The Cabinet Papers banner

Italy and Abyssinia

Italo-Abyssinian War

The late 1930s were marked by international conflicts due to the increasingly aggressive foreign policies of Germany, Italy and Japan. In 1935 the British government was debating how rearmament and appeasement could be used to secure the nation's safety. The concern for appeasement at a time of perceived vulnerability provides part of the context for the stance of the British government during this period.

In 1935 Germany and Japan posed the most serious threat to British interests. However, in June the Foreign Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, informed Cabinet of a 'most inconvenient dilemma' arising in Abyssinia. Benito Mussolini was threatening an invasion of Abyssinia to unite Italian colonies in Eritrea and Somaliland.

In April 1935 Britain, France and Italy formed the Stresa Front, guaranteeing Austria's independence from Germany. However, Mussolini rejected entering into a deeper anti-German alliance and turned down Britain's proposal to relinquish Ogaden to Italy. The Cabinet now began to consider strategy in case of an Italo-Abyssinian war. Although the invasion of Abyssinia could possibly have threatened British Sudan, ministers believed that, given the situation in both Europe and Africa, it was not worth actively resisting the Italian advance.

While the Cabinet wanted to prevent conflict with Italy and avoid it re-establishing relations with Germany, the Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Robert Vansittart, gained French support to put precautionary measures (possibly sanctions) before the Council of the League of Nations. Cabinet strengthened the navy in the Mediterranean and acknowledged that conflict with Italy would be a 'calamity'.

With French support, Sir Samuel Hoare made a speech to the League of Nations in favour of sanctions in September, but Mussolini was undeterred and invaded Abyssinia on 3 October 1935. Cabinet members feared that sanctions might provoke war with Italy and by December, Britain was the only League member not to have imposed oil sanctions against Italy.                                    

Given the perceived need for collective security the British government joined the oil embargo, but questioned its effectiveness. The United States continued to supply oil. The Hoare-Laval Plan of December 1935 aimed to maintain the Stresa Front by offering Italy more Abyssinian territory than had previously been envisaged. No effective action was taken against Italy, which annexed Abyssinia by May 1936.

Content