 18 months but 24 years, and in the case of the Obelisk of Axum, almost 60 years. Technical and financial challenges help to explain the delay in the case of the obelisk, as do political changes in both countries, but there were also arguments against removing the obelisk at all.

In contrast to the argument in the United States that statues should come down if they might encourage racism, I don’t think it was commonly argued that the Obelisk of Axum might promote a return to imperialism or fascism in Italy. With few exceptions, the case for removing the obelisk was not that it was harmful or shameful but that it belonged to Ethiopia, and Italy had promised to return it. The few who wanted Italy to keep the monument did so without reference to its original role as a celebration of the Italian Empire, rather like the way the British Museum holds on to marbles from the Parthenon without meaning thereby to honor the goddess Athena. I was surprised to learn that there were no celebratory, pro-Fascist inscriptions around the base of the monument, and there were none of the usual Fascist symbols, such as the ancient Roman Fasces. This made it easier to forget the original reasons the obelisk was brought to Rome. By contrast, the obelisk remembering the troops killed at Dogali states its purpose clearly, and when the popes re-erected ancient obelisks, they always added inscriptions and symbols that converted them to the Christian cause. Nor did they omit their family coat of arms.

It seems clear to me that the obelisk had to be returned to Axum and the Lion of Judah to Addis Ababa. The wonder is that it took so long. The more difficult question is the general one, for there are other architectural reminders of Fascism that remain in Rome and other parts of Italy: How should Italy decide which such reminders must come down? All of them? All that can be removed affordably? All that still recommend a return to Fascism?

I’d like to address this big and ongoing question soon, but for the time being, and regarding the two obelisks we’ve discussed today, let me just share an impression. This impression should certainly be tested, not accepted. From my reading about the obelisk and its return, I’m inclined to think that it had largely lost its Fascist connections in the minds of most Italians. Imperialism has become a forgotten bad dream, and if the obelisk still spoke, it delivered a different message. It became a mere landmark, one useful for drivers before the era of the GPS and one, for example, that marked the starting point for a large religious procession to the shrine of the Madonna del Divino Amore (the Madonnna of Divine Love). As far as I can determine, it was never used as a rallying point for a rightwing political rally. If true, this impression does not challenge the view that the obelisk had to be returned: it did, for it belonged to Ethiopia, as Italy herself admitted. I merely wonder whether it is a case in which political changes and the passage of time had defanged a monument once meant to stimulate bellicose passions.

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