Postcards: The League of Nations lives on in Addis Ababa

High up in the dome of Addis Ababa’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, two murals depict the Ascension and the Second Coming, the latter, complete with a green horned devil and flames licking upwards to surround the masses. Below the dome, a semicircular lunette presents the Crucifixion. At the moment of my visit, the late afternoon light slants through the cupola windows to strike Jesus’ figure on the Cross, and light up the bright vivid colours that so characterise Ethiopian Orthodox iconography.

Ascension and the Second Coming, dome of Holy Trinity Cathedral

Ascension and the Second Coming, dome of Holy Trinity Cathedral

The Crucifixion

What catches my eye, however, is the lunette opposite, where rows of desks of suited men recede towards a dais of a further three suited men. Amidst the sacred – the cathedral windows are also filled with some rather splendid stained glass of biblical scenes – this decidedly secular scene forces a pause. Upon seeing the puzzled look on my face, the cathedral guide tells me, matter-of-factly: “That? That’s the League of Nations”.

The League of Nations, Holy Trinity Cathedral

The League of Nations, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Most visitors to the cathedral are drawn to the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife, just a few feet away in a side alcove, in imposing Aksum-cross-shaped granite sarcophagi. While Selassie died in 1975, a year after being deposed, he was not entombed here until 2000, in the cathedral whose construction he had initiated. Outside, the cathedral grounds contain monuments to war heroes and other Ethiopian luminaries – among others, English suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and former prime minister Meles Zenawi.

In history books everywhere, the League of Nations is labelled as a ‘failed’ project of the 1919-39 inter-war period, an expression of both the potential and limits of Wilsonian liberal internationalism. Near the top of its catalogue of failings, if not at the top itself, was its impotence in halting Mussolini’s 1935 annexation of Ethiopia – or rather, Abyssinia, as it was known then. League sanctions were limited in their scope, and even then were not fully implemented by the other ‘great powers’. At the same time, France and Britain were hatching the secret Hoare-Laval Pact that would have partitioned Abyssinia and kept Italy on side against Hitler’s growing ambitions.

So what is particularly striking, and forces me to linger for a moment, is its commemoration especially here, in the cathedral whose completion Selassie had overseen in 1944, just a couple of years after his return from exile and the liberation of his kingdom from the Italian occupiers. Why would Selassie choose to depict an institution that he had hoped, upon Abyssinia’s accession in 1923, would protect its precious independence from colonial designs?

In the left of the mural, Selassie is standing addressing the League in June 1936, a king without a kingdom after having to flee to England via British Palestine and Gibraltar. His plaintive ‘Appeal to the League of Nations Assembly’ is the epitome of the hopes vested in international organization in the tussle between order imposed through force and the justice of sovereign equality:

“I assert that the problem submitted to the Assembly today is a much wider one. It is not merely a question of the settlement of Italian aggression…It is collective security: it is the very existence of the League of Nations. It is the confidence that each State is to place in international treaties. It is the value of promises made to small States that their integrity and their independence shall be respected and ensured. It is the principle of the equality of States on the one hand, or otherwise the obligation laid upon small Powers to accept the bonds of vassal ship. In a word, it is international morality that is at stake…

“…Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong Government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom.”

His New York Times obituary described this speech as “was a moment in history that few who witnessed it ever forgot”, but all for naught, with the Italian fait accompli gradually being recognised by the great powers and other League members.

On the throne of justice: see no Abyssinia, hear no Abyssinia, speak no Abyssinia”. David Low, Evening Standard, 24 July 1935


A couple of days before, in the hills immediately surrounding Aksum, in Ethiopia’s north (of which more in a different post), my guide had been keen to point out the jagged line of hills in the distance where the Battle of Adwa had been fought in 1896 (and beyond which lies Eritrea). There, the Abyssinian army successfully beat off the Italian offensive, forcing an Italian retreat and Italy’s recognition of Abyssinia’s sovereignty in the Treaty of Addis Ababa, a rare military success against a European colonial power by a non-Western state. As every taxi driver and guide I encountered during my weeklong stay was keen to impress on me, Ethiopia was the only African country to resist European colonisation and preserve its independence, an achievement made possible by Adwa.

View towards the Adwa mountain range, from the monastery of Abba Pantaleon, just above Aksum.

View towards Adwa, from the monastery of Abba Pantaleon, just above Aksum.

Forty years later, that sovereignty was again challenged with the force of arms by Italy, with Mussolini’s empire-building ambitions in Africa also determined to erase the humiliation of Adwa. Even though the League had seemed to fail Abyssinia’s expectations, perhaps even after defeat and exile Selassie still deemed his vision of collective security and international sovereign equality to be crucial to Abyssinia’s continuing survival. The inauspicious circumstances in which he pronounced them at the League in Geneva were, perhaps, secondary to embedding them in the national narrative via a mural at the centre of the Ethiopian church. These principles remain necessary, the mural seems to say, for how else are small states to be anything other than the playthings of the great powers?

In 1963, Selassie was to return to this theme in his address to the United Nations – part of which became the lyrics to Bob Marley’s ‘War’. With the decolonization movement in full swing, Selassie had just hosted the first meeting of the Organization for African Unity in Addis, drawing on Ethiopia’s special history of independence from external interference to urge pan-African regional unity. At the UN, Selassie decried continued colonial exploitation and (not unusually for an imperial autocrat of the time) professed the equality of all mankind, challenging the nations gathered at the General Assembly to possess the will to act:

“The goal of the equality of man which we seek is the antithesis of the exploitation of one people by another with which the pages of history and in particular those written of the African and Asian continents, speak at such length. Exploitation, thus viewed, has many faces. But whatever guise it assumes, this evil is to be shunned where it does not exist and crushed where it does. It is the sacred duty of this Organization to ensure that the dream of equality is finally realized for all men to whom it is still denied, to guarantee that exploitation is not reincarnated in other forms in places whence it has already been banished.”


The coda to this train of thought that began with a glance towards the dome of the Holy Trinity Cathedral came rather unexpectedly a few weeks later, while in Geneva for a conference at the Palais des Nations, the League’s physical home. Transferred to the UN after the League’s dissolution, the Palais is a glorious Art Deco pile completed in early 1936, just months before Selassie’s appearance before the League Assembly.

Up on the wall of Salle XXII, a mural titled ‘Construttori’ by Massimo Campigli depicts men at work during the laborious construction of the Palais. This ‘building’ of the League of Nations was one of the great experiments in global governance of the interwar period, but swept away by countervailing political forces of the 1930s. Small irony then, that far from Geneva, the League’s imprint is still to be visibly found in the sacred space of the one country where it was tested, and found lacking.

'Costruttori' (1937), Massimo Campigli, Salle XXII, Palais des Nations

‘Costruttori’ (partial view), Massimo Campigli (1937), Salle XXII, Palais des Nations

All pictures (apart from the David Low cartoon) by Nick Chan.

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