Saving the life of priests and many other Ethiopian people in 1937  -    

A life witness of the German Rev. Hermann Bahlburg, leader of the Hermannsburg Mission in Ethiopia (today: ELM) 1927 through 1941


After the Italian invaded Ethiopia in 1935/36, the Italian fascist dictator Mussolini installed a Viceroy (Vice-King) in the country. His name was General Rodolfo Graziani. He assumed office as of May, 1936, being short-tempered and inclined to violence. His policy was fascist and racist. 

On February 19, 1937, the Viceroy called a big meeting with Ethiopian dignitaries and gathered 3,000  poor people to give them some help at the palace in Addis Ababa. Two Ethiopian patriots attacked the Viceroy, throwing seven hand grenades at him. Three Italian soldiers were killed, fifty Italians and Ethiopians injured, the Viceroy pierced by more than 300 splinters, but survived. 

Following the attack on the Viceroy was a terrible retaliation from the side of the Italians for three full days. It was like a blood-bath in Addis Ababa. The Italians had become suspicious of countless people, societies and associations, institutions, including churches and missions to be collaborators of the attack. They were persecuted, many people were imprisoned or killed. All in all, an estimated 5,000 Ethiopians were executed in retaliation for the attempt on the Viceroy's life, among them the 297 monks of Debra Libanos. 

Since 1930, the Hermannsburg Mission from Germany owned a compound at Qechine, Addis Ababa, directly underneath the Qechine Medhane Alem Church. It was during the turmoil following the attack on the Viceroy that many people (some say up to 200 people), among them twelve Ethiopian Orthodox priests from the Medhane Alem Church who were pursued by Italian policemen took refuge on the compound of the Mission. By chance, Rev. Bahlburg, the leader of the Mission, was on guard on the compound with a rifle on his shoulder. 

At that time, a new sports- and playground for the German School on the compound was prepared. Immediately recognizing the danger for the refugees, Rev. Bahlburg gave shovels and other tools into the hands of the refugees as if they were daily workers who were working to move sand for the sports- and playground. When the Italian policemen arrived to kill the refugees with their automatic weapons, Rev. Bahlburg stood in front of them, declaring boldly: "These are my daily labourers!". The policemen left without firing a single shot. Rev. Bahlburg's courageous action saved the lives of these people. 

The faithful Ethiopian coworker, teacher and evangelist of the Hermannsburg Mission in Addis Ababa, Sebhatu, who was educated by the Swedish Mission and - since 1930 - employed by the Mission was less fortunate. Following the attack on Graziani, he was arrested and died after some weeks in prison through typhoid at the end of April, 1937. Rev. Bahlburg approached the Italian Viceroy to have him released but was not successful. 

Another story happened after the attack on the Viceroy: one day, an Italian policeman visited the compound of the Hermannsburg Mission by motorbike. He left the compound together with the missionary Hinrich Rathje who was then imprisoned. He was accused of conspiracy and of collaboration for the attackers and threatened to be killed. He was forced to enter a military plane; then, in mid-air, soldiers threatened to throw him out of the door of the plane. Only the determined interventions of the German Ambassador Dr. Richter as well as of Rev. Bahlburg who contacted the leading Italian military judge, General Olivieri, led to the release of missionary Rathje on April 6, 1937 and saved his life. 

General Graziani was replaced as Viceroy in November, 1938 by the better mannered Earl of Aosta, Amedeo di Savoia.

Henning Behrends

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