Under Fascist rule, Italy joined the imperialistic bandwagon and sought to create colonies of its own in foreign lands. In 1935, part of this dream became realized when Benito Mussolini, then self-proclaimed dictator of Italy, carried out operations to secure the country of Ethiopia, the oldest African nation1. Italy showed expansionist aggression and warlike conduct towards Ethiopia.
Remarkably, there is only small amount of written material regarding this period2. When compared to similar occupations by armed forces in Africa, Europe, and the Pacific the Fascist occupation of Ethiopia is talked about and referenced considerably less. Unlike similar campaigns, veterans of the Italo-Ethiopian campaign are very reluctant to share their side of the story.3
Italy showed interest in colonizing Ethiopia as early as 1906 when Italy, France and Britain signed the Treaty of 1906 dicing up the various countries in the region. It gave Italy primacy in controlling Ethiopia, however initiative was not taken until Benito Mussolini became the head of state. But there was also an Italo-Ethiopian Pact in 1928, for economic cooperation (this later failed in the 1930s as tensions grew). This was when Mussolini began greasing the wheels with the French government, which would later allow him to more easily enter into agreements with France over control of Ethiopia.
In 1934, Mussolini initiated military planning for an invasion of Ethiopia with Major General Emilio De Bono. De Bono would be the Supreme Commander of the Italian Operation against Ethiopia at the outset, but Mussolini would take this position for himself after the invasion. Mussolini enjoyed the sense of everything being under his power, as especially shown when he said, "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."4 Beginning in 1932, De Bono performed a build up of the Italian military mostly for the Ethiopian invasion. In 1934, Mussolini personally saw to it that the efforts were doubled to produce an army that could easily suppress Ethiopia. Right up until December 1934, the Italians were building their army. “Despite this... Italy had no clear view of its political or strategic policies.”5
The Laval-Mussolini Accords, signed by both parties in Rome on January 7th, 1935, in a fundamental, basic description granted the fascist Italian dictator permission by the French to have rule over the Ethiopian land in question, so long as Italy maintained favorable (economic) relations with the French.6 France was willing to take a back seat and show no interest in Ethiopia, due to the economic trade they might stand to gain from trading with the Italian occupation in Ethiopia.
Relations between Italy and the British changed because of the plans to occupy Ethiopia as well. April 11, 1935, something entitled the “Stresa Conference” took place consisting of representatives from Italy, France, and Great Britain. It was mostly regarding those nations’ policy towards Hitler’s expansion, but an underlying issue was Mussolini’s plan to invade Ethiopia. It turns out Britain was not very supportive of this idea, but neither Italy nor Britain came right out and stated their side. However, “scholars have not yet provided an authenticated explanation of Britain’s support for the League of Nations (sic) against Mussolini's scheme to annex Ethiopia in 1935.”7
Italy attempted to make it look like they were simply protecting Italian civilians already in Ethiopia by creating “protectorates” and moving in more troops. Italy wished to portray the idea that Italian forces were in Ethiopia to improve their country, enlighten them, et cetera. Nobody wishes to have it look as if their army forcefully took over a peaceful, non-antagonistic nation. Basically, Italy decided it wished to have “direct rule over the non-Amhara (sic) speaking lands and a strict control on the rest of Ethiopia, but retaining Haile Selassie (the rightful emperor of Ethiopia) as the country’s figurehead.”8
After debates, Italy’s rejection of the Council of Five Report (an attempt to make acceptable peace between Italy and Ethiopia by the League of Nations9) and other offers for compromise, Italian forces mobilized on the 3rd of October, 1935 10. Troops under the command of Major General De Bono entered Ethiopia to forcefully conclude the Italian government’s wishes for control of the African country. The increasing degradation of relations between Italy and Ethiopia and hostile military action on part of the government of Benito Mussolini proves the thesis that the Italians used unprovoked aggression in Ethiopia, 1935. The fight, of course, didn’t stop with the invasion. Even though many people refer to it as the “seven month war,” troops engaged for almost two years in order to completely conquer the land. The Ethiopians were not capable of defeating the Italian forces; but they could delay their occupation with resistance.
There is also no doubt that Italy’s actions were indeed aggressive in these times. In a telegram from the government of Ethiopia to the League of Nations, dated December 18, 1934, the Ethiopians specifically said, “there was an Italian aggression first at Walwal and three days later in the interior of Ogaden...”11
A Committee of the League of Nations investigated the actions between both nations in order to determine if there were violations of treatises or international law. “The Committee...concluded that a state of war existed and that it had been resorted to by Italy ‘in disregard of its covenant under Article 12 of the Covenant of the League of Nations12.’” It went on to evaluate Italian actions for aggression and concluded that Italy had committed “flagrant aggression”. 13
The Italian aggression did progress after 1935, until Italy controlled what they could of Ethiopia by 1941, however that is beyond the scope of this research. The Italians were imperialistic people seeking to expand their domain in foreign lands by force. The major acts of aggression by the Italians did indeed occur in 1935, whereas the rest of the years afterwards were mostly the play out and effects of the past events and initiatives. The war may have continued into 1936, but it’s roots are based in the year 1935.
In any case, there was a lasting effect of the Italian aggression had upon the native population. Resentment stood so high that even well after Italy had given up its “empire” in Ethiopia in 1941, diplomatic relations between the two nations were not reestablished until 1952.14 Not only was there a lasting effect, but it is undeniable that Fascist Italy did indeed exercise aggression, as testified to by their actions and the evaluation of the League of Nations.
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- 1. S. K. B. Asante, “The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict: A Case Study in British West African Response to crisis Diplomacy in the 1930s,” Journal of African History xv, no. 2 (1974): pp 292.
- 2. Alberto Sbacchi, Ethiopia Under Mussolini, (London: Zed Books, Ltd., 1985), xix.
- 3. Sbacchi, Ethiopia Under Mussolini, xix.
- 4. Benito Mussolini quoted in BrainyQuote. 26 Feb 2002.
- 5. Sbacchi, Ethiopia Under Mussolini, 8.
- 6. Sbacchi, Ethiopia Under Mussolini, xix.
- 7. James C. Robertson, “The Origins of British Opposition to Mussolini over Ethiopia,” Journal of British Studies 9, No. 1 (1969): 122.
- 8. Pietro Badoglio, Italy in the Second World War. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), 2.
- 9. Sbacchi, Ethiopia Under Mussolini, 17.
- 10. Sbacchi, Ethiopia Under Mussolini, xx.
- 11. Telegram from the Ethiopian Government dated December 18, 1934, Official Journal, February 1935, page 249.
- 12. Quincy Wright, “The Test of Aggression in the Italo-Ethiopian War,” American Journal of International Law 29 (1935): 52.
- 13. Wright, 53.
- 14. Sbacchi, Ethiopia Under Mussolini, xviii.