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What if Rodolfo Graziani died in 1937?

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

By Steve Payne

This article was originally posted on Today in Alternate History (twitter)and the original article can be found there. Please check that blog for more like this.

Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Marquis of Negele and Viceroy of Italian East Africa was one of Fascist Italy's greatest monsters.

An enthusiastic supporter of Il Duce, Graziani sought Mussolini's favour by proposing and carrying out a lot of the infamous "pacification" programs operating in the African colonies of the Italian Empire. Notable examples of his harsh repressive measures included the use of concentration camps in Libya, and routine massacres of civilians in the countries invaded by the Italian army which earned him the nicknames of both the Butcher of Fezzan and the Butcher of Ethiopia.

As Governor of Italian Somaliland, he was the commander of the secondary southern front in the Second Italian invasion of Ethiopia. After the occupation of Addis Ababa he was named the second supreme governor of Italian East Africa, replacing his erstwhile rival Marshal Pietro Badoglio who had led the main force into Addis Ababa. Graziani still mistrusted its inhabitants even though he had established unquestioned control over the new Italian East Africa famously saying "The Duce will have Ethiopia, with or without the Ethiopians". In February 1937 there was an attempt by a resistance member to kill him but he was rushed to the Italian hospital where he was operated on immediately and saved. He then ordered a period of brutal retribution now known as the Yekatit 12 massacre, after a date in the Ge'ez calendar. Recent histories of the massacre estimated that 19,200 people were killed in the three days that followed the attempt on Graziani's life, 20 percent of the population of Addis Ababa with the Ethiopian Church particularly targeted (297 monks and 23 laymen were killed at the Monastery of Debre Libanos). In late 1937, he was replaced, as Governor General, by the much less brutal Prince Amedeo. And in 1940 Graziani was sent to fight the allies in North Africa, serving as commander in chief of the Italian forces in that theatre after the accidental death of Italo Balbo.

In 1943, when Italy broke into Civil War he remained loyal to Benito Mussolini, the only Marshal of Italy to do so, and was named the Minister of Defence of the Italian Social Republic, the Nazi puppet state in North Italy. Despite this, Graziani was never prosecuted by the United Nations War Crimes Commission after the war. He was listed as a possible target but was never put on trial due to the allies' unofficial policy of not pursuing Italian war criminals. In 1948, an Italian court sentenced Graziani to 19 years of imprisonment for treason but he was released on appeal after serving only four months. In the last years of his life he went into politics, becoming 'Honorary President' of the far right Italian Social Movement and died a few years later, in 1955.

But what if instead he had died that day in Ethiopia?

The Yekatit 12 massacre would probably still happen. Fascist Italy is still Fascist Italy, there would be an inevitable backlash to the assassination of an Italian notable and it would be led by an equally blood-thirsty successor. Marshal Badoglio had been the first Governor-General of Italian East Africa after the conquest of Ethiopia before he had been promoted to Supreme Chief of the Italian General Staff and he would be a more obvious replacement than Prince Amedeo if Mussolini wanted to bring the colony into hand after the humiliation of the death of an Italian Marshall. This appointment would provoke a fierce reaction from the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie because Badoglio, like Graziani, had served in Italian Libya, the pair of them had worked together to defeat the Senussi Order by waging a genocidal campaign of extermination. Fatefully however, he was a less enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini, only joining the Fascist Party the previous June.

Below is one result of Badoglio replacing Graziani in February 1937.

In 1937 the Fascists appeared to have the wind in their sails and Badoglio was high up the hierarchy of Italy. Therefore, unafraid of the consequences, Badoglio immediately placed the blame of the death of his predecessor on local opponents of Italian rule, even though the assassins were actually two young Eritreans living in Ethiopia named Abraha Deboch and Mogus Asgedom. In the brutal reprisal that followed, tens of thousands were executed or imprisoned, even including collaborators such as Ras Gebre Haywot, the son of Ras Mikael of Wollo, Brehane Markos, and Ayale Gebre, who had helped the Italians identify the two assassins. However, Badoglio did not share Graziani's distrust of Coptic clerics and did not take revenge on the ancient monastery of Debre Libanos where Abraha and Mogus had sought sanctuary.

Badoglio who was much more pessimistic over Italian chances in a European War does not leave Ethiopia to replace Balbo or to take his OTL role as the leader of the invasion of Greece, who was sacked after failing to predict the strength of the resistance. Instead he remains in Ethiopia. The unspoken truth that Badoglio would probably grasp was that the longevity of Italian colonies in Africa depended upon Anglo-French acquiescence but as the Supreme Chief of the Italian General Staff, he could strip equipment from other fronts to his own position and is likely to do so out of egotism. Steps would be taken to accumulate supplies, much more fuel, trucks, planes, submarines, warships, etc. The plan was that once the war began, the Italians would cut off the traffic through the Red Sea, and hold the position. That was the main strategic objective.

Privately however, Badoglio hoped that London and Paris would buy Mussolini off with the gift of British Somaliland and that his role would only be to bluff as a threat for the purpose of negotiations. Instead, the three countries became bitter enemies when Mussolini invaded France in 1940. Fascist over-projection of limited Italian power was a major problem for both the colonial government in Addis Ababa and the Troops in Europe, now even less equipped than OTL, because the Royal Navy dominated the Mediterranean and this left the Horn of Africa inaccessible to military support from distant Rome. Yet despite this isolation, Italian forces in Ethiopia are able to take advantage of their temporary material advantages to win several battles on their borders against weakened colonial garrisons as they did it otl in 1940, with this continuing here into 1941 thanks to the extra men and a more defensive outlook.

Badoglio used these circumstances to escape his fate, before the British could bring enough men into the theatre to crush him entirely by issuing the Badoglio Proclamation in early 1941 (similar to the OTL 1943 one in which Badoglio, who had replaced Mussolini as Italian PM, announced the armistice signed between Italy and the Allies) in which Italian East Africa seceded from the Empire and switched sides to join the Allies as a still colonial apartheid state in exchange for personal guarantees from Churchill. This would be only possible for a man with a strong grip over his forces, burning ambition but also pragmatism and no real loyalty to Mussolini's Italy, a description that Badoglio, famous for having no principles apart from a lust for power, fits. The British Government show the same disinterest in avenging the deaths of Ethiopians that would lead them in OTL to argue against prosecuting Graziani and accept readily. The theatrical stunt was sold to the British Public as a bloodless victory that would free up troops to fight in Egypt and could be used in propaganda to create internal tension inside the Fascist states but needless to say, this duplicity would outrage (if, given Britain's historical attitude towards African allies, not entirely surprise) Emperor Haile Selassie who was living in exile in Bath, England. Writing the famous words "All roads lead to Ethiopia" in his diary, Selassie would note the weakness of this new state, which had far less Italian colonists than Libya, and immediately begin to plan for a glorious comeback that would lead to the "winds of change" sweeping across the continent of Africa. In this, he would be helped by the entries of both the USA and the Soviet Union into the war later that year.


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