BAUDENDISTEL Between bombs and good intentions.

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Réf. Biblethiophile



“This book, which inaugurates a promising series … is well documented and very clear in its presentation. …a welcome enrichment of Ethiopian studies.”  ·  Aethiopica

“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 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.”  ·  African Studies Review


The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have highlighted again the precarious situation aid agencies find themselves in, caught as they are between the firing lines of the hostile parties, as they are trying to alleviate the plight of the civilian populations. This book offers an illuminating case study from a previous conflict, the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1935-36, and of the humanitarian operation of the Red Cross during this period. Based on fresh material from Red Cross and Italian military archives, the author examines highly controversial subjects such as the Italian bombings of Red Cross field hospitals, the treatment of Prisoners of War by the two belligerents; and the effects of Fascist Italy’s massive use of poison gas against the Ethiopians. He shows how Mussolini and his ruthless regime, throughout the seven-month war, manipulated the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – the lead organization of the Red Cross in times of war, helped by the surprising political naïveté of its board. During this war the ICRC redefined its role in a debate, which is fascinating not least because of its relevance to current events, about the nature of humanitarian action. The organization decided to concern itself exclusively with matters falling under the Geneva Conventions and to give priority to bringing relief over expressing protest. It was a decision that should have far-reaching consequences, particularly for the period of World War II and the fate of Jews in Nazi concentration camps.

Rainer Baudendistel, a historian by profession, worked for more than 25 years in humanitarian affairs, first for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), then for the Swiss government. Since 1985 he has specialized in the Horn of Africa. He spent several years in Ethiopia and currently lives in Eritrea.

Subject: History: 20th Century to Present Peace and Conflict Studies
Area: Africa Europe


List of Illustrations
List of Tables


  • Objectives and Methodology
  • Historiography on the Subject
  • Sources
  • Transliteration

Chapter 1. Switzerland, the ICRC and the Red Cross Movement at the Time of the Italo-Ethiopian War

  • Switzerland and the War in East-Africa
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC): Activities, Composition and Organisation
  • Un posto al sole for the Italian Red Cross
  • Rise and Fall of the Ethiopian Red Cross
  • Ambiguous Relations with the League of Red Cross Societies

Chapter 2. An African Solferino: the Emergency Medical Relief Operation in Ethiopia

  • Health in Ethiopia at the Outbreak of the War
  • Medical Services in the Ethiopian Army
  • Ethiopian Efforts to Provide Medical Assistance
  • The ICRC and the Emergency Medical Relief Operation
  • Red Cross Field Hospitals in Ethiopia
  • A Meeting Near Korem, or the Disparity between Needs and Relief

Chapter 3. Red Cross Work Challenged: the Respect of the Emblem

  • Ethiopia’s Respect of the Emblem: a Barrage of Accusations, but Little Substance
  • The Respect of the Emblem by Italy: Red Cross Hospitals under Fire
  • Behind the Smokescreen: a Surprising Discovery

Chapter 4. The Heart of the Matter: Ensuring the Protection of the Emblem

  • Consequences of the Bombings for the Red Cross Units in the Field
  • Prevention is Better than Cure: Notification to Italy of Medical Installations under Red Cross Protection
  • Transmission of Complaints Regarding Violations of the Geneva Convention
  • First Steps in Humanitarian Diplomacy
  • Ensuring the Application of the Geneva Convention through an Inquiry
  • Protecting the Interests of War Victims through Humanitarian Diplomacy – a Trip to Rome (24 March–1 April 1936)
  • ‘Quella Benedetta Neutralità …’ The White Book on the War – between a Cover-up and a Contribution to Peace
  • Revising the 1929 Convention to Reflect the Experiences of the War
  • Sidney Brown, another Casualty of the War
  • Humanitarian Action and Justice

Chapter 5. Prisoners of War: Propaganda Prevails over Reality

  • Charges and Legal Questions
  • Prisoners on the Italian Side
  • Prisoners of War on the Ethiopian Side
  • The ICRC and the Protection of Prisoners of War
  • Wrong Assumptions Lead to Wrong Conclusions

Chapter 6. ‘Rain that Kills’: the ICRC and Fascist Italy’s Chemical Warfare

  • Chemical Warfare between the First World War and the Italo-Ethiopian War
  • Poison Gas in the Italo-Ethiopian War
  • The ICRC and Chemical Warfare until 1935
  • First Reports on the Use of Poison Gas: Discovering the Truth
  • Experience in the Field with Poison Gas
  • Silence on Chemical Warfare during the Mission to Rome
  • The Defeat of the League of Nations on the Question of Poison Gas
  • The League of Nations and the ICRC: Collective Security and Humanitarian Concerns
  • The ICRC Response: a Request for Gas Masks
  • Between the Spirit of 1918 and the Letter of the Law of 1929
  • An Intervention to the Italian Red Cross: Too Little, Too Late
  • The Red Cross Movement Bows to the Inevitable

Summary and Conclusion

  • The Belligerents and International Humanitarian Law
  • Humanitarian Action in Transition
  • The ICRC and Its Humanitarian Action
  • The ICRC and Fascist Italy ‘We didn’t know the truth’?

Appendix 1. Chronology of Political and Military Events
Appendix 2. Glossary
Appendix 3. Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in October 1935
Appendix 4. Red Cross Field Hospitals on the Ethiopian Side during the Italo-Ethiopian War
a. Field Hospitals under the Ethiopian Red Cross
b. Foreign National Red Cross Field Hospitals
Appendix 5. Bombings of Red Cross Field Hospitals and the Transport Unit during the Italo-Ethiopian War



Biblethiophile, 27.03.2022