Keeping the Memory Alive by Brenda Stones

We still remember the dramas of the Spanish Civil War through reading the literature of the time: George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War. We are familiar with those events as the prelude to the Second World War, leading from 1936 up to the outbreak of worldwide hostilities in 1939.

But what about the atrocity that preceded it in 1935, the brutal Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which was just as much a rehearsal for Fascist expansionism? Could we name any literature that was written about it by either side at the time? And why has it been so eclipsed from our collective memory? Is it because we are more concerned with conflicts in Europe than this last-ditch attempt at colonialist occupation in distant Africa?

I was drawn to reading about the invasion of Ethiopia through the largely forgotten Harlem Renaissance writer, Claude McKay. His novel, Amiable with Big Teeth, gives a vivid picture of the staunch support for the Ethiopians by the black population of New York. They form a loyal aid group, called Hands to Ethiopia, which finds itself in conflict with both its equivalent white support group, Friends of Ethiopia, and with Communist infiltrators from the Soviet Union, who try to turn to their advantage the black protesters’ anti-Fascist sympathies. The result is a stand-off between Fascist and Communist tendencies in New York that threatens to overwhelm the original pro-Ethiopian sympathies. This novel had a sad history: the author completed it in 1941, but his publisher rejected it, despite the advances paid towards his living expenses. It then disappeared from view, but another publisher kept it on file, and it finally saw the light of day in 2017, 80 years after the events it describes.

For a totally contrasting view, I picked up Evelyn Waugh’s Waugh in Abyssinia, published in 1936. Waugh was posted to this war zone by the Daily Mail, and one immediate clue to his sympathies is his use of the name ‘Abyssinia’: McKay tells us that all black populations used the name Ethiopia and found Abyssinia ‘objectionable’. But Waugh’s colonialist views go much farther: he praises every product of the Italian incursion, in particular their immediate road-building programme, and the fact that the roads were built by the Italians themselves: ‘and along the roads will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, bringing the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgment, by which alone, under God, man grows and flourishes’. The book was never popular in the UK, and failed to attract a US edition.

Another pertinent but controversial publication came out over forty years after the invasion. The Emperor Haile Selassie returned from exile in England after Italy’s defeat in the Second World War, and lived on until his death in 1975. He was then savagely satirised by the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski for his inertia towards the poverty and famine of his Ethiopian people, and his own secluded life of pomp and luxury. The Emperor was published in 1978, translated into English in 1983 and dramatised by the Young Vic as recently as 2016.

And now we have the 2019 Ethiopian novel by Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King, shortlisted for the Booker prize this year. She also is reminding the world of the atrocities perpetrated during Italy’s attempt to colonise a fiercely independent African country. She paints an epic canvas of the tanks rolling inland from Massawa, the valiant resistance by men and women alike, in bloodthirsty confrontations between invaders and Ethiopian warriors.

So at least we have four very different points of view and different genres across the course of 85 years: a black American, a very white Englishman, a Pole, and at last an Ethiopian woman, all dedicated to telling the world of the war crimes committed in 1935; all helping to keep alive the memory of this monstrous invasion.

Posted in Works.