Italian Ethiopia at The Wolfsonian Library

This past month, The Wolfsonian Library hosted a three-week visit by James De Lorenzi, hailing from John Jay College (CUNY) and enjoying one of our Wolfsonian fellowships. Dr. De Lorenzi is currently working on a project about the Italian Orientalist scholar, Enrico Cerulli (1898–1988), and the ways in which his knowledge of East African anthropology, folklore, linguistics, and history was placed in the service of the Italian propaganda campaign and colonization project undertaken by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist state. While a simple search of our library catalog did not bring up any books penned by Cerulli, the fellow was impressed with how much primary source literature and visual propaganda we have concerning the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935–1936. Many of these materials were originally purchased from History Revealed or donated by some of our long-term supporters such as Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with Founder Funds

Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 was not the first time that the Italians attempted participate in the “scramble for Africa” or to turn Ethiopia into a colonial possession. Between 1887 to 1889, the Italian monarchy fought a war with the Ethiopian Empire that resulted in the Italian annexation of Eritrea and a treaty of peace that the Italian victors interpreted as effectively establishing an Italian protectorate over the region disputed by the Ethiopian Emperor, Menelik II. As early as 1893, Italian colonial troops in Italian Eritrea invaded Ethiopia, with a full-scale war being fought between 1895 and 1896. The 100,000 strong indigenous army inflicted a decisive defeat of the 20,000 Italian troops led by General Baratieri at the Battle of Adwa, killing 7,000 and capturing 3,000 more, with another 2,000 of their Eritrean Ascari allies dying in battle or being slaughtered after surrendering. The surviving colonial troops retreated back to Eritrea. The Wolfsonian Library holds a rare collecting card produced by the Compagnia Italiana Liebig in Milano that commemorates the battle.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

In the wake of Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922 and the subsequent assumption of dictatorial power by his National Fascist Party (PNF), Il Duce would begin to clamor for Italy’s “place in the sun.” Although Libya was colonized in the 1910s, the Fascist state would turn its attention back to Ethiopia in the mid-1930s, first embarking on a propaganda campaign to “educate” the Italian people about the region, and afterwards to publicize supposed Ethiopian barbarism, savagery, and atrocities committed against Italian nationals to court public opinion, curry favor at the League of Nations, and ultimately, to justify their military invasion.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with Founder Funds

Once the invasion and colonization began in earnest in 1935, the Fascist regime produced a barrage of visual material for domestic consumption. Perhaps most disturbing of these materials are those that targeted the young and that perverted educational materials into manipulative propaganda. One game taught young Italians about the geography, history, and natural resources of Ethiopia, while another game board produced by a patriotic baby food company encouraged them to crisscross the country to be the first to capture the capital of Addis Abeba.




XB1992_1787_3_000  XB1992_1787_4_000

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Wolfsonian Library also holds numerous school notebooks with color illustrated front covers depicting Italian troops not as invaders, but as heroic and triumphant “liberators” welcomed by the Ethiopian populous for abolishing slavery.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Lucia Stafanelli Torossi


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Other mass-produced items included a series of postcards illustrated by Aurelio Bertiglia (1891–1973). The artist used images of children in colonial military uniform fraternizing with friendly natives to imply that comraderie and friendly relations rather than animosity and violence were the norm during the colonization of Ethiopia.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with funds donated by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.

As an enticement to colonial military service, the regime printed pamphlets, posters, and display cards depicting heroic Italian soldiers winning honor and glory in battle.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with funds donated by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.

Popular Italian periodicals used caricature and pictorial wit and humor to ridicule Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and the supposed temerity of their Ethiopian adversaries. One cover of Il Travaso delle Idee depicts Ethiopian technology as rudimentary and primitive; another depicts an Ethiopian male rousting his wife from bed in order to wave the sheet as a white flag of surrender at the approach of the Italians.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with funds donated by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised gift

While musical scores and razor packages reminded Italian men of the triumphal reversal of fortunes in Adwa in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935–1936, pocket-sized calendar booklets reminded these same clean-shaven conscripts that every Italian woman adored a man in a uniform.






The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with funds donated by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.

Other materials aimed at young Italian males offered up images of the “Black Venus” on everything from hygiene pamphlets, fans, to calendar leaves to invite them to equate military and sexual conquest.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with funds donated by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.

While Italians were being encouraged to celebrate and take pride in the establishment of their new empire, British colonial boosters and anti-imperialists alike published maps of the region and tracts critical of Italian interlopers.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

The British consular corps and concerned American citizens groups and anti-Fascists also published pamphlets that reproduced abstracts of testimony at the League of Nations questioning the claims and motives of the Fascist invaders.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

Other nations produced scathing critiques of the Italian invasion of the last autonomous nation in Africa. The Turks were particularly strong in visually lambasting Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia with biting caricatures printed on the covers of the popular magazine, Akbaba, ridiculing Mussolini’s pretensions to empire, and the savagery of his use of poison gas and bloody reprisals to subdue the country.





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

When the League of Nations imposed economic sanctions and trade restrictions on Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia, Mussolini ignored the protestations and his government continued to produce all sorts of publications documenting their road-building efforts and “civilizing” mission in Africa.







The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with funds donated by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.

By May 1936, the Italians formally annexed the country, though Ethiopian rebels continued to resist, with many killed in Marshal Graziani’s cruel and bloody reprisals. As neither Great Britain nor France recognized the legitimacy of Italian Ethiopia and the League of Nations had imposed punitive economic sanctions, the Fascist state embarked upon a policy of Autarky (economic self-sufficiency) with the aim of replacing lost trade with goods and new materials that could be produced within the confines of their new Empire.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Fascist regime also encouraged Italians emigration to their new colony by celebrating their efforts in elaborately decorated, large-format books.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Historical Design

Once the Second World War began, Italy would find their imperial possessions in Africa under attack. To encourage neutral Latin American countries to join the Allied war effort, the U.S. government commissioned Mexican artist Antonio Arias Bernal to create an illustrated deck of anti-Axis caricature playing cards to spread that message. The posters for the project were completed and printed in portfolio format eight months before the peace was signed. But as the war’s end was in sight, the project was discontinued, though the artist privately printed and distributed a small number of the playing cards. Two of Arias Bernal’s images questioned the legitimacy of Italian East Africa: one print depicts Mussolini as a modern Nero, playing the fiddle while Africa burns while the next pictures exiled Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie heading for Geneva and London to lodge a complaint with the League of Nations and seek aid as the dictator presents his crown to King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Martijn F. Le Coultre

While Italian colonial troops invaded British Somaliland in 1940, by the spring of 1941 British forces counterattacked deep into Ethiopian territory, restoring Haile Selassie to the throne by early May. The Italian army surrendered after their defeat at Gondor, and while a few Italian Black-shirted guerrillas continued to resist, arrangements were made with the British to repatriate Italian civilians back to Italy under the auspices of the International Red Cross. The Vulcania, an Italian passenger ship commandeered and converted into a troopship during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and again during the Second World War, was among the vessels dispatched on such missions. The Wolfsonian Library holds a rare photograph album produced by the Ministero Africa Italiana in 1942 documenting that evacuation and the end of Italian imperial ambitions in East Africa.





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Maria Paola Maino

Oblivious to the realities of their military situation in Africa, as late as 1942 Fascist propaganda continued to promise that the Italians would return.


Ironically, in the twenty-first century, many thousands of North Africans have been crossing the Mediterranean by way of Italy’s former colony in Libya to begin new lives in Southern Europe.


June 30, 2017. Refugees arrive at Augusta, Sicily. Rescue boats have brought more than 10,000 migrants to Italy this week. EMILIO MORENATTI/AP
Image courtesy of Tom

~ by "The Chief" on August 6, 2019.

One Response to “Italian Ethiopia at The Wolfsonian Library”

  1. I find these posts so informative and educational on such an array of topics. The amount of primary source artifacts that the Wolfsonian possesses helps to bring the history to life and demonstrate how the propaganda arts really attempted to influence people in that time. Well done.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: