As I write this, I and a couple of associates are trying to build momentum for a documentary based on my book, Prevail: The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia’s Victory Over Mussolini’s Invasion, 1935–1941. The book is just having its paperback release. If you’re not familiar with the conflict, here are a few of the bare bones of what Mussolini’s Fascist troops did when they invaded Ethiopia:
· Used poison gas
· bombed Red Cross hospitals
· tortured captured prisoners
· perpetrated several massacres, killing tens of thousands
· ran concentration camps where thousands more died
· Introduced a system of apartheid into the country
· Stole priceless relics, some of which have never been returned
As a friend and one of my associates reminds me, the conflict had a huge impact on families inside and outside Ethiopia to this day. But here’s the thing: if you wanted to write a book or make a film about say, the German invasion of Poland, it would be pretty difficult to defend Hitler’s troops (unless you’re willing to admit you’re a white supremacist with neo-Nazi sympathies). So how is it that the image of a “kinder, gentler Fascism” persists to this day, and that Mussolini’s Black Shirts get a pass?
Despite the popularity of Prevail, there is a vocal and bitter contingent of reviewers whom I can only believe are motivated by apologist sentiments for Fascism. How else to explain it? They complain that I don’t do justice to the “other side.” But what other side is there to a genocidal, racist army that commits war crimes and invades a sovereign nation?
Let me quote parts of a very recent review, and in doing so, I’m not deliberately trying to pick on the individual. It’s just that his expressions of bile unintentionally articulate the logic of a certain group. According to him, for instance, Pearce [me] “glosses over the fact that good things actually came out of the conflict (slavery being ended in Ethiopia).”
Well… No. Dead wrong. Haile Selassie took steps to deter and stop the slave trade long before the Italians show up. Moreover, the Italians officially reversed themselves and sanctioned slavery in 1941 as a last desperate measure to undermine support for Allied efforts to retake the country.
But more importantly, what “good things” does this gentleman think came out of the conflict? The 20,000 slaughtered in the Graziani Massacre? The thousands who died in the concentration camps?
This reviewer goes on to write: “The Ethiopians were victims of mustard gas bombings by the Italians, which at face [sic] appears to be a horrible atrocity; but upon closer study, one can see how it was strategically effective, if unacceptable.”
Yes, and a war crime, both then and now. There is no historical revisionism here: the League of Nations called it a war crime in 1935, and it’s still a war crime with gas used in Syria in 2017. This comment — one made in some previous history books by Western writers as well — is very telling. In other words, atrocities that outraged us in the white Western world — from the bombing of Guernica to the Bosnian Genocide of the 1990s — are somehow acceptable when they’re perpetrated against black populations in Africa.
I could quote the blog columns and reviews of others, but hopefully my point is made. And to be clear, if you’re a writer, well, you have to take your lumps. It’s been frustrating when I read reviews of those either so dim or obtuse that they don’t understand the book is written as a narrative history — a story unfolding like a novel — or that it was not and never has been intended to be one of those “battle guides” with chirpy descriptions like books in which Wellington meets Napoleon.
If I took time over the failure of diplomacy and the League of Nations, it’s because in 1935, this was headline news around the world for months. There’s a certain kind of white, Western armchair general who thinks I’m supposed to get “right to it” as if describing the British redcoats facing Zulus in a thrilling Boy’s Own Adventure. Well, Ethiopia wasn’t like that. The Ethiopians are the “good guys” here, whether you accept it or not, and without the context of background, the war means nothing.
Okay, fine, to each his own opinion. But when we have a loud contingent who can somehow justify the actions of Fascist invaders, we have a big problem. First, one has to laugh at the charge that a historian isn’t “objective” and then you realize there is something more sinister going on in terms of private sympathies. It’s the kind of mindset that gave us first, Berlusconi and later, Trump. It’s the mindset that is sweeping us back to an authoritarian age of the 1930s.
I had the great privilege to deal with the late historian Christopher Duggan, who allowed me to quote his work in Prevail. On the afternoon he let me into his home and we chatted over coffee, he talked about the extreme, almost hysterical efforts certain Fascist revisionists and sympathizers went to in order to try to smear his name and his work.
I don’t flatter myself by claiming to be in his ranks — I’m neither as accomplished nor as important. But the rationale of the critics is the same. We’re supposed to accept the Great Lie of the Civilizing Mission. Ohhhhh, Mussolini’s Black Shirts trying to kill you with machine guns are here to help you. They’re bringing “good things.” Sorry, not buying it and never will.
This… This is why the story of Ethiopia’s victory over the Fascist Invasion needs to have its own documentary. And hopefully, some day, a well-produced, historically accurate feature film.