Sunday, June 16, 2024
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Mussolini in Ethiopia

1919-1935 The Origins of Fascist Italy’s African War

Robert Mallett, 2015

Cambridge University Press

238 Pages

Amazon:  USD 77:99

Reviewed by Yared HaileMeskel

History books are not easy to read; even when you are reading one for the first time. And while leafing through the pages you will feel a sense of déjà vu like you have already read part of the book somewhere else which would make you lose interest. Of course, historical facts often remain the same but it can be highlighted, distorted, or interpreted from different angles to fit one’s own personal views or political agenda. As a result you either agree to flick through the pages or continue to argue with the book. This makes reading history books challenging.

However, reading “Mussolini in Ethiopia 1919-1935 The Origins of Fascist Italy’s African War” by Robert Mallett, 2015, Cambridge University Press, was gratifying to say the least.

While reading the book, two important historical facts prompted me to review it.  The first was the role of France in pre-invasion of Ethiopia and the second is the British government’s attempt to bribe Benito Mussolini to stop the invasion of Ethiopia. I felt these historical facts are not widely known.

Additionally, the book is different for the following reasons:

  1. It is easy to read with excellent flow. It feels like reading a novel, with lot of plots, conspiracies, betrayals, bravados, prejudice, military planning and political intrigues.  
  2. The book has new facts and quotations that you do not find in most books to keep you interested.
  3. Most historical books about the Second Italo-Ethiopian War are from the perspective of the theatre of war and maybe a few more pages about the failure of the League of Nations, but this book is different because it was written based on primarily data such as communication, memos,  diaries, speeches and  meetings between Mussolini and his generals, Mussolini and France’s Foreign and Prime Minster Pierre Laval , Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, Mussolini and the British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, and others players in Europe in pre-invasion of Ethiopia.

The book makes you feel like watching a Second World War movie, where you vividly see military planning, mobilizations, views and prejudice, conspiracy, competition, fear and power alignments in pre-second world war preparations.

Most of the facts presented in Mussolini in Ethiopia were new to me and it might even surprise well-read historians of the Ethiopian history.

I was also amazed to learn, in tragic ways, Ethiopia, a black country in Eastern Africa, was at the epicentre of the birth of the Second World War. Of course, we all know the prophetic speech of Emperor Haile-Selassie I at the League of Nations but the plan for invasion, conspiracy, and competition started at least 12 years before the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.  For example, on July 25, 1925, ‘Mussolini ordered the Minster of Colonies, Pietro Lanza di Scalea, to prepare for a future offensive against Independent Ethiopia’ pp 50.

That is probably why the author starts in 1919 when Benito Mussolini took power and end up on 3rd of October, 1935 when Italian Air force began to rain “internationally banned chemical weapons such as Mustard gas and Phosgene” and “500 kilogram” bombs on the Ethiopian civilians by the Fascist invading force to (pp. 163)

These chemical warfare were banned but used extensively with in Ethiopia, which happens to be a pre-cursor for Hitler’s gas chamber.

The book gives a good understanding of the birth and growth of Fascism; it tells us about the Fascist earlier pre-occupation of Yugoslavia, Mussolini’s failure to control the Greek Island of Corfu in 1923 and forced to retreat under the British and the League of Nations’ influence.   That was probably a promising beginning for the League of Nations’ objectives collective security.    But the League of Nations became less assertive when the Japan invaded Northern China to create puppet king (the Manchuria crisis 1931) and totally became defunct when the Fascist invaded Ethiopia in 1935.

The book also shows how Nazi came to power and particularly, the rise of, the then wannabe dictator Corporal Hitler. It reveals how Hitler looked up to Mussolini and his desperate attempt to capture the attention of Mussolini in later 1920s.  Corporal Hitler was looked down and consider as no hoper in the 1920s. In fact, a German clergyman, Monsignor Hofstein, who was an admirer of Mussolini, described Hitler “as nothing more than a poor imitation of Mussolini”

An Italian Journalist and member of the Mussolini party Partito Nazionale Fascista (Fascitst party) have also dismissed Hitler as, ‘merely a caricature of Mussolini’, and ‘a dictator who could never become a real dictator’

But soon Hitler became the big boy of Europe, against all expectation, while making Mussolini fear  for the rise of Nazi, that might lead to the loss of German Speaking Northern Italy.

On the other hand the fear of France and and ,of course, total contempt to Africans lead to the biggest betrayal of Ethiopia by France.

France betrayal of Ethiopia in 1935 under Prime Minster Pierre Laval was new to me and it is one of the reasons of reviewing the book.  There are two betrayals and we should not mix with Hoare-Laval Pack, which is a pack between the British and France that happened after the invasion of Ethiopia. That fact is widely discussed in Tehafi Tizaz Akililu’s memoir and John Spencer’s book ‘Ethiopia at Bay’. That is not what amazed me; there was another Laval-Mussolini agreement in January, 1935, eight months before the invasion of Ethiopia.

All wasn’t totally bad. In the 1920s France was a good friend of Ethiopia and it had contributed to membership of Ethiopia in the League of Nations.

Even though the book is about Ethiopia and Italy there is very little mention of the players from Ethiopian side. There are few brief references of Ras Teferi’s cunning diplomatic manoeuvre in 1923 when Italy and Britain supported by Australia, Holland, Norway, Switzerland tried to stop Ethiopia from joining the League of Nations. The story of Ethiopia’s request to join the League of Nations is narrated as follows.


Shortly after Mussolini came to power the Ethiopians, or more precisely the Crown Prince of Ethiopia Ras Tafari Makonnen, applied for membership of the League of Nations as part of his country’s ongoing attempts to modernise. Once the application had arrived at Geneva it was debated by the League General Assembly, which almost immediately split into two distinct and diverging groups over how best to deal with it. The French delegation strongly supported the Ethiopian case, arguing that the Ethiopian Empire possessed all of the requisite qualities for it to be admitted into the League. The British, however, were less keen. …. Mussolini was expressly hostile to any idea of Ethiopia’s admittance into the League, and ordered Italian delegates at Geneva to ‘stay in close touch with the British representative’ in order to block Ethiopia’s application. Ras Tafari responded by demanding that both Mussolini and British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin explain their hostility towards the Ethiopian nation, a reaction which by all accounts took the Duce totally by surprise. The result was that Mussolini contradicted his carefully constructed persona of uncompromising politico and immediately backed down and reversed his decision. Instructing the Palazzo Chigi in Rome to investigate how it was that Tafari had come to believe Italy so hostile to Ethiopia’s League application, Mussolini performed a volte face and threw the full weight of his support behind it. A month later, in August 1923, Ethiopia was admitted to the League of Nations and with full Italian backing.  pp 67.


Obviously Ethiopia’s admission in the Leagues of Nations did not stop Mussolini from invading Ethiopia but Il Duce has to work harder to make  friends and alliance with the two biggest powers  in the World, France and Great Britain. Mussolini succeeded in making France back its invasion plan while he failed to bring Britain in to his side.

Most of us think that most Europeans failed Ethiopia at the League of Nations but nothing reaches the level of France’s Pierre Laval. Laval’s pact with Mussolini led to tragic suffering and raining down on chemical weapons on Ethiopians and including execution of Abune Petros, the Bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for not endorsing the Italian rule over Ethiopia.

Laval take the central story of the invasion of Ethiopia and when you read the book you feel anger for betrayal of what was called collective security of the League of Nations.  The book ends in 1935 and it wasn’t a happy ending. Then I wondered what happened to Laval.  So I have Google to find, Laval, three times Prime Minster of France. Then I felt that there is some kind of divine justice.  Lavel became a collaborator with Nazi occupying force, to be made again the prime minster of France by Hitler.

As a result, Laval zealously implemented deportation of Jews to Nazi’s gas chamber and thousands of able body French Citizens as German’s slave labourers. Upon defeat of Nazi he fled to Germany and Spain to be captured and stand a trial to be sentenced to death for treason.  He finally faced the firing squad.

Laval sold Ethiopia to Mussolini and faced disgrace for lacking the courage, like that Abune Petros, to say no to occupation and force.    

French Foreign Minister and Prime Minster Pierre Laval secretly signed an agreement with Mussolini which give Ethiopia as a sacrificial lamb, which in a way, end up in creating a condition for demise of France under Hitler boots.

The Laval-Mussolini agreement on January 1935 had three components. The first one is to give north of Djibouti to Italian Eritrea.  (I guess this is a cause of the conflict between   the newborn Eritrea and Djibouti). The second agreement was to  give the Village of Aoxou and the Surrounding in Chad to Italian Libya and the third was to allow Italy occupy Ethiopia without interferences.

On the contrary British, particularly led by the foreign minister Anthony Eden did most of the work to stop Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. It is the Britain that supported Ethiopia’s fear of invasion to the League of Nations while s Laval worked hard to undermine case avoid embargo on Italy.

 It is difficult to make judgment from the hindsight but if France wasn’t backing Mussolini, it would have very difficult for Mussolini to invaded Ethiopia.  You may ask why?

In the 1930s Italy was technically a landlocked country even though it had a vast Mediterranean Sea.   British used to control Gibraltar with it’s 8 miles narrow entry in to the Mediterranean Sea with big naval force.  On the other end France and British control the exit of the Mediterranean to the Red Sea through Suez Canal.

Mussolini knew that and on page 101 ‘Italy, Il Duce had argued, was effectively trapped within the Mediterranean and could not conduct any naval operations outside of the Sea. In a war therefore Italy had ‘everything to lose and nothing to gain’ ….  Most important of all, Il Duce concluded, British predominance over the Suez Canal meant that in any conflict in which Italy might come to be involved it will critical important that Great Britain ‘remain neutral’

But  Mallett narrates ,’Laval irresponsibly gave the Fascist leader approval for greater Italian dominance over Ethiopia in January 1935, British officials for a number of reasons were not prepared to commit their country to a similar political arrangement’.

The other interesting thing in the book is, British chose to bribe Mussolini to avoid the war.  Walwal is 100 km in to Ethiopian Ogaden region and the British tied to bribe and persuade Mussolini to take over the Ogaden and in exchange British offered a corridor for Ethiopia in the British Somaliland’s Zeila port.  Of course, that wasn’t acceptable to Mussolini because Mussolini thought that would make ‘Ethiopia a naval force’.

On page 179, Mellatt narrate as follows.

If Mussolini would accept the arid Ogaden region of Ethiopia inhabited largely by Somali nomads including the disputed Wal Wal area, the British would offer Ethiopia the port of Zeila in British Somaliland to be connected by a corridor running through the territory in exchange.  Few in London were convinced that Mussolini would be tempted by the deal because it still depends on the approval of Addis Ababa.  Despite well founded claims by experts such as Geoffrey Thompson that Mussolini would accept nothing short of a total absorption of Ethiopia, Eden’s mission went ahead regardless.  It was a desperate and poorly conceived attempt to avoid disaster that had little chance of success.  But then for British these were desperate times.   pp. 179

Mussolini had effectively rejected the ‘Zeila Plan’ even before Eden arrived at the Stazione Termini on the evening of 23rd June. ….. . Mussolini spoke only of revenge, of the Italian need to avenge Adowa, while at the luncheon party that followed their first meeting the dictator ‘strutted’ and ‘attitudinised’ in a manner which left no doubt as to the extent of his egomania, and his inert inability to compromise under any circumstances. …. To no one’s great surprise Mussolini rejected the ‘Zeila Plan’. If he accepted it, it would mean that Ethiopia would become a ‘maritime power’…... Besides, Laval had to all intents and purposes already given him a ‘free hand in Ethiopia’ during his visit to Rome in early January’

Thereafter, as they say, the rest is history.  No appeasement on British side worked.  Reading the book, you feel that Britain would have stopped the war by blocking transportation of 400,000 Italian Soldiers, 350 aircrafts and million tons of ammunition through Suze Canal.

In page 159, Robert narrates Mussolini’s fear of losing the war like Adwa.

‘…Mussolini had been worried about the potential of League involvement in his war with Ethiopia.  As the dictator told De Bono shortly before the summit meeting in Northern Italy the game plan was to win the conflict as quickly as was possible, and the only way to ensure this was to attach the enemy with overwhelming force.  Nominating, De Bono overall commander-in-chief of the entire operation the dictator informed him that he would be responsible for an exceptionally large fighting force that should used to crush the enemy mercilessly.  As Mussolini put it, ‘You have asked for three divisions by the end of October: I intend to send you 10, then ‘ I, telling you’. Of these five would be regular Esercito division, with the remainder being made up of Black Shirt units.  In total the expeditionary army would constitute 300,000 men equipped with 300 fast tanks and between 300 and 500 aircrafts’.

Eventually, Musolini couldn’t believe even with this superior force he might face another Adwa in the hands of Ethiopians.  So he has to keep increasing the size of the army. On page 218, you find the following.

At the close of 1934 Mussolini and his senior military commanders had considered an Italian troop deployment of between 80 and 100,000 to be sufficient to defeat the Ethiopian armed forces. But by the early autumn of 1935 around 400,000 Italian troops had been shipped to East Africa, with a further 250,000 scheduled to arrive there in the early month of 1936.  The Northern front, which De Bono, Badoglio and the Army High Command had designated as the principal base for offensive operation against the Ethiopians, absorbed the lion’s share of available resources.  In total around 350,000 metropolitan troops were deployed in Eritrea equipped with artillery, tanks and air units and a further 70,000 indigenous men gave the Mussolini regime a crashing superiority over its East African adversaries. On the Southern front, three battalions of Eritrean troops equipped with armoured cars and thirty aircrafts were deemed sufficient to perform the largely defensive strategic role expected of Somaliland and its commander Rodolf Graziani. pp 218

The book stops just before the war of revenge and colonization started.  It took 7 months for Italian to control Addis Ababa and through this time the methods used to subjugate the people was described by Emperor Haile-Sellase in his Geneva speech as follows. 

‘…towards the end of 1935, Italian aircraft hurled upon my armies bombs of tear-gas. Their effects were but slight. The soldiers learned to scatter, waiting until the wind had rapidly dispersed the poisonous gases. The Italian aircraft then resorted to mustard gas. Barrels of liquid were hurled upon armed groups. But this means also was not effective; the liquid affected only a few soldiers, and barrels upon the ground were themselves a warning to troops and to the population of the danger.

It was at the time when the operations for the encircling of Makalle were taking place that the Italian command, fearing a rout, followed the procedure which it is now my duty to denounce to the world. Special sprayers were installed on board aircraft so that they could vaporize, over vast areas of territory, a fine, death-dealing rain. Groups of nine, fifteen, eighteen aircraft followed one another so that the fog issuing from them formed a continuous sheet. It was thus that, as from the end of January, 1936, soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes and pastures were drenched continually with this deadly rain. In order to kill off systematically all living creatures, in order to more surely to poison waters and pastures, the Italian command made its aircraft pass over and over again. That was its chief method of warfare’

On May 1936, Mussolini controlled Addis Ababa. And yet he couldn’t believe that Ethiopians would not bow down.  In 1937 an attempt to encircle Addis Ababa and destroy the Italian force by the Ethiopian patriots failed.  So Italy wanted the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Bishop to give a blessing for the rule of Il Duce but the Bishop refused. 

Following the fall of Addis Ababa, Abune Petros began to preach to the resistance forces in northern Shewa and Wollo, but was captured during an attempt by the resistance to drive the Italians out of Addis Ababa in 1937. The Bishop was asked by the Italians to submit to their rule and recognize King Vittorio Emanuelle as Emperor of Ethiopia, and was even pleaded with by the Archbishop Abune Kerlos (Egyptian) and the Bishop of Gojjam Abune Abraham to do so. However, Abune Petros refused to recognize any other government other than the Ethiopian government and any other King other than Haile Selassie I. As a result, Abune Petros was taken out into a public square in Addis Ababa and executed by firing squad. Before he was shot Abune Petros pronounced an anathema against the people and the very soil of Ethiopia if they ever accepted the rule of the Italians

On the contrary, few years after the execution of Abune Petros the Nazi forced captured France.   The Prime Minster of France that gave away, Ethiopia to Italy couldn’t master half the courage of the Ethiopian bishop.  He agreed to serve the Nazi and execute their plan in France.   So he was made a Prime Minster to deport Jews and able body France citizens to Nazi ammunition factories as slave labour.

Though the book didn’t address anything after October 3, 1935, Ethiopia and France regained their freedom.  Laval was captured to face the firing squad and Mussolini was hanged upside down.  And of course, a monument was erected for Abune Petros at the centre of Addis Ababa.

Though the book is a narration of pre-invasion of Ethiopia and I have to search what happened to Laval.

And the most surprising thing is there seems to be some sort of divine justice after all.  In 1945, Mussolini was shot and hanged upside down and the French Prime Minister Pierre Laval sentenced to death by librated France to face a firing squad.

The book is easy read and you also see the moral dimension of history.   Abune Pertos took the path of principle but Laval failed.

Hence, I recommend the book for those interested in Pre World War II history of Europe and history of Ethiopia.

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