I’d argue that we don’t learn much from history.
It seems to me like history is really only important when it provides us with a symbol
that we want to see.
How many American WW2 movies mention the sacrifice of the Russian people?
Why would any empire still attempt to invade Afghanistan?
No, I don’t think history really matters.
But symbols do.
So today’s story will not be about history.
It will be about a symbol.
The Obelisk of Axum.
Italy’s greatest shame.
It was 1896 and the scramble for Africa was all but complete.
The leading empires of the world had so thoroughly carved up this continent that there was virtually
nothing left unconquered.
Nothing, that is, except for Ethiopia.
As Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium and others sunk substantial portions of their economy
into tapping into the riches of the Sub-Sahara, it became increasingly clear
that the benefits would likely never outweigh the costs.
Yet, even as those massive empires began to question their commitments and start to look for a way out,
one European nation was looking for a way further in.
The recently unified Italian kingdom had already taken a small section of nearly profitless land on the Somali coast,
and they were itching for more.
Newly powerful, they yearned to impress their European neighbours and raise the esteem of the new nation
to its many disparate people.
To make their King an Emperor.
And even though it isn’t really important to this story, I can’t help but mention
their first attempt at conquering Ethiopia.
Because it is, simply put, the most Italian thing I’ve ever heard.
Instead of convincing the Emperor to declare himself a protectorate, the diplomat signed a paper
agreeing to Ethiopian independence, and then translated it differently into Italian.
Since his Italian bosses couldn’t read Ahmaric and the Emperor couldn’t read Italian,
both sides were getting what they wanted,
even though neither side was actually getting what they wanted.
And for a few years, he got away with it, too.
But eventually, the Emperor of Ethiopia made a call on his own and the stunned silence on the other side
made it clear he’d been tricked.
Finally understanding how Italians operated, he forcefully declared to the world
that he had never agreed to their colonization.
If they wanted to take his land, he said, they’d have to come and take it.
So, Italy did what any colonizer does when they’ve been publicly scorned,
and they sent an army to enforce their rule.
Fifteen thousand Italian troops marched down from their strongholds in Eritrea
to put down what they considered to be little more than a rebellion.
That said, the invasion was primarily symbolic.
And the victory that it would gain would be symbolic.
A clear example to the world of Italy’s primacy.
But in the Adwa valley on the morning of March 1st, 1896, Italy was taught a lesson
they never expected to learn.
A hundred thousand Ethiopian soldiers showed up on the field of battle.
They fought back, and won.
With such overwhelming numbers and awareness of the landscape, it was never going to be a fair fight.
The Abyssinians slaughtered the Italians.
The details of the battle would shock the entire world.
Ethiopian soldiers carved off their enemy’s testicles and mutilated their bodies.
Fewer than thirty percent of the Italian soldiers would make it home alive.
Those that did were not telling stories of glory.
They were telling stories of ineptitude, arrogance and death.
The invasion had been symbolic all right.
It just hadn’t created the symbol that Italy had wanted.
Just under forty years later, and the wound still hadn’t healed.
As virtually every European empire had come to realize that Africa would not be the goldmine it had hoped for,
Italy was gearing up to invade again.
It had nothing to do with money.
It had nothing to do with land.
This would be a war of pride.
Fascism would prevail where democracy had failed.
Mussolini needed a symbol of conquest.
So on October 3rd, 1935, Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia.
In a seven month war, they conquered enough of the country to declare themselves its rulers.
Whether or not that was true was less relevant.
This was a symbolic war, and all Mussolini needed was a symbol of his victory.
Striking down from Eritrea, one of the first places they conquered was the old symbolic battlefield of Adwa
and its neighbouring city of Axum.
The memory, a generation old, still fresh in the minds of the people.
A few kilometers down the road, the city of Axum boasted many monuments to the once great Kingdom
that shared its name.
In this town were perhaps the most impressive structures ever built in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Giant obelisks, nearly two thousand years old, collapsed in the dirt for nearly a millennium.
At that time, the locals cared little for the history they contained.
They weren’t symbolic of anything but the passage of time.
But for Italy, they were exactly what Mussolini was looking for.
The biggest of the obelisks was broken down and shipped to Rome, where it would stand for all to see.
Symbolic of the power of this new form of governance.
And just like that, its history became important to the local Ethiopians, too.
In the mirror of Italian conquest, they began to see the obelisk as the Italians saw it.
As long as it stood over that Piazza in Rome, they would never feel true freedom.
It didn’t matter what Italy took.
It only mattered that they took it.
But as we all know, Mussolini didn’t last much longer than that.
Fascism was not the system he claimed it to be.
By the 1950’s, the obelisk no longer represented anything positive.
The conquest had failed, and all they had to show for it was some stone they stole from a kingdom long dead.
Italy had failed in Abyssinia.
They never truly conquered the Ethiopian people, despite what Mussolini had claimed.
Nor would they ever again.
From that point on, the obelisk loomed over their capital, pushing further shame onto the Italian people.
And in Ethiopia, the situation was equally damning.
Though it had never been important to them before, returning the artifact was symbolic now.
The Italians had viewed it as a symbol of conquest, and in the mirror of that symbolism,
the Ethiopians had come to see it that way as well.
Returning the obelisk would mean that they were independent.
If they ever got it back, this time they weren’t going to leave it laying in the dirt.
But convincing Italy to return it wasn’t exactly easy.
Nations rarely admit defeat, even when it's clear they’ve been defeated.
Some Italian politicians wanted to return to the stone, sure, but others felt that was insult to injury.
Italian pride was caught between two worlds.
If losing the war had been shameful, surely apologizing for the war would be doubly so.
So for sixty years the obelisk stood in Rome.
And for sixty years they debated what should be done.
But eventually, the time had come to make right what they’d spent so long attempting to ignore.
And in 2005, at great cost to both nations, Italy returned the Obelisk of Axum.
Today, the obelisk stands proudly over a city that bears its name.
The dusty roads of this once forgotten town are now lined with the stories of the past.
A town with little but history now stands proud in the national eye.
So yes, history matters, but not because we have any desire to learn from it.
This town, and the obelisk at its core, is a symbol of independence.
Of the failure of Europeans to conquer this one, final, African nation.
The Obelisk of Axum is the pride of Ethiopia.
And as it well should be.
But like all of us, I suspect the one thing they’ll learn from it, is what they see reflected in that mirror.
This is Rare Earth.