Resistance continues

Patriotic resistance persisted throughout the occupation despite Ethiopia's military collapse in 1935–1936. From the beginning, many patriotic Ethiopians were committed to carrying on the fight, despite the military might of the occupying Italians.

The struggle lasted for another three years until approximately 90% of Ethiopia was "pacified" just before the outrbeak of the Second World War, although censorship concealed this information from the Italian public. Surviving Ethiopian commanders Abebe Aregai, Balcha Safo, Zewdu Asfaw, Blatta Takale Wolde Hawariat, and the Kassa brothers—Aberra, Wondosson, and Asfawossen—withdrew to adjacent locations to reorganise. Balcha Safo travelled to Gurage. Around the capital, Haile Mariam committed hit-and-run attacks. Selassie had given orders for the remaining 10,000 soldiers, led by Aberra Kassa, to continue their resistance.

Lej Hayla Maryam Mammo of Dabra Berhan, 130 kilometres north of Addis Abeba, was the first to do so on 4th May, 1936, when he fought a party of invading forces en route to the city.

As a result of this deed, he was given the title "first arbagna," or Shawa patriot.

Thereafter, other, more or less haphazard assaults on the intruders commenced with varying degrees of success.

Italian stance

Graziani, who was by this time the Italian viceroy, issued an edict in the middle of May declaring that Italy was the "total master of Ethiopia" and would "remain so at whatever cost" in an effort to quell such opposition.

He threatened to use "extreme severity" against rebels while showing "greatest generosity" to Ethiopians who submitted.

This stance was supported by Mussolini, who telegraphed on June 5 that "all rebel prisoners must be shot."

Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani, pictured here striking a suitably fascist pose, adopted a hardline against Ethiopian resistance.

Why Italians Honored A Fascist Butcher General Rodolfo Graziani ? / Italy News | NationalTurk

The Black Lions attack

After the Italians despatched the party to negotiate with the local community on the evening of 26th June, members of the Black Lions group destroyed three Italian planes in Nekemte and killed twelve Italian officials, among them Air Marshal Vincenzo Magliocco.

Graziani gave the order to bomb the town as vengeance for the murders (Magliocco was his deputy).

Ras Desta Damtew as prisoner, 1937. Ras Desta was executed by firing squad on 24th February, 1937 in a public execution meant to deter further resistance against Italians. Instead, it brought more recruits to the Ethiopian cause.

The Patriots were compelled to leave the area due to animosity, and Desta Damtew, the southern Patriots' commander, withdrew his soldiers to Arbegona. They fled to Butajira, where they were eventually routed after being surrounded by Italian soldiers. In both conflicts, 1,600 Patriots—including Damtew—were reportedly killed, totalling (many after being taken prisoner) - an estimated 4,000 in total.

The Nationalists rise up

Despite concerns of retaliation, many Ethiopian nationalists were adamant about continuing the battle.

A number of people devised the grandiose plan to retake Addis Abeba during the 1936 rains.

On 28th July, Dajazmach Abarra Kasa, a prominent young Shawan chief and the son of Ras Kasa Haylu, launched an attack from the northwest but was repelled by Italian aircraft who machine gunned the attacking rebels. 

One of Emperor Menilek's former commanders, Dajazmach Balcha, made another fruitless attack from the south-west on 26th August, but this also failed as well due to the ever-present Italian air superiority. The Italians renewed their onslaught after the rains, heavily bombing and gassing people in Shawa, Lasta, Charchar, Yergalam, and other places.

Wondosson Kassa was captured and put to death on 19th December close to Debre Zebit, and on 21st December Aberra Kassa and Asfawossen Kassa were also executed in Fikke. Dejazmach Balcha Safo died in combat in late 1936 after the Italians located him in Gurage. Selassie surrendered on 19th December near the Gojeb River.

A failed assassination

Abraha Daboch and Moges Asgadom, two Eritreans, made an attempt on Rodolfo Graziani's life on 19th February 1937, ushering in a new chapter of the conflict. Following the attempted assassination of their leader, the fascists carried out a three-day massacre – known as Yekatit 12 - in Addis Abeba between the 19th and 21st of February, killing thousands of innocent Ethiopians.

Three months later, on 20th May, Graziani gave the order to have the monks at the revered Dabra Libanos Shawan monastery put to death. Following this, 297 monks were executed by shooting, and 129 deacons were also slaughtered a short time later. Graziani then boastfully telegraphed to Mussolini, "of the monastery, there remains no more trace."

Rodolfo Graziani' - seen here inspecting Ethiopian workers - was the victim of an assassination attempt.

The Italian Monarchist: Assassination Attempt in Africa

A fresh onslaught

In order to join the patriots, many survivors left the capital. The 1937 rains saw the return of the onslaught by patriotic Ethiopian fighters – their numbers swelled by those who arrived from Addis Ababa - this time led by Dajazmach Haylu Kabada in Lasta and Dajazmach Mangasha and Belay Zalaka in Gojjam.

In response, Mussolini commanded Graziani to "take all measures, even gas." The Viceroy stepped up his reign of terror, but after failing to put down the uprising in Shawa, he began futile peace talks with Ras Ababa Aragay, the area's most important patriot.

Territory under control of the Ethiopian resistance, December 1937.

Arbegnoch - Wikipedia

A European conflict?

After the rains, the occupying Italians resumed their onslaught – keen to be rid of the Ethiopian rebels once and for all. But the patriots never gave up. They were certain that because of the growing political rift in Europe between the "democratic" and "totalitarian" powers, the latter would eventually become involved in a conflict with them and would then be compelled to aid them.

When Graziani stated on November 9, 1937, that the "rebels" were anticipating a war in Europe, he was openly admitting as much.

This Oct. 28, 1936 file photo shows Benito Mussolini, second from left, flanked by Nazi officers on the occasion of the celebration of the fourteenth anniversary of Italian Fascism. The belligerent and aggressive actions of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany would eventually lead to the Second World War breaking out in Europe, something that the Ethiopian rebels had correctly predicted would happen. 

Bringing back Mussolini: Fascism emerges from the shadows in Italy – People's World (      AP Photos

There was certainly a sound logic to the Ethiopian thinking as if a major conflict did break out in Europe, it was almost certain that the belligerent Mussolini and his Fascist Italy would be in the mix. Thus far his right-wing totalitarian regime had been the main cause for concern for the democratic governments, more so even than Nazi Germany which at this point, had yet to annex Austria – the so-called ‘Anschluss’.


Three of the major Shawan patriot leaders, Lej Zawde Asfaw, Blatta Takala, and other individuals made attempts to create a more comprehensive form of resistance around this period. Around this period, Walda Hawaryat and Shalaqa Masfen Seleshi drafted a manifesto imploring the Gojjam people to support them.

But Graziani persisted in his call for oppression. As he had taught ever since taking power, he said of the Shawan Patriots that it was imperative to "destroy them, eradicate them, eliminate them."

An Ethiopian resistance fighter photographed in 1941.

Although the patriot movement attracted support from practically the whole nation, it was mostly centred in Shawa, Bagemder, and Gojjam. Eritrean deserters from the Italian colonial army were among the most tenacious combatants.

In Addis Abeba and a few other towns, there was also a thriving underground movement made up of wust arbagna, or "inner" patriots.

They assisted in informing the soldiers on the front lines of enemy activities and supplying them with military, medical, and other supplies.

Many Ethiopian women were also notable, either in the field or as just patriots, among them the legendary Shawaragga Gadle and one of Ras Kasa's daughters.

A change of leader

Ugo Cavellero,, Chief of Staff

Pubic domain

One of the reasons for the Viceroy's ultimate departure and replacement by the Duke of Aosta, a member of the Italian royal family, on December 26, 1937 was continued patriot opposition.

Ugo Cavellero, the Duke's chief of staff, acknowledged that vast areas of Shawa and Amhara were at the time in revolt and that pockets of resistance also existed in the south-west shortly after his appointment. He continued by saying that the populace was ready to join the "rebels," who had their "full support."

The exiled Emperor Haile Sellassie, who asserted that nationalist resistance was then "more extensive" than ever before, affirmed the breadth of resistance to the invaders. Lej Yohannes Iyasu, Menilek's great-grandson and a patriot himself, noted that the invader, despite controlling the key towns, had little success in conquering the whole country.

Mussolini's displeasure

A deadlock had emerged by 1939, the year that the Second World War began. The patriots were unable to breach the heavily guarded Italian forts, while the Italians had failed to crush them.

Although Amhara was in "complete revolt," Mussolini's son-in-law Count Ciano reported on 1st January, 1940, that the Duce was "very much dissatisfied" because 65 Italian battalions were "compelled" to live in forts.

The Duke of Aosta warned Mussolini against starting a war in Europe because it would "..bring on the high seas the task of pacifying the country and jeopardise the conquest itself.”

A grim outlook

Arcanovaldo Bonacorsi, a prominent fascist, claimed in May that there was "a state of latent rebellion" throughout the empire, which "would have its last and tragic denunciation when war breaks out with our enemies."

He felt that the vast majority of the Abyssinian population would unite together, and fight should the French or British send troops to assist them. If this was to occur, he felt the Italians would be unable to hold out and find themselves expelled from Ethiopia.

Non-violent resistance

Italy's attempts to impose the Italian lire on the Ethiopian populace cost them money as well. Barter and the Maria Theresa thaler were the only forms of payment that lower-class Ethiopians accepted and valued. The Italians discovered that workers in particular fields, such as mining, would only accept thalers, and that if they were paid in lire, they would en masse defect, putting an end to the industry.

Ethiopians were pressured by Italian authorities to exchange their thalers for lire, but for every thaler removed from circulation, numerous other ones were smuggled in. Thalers found a thriving clandestine market where they could be swapped for significantly more lire than they were actually worth.

Ethiopian currency in the early 1930's.

User:Hgetnet - Wikimedia Commons

After being converted into thalers at foreign banks, the lire would be smuggled out to Djibouti and brought back in. The Italian government would have to purchase back its own currency at a loss by exchanging lire for these thalers at their own exchange rate. The thaler's worth among Ethiopians was also far larger than it was in foreign banks, giving the smugglers a huge profit margin that they could exploit to obtain favours.

It is claimed that 200,000 to 2,000,000 lire were smuggled out of Ethiopia each week to be repurchased by the Italian government through its banks, making those deployed to crack down on this currency smuggling vulnerable to bribery.


  • The capital, Addis Ababa, was taken over by Italian Forces on 5th May 1936, forcing the departure of Emperor Haile Selassie. 
  • After Ethiopia was conquered, resistance activities persisted for several years, although the Italian public was kept in the dark by censorship. This resulted in further death and destruction on both sides and contributed to the Italian struggle to make the occupation of Ethiopia a successful 9+one.
  • The last combat between Ethiopian and regular Italian forces took place on 19th February 1937. Sporadic resistance and the non-violent protest continued after this until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Veterans of the Second-Italo-Ethiopian War: Italian Alpini Artillery Officers and a Military chaplain in the WW1 Ossuary of Nervesa della Battaglia ( Treviso, Northern Italy).. Photo Taken in 1938 by Zaccaria dal Sacco.

Photos - Colourised Images of WW2 & earlier conflicts | Page 93 | MilitaryImages.Net

Further reading