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The Information Environment of the Italian- Abyssinian War by Michael O’Sullivan

Italian_soldiers_in_Abyssinia_1935Today’s post will be a quick discussion of points raised by Christopher Duggan’s excellent book Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy. Regarding the information environment of the regime and its impact on public perception. While it is indulgent, I feel it is important to stress how crucial a role information plays in any society.
Firstly, it is important to realise that Fascist policies regarding information, did not spring out of the ground.  As a result of the chaotic nature of the unification of Italy (Risorgimento) and the fractured nature of both, society and the polity, the Kingdom of Italy had a historical interest a special interest in promulgating an educational system (information landscape) in which ensured the population were both “content to remain in the condition that nature assigned to them, and not encourage them to abandon it”… while also being “honest, industrious, useful to the family and devoted to the king and the fatherland” (p.180). As noted by Duggan, the perceived failure of this experience, coupled with the “degree factory-esque” nature of the system created an army of unemployed graduates who vented their frustrations at the sluggish state economy, as well as failing to mould students morally and emotionally (p.181). The Fascist state successfully tapped into these concerns and set forth a new educational program in which: “(schools) at all level and in all their instruction should educate the Italian youth to understand fascism, to renew itself in fascism and to live in the historical climate created by the fascist revolution” (p.182).
Certainly, it could be argued that the success of the program may be seen in the lead up to, duration and conclusion of the Abyssinia war. As part of its policy to “renew fascism” the state celebrated the successes of ancient Rome, espousing the ideology of mare nostrum and imperial expansion (p.250). Clearly, popular images of fertile, wealthy African colonies which would provide resources and a home for thousands of settlers of the metropole was not unique to Fascist Italy. However, the proliferation of Fascist ideas in Italian society was such, that the war received universal public support (pp.251-52). Clearly, as articulated in Duggan’s argument, this attitude was born out of popular belief, that the war was Italy’s first step in replacing the decadent imperial powers of Europe. As the “theory” when, the new men and women of Italy would achieve spiritual renewal through conflict and emerge as disciplined, energetic individuals unbound by decadent materialism, bourgeois humanitarianism, “craven comforts” and sedentary ways of life” (p.126).
Obviously, such sentiments illustrate the success of the state in controlling the information landscape of the country, in turn shaping the behaviour of its citizens. Duggan describes how throughout the Abyssinia war and aftermath, the government utilised films, postcards, songs and advertisements to drum up popular support for the conflict, by illustrating orientalist exoticism and lurid press details of uncivilized practices such as slavery child sacrifice which Italian civilisation would sweep away (p.260). Moreover, the state created an environment in which it could mobilise its population to make sacrifices for the war effort, such as asking couples to donate the metal in their wedding rings, and encouraged, both the conviction that Italy was asserting itself on the world stage and myriad of rumours detailing Ethiopia was a fertile land rich in untapped oilfields (p.255, 258-9). As such, this resulted in a festive atmosphere within Italy complete, with a marked popularity in songs such as “Africannia” (Little African girl) and “Ti Saluto e vado in Abissina” (Farewell, I am off to Abyssinia”). Compounding these attitudes, was a blanket censorship of the use of chemical weapons against the African armies. (p.262).
Perhaps, the worst consequences of the information environment of the Italian regime were the atrocities committed against Ethiopians by Italian solider. Many soldiers were young men raised entirely, in a society in which devotion to the Duce, patriotism, hatred of humanitarianism, exaltation of military virtues, and the inherent “rightness” of Fascist values, Italy’s civilizing mission and the benefits that the conquest would bring Ethiopia. (p.261-2). Unquestioning adherence to these values, created both passive accomplices and active perpetrators of mass murder against the Ethiopian population. These policies persisted throughout, the colonial occupation, in one notorious instance, in the wake of a terrorist attack in Addis Abba ordinary Italian colonists responded “around armed with manganelli (wooden batons) and iron bars bludgeoning any natives they came across in the streets”, none of these instances of violence were allowed to be reported on in Italy (pp. 263, 289).
Ultimately, I agree with Christopher Duggans assertion, that the policies of Fascist Italy created the following situation as noted by Florentine law Professor Piero Calamandrei: “Alas… we are, without being, aware of it a bookish people, who see the world through fantasies… For decades we have been confusing our desires with reality, our poetry with history”.  Or put another way by Jewish writer Franco Fortini: “If Fascism was to fall tomorrow and it was up to us young people to rebuilt Italy, we would not know what we wanted”. (pp.336-7). In other words, the fostering of an information society, in which critical thinking takes a backseat to fantasy, rationality with pure emotion,  and blind certainty is the dominant force, only serves to create a society that is both intolerant, and normalises/perpetuates atrocity. Moreover, it is argument that must be had in every country, at every point in its history.







Duggan, Christopher. (2012) Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy. London: UK,  The Bodley Head.


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New Frontiers: Soviet Support for the early Chinese Communist Party

By Michael O’Sullivan, Explaining History Asia Correspondent.



The 21st century has been dubbed by some experts and observers as the “Asian Century” most especially with the dramatic rise of China in the global political and economic power structures since the 1980s. While initially founded as a Communist state following the Civil war in 1949, there has since been a debate as to whether modern China since the reign of Deng Xiaoping still fits that model. Indeed, it is the position of Rana Mitter and other scholars that the current political and economic model of China more closely resembles the semi capitalist and party dominated vision of the progressive wing of the Guomindang: “One can imagine Chiang Kai Shek’s ghost wandering around China today nodding in approval, while Mao’s Ghost follows behind him moaning at the destruction of his vision”. It must be said, that this debate has less to do with the Chinese state fitting strict Marxist-Leninism models then what popular culture imagines Communism to stand for as an ideology and a society.

This meditation was prompted by an excellent analysis of the history of Communism in Silvio Pons: The Global Revolution. As excellently argued by Pons, Marxism or Communism is primarily a Euro-centric ideology, whose models of a proletariat revolution based in industrial countries against a bourgeoisie does not accurately reflect the social, ethic, economic and political diversities outside of the European continent. It must be said, that the best Stalin could manage in understanding the revolutionary potential of Asia was the application of labels such as “not having an industrial proletariat, having a slightly developed proletariat and “national proletariats”
Indeed, following the turmoil of the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution the Bolshevik party began to shift their focus away from the project of European revolution towards launching a Asian “anti-imperialist” uprising. This image was so powerful that Nikolai Bukharin conceived the revolutionary potential of Asia as “the capitalist metropolis besieged by the unending countryside of the global periphery”.
For all the countries that attended the 2,000 strong “Congress of the Peoples of the East”, the country that the USSR placed all its hopes on for a further revolution was China. The “Congress of the Peoples of the East” was hosted by the Bolsheviks in Baku in September 1920 as a platform for the Soviet leaders to extoll anti-British imperialist ideologies and national self-determination for nationalists and communist operating from Turkey to the Far East. The conditions in China during the early Twentieth Century had produced the correct combination of nationalism and revolution to achieve the ideological goals of the USSR. This can clearly be seen in the USSR’s insistence of an alliance between the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Kuomintang to oppose British Imperialism and reactionary warlords.
While it is a fact of history that a harmonious coexistence between the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists did not survive the Shanghai Massacre of 1926, it could be argued that this alliance proposed by the USSR has helped shape China into its current political model. As argued by Peter Zarrow, the alliance with the USSR helped shape the Guomindang into an ideological vanguard party (in a similar vein to Lenin’s Bolshevik party) guiding but not admitting the masses. Despite, its height hopes for the Chinese revolution, Stalin and the Politburo still insisted on the Nationalism alliance, ultimately with the intention of having largely urban based communist activists seize control of Nationalist organs of government rather than develop their own revolutionary committees la a the Soviets.
From this stance taken in the 1920’s it is perhaps possible to see the emergence of the principal characteristics of the modern Chinese state. While, it is possible to take states such as the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and analyse their characteristics according to strict Marxist axioms and how they deviate from them (in the case of the latter example identifying it as Neo Confucian) to do so misses the point. While commentators often point to the capitalist market reforms and emphasis on nationalism implemented by the CCP as having diluted the communist ethos of the state, in reality this conforms to notions of “National Bolshevism” an invented ideology that uses nationalism as a means of ensuring social unity and mobilizing it towards a class struggle based on national conflicts.
While the North Korean regime is certainly Neo-Confucian, and the PRC is deeply nationalist, to claim that these ideologies have supplanted Communism rather than existing in a symbiotic relationship with it is perhaps a mistake. In the case of the DPRK, Kim Il Sung at the time of the founding of the Korean’s Workers Party admitted the classically trained scholar (Yangban) class as members. This class served to help Kim craft a Confucian style ideology based on: the notion of sage kings, the veneration of the father ruler, the focus on social harmony and viewing society as an organic whole etc, onto which Soviet style ideas could be grafted.
Marxism is at its heart a Euro-centric ideology and to take the stance that the developments in states such as China has destroyed its legacy is a repeat of the same mistakes made by Soviet leadership in the 1920s and betrays a simplified understanding of the social, historical, religious and political realities of Asian countries.
While the ideology of Marxism then and now did not play out strictly according to the paradigms laid out by Marx and Engels, examining how the ideology adapted to realities in countries outside Europe offer accurate insights into how these societies developed, and more importantly illustrate their goals and worldviews.
While the People’s Republic of China does not conform to the strict tenants of Marxism as an ideology. Its marriage of Communism and Marxism has created a state and society mobilised towards ensuring its greatness and breaking the stranglehold of Western ideology and norms over global power relations. Which at its simplest was the goal of Marxism and the USSR the replacement of Western ideologies of capitalism and Imperialism with an alternative modernity corresponding to the state ideology of the USSR. To ignore the continued power of Marxism in the PRC simply produces an incomplete analysis of the countries and its goal, which is the anti-thesis of research, analysis and understanding.




Meyer, Isaac (Producer), (2016, August, 20th) The History of Japan Podcast: The Best of Frenemies Part 7 [Audio Podcast],
Mitter, Rana, Modern China: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2016

Pons, Silvio, The Global Revolution, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014
Zarrow, Peter, China in War and Revolution 1895-1949, Routledge, 2005


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Mao and the Red Guards

In 1966, a politically sidelined Mao Zedong returned to power in Beijing, appealing to  millions of students and young people across China to wage war against the established party bureaucracy.

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The Partitions of Palestine and India

Two partitions at the end of the British Empire that have created the longest running conflicts of the 20th and 21st Centuries are discussed here:

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Stalin and the Gulags

Here I address the question as the the economic rationale behind the Gulag system and its dismantling after the Stalin era.

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Interview: Dr Alex Kay on The Making of an SS Killer

375644eMost of the writing on individual perpetrators of the Holocaust focuses on senior figures (Hitler, Himmler, Goering being obvious examples) and the tier below them (Hans Frank, Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann) as well as camp commanders such as Rudolf Hoess and Franz Stangl. Colonel Alfred Filbert is a name that will probably be unfamiliar to most readers of Holocaust histories, but Dr Alex Kay of the Institute of Contemporary History in Berlin has written a compelling biography of him, detailing his involvement in the mass killing of Jews on the Eastern Front in 1941. It is a work of detailed scholarship, using archival material from seven different countries including Germany, Russia and Israel and the examination of Filbert’s journey from a bureaucratic careerist of limited talents to a mass murderer during the Second World War is thorough. During a time where increasingly outlandish and sensationalist accounts of Nazism proliferate, with headline grabbing theses that are largely unfounded, serious works of scholarship are of immense value. This is one such book, you can watch my review video of it below. Alex took the time to answer some Explaining History questions about Filbert and the Holocaust:

Q:What do the crimes of Alfred Filbert reveal about the processes of the Holocaust?

A: The conduct of the Holocaust perpetrators cannot be explained in terms of their ideology alone, and yet cannot be understood without it, for anti-Semitism provided at all times a general absolution for the actions of the perpetrators. The unity of ideological convictions and sanctioning from above, on the one hand, and the material and career interests and opportunities, on the other, can feasibly explain the conduct not only of Alfred Filbert but of a great many direct perpetrators of the Holocaust. The legitimacy conferred by the state created a framework in which it was possible – and desirable – to commit these crimes. The absence of this legitimising framework after the collapse of the regime also explains why so many of the perpetrators were able to successfully reintegrate themselves into post-war society and smoothly make the transition to commonplace civilian professions. At the same time, Filbert’s crimes in the summer and early autumn of 1941 also reveal how much the regime relied on individual initiative in the implementation of its policies of annihilation. Very many perpetrators took advantage of the leeway afforded to them by interpreting their orders broadly.

Q: Do Filbert’s actions support Arendt’s observations on the ‘banality of evil’?

Commenting on Adolf Eichmann’s actions, Hannah Arendt declared in a 1964 interview: ‘I don’t believe that ideology played much of a role. To me that appears to be decisive.’ There is good reason to believe that Arendt may have been fooled, at least in part, by Eichmann’s performance in court in Jerusalem in 1961. The prosecutor in the Eichmann trial, Gideon Hausner, was keen for the transcripts of the interviews Eichmann had given the Dutch journalist and former SS officer Willem Sassen from 1956 to 1960 to be admitted to evidence, because they included remarks revealing of Eichmann’s own sense of self-importance and his anti-Semitism in contrast to his carefully crafted statements to the contrary in court. This combination of a sense of self-importance and anti-Semitism, egotism and ideology, appears decisive for explaining the mindset of many Holocaust perpetrators. Alfred Filbert’s ambition and craving for recognition were strengthened and, significantly, justified by his ideological convictions and his belief that he belonged to the ‘master race’. His ideology persuaded him that the career advancement, status and recognition he sought were no more than his due; he felt he had a right to success. Ideology and egotism were mutually reinforcing.

Q: What does Filbert’s life in post war Germany suggest about the Federal Republic’s ability to come to terms with the legacy of the Holocaust?

In a book published in 1987, the German publicist Ralph Giordano referred to a ‘second guilt’, by which he meant the unwillingness of large sections of post-war German society to address the Nazi crimes and indemnify the victims as well as the political decisions that allowed perpetrators to enjoy successful post-war careers in senior positions in government and the business sector. The legal handling after 1945 of violent crimes committed during the Nazi era was anything but a success story. Although the West German judiciary alone investigated more than 100,000 people, only just over 6,650 of them were actually convicted. Only around one in ten defendants counted among the perpetrators of the Holocaust. More than 90 per cent of these people were convicted in the first decade after the war. In stark contrast to this is the prevailing estimate that a total of between 200,000 and 250,000 Germans and Austrians – predominantly, though not exclusively, men – were directly involved in the mass murder of European Jewry. These figures are sobering. In view of this, Filbert’s 1962 conviction for his part in the Holocaust and his life sentence (though he admittedly ended up serving only thirteen years) were atypical. His prior successful reintegration into West German society in the 1950s was not.

Q: Do you believe he had a role in the murder of Ulrike Meinhof or Andreas Baader?

There is no hard evidence to support the claim that Filbert played any part in the deaths of Ulrike Meinhof in May 1976 or Andreas Baader in October 1977 in Stuttgart’s Stammheim Prison. All we have to go on is a statement made by Thomas Harlan, the director of the 1984 film Wundkanal, in which Filbert played the lead role of an SS mass murderer. Harlan and his crew treated Filbert so well, paid him so much attention and gave him a feeling of importance that he had not enjoyed for decades, that Filbert was soon prepared to become an actor. Given what we know about Filbert’s need for admiration and recognition, when asked about Ulrike Meinhof’s death it is feasible that Filbert puffed himself up and told Harlan what he wanted to hear. We should also keep in mind that, before shooting began, Harlan – by his own admission – had deceived Filbert into believing that he wanted to make a film about him. By means of this tactic, Harlan succeeded in persuading Filbert to take part in the film Harlan actually wanted to make, which was not in fact about Filbert as such. Harlan’s principal concern and the real subject of the film was the continuity of Nazi biographies in the Federal Republic of Germany and of murder in the name of the state. Thus, creating the illusion of a connection between Filbert and Stammheim merely served this purpose.

Q: What challenges were there in the research for this book? How easy was it to access archival information?

Unusually for a mid-level Holocaust perpetrator and someone who has thus far remained relatively unknown, even among historians in the field, the source material is comparatively plentiful. For the book, I accessed records from a total of thirty-three archives in seven different countries, including Russia and Israel. The archival members of staff were, as a rule, extremely helpful and accommodating. By contrast, a request to be granted access to records held in the archives of the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was denied by the agency’s Information and Privacy Coordinator, who determined that the CIA could ‘neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records’ pertaining to Alfred Filbert and the CIA. An appeal to the Agency Release Panel was also denied. A subsequent request for a Mandatory Declassification Review under the terms of Executive Order 13526 of all records relating to Filbert held in the CIA archives was cancelled with reference to the denial of the earlier FOIA request and my ‘right to seek judicial review of this determination in a United States district court’. Based on these rejections, it is impossible to determine whether the CIA is or is not in possession of records pertaining to a potential relationship between that agency and Filbert during the early post-war period.

You can buy your copy here:


Review: The making of an SS Killer by Dr Alex Kay



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How to help with history homework

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