Italy Invades Ethiopia: The Second Italo-Ethiopian War

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935 and 1936 marked the height of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's popularity, and the weakness of the League of Nations in both preventing and protecting from invasions.

Italian Colonialism

Can you imagine losing your country in an undeclared war to another country, complete with the use of banned chemical weapons and no help from other nations? Just before WWII, Ethiopia knew just what this felt like.

Well before former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, other European leaders had met to divide up African territories at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. They all wanted to expand their empires, their resources, and their influence.

Italy had fallen behind in the land race. Mussolini and others wanted to restore the recently unified Italy to the former glory of the Roman Empire, and thus set their sights on the still free nation of Ethiopia, or Abyssinia.

Propaganda poster for Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini

At the time, the Italian Empire included east African countries Eritrea and Somaliland, which are sandwiched around Ethiopia. Ethiopia was a bit of a sore spot for Italy, as their first attempt at invasion in the 19th century was unsuccessful due to a strong force of Ethiopia's allies. It was considered quite the embarrassment to be defeated by a country and continent that were regarded so poorly. Mussolini refused to let that remain a mark on his country's reputation.

Building to Invasion

By 1935, the political climate in Europe was already entrenched in fascism and creeping toward war. So when Ethiopian troops protested the Italian military building forts and establishing positions across the shared border with Eritrea (an Italian territory), none of the neutral countries wanted to get involved and risk disrupting the delicate balance in Europe.

England and France especially did not want to upset Mussolini and lose him to Hitler's side (which happened anyway). As a result, the two countries fought, leaving 150 Ethiopians and 50 Italians dead.

The League of Nations, which had been established after World War I to maintain world peace, released both sides from responsibility. With the international community turning a blind eye to Italy's aggression, there was little to deter Mussolini from sending more troops to Ethiopia's borders.

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War

On October 3, 1935, Italy moved in on Ethiopia and began the second Italo-Ethiopian war. The Italians had sent a few hundred thousand troops to Africa with an abundance of weaponry, transportation, and food. Italian Marshal Emilio De Bono invaded Ethiopia from the north with an army of Italians and Eritreans while General Rodolfo Graziani led Libyans, Somalis, and Italians from the east. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie had a larger army, but very few had military training and almost all fought with spears, bows, and antiquated guns.

Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie
Haile Selassie

The first battle occurred in Adwa, or Adowa, which had been the location of Italy's defeat during the First Italo-Ethiopian War. As the Italians continued to advance into Ethiopia, the League of Nations did little more than declare them the aggressor. The process of sanctioning the nation was slow and the penalties did not cover such vital materials as oil.

The organization even drafted the Hoare-Laval Plan, which awarded 3/5 of Ethiopia to Italy without Ethiopia's consent so that Italy would stop the war. That did not happen. On May 9, 1936, Italy's king, Victor Emmanuel III was proclaimed emperor of Ethiopia.

Atrocities

It is worth noting some of the particularly atrocious aspects of Italy's invasion. There were a number of underhanded details right off the bat, like the aggressors beginning conflict without a declaration of war. This may not seem necessary when troops march on and invade another country, but throughout the years, nations have met to agree to terms about the legality of war including elements like war crimes. It is somewhat similar to boxers touching gloves before a fight.

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