HL Deb 16 March 1937 vol 104 cc716-22

THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY rose to call attention to the alleged recent massacres in Ethiopia and to ask His Majesty's Government for any information they may be able to give; and to move for Papers. The most reverend Primate said: My Lords, it requires some hardihood to begin another subject at this late hour and after the vast range of subjects through which the debate now concluded has wandered. There have been complaints of the fertility of the English soil. There could be no complaint as to the fertility of the noble Lord, Lord Brocket's Motion. But I do riot propose to detain your Lordships for any length of time, and my subject, though important, is not one, I hope, which need provoke discussion. I have felt obliged to call your Lordships' attention to the alleged recent massacres in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, with very great reluctance. I have no wish to revive the strong feelings which many in this and other countries hold about the attack of Italy upon the ancient State of Abyssinia. We must regard the conquest of the capital and of the greater part of Abyssinia as an accomplished fact. I must keep in mind also the recent good understanding which has been established with Italy with regard to our interests in the Mediterranean.

Speaking generally, it would be superfluous to say that, in common with all lovers of culture, I love Italy and have nothing, and can have nothing, but good will for the people of that beautiful and delightful land. But public opinion must have been shocked by the accounts received of the events which followed in Addis Ababa after the attack upon Marshal Graziani, the Viceroy, upon the day of February 19. I do not expect, and indeed I do not ask, the noble Earl who I think will reply for the Government to express any judgment whatever upon those events. I only ask for information and I hope that that information may prove the accounts which have been received to have been exaggerated. Yet the answers given in another place by His Majesty's Government, though not going into any detail, were such as to entitle me to assume that at least in their main outline the accounts that have been received may be regarded as substantially true.

We all most deeply deplore the wounds that were inflicted upon the Viceroy, and still more severely upon the Chief of his Air Force, General Liotta, and also apparently upon the Abuna or Archbishop of the Coptic Church. We are thankful that their lives were not lost. It would have been perfectly natural that after such an attempt there should have followed that horrible incident of warfare known as reprisals, but surely the reprisals might have been confined to those who could have been regarded as involved in the act. Instead of that it appears that Italian troops, particularly the Blackshirt Labour Corps, and other workmen were encouraged or at least permitted to take these reprisals into their own hands, with the result that there followed on the night of February 19 and the two following days what can only be described as a general massacre. I have not used the word "ordered" deliberately. I expect to hear, if information can be given, that Marshal Graziani himself must have deplored these excesses, but they were carried on for so long and on so large a scale that it seems impossible to doubt that there was some word spoken or some deliberate silence observed on the part of responsible authorities which made them possible. For it appears first of all that these gangs of Blackshirts, armed with bombs and flame throwers and rifles and pistols, somehow or another ran amok among the natives. It was not merely that those who were within the area where the bomb attack occurred were at once indiscriminately shot, not only that those found possessed of arms and ammunition were also immediately shot, but that these gangs roaming through the native quarter of the city set the huts on fire and shot those who were trying to escape from the flames. We are told that round the central area in Addis Ababa there was a ring of fire and that the sound of machine-gun and rifle fire was continuous. Certainly in one way or another many hundreds of innocent men, women and children were killed. There is a variety in the accounts of the numbers who were massacred ranging from 2,000 to 6,000.

I earnestly hope that the Government may be able to assure us this afternoon that the numbers have been exaggerated, but in any case, no one can think of these days and nights at Addis Ababa without a sense of horror. Make all allowance for the panic of Italian troops finding themselves under such an attack as that upon their Chief in the midst of a suspicious if not hostile population, make all allowance for the fact that intensely excited nerves were responsible for the lack of self-control; yet the facts remain deplorable and tragic.

I fear, my Lords, that we have become too much accustomed since the War to tragedies of this kind, and to sacrifices of human life upon a large scale, but we ought not to become too much accustomed to letting them pass in silence. I need not say that I have spoken this afternoon with no thought of political bias. I should regard it as most regrettable if this event were to be exploited by those who have strong views about the present political ré;gime in Italy. I have ventured to bring 1his matter before your Lordships and to speak these few but deeply felt words about it simply because I felt that some voice of remonstrance should be publicly raised—and where better than in your Lordships' House?—in the name not of Christianity only but of the common instincts of our humanity. I only ask for information. No one will be more thankful if such information shows that these excesses were less lamentable than we have had reason to suppose. I beg to move.


My Lords, I think that all quarters of your Lordships' House will have been very deeply impressed by these humanitarian motives which have inspired the most reverend Primate and have impelled him to put this Question on the Order Paper. We on these Benches are exceedingly grateful to him for doing so and for giving this opportunity of a public statement by the spokesman for His Majesty's Government. We are exceedingly anxious that the alarming reports which have appeared recently in the Press about a massacre that occurred in Addis Ababa after the abortive attempt on the life of Marshal Graziani should be either confirmed or refuted by an authoritative statement of the kind that might be made this evening. There are indeed several reasons why we cannot disinterest ourselves from the fate of Abyssinia, and especially from an event such as has recently been described. We have a special responsibility, because our policy during the war between Italy and Abyssinia and our failure to uphold the Covenant and to make collective security effective—I do not say it was entirely our failure, but at any rate we contributed—have obviously led to the present situation. We cannot wash our hands of responsibility for anything that may have occurred or may occur in Abyssinia as a result of the policy pursued by our own Government.

There is, besides, another reason. Abyssinia is still a Member of the League of Nations, and as such any event which may possibly lead to an outbreak of war in her territory is of immediate concern to all the other Members of the League. It is perfectly certain that the repressive policy pursued by the Italians in Abyssinia has caused considerable fear and hatred among the Abyssinian population. This in turn has led to the utmost difficulty for Italians in Addis Ababa and in those places where garrisons are kept to obtain the food supplies they require from the countryside, because the natives are frightened and suspicious of the white men who are occupying their country. This in turn is leading, I believe, to a considerable diminution of the army of occupation in Abyssinia, and now there is little doubt that the Abyssinians are still watching their opportunity to pounce on any Italians or any Italian force within their reach, and that if the present army of occupation is considerably weakened the opportunity desired will come in due course. An event of this kind, if what the newspapers say is true, is one that naturally will increase the fear, hatred and suspicion of the civil population of Abyssinia. On these grounds this event is one that should profoundly concern people in this country, and we should be particularly glad of that authoritative and exact statement that the Government ought to be able to provide from the special sources of information upon which they are able to draw.


My Lords, I wish to say that I fully appreciate the reasons which have moved the most reverend Primate in asking this Question. I am afraid, however, that the information which His Majesty's Government have received with regard to the incidents which took place in and around Addis Ababa following on the attempted assassination of Marshal Graziani is very scanty, and was contained in a reply given by Lord Cranborne to questions asked on this subject on March 8 in another place. As Lord Cranborne indicated on that occasion, precise details are lacking and are in the circumstances difficult to obtain. It is certain that grave disturbances took place; that in the course of them Italian soldiers resorted to severe measures against the local native population; that a large number of people were killed, and that considerable destruction of property ensued.

It is, of course, a matter of great regret to His Majesty's Government that those events should have occurred. We regret also the immediate circumstances which gave rise to them. But the reports which His Majesty's Government have received do not permit the occurrences to be described in any greater detail than that; they are not in fact as complete as those contained in an account which, as your Lordships will have noticed, was published by The Times in its issue of March 13. Your Lordships will realise that the British Consul-General is, and must always be, primarily concerned with the protection of British subjects and British interests, and I am glad to say that at the instance of the Acting Consul-General all the British subjects who were arrested at the outbreak of the disturbances have now been released and that no British lives were lost. I am sorry that I am not in a position to give your Lordships further information in regard to this matter.


My Lords, I think your Lordships will share with me some real regret that His Majesty's Government, for reasons which I entirely appreciate, have not been able to give more exact information. I must presume that, as it has been impossible very seriously to question or deny the substantial accuracy of the accounts that have appeared, we are still entitled to regard them as in the main true. If so, there is, if I may add to what I said shortly before, another reason for apprehension in this country about what has hap- pened. That is that we are well aware that the whole of Africa is watching, still, what is happening in Abyssinia, and that events like these occurring on the part of troops, how far permitted or how far merely unable to be restrained we cannot say, cannot but have a very serious effect upon the opinion of the African peoples. For that reason, though I am sure that His Majesty's Government—and no one understands better than I do the diffi- culty they had in communicating details on these matters—have given us all the available information, yet I regret that it has not been possible as a result to diminish the gravity of the reports which have been received. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at ten minutes past seven o'clock.