Book review: Prevail: The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia’s Victory over Mussolini’s Invasion

During the week of Thanksgiving Day (2014) Prevail: The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia’s Victory over Mussolini’s Invasion, 1935–1941 hit the bookstores. I slogged my way through this 500+ page tome and finished it on Christmas night. It was both captivating and enlightening and I’d recommend it to all of you.

The book naturally appealed to me, being a fist-generation American whose parents were born not long after the end of the Italian occupation. It’s safe to say that had this story ended differently it would have affected my life, assuming I would still have been born. Who knows if I’d be speaking Italian today as a result? In reading this book I opened the window to an era about which I knew little.

I was familiar with the basic facts that most people know: Mussolini’s lust for an Italian empire drove him to finish what the Italians failed to do in their attempt to subdue Ethiopia back in the late 19th century. In 1935, before the world realized the threat of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and a second world war, Italy would invade and use chemical warfare to destroy the Ethiopian armies. Five years, when the war was in full swing, the British would send in troops from the Sudan and drive the Italians into the Red Sea.

This 5-year period was as close as Ethiopians have ever come to being subjugated by an outside nation in its 4,000+ years of existence. This is a point of great pride for all Ethiopians. As I learned in Pearce’s book, Ethiopia was also a symbol of inspiration for blacks in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Europe.

Ethiopia was the counter example to prove that civilization and empire was not the domain of Europeans. This ancient civilization became Christian while Europe was still largely pagan. For blacks who live as second-class citizens in the U.S. this independent nation that resisted colonization was a statement of defiance against white supremacy. In the years leading up to the invasion the world saw Italy and Ethiopia as proxies in a battle between whites and blacks.

When Joe Louis and Primo Carnera met in the ring at Yankee Stadium in June of 1935 the fighters became proxies for Italy and Ethiopia. Mussolini took an interest in Carnera as a symbol of Italy’s resurgence as a sort of neo-Roman Empire. Louis’ body work paid off when the referee waved off the fight after Carnera went down for the third time in the 6th round. Blacks were jubilant but they would be much more disappointed when Italian forces rolled across the Ethiopian border in October of that year.

Apart from inflaming racial tensions the impending invasion created a real diplomatic crisis in Europe. The members of the League of Nations were bound by covenant to come to the defense of any member that was attacked. That commitment, though, was thick as the paper on which it was printed. While public opinion in Britain was with Ethiopia, the underdog, neither the British, nor any other, government had any interest in fulfilling their obligations. I’m sure the European nations rued the day that Ethiopia became a member but even though it was Italy, ironically, who advocated for its admission.

Though the League may have seen Ethiopia as nothing but a backwards, primitive people their failure to uphold their commitments undermined the collective security which was the League’s raison d’etre. It was supposed to be a forum where the nations could work out their problems instead of on the battlefield. Emperor Haile Selassie made this clear when he went to Geneva to appeal for help. As he said, today it’s us Ethiopians but tomorrow you will be next. The emperor’s words turned out to be prophetic.

The first part of the book deals with the lead up to the invasion and the second part focuses on the war itself, which lasted from October 1935 to May 1936. I have to say that I was quite depressed when I finished part II because it was a story of valiant defenders making a hopeless stand against an army that was out of their league. Aside from the superior rifles and tanks (which Ethiopian didn’t have at all) the Italians did most of their damage with mustard gas. The psychological effect was probably worse than the actual casualties.

The emperor’s advisers were able to persuade him, with great difficulty, that exile was their best option if they were to have any hope of victory. Some of his countrymen would accuse him of abandoning his people and Mussolini would propagate the lie that the emperor took the money and ran when defeat became apparent. He would be Britain’s thorn in the flesh for the few years that he was there as an exile, a constant reminder of Britain’s failed foreign policy.

It wasn’t until Britain was basically under threat of invasion herself that the decision was made to liberate Ethiopia. I had always mistakenly presumed that the Brits sent in multiple divisions but it turns out that the Gideon Force was only made up of about 2,000 men who were a motley mix of Sudanese, irregular Ethiopians, and British soldiers. The campaign begins in January of 1941 and on May 5, six years to the day that Italian General Badoglio marched into Addis Ababa, the emperor walks back into his capital as promised.

You find out right away that Jeff Pearce is in the Ethiopian camp. There were times in the first part of the book when Pearce inserts his commentary or evaluates the truthfulness of statements by diplomats and officials in such a way that it’s distracting. I don’t fault him for having a bias but it’s a bit much when I feel like the author is not letting me reach the conclusions, as if he doesn’t trust me to get what he’s saying. That being said, it is not that problematic.

I think Pearce’s bias makes him passionate too and gives the book life. He writes it like a story, a journey, not a textbook. You know who the heroes and villains are but he’s fair in his treatment of the characters. He is willing to point out the warts of those on Ethiopia’s side and he avoids making a caricature out of the Italians. This book is a long but good read and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in this topic.

Budding pollster, financial coach, aspiring writer, amateur filmmaker (www.prevailthefilm.com)

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