League of Nations sanctions

​By the 1930’s, with tension between Mussolini’s Italy and Abyssinia (Ethiopia) growing, many European countries, including Britain and France, supported the League of Nations sanctions against Fascist Italy. It was hoped that this might in turn, discourage aggressive moves by Hitler’s Germany, and thus help maintain peace in Europe. With the death and destruction of the First World War still a recent memory for many, avoiding a repeat of such a conflict was an understandable priority. 

Britain and France

With the Second Italo-Ethiopian war having now broken out between Italy and Ethiopia, the British and French governments attempted to intercede in the conflict, aiming to uphold peace in Europe whilst also avoiding offending Mussolini or dragging the countries into a war with Italy. Unfortunately for the Ethiopians, the plan created to do this – the Hoare-Laval pact - entailed sacrificing most of the country to the Italians.

Additionally, it demonstrated that the UK and France were willing to undermine the League of Nations by acting outside of its influence to protect their own interests. The League of Nations was supposed to protect smaller nations, but the Hoare-Laval pact clearly went against this. This in turn, was a further nail in the coffin for the League, which increasingly found itself powerless to act in international disputes.

Italian artillery in action during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.

Hoare-Laval pact

​It was called the Hoare-Laval pact (named after its main architects – the British Foreign Secretary, Samuel Hoare and the French Prime Minister, Pierre Laval (who also served as the French Foreign Minister). It essentially planned to give tow thirds of Ethiopia to the Italians in return for a truce and an end to the fighting. This meant the Ethiopians sacrificing 66% of their total landmass, essentially only retaining the mountainous regions, while Italy would gain most of the fertile farmland.

​It was presented to Mussolini in November 1935, who in turn appeared receptive to its aims. In reality though, Mussolini had no intention of giving up his plans of conquering Ethiopia and was merely stalling for time, as with each passing day, Italy came closer to conquering Ethiopia and victory. Furthermore, the war was popular with the Italian people, seeing it as a demonstration of Italian greatness. The issue became moot however when details of the plan were leaked by the media in December. 

Samuel Hoare

Pierre Laval


​The ensuing public outcry – many were furious, seeing it as a betrayal of Ethiopia - resulted in the British Foreign Minister, Samuel Hoare, and the French Prime minister, Pierre Laval, both being forced to resign.

With the death of the Hoare-Laval pact, the Second Italo-Ethiopian war continued in increasing brutality, while Hoare and Laval found themselves cast (albeit temporarily) into the political wilderness. The failure of both the League of Nations and European diplomacy to halt the conflict would have undoubtedly been noticed by other European powers, most notable Hitler’s Germany which was soon to act upon its own expansionist plans.

A contemporary newspaper cartoon, portraying Mussolini in an aggressive light with Hoare and Laval pictured on the left.

A modern perspective

On reflection though, some modern historians cast a more sympathetic light on the Hoare-Laval pact:

​Taylor offers a fair perspective and helps demonstrate how with the benefit of time and distance, it is possible to analyse the plan in a more rational and balanced manner. Although undoubtedly harsh in the measures it would have inflicted on the Ethiopians, it was also undoubtedly pragmatic in its approach, recognising that the needs and wants of an individual nation were secondary to ensuring peace in Europe was secured – an attitude we would see repeated but with a different outcome – regarding the Munich Crisis, a few years later.

However, with Europe increasingly on tenterhooks with the rise of the fascist powers and governments terrified of a repeat of the First World War, such a measured and calm assessment at the time, was always going to be unlikely. 

Ethiopian troops gathering, 1935.