World War II: August 1997 From the Editor

8/19/1997 • World War II Archives

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie warned the League of Nations of the dangers of appeasement.

While Joseph Avenol may have contributed covertly to the eventual demise of the League of Nations (see story, P. 18), the League’s impotence as a mediator in world affairs was no secret to anyone. Perhaps no other incident better illustrates the total ineptness of the League than its handling of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

On June 30, 1936, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie spoke before the League Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow,” he warned the member nations. Known to his subjects as the King of Kings and the Lion of Judah, the emperor was resolute in his appeal for League assistance against the Italian invaders who had attacked his country from their colony of Eritrea to the north.

On October 3, 1935, the new, mechanized Roman legions of Benito Mussolini crossed the Ethiopian frontier in an adventure prompted by Il Duce’s yearning for colonial expansion and his desire to avenge the embarrassing defeat that the Italian army had suffered at the hands of the Ethiopians at Adowa in 1896. Long considered to be in the Italian sphere of influence, Ethiopia was the only African nation that had still been able to preserve its ancient empire free of European domination.

For Mussolini, the conquest of Ethiopia not only would even the score for the Italians’ earlier defeat but also would raise Italy to the status of a major power with the colonial empire it deserved. Il Duce had believed for years that Italy had been slighted at the end of World War I. Even though it had fought with the Allies, Italy had not received its share of the spoils after Germany’s defeat, while Great Britain and France had increased their colonial holdings. In a commentary aimed directly at the League, Mussolini announced, as his troops prepared to move forward, “Not only is an army marching, but 40 million Italians are marching in unison with this army, because an attempt is being made to commit against them the blackest of all injustices–to rob them of a place in the sun.”

By the time of Haile Selassie’s plea to the League of Nations, he was already an emperor without a country. On May 5, 1936, the conquering Italians had entered his capital, Addis Ababa. The contest had been unequal from the beginning. The Italians had used air power ruthlessly and poison gas indiscriminately and inflicted three times as many battle casualties on the Ethiopians as they themselves had suffered.

In response to the aggression, the League of Nations chose to take no military action. Instead, the members responded with the hollow gesture of minor economic sanctions. Two weeks after Selassie appeared before the League Assembly, the organization formally lifted its sanctions against Italy.

Not only were the economic measures ineffective but they also brought about some undesirable results. They widened the rift between Italy and Great Britain and France, causing Mussolini to gravitate toward an alliance with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Il Duce was also encouraged to believe that future acts of aggression would be met with a characteristically weak response. In short, the League of Nations, through its unwillingness to stand firm against Italian aggression, hastened the coming of World War II.

Mussolini’s insatiable territorial ambitions proved to be his undoing in East Africa. In 1940 his 250,000-man army (including 182,000 native, or askari, troops), invaded neighboring British Somaliland. The brilliant British counteroffensive that followed swept the numerically superior Italians from East Africa. During the course of the campaign, the Italians lost 290,000 soldiers killed, wounded or captured. In stark contrast, British battle casualties totaled 1,154 from a force of 77,000.

Exactly five years after fleeing into exile, Haile Selassie returned to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, in triumph. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cabled him: “It is with deep pleasure that the British nation and Empire have learned of Your Imperial Majesty’s welcome home. Your Majesty was the first of the lawful sovereigns to be driven from his throne and country by the Fascist-Nazi criminals, and you are the first to return in triumph.”

Haile Selassie ruled Ethiopia until 1974, when, ironically, he was overthrown in a coup d’état. He died in captivity in 1976. His 1936 warning to the League of Nations had been validated within just a few years. And by doing virtually nothing to halt the Italians, the organization authored its own demise. It came in 1946.

Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II