Failure of the League

The Abyssinia Crisis was an international crisis that occurred in 1935, sparked off by what was called the Walwal incident during the ongoing conflict between the Kingdom of Italy and the Empire of Ethiopia (then commonly known as "Abyssinia").

Economic sanctions were approved by the League of Nations and ruled against Italy, but they were never completely implemented. Italy disregarded the sanctions, left the League, struck exclusive agreements with the UK and France, and after triumphing in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, it conquered and occupied Abyssinia.

The League of Nations was irreparably undermined by the crisis, which effectively rendered it powerless.

1930's map of Ethiopia and surrounding regions.

Why did it happen?

Italian Leader Mussolini was driven by a thirst for resources, but more than anything, he wanted to create an Italian Empire and exact revenge for the humiliating defeat of the Italian army at Adwa in 1896 at the hands of tribesmen armed only with spears and shields. 

Abyssinia also possessed abundant natural resources and arable terrain for raising animals, both of which would benefit the Italian economy.

Italian leader, Benito Mussolini

In his drive for grandeur and conquest, Mussolini sought to restore the Roman Empire to Italy. He didn't believe that France and Britain could argue while both had such huge empires.

He was also confident he would win. While the soldiers of Abyssinia were less well-equipped with outdated or obsolete equipment, Italy had a sophisticated and relatively modern army.

Because of his actions in Corfu in 1923 and the League's failure in Manchuria, Mussolini felt that he could invade Abyssinia without the League intervening.

He also believed that Britain and France wouldn't prevent him from building an empire in Africa. He believed that France and Britain would do whatever to maintain Italy's support against Germany.

The Walwal incident, which the Italians staged in order to make it appear as though they were acting in self-defense, marked the beginning of the Abyssinia crisis in December 1934.

The League of Nations came to the conclusion that the occurrence itself was not the fault of either side.

Contemporary cartoon by David Low commenting on the potential repercussions of Mussolini's aggressive behaviour.


In April 1935, Italy signed a pact with Britain and France known as the ‘Stresa Front’, which Britain and France hoped would keep Mussolini on side against any attempt by Hitler to re-negotiate the western boundaries. Mussolini took this as a green light to proceed with his plans for Abyssinia.

Why was it called a ‘crisis’?

The League placed restrictions on Mussolini, but they did not include essential war supplies like coal and oil.

Britain objected to the inclusion of coal because it would jeopardise the employment of 30,000 miners. Perhaps more significantly, Britain and France did not block Italian cargo from entering the Suez Canal, which would have effectively halted the invasion.

According to a survey by the League of Nations, the British public was in favour of using military force to thwart Mussolini's aggressiveness.

The Suez Canal in the 1930's. Had Britain and France blocked Italian cargo ships from using it, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia may well have been prevented.

Various ships berthed at Port Said, Suez Canal, Egypt - ci… | Flickr

Italian representatives booed loudly when Abyssinian Emperor Haile Selassie personally appeared at the League of Nations to ask for assistance.

The Hoare-Laval Pact was suggested by Britain and France at the beginning of December 1935.

In a covert deal made between British and French diplomats Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval, Mussolini would receive two thirds of Abyssinia.

A French publication revealed information about the agreement on 13th December and was criticised for accusing the Abyssinians of selling out. The British government withdrew from the agreement, and the representatives from that country and France were compelled to retire.

What were the wider consequences?

In 1936, Mussolini went on to conquer the remaining Abyssinia, and in that year, he signed the Rome-Berlin Axis with Hitler to gain his cooperation for an invasion of Spain.

Hitler benefited from the Abyssinian crisis in two ways: first, it served as a diversion and moral justification for his decision to militarise the Rhineland again; and second, Mussolini would later consent to the Anschluss in March 1938 (earlier, in 1934, he had relocated his troops to the Brenner Pass in response to Austrian Nazis assassinating the Austrian chancellor Dollfuss).

Austria during the Anschluss: Mussolini would eventually consent to Hitler's Germany's joining with Austria.

17 Color Photographs of the Anschluss in 1938 ~ Vintage Everyday

The League of Nations was irreparably damaged. The situation in  Manchuria had caused harm, but the Abyssinia Crisis ended the League's reputation as a reliable force. Mussolini could have been confronted by Britain and France with economic penalties against coal and oil, a closure of the Suez Canal, or even a military invasion, but they choose not to.

Italy left the League in 1937 after receiving moral condemnation and little sanctions, similar to how Japan did in March 1933.

Between 1935 and 1939, Britain favoured functioning outside of the League through bilateral agreements and appeasement.

For instance, it destroyed the Stresa Front that had been established earlier in the year by signing the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935.

Britain and France did not challenge Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, nor did they resist Anschluss in 1938 or give in to his demands for the Sudetenland in 1938.

The Anglo-German Naval Agreement regulated the size of the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) compared to the Royal Navy.

Anglo-German Naval Agreement... -


  • Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie denounced Italian invasion at Walwal on 6th December 1934. Italy demanded an apology from Ethiopia for its actions on 8th December and then added a demand for monetary and strategic restitution on 11th December.
  • Ethiopia requested arbitration from the League of Nations for the conflict resulting from the Walwal incident on 3rd January 1935. The League's answer, though, was ambiguous. A League of Nations arbitration committee later cleared both parties of any blame following its investigation.
  • Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Italy, was met in Rome shortly after Ethiopia's original appeal by French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval and British Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare.
  • The Franco-Italian Agreement, which was created as a result of a meeting between Laval and Mussolini on 7th January 1935, gave Italy control over portions of French Somaliland (currently Djibouti), changed the official status of Italians living in French-controlled Tunisia, and essentially gave Italy free rein in its relations with Ethiopia. In return, France hoped Italy would support it in any disputes with Germany.

Map from 1935 showing the new border between the colonies of Libya and Chad following the signing of the Franco-Italian Agreement of January 1935 (the Rome Accord). The area France ceded to Italy is commonly known as the Aouzou Strip.

B. Vernier, "Le statut du Fezzan", Politique étrangère, no 12 (1947)

  • Five Italian askaris were murdered on 25th January by Ethiopian forces close to Walwal.
  • Mussolini mobilised two divisions on 10th February 1935.
  • The Italian colonies that bordered Ethiopia to the northeast and southeast, respectively, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, received a huge influx of troops from Mussolini on 23rd February. There was little worldwide protest at these actions.
  • Ethiopia resubmitted its plea for arbitration on 8th March and mentioned the military buildup in Italy. Italy and Ethiopia decided on a neutral zone in the Ogaden three days later. Ethiopia made another request to the League for assistance on 17th March in reaction to the ongoing Italian build-up. The League put pressure on the Italians to submit the dispute resulting from the Walwal incident to arbitration on 22nd March, but the Italians continued to mobilise their soldiers in the area. Ethiopia once more denounced the ongoing Italian mobilisation on 11th May.
  • The League met in extraordinary session on the 20th and 21st of May to talk on the situation in Ethiopia. A League council decided on 25th May that it would convene if a settlement had not been achieved by 25th August or if a fifth arbitrator had not been chosen by 25th June. Ethiopia requested impartial monitors on 19th June.
  • On 23rd and 24th June, the UK sent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Anthony Eden to try to mediate a peace deal in an effort to defuse the issue. After the attempt failed, it was obvious that Mussolini wanted to conquer Ethiopia. The United Kingdom imposed a ban on the supply of weaponry to Ethiopia and Italy on 25th July. However, other analysts think that the United Kingdom was defending its economic interests in East Africa. Many historians think that the embargo was a reaction to Italy's declaration that it would see weaponry deliveries to Ethiopia as an act of hostility toward Italy. Additionally, the United Kingdom removed its battleships from the Mediterranean Sea, allowing Italy to continue travelling freely through East Africa.

Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Anthony Eden attempted to mediate a peace deal during the Abyssinia Crisis.

Anthony Eden resigns as Prime Minister - International Churchill Society (

  • Officials from Ethiopia and Italy met in The Hague on 25th June to talk about arbitration. The conversations ended on 9th July with a failure to find a resolution.
  • The League acknowledged on 26th July that the arbitration panel's fifth member had not been chosen. The League stopped any arbitration discussions over Walwal's sovereignty on 3rd August.
  • Ethiopia requested the lifting of the arms embargo on 12th August. In an effort to prevent war, France and the United Kingdom made Italy significant concessions in Ethiopia on August 16. Italy rejected the overtures. The United Kingdom reiterated its support for the arms embargo on 22nd August.

Emperor Haile Selaissie, watching the modernized section of his army near Addis Ababa, 1935.

Emperor Haile Selaissie, Watching Photograph by Everett - Fine Art America

  • The League met again on September 4 and cleared Ethiopia and Italy of any wrongdoing in the Walwal incident on the grounds that each country had mistakenly believed Walwal to be within its own borders. Laval, Eden, and even Hoare reached an understanding on 10 September over the scope of penalties against Italy.
  • On 25th September, Ethiopia once more requested impartial monitors.
  • The British Parliament unanimously approved the application of penalties against Italy on 27th September in support of Konni Zilliacus' request should it continue its approach toward Ethiopia.
  • Ethiopia started to assemble its sizable but underequipped army on 28th
  • Italy was subject to penalties after the Irish Free State passed the League of Nations Bill on 7th

War is declared

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War began when Italian army forces from Eritrea attacked Ethiopia on October 3, 1935, not long after the League had cleared both parties in the Walwal incident.

As a result, and in response to the invasion, Ethiopia declared war on Italy.

Abyssinian officers, loyal to Emperor Haile Selassie, in Addis Ababa during the Italo-Ethiopian war, c. 1936.