Fact-filled study of Ethiopian campaign breathes with life, energy

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Haile Selassie's War: The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935-1941, by Anthony Mockler. New York: Random House. 454 pp. $24.95. This book is crammed with facts -- many of a military nature -- but it also pulsates with its author's energy and verve. Thus, what might have been a rather dry volume of military history comes to life, thanks to Mr. Mockler's capacity for succinct yet telling character portraits and an unusual ability to evoke time and place.

Author of biographies of England's Lord Chief Justices, St. Francis of Assisi, and a study of the campaign against Vichy French forces in Syria in 1941, Anthony Mockler here turns his attention to the Italian-Ethiopian Campaign. He views this as a six-year war, beginning with the Fascist conquest of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935, proceeding through guerrilla warfare against the occupying forces, and culminating in the British-South African liberation of that nation in the spring of 1941, which brough t Emperor Haile Selassie back to his throne.

Although he has not written about Ethiopia before, Mr. Mockler has clearly made a thorough study of the nation, its people, history, and customs. So much so, apparently, that what was originally planned as a European-centered study of the conflict became rooted throughout in Ethiopia. The book makes one feel what this struggle meant to the land where it actually took place.

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The great strength of ``Haile Selassie's War'' is that it takes one beyond the surface images of this conflict, which, in common with the Spanish Civil War, is often viewed more in its global impli- cations -- in a 1930s Big Power context -- than in its reality as a cruel war on the local inhabitants.

Mr. Mockler devotes relatively little space to such celebrated media occasions as Haile Selassie's emotional plea to an indifferent League of Nations, concentrating instead on less familiar, but perhaps more crucial, episodes of military and diplomatic history.

He depicts the internal strains in this complex society as well as the cold-blooded and petty responses of officialdom in Britain, France, and their Empires to the brutal establishment of a Fascist colony grandiosely entitled Africa Orientale Italiana. It had the trappings of a Viceroy, but the reality was poison gas and newfangled bombing raids. This book is not indifferent to the fact that there were atrocities on both sides, and the author's sympathy with the Ethiopians does not lead to a

scholarly bias.

Above all, Mr. Mockler is superb at evoking characters: countless Ethiopian priests, warriors, and nobles, amazingly unimaginative British and French colonial officials, a hierarchy of Fascist colonizers culminating in the unforgettable figure of Amadeo, Duc d'Aosta, the last Viceroy of Africa Orientale Italiana.

Even Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden are freshly and memorably portrayed here. And, of course, it is not only individuals who are so well evoked: One gets a real sense of what this victory in April 1941 must have meant to the people of Ethiopia and to an embattled Britain, aided neither by the Soviet Union nor the United States, and poised on the brink of military disaster in the Balkans and North Africa.

The book's original manuscript, Mockler informs us, was half again as long as the Italian version and has been ``trimmed again and again.'' Perhaps it is because of all this surgery that the notes are curiously general and not the specific footnotes one might expect in a scholarly study such as this. But the book does contain useful glossaries, biographical sketches, and an excellent chronology -- and these alone give it a value quite apart from the pleasures of Mr. Mockler's text.

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