Holy War

The Untold Story of Catholic Italy's Crusade Against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

November 2021 9781787384774 488pp,
8pp b&w illus
September 2023 9781805260240 488pp,
8pp b&w illus
Available as an eBook
EU Customers


In 1935, Fascist Italy invaded the sovereign state of Ethiopia—a war of conquest that triggered a chain of events culminating in the Second World War. In this stunning and highly original tale of two Churches, historian Ian Campbell brings a whole new perspective to the story, revealing that bishops of the Italian Catholic Church facilitated the invasion by sanctifying it as a crusade against the world’s second-oldest national Church. Cardinals and archbishops rallied the support of Catholic Italy for Il Duce’s invading armies by denouncing Ethiopian Christians as heretics and schismatics, and announcing that the onslaught was an assignment from God.

Campbell marshalls evidence from three decades of research to expose the martyrdom of thousands of clergy of the venerable Ethiopian Church, the burning and looting of hundreds of Ethiopia’s ancient monasteries and churches, and the instigation and arming of a jihad against Ethiopian Christendom, the likes of which had not been seen since the Middle Ages. 

Finally, Holy War traces how, after Italy’s surrender to the Allies, the horrors of this pogrom were swept under the carpet of history, and the leading culprits put on the road to sainthood.


‘This stunning book explores the Catholic Church’s support for and encouragement of Mussolini’s campaign against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church during Italy’s invasion and occupation of Ethiopia from 1935 to 1943. … Eloquent and based on authoritative archival research in both Ethiopia and Italy, Campbell’s book sheds new light on a key episode in African history.’ — Foreign Affairs

Holy War is one of the most significant—and most chilling—books you are likely to read on global Christian history.’ — The Christian Century 

‘Three cheers for Holy War [which] has turned the caring Italian Army myth upside down and inside out in what is the perfect antidote to Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. […] Holy War is the ‘go for’ book if you want to learn as much as you need to know about an invasion that helped shape the rest of the 1930s, a paving stone towards World War in 1939.’ — ColdType

‘This is an immaculately researched book on the composite history of Ethio–Vatican relations in the 1930s. It will hopefully open doors to a desperately needed rapprochement between these two former antagonists!’ — Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate, PhD, author of King of Kings: The Triumph and Tragedy of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia

‘A devastating, persuasive read. Campbell’s book exposes the Catholic Papacy’s complicity in Fascist forces’ unrestrained assault on Ethiopia, and its switch from cordial relations with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to attempting to destroy it.’ — Mia Fuller, Gladyce Arata Terrill Distinguished Professor of Italian Studies, University of California, Berkeley

‘This book shines a revealing light on the ecclesiastical thinking of the 1935–41 period, the murky compromises it encouraged, and the savagery it condoned. Original and ambitious, it will have a significant audience in Ethiopia, Italy and beyond.’ — Paul Gifford, Emeritus Professor of Religion, SOAS University of London, and author of Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa

‘Exhaustively researched and eloquently written, Campbell’s Holy War is a hugely important contribution to our understanding of the violence involved in the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s. It is moving, shocking and scholarly in equal measure.’ — Richard Reid, Professor of African History, University of Oxford, and author of Shallow Graves: A Memoir of the Ethiopia–Eritrea War


Ian Campbell is an independent scholar, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and an international consultant specialising in East Africa. He has written several books on the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, including The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy's National Shame, also published by Hurst. It was a Financial Times History Book of the Year (2017), and has been published in Italian translation.

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