Italian Town Sparks Outrage By Memorializing Fascist War Criminal

on August 15 2012 3:30 PM
Rodolfo Graziani
The Italian village of Affile has erected a controversial monument to Fascist military leader Rodolfo Graziani. www.affile.org

Controversy has erupted in Italy after a small town east of Rome built a memorial to a Fascist military leader, using public funds. 

A mausoleum and park in the village of Affile was dedicated to the memory of Field Marshall Rodolfo Graziani, known pejoratively as the "Butcher of Fezzan" and the "Butcher of Ethiopia" for the military campaigns he led in Libya and Ethiopia under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.

The memorial, built with taxpayers' money, cost €127,000 ($157,000), according to Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

It has particularly sparked outrage among members of Italy's leftist Democratic Party, who cited Graziani's "crimes against humanity" committed in North and East Africa during the 1920s and 1930s.

"Is it possible to allow, accept or simply tolerate that, in 2012, we dedicate a park and a museum to the Fascist general and minister Rodolfo Graziani?" asked the regional Democratic Party chief Esterino Montino.

Affile's mayor Ercole Viri, who leads a center-right administration, isn't new to controversy. Earlier this year he had ordered a bronze bust of Neo-Fascist politician Giorgio Almirante, who led Italy's extreme right fringe for decades, built in place of a statue that had been defiled. Viri defended the memorial and lauded Graziani as a man true to his ideas, and dismissed criticisms as "idle chatter," La Repubblica reported.

According to the town's website, Graziani spent his childhood in Affile and is one of its "illustrious sons."

A biographical entry on the site acknowledges the controversy surrounding Graziani's military career, but ultimately defends his actions as "scrupulous fidelity to duty as a solider" and "for the good of the Fatherland." The words "patria e onore", fatherland and honor, a phrase which in the Italian political lexicon is closely associated with Fascism and is essentially unmentionable in mainstream debate, is inscribed on the Affile monument.  

"Marshal Rodolfo Graziani ... is among the most popular and most criticized leading figures -- rightly or wrongly -- during the tumultuous events that marked nearly half a century of Italian history between the two world wars," reads the entry on the city's site.

"Interpreter of events and often complex, painful choices, Graziani was able to direct his every act for the good of the Faterland through his inflexible uprightness and scrupulous fidelity to duty as a soldier, distinguishing him from the ranks of the ignoble or from the large category of so many who pursued only logical self-interest." Those words, which may appear cryptic, are a direct reference to the end of World War II, when Graziani aligned himself with Germany and continued the war alongside it after Italy had surrendered to the Allieds and joined their fight against the Nazis.  

Graziani was born in the village of Filettino, near Affile, on August 11, 1882. He joined the military in 1904, serving as a Lieutenant in Eritrea, then a colony of the Kingdom of Italy, until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, whereupon he returned to Europe to fight against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

By the end of the war, he was the youngest colonel in Italian history and had distinguished himself as a shrewd tactician.

He returned to Africa in 1921, this time to Libya, another Italian colony. At the time, Mussolini was quickly rising to power with his Fascist movement, which was symbolically cemented in 1925 as the dictator took on the title of Il Duce, "The Leader."

During this period, Mussolini ordered Graziani to suppress the anti-colonial Senussi rebellion, which he accomplished by 1931 with the defeat and capture of rebel leader Omar Mukhtar, who was subsequently executed by hanging.

In the years of bloody guerrilla warfare leading up to the Italian victory, Graziani was charged with establishing prison and labor camps, where thousands of prisoners of war perished, often by starvation and disease if not by execution, under the camps' harsh conditions.

In 1935, Graziani, by then a general, was sent to invade Ethiopia, serving under General Emilio De Bono. Italian forces, armed with superior weaponry and employing heavy use of mustard gas, defeated the Ethiopian army within a year.

Graziani was subsequently made Viceroy of Italian East Africa, a conglomeration of Italian holdings in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, where his most notorious atrocity would be committed.

In 1937, following a failed assassination attempt against him by Ethiopian resistance fighters Abrha Debotch and Mogus Asgedom, Graziani ordered a swift and brutal reprisal against the region's civilian population.

In the following weeks, thousands of Ethiopians, including intellectuals and clergy, were indiscriminately massacred or imprisoned under the broad suspicion of connection to the resistance movement in Italian East Africa.

Estimates by Ethiopian sources at the time placed the death toll near 30,000, though an independent assement was never conducted. Modern conservative estimates place the casualties at no less than 4,000.

With the onset of World War II, Graziani commanded forces in North Africa, suffering a major defeat in Egypt against the British in 1940, after which he resigned.

As the war began to turn against the Axis and members of Mussolini's Fascist government overthrew and imprisoned him in 1943 and joined the Allies, Graziani remained loyal to the dictator.

After only a few days in captivity, Mussolini was freed by Nazi German troops and made the figurehead leader of the Italian Social Republic, a puppet state of the Third Reich in northern and central Italy.

Mussolini appointed Graziani as his defense minister, charged with overseeing the National Republican Army, which battled Allied forces occupying southern Italy.

With the fall of Berlin in 1945 and the surrender of the Axis powers, Graziani was imprisoned and later tried by a military tribunal in Rome in 1948 and sentenced to an additional 19 years in prison for his role in the war, though he was never charged with specific war crimes.

Graziani, however, was released in 1950, the rest of his sentence commuted after his legal team was able to convince an Italian court that he had "acted under orders."

He briefly returned to Affile before coming back to Rome, where he became active in politics as head of the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement party until his death resulting from medical complications of an ulcer in 1955, at the age of 73.

His remains were transferred to Affile and buried in a tomb with members of his family.

"(In death) forgotten, as he was in life despite dedicating the whole of it to the greatness of the Fatherland," the Affile biographical entry closes.

In Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, where over half a century ago thousands had been slaughtered at the hands of Italian occupiers, an obelisk stands to make sure Graziani's deeds are not forgotten.

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