Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
07. The Italo-Ethiopian Scenario, 1935
Ethiopia, the victor of the battle of Adwa in 1896, was by the early twentieth century the only state in Africa to have survived the European Scramble for the continent. The country was, however, dangerously situated between two Italian coastal colonies, Eritrea and Somalia. These territories could scarcely be developed in isolation from the Ethiopian hinterland, or expanded other than at Ethiopia’s expense.
Adwa had been a turning point in the history of Ethio-Italian relations. Italy, prior to the battle, had sought to gain control of Ethiopia, first through Article 17 of the Wechale Treaty, and later through military action. After the battle the Italians turned, no less assiduously, to economic penetration. Such Italian ambitions had been accepted, as we have seen, by Ethiopia’s two colonial neighbours, Britain and France, who, by the Tripartite Convention of 1906, had recognised an Italian economic sphere of influence linking Eritrea and Somalia, west of Addis Ababa. The French, who regarded Ethiopia as important for the prosperity of their Somaliland protectorate, and wished to be in good relations with Ethiopia’s ruler, later veered away from the 1906 formula as far as Italy’s sphere of influence was concerned. The British, on the other hand, continued as late as 1925 to accept the principle of an Italian sphere of influence over most of Ethiopia in exchange for Italy’s support for a proposed British dam at Lake Tana.
The Rise of Fascism
Italy’s colonial ambitions in Africa were almost inevitably affected by Benito Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922, and the resultant emergence in Rome of a militaristic, and intensely chauvinist, regime. It was only a matter of time before the fascist state would shift Italian policy once more from economic to military penetration, and call on the people of Italy to “revenge Adwa”, by embarking on a new war of conquest.
Relations between the two countries were, however, at first superficially cordial. When Ras Tafari visited Rome in 1924 he was warmly welcomed by Mussolini. The fascist dictator, as his wife Donna Rachele recalls, then foresaw a “great future for Italy in Abyssinia”, and conceived the idea of “developing Abyssinia with Italian labour”. He found his Ethiopian visitor “a clever and cultured man”, with whom he believed he could `get on very well’. With this in mind the Duce sponsored the 1928 Treaty of Friendship and Arbitration in the hope of achieving rapid Italian economic penetration through the port of Asab and a proposed Italian-road to Dase. When, however, it became apparent that the Ethiopian Government would not accept any infringement of its sovereignty, the Italian fascists turned their thoughts from peaceful pressure to outright war.
The first steps for the new invasion were taken by Marshal Emilio De Bono, an elderly fascist holding the post of Minister of the Colonies. On 22 January 1930 he wrote a confidential letter to the President of the Italian Council of Ministers, asking for a major increase in the budget for the Italian colonies bordering Ethiopia. It would be “harmful to embark on large expenditure”, and “ridiculous to speak of the Romanity of the Empire”, he added, “if expansion [his emphasis] beyond the confines of the Fatherland was not considered possible”.
The idea of a military operation was warmly accepted by Mussolini, who argued that war could rejuvenate the Italian people, and be an objective in itself. Accordingly, in the Spring of 1932, he despatched De Bono to Eritrea “to see how matters stood there”. On the minister’s return the two fascist leaders agreed that their country’s “colonial future must be sought in East Africa”, where Italy had a “hinterland” i.e. Ethiopia, “which could be profitably exploited” De Bono thereupon drew up a “definite programme” in relation to the “possibilities of war” which, he later recalled, “had to be regarded not only as possible, but as always increasingly probable”.
De Bono’s Revelations
De Bono, in 1932-3, wrote memorandum after memorandum requesting increased military personnel and supplies for Eritrea and Somalia, and had several secret conversations on Ethiopia with his fascist master. Discussing his own attitude in 1933, he recalls: “It had been my proudest dream to end my public career as a soldier on public service. Of course, it was not yet possible to say in 1933 – the year in which we began to consider what practical steps must be taken in the event of war with Ethiopia – whether there would or would not be a war in that country; but I made up my mind to lose no time, and one day I said to the Duce: `Listen: if there is to be a war down there – and you think me worthy of it, and capable – you ought to grant me the honour of conducting the campaign’. The Duce looked at me hard, and at once replied: `Surely!’ `You don’t think me too old’, I added. `No’, he replied, `because we mustn’t lose time’.
“From that moment”, De Bono continues, “the Duce was definitely of the opinion that the matter would have to be settled no later than 1936, and he told me as much. I confined myself to replying: `Very good!’ – without expressing the faintest doubt as to the possibility that this could be achieved [De Bono’s emphasis]..
“It was the autumn of 1933. The Duce had spoken to no one of the coming operations in East Africa; only he and I knew what was going to happen, and no indiscretion occurred by which the news could reach the public”.
Fascist strategy from 1933 onwards was based, De Bono explains, very largely on political subversion in Ethiopia, designed at achieving the country’s complete disintegration. He informed the Duce that this would “not be a very difficult task”, provided they worked “well on political lines”, and that disintegration `could be regarded as certain after a military victory on our part’”. Mussolini, he adds, “thought as I did, and ordered me `to go full speed ahead’, I must be ready as soon as possible.
“`Money [De Bono said] will be needed, Chief; lots of money’.
“`There will be no lack of money’, the Duce replied”.
Italian agents were thereafter actively engaged in the attempted subversion of Ethiopian chiefs, and nobles, who were given lavish bribes. Action was also taken to forment ethnic tension, particularly in militarily strategic areas in the north and south of the country, notably in eastern Wallo, Ogaden and Hararge. Emperor Haile Sellassie commented at the time that he knew that many of his chiefs were accepting Italian money, but was confident that when the testing time came they would not betray Ethiopia. Later he declared, with unusual bitterness, in his Autobiography, that the Italians had “always been the bane of the Ethiopian people”.
The Changing Stance of France
The rise of Hitler and nazi Germany’s attempt to overturn the paramount world position of Britain and France, the victors of World War I, or “satisfied powers” as he called them, had important implications for Ethiopia. The French, and to a lesser extent the British, came to see “dissatisfied” nazi Germany as a potential threat to their hegemony. They therefore became increasingly reluctant to take any stand against Mussolini, lest it drove him into the hands of the Germans, to whom he was, however, already linked by a common militaristic, and “fascist”doctrine.
Such thinking led to a major re-orientation on the part of France. Hitherto, as we have seen, she had regarded Ethiopia as a valuable `hinterland’ for Jibuti, and had supported Ethiopian independence against the predatory pressures of Italy, and to a lesser extent Britain. The French Government, becoming increasingly concerned with the situation in Europe, now, however, changed its policy. To please Mussolini, it began to withdraw opposition to Italian expansion in Ethiopia, and proposed that Italy in return should waive its interests in the French colony of Tunisia.