The Abyssinian Crisis of 1935
A conflict between Italy and Ethiopia that was the final test of a weakening League of Nations.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, European countries were obsessed with conquering territories in Africa. Britain, France, and Germany had gained their fair share of the Scramble for Africa. But Italy was left with undesirable territories like Eritrea and Somaliland.
Not wanting to be left behind, Italy attacked one of the last free countries of Africa — Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) — in 1898. Contrary to all expectations, it was a humiliating defeat for the Italians.
Fast forward to the 1930s. Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy, wanted to restore his country’s greatness to that of the Roman empire. The Battle of Aduwa was a blot on its reputation. In 1928, Italy signed a treaty with the emperor of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie I. But this was a cover-up to hide their true intentions to capture Addis Ababa.
Welwel (also called Walwaal) was an oasis on the outskirts of the Abyssinian empire. Merchants and travellers from many territories used to quench their thirst there. In 1930, the Italians constructed a fort housing a garrison in Welwel and assumed the Abyssinians did not notice. But, in 1934, the Italians were in for a surprise. Abyssinian troops had gathered in Welwel and requested them to vacate the fort. When the Italians refused, chaos ensued and there were many casualties. No one knew which side had fired the first shot.
The withdrawal of Germany and Japan severely weakened the League of Nations. The lack of active participation by the United States added to its woes. It intervened in the conflict at the behest of the emperor. A commission appointed by the organization concluded that the skirmishes were accidental.
Mussolini, however, took advantage of the situation by making this incident a pretext to invade Abyssinia. The war efforts accelerated up. The Italians had built a factory, produced massive quantities of toxic chemicals and gases, stockpiling 35,000 gas masks for themselves.
The League of Nations called for a special session to discuss the crisis, but its results were inconclusive. When negotiations between Italian and Abyssinian diplomats failed, Mussolini gave orders for the invasion.
France and Britain were wary of supporting Abyssinia. They believed that if they did not vouch for Italy, it would ally itself with Germany, something they did not want at all costs. Britain and France sent Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval to negotiate with the Italians. They tried to appease the Italians by offering substantial portions of British and French territories in Africa. But public protestations in their respective countries against this led both representatives to resign.
Soon, Mussolini turned to the leader he had previously called ‘a silly little monkey’ for support. Adolf Hitler marched into the Rhineland, violating the Treaty of Versailles with Italy as his newest ally.
Meanwhile in Africa, the Italians inflicted terror on the Abyssinians. Bombs rained from the sky, tear gas spread in the ground and poison diffused water supplies. The under-equipped Abyssinian army was no match for the modern Italian army. Mussolini’s troops soon captured Addis Ababa, forcing Emperor Haile Selassie I into exile. His speech to the League of Nations was a brutal description of the Italian war crimes and the failure of the organization. Despite this, his appeal fell on deaf ears. Italy had now regained its reputation.
This crisis revealed the cracks in the League of Nations. The sanctions imposed on Italy were on unnecessary goods like gold, whereas essential commodities like oil remained untouched. Members of the League did not raise sanctions for their own self-interest. There was also implicit racism among some members — the idea of a free African country was unfathomable at that time. The Hoare-Laval plan showed France and Britain’s lack of confidence in the League. Italy withdrew from the League two years later, joining the ranks of the other Axis powers. With no world powers holding the League together, it eventually collapsed. The Axis powers took notice of this and decided that this was the perfect time to strike.
The League of Nations feared that an intervention would lead to another World War. The sad part is, that it did. This crisis shows us how seemingly insignificant events can balloon into cataclysmic events that transform history just like a trail of gunpowder leads to an explosion.
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