Anti-Fascist dieselpunk II- The Italo-Abyssinian War

After my last posting on Anti-Fascist dieselpunk and the Spanish Civil War, which owed much to Steampunk Emma Goldman’s original blog, I began thinking about the other great anti-fascist struggle also lost in the shadow of WWII. In 1935, before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini’s Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia–one of the few African territories at the time not under European colonial control. The brutal attack on Ethiopia (then also called Abyssinia), which employed poison gas and flame throwers on civilian populations, was partly strategic, and also revenge–for an Italy still smarting from their humiliating defeat by Ethiopian forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. While the near impotent League of Nations remained shamefully complicit in their refusal to denounce Mussolini or allow arms to a beleaguered Ethiopia, outrage was heard from throughout the black diaspora. Ethiopia had long functioned as a symbolic political and cultural historical site in black popular culture, politics and thought; and the invasion by Italy was seen by many as an attack on the entire “black world.”

In the United States black newspapers covered the war extensively, citing fascist atrocities, criticizing American neutrality and calling for blacks around the world to rally to Ethiopia’s defense. In an act of early Pan-Africanism, Black Nationalism and anti-fascism, diverse voices in the US from the African Patriotic League to the president of the National Baptist Convention to the Fraternal Council of Negro Churches, called on African-Americans to support Ethiopia by any means. In the black mecca of the age, Harlem, the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia was formed in February 1935, bringing together black fraternities, sororities, nationalists, communists and more in a united front against fascism. Similar pro-Ethiopian groups emerged from the urban North to the deep Jim Crow South. Black columnist George Schuyler of the Pittsburgh-based Courier, claimed at the time he had not spoken to blacks anywhere in the country that did not want to do something for Ethiopia.

By 1936, a call for volunteers to travel to the defense of Ethiopia began to emerge. From New York to Kansas City, thousands of African-Americans voiced their willingness to enlist to fight on behalf of the East African nation. The Ethiopian government even inquired the US government on the legality of African-American recruits. But the United States, fearful of being drawn into the conflict, threatened that any such recruits entering into a war against a country (fascist-Italy) with which their government was presently at peace, would face both a stiff fine and imprisonment. Many black groups, dismayed by this response, scaled back their activities to relief aid and lobbying on Ethiopia’s behalf. Others however, vowed to skirt the law. A 1978 article by historian William Scott relates:

…other groups, undeterred by the government, openly defied the ruling. Spirited recruitment of volunteers continued in Harlem, where one militant group boasted publicly of 2,000 volunteers and boldly discussed plans to buy or charter a freighter that would carry black soldiers to Ethiopia. Another organization, the Black Legion, reportedly 3,000 strong, established a training camp in up-state New York with instructors for five hundred pilots and for two full regiments of infantry.69 Sufi Abdul Hamid, leader of the group, considered that his followers stood ready to renounce their American citizenship in order to serve the “mother country.


Despite their best intentions, such hopes never fully materialized. Only two known African-Americans ever made it to Ethiopia to fight independently–the aviators John C. Robinson of Chicago’s South Side and the Trinidadian-born Hubert F. Julian from Harlem. Greatly frustrated by their inability to participate, black anger over the fascist attack on Ethiopia was acted out in clashes with Italian communities in the Northeast, many of whom at the time openly supported Italy’s invasion. Still, years after Ethiopia’s eventual defeat, African-Americans held out hopes to join the guerilla war against fascist Italy and continued their financial and political support.

Similar dynamics played out throughout the black world, with varying degrees of success and failure. In West Africa there was outrage, and direct confrontation with the British colonial administration for its lack of support for Ethiopia. Nationalist anti-colonial groups like the Prominent Lagos Women Society of Nigeria insisted that the League of Nations refuse recognition of Fascist Italy for its aggressive war, while the British Ex-Servicemen’s Union of the Gold Coast (Ghana) passed a resolution threatening to “‘never again take up arms to defend European nations in the event of any future war.” As historian S.K.B. Asante noted, the seeming unwillingness, and impotence, of Britain in the Italian-Ethiopian conflict was “a shattering experience” in the minds of many West Africans, and served as “the beginning of the end of British prestige as one of the props of colonial rule.”

In the British West Indies, there was considerable fervor, where Ethiopia had long-held strong meanings for Pan-Africanists and in popular ideologies of black pride. In Jamaica, some 1400 people signed a petition to the British King requesting that Jamaicans be allowed to enlist in the Ethiopian army “to fight to preserve the glories of our ancient and beloved Empire.” In nearby Trinidad, boycotts were demanded of Italian goods, as longshoremen refused to unload Italian ships and public protests denounced Italian aggression. Well known Trinidadian intellectuals George Padamore and C.L.R. James were both members of the London-based International African Friends of Abyssinia (I.A.F.A.), alongside Kenyan anti-colonialist Jomo Kenyatta and Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood Garvey, first wife of the UNIA leader Marcus Garvey and intellectual-activist in her own right. On the small island of St. Kitts, rioting broke out in 1935 over British inaction against fascist Italy, while the local Workers League passed resolutions of solidarity with Ethiopia. There were similar protests in Grenada, St. Lucia, Guyana, Venezuela and other nearby regions. The unrest proved distressing to local authorities, who worried that the Italo-Ethiopian War would lead to “racial” strife and agitation among their respective populations. In each case, black military volunteers were either prohibited outright or firmly discouraged.

Pulling on Steampunk Emma Goldman’s suggestion, this all begs for some wonderful re-imagining through the lens of alternate history that can simultaneously shed light on lesser known struggles and give voice to under represented groups in the dieselpunk genre. What if, blacks from across the diaspora had been able to fulfill their dreams of joining the fight against fascist Italy in Ethiopia? What might their dress and fashion have looked like? What would an anti-fascist dieselpunk soldier fighting on behalf of Ethiopia against Mussolini have looked like?

Here are some fantastic ideas plucked right out of our own history:

A photo-op of Emperor Haile Selassie with Ethiopian troops during the war. While Selassie was no radical, by any means, history nevertheless cast him as one of the earliest fighters against fascism. And who can’t say that quarter length military jacket and sun-helmet (with chin strap no less) is not some fly anti-fascist gear?

Even after Selassie and the Ethiopian regular military were forced to flee fascist Italy’s assault, others stayed on to harass and lead hit-and-run raids against Mussolini’s troops as part of a guerilla force called The Patriots. Pictured above is Jagama Kello (middle) who left home at just 15 to fight Italian invaders. Rock that fro’ with your dieselpunk!

So if you were an African-American or Afro-West Indian eager to engage in some righteous fascist ass-kicking up and down East Africa, what might you wear for such an occassion? I think maybe the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Garveyite uniforms of just a decade and a half prior might serve as inspiration. Marcus Garvey’s UNIA probably did more to uphold “the banner of Ethiopia” throughout the black diaspora in the earliest 20th century, than any other international movement. And though Garvey himself had a complex relationship with the call for fighting on Ethiopia’s behalf, the legacy the UNIA left behind undoubtedly influenced the country-spanning Ethiopian assistance campaign. Called “bombastic” by critics, and certainly gaudy, these UNIA outfits still had a military flair that a volunteer off to fight fascism in East Africa might find quite appealing–though they might have to be trimmed down for the heat!

And don’t think it was just the men! Garveyite UNIA uniforms for women sported their own militaristic style, making them perfect wear for the anti-fascist struggle. Pictured above are members of the UNIA Women’s Brigade, from 1924.

Of course these uniforms and outfits aren’t dieselpunk in of themselves. They’ll need that touch of imagination members of the genre bring, to outfit them properly for this alternate history that never truly was, but begs to be imagined. So dieselpunk nazis, blackshirts and brownshirts, beware! From Spain to Ethiopia, we’re doing our part to smash fascism!

A suggestion for anyone who wants to run with this further: Dieselpunk nationalist or communist Chinese turning the tide against Imperial Japan at the Battle of Nanking?

Think Imagine BIG!

21 thoughts on “Anti-Fascist dieselpunk II- The Italo-Abyssinian War

  1. I think this was presented very well and definitely sheds some light on our involvement in what the world knows as politics. From reading your accounts and perception of them, I got the feeling that we really cared about our legacy as ‘Afrikans in America’ and not “Afrikan Americans’. Thank you.

  2. Excellent post!
    The lie of omission in dieselpunk and steampunk is staggering and allows for blatant fascism / racism in the name of “I am just acting in accordance with the time”, or “It’s not ME, it’s my character!”

  3. Great information, Phenderson. It’s seems like you’re well on your way to writing that story. Like you say the possibilities are endless. What if after uniting to run the Italians from Ethiopia this force proceeded to drive other European countries from the continent? With Europe focused on Hitler, would they have the resources to fight such a threat? Good stuff, bruh.

  4. Very well thought-out post. I wrote a fairly extensive scene set around the Battle of Adwa in my African Immortals novel BLOOD COLONY (and mention it in the other books too), but I didn’t know this piece of the story from the Mussolini era, Let your imagination run wild!

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  10. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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