Benito Mussolini and the Invasion of Abyssinia:
Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922, promising the Italian people glory and greatness. He
intended to create a new Roman Empire. He invested large amounts of money in the army. By the mid-
1930s, he needed some military victories to prove Italy's greatness to its people and to the rest of the world.
Ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie, Abyssinia (Ethiopia today) was between the two small Italian colonies of
Eritrea and Somaliland. Its lands were fertile and rich in mineral wealth. These were two reasons why
Italian troops attempted an invasion in 1896 which failed.
Abyssinia was a member of the League of Nations. This was a worldwide organization created after World
War I to maintain peace by solving international disputes without resorting to war. Britain, France, and
Italy were members of the League, but the USA was not a member. If a member was attacked by another
country, the League was supposed to come to its aid, but in fact the League lacked the strength needed to
back this up.
Throughout the summer of 1935, Mussolini amassed troops on the Abyssinian border. In October 1935, he
launched a full invasion. Haile Selassie appealed to the League for help. However, League intervention was
slow and, when it did occur, was half-hearted and ineffective. Mussolini conquered Abyssinia, creating an
Italian East African Empire. This also delivered a fatal blow to the League of Nations.
Was Mussolini an Italian hero, leading his people to glory? Or was he an international bully, attacking a
weak nation, defying international law and endangering world peace?
Note: Additional information may be found in Viewpoints textbook, page 92
Why did the Invasion Take Place?
Stage 1: Mussolini's motives
Why did Mussolini attack Abyssinia? Choose what you think are the 3 most important reasons for the
invasion of Abyssinia. Explain why you think each reason was important.
You can choose from this list or you can think of your own reasons:
To recreate the Roman Empire
To get an easy victory
To help with economic problems in Italy
To have revenge for the Italian defeat in 1896
To warn Germany
To get hold of Abyssinia’s wealth
To make up for not getting enough territory from the Treaty of Versailles in 1919
To make himself popular in Italy
Reason Why it is Important?
Stage 2: The League of Nations
What could the League of Nations have done to prevent the invasion? Decide on 3 actions that the League
could have taken to help stop Mussolini in Abyssinia. Explain why you think each chosen action would
have worked and why they didn’t do it.
You can choose from this list or you can think of your own actions:
Act very quickly to calm the situation after the first fight at Wal-Wal
Impose oil sanctions
Tell Mussolini off in front of the whole world
Ask the USA to help
Send in the troops to help Abyssinia
Close Suez Canal to stop Italian ships getting from Mediterranean Sea to East Africa
Action: How Would it Have Stopped Why was this Action not Taken?
Information Document I: Why did Mussolini Invade Abyssinia?
On 2 October 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie stood outside his palace in Addis Ababa and addressed the
people of Abyssinia. He warned them that the time had come to fight - 100,000 Italian troops had invaded
Northern Abyssinia that morning.
The Italians had been planning an invasion for some time. A year earlier Mussolini had sent a memo to his
generals calling for "the Total conquest of Abyssinia". The excuse for the attack came in an incident during
December 1934 between Italian and Abyssinian troops at the Wal-Wal oasis on the border between
Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland. Mussolini demanded an apology. He also prepared his army.
Events both inside and outside Italy convinced Mussolini that this action was the right one. Italy, like many
other countries in the early 1930s, had economic problems. Mussolini's economic policies did not fix the
situation. A war might unite the Italian people behind their leader and make them forget their domestic
problems. Plus Abyssinia’s resources could be used to benefit the Italian economy.
Rome had once led an empire that dominated the world. But that was long ago and now other European
powers, such as France and Britain, had empires or wanted them. Hitler came to power in 1933, begun to
rearm Germany and looked to re-unite Germany with Austria. Mussolini looked for a way to show Italy’s
strength to the rest of Europe.
Italy had tried and failed to conquer Abyssinia in 1896. Italians also felt that they didn’t get their fair share
of territory after World War I when the Treaty of Versailles (1919) made peace and decided who would
rule Germany’s former colonies. The invasion of Abyssinia would make up for these disappointments.
Abyssinia and the territories Italy already held in East Africa would join together to make a new Italian
empire in the region. Abyssinia had the support of the League of Nations, but did not have an army to
match the Italians.
Information Document II: Was the Abyssinian Campaign a Great Victory for Italy?
Abyssinia had been an independent country for many centuries. It was the only African nation to
successfully resist European invasion in the nineteenth century. It took the Italians nine months to defeat
On 2 May 1936, a special train left the Abyssinian capital for the port of Djibouti. On board were Haile
Selassie and the Abyssinian royal family, heading for England. They left behind a nation torn apart by war,
many of its towns and villages destroyed.
Abyssinia, Eritrea and Somaliland became known as Italian East Africa. Mussolini proclaimed that the
Italians had won "the greatest colonial war in history". How accurate was this view?
The Italians demonstrated their military skills, deploying everything from armoured vehicles to mustard
gas, and they won the war. Many Italians shared Mussolini’s pride, though there was a cost in soldiers’
However, the international community were astonished by Mussolini's aggressive behaviour. The League
of Nations imposed economic sanctions upon Italy. Some historians argue that the impact of these
sanctions meant the war was a failure for Mussolini. Others argue the sanctions were not so effective
because not all countries supported them and because vital supplies such as oil were not included. The fact
that the League of Nations imposed sanctions on Italy (in a half-hearted way) encouraged Italy to look for
other international allies – such as Hitler’s Germany.
Information Document III: Was the League a Villain in the Crisis?
In 1919, 32 nations met in France to create the League of Nations. The League's covenant declared it would
take action to prevent wars. An attack on a League member would be considered an attack on all members,
who would take joint action against the aggressor.
Italy was a founder member of the League. It attacked another member nation, Abyssinia. The League did
impose some sanctions on Italy, but this was not enough to stop the war.
Some historians believe that the Abyssinian crisis destroyed the credibility of the League of Nations. This
war suggested that the ideals of peace and collective security, upon which the League had been founded,
were now abandoned. It has even been argued that after the triumph of Italy in Abyssinia, Hitler could feel
confident about carrying out acts of war in Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Britain and France have been singled out for particular criticism. They were dominant members of the
League. They supported some sanctions against Italy, but they dithered about closing the Suez canal to
Italian shipping and France also resisted oil sanctions. It was the British and French foreign ministers,
Hoare and Laval, who secretly planned to carve up Abyssinia and give a chunk of the country to Mussolini.
Hoare and Laval lost their jobs because of this idea. Both nations were anxious about the balance of power
in Europe. They thought Italy was an important ally against Germany and so didn’t want to offend
Perhaps the reason why Mussolini triumphed in Abyssinia was as much to do with the weakness of the
League of Nations as the strength of Italy. Was the suffering of Abyssinia entirely Mussolini's doing? Or
should the rest of the League of Nations share the responsibility?
Information Document IV: Timeline:
December 1934: Dispute at Wal-Wal between Italians and Abyssinians
April 1935: Stresa Pact signed between Britain, France and Italy, uniting them against
October 1935: 100,000 Italian troops enter Abyssinia from the north. Adowa taken after 2 days
of bombing, with only one Italian casualty
November 1935: Southern Abyssinian leader, Afework, killed
December 1935: Italians use mustard gas in victory at Dolo. Abyssinians counter-attack and
Italians retreat 12 miles. Hoare and Laval prepare the Hoare-Laval Plan, giving
Mussolini two-thirds of Abyssinia
January 1936: Italians use mustard gas at the battle of Tembien
February 1936: Italians use artillery to bring victory at Amba Aradam
March 1936: Last major Abyssinian army defeated. Haile Selassie's personal army defeated
and survivors trapped by a lake and attacked with gas and bombs. Meanwhile,
Hitler reoccupies the Rhineland
April 1936: Italian tanks and armoured cars take control over more Abyssinian regions
May 1936: Haile Selassie flees Abyssinia. Italian troops enter Addis Ababa. Victor
Emanuel, the King of Italy, declared the new Emperor of Abyssinia
November 1936: Rome-Berlin Axis - Mussolini and Hitler sign an agreement