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Why were there no Nuremberg trials for Italian fascists?

“Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.” Anthony (2003)

The history of World War II hides numerous secrets. The Nuremberg Trials that took place between 1945 and 1949 exposed the severity of atrocities and the scope of crimes against humanity. Dozens of Nazi leaders and officials were brought to the courtroom to face criminal prosecutions and punishment for their crimes. Yet, the international community did not treat all the atrocities equally. Today, significant questions remain as to why most Italian fascist leaders escaped Nuremberg like trials. The case is particularly significant as most Italian fascists who were responsible for thousands (if not millions) of innocent deaths in Ethiopia were not prosecuted. It appears that the awareness of the Ethiopian genocide was shallow; international organizations, including the erstwhile League of Nations, took few, if any, steps to respond to the Italian atrocities in Ethiopia before the official outbreak of the Second World War.

 The 1930s were some of the bloodiest years for Ethiopia. As Europe and the rest of the world were struggling to fend off Germany’s aggression led by Nazis, thousands of people in Ethiopia, and Addis Ababa in particular, were facing death and physical sufferings caused by the Italian fascist regime. According to Pankhurst (1999), in 1935-36, Italian fascists occupied Ethiopia, organizing major atrocities against Ethiopians. Mustard gas was used to bomb ambulances and Red Cross hospitals (Pankhurst, 1999). The Graziani massacre, which is often described as Yekalit 12 (February 19), was organized in 1937, two years after Italians had occupied Ethiopia. It lasted three days, killing nearly 30,000 Ethiopians in Addis Ababa (Dibaba, 2018). The massacre owes its name to Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, who escaped an attempted assassination by two Ethiopians/ Eritreans. As the assassination attempt failed, Graziani issued an immediate response that translated into a significant massacre in Ethiopian history. Thousands of Ethiopians were killed by truncheons and daggers, in an attempt to strengthen the fascist presence in Addis Ababa and remind locals of the risks they might face, should they try to resist the fascist regime and its occupation. With thousands of innocent deaths caused by the fascist in Ethiopia, it is still unclear why they never reached the agenda of the Nuremberg Trials. Here are two possible rationales.

Firstly, the international community gave a blind eye toward the atrocities that were taking place in Ethiopia during the 1930s. It is possible to assume that Europeans were busy handling their own military and strategic decisions to pay attention to events in Africa, no matter how outrageous they were. For them, it is outside of the European borders. Pankhurst (1999) writes that Fascist atrocities in Ethiopia were well-known to the world; yet, most international organizations failed to issue any organized response or act openly against Italian fascists in Addis Ababa. Following the invasion of Ethiopia by Italians in 1935, the Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs sent an official note to the League of Nations, but no response followed on the organization’s side. It is not before the beginning of 1937 that the League went ahead to appoint an official who would monitor the investigation of Italian crimes in Ethiopia, but no such investigation was ever completed (Pankhurst, 1999). As the Second World War unfolded and came to an end, the representatives of numerous European countries came forward to demand formal action and justice on the crimes committed by Nazis. Unfortunately, the Nuremberg Trials covered only the crimes committed by Nazis and fascists in Europe; moreover, they touched mainly German Nazi leaders and officials, ignoring Italian fascist atrocities in Africa. The Nuremberg Trials, as well as other criminal justice processes, did not mention the Fascist atrocities committed in Ethiopia. Not surprisingly, the Italian officials guilty of crimes against Ethiopians were never brought to trial.

Secondly, and mostly due to the facts mentioned above, the public awareness of Ethiopian atrocities remains quite low. The world knows what a “Holocaust” is, linking it mostly with the events that took place in Europe. Unfortunately, the meaning of the “Holocaust” does not extend to cover Italian fascist crimes in Ethiopia. Today, it is quite difficult, and at times impossible, to reverse the deceptively “positive” image of Fascist Italians during WWII. Carroll (2001) writes that, for many years, Italy’s secrets were safe. Although the system of criminal justice sought more than 1,200 Fascist Italians for the crimes they had committed during WWII in Africa, they never faced any trial (Carroll, 2001). Italy has gone a long way to cover up the crimes against humanity it committed during its presence in Ethiopia. It is a continuous, long-term strategy, and it continues today. For instance, some biographers distort the image of Italian fascists, presenting them as the heroes of WWII who fought against Germany (Carroll, 2001). After so many years, it is virtually impossible to find a person who could be reasonably convicted for killing thousands of Ethiopians during the 1930s. As such, the crime remains unresolved. It is a painful legacy, and the new generation will hardly understand, as long as the cover-up of Fascist Italians crimes continues.

All in all, Italian fascists never went through Nuremberg trials because the international community was not willing to take action against crimes committed in Africa, Ethiopia. Europe acted ignorant and arrogant toward the families of Ethiopians who were killed during the Addis Ababa massacre and other atrocities throughout Ethiopia. Years may pass before the world can see and acknowledge its failure to protect Ethiopians from fascist violence.

Ed.’s Note: Samuel Alemu, Esq is a partner at ILBSG, LLP. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and Addis Ababa University. Samuel has been admitted to the bar associations of New York State, United States Tax Court, and the United States Court of International Trade. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow Samuel on twitter @salemu.

Contributed by Samuel Alemu