Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Italian Aggression

Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Italian Aggression
Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Italian Aggression

In October 1935 Italian armies invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia), beginning an eight-month war and a sixyear occupation. Starting purely as an Italian colonial venture to expand Italy's control as well as to impress European nations, it came to have a significance all out of proportion to its original objectives.

Italy, as a unified nation, did not come into existence until the Risorgimento of 1870. For that reason, it was very late in developing an overseas empire; most of the colonial pickings had been taken by France and Britain.

Italy had managed in the closing years of the 19th century to establish itself in eastern Africa (Eritrea), although a sound beating by the Abyssinians in 1896 at the Battle of Adowa stopped their progress there. Although Adowa was to be the most severe defeat ever suffered by Europeans in Africa, Italy managed to not only keep its Eritrean possessions but gain a bit more as well.


In 1908 Somalia was declared to be an Italian colony, and the border between Somalia and Ethiopia was agreed on. Additionally, in 1911–12 Italy had managed to seize the Ottoman possessions in Libya. None of this, however, managed to satisfy a nation that as part of its mythic past looked back on the Roman Empire.

Compounding that sense of unfulfilled entitlement, Italy, although an ally in World War I, had not gained the territory it believed was its due. The sense of injury and historic destiny was given an added impetus in the 1920s and 1930s with the rise of the Fascists.

In the interim several events occurred. Although Abyssinia was an independent nation, it was not altogether considered to be the equal of other nations; when it applied for membership in the League of Nations, there were several delegates who were opposed to its entry.

Italian soldiers marching to the Italo-Ethiopian border.
Italian soldiers marching to the Italo-Ethiopian border.

At first Italy opposed Abyssinia's application but then supported it. Abyssinia became a full member of the league in 1923. That fact would have later consequences, as membership meant that Italy could not attack Abyssinia without the threat of action of the entire league.

Italy and Abyssinia signed a treaty of friendship in 1928, but the Italians would maintain a very strong military presence on their borders and on occasion send military detachments across the borders to see how far they could push without starting a war.

By 1932 Benito Mussolini was committed to an eventual war of conquest in the area, and military planning began at about this time. Finally, in 1934 the Italians engineered a border incident that would eventually become the official cause of the war, which would start in October 1935.

Italian armor forces
Italian armor forces

The extent of military planning and the allocation of Italy's resources for this war would become a major effort. While in retrospect the campaign was one of tanks, aircraft, and machine guns against a primitively armed native population, there was no assumption of an easy military victory. Adowa, less than 40 years before, had been a serious and sobering defeat.

Even new weapons, as the British, Spanish, and French had learned, did not guarantee victory in colonial wars. The Abyssinians, with their population of an estimated 12 million living in a rugged and wide-ranging homeland, could not be counted on to surrender at the first sight of an Italian tank or airplane.

On October 3, 1935, Italian forces attacking from Eritrea in the north and Italian Somaliland in the south invaded Abyssinia, meeting with substantial opposition from the very beginning. Mechanized and motorized forces and aircraft overpowered organized resistance.

Invasion map
Invasion map
By May 5, 1936, the Italians had managed to defeat the Abyssinian army and entered the capital of Addis Ababa. Italian forces suffered about 5,000 casualties; most of these were natives serving as part of the Italian force.

With the capture of Abyssinia's capital, the Italians believed their mission accomplished and organized their African possessions into one large colony, Africa Orientale Italia (AOI), which they divided into six governorships. Occupying the territory and controlling all of it turned out to be a different matter: They never succeeded in holding more than half of the country.

There was widespread opposition throughout the countryside that grew in severity. In 1937 an attempted assassination of Marshall Badoglio, the commander of the region, spurred extensive reprisals. This opposition kept up until the Italians were finally driven out in 1941 by the British.

Aside from the military aspects of the campaign, which showed how new technology could be effectively applied against native armies, the war had a political significance on an international scale. The conflict showed very quickly the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations. Further, it demonstrated both splits between what were supposed to be solid allies and the lack of internal resolution of those allies.

On October 10, 1935, the league agreed to impose economic sanctions against Italy as punishment for its unprovoked invasion in direct defiance of the league's rules. The sanctions were not enthusiastically endorsed, although Canada suggested additional oil sanctions be applied.

Part of the problem was that the league's standing did not support strong measures. Another factor was that despite the fact that Abyssinia was a member, many other members considered it to be little more than a very backward region.

In their view, despite the unanimous declaration of 1923, Abyssinia should not be thought of as an independent nation. Also, sanctions were useless unless they were supported by everyone. The United States, which was not a member of the league, increased its exports of oil to Italy at this time.

There were attempts to resolve the crisis by diplomacy of individual nations, but these were not only ineffective but did not reflect well of the proposing nations. In negotiations with the Italians, the British and French offered to let Italy have large parts of the country. Britain would then donate part of British Somaliland, one of its ports, to Abyssinia.

Neither Haile Selassie nor any member of his government was brought into these talks. These negotiations were not looked on well by several members of the league who rightly thought it was rewarding aggression. Thus, the plan died, and Italy continued its war.

Abyssinian emperor Haile Selassie went to the League of Nations for assistance in June 1936. He got nothing for his efforts. Italian claims of atrocities partially undermined Ethiopia's case, although it was clear that the league would not have supported Ethiopia in any event.

The occupation of Abyssinia was not a quiet experience for occupiers or occupied. The Italians brought in the machinery and infrastructure of a colonial government, but nothing went exactly as it had been planned.

For one thing, there was the active opposition of the natives, which never decreased from the day Addis Ababa fell until the British liberated the country. In 1935 Italians opened a concentration camp in Somalia. Eventually, more than 6,000 people from all over the AOI, but principally Abyssinia, were processed there.

Its peak operating period was from the major repression of 1937 until the British arrived in 1941. In 1937 some opponents of the regime were sent to Eritrea and from there on to Italy. In a reversal, political detention camps were opened in the AOI that were used to house Italian political dissidents. There were reported to be mass executions as well.

There were some positive developments. The Italians did bring an improvement in health care. Also, they stopped much of the intertribal fighting that had always plagued Abyssinia. These advantages must be seen, however, against the larger issue of Italy forcefully occupying a nation and repressing its people.

One of the major reforms was a negative one that had to do with education. Italy feared the educated elite in Abyssinia, which they correctly saw as the backbone of opposition. The Italians repressed this elite and also ensured that there would be no schooling beyond the most basic for the general population.

Finally, the area was liberated in 1941 and administered by the British until after the war. Then Italy returned but only as a mandatory power for Eritrea and Somaliland. These countries eventually gained their independence. Abyssinia, more commonly referred to now as Ethiopia, regained its independence with the return of its emperor.

For what started as a colonial venture, the war between Italy and Abyssinia had far-reaching consequences. It demonstrated what military force could do against civilian populations and how far international bullying could go as well as improving the chances for a war in Europe.

Mussolini's popularity and political strength in Italy were improved by the war. In the minds of many, the victory and acquisition of land removed some of the perceived disgrace that came from the consequences of World War I. Mussolini, who often ruled by the creation and management of crises, mobilized a great deal of support for the prosecution of the war.

In addition, the threat of league sanctions helped strengthen popular resolve because the Italian government managed to stir the population into a feeling that it was united against the league, improving the degree of political cohesion, at least for a while. Even the Catholic Church, which sometimes opposed Mussolini's policies, came down publicly in favor of the Italian effort in Africa.

Another development of great significance was the deployment of the technology of destruction. The Italians used their air force extensively in this war. Pioneers in the use of aircraft against ground targets, they had used aircraft in Libya against the Ottomans and later used them against the Libyan natives from 1921 to 1931.

Now, after also leading the world in developing the theory of air power, they showed themselves to be expert practitioners. The latest in modern weaponry was used more widely and ruthlessly than ever against not only combatants but against the civilian population.

The Italians also bombed Red Cross stations, hospitals, ambulances, and civilian targets. In a way, the air attacks on the Abyssinians prefigured not only Guernica but later Warsaw, Rotterdam, and London.

On the continental scale, the war accelerated the political decisions and rivalries in Europe. It destroyed the good will that had existed between Britain and Mussolini's Fascist government. The crisis surrounding the war highlighted and increased the mutual suspicion between France and Britain. That impression was reinforced at Munich in 1938, leading Adolf Hitler and Mussolini into assumptions that would lead them to war in 1939 and 1940.

The alienation of Italy from its former allies and Europe at large brought it closer to Hitler's Germany. At the same time it deepened the contempt that Hitler and Mussolini had for the western powers, in large part because of their inability to do anything constructive.

Finally, it signaled the effective end of the League of Nations as a body capable of protecting small nations from aggression and preventing aggressive war. There had been defections from the league at least as far back as the 1920s based on smaller nations stating that the league was useless in protecting them.

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the invasion of Abyssinia only demonstrated and reinforced the perceived weaknesses of the league. While the league could point to accomplishments in areas such as improving health of people in poorer nations, it could not stop a war.