An extract from S Reed Brett, European History 1900-1960 (1967)

S Reed Brett was a textbook writer from the 1930s to the 1960s.


Italian Invasion, 1935

Externally the only Power with whom Ethiopia had any active connections was Italy, and they were not of the happiest.   One of the chief ambitions of the new Italian State, after acquiring unity in 1870, was to win overseas possessions so that she might take rank with other imperial Powers.   But she was last in the race, and  very little remained for her to acquire. Libya in North Africa, and Somaliland and Eritrea in East Africa constituted the Italian Empire in 1914. The two East African territories bordered Ethiopia. In 1896 the Italians had invaded Ethiopia but at Adowa they suffered a severe defeat and were compelled to withdraw from the country. At the close of the First World War Italy did not receive African land that she had hoped for, and she therefore looked round for means of extending her possessions there. The obvious means of so doing and, at the same time, of avenging the stinging defeat of Adowa was to conquer Ethiopia. Moreover, Ethiopia, when added to the adjoining Italian territories, Somaliland and Eritrea, would form a continuous, manageable block of empire which might absorb some of Italy's overflowing population.

With this intention in mind, there was little difficulty in finding an excuse for intervention. Gradually Mussolini built up forces ready for action. Then, in December 1934, there was a clash between Italians and Ethiopians at Walwal in disputed territory on the borderland of Italian Somaliland. Mussolini demanded an apology and an indemnity. In due course both sides submitted their dispute to the League. But in the meantime the tension between them had become so acute that a peaceful solution, based upon compromise, had become very unlikely, especially as Italy would not willingly be thwarted in her ambitions for empire. The League failed to take effective action, and did little more than appoint committees of inquiry. It was a period when Nazi Germany was becoming more dangerous, and Britain and France were not willing then to risk a war with Italy. While negotiations were taking place within the League, and also more directly among the European Powers, Italy took action. In October 1935 Italian troops invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea.


Hoare-Laval Agreement

A resolution in the League Assembly condemning Italy's action as a breach of the Covenant was passed with only four dissentient votes among the fifty-four members. But none of the fifty members was prepared to go to war to eject Italy from Ethiopia, and few were prepared to enforce Sanctions' in order to starve Italy of materials necessary for the war. Any chance that 'sanctions' would be applied effectively was wrecked by the 'Hoare-Laval Plan'. Sir Samuel Hoare was the British Foreign Secretary in Baldwin's Government, and Pierre Laval was Prime Minister of France. They seem to have feared that if Mussolini was alienated this would throw him into an alliance with Hitler; also. Hitler already was so serious a threat that Britain and France could not afford to use up their resources in any kind of struggle with Italy. In other words, the world situation was such that a war over Ethiopia was not worthwhile. They therefore agreed, secretly, to offer to Mussolini a large area of northern Ethiopia as an outright possession (this was called an 'adjustment of the frontier') and to allow Italy to develop the economic resources of another area. In effect, Ethiopia would cease to be an independent nation. When news of this Plan leaked out there was such an outcry in Britain that Hoare had to resign office; in France Laval managed to hold on a little longer.

Thereafter Mussolini felt safe to pursue his campaign. Both in numbers of troops and in equipment, particularly in the air, he brought to bear forces which were irresistible, the Ethiopians having only a few primitive weapons and no air force. The nature of the country was such that it would have been almost impenetrable if the Ethiopians had used efficient guerrilla tactics, but this they would not do. Instead, they used mass methods under tribal chiefs. There could be only one end to such an unequal struggle. In May 1936 the Emperor Haile Selassie left his realm and went aboard a British warship at Jibuti; the capital, Addis Ababa, was occupied by Italian troops; Mussolini declared Ethiopia to be annexed to Italy; and the King of Italy took the title of Emperor of Ethiopia.

Once again the League had failed to protect one of its members against wanton aggression. This was not the fault of the League as an organization. It was due to the failure of its member States to carry out their undertakings under the Covenant. Nonetheless, the League had failed and, having done so, it would be all the weaker in the next crisis that it would have to face and that was not long delayed.  


S Reed Brett, European History 1900-1960 (1967)