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Observations on the Ethiopian Nation, Its Nationalism, and the Italo-Ethiopian War1 Charles McClellan Radford University Although only six years in duration, the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-41 was one of the defining events in the history of Ethiopia. It was an event that swept away old myths and created opportunity for Ethiopians to reexamine the nature and meaning of their state. Unfortunately the opportunity was not fully used, since in the aftermath of the war, Ethiopians ignored many of the war's fundamental lessons and merely replaced old mythology with new. For Ethiopia, the war highlighted a need to move fully into the modern world, while providing an opportunity to do so. The myth of Adwa was shattered; largely feudal levies stood little chance against a modern European army in conventional warfare. Ethiopia lacked the military and industrial technology to fight a modern war, and more importantly the administrative and logistical support to back it.2 Beyond Ethiopia's effort to defeat her external enemy was the struggle taking place within Ethiopia itself. I argue that the Italo-Ethiopian War was, for Ethiopians, as much a civil war as one against foreign aggression, and that in fact, for Ethiopians today, the internal war was more important since it helped define the dynamics of post-war Ethiopian politics. The fact is that the war greatly divided Ethiopians against themselves.3 While some of the factions evident during the war were emerging earlier, the war reinforced and broadened these, and these factions dominated Ethiopian politics in the post-war period. It would be too much to say that the factionalism created among Ethiopians as a result of the war was merely the product of Italian machinations, merely an external effort to destabilize the country both before and during the war. Italian efforts certainly helped to promote and Northeast African Studies (ISSN 0740-9133) Vol. 3, No. 1 (New Series) 1996, pp. 57-8657 58 Charles McClellan strengthen that factionalism, but the rivalries and discontent were clearly pre-existing rifts upon which the Italians built their own efforts. Early twentieth-century Ethiopia had seen leaders with visions of a more modern state: in particular, Lij Iyasu recognized the need to build a broader multi-ethnic nation and Haile Sellassie with his endeavored to modernize the state's infrastructure. Opposition to both leaders had arisen. Iyasu fell after only a few years in power and, with that, his hopes for Ethiopia's future. Haile Sellassie survived, but only because he proved to be more militarily powerful and politically astute than his enemies, who were largely feudal and conservative.4 As a survivor, Haile Sellassie drew much support from a group of younger, largely western-oriented modernists known as the Young Ethiopians, a group he helped nurture and reward. They were not in fact politically organized, nor were they all like-minded in terms of their own visions of the nation. While they were in general agreement about their desire to bring Ethiopia into the modern world along western lines (some were likewise impressed with Japan), they disagreed on how rapidly that effort should proceed and what institutions should be at the core of that modern state.5 Some saw the perpetuation of the monarchy as essential, a symbol of nationhood going back thousands of years, that would provide strength and unity to a multi-ethnic state. Others saw the monarchy as dispensable, preferring instead a representative, constitutional government with democratically elected leaders, a state that would promote unity through cooperation and inclusion. Most undoubtedly represented positions somewhere between these two extremes. The relationship between the Emperor and the Young Ethiopians was by necessity measured and calculated. While the Emperor needed and relied upon their assistance in transforming the state, he mistrusted a number of them. They supported Haile Selassie as one to promote their general goals, but feared any misstep that might end his patronage. From the other end of the political spectrum, Haile Sellassie had to deal with more conservative and reactionary forces. Among these were the traditional nobility, particularly the ruling houses in Gojjam and Tigre, always contenders for the imperial throne before its capture by the Shoans in 1889...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-6574
Print ISSN
0740-9133
Pages
pp. 57-86
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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