The Ethiopian war as a Tar baby
The Cost of the War
|Mountains of Ethiopia|
In a previous essay I discussed the Italian-Ethiopian war of 1935-1941 and further discussed the question of whether or not the negative reaction of Britain and France drove Mussolini into Hitler’s arms. This is so because many modern commentators state that the economic boycott along with other measures destroyed Mussolini’s willingness to be part of alliance aimed at thwarting Hitler and in fact forced him to be Hitler’s ally. This is quite simply nonsense. Mussolini was not “forced” to be Hitler’s ally by any stretch of reality or imagination. He became Hitler’s ally because of his own ambitions were blocked by France and Britain.1
Here I will discuss the cost of the Ethiopian war for Italy. For the bottom line is that the Ethiopian war cost far more than Mussolini anticipated and played a very large role in preventing Italy from becoming a true great power.
Now there exists a school of thought that argues that Ethiopia was not worthy of being recognized among the nations of the earth and that Ethiopia should have been left to be conquered by Italy. It of course amounts to writing off Ethiopia and her people has of little consequence. These authors make much of Ethiopia’s backwardness, the widespread practice of slavery etc. All to justify an attitude of being willing to sacrifice Ethiopia and her peoples to Italian ambition.
Of course these people neglect to mention the brutal almost genocidal conquest of Libya by the Italian Fascists or their brutally repressive policies in Somalia. And of course they neglect to talk about the Italian history of war crimes in Ethiopia itself during the conquest and occupation. Also the Italians were planning to colonize Ethiopia massively and to set up a racially segregated South Africa style regime of disinheritance and subjugation. This truly unpleasant history is airbrushed out as being irrelevant.2
This was so because by any measure the Italian – Ethiopian war of 1935-1941 was the greatest and most expensive war of conquest ever in Africa by a European colonial power before the end of World War Two.3
The cost of the war was to Italy prodigious. It has been estimated that Italy spent 110 billion lira on the war and related expenses in Ethiopia during the period 1935-1941. However this seems to actually be total military spending 1935-1940. Which works out to something like 40% of all Italian state expenses during this time period.4 It should be pointed out the Italian Fascist government did everything possible to conceal from the Italian people the true cost both in men and money of the war. They succeeded in hiding it to such an extent that even today it is difficult to know the actual cost of the war in money and men.5
Mussolini thought that the price of conquering / annexing Ethiopia would cost 4 – 6 billion lira. The Italian government later gave a figure of 12.1 Billion Lira. The true figure was 33.5 billion lira for the initial conquest. This was more than 5 times Mussolini’s estimate. This massive expenditure forced the Italian government to devalue the lira by 40% in October of 1936!6
And despite the conquest the war did not end. Right from the start guerrilla war against the Italians was an ongoing problem the result was the need to put in another 24.1 Billion lira into Ethiopia to “pacify” the country. The resulting total is 57.6 billion lira. If you add the total amount spent on Italian aid and intervention in Spain, (12-14 billion Lira). The total cost of these adventures of Mussolini was 69.6 – 71.6 billion lira. Since all Italian military expenditure amounted from mid-1935 to mid-1940 to 108 billion lira this meant that more than ½ of all Italian military expenditure during this period was spent on Ethiopia, trying to both conquer and pacify it.7
Further if we remember that the combined budget for the Italian government for the years 1933, 1934 and 1935 amounted to only 69.5 billion lira. In fact despite an improved economy and much increased government revenues only increased the Italian budget to 39.9 billion lira for the fiscal year 1938 – 1939.8
The above indicates just how much the Ethiopian war took resources away from modernizing and improving Italy’s army and further impoverished the state with large debts that by 1939 totalled over 70 billion lira.9 And all too very little gain of any kind. The Italian state was not strengthened by the conquest but weakened and the majority of the budget was spent on a series of foreign adventures.
If the amounts are converted into American dollars the resulting figures are 5 billion spent by the Italian government between mid-1935 and mid-1939 of which 2.9 billion was spent on the conquest and annexation of Ethiopia. A further 700 million was spent on the intervention in Spain. This left only 1.4 billion to actually spend on improving the armed forces. A woefully inadequate amount. During the period January 1935 to December 1938 Germany spent the equivalent of 18.4 billion American dollars and Germany didn’t waste over half that amount on a foolish foreign adventure. So the actual gap in terms of translating dollars into military power was much greater than more than 3 to one in fact it approached 10 to one.10
Even in 1939-1940 when belatedly and through some financial trickery 34.8 billion lira, (1.8 billion American Dollars.), were spent on the armed forces it was too little too late to do much good. And even then. Despite retrenchment and new strategies in Ethiopia which significantly reduced military expenses in Ethiopia. Basically making local truces with local warlords and cutting back military operations significantly the cost of the military in Ethiopia was still 2.1 billion lira or 110 million American dollars.11
The result was a weakening not a strengthening of Italian power. Vast amounts of money had been wasted to no real purpose and any “progress” in subjugating Ethiopia had more to do bribing or working out local arrangements with local bosses. This gave the illusion of control because frankly the Italians could not afford full on military operations anymore. But it was a false sense of control that could unravel very quickly and it did in 1940 – 1941. 12
Aside from financial costs the other cost of the Italy’s “civilizing mission” was casualties, from all causes, including outright killing to disease, and here we get into truly massive difficulties. The Italian Fascist state made every effort to hide the actual casualties of the war; as a result the estimates are just that estimates and trying to sort out the actual cost in terms of casualties of the war for Italy are difficult. Even Italian archival sources are not of great help. So thoroughly did the bureaucrats cover up.13
Thus officially the Mussolini government claimed that 2,800 Italian and 1,600 colonial troops died in the conquest of Ethiopia, 1935-1936. It is possible that the actual figure was more like c. 12,000 Italians and 4,000 - 5,000 colonial troops. This makes a total of 16,000 – 17,000 dead. It has also been estimated that a further 12,000 Italian died in the period mid-1936 to mid-1940. And 30,000 to 35,000 Colonial troops died in the same period. Thus a total of 24,000 Italians died 1935-1940 and a total of 34,000 – 40,000 colonial troops died. The total is 58,000 – 60,000 dead for the period 1935 mid 1940.14
In the period mid-1940 to November 1941 a further 5,200 Italian soldiers died in a futile effort to defend Italian controlled Ethiopia, along with 15,100 colonial troops. At total for that period of 20,300.15
Other figures give a total for the years 1935-1941 of 25,000 – 30,000 Italians dying in Ethiopia, with a total of 50,000 colonial troops and 50,000 pro Italian irregulars.16
As I mentioned trying to figure out exactly how much the Ethiopian war cost Italy is difficult and it appears that Italian commanders on the spot made reports that severely underestimated losses.17 It has been claimed that c. 10,000 Italians and colonial troops died in the conquest of Ethiopia. For example official Italian losses for the first 6 months of 1940 were 1,911. And figures derived from the Italian archives give 5,176 dead and 9,464 wounded for part of the period 1936-1940. But has mentioned the information is poor, fudged and probably on the low side.18
From the port of Massawa a steady stream of men were sent home on Hospital ships to the tune of c. 40,842 a year. This works out to c. 204,212! for the five year period. This figure includes all losses from killing wounding and illness. It appears that 36,000 Italians, a year became sick or were killed / died of wounds in the period mid-1936 – mid-1940.19
Another set of figures gives c. 3,964 Italians dead in the conquest of Ethiopia, a further c. 9,555 Italian soldiers dead during the period mid-1936 to mid-1940, and also dying were c. 2,693 Italian workers and civilians. This makes a total for mid-1936 to mid-1940 of 12,248 deaths. When you add the 3,964 for the conquest of Ethiopia the total is 16,212 dead for the time period 1935 – mid-1940. If you add the c. 5,200 Italians who died trying to hold onto Ethiopia in the period mid-1940 to November 1941 the total climbs up to c. 21,412 deaths. If you add the figures for colonial troops who died fighting on behalf of Italy you get a total of at least 49,100 dead and a maximum of 55,100 dead. If you add the pro-Italian irregulars the figure goes up to 105,100 dead.20
If Italian losses are difficult to compute than the losses of the Ethiopians are very much harder to figure out. The Ethiopian government presented the following list of losses:
Killed in Action during the invasion of 1935-1936 – 275,000
Patriots killed resisting the occupation 1936-1941 – 78,500
Civilians killed in the bombing – 17,800
Massacres of February 1937 – 30,000
Deaths in concentration camps – 35,000
Deaths of Patriots by summary courts – 24,000
Deaths by dislocation and destruction – 300,000
Other writers give figures of 700,000.22 At other times the government of Ethiopia has claimed 831,300 dead. Some Ethiopian officials captured by the Italians claimed 250,000 killed during the initial phases of the war.23
The bottom line is we do not know what Ethiopian casualties actually were. Although some commentators have claimed that Ethiopian figures are exaggerations it appears that Ethiopian casualties were in fact quite high. Further it does indeed appear to be the case that the Italians committed many atrocities in Ethiopia during the occupation. So it appears to be correct to state that during the occupation of Ethiopia:
…the Italians had installed a genocidal regime that was to claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians.24
That the Italian occupation of Ethiopia was very brutal is abundantly obvious although this is little known today.
As it is the cost of the war was in material terms and in relation to Italy’s economy prodigious and in the end sapped Italy’s ability to become a major power. Further the losses in men were not small. Mussolini thought the conquest would be quick and easy it proved to be neither and in the end it failed, but achieved the result in crippling Italy’s ability to be a great power. Financially. In the meantime aside from Italy’s dead hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians paid for, with their lives, for Mussolini’s grandiose and in the end costly and useless ambitions. Ethiopia turned into an abyss in which treasure and men poured into in vast quantities for little return except expense and impoverishment for Italy.
|Ethiopia Relief Map|
1. For a fuller discussion see Here.
2. Smith, Denis Mack, Mussolini’s Roman Empire, Penguin Books, London, 1976, pp. 32-43, 59-81, Bosworth, R. J. B., Mussolini’s Italy, Penguin Books, London, 2005, pp. 374-377, 379-388, Pankhurst, Richard, Italian Fascist War Crimes in Ethiopia, Northeast African Studies, v. 6, no. 1-2, 2001, pp. 83-140, Here, Milkias, Paulos, Mussolini’s “Civilizing Mission”, and Fascist Political Socialization in Occupied Ethiopia – 1936 – 1941, in Editors, Uhlig, Siegbert, Bulakh, Maria, Nosnitsin, Denis, Rave, Thomas, Proceedings of the XVth International Conference on Ethiopian Studies, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden Germany, 2006, pp. 328-336. I will forgo from mentioning or referencing the sort of no-nothing immoral crap that states that the invasion of Ethiopia was nothing to get upset about.
3. Sullivan, Brian R., The Italian-Ethiopian War, in Editors, Ion, A Hamish, Errington, E. J., Great Powers and Little Wars, Praeger Publishers, Westport CT, 1993, pp. 167-201.
4. IBID, pp. 194.
5. See Sbacchi, Alberto, Legacy of Bitterness, Red Sea Press Inc., Lawrenceville NJ, 1997, pp. 87-94. Sullivan 1999, p. 187.
6. Sullivan, Brian R., More Than Meets the Eye, in Editor, Gordon, Martel, The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 1999, p. 178-203, at 187.
10. IBID, pp. 187-189.
11. IBID, p. 189.
12. Footnote 24, Pankhurst, History of the Ethiopian Patriots, Part 11, Sbacchi, pp. 192-195.
13. Sbacchi, pp. 92-94.
14. Sullivan, 1999, p. 187. Note the 12,000 figure for Italian dead during the conquest of Ethiopia comes from a document prepared by the Italian Salo government in late 1944, see Sbacchi, p. 90.
15, Sullivan, 1993, p. 194.
17. Sbacchi, pp. 92-93.
18. IBID, pp. 91, 93.
19, IBID, pp. 92-94.
20. IBID, p. 99, Sullivan, 1999, p. 187, Sullivan, 1993, p. 194.
21. Burker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia, Ballantine Books, New York, 1971, p. 159.
22. Sullivan, 1993, p. 194. In his 1999 work Sullivan talks about “hundreds of thousands” of Ethiopians being killed and up to 7% of the population perishing, p. 188.
23. Sbacchi, p. 91.
24, Tooze, Adam, The Wages of Destruction, Penguin Books, London, 2006, p. 203. For more about the occupation see Footnote 2. For more information see Pankhurst, Richard, The Secret History of the Italian Fascist Occupation of Ethiopia 1935 – 1941, Part 1-9, A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia, Part 7-15, History of the Ethiopian Patriots (1936-1940), Part 1-11. These articles used to be available on the regular web; they are not anymore. However they can be found at the Internet Archive. Since each part is listed separately at the Internet archive I give here the url at the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive for the list of all the captures of the Addis Tribune Archives Here. I will send copies of the articles to anyone who requests them.