Here and there – Is any nation civilised?


If you read Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, you will probably find more references to Italy than any other nation.  He was not talking about what some call the glory of ancient Rome.  Clark started after the fall of Rome.  But he dwelt lovingly on Italy, which did not then exist as nation, in the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation – even if governance in Italy stank and governance in the Church of Rome was so bad that it led to the unending schism.  There would be general agreement that Italy is a civilised nation, or at least as much entitled to make that claim as others.  Who wouldn’t say that of a people that gave the world Dante, Raphael, Da Vinci, and Verdi?

In 2012, the Italians unveiled a monument built with public money on a picturesque village near Rome.  The monument was to a general, Rodolfo Graziani.  Well, the nation that gave us Michelangelo and Bernini may wish to celebrate one of its heroes.  But to a general of Mussolini, such a stupid and cruel duce that the Italians killed and hung upside down?  Well, some might see here an error of taste or judgment, but hardly evidence in itself of a failure of civilisation.

General Graziani was a dedicated fascist and a lifelong supporter of Mussolini.  He commanded some of the Italian troops who invaded Ethiopia after 1935 under the reported slogan ‘Il Duce will have Ethiopia, with or without the Ethiopians.’  He became the Viceroy of Ethiopia in Mussolini’s pathetic attempt to create an empire.  What follows is mostly taken from a review in The Economist of the book The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy’s National Shame, by Ian Campbell.

The Ethiopians did not wish to be invaded.  Few people do.  One of them tried to kill the leader of the invasion.  The bloody revenge of the Blackshirts lasted three days.  Mussolini’s paramilitaries were officially given carta blanca.  They were joined by regular soldiers, carabinieri, and the local Italian community.  In this frightful massacre, witnesses reported crushed babies, disembowelled pregnant women and the burning of whole families.  Graziani became known as ‘the butcher.’  Mr Campbell says 20,000 may have died.  Italy puts the figure at 600 to 2000.  Ethiopia says 30,000 died.  On any view, it makes the German annihilation of Lidice, in response to the assassination of Heydrich, look meek.  Doubtless most of the murderers saw themselves as good Christian inheritors of the civilisation of the West.

Mr Campbell says Graziani was personally responsible and that he was seeking to eliminate the Ethiopian nobility and intelligentsia.  The term is ethnic cleansing.  Two of the many black holes in Africa, Ethiopia and Libya, are the products of Mussolini’s mindless imperialism.  Italy has a lot to answer for.

What say the Italians?  This was no more than a typical European colonial atrocity – no worse than the British slaughter at Amritsar.  Few historians have looked at it.  Those who did were denounced as unpatriotic.  The film Lion in the Desert was banned for ‘damaging the honour of the Italian army.’  It had no honour, and this stupid pretense goes to the heart of the problem.  School children are not taught of the massacre.

Graziani evaded prosecution for war crimes.  They were blocked by Italy and, I’m sorry to say, England.  An Italian court sentenced him to 19 years for collaborating with the Nazis, but in the best traditions of Italian justice and governance, he served only four months.  Some say his lawyers said he had ‘received orders.’  Haven’t the Italians heard of the precedent set at Nuremberg?  No, the butcher now has his own monument.

Germany has come to terms with its past.  Italy, Japan, and Turkey have not.  The cancer of fascism is still alive in Italy.  While it remains so, and while Italy stays blind to its crimes, Italy may claim some mantle from its past of civilisation, but it is hard to see it as either a mature or decent nation.

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