Italy and the Abyssinia Crisis
IB Book Pages 71-73
The failure of the League of
Nations to implement the
principal of Collective Security is
best illustrated by the Abyssinian
But First Things First
• The Oxford Debate, 1933
• The Stresa Front, April 1935
• The Anglo-German Naval Agreement, June
• A review of America’s foreign policy, 1934-39
Oxford Debate February, 1933 (England)
"That this House will in no
circumstances fight for its King and
It was passed by 275 votes to 153.
The debate caused a firestorm
Oxford Debate Foreign Reaction
• MP Robert Bernays described a visit he made to Germany:
I remember talking with a prominent leader of the young
Nazis. He was asking about this pacifist debate motion and I
tried to explain it to him. There was an ugly gleam in his eye
when he said, "The fact is that you English are soft". Then I
realized that the world enemies of peace might be the
• Benito Mussolini considered the debate when he planned the
invasion of Abyssinia. He was convinced that the debate
resolution proved that Britain was just a frightened, flabby old
• Winston Churchill, after the war, wrote that Japan and
Germany took note of the debate resolution which altered
their way of thinking about Britain as decadent and
The Debate was Misunderstood
Hitler and Mussolini were foolish to take the
intellectual discussions of a few undergraduates so
seriously. Neither were academics.
One student wrote, "I believe that the motion was
representative neither of the majority of the
undergraduates of Oxford nor of the youth of this
country. I am certain if war broke out tomorrow the
students of the university would flock to the
recruiting office as their fathers and uncles did." He
was proven correct: when the WW II broke out in
September, 1939 the War Office organized a
recruiting board at Oxford which invited
undergraduates and resident postgraduates under 25
to enlist: 2,632 out of a potential 3,000 volunteered.
The Stresa Front was an agreement made at Stresa,
between Benito Mussolini of Italy, France and Britain
on April 14, 1935.
• It reaffirmed the Locarno Treaties and to
declare that the independence of Austria
• agreed to resist any future attempt by the
Germans to change the Treaty of Versailles.
• Gave Benito Mussolini an opportunity to be
viewed as a statesman and a keeper of the
peace. Remember he had blocked Germany’s
attempt at Anschluss in 1934
• Behind the scenes Mussolini discussed his plan
to invade Abyssinia with British PM Ramsey
The Anglo-German Naval Agreement (June, 1935)
• Britain and Germany agreed to regulate the
size of the German Navy in relation to the
Royal Navy. The A.G.N.A fixed a ratio where
the total tonnage of the Kriegsmarine was to
be 35% of the total tonnage of the Royal Navy
on a permanent basis. The agreement was
renounced by Adolph Hitleron April 28, 1939
• Awkward diplomatic maneuver by Britain
because France and Italy were not consulted.
Also, it exceeded the tonnage that Germany
was permitted under the Treaty of Versailles!
USA POV Revisited
• The USA was not a member of the League
• The USA was ‘in spirit’ isolationist
• Yet, in the 1920’s the USA contributed to the peace/
• However, during the Great Depression (1930’s) the
USA lost interest in international events
• The USA, like Britain, hoped to appease Germany and
Japan. They did not object to German advances in
the Rhineland, Austria or the Sudetenland.
Recognized Italian conquest in Abyssinia
• Like Britain they changed their mind when it was too
USA Point of View (continued)
The USA had regrets over World War I
• The Nye Commission * see below
• Neutrality Acts* (1937) see below.
• World War I debts not repaid
• Many felt that a strong Germany would be a
good buffer against the Soviet Union. Many
• Many American businesses were active in
Germany. Didn’t want trouble
But many Americans were concerned about the
Jewish people and were alarmed by 1939
Nye Commission (1934)
• Sen. Gerald Nye revealed that wartime profits of the
banking and munitions industries to America's
contributed to US involvement in WW I. Many
Americans had believed that the war had been about
democracies opposing autocracies. Nye named the
arms manufacturers as "merchants of death"
• The committee reported that between 1915 and
January 1917, the United States lent the United
Kingdom and its allies 2.3 billion dollars
• He claimed that the US entered WW I because it was
in American commercial interest for the United
Kingdom not to lose.
• The findings of the committee gave momentum to
the Neutrality Acts of the 1930’s
The Neutrality Acts (1935-1937)
• In response to the Nye Commission Congress
passed a series of Acts designed to keep
America out of future wars.
• Prohibited American vessels from carrying arms to
• Prohibited loans to belligerents
• Forbade US citizens from travelling on ships owned
• Kept the USA neutral in the Spanish Civil War
These Acts only served to strengthen America’s
future opponents – Germany, Italy and Japan
• March, 1935 Germany officially begins rearming*
• June, 1935 Anglo-Germany Naval Agreement signed
• October, 1935 Italy invades Ethiopia: Second Italo–
• October, 1936 Rome-Berlin Treaty (Treaty of Friendship)
between Italy and Germany.
• March, 1936 German army marched into the
• March, 1938 Germany annexed Austria* (Anschluss)
with Italian agreement
• September, 1938 Hitler successfully negotiated with
PM Neville Chamberlain in Munich for the
Sudetenland region in Czechoslovakia*
Time –Line (continued)
• March 1939 Germany occupies all of Czechoslovakia*
Britain ends appeasement policy
• August 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact signed
• September 1st 1939 Germany invaded Poland
• September 3rd Britain and France declare war on
Background to the Abyssinian Crisis
Italy had been defeated by the Abyssinians at
the Battle of Adowa (1896). Italy withdrew its
Italy felt humiliated by this retreat because
she was the only Western European power to
be defeated by an African Nation in the 19th
century. Benito Mussolini was determined to
reestablish Italian pride and recreate a Roman
Empire in Africa.
Italy had other African colonies in the area (See map: IB book Page 73)
Italy on the eve of the crisis, 1935
• It must be remembered that Italy was on the side
of the allies in WW I.
• Italy had signed the Treaty of Versailles. Not too
happy but still a participant
• In the early 1930’s Italy under Mussolini had
opposed and participated in resisting Hitler’s
aggressive attempts to rearm and to combine
Austria with Germany (Anschluss). Britain and
France appreciated his efforts!
• Italy was a member of the League and signed the
• Italy possessed a good navy and had considerable
influence in the Mediterranean Sea.
Italy at a Crossroads.
• Before 1935 Italy felt that a resurgent Germany was a
threat to their interests in those areas that had German
speaking populations - the South Tyrol. They also
feared Anschluss. Unification of Germany and Austria
would make Germany the ascendant central European
• Italian ‘POV’. If the League of Nations did their bit and
controlled Germany and turned a blind eye to Italian
ambitions in Abyssinia all would be OK!
• But, what if the League showed itself to be weak
regarding Germany and opposed Italy’s colonial
• Perhaps, Italy might make new friends! (Germany, for
What were Italian aims in Abyssinia
• The fear of German resurgence in central Europe
may have encouraged to focus on expansion
overseas – East Africa was a logical area because
Italy had holdings there.
• Fascism is an ideology promoted nationalism,
militarism and aggression. Benito wanted to
create a new Roman Empire. Anyway, Britain and
France had large empires. Why not Italy?
• Abyssinia was independent and available
• Revenge for the humiliation at Adowa (1896)
• Italians needed a place to emigrate – an Italian
colony might provide an alternative to the USA
and South America.
Perhaps Italian policy makers were misled or
confused regarding British and French reactions
It is quite possible that Italy believed that their
relationship to Britain and France would entirely
inoculate them from any diplomatic League of
1. For example, The Stresa Front had shown Britain
and France that Italy was “on the team” as far as
constraining Hitler’s ambitions.
2. Also, Britain and France had both agreed that
Abyssinia was in an Italian “Sphere of Influence.”
Therefore, Mussolini could be excused for
thinking that Britain and France might “let it the
Mukden to Wal Wal
• The conflict between the Italian Army and the
Abyssinians began with an “incident” at Wal
Wal that gave a pretext for the Italians to
begin the conflict. At first just a small military
• However, the Abyssinian Emperor, Haile
Selassie, seeing that a large numbers of troops
were assembling on his border appealed to
the League for arbitration (September, 1935).
• The Italians launched a full scale invasion in
October, 1935. Second Italo–Abyssinian War
(See U tube video IB file)
Actions of The League of Nations
Britain and France
The League declared Italy the aggressor
• Economic sanctions were applied but they did
not include oil or steel because non-League
members (Germany and the USA) would be
able to supply these vital materials.
• Britain did not close the Suez Canal (see
map). If Britain had closed the canal the
Italian war effort might have failed.
Why was Britain and France so reluctant to
*The IB book is excellent on this point (page 73).
The British and French were caught in a bind!
• Either the British and French compromised and
placated Italy in order to maintain the Stresa
front against Germany or the British and French
“saved” Abyssinia and gave the League the
respect it needed. In the end they did neither!
• Britain believed that the Italian navy in the
Mediterranean was as strong as their own
• Therefore, France and Britain decided on a
compromise: The Hoare-Laval Pact
The Hoare-Laval Pact
1. The compromise gave Italy the most fertile 2/3 of
Abyssinia. 1/3 remained independent /aka “the
corridor for camels".
2. The agreement was leaked to the French and British
public who were enraged. The British foreign
secretary had to resign. Both nations backed away
from the pact.
3. The agreement was abandoned and because the
League did not intervene militarily Abyssinia was
defeated by the Italian army. The general public, in
Britain, were horrified that the Italian army used
modern weapons (including gas) against tribesmen.
The war was horrific.
The Second Italo–Abyssinian War
• The Italian’s won. The war was horrific. The Abyssinians being tribesmen often
resorted to savagery. Castration of Italian prisoners of war.
• The Italians utilized heavy artillery, machine guns and aircraft. Aircraft were used
to spray poison and tear gas on Ethiopians. Phosgene gas may have been used.
Aerial spray kills or injures everything – cattle etc. Poisons wells.
• The Italians allowed the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) Emperor, Haile Selassie, to leave on
a British ship for England.
• Haile Selassie later appealed to the League of Nations.
He prophetically warned,
"It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”
• Japan and Germany were the first to recognize Italy’s new Empire. Italy had new
friends. (You tube video)
The Significance of the Crisis
• The Abyssinian crisis had a far greater impact on the League and
the concept of Collective Security than the Manchurian crisis.
• It was clear to everyone that the leading League powers (Britain
and France) would avoid war at all costs. They sensed that their
populations would not support war.
• Mussolini realized that Britain and France were resistant to Italian
expansion but were “weak-willed.” He, therefore resigned himself
to making an diplomatic arrangements with his fascist rival -Adolph
• Mussolini abandoned his opposition to Anschluss and his
opposition to Hitler’s plans to undermine the Treaty of Versailles. In
October, 1936 Rome-Berlin Treaty (Treaty of Friendship) between Italy and
Germany was signed. The South Tyrol argument was shelved. Not
a big deal to Adolph Hitler.
• Hitler also observed the impotence of the League leadership and
determined that it would be safe to pursue his goals of undermining
the Treaty of Versailles provisions.
The Significance of the Crisis
The mishandling of the Abyssinian Crisis and
to a lesser extent the Manchurian Crisis
contributed to the perception in Germany,
Italy and Japan that the League of Nations was
weak. Moreover, it indicated that the major
democracies Britain, France and the USA
would not risk war. The Soviet Union was in
the awkward position of being feared by the
democracies and fascists.
This led to Mussolini and Hitler forming the
Rome-Berlin Axis (1936). Japan joined later.