Academic journal article African Studies Review

Between Bombs and Good Intentions: The Red Cross and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Between Bombs and Good Intentions: The Red Cross and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936

Article excerpt

Rainer Baudendistel. Between Bombs and Good Intentions: The Red Cross and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006. xviii + 342 pp. Photographs. Appendixes. Bibliography. Index. $80.00. Cloth.

Ethiopia has the habit of gripping world attention periodically. That was the case in 1935, when Fascist Italy launched an armed onslaught that proved the prelude to the Second World War. Half a century later, in 1985, a devastating famine provoked a massive and global humanitarian response. The book under review brings together the two strands-war and humanitarian response-through the saga of the Red Cross as it walked a tightrope, striving to balance humanitarian concern with international diplomacy.

The author is well-equipped to tell this story. A historian by profession, he also has rich experience in humanitarian relief work in the Horn of Africa, including several years of service in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The book is rich in documentation, with the author's having tapped almost all the pertinent archival material in Italy and Geneva and having interviewed a number of eyewitnesses. Copiously illustrated and with annexes that set the chronological framework, the work highlights the principal characters-including Max Huber, the powerful president of ICRC whose "reactive ideal" prevented the organization from adopting "a proactive, politically conscious and courageous ideal of humanitarian action" (309).

The carefully crafted narrative reconstructs the story of the ICRC during the 1935-36 conflict as no other work has done before. The reader is ultimately left with no doubt as to the sad reality: the sacrifice of truth on the altar of European diplomacy. In the unsurpassable words of Max Huber: "We remained silent because we did not know the truth" (312).

In the initial chapters, the author surveys the state of the Red Cross in the belligerent countries, focusing on the evolution of the Ethiopian Red Cross and the woeful state of medical relief operations in Ethiopia on the eve of the war. He then moves on to consider the fate of the Red Cross emblem, describing early Italian allegations of its misuse by Ethiopian combatants. …

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