His Highness Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie Haile Selassie of Ethiopia would like to speak with you, Mr. Giorgio Napolitano, president of Italy. Selassie, the grandson of the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, has taken a personal interest in a small monument in the small town of Affile, near Rome.
Haile Selassie, who is worshiped by the Rastafarian religion as an incarnation of God, was forced to flee his country in 1936 when the Italians invaded. In 1937, the Italian viceroy in Ethiopia, General Rodolfo Graziani, retaliated against an assassination attempt on him by Ethopians by ordering the genocide of native civilians, with one of his subordinates saying, “Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days, I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.”
True to their orders, in the next three days, Italian troops killed approximately 30,000 Ethiopians in the capital, Addis Ababa. Homes were set on fire, and the servants of American and Greek expats were lynched. Graziani earned the nickname“the Butcher of Ethiopia.
After the end of World War II, Graziani was tried as a war criminal and sentenced to 19 years in prison but served only a few months. He died peacefully in 1955.
His name lay then dormant for decades, mentioned pretty much only by Italy's neofascist fringe, which revered him as a hero, until August 2012. That's when the mayor of Affile, Ettore Viri, spent $160,000 in taxpayer money to erect a mausoleum to Graziani in his town, which includes the inscribed words “Fatherland” and “Honor.”
Viri is known to be a politician of the far-right ideology. According to a report from the New York Times, many of the residents still “appreciate” Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader who led Italy into World War II, disastrous defeat and civil war. Viri also told the Times that he keeps a bust of Graziani in his living room.
In a letter dated Sept. 5, 2012, and sent on behalf of Prince Ermias, the Global Alliance for Justice: The Ethiopian Cause asked Napolitano to take down the mausoleum, saying, “Italy must immediately act to halt a handful of right-wing extremists from ruining Italy’s international reputation and credibility. No park or memorial should be named in honor of Rodolfo Graziani, and those who perpetuate it should be stopped from doing so.
“If someone were to paint a portrait of Mussolini on the side of the Coliseum, wouldn’t it be a national imperative to reverse that?” the letter continued.
The letter has no yet received a public response from Napolitano. A second letter from the Global Alliance, dated Feb. 7, 2013, has also not received a response.
Watch a survivor of the 1937 Graziani massacres tell his story:
On Feb. 19 in New York City, people, including an official from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, gathered outside the Italian Mission to the U.N. on Second Avenue, carrying signs that said “Dismantle the Graziani Mausoleum Now” and “Shame on Italy.” According to Nicola DeMarco, the organizer of the protest, the demonstrators “somewhat spontaneously” demanded to speak with consular officials and were allowed an audience with First Secretary of the Mission Giuseppe Perricone.
“We felt like we walked away with a victory,” DeMarco said. “For one, we heard Perricone say something which we had not heard uttered from any Italian official on the national level, and that was, ‘We condemn the building and opening of this monument to Graziani.’”
DeMarco said that part of the anger of the protesters was that no one at a high level in government had yet acknowledged the issue. “It’s almost like a no-brainer,” DeMarco said. “Everyone knows this [Graziani is] a Nazi war criminal. Everyone knows that there’s a law in Italy against historical revisionism.”
Perricone, said DeMarco, also told the protesters that. during the African Union Summit on Jan. 29 in Addis Ababa, an official from the Italian Foreign ministry had a side meeting with an official from the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry and expressed the same sentiment, indicating a desire on the Italian side to have this cleaned up.
According to DeMarco, Perricone claimed that part of the problem that was keeping the monument was part of the newfound autonomy that many local governments were exercising after a successful bid, led by the right-wing Lega Nord (Northern League) party, to make local governments more independent of Rome's central authority.
“[Perricone] did not say there was nothing we could do,” DeMarco reported. “But that [the Italians] are exploring what they can do, because of the autonomy of local regions these days.
“I don’t recall it ever taking such a drastic turn where you can honor a Nazi and get away with it,” DeMarco said. “The Global Alliance is looking for a dialogue with the Italian government for how to close this. We’re not interest in embarrassing anyone; we just want it shut down.”
Perricone was not immediately available for comment.
Also on Feb. 19, a smaller group of people gathered outside the Vatican's U.N. mission as representatives from the Global Alliance delivered a letter asking the Holy See to condemn the presence of a Catholic priest who, DeMarco said, was present at the Graziani monument’s dedication ceremony. “Considering how top-down the Catholic church is, especially in Italy, it’s inexcusable that this guy was essentially there to bless this monument,” DeMarco said.
Meanwhile, in Italy, the movement has begun to garner some notice from politicians. Italy’s first black member of Parliament, Jean-Léonard Touadi, who is currently running for the regional government of Lazio (which has jurisdiction over the town of Affile), isn’t taking this sitting down. Touadi, an MP for the Democratic Party, called the monument “shameful” and has demanded in Parliament an investigation into the mausoleum. “This continued humiliation of our country is unacceptable,” he told the Italian wire service ANSA earlier in Feburary.
DeMarco said that despite Touadi’s inquiry and a pending lawsuit about the monument, there isn’t much “groundswell” in terms of attention from the Italian people themselves. “It’s pretty obscure,” he said, noting that the monument had been defaced three times but then more public money was spent cleaning it up.
Italy is scheduled to hold elections on Sunday and Monday.
Maya covers the U.N., Europe, and the Middle East for IBTimes. She joined the company in July 2012 after having previously worked with DNAinfo.com and Gawker.