Lest we forget

It is the time in history when 75 years have passed since the end of the Second World War.

75 years ago, Europe was liberated from the terror of National Socialism. Hitler’s “Third Reich” had crumbled.

The surviving prisoners were free to leave the concentration camps. The American, British and Russian soldiers who came were welcomed, and seen as liberators by all who had opposed the Nazi regime.

Fascist Italy had been defeated years earlier. Now, Hitler was defeated, too. Europe was free – but on its knees. Many cities were lying in ruins. There was not enough to eat, people had to endure great hardship.

And so it was that the idea of European unity – which, ultimately, resulted in the foundation of the European Union – was born.

It is certainly true that, as these anniversaries come and go, we would do well to remember – how much it took for the idea of European unity to emerge, for the Union to be conceived. Europeans would do well to take pride in the fact that, now, 75 years after the horrors of the War, there is such a thing as a ‘European Union’.

All who have the best interest of Europe and of the world in mind should consider the course of history.

And so it is just as well to reflect on another anniversary commemorated these days, equally worth remembering: the victory over Fascist Italy in Ethiopia.

It was in 1941 that Mussolini’s dream of a “Roman Empire” was finally destroyed.

As Fascist Italy was defeated by the Allies, in Ethiopia, the Italian occupation finally ended.

Since late 1935, society had been terrorized by Mussolini’s soldiers. They had committed horrific atrocities. They had sprayed the countryside with mustard gas from the air. Thousands of civilians had died an agonizing death. They had massacred women and children. The streets of Addis Ababa were filled with death and horror.

In his attempts to subdue Ethiopia and “avenge the Battle of Adwa,” Mussolini did not have any scruples. The Fascists considered Ethiopians to be little more than animals who could be slaughtered without moral qualms. Senior figures of the Catholic Church in Italy, too, ‘gave their blessings’.

As the brutal occupation continued year after year, Mussolini’s troops continued to inflict death and unimaginable trauma on society. Local mercenaries who fought for Italy were considered traitors by their compatriots.

Year after year, the Imperial Army and patriotic volunteers bravely stood their ground, employing guerrilla tactics, and, with unshakable courage and valor, continued to inflict heavy blows on the far better equipped Italian forces.

By the time the invaders were finally driven out, hundreds of thousands had lost their lives, hacked to death, shot, asphyxiated by mustard gas. Ethiopia had experienced a national trauma on an unprecedented scale.

Given the significance of the Italian occupation for Ethiopian society, it is only right that, on Miazia 27, which falls on May 05, Victory Day should be commemorated every year, and that, despite the corona crisis, this year was no exception.

In fact, all who have the best interest of Ethiopian society in mind – from politicians, to journalists, to self-styled activists, to the general public and prospective voters – would do well to consider the noble and honorable military tradition that Ethiopia can claim for itself.

Not only should we be saluting the soldiers who fought and defeated the Fascists, but, at this uncertain and dangerous time, we would do well to spare a thought for the soldiers of today.

The men and women of Ethiopia’s modern military, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) – a worthy heir to these noble traditions – are, at this very moment, defending and protecting society, guarding the border, maintaining peace, stability and security, guarantying the implementation of the State of Emergency.

In the battle against Covid-19, they are at the frontline, the risk of infection ever present. They dutifully fulfill their mandate, to protect and to serve. The least we can do, even more so at the present moment, is to show the soldiers the respect and high regard they deserve.

At this time in history, we would do well to – as it were – ‘salute Ethiopia’s military tradition’, and give the soldiers their due.

It is not just for historic or nostalgic reasons that we must keep remembering – and reminding. There is also a lasting impact of the Italian occupation – and of the Battle of Adwa.

It is, for instance, hard to argue that, had history taken a different course, and the Italian troops and local mercenaries had been forced to completely withdraw at the end of the 19th century, there would not be such a thing as a country named ‘Eritrea’ – the name the Italians chose for the area they had managed to keep occupied. From a purely historic point of view, it can certainly be postulated that the idea of Eritrea as an independent state has its roots in the Italian occupation.

Although Ethiopia emerged victorious in 1941, the consequences of the Italo-Ethiopian wars can still be seen. And while the formation of Eritrea can be considered one obvious consequence, there are others which need mentioning, particularly in an international context.

Now, it is hardly surprising that, despite all the looting and destruction, there was never really a question of reparations. The topic of ‘reparations for colonial atrocities’ is, after all, a complex one. As has actually been demanded, asking the current Italian – or, for that matter, British, US-American, French, or Spanish – government to simply pay out money to a country which formerly was a colony, or to the descendants of slaves, for instance, seems utterly misguided.

However, what is much more straightforward is the issue of looted artifacts.

On closer examination, it cannot be justified that, at this very moment, there still are objects in museums around the world that clearly belong to another society. And while the famous Aksumite obelisk did get returned to Ethiopia from Rome, there are many other objects yet to be returned to their rightful owners.

As these anniversaries are commemorated, the horrors of the Second World War remembered, we should remind ourselves that recognition of the atrocities committed by Fascist Italy must be part of our collective memory. There is no reason why the horrors committed by the Fascists in Ethiopia should not be remembered in the same way as the horrors committed by the Nazis in Austria, Germany, Poland, France, or any other country in Europe.

After all, the often-invoked idea that those who forget their history are ‘doomed to repeat it’ remains as true as it has ever been, and is, perhaps, as relevant as never before.

Only if we keep remembering, do we have a chance that such horrors will not be repeated, never, in the history of humanity. Let our remembrance, our collective memories, thus, protect us. Let the sacrifice of our heroes be edged into our collective memory, a permanent memorial, from generation to generation.

Let us remember the valor and fortitude of all who fought and opposed the Nazis and the Fascists, in Ethiopia, and everywhere else in the world.

The Ethiopian Herald May 15/2020


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