Over 70 years ago the British government was rocked by what the historian AJP Taylor described as “the greatest explosion over foreign affairs for many years”. This was caused when the Tory “national” government, led by Stanley Baldwin, was caught out lying about its stance towards fascist Italy’s war against the independent East African state of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).
Abyssinia had been one of the few states to survive “the scramble for Africa” by the major European powers in the late 19th century, having defeated Italy at the battle of Aduwa in 1896.
Now Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator, dreamed of taking revenge and carving out a “New Roman Empire” in East Africa. Both Italy and Abyssinia were members of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, and in early 1935, the African state requested League action against Italian sabre-rattling.
Articles X and XVI of the League of Nations covenant laid down the principle that all league members should protect other members from external aggression, and authorised moral, economic and military sanctions.
However, League action depended on the great imperial powers of the period, France and Britain, feeling that it was necessary. France, led by prime minister Pierre Laval, was anxiously attempting to develop good relations with Mussolini to stop him forming an alliance with Nazi Germany.
Baldwin was more worried about the potential threat from the Soviet Union than that from fascist powers.
Mussolini, in time honoured fashion, declared that his plan for war against the Abyssinian people was a humanitarian intervention. He was embarking on a “civilising mission” to wipe out the barbaric practice of slavery which still existed in Abyssinia.
The British and French governments were hardly in a position to take the moral high ground against Italy, as they had used similar rhetoric to carve up much of Africa between themselves. Mussolini’s plans met with open support from many reactionaries in Britain.
Ward Price, the foreign editor of Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail, argued that if Britain opposed war on “one of the last and most backward of independent nation states, we should be hindering the progress of civilisation”.
Lord Hardinge said that the Abyssinians were “a savage and barbarous enemy”. Lord Stanhope, under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, told a foreign office official that the British could not sell arms to the poorly equipped Abyssinians as that “would be going back on the white man everywhere”.
However, the attitude of most ordinary people in Britain was quite different. After the bloodshed of the First World War, millions of people, encouraged by the Labour Party and liberal papers, put their faith in the League of Nations and the notion of “collective security” to stop any future war.
After a “Peace Ballot” in June 1935 confirmed this popular mood Baldwin claimed that “collective security” through the League was now “the sheet-anchor of British policy”.
This did not deter Mussolini, who launched his brutal assault on Abyssinia on 3 October 1935.
Many people in Britain reacted in horror, and the London correspondent of the Manchester Guardian could write that in cinemas that week “photographs of Mussolini and his two sons are now the signals for a storm of booing and hissing unknown hitherto in these places of entertainment.
“For the emperor of Abyssinia, who looks pathetically small, there is always a burst of cheering.”
Officially “international opinion” condemned the illegal war of aggression, and the League of Nations eventually got round to imposing economic sanctions on Italy.
Unofficially the British and French governments broke the economic sanctions, and continued to sell oil and war materials to Italy throughout the war.Stalin’s Russia, which had joined the League of Nations in 1934, also sold oil to fascist Italy.
The Abyssinians were left isolated in the face of fascist Italy’s far more technologically developed war machine.
The Italian military used poison gas to terrorise the Abyssinian civilian population. The Italians bombed civilian targets, hospitals and even the International Red Cross.
On 9 December, a report of a secret pact between Samuel Hoare, Britain’s foreign secretary, and France’s Laval was leaked to the press. It was a devastating blow to those who had placed their hopes in the League of Nations to end war.
The “Hoare-Laval pact” offered Mussolini control of two thirds of Abyssinia, leaving the Abyssinians with what the Times described as merely “a corridor for camels”.
This “peace deal” led to a storm of outrage. The historian Daniel Waley says, “There followed nine days that shook the national government”, which culminated with Hoare’s resignation on 18 December.
Fascist Italy’s barbaric war continued, and in May 1936 it was “mission accomplished” as Italian troops entered the Abyssinian capital Addis Ababa.
Mussolini drew closer to Hitler. The League of Nations was in tatters after it had failed to protect one of its own members from being conquered in an illegal war of aggression.
Yet “peace” did not reign in Ethiopia under Italian control and the fascist army were not welcomed as liberators. Small bands of Ethiopian guerrillas continued to resist colonial occupation.
Until Italy’s eventual defeat in 1941, during the Second World War, fascist troops continued to unleash terror against the civilian population.
The Great Powers remained silent about Mussolini’s war crimes in Abyssinia, and even recognised “Italian East Africa” (as it was now called) as a legitimate state. After all, Mussolini was fighting a “war against terrorism”.
Demanding the defeat of fascism
The Italian invasion of Ethiopia caused outrage around the world. In New York Italian and black Communists and their supporters marched through Harlem shouting, “Down with Mussolini”.
In Britain a debate broke out on the left on what attitude to take. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) had left the Labour Party in 1931. It included both self-declared revolutionaries and reformists.
Many within it argued that because the Ethiopian regime – a feudal monarchy headed by the slave owning emperor Haile Selassie – was just about as reactionary as you could get, the left should “stand aside from quarrels between dictators” in the words of one ILP leader.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s response was withering, “If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere.
“The victory of the Negus [Haile Selassie] however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.”
In another article he wrote, “Of course, we are for the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia... When war is involved, for us it is not a question of who is ‘better’, the Negus or Mussolini; rather, it is a question of the relationship of classes and the fight of an underdeveloped nation for independence against imperialism.”
Trotsky’s stand did not imply any political agreement with the Abyssinian regime. “When Italy attacked Ethiopia”, Trotsky explained, “I was fully on the side of the latter, despite the Ethiopian Negus for whom I have no sympathy. What mattered was to oppose imperialism’s seizure of this new territory.”
The Trinidadian Marxist CLR James was a member of the ILP and at the time a supporter of Trotsky. James at one point attempted to go to Ethiopia to fight against Mussolini’s troops.
James wrote, “Let us fight against not only Italian imperialism, but the other robbers and oppressors, French and British imperialism. Do not let them drag you in. To come within the orbit of imperialist politics is to be debilitated by the stench, to be drowned in the morass of lies and hypocrisy.
“Workers of Britain, peasants and workers of Africa, get closer together for this and for other fights. But keep far from the imperialists and their Leagues and covenants and sanctions. Do not play the fly to their spider.
“Now, as always, let us stand for independent organisation and independent action. We have to break our own chains. Who is the fool that expects our jailers to break them?”