Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
08. Mussolini and Ethiopia
We saw last week how Mussolini and his fascist aide De Bono planned to invade Ethiopia, and how the French Government, preoccupied with the rise of nazi Germany, withdrew its earlier opposition to Italian expansion at Ethiopia’s expence. Now read on:
Fascist War Preparations
Fascist Italy, aware that there would no longer be any significant French opposition to an invasion, then embarked on massive war preparations, both in Italy and its East African colonies. Activity in Eritrea was personally supervised by De Bono, first as Minister of the Colonies, and, after January 1935, as the colony’s High Commissioner. Massawa harbour installations were vastly expanded to handle the arrival of troops and war material. The road from the port to Asmara was broadened, and those to the Ethiopian frontier rendered suitable for the passage of soldiers and military supplies. Airports were constructed or expanded for the use of fighter and bombing ‘planes, and hospitals built to cater for the probable wounded.
The Wal Wal Incident
The Italian pretext for invasion came with the Wal Wal incident which took place little more than a year after Mussolini’s above-mentioned talks with De Bono. On 23 November 1934 an Anglo-Ethiopian boundary commission, which had been surveying the frontier between British Somaliland and Ethiopia, arrived at Wal Wal, 100 kilometres within Ethiopia. There they were confronted by an Italian force, which had earlier arrived from Somalia. The British members of the commission protested at the Italian presence, but then withdrew to avoid an “international incident”. The Ethiopians on the other hand faced the Italians for about a fortnight, until a shot of indeterminate, but probably Italian, origin, precipitated a clash.
The Italians responded by despatching an ultimatum to Ethiopia. They demanded 20,000 in damages, a formal apology, a salute to the Italian flag, and the punishment of the Ethiopian troops involved. These terms, which would have constituted recognition of Italian sovereignty over Wal Wal, were considered unacceptable by the Ethiopian Government. Haile Sellassie therefore sought arbitration in accordance with the Ethio-Italian Treaty of 1928. Mussolini rejected this proposal. The Emperor thereupon took the matter to the League of Nations, which spent the next eleven months in fruitless discussion, during which fascist Italy accelerated its preparations for war.
Anglo-French “Disinterest” in Ethiopian Independence
During the critical months prior the opening of hostilities the French and British Governments carefully reviewed their interests in relation to the forthcoming conflict. In the evening and night between 6 and 7 January 1935 the French premier, Pierre Laval, held a conversation with Mussolini in which he gave the dictator the encouraging information that France was from the economic point of view “disinterested” in Ethiopia.Five months later, in June, a British Government committee, headed by Sir John Maffey, came to the conclusion in a secret report, leaked to the Italian press, that there were “no vital British interests in Abyssinia or adjacent countries such as to necessitate British resistance to an Italian conquest of Abyssinia”. The report added that, ‘in general as far as local British interests’ were concerned, “it would be a matter of indifference whether Abyssinia remained independent or was absorbed by Italy”.
The French and British Government, having thus formulated similar attitudes of “disinterest” towards the projected invasion, decided on a joint policy of “neutrality”. To this end they decided to ban arms exports to both potential belligerents.This restriction ran counter to the international arms agreement of August 1930, in which both powers, as well as Italy, had agreed that the Emperor had the right to import arms and ammunition for purposes of defence. The obvious unfairness of the new Anglo-French move was noted by the Emperor, who exclaimed in an interview with the London “Sunday Times”:
“Italy is a great manufacturing country working day and night to equip her soldiers with modern weapons and modern machines. We are a pastoral and agricultural people without resources and cannot do more than purchase abroad a few rifles and guns to prevent our soldiers from entering battle with swords and spears only”.
Notwithstanding the manifest logic of these remarks the United States likewise passed a Neutrality Act, on 24 August, which placed an embargo on the supply of arms to either side.
Laval and Hoare “Instantly in Agreement”
The French and British Governments also developed identical views on how to react to the opening of hostilities. Laval met the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, on 10 September 1935 to discuss the matter secretly. He later told the French Chamber of Deputies that he and his British opposite number found themselves:
“instantaneously in agreement upon ruling out military sanctions, not adopting any measure of a naval blockade, and never contemplating the closure of the Suez Canal – in a word, ruling out everything that might lead to war’”
Publicly, however, Sir Samuel spoke in very different vein. On the day after his talks with Laval, he declared, in an address to the League of Nations Assembly:
“His Majesty’s Government and the British people maintain their support of the League and its ideals as the most effective way of ensuring peace… this belief in the necessity of preserving the League is our sole interest in the present controversy … The ideals enshrined in the Covenant, and in particular the aspiration to establish the rule of law in international affairs, have appealed… with growing force to the strain of idealism which has its place in our national character, and they have become part of our national conscience… The League stands, and my country stands with it, for the collective maintenance of the Covenant [of the League] in its entirety, and particularly for steady and collective resistance to all acts of unprovoked aggression… This is no variable and unreliable sentiment, but a principle of international conduct to which they [the British people] and their Government hold with firm, enduring and universal persistence”.
There would have been “a tempest of boos and hisses”
The Italian anti-fascist historian Gaetano Salvemini later commented that, if the secret agreement of 10 September between Laval and Hoare had been known, the latter’s speech “would have been greeted with a tempest of boos and hisses”, but, not being known,”met with an immense ovation”
The Attitude of Nazi Germany
In sharp contrast to the position of the British and French democracies was that of nazi Germany. Hitler, its dictator, had adopted an ideology akin to that of fascist Italy. He saw that Mussolini was, however, unwilling to counternance a German annexation of Austria, which would have brought the nazi state to the Brenner pass, on the very borders of Italy. The German dictator, who was determined on expanding southwards into Austria, his birthland, reasoned that Mussolini, if victorious in Ethiopia, would be in strong position to oppose Germany’s ambitions, but would be unable to do so as as long as his army was embroiled in an Africa war. The nazi ruler was therefore only too anxious to stiffen Ethiopian resistance. He responded favourably to German requests for aid, brought mainly by David Hall, an envoy of Ethio-German origin. Nazi Germany was thus virtually the only country to come to Ethiopia’s assistance, and without Mussolini knowing, supplied Haile Sellassie’s army with three aeroplanes, over sixty cannon, 10,000 Mauser rifles, and ten million cartridges.
The Invasion Begins Mussolini, aware that he would encounter no significant opposition from either Britain or France, and in the dark as to Hitler’s secret intentions, adopted a bold posture. In an histrionic speech, on 2 October 1935, he cried out, “To sanctions of an economic character, we will reply with our disclipine, with our frugality and with our spirit of sacrifice. To military sanctions, we will reply with military measures. To acts of war, we will reply with acts of war”.
On the following day the fascist army began its long expected invasion, without any formal declaration of war. That same day Italian airmen bombed Adwa, in symbolic revenge for their compatriots’ defeat there forty years earlier. The invading army was five times larger than that employed by the Italians in the previous war, and now, for the first time, enjoyed overwhelming superiority of armament, as well as complete control of the air.