Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
09. League of Nations Sanctions
We saw last week how Mussolini used the Wal Wal incident of December 1934 to launch his unprovoked invasion of Ethiopia, on 3 October 1935. Now read on:
League of Nations Sanctions
Confronted with the long-anticipated act of invasion the League of Nations met, on 5 October, and, six days later, ruled that the Italian Government was guilty of having resorted to war in disregard of the League Covenant. This decision was reached by fifty votes to one (Italy), with three abstentions: Albania, Austria and Hungary. All three were either dependent on Italy or ideologically allied to her fascist government. On the same day the League established a committee to consider the imposition of sanctions against the aggressor. The committee duly proposed four prohibitions, which became effective on 18 November. These comprised:
An embargo on the exportation, re-exportation, or transit of arms, ammunition, and implements of war to Italy and the Italian colonies.
An embargo on loans and credits to the Italian Government or to public authorities, persons or corporations in Italian territory, either directly or indirectly.
An embargo on the importation of goods grown, produced, or manufactured in Italy or Italian possessions, or consigned therefrom.
An embargo on the exportation or re-exportation to Italy or Italian possessions of transport animals, rubber, bauxite, aluminium, iron ore, scrap iron, chromium, manganese, nickel, titanium, tungsten, anadium, their ores and ferro-alloys, tin and tin-ore.
Lord Keynes and Winston Churchill
These prohibitions, which were described by the British economist, Lord Keynes, as “comparatively mild” economic sanctions, contained several major omissions, which, as many commentators have observed, rendered the whole scheme nugatory. Prohibition 1, on arms, thus “hardly restricted Italy which could manufacture its own armaments”. Prohibitions 2 and 3, on loans to Italy and imports therefrom, could be only of long-term significance, and “would have been effective only if the war was prolonged until Italian gold reserves were exhausted”. Prohibition 4, on exports to Italy, proved, however, the greatest disappointment to the sanctionist cause, for it excluded several strategic commodities on the grounds that Italy could obtain them from countries outside the League, notably the United States. Crucially important commodities excluded from the embargo included steel, pig iron, copper, cotton and above all oil. The absurdity of these exclusions was later noted by Winston Churchill, who commented: “The export of aluminium into Italy was strictly forbidden; but aluminium was almost the only metal that Italy produced in quantities beyond her own needs. The importation of scrap iron and iron ore into Italy was sternly vetoed in the name of public justice. But the Italian metallurgical industry made but little use of them, and as steel billets and pig iron were not interfered with, Italy suffered no hindrance”. The League’s sanctions, Churchill concluded, were therefore “not real sanctions to paralyse the aggressor, but merely such half-hearted sanctions as the aggressor would tolerate”.
Disillusion with the League’s action was also captured by the British cartoonist David Low. He depicted Sir Samuel Hoare and Anthony Eden, the British Minister for League Affairs, asking Laval whether it was not time to lock the stable door. The French leader archly replies, “But no, the horse, he is not yet flown”.
Monetary Effects of Sanctions
Sanctions, though unable to halt the aggression, were not without considerable effect on the Italian economy. The Banca d’Italia’s gold reserves, which had stood on 31 December 1934, a few days after the Wal Wal incident, at 5.8 billion lire, soon began to drop. In an attempt to save the situation the Italian Government took over all private gold deposits, but the bank’s reserves by 20 October 1935, a fortnight after the beginning of hostilities, had fallen to 3.9 billion. A decree was thereupon issued to prohibit the continued publication of information on gold holdings. The Queen of Italy of Italy soon afterwards led a campaign, initiated on 18 December, for her women compatriots to surrender their gold wedding rings to the State. Despite this much publiised event, the bank’s reserves, we now know, fell by August 1936 to only 2.2 billion.
Under these circumstances the value of the lira, which Mussolini had long sought to defend, had to be devalued, on 5 October 1936, by no less than 59 per cent.
Initial Military Operations
The main Italian invasion, launched from the colony of Eritrea, was at first directed by De Bono. He initially encountered no resistance. The Emperor had ordered his troops to pull back from the frontier area, to squash any pretence that Ethiopia was the aggressor, as well as perhaps to extend the enemy’s lines of communication. Ethiopian resistance was moreover weakened at the beginning of the campaign by the defection of the Emperor’s disaffected ex-son-in-law, Dajazmach Hayla Sellase Gugsa, governor of eastern Tegray.
From the opening of the campaign De Bono was under strong pressure from Mussolini to achieve a speedy victory, so as to capture Addis Ababa before the rainy season, expected to begin toward the end of June 1936. This was essential, as the Duce saw it, both to boost Italian morale, which would otherwise soon have flagged, and to forestall any possible extension of sanctions. De Bono on the other hand feared that too rapid an advance would dangerously extend his lines of communication. He revealed this in the secrecy of his diary, where he observes that “the cat that was in a hurry made blind kittens”. As a result of his cautious policy, and stiff Ethiopian resistance, the Italian advance ground almost to a halt. De Bono had seized Aksum, forty miles within Ethiopia, on 15 October 1935, but it took him over three weeks, until 8 November, to capture Maqal, little more than 60 kilometres further south. The Duce, frustrated by this painfully slow progress, three days later commanded him to advance “without hesitation”. The harassed commander replied that greater speed was virtually impossible, and that “the military situation should have precedence over any other consideration”.
De Bono Dismissed; Badoglio Told to Use Poison Gas
Mussolini, infuriated by this response, dismissed De Bono, on 14 November, and replaced him by an Italian career general, Pietro Badoglio, whom he authorised, on 28 December, “to use, even on a vast scale, any kind of gas and flamethrowers”. Aware that these instructions flouted the Geneva Convention of 1926 banning the use of gas, the dictator cynically countermanded his instructions, on 5 January 1936. “Suspend the use of gas”, he telegraphed, “until the Geneva meetings unless it becomes necessary for supreme offensive or defensive necessity. I will give you further instructions with regard to this”. The said instructions came a fortnight later when Mussolini once more telegraphed, “I authorise Your Excellency to use all means of war – I say all, both from the air and from the ground”
The Emperor meanwhile was endeavouring to organise Ethiopian resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. On 11 November, he flew to Jigiga, in Ogaden, and drove thence to Daggabur, to strengthen resistance on the south-eastern frontier, facing Italian Somalia. Then, at the end of the month, he proceeded to Das, in Wallo, which, despite heavy enemy bombing, was to be his headquarters for the remainder of the campaign.
Would have had to “Withdraw from Abyssinia within a Week”
Mussolini throughout this time was “extremely nervous”, as his representative to the League, Count Aloisi, later admitted, that sanctions might be extended to include oil. The dictator went so far as to warn Laval, at the end of November, that Italy would regard this as “an unfriendly act”, and later admitted to Hitler that if an oil sanction had been imposed he would have had to “withdraw from Abyssinia within a week”.