A Moral Dilemma of Emperor Haile Selassie I

On 3 October 1935 the Italian army invaded the Ethiopian Empire, without a declaration of war. Some people consider this event as the real beginning of WWII. I also think it`s not very far from truth.

This was already the second attempt of Italians to conquer this country. In 1896 they had been defeated by emperor Menelik II (1889-1913) in the battle of Adwa. That event shocked the World, because it happened for the first time in history that a native African warriors managed to defend themselves from an European army.

A photo of Menelik II.

In 1935 the invaders came carefully prepared: there were hundreds of thousands of them (their number was changing during the war), using thousands pieces of artillery, hundreds of tanks and aircraft. Even chemical weapons was used against Ethiopians.

Here the more detailed data could be found.

The vast majority of Ethiopian soldiers were poorly equipped with old riffles, and many of them had merely spears, swords and bows. Only the Imperial Guard, approximately 10 000 men, trained by Belgians, was a relatively modern military unit at the time. It was clear for the both sides of the conflict that the Ethiopians were unable to win in an open battle. In this case only guerilla methods could be efective to some extent.

The greatest ally of the defenders was the landscape itself. The western part of the country, the Ethiopian Highlands, could be called without exaggeration „the Roof of Africa”. The mountains protected Ethiopia for centuries from different invaders, but also essentially contributed to the isolation of the land, which eventually developed its own unique culture. For the rest of the world, Ethiopia had been vaguely associated with an almost fairy, hidden Christian kingdom (*). In the 17th century there were some attempts to catholicize the country, but ultimately they turned out to be futile. Emperor Susenyos I (1607-1632) had converted to catholicism, and because of this fact he was later forced to abdicate. Ethiopians were too proud of their own ancient traditions, and many of them considered catholics just as heretics, and vice versa. Some ordinary Ethiopians even wept when they first encountered Portuguese and Spanish missionaries, for they were seriously afraid of eternal damnation. They thought, it could be the consequence of talking about religious matters with “Franks”, as those foreigners were commonly called.

The isolation of the country considerably diminished in the second part of the 19th century. When almost the whole African continent was rapidly divided between the European colonial predators, it became obvious that Ethiopia could be the next prey, even if this land would be not easy to subdue. The admission of the empire to the League of Nations in 1923 proved to be not of much help. It was only the matter of time in 1935 for the well-equipped fascists agressors to take over the capital of Ethiopia and the biggest cities.

Emperor Haile Selassie I (1892-1975) (**) hesitated for some time between two options: to move the court to Gore (about 400 km west of Addis Ababa), and continue the fight, or to come into exile and to act on behalf of the country abroad. This was a great moral dilemma for him as well as an important question of tactics. He eventually chose the second possibility. The train with the monarch and his family leaved Addis Ababa on 2 May 1936, heading for Djibouti. The emperor was taken to Europe by the British cruiser, HMS „Enterprise”. The invading forces entered the capital only three days later.

Haile Selassie settled in England, in Bath, where he bought a house. He was very active politically in Europe. Emperor became internationally renowned i.a. for his passionate speech about the situation in his country, delivered in Geneva to the Assembly of the League of Nations in June 1936.

Link to a scan of the original document (in Amharic and French versions).

Italian army commited in Ethiopia very similar atrocities to the Nazis crimes in occupied Europe. The fascists felt completely unpunished. In the years 1935-41 approximately 760 000 Ethiopians were killed or died from hunger and oppresion (***)(circa 10% of the Ethiopian population). A large part of the educated elite was anihilated – mostly in the massacre of the inhabitants of Addis Ababa in February 1937, organized by the enraged marshal and viceroy Rodolfo Graziani (1882-1955), as the revenge for an attempt on his life. This horror lasted for three days. Approximately 30 000 persons were killed. Graziani decided also in 1937 to murder all the monks (a few hundred) from the most famous monastery in the country, Debre Libanos, for he accused them of cooperation with partisans. General Maletta, who was in charge to execute the order, sought to confirm it, for at first he thought, he just misunderstood it.

Emperor returned to Africa on 18 January 1941, crossing the border between Sudan and Ethiopia, accompanied by British colonel Wingate and Ethiopian troops – about two thousand soldiers. Very quickly large groups of local partisans joined them. Italian forces were defeated (mostly) by the British army and Ethiopian warriors, with the help of French (those not linked to the Vichy regime), Belgians and South Africans. On 5 May the monarch entered Addis Ababa, greeted by the enthusiastic crowd.

I do not intend to judge the decision of Haile Selassie I to leave his country and his subjects. But this happened for the first time ever when an emperor leaved Ethiopia in a grave danger. That`s an undisputable fact.

In the 16th century, during the horrible war with imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, emperor Lebna Dengel (1508-1540) escaped hurriedly his luxourious tent by foot when we encountered the imam, and hide himself between trees, waiting for the night to join his warriors. But he did not leave the country in that time, when all seemed to be lost, and for the rest of his life he fought with the enemy in order to reconquer his land.

A portrait of Lebna Dengel.

Emperor Yohannes IV (from 1872) had been mortally wounded in the great battle of Metemma (1889), and later his body was decapitated by the warriors of Mahdi from Sudan (Mohammad Ahmad). His head was shown in Omdurman, the capital of the rebels, and then also in other parts of their land, tied to a camel. He did not tried to abandon the country, but fought on the front line together with his warriors.

A drawing and a photo of Yohannes IV.

Emperor Menenik II also didn`t try to leave the country, but faced the mighty intruders from Europe on the battlefield.

No wonder that this controversial decision of Haile Selassie I meant for many Ethiopians almost the end of the country, which – according to some old legends – lasted for almost 3000 years. Their world seemed to crumble, so the authority of Haile Selassie I was seriously undermined in their eyes. The person of the emperor prior to this event was almost holy for many of his subjects. They firmly believed, the monarch is a descendant of king Salomon and the Queen of Scheba, „Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah”, the Negusa Nagast, which means the King of Kings. The ordinary Ethiopians didn`t hesitate to prostrate themselves even in mud before their monarch.

Leaving Ethiopia during the war was not the only novelty in the policy of Haile Selassie I – as for an emperor. He also did a lof of remarkable things: ultimately abolished the slavery, announced the first constitution of the country, established the university in Addis Ababa (with the main building located in his former palace), and even introduced aeroplanes to Ethiopia. He ruled the land for about half of century: at first as the plenipotentiary regent of empress Zewditu (1916-1930), and from 1930 onwards as the almost absolute monarch himself. Haile Selassie I considerably modernized Ethiopia. Unfortunately for him, the world in the 20th century changed far more quickly than he would be likely to adapt to. At the beginning of his reign he was considered as an innovator, but at the end – as a conservatist.

It is very probable that the decission of Haile Selassie I to settle with his family in England in 1936 was one of the main reasons for the success of the Ethiopian revolution in 1974 which deposed him from the throne, and – shortly afterwards – abolished monarchy. The country became a socialist republic. The old emperor died on 22 August next year, imprisoned in the so called Grand Palace. The circumstances of his death remains unclear.

How it could have been, if the emperor hadn`t leave Ethiopia? Historians rather doesn`t like speculations about possible outcomes of a possible events from the past, but sometimes it`s worth a try. If Haile Selassie I had remained in the country, he – probably – would have been sooner or later captured by Italians and – once more: probably – killed (that was the fate, for instance, of Abune Peter, the head of the Ethiopian Church). In such case, many of partisans would have given up their resistance, but, nevertheless, it would be still only a matter of time for Italy to be defeated by the Allied forces, and driven out from this country.

(*) Ethiopia has been christianized in the 4th century. A majority of Christians in that contry are miaphysites: they believe Christ has only one nature.

(**) Haile Selassie (his name means Might of the Trinity), originally Teferi Makonnen, was a son of Ras Makonnen and Woizero Yeshimebet.

(***) According to data oficially given by the Ethiopian government in 1946.

Information in this article comes mostly from the book: Andrzej Bartnicki, Joanna Mantel-Niećko, The History of Ethiopia (Historia Etiopii), second edition, Ossolineum 1987.

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