The Ethiopian war as a Tar baby
Why Mussolini drew closer to Hitler and the Ethiopian Crisis
In 1935 Mussolini, the biggest disaster to hit Italy in the Twentieth century invaded Ethiopia. By May of 1936 his armies had conquered the country and entered the capital Addis Ababa. Mussolini had successfully flouted the League of Nations and its sanctions and had emerged successful from his war.
Generally this war is viewed has a success for Mussolini. Well that is dubious in the extreme.
The war was a slow motion disaster for Italy and Mussolini. In other words it was a completely useless venture that brought little but trouble.
For the Ethiopians it was of course much, much worst bringing war, a brutal occupation and destruction.1
To get some preliminary things out of the way first. There is a school of thought in Britain that given that Mussolini was at first opposed to Hitler, (Mussolini opposed the attempted German annexation of Austria in 1934.), that Great Britain and France should not have opposed to Mussolini’s war of conquest against Ethiopia. In this scenario it is postulated that British and French opposition forced Mussolini into Hitler’s arms and that otherwise Mussolini would have continued to be useful ally against Hitler.
Allied to this notion is the idea that Ethiopia being a backward barbaric state and besides being nothing much to fight over should have been left to be conquered and further that Ethiopia being a backward barbaric country should never have been allowed to be part of the international community of nations or have been allowed to join the League of Nations.2
The morally cretinous nature of this argument is of course obvious.
First since the USSR, Nazi Germany and Italy etc., to say nothing of the various colonial powers were members of the League of Nations and recognized internationally despite the frequent barbaric behavior of the states listed. Why should Ethiopia not be a member? Many commentators mentioned the common practice, despite efforts to suppress it, of slavery in Ethiopia. Given the widespread use of forced labour in various colonial empires, (France, Britain), in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany etc. I fail to see that as a bar to Ethiopian membership of the international community and League of Nations. Of course given that Italy had just finished, (1935), a brutal, genocidal war of conquest in Libya with myriad atrocities and slaughters by the Italians and brutal suppression in Italian Somaliland. I do not accept any claims for Italian Fascist moral superiority.3
But of course this species of idiocy is based on cold calculated real politic. The idea that Ethiopia was entirely unworthy of any sort of support against unprovoked attack given Italian support against Hitler. In other words sacrifice Ethiopia in order to gain Italian support against Germany. This of course assumes that Italian support against Germany was essential. That is false.
In the Rhineland crisis, (1936), the simple sending of a few French divisions would have precipitated the thwarting of Hitler’s aims and very likely would have caused a severe crisis in the Nazi regime if not its fall.
Hitler was encouraged by the success of Mussolini’s attack. The idea that if it had been done and there was no opposition Hitler would not have tried to reoccupy the Rhineland is simply silly. It is more likely no reaction at all would have encouraged him even more.
Also forgotten by this form of idiocy is that both France and Britain were forced by the very negative reactions of their media and public to the invasion to do something. Their initial reaction was to do nothing at all. Both governments reassured the Italian government that they would make punitive measures as ineffectual as possible and that they were anxious to resume good relations.
France and Britain worked to insure that the sanctions against Italy were ineffective and that oil was not embargoed. Both governments ensured that any other action was not carried out. It is indisputable neither wanted to alienate Italy and in fact kept reassuring Italy through back door channels that things would return to normal once things calmed down. Thus Britain recognized within a few years Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia. Thus the deliberately ineffectual Sanctions didn’t last long and were only partially carried out anyway.
It is also indisputable that if France and Britain had effectively countered the Italian invasion by an effective embargo through the League of Nations and a Naval blockade of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, that the Italian attempt at conquest would have collapsed and Hitler seeing such an effective response to aggression would have been most effectively deterred.4
As it is both France and Britain had made it clear during the crisis and for years afterwards that they’re efforts were mere show and they really wanted to get Italy back as an ally and they didn’t much care for defending Ethiopia or recognizing the brutal occupation and guerrilla war that continued there.
So why did Mussolini draw closer to Hitler? Since it is abundantly clear that France and Britain did not “force” Mussolini into Hitler’s arms, given that Mussolini knew that the League of Nation sanctions were deliberately designed to be ineffectual, and given the behavior of France and Britain who so clearly wanted good relations with Mussolini; the reasons must be sought elsewhere.
The reason Mussolini drew closer to Hitler and stayed close had little to do with how “badly” France and Britain had treated Mussolini over the Ethiopian crisis. It is clear from the record that if anything Hitler treated Mussolini far worst and in fact in a flagrantly offensive and contemptuous way right up to the outbreak of war and beyond, which is in contrast to Britain and France’s repeated efforts to get Mussolini back on their side.5
It is quite simple Hitler could give Mussolini what he wanted and Britain and France could not without cutting their own throats. Hitler knew this and this guided his actions towards his ally.
What did Mussolini want? Well what he wanted was to turn the Mediterranean into an Italian lake. He also toyed with getting Corsica from France. Mussolini wanted Malta, Tunisia; he wanted large swathes of Africa, not just Ethiopia. He wanted to turn large parts of the Balkans and Greece into Italian protectorates. Mussolini also had designs on the Middle East. In short Mussolini wanted a vast expansion of Italian Imperial power and the removal of France and Britain as major powers in the Mediterranean and in much of Africa. The chances of either Britain or France going along with any of this were less than nil.6
Hitler could give / help Mussolini get what he wanted. France and Britain who would of course be the chief victims of Mussolini’s designs could not and bluntly Italy was quite simply no match for Britain or France individually let alone united. So not surprisingly Mussolini would gravitate to Hitler. To this was added shared ideological positions in that both were Fascists and Hitler admired Mussolini as a sort of precursor. Mussolini shared no such ideological affinities with the two liberal democracies of France and Britain.
This being the case the argument that French and British opposition to Mussolini “forced” him on to Hitler’s side is simply absurd. Mussolini’s foreign policy goals, which were profoundly anti Britain and France, and ideology, drew him closer to Hitler. And since Hitler knew this, he also knew he could treat his ally in a singularly cavalier and brutal manner. Thus Mussolini rejected and ignored all British and French efforts to get on his good side, because after all Britain and France were obstacles to Mussolini’s aims and with Germany Mussolini hoped to get those aims, which could only be achieved by the military defeat of France and Britain.
In the end Mussolini secured his victory to a large extent thanks to the connivance of Britain and France, for which Mussolini showed zero gratitude and given his foreign policy, aims that is not a surprise. But in the end it brought nothing but huge costs, limited Mussolini’s freedom of action and made him more dependent on Hitler and helped to cripple Italy militarily and financially. For Ethiopia it brought 5 years of brutal war.
Another time I will explore other aspects of the War.