Abyssinian Crisis 1935
Italy conquered Abyssinia in 1935-6. Some historians see a direct link between the crisis over Abyssinia and the outbreak of world war in 1939. In 1977 a British historian called Anthony Adamthwaite wrote: 'If there was a turning-point on the road to war it was the Abyssinian crisis of 1935-6. The crisis was the major step towards war.
What were the results of the invasion of Abyssinia?
The search for an empire
In the late nineteenth century Italy tried to conquer the African state of Abyssinia (known today as Ethiopia). The attempt ended in disaster. In 1896 the Abyssinians destroyed an Italian army at Adowa. The Abyssinians castrated the Italian prisoners of war taken at Adowa. The battle stopped Italy for a while but after Adowa many Italians wanted to take revenge.
Mussolini looks south
By the early 1930s Italy was suffering from the Depression. Mussolini wanted a successful war to strengthen his position at home. He was also disturbed by the rise of Hitler. Hitler was planning to dominate central Europe, so Mussolini decided to look south and make Italy a great Mediterranean power. This led him to think about an Italian return to Abyssinia.
The Stresa Front
France and Britain were keen to stop Italy joining forces with Germany. In return, they seemed ready to give Italy a free hand in Africa. In April 1935 Mussolini met the French and British prime ministers in the Italian town of Stresa. They condemned German breaches of the Treaty of Versailles. People began to talk about the Stresa Front: an anti-German grouping of Italy, Britain and France.
The Stresa agreement was vague: the declaration talked only about the need to 'keep the peace in Europe.' Mussolini understood this to mean that France and Britain would not object to the Italian use of force outside Europe. Mussolini thought that in return for supporting France and Britain in Europe he would be allowed to attack Abyssinia without any retaliation.
The Anglo-German Naval Agreement
The British government greatly weakened the Stresa Front in June 1935. Britain signed a treaty with Germany over the strength of their navies. This fixed the size of the German navy at 35 per cent of the British navy. The agreement allowed Germany to have submarines. The French and the Italians were annoyed by the Naval Agreement. They had not been consulted and the agreement was breach of the Versailles Treaty.
The Italian attack on Abyssinia began on 3 October 1935. Symbolically, one of the first Italian actions was the bombing of the town of Adowa. scene of the Italian defeat in 1896.
Britain and France were caught in a dilemma. They did not want to annoy Mussolini, but they also wanted to support the League of Nations and the idea of collective security. Abyssinia was a member of the League of Nations. The League condemned Italian action and imposed a trade ban. However, the ban did not include the trade in oil and petrol. This was crucial. As long as the Italian had petrol they could continue the war. Limited sanctions did not work.
The Hoare-Laval Pact
The reaction of the French and British governments was half-hearted. In December 1935 the British Foreign Secretary, Hoare, had secret talks with Laval, the Prime Minister of France. They designed a compromise, known as the Hoare-Laval Pact, under which Abyssinia would have been divided in two, with Italy given the richer part. The war was going badly for Mussolini and he might have accepted the deal. However, the details of the Pact were leaked to the press. There was uproar in Britain. People saw it as a surrender to Italian aggression. The Pact was scrapped and Hoare was forced to resign.
After the failure of the Hoare-Laval Pact Britain and France took a tougher line against Italy. In March 1936 they finally decided to ban the sale of oil and petrol to Italy but by this time it was too late. In May 1936, before the oil and petrol ban had started properly, Italy won the war. The League had failed and on 15 July all the sanctions against Italy were ended.