World War II Country Trends: Ethiopia


Figure 1.--This wire service stock photo of Ethiopian children under arms is undated, but was probably taken in 1935. The caption read, "Nilly-Willy Ethiopia has to embrace the military spirit of the Western world. Contrary to their Italian rivals, Ethiopian boys are trained only with dummy rifles."

Ethiopia featured prominently in the years leading up to World War II. Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was entent on reserecting the Roman Empire. The first step was to brutally put down a nationalist insuregency in Libya (1920s). Mussolini's next step was to invade Ethiopia which at the time was an independent state (1935). Using modern weapons, the Italian Army quickly overwealmed Emperor Haile Selassie's lightly armed forces. Italian attrocities in Libya had not been widely reported. The invasion of Ethiopia was. The Allies (Britain and France) supported scantions in the League of Nation. Mussolini was outraged and the ineffective League scantions was a factor in his closer relations with Hitler and NAZI Germany. Italy entered the War once the German invasion in the West over France was secured (June 1940). This meant that the Italian colonies in Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Libya) were combat zones because they bordered on British colonies or countries like Egypt which were British protectorates. Britian had such limited forces in the area that what was available was concentrated in Egypt where a hugh Italian army launched a major offensive from Libya (September 1940). They drove a few miles into Egypt and then set up defensive positions. On paper it looked like the Italians also had a large force in Ethiopia. The Italian forces were, however, weak and their Ethiopian auxileries of questionable loyalty. It was the British, despite their numerical inferiority, who attacked the Italians. The stunning British victory over the Italians in the Western Desert (December 1940) gave the British the opportunity to deal with the Italian forces south of Egypt. The British put together a small force of South African and African colonial troops. They were supported by Ethiopian insurgent guerrillas. Colonel Orde Wingate, who was later to play an important role in Burma, coordinated the operations of the Ethiopian guerrillas forces. Behind the British forces, Emperor Haile Salassie returned to Ethiopia, arriving in Gojam (January 20, 1941) and began organizing the resistance groups.

European Scramble for Africa

It was not until the 1870s did the Europeans began to carve out colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. It was then that the "Scramble for Africa" began. [Scramble] Africa in the 1860s was still in many ways the Dark Continent. Basic geographic information such as the source of the Nile was still unknown. The work of explorers was headline news. The source of the Nile was found by Burton and Speke finally discovered the source of the Nile (1865). A U.S. newspaoer sent Henry Stanley (a former work house boy) to find Dr. David Stanley. The search and eventual encounter made headlines throughout America and Europe (1869). Stanley died in Africa and his body was brought back to Britain to be burried in Westminster Abbey, an indication of the importance of these explorers to the Victorians. Colonial rule soon followed. The European edplorers brought back accounts of backward peoples, continuing slave trade, primitive religious rites, and sexual abandon. The most horrifgy accounts to the Victorians was cannibalism. Even today the continuingbimage of primitive Africa is Europan explorers in a large iron cooking pot. Thus the European people were prepared for seizing colonies and this was further inspired by rising nationalism. The colonial era was launched by one of Europe's smallest countries--Belgium. King Leopold II, who proved to be the most brutal colonizers launched the colonial race in Africa. Belgium was a new country and had not participated in the colonial competition of the 16th and 17th century. Now Leopold declared, "Belgium must have a colony". The colony Leopold founded, the Belgian Congo, was a far cry from the humanitarian inpulse with which th Victorians justified colonialism. The French followed with a huge colonial empire in West Africa which connect with their older North African colonies. The British effoirt was more caotic. Colonies were created in both West and East Africa. In South Africa, the British not only faced the Bohrs, but also th Zulus. Cecil Rhodes dreamed of railroad connecting British colonies from Captown to Cairo. There were also Portuguese and Spanish colonies. The new European states also paricipated. The Germans were late to the table, but claimed their own colonies in southern and western Africa. Italy obtained colonies in East Africa. This was all accomplished in a relitively short period and with surprising little conflict between the power involved, probably because the Royal Nvy wa still so dominant. Details on the boundaries were worked out by Lord Salisbury and Count von Bismarck. [Wilson, p. 489.] Economic interests from these countries rapidly moved into the new colonies to exploit the resources. [Larence, p. 288.]

Italian Colonization

Italy as part of the scramble for Africa obtained colonies in East Africa. The Kingdom of Italy itself was declared in 1861, after Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia had annexed Kingdom of Lombardy and Venice (this Kingdom was not independent, but controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and Kingdom of Naples (including all South Italy and Sicily). Rome became Italian only in 1870. Italy was a poor country. Many Italians emigrated to North and South America. The colonial effort was a attempt to share in the partition of Africa. This was both a matter of national pride as well the result of the widly held opinion that colonies were needed for a healthy economy. An Italian company (Rubattino) bought the rights to Assab Bay from the local Sultan (1869). The Italian Government bought these rights from the company and declared Assab an Italian colony (1882). This was Italy's first territorial acquisition in Africa. Assab became the primary port in what was to become the colony of Eritrea. The Italians also seized Somaliland and established a small protectorate (1889). Some resistance was encoutered as the Italians expanded their new colony (1889-92). The Italians assisted Ethiopian Emperor Menelik expand his territory in East Africa. The Italians claimed that in exchange Menelik had agreed to a protecorate and invaded Rthiopia. The Ethiopians decisively defeated theItalians at the battle of Aduwa/Adowa (1895). This was a rare African victory over European colonizers. Italy was forced to recognize the independence of Ethiopia. After the war with Memelik, Italy declared the colony of Eritrea in the coastal area they still controlled. I do not have details about Italian colonial policies at this time. Italy next seized Libya after a brief war with the Ottomans (1912). Ethiopia remained independent

Fascist Italy

Benito Mussolini and the Fascists seized power in Italy after the Matrch on Rome (1923). A few years later using the Black Shirt militia, Mussolini proceeded to create a Fascist dictatorship (1925). Ethiopia featured prominently in the years leading up to World War II. Mussolini was entent on reserecting the Roman Empire. After defeating the Arab revoly and securing the Italian hold on Libya, his eyes turned south to Ethiopia, one of the only two independent countries in sub-Saharan Africa after the 19th century scramble for Africa. Ethiopia bordered on and separated the Italian colonies in East Africa (Somaliland and Eritrea). Ethiopia was a special case because an Ethiopia Army has embarassed the Italians by defearing them at the battle of Aduwa/Adowa (1895). This was a rare African victory over European colonizers. Italy was forced to recognize the independence of Ethiopia.

Libya

Mussolini's first action tyo reserect the old Roman Empire was to secure his position in Libya, He moved to brutally put down a nationalist insuregency (1920s).

Italian Invasion (1935)

Mussolini's next step was to invade Ethiopia which at the time was an independent state (1935). Mussolini's invading army used modern weapons, again including poison gas, to attack a largely unarmed country. The Ethiopins had defeated an Italian Army in 1896 and Mussoline was determined to redeem what he saw as a blot on the national honor. Marshal Pietro Badoglio commanded the Italian invasion force. Using modern weapons, the Italian Army quickly overwealmed Emperor Haile Selassie's lightly armed forces. The Italian extensevly used poison gas. (The Allies in 1943 made a deal with Badoglio to overthrow Musolini.) The Italian Ministry of Defence did not admit until 1995 that poison gas had been used by the Italian Air Force. [Del Boca] The Italian invasion was widely condemned at the League of Nations more than 50 other countries. The invasion gave rise to world-wide indignation, but nor military support for Ethiopia. Criticism was especially heated in Britain which, still thinking about World War I, people were truly shocked by Italy's use of poison-gas as well as deliberate bombing of Red Cross hospitals and ambulances--especially the British Red Cross Unit. [Waley]

Emperor Haile Selassie (1891-1975)

Emperor Haile Selassie was born Ras (Prince) Tafari Makonnen (1891). He was the crown prince and served as regent to the Empress Zauditu (1916-30) Ras Tafari Makonnen succeeded her to the throne (1930). He proclaimed himself Haile Selassie ("Might of the Trinity"). He ruled as an autocrat making no demovratic reforms. He did attempt to moderize Ethiopia's infrastructure and economy, but the country remined largely medieval. He claimed to be a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He was also known as "The Lion of Judah" and "King of Kings". Few people took much note of Ethiopia outside the pages of National Geographic until the Italian invasion. He led the resistance against the Italian invasion (1935), often sited as the first Fascist agression leading to World War II. The Emperor was forced to flee the country and his speech to the League of Nations brought the Emperor to the world stage. He was given refuge in Britain (1936). He reintered the country during the British East African campaign and helped lead the Ethiopian resistance forces.(1941). A reader writes, "The Axis Forum speculates that Selassi would have been ready to accept an Italian Protecorateship if three conditions were met (detail therein). On another site I read that he was depressed, despondent or dejected (ie pessimistic (regarding British ability to counter Rommel), take your pick, just a matter of degree) and was observed to be ready etc re foregoing above. Have not understood how this was communicated or imparted to others who reported the story. But it doesn't surprise me. I don't think he was very easy to get along with sort of 'awkward cuss' the more you did for him the more he read this as your guilt complex. But this is pure conjecture on my part and how I read his manner. Think Wingate did a lot for him, and I expect Selassie thought he was the only friend he had among the Brits. Re the Axis History forum comments especially the document of the proposed Hoare-Laval pact. Also Musso even made an offer much similar although some of the terms are quite hilarious: he wanted Selassie to "lose" a military battle on the field so as to "be forced" into accepting reasonable treaty terms whereby only some parts of his country would be ceded to Italy. I suppose the "losing a battle" would be to assuage Italian feelings over the battle of Adowa some 40 years before!" [Hall] HBC has not yet been able to confirm this with an academic source.

League of Nations Scantions

Italian attrocities in Libya had not been widely reported. The invasion of Ethiopia was. The Allies (Britain and France) supported scantions in the League of Nation. The British pushed in the League of Nations for scantions. The French played lip service, but were more interested in Italaian support for their efforts to limit Hitler. An oil embargo which might have affected the Italian war effort was not approved, probably for that reason. [Davidson, p. 130.] The Italians were condenmed by the League of Nations and then walked out of the organization. Mussolinin was offened at this treatment. Hitler made it cleart that Germany symphithized. The ineffective League scantions was a factor in his closer relations with Hitler and NAZI Germany.

Munich Conference (1938)

The British and French after Hitler seized power hoped that Mussolini could help play a moderating role. While Mussolini was a Fascist with ideological afinities to Hitler and the NAZIs, there were national interests that suggested that Mussolini might be useful in preventing German expansion. Austrian neutrality, for example, and the Austrian territority awarded Italy after World War I were important. And Mussolini made it clear that Austria would not accept Anschluss (1934). The invasion of Ethiopia, however, changed this. Mussolini was outraged at the British and French condemnation of his action in the League of Nations. The resulting League Sanctions, weak though they were, played a major role in Mussolini's thinking. As a result, he moved increasingly close to Hitler who fully supported the Ethiopian invasion. Mussolini changedc policy and accepted the Anschluss (1938) and was fully on board with Hitler as he orchestrated the European crisis over the Sudetenland. Mussolini participated in the Munich Conference, but made no attempt to moderate his Axis partner.

Italy Enters World War II (1940)

Italy entered the War once the German invasion in the West over France was secured, but before they actually signed an armistice with Germamy (June 1940). Italy despite Mussolini's belicose posturing was not prepared for war nor did it have an industrial economy to support an extended war with a modern industrial nation like Britain. Italy's decesion to declare war was not taken as a result of any vareful appraisal, but was Mussolini's own personal decession taken impulsively. He simply saw all the territory that Hitler was so easily gobelling up and did not want to be left out of the banquet. This meant that the Italian colonies in Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Libya) were combat zones because they bordered on British colonies or countries like Egypt which were British protectorates. Mussolini seems to have been totally unaware of the difference in quality and determination between his and the British military or of one simple geographic fact. Britain had no way of bringing its greatest asset, the Royal Navy, to bare against Germany located safely in the middle of continental Europe. Italy was a very diiferent matter. The country was a peninsula jurring out into the Mediterranean. Here the Royal Navy could project British power.

Western Desert (1940)

The forces amassed by the Italians were vastly superior to those the British had in Egypt and East Africa. It looked on paper that the Italians would easily overwealm the British and seize the Suez Canal. Britian had such limited forces in the area that what was available was concentrated in Egypt where a hugh Italian army launched a major offensive from Libya (September 1940). They drove a few miles into Egypt and then set up defensive positions. The stunning British victory over the Italians in the Western Desert (December 1940) gave the British the opportunity to deal with the Italian forces south of Egypt. The campaign in the Western Desert is often seen as a campaign of periferal importance in World War II. While it was not the central campaign of the War, it was a campaign of huge importance. Had the Italians succeeded in 1940, they would not only have had Suez, but there would also have been able to take Iraq which was sympthetic gto the Axis. This would have given the Axis an imense oil resource--the principal weakness in the German war economy. The Western Desert was also important because it was here that both the British and Americans learned how to fight the German Wehrmacht and wage modern mobile war.

East African Campaign (1941)

On paper it looked like the Italians also had a large force in Ethiopia. The Italian forces were, however, weak and their Ethiopian auxileries of questionable loyalty. It was the British, despite their numerical inferiority, who attacked the Italians. The British put together a small force of South African and African colonial troops. They were supported by Ethiopian insurgent guerrillas. Colonel Orde Wingate, who was later to play an important role in Burma, coordinated the operations of the Ethiopian guerrillas forces. Behind the British forces, Emperor Haile Salassie returned to Ethiopia, arriving in Gojam (January 20, 1941) and began organizing the resistance groups. The British launched a southerm and northern offensive. The southern offensive involved moving north from Kenya into Italian Somaliland and eastern Ethiopia. The initial objective was to isolate the Italian forces in the Ethiopian highlands. Unlike the Italian Army in Libya, the Italians in East frica had no way to obtain supplies and refinforcements as a result of the Royal Navy control of the Indian Ocean. The major British offensive was directed at the Harer and Dire Dawa, which was designed to cut the rail line between Addis Ababa and French Djibouti which at the times was in Vichy hands. The British were incontrol of Italian Somaliland (March 3). A scond prong of British troops from Sudan drove into Eritrea which cut the Italians off from the Red Sea. The northern campaign climaxed with the Battle of Keren and the defeat of Italian troops in Eritrea (March 27). The Italian governor initiated negotiations for the surrender of the remaining Italian forces. Haile Selassie triumphantly reentered Addis Ababa (May 5). Isolanted Italian forces continued to resist. The final Italian forces surrendered at Gonder (January 1942). Ethiopia thus became the first country the Allies liberated from Fascist invaders in World War II. There were some Italian resistance activities, primarily in the north, until Italy surrendered to the Allies (Seotember 1943). We have few details at this time.

Interim Arrangements (1941)

The British after taking control of Ethiopia did not attempt to govern the country or interfere in domestic affairs. The Emperor was allowed to restablish his government. An interim Anglo-Ethiopian arrangement gave the British authority over policies that affected the war effort and this did affect some domestic policies. There was thus some overlap. The two sides agreed that the Emperor would issue "proclamations" and the British military administration would issue "public notices." The Emperor unilaterally appointed a seven-member cabinet and a governor for Addis Ababa. To placate the Britishm he he announced that the cabinent would advise the British military administration.

Military Convention (1942)

Britain and Ethiopia signed a formal military convention (January 1942). The Connvention more clearly spelled out the administrative authority. The British committed to setting up a military mission which would train a new Ethiopian army. Thus British officers were attached to the Ethiopian Army at the battalion level. Vritish advisers were assigned to Ethiopian ministries and provincial governors. The British effort had mixed results. The British were useful in helping the Emperor gain control over the provinces, especually those where the traditional nobility had substantoal influence. The Emperor resisted, however, some reforms which he preceived as impairing his personal authority. The Convention recognized the starus of Ethiopia as a sovereign state. The British military, however, retained control in some areas and strategic facilities. These included: the Ogaden, the French Somaliland border (French Somaliland was still in Vichy hands), the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railroad, and the Haud. These were collectively referred to as the "Reserved Areas". Additional provisions established recruitment procedures for more British advisers as required. A reader writes, "Apparently Haile Selasse back in power became quite depressed on the outcome and progress of the North African campaign because of Rommel’s successful drive towards Alexandria and the Suez Canal (1942), and was even contemplating accepting a modus vivendi deal with Germany and Italy whereby he would give up quite a large region of his country to Italy. I believe this region was the one in the south east of Ethiopia that had been used by Italy to join British Somaliland occupied for less than 8 months by Italy in 1940-41 to Italian Somaliland." WWe can not yet confirm this.

American Assistance

America had entered the War (December 1941). As a result, a United States economic mission was sent to assist the Ethiopian government. This initiated an important bilateral relationship.

Modernizing Steps

Ethiopia before the Italian invasion was independent, but it was very isolated and in many ways backward. The Italians initiated several programsd to modernize the country. he British also persued a number of modenizing policies. The British set up a new national police force. This new force gradually replaced a disorderly system where provincial governors set up their own poorly-traned forces. Where were only limited resistance to the new dforce, exept a revolt in Tigray (1943). Somalis in Ogaden also resisted. British aircraft from Aden helped put down the Tigray revolt. Ethiopian troops suppressed the Somali revolt in the Ogaden. The British assisted and helped disarm the Somali rebels. The British assumed control over arange of administrative functions. The managed the currency and foreign exchange and foreign trade. The British also assisted in setting up the ministries. Many Ethipians mindful of the Italian invasion were persuaded that the country would have to modernize if it was to remain an independent nation.

Territorial Demands

The Emperor had definite ideas about the border of his country. He wanted the former Italian colonies. The British did not agree. The Emperor in particular wanted Eritrea which would provide seaports for his formerly lamd-locked country. He insisted that he Eritreans were ethnically, culturally, and economically tied to Ethiopia. The British believed, however, that many Eritreans saw themselves as se[arate from eThiopia. The Emperor also wanted Italian Somaliland. The British wanted to create a "Greater Somalia", combining British Somaliland with the formner Italian Somaliland

Sources

Davidson, Eugene. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.

Del Boca, Angelo. I gas di Mussolini. Il fascismo e la guerra d'Etiopia.

Hall, Dennis Roy. E-mail message, January 14, 2011.

Waley, Daniel. "British Public Opinion and the Abyssinian War 1935-6".





HBC







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Created: 7:26 AM 1/8/2007
Last updated: 2:07 PM 11/6/2013