The crisis in Abyssinia from 1935 to 1936 brought international tension nearer to Europe – the crisis in Abysinnia also drove Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy together for the first time. The affair once again highlighted the weakness of the League of Nations

Like Britain and France, Italy had joined in the so-called “Scramble for Africa” in the C19. However, the prize territories had been conquered by others and Italy was left with unimportant areas such as Eritrea and Somaliland. The Italians had attempted to expand in eastern Africa by joining Abyssinia to her conquests, but in 1896, the Italians were heavily defeated by the Abyssinians at the Battle of Adowa.

 This defeat had an enormous impact on Italian pride. The loss of 6000 men against a poorly equipped army from Abyssinia was difficult for the Italian people to comprehend. However, this defeat did not stop politicians in Italy planning for a new attempt to take over Abyssinia.

The desire to show the world how powerful Italy was became the prime motivation of Benito Mussolini. He saw himself as a modern day Julius Caesar who would one day be in charge of a vast Italian empire as had existed in the days of Caesar. In 1928, Italy signed a treaty of friendship with Haile Selassie, the leader of Abyssinia but an invasion of the country was already being planned.

In December 1934, Mussolini accused the Abyssinians of aggression at an oasis called Wal Wal. He ordered Italian troops stationed in Somaliland and Eritrea to attack Abyssinia. Large quantities of ammunition and supplies had been stockpiled there. 

In October 1935, the Italian army invaded Abyssinia. The Abyssinians could not hope to stand up to a modern army – they were equipped with pre-World War One rifles and little else. The Italians used armoured vehicles and even mustard gas in their attack. The capital, Addis Ababa, fell in May 1936 and Haile Selassie was removed from the throne and replaced by the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel. Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia were all united under the name Italian East Africa.

When the Italians had invaded in October 1935, the Abyssinians had appealed to the League of Nations for help. The League did two things:

it condemned the attack all League members were ordered to impose economic sanctions on Italy.

It took six weeks for the sanctions to be organised and they did not include vital materials such as oil.

Three League members did not carry out the sanctions. Italy could cover the sanctions imposed on gold and textiles but a ban on oil could have had a major impact on Italy’s war machine. The argument put forward for not banning oil, was that Italy would simply get her oil from America – a non-League country. Britain and France were also concerned about provoking Mussolini in the Mediterranean Sea where Britain had two large naval bases – Gibraltar and Malta. In fact, the Italian Navy was vastly overestimated by both the British and French but it was this fear which also led Britain to keeping open the Suez Canal. If this route had been cut, then Italy would have had extreme difficulties supplying her armed forces in the region during the conflict.

It is also possible that both Britain and France considered the war too far away to be of any importance to them. They were not prepared to risk their naval power in the Mediterranean for the sake of a country barely anybody had heard of in either France or Britain.

Britain and France also had another input into this affair. 

In an effort to end the war, the British Foreign Secretary – Samuel Hoare – and the French Prime Minister –Pierre Laval – met in December 1935. They came up with the Hoare-Laval Plan. This gave two large areas of Abyssinia to Italy and a gap in the middle of the country – the “corridor of camels” – to the Abyssinians. The south of the country would be reserved for Italian businesses. In return for this land, the Italians would have to stop the war.

Mussolini accepted the plan but in Britain there was a huge national outcry. It was believed that a British government minister had betrayed the people of Abyssinia. The protests caused Hoare to resign and the plan was dropped. Mussolini continued with the invasion. However, what this plan had indicated was that the two major European League members were prepared to negotiate with a nation that had used aggression to enforce its will on a weaker nation. Coupled with this, the sanctions also failed.

The League’s involvement in this event was a disaster. It showed nations that its sanctions were half-hearted even when they were enforced and that member states were prepared to negotiate with aggressor nations to the extent of effectively giving in to them. Also, actions by the League – even if they were a failure – led to Italy looking away from the League – an organisation it did belong to. 

Mussolini turned to the man he had considered a “silly little monkey” when they had first met. Hitler and Nazi Germany.

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