Dissertations and Theses

Date of Award


Document Type



International Relations

First Advisor

Nicolas Rush Smith

Second Advisor

Jean Krasno


Battle of Adwa, Nation-building, Menelik II, Haile Selassie, Collective Identity



On March 1st, 1896, an Ethiopian army lead by Emperor Menelik II dealt a shocking defeat to the invading Italian forces in the Battle of Adwa. In victory, Menelik was able to exert his authority over a vast territory which included both the historical, ancient kingdoms of the northern and central parts of Ethiopia, and also the vast, resource-rich territories in the west and south which he had earlier conquered. The egalitarian nature of the victory united the various peoples of Ethiopia against a common enemy, giving Menelik the opportunity to create a new Ethiopian nation.

The Battle of Adwa represents a pivotal moment in the evolution of the nation of Ethiopia. That evolution stretches back 3,000 years, and through its long history of nation-building, Ethiopian nationalism has evolved along with the nation. Throughout this process, the melding together of various ethnic groups into a singular nation has created a nation with some very serious divisions along ethnic lines. Since the creation of the modern Ethiopian state, these groups have been held together as a nation by use of a wide array of tactics, with none more useful than the collective memory of the Battle of Adwa, and what it means to the Ethiopian people. The argument of this thesis is that Adwa has served the state of Ethiopia, in three different eras of government, with a tool with which it can use in nation-building work, allowing each to shape the country in their own visions, while maintaining the loyalties of the people. A second part of my argument examines the resistance to the national narrative of Adwa, and to general resistance to the rule of the Ethiopian government by periphery groups, many of which had been conquered and incorporated into the Ethiopian state.

The research was organized into three separate sections, each representing an era of a different government type. The first looks at the Imperial era, a vast stretch of time in which many of the foundations of the Ethiopian nation emerged. The second looks at the Derg regime era, which was a Marxist military dictatorship which seized power in 1974. The third section covers the era of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, and government formed by a separatist group which managed to overthrow the Derg government in 1991. Each section looks at the important timeline of events during each era, and then connects that to efforts taken by each government type to utilize, tap into, or manipulate the powerful loyalties which Ethiopians feel towards the Battle of Adwa. This thesis seeks to show how each of these government types attempted to use Adwa, or the collective nature of the way it has been remembered, as a tool of nation-building. Adwa has become an essential element of Ethiopian nationalism, and each of the three governments studied realized the unifying power of this event and used that to craft the nation in their respective visions.



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