The Abyssinian Crisis, 1935

What was the Abyssinian Crisis?
The Abyssinian Crisis occurred from 1935 to 1936, when Italy invaded the independent country of Abyssinia in East Africa.
Where is Abyssinia?
Abyssinia is now called Ethiopia and is located on the north-east coast of Africa. In 1935 it was surrounded by British, French and Italian colonies, but remained independent.
Why did Italy invade Abyssinia?
Italy, led by the fascist government of Mussolini since 1922, had several reasons for wanting to control Abyssinia:
  • Italy owned Italian Somaliland and Eritrea, territories on either side of Abyssinia.
  • In 1896, the Abyssinians defeated the Italians at Adowa. The Italians were humiliated and wanted revenge.
  • Abyssinia was rich in natural resources and had fertile land for livestock which would help the Italian economy.
  • Mussolini was seeking glory and conquest, attempting to bring the Roman Empire back to Italy. He didn't think Britain and France could argue when they had such vast empires themselves.
  • Italy felt sure of victory. It had a modern army while Abyssinian soldiers were armed with spears and arrows.
  • Mussolini was confident he could invade Abyssinia without the League taking action, based on his previous actions in Corfu in 1923 and the League's failure in Manchuria.
  • Mussolini was confident Britain and France wouldn't stop him establishing an empire in Africa. He felt Britain and France would do anything to keep Italy as an ally against Germany, especially after the Stresa Front of 1935.
What happened at the invasion in the Abyssinian Crisis?
Mussolini's chance for invasion came in 1934:
  • In December 1934 there was a border incident at Wal Wal in Abyssinia. Italian soldiers clashed with Abyssinians on Mussolini's commands; two Italians and 150 Abyssinians were killed.
  • The League wanted to get involved but found it hard to stop Mussolini. Both nations were members of the League, but Mussolini was set on war.
  • In January 1935 the French foreign minister, Pierre Laval, met with Mussolini and made a top secret deal - the Hoare-Laval Pact.
  • Italy began to build up forces in Eritrea and Somaliland. In October 1935 an attack was launched involving 250,000 men.
  • The Abyssinian emperor, Haile Selassie, appealed for help.
  • The League next issued Italy with a moral condemnation, which Mussolini ignored.
What were Italy's international relations like before the Abyssinian Crisis?
Before the crisis of 1935, Italy had worked with Britain and France in the war, the peace conference, and the League. In April 1935 the countries formed the Stresa Pact against German aggression.
How did the League respond to the invasion of Abyssinia?
The invasion of Abyssinia was clearly an aggressive act by a strong country against a weaker one. On 30th June 1935, Abyssinian emperor Haile Selassie addressed the League, warning it of the effects of its failures.
  • The League placed economic sanctions on Italy.
  • However, it didn't sanction oil, coal, iron or steel; essential resources for war.
  • The Suez Canal, which was owned by Britain and France, provided a short-cut from the Mediterranean to East Africa but wasn't closed. Britain and France didn't want to risk conflict with Italy, but this allowed it to build up men and supplies near Abyssinia more quickly.
How did Britain and France respond to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia?
Britain and France responded in the following ways:
  • Britain and France wanted to avoid embarrassment over Abyssinia, so they began to secretly negotiate with Italy without consulting Haile Selassie, the Abyssinian emperor.
  • The British public wanted to protect Abyssinia, and British politicians made strong speeches about standing up to aggression.
  • However, in secret, the British and French foreign ministers negotiated the Hoare-Laval Pact with Mussolini. This would give two thirds of Abyssinia to Italy, leaving the Abyssinians with only the mountainous regions.
  • The details of the Hoare-Laval Pact were leaked and the public was horrified. The plan was dropped, but Italy continued to invade Abyssinia.
What were the results of the Abyssinian Crisis?
The League's reputation was already badly damaged after the Manchurian Crisis, but the Abyssinian Crisis of 1935-36 offered final proof of the failure of collective security.
  • Italy completed the invasion of Abyssinia with the capture of Addis Ababa in May 1936.
  • Sanctions on Italy were lifted in July 1936.
  • The Abyssinian Crisis proved that Britain and France prioritised other concerns above the principles of the League.
  • Adolf Hitler observed the lack of decisive action in response to aggression. This may have informed his future decisions.
  • Italy was offended by the imposition of sanctions, and left the League in 1937.
  • The League of Nations never recovered its reputation or influence.
Why did the League fail in Abyssinia?
The League failed to deal with the crisis in Abyssinia for several reasons:
  • Britain and France were too concerned about upsetting Mussolini and losing a potential ally against Germany. They didn't close down the Suez Canal, even though this could have stopped Mussolini.
  • The economic trade sanctions against Italy were too slow and were limited by the non-membership of wealthy trading states, such as the USA. Self-interest from the League's members also prevented a ban on some goods.
  • The Hoare-Laval Pact again demonstrated that Britain and France were looking after their own interests.
  • The League also banned members from selling arms to Abyssinia, so the country could not even defend itself against Italy.
Why did the League's economic sanctions fail in the Abyssinian Crisis?
The League's economic sanctions against Italy were ineffective because the trade of some key goods could not be prevented.
  • Britain didn't want to sanction its coal exports to Italy as this might cause unemployment for British miners.
  • Even if oil sales to Italy had been stopped by the League, the USA would have continued to sell to it as a non-member.
  • Mussolini stated afterwards that a ban on coal and oil sales to Italy would have stopped his invasion.
What was the significance of the Abyssinian Crisis to the League of Nations?
The Abyssinian Crisis was significant as it could be considered the main reason for the final downfall of the League.
  • Britain and France had proved they were more interested in their own national concerns than protecting the aims of the League.
  • Small countries knew the League could provide them with no real protection from aggressive countries.
  • The League lost all respect and its reputation was damaged beyond repair. Although it continued to run, it was no longer considered a serious force in international relations.
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