New book sheds fresh light on Italian war crimes in Ethiopia and the help the Pope gave to Mussolini’s fascists

Posted: 25 January, 2022 | Category: Book Reviews Category: Current News Category: Features & Analysis Category: Uncategorized

Book Review

Holy War – The untold story of Catholic Italy’s crusade against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’ by Ian Campbell (Hurst & Company, London, 449 pp)

by Trevor Grundy


THE CENTENARY of Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome (October 1922) is just around the corner. So, expect a tsunami of books about the birth, the rise and the fall of Fascism and Nazism in April 1945.  Millions of words have been written. Millions more to come.

Hopefully, some of them will shed fresh light rather than more heat on a quasi-religious/political phenomenon that swept over so much of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s and which, over a century after its foundation, shows signs of resurgence in the land of its birth, Italy.

Journalist friends in Rome tell me that tens of thousands of Italians – some in their nineties but the majority of them in their twenties, thirties and forties- are planning trips to Predappio in the Emila-Romagna Province where Mussolini was born – son of a socialist blacksmith in 1883 – to mark the occasion.

When it comes to studies about the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini, Il Duce (the leader in Italian) is usually portrayed as the buffoonish ice cream salesman in a silk Blackshirt doing funny salutes on balconies: a man who had good ‘socialist’ ideas when he was young but who, along the road, fell under the influence of Hitler and became the German fuhrer’s tool, his puppet, his fellow monster.

But, goes the song, the Italian soldiers were only ever reluctant Fascists. Nice guys really. Lovely eyes and smiles. Not at all like the German Waffen SS. So, if people want to waste their money by travelling to a tiny village in Italy to lay wreaths and do salutes – let them.

Yet, imagine the outcry if it was discovered that tens of thousands of Austrians and Germans were planning air, bus and coach trips to Munich to mark the centenary of Hitler’s attempted coup in 1923.

And the explosion of international morality that would be heard if travel agents began planning trips to Berlin to mark the centenary of Hitler coming to power in January 1933.

So, three cheers for this new book by Ian Campbell who has, once again, turned the caring Italian Army myth upside down and inside out. To my mind, it’s the perfect antidote to Louis de Bernieres and ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ and the even more embarrassing film version of his 1994 novel.

Il Duce  proclaims the birth of a new Roman Empire after his ‘victory’ in Ethiopia


Holy War’ is a long, carefully researched book about a little-known period of recent history.  It is a book that deserves a place on school, college and university shelves an, I think, be read before or after reading David Kertzer’s ‘The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius X1 and the rise of Fascism.’

Campbell’s latest study of Ethiopia is divided into five parts. The book is well illustrated, showing readers what the leading characters of the drama looked like. There are several excellent maps. Hats off to Hurst & Company for doing that. It is infuriating to read about places in remote parts of the world without knowing where they are.

So, in several ways, this is the ‘go for’ book if you want to learn as much as you need to know about an invasion that helped shape the rest of the 1930s, a paving stone towards World War in 1939.   In a book of 449 pages, 138 are taken up with appendixes, notes, an exhaustive bibliography and index.    Students and lecturers around the world will find these references invaluable.


Ian Campbell is no stranger to Ethiopia and its long, often tragic story.

His first book on Italian colonialism in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) ‘The Plot to Kill Graziani’ (Addis Ababa University Press 2010) was declared Ethiopian book of the year. His second, ‘The Massacre of Debre Libanos’ (AAU Press, 2014) and a third ‘The Addis Ababa Massacre’ (Hurst, London and Oxford University Press, New York, 2017) which was an account of the atrocities committed by the Italian Army and its Fascist commanders following the attack on civilians the year after the ‘official’ end of the Italian invasion, a time when most of the world looked away from events in Africa towards Italy’s and Germany’s new intervention in the Spanish Civil War.

‘Holy War’ is a brilliant book which gripped me from the word go.

The author tells us that over thirty years ago in the Eastern Highlands he was conducting a socio-cultural study of the communities in a large valley in the rugged district of Northern Shewa. The principal centre of population in the gorge used to be a monastery named Debre Libanos. Dating from the 13th century, it constituted one of the greatest and most revered institutions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to which the majority of Ethiopians belonged.

‘To my surprise,’ he writes in the Preface, ’I was informed by the priests that in 1937, the entire monastic community had been brutally massacred by Italians.’

Italian soldiers?

‘I knew that in October 1935 Ethiopia became the world’s first sovereign state to fall victim to Fascist invasion. I also knew that it was not the last, for Mussolini’s attempted annexation of Ethiopia inspired Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, disempowered the League of Nations, and triggered a chain of military invasions that culminated in the Second World War. However, I was under the impression that, unlike the Nazis and the Japanese, Italian soldiers of the 1930s were bumbling, harmless and friendly young men fighting reluctantly in a war in which they had been drafted against their will. Atrocities were not something I associated with Italians.’

Poorly armed Ethiopian warriors up against well-equipped Italian soldiers

The war of conquest conducted by Fascist Italy started in October 1935 and ended (officially) in May 1936. The origins of the conflict are diverse and can be traced back to the 19th century when the Ethiopian Army defeated the Italians after the Battle of Adwa in 1896. The defeat remained a thorn in Italy’s side and Mussolini, dreaming and scheming for a new Roman Empire, set about getting his revenge.

Says Campbell: ‘With an army consisting initially of some two hundred thousand well- armed soldiers equipped with tanks and flame throwers and with the support of hundreds of aircraft equipped with machine guns and loaded with bombs and chemical weapons, the Italians launched an offensive against the Ethiopians, who despite Haile Selassie’s recent attempt at modernisation, were still poorly armed.’

The war was short and costly in human lives, especially on the Ethiopian side. Ethiopia suffered almost 300,000 battle-field deaths, over thirty times more than Italy.

The treatment of prisoners and civilians was ruthless. Thousand were led into concentration camps where they died of disease or starvation.


But when Mussolini declared victory on May 7, 1936, the country was far from vanquished. Two-thirds were still under Ethiopian control and there was never a formal surrender. Open battles were superseded by guerrilla actions led by Ethiopian patriots.  Italian reprisals were violent and bloody.

It was then that the massacre of Addis Ababa  took place, a massacre in response to an assassination attempt on Marshall Graziani, the Viceroy of Ethiopia.  After grenades were thrown by Ethiopian patriots in front of Graziani’s car, Italian soldiers started shooting all Africans in sight. The killings continued for three days, leaving several thousand dead.

The second great massacre took place in Debre Libanos on May 8.  After discovering the links between monks and guerrilla fighters, Graziani ordered the execution of almost three hundred monks, whose corpses remained unburied until well after the end of war.

Graziani’s massacres persuaded many Ethiopians to take up arms against the Italian invaders.

But the Italian Army didn’t consist of just Italian soldiers.

Campbell explains that many askaris from the Italian colonies of Eritrea, Italian Somaliland and Libya fought for Mussolini. The Eritreans were well- trained and well- armed. But the majority were members of the same Orthodox Christian faith as their Ethiopian cousins and could hardly be expected to engage in a Roman Catholic crusade against their co-religionists.

‘These issues would lead the Italians to increasingly deploy Muslim brigades for their campaigns against the Ethiopian Church,’ says Campbell.

David Kertzer’s trail-blazing book about the role played by Pope Pius X1 during Italy’s ‘Holy War’ invasion of Ethiopia in 1935


Perhaps the most shocking chapter of this most worthwhile book is ‘Missionaries of the Cross.’

In many ways, it is the key to the book and deserves reading, not once but several times in order to grasp the full horror of what happened when the world’s largest group of Christians – Roman Catholics – fell in line behind a Pope giving tacit support to the Fascist regime in a cruel crusade against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as well as the Ethiopian Army and the country’s  largely Christian population. The barbarity of the invading forces shocked the Ethiopians because Italy claimed to be a Christian country. But, writes Campbell, Italian consciences were clear because the official view of the Roman Catholic Church was that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was in heresy because of its belief that Jesus had one nature, the Divine, and not two, Divine and Human.

The Pope, Pius X1, cardinals and priests in pulpits on Sundays assured Italians that that the invasion of Ethiopia was a Catholic crusade blessed by God. There were many messages to be put across, Campbell writes, ‘but the critical one was that a Holy war meant that any of God’s warriors who fell in battle would be guaranteed a place in heaven.’

Then this – ‘On October 19, the day after the French expressed their horror at the brutality of the invasion, La Civilta Cattolica hit back at the critics. This was the Jesuit journal whose contents were approved by the Vatican secretary of state and which was read by Catholics as the expression of the Pope’s views on the issues of the day. In a remarkable article that introduced new vocabulary labelling Ethiopian clergy as ‘ignorant and corrupt’, the message was merciless, justifying the carnage on the grounds that Ethiopia constituted a typical example of the moral and intellectual decay of a people detached from Rome through schism and heresy.’

He quotes David Kertzer: ‘Not since the days when popes ruled the papal states had the Catholic Church been so closely identified with the government. Not since the time of the crusades had it played such a central role in urging Catholics to foreign conquest.’

Adds Campbell: ‘The message received by the people of Italy and Catholics around the world was not unequivocal; the Fasces and the Cross were one and by early 1936 support for the on-going invasion was virtually universal throughout Italy. Indeed, it isa difficult to overstate the popularity of the war at that time; thousands of Blackshirt volunteers embarking for Ethiopia filled the ports of Genoa and Naples as far as the eye could see. The Church had served Mussolini well.’


Surely, this is a story that needs to be turned into a film.

But who would want to play the role of Santina Mangaria, Bishop of Civita Castellana, a diocese near Rome? On December 8 1935, at a public function in the presence of Mussolini, he spoke glowingly of the invasion of Ethiopia, thanking God for allowing him to see ‘these days of epic grandeur.’ Approaching Il Duce, the bishop slipped off his gold pastoral chain and handed it to him with the Fascist salute.

Then the bishop of San Miniato in the province of Pisa, Tuscany, stepped forward, telling Mussolini that ’for the victory of Italy in Ethiopia, the Italian clergy are ready to melt down the gold of the churches and the bronze of the bells.’

Postcards were published and they sold like hot cakes with messages printed on them promoting the invasion. They told ordinary Italians that Jesus Himself supported the invasion of Ethiopia.

In 1933 the Vatican’s Concordat with Hitler left a distinct impression that the Vatican saw dictatorships rather than democracies as its best defence against Communism, even if that meant disregarding the plight of German Jews and other ethnic minorities while looking the other way when the Roman Catholic Church insulted and down-graded the Ethiopian Orthodox Church community.

Earlier, in 1929, Mussolini had the Lateran Treaty under his leather belt, a treaty between the Fascist state and the Vatican which made the Catholic Church into a state which was secure as long as its leaders remained quiet when faced with Fascist policies they didn’t like. Mussolini was seen by Catholic and so many other people – including Winston Churchill – as the West’s best bet against the advance of Godless Communism.

War in Ethiopia. War in Spain. Onward Christian soldier, marching as to an 11th century Crusade against Islam.  Except in the case of the invasion of Abyssinia it was a ‘Christian’ power hammering the hell out of a fellow Christian state.

Could any Fascist or Nazi leader worth his salt, or his poison gas, ask for anything more?


This review first appeared in the February2022 edition of the Canadian on-line magazine ColdType