Mussolini's Imperial Gamble
Remembering the Fascist Invasion of Ethiopia
Back in May, the historian Adam Tooze wrote an extended consideration of Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program, advancing the argument that the decision to arm Great Britain and China in 1940 escalated tensions between the United States and Nazi Germany and put the world on the path to catastrophic global war. The context for this was the decision to name the bill for Ukrainian aid “The Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act,” thereby invoking what Tooze calls “the quasi-mythic” and" “sugar-coated” narrative of the “good war.” I think there are some rather dubious points made, like the suggestion that America’s aid to the Allies “radicalized the regime’s racial policy” by convincing Hitler that F.D.R. was under Jewish control. Tooze notes this was also inflamed by F.D.R.’s denunciation of Kristallnacht, which also raises the question, “What was he supposed to do? Say nothing about it?”
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The fact of the matter is that Hitler’s fanatical antisemitism was the center of his entire worldview: every obstacle was because of the Jews and everything served as a pretext for further persecution of the Jews. So it seems highly unlikely that any action or lack of action by the United States could have convinced Hitler that the Jews were not, in fact, so bad. I don’t think this is Tooze’s intention, but this line of thinking comes perilously close to blaming the U.S. for the Holocaust because it escalated the war that, in turn, confirmed Hitler’s delirious “prophecy” that a new world war would result in the extermination of the Jews. Prior to the entrance of the United States into the war, mass shootings of Jews in the East had begun and so had experiments with gassing. Hitler had also suicidally attacked the Soviet Union when his efforts to defeat England failed. Also, any historical reconstruction that takes the Nazis at their word seems a bit off to me. But this is a digression.
Recently, Eric Rauchway responded in Talking Points Memo to arguments by Tooze and Robert Kagan in the article “You Do Not, Under Any Circumstances, Gotta Hand It To America Firsters.” Rauchway points out that both authors are basically recapitulating the position of the America Firsters: “While similar arguments casting Lend-Lease as an unnecessary escalation were common in 1941, it is worth briefly noting that they were often made by people who were at least Nazi-curious, including many members of the America First movement.” Moreover he doubts the idea that the Nazis would’ve stopped save America’s irritating intervention: “Setting these alarming associations momentarily aside: Tooze and Kagan — and anyone else arguing that America First was substantially correct — owe their readers an alternative history in which, absent U.S. aid to the Allies, Nazi ambitions find their limits.”
I think that’s more or less correct, but I do agree with Tooze when he writes, “If we are to evoke the past at all, let us do so in a critical and exploratory fashion, not to “prove” facile points one way or another, but to better understand how we arrived at this moment and to infer what its possibilities and risks might be.” And in that spirit, I want to look at an earlier and somewhat-forgotten episode of the interwar period: Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.
This also may cast some light on another debate: whether or not Putin’s regime is “fascist.” Although I think he’s sometimes rtoo categorical about the question in general, I tend to agree to with Timothy Snyder’s recent diagnosis: “The Russian state looks fascist at the top, but it lacks the fascist capacity for total war. It has governed thus far by the demobilization of its population, not its mobilization.” This accords with the opinion of the Russian sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky, who in a recent interview, discussed the challenges of the Russian regime has with mobilizing its fundamentally apolitical population, and concludes, “They’re trying their best, but they simply fail. The good thing about this country is that everything fails, no matter what. That’s why we joke that fascism could never work in Russia — because nothing works here.” But I think Italy’s experience in the Ethiopian war also encourages us to look again at the question of mass mobilization.
We are accustomed to thinking of fascist regimes, especially because of the prominence of Nazi Germany in the popular imagination, as having their shit together. But Mussolini’s Italy, entering its second decade, was arguably something of a failure. Fascism had promised too much and outlined contradictory goals: both the total reorganization of the state and economy and the preservation of the old order of society. By engaging in this double-talk, it had gained support from both radicals and conservatives. Once in power, Mussolini opted to go a conservative route, favoring the interests of the Church, military, and the rural and industrial bourgeoisie, while sidelining the most radical “National Syndicalist” and national socialist elements of his party. In fact, he only moved in fits and starts against the constitutional order and these moves were improvised responses to crises as a grand design.
Although elections under Mussolini were partially rigged and violence against political opponents was routine, Italy only turned towards total dictatorship after the murder of the socialist parliamentary deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. Matteotti was an outspoken critic of the regime and had published a book outlining its corruption and its use of intimidation in the previous election. Mussolini made clear his displeasure with Matteotti and he disappeared in June. He was kidnapped and murdered by Fascist thugs. His body was eventually discovered in August, but in the meantime there was very little doubt about what happened. The country plunged into a political crisis that threatened to bring down Mussolini’s government. But il Duce managed to maneuver through it: the conservatives ultimately did not defect over to the democrats and socialists. They saw the crisis as opportunity to get more concessions from a weakened Mussolini. Within the Fascist party itself, hard-liners threatened Mussolini with a coup unless he radicalized the regime. In 1925, Mussolini brazenly took responsibility for Matteotti’s death and challenged the antifascists to remove him. Without conservative defection, they had no chance and Mussolini reconsolidated the really-fascist Fascists behind him again with the tough-guy act. And so, Italy tipped fatefully into dictatorship.
But with the coming of the depression and the 1930s, the “revolutionary” fascist regime was stagnant. “Corporatism,” the promised reorganization of the economy to emphasize cooperation between labor and capital, turned out to be essentially a sham: industrial magnates negotiated directly with the regime at the highest levels and saw to it that their interests were protected. Fascist trade unionists, once promised a leading role in the regime, were reduced to the role of giving the bad news to workers about wage cuts and increased hours. Although the regime bragged of being “totalitarian,” it was actually a cobbled-together series of compromises between interest groups. Alexander de Grand writes, “…Fascist mobilization remained a little-felt, superficial phenomenon. The conviction and vision, so frighteningly present in Nazi propaganda, were missing in Fascist Italy, in part because the propaganda apparatus operated in the context of a government that was mired in bureaucratic routine and that discouraged dramatic initiatives.”
The standard of living in Italy had significantly decreased and a mood of cynicism, boredom, and narrow self-interest had overtaken the country. Where once the world looked with fascination at Fascist Italy, now Nazi Germany, more ideologically radical and aggressive, seemed like the country of the future. In fact, the continuation of the the regime itself was in doubt. To deal with the failure of his efforts to reform Italian society and mounting popular discontent, Mussolini looked for a way out. An imperial adventure in Abyssinia, or Ethiopia as it is known now, the last country in Africa unaffected by colonialism that had the ill-fortune to be situated in between Italy’s colonial holdings in Somalia and Eritrea, was just the ticket.
At the time, Gaetano Salvemini, a socialist antifascist living in exile, articulated the reasons for the war and provided an interpretation that’s come to be accepted by modern historians: “The war was willed primarily by Mussolini…because something had to be done to restore the prestige of the Fascist regime in Italy…[which had] steadily declined during the six years of world depression…The Ethiopian war was the way out of domestic stagnation.” Imperialism and aggrieved nationalism predated Mussolini—Italy had notably tried and failed with Ethiopia before—and were a result of Italy’s relative weakness on the European scene:
….exaggerated expectations — which all leaders of united Italy shared to some degree — contributed to the neurotic tone of Italian foreign policy. The country faced failure time and time again: Italians could not achieve unification without foreign help, they missed out on the grab for colonies, and at the peace table the Allies overlooked promises made to Italy in the Great War. With each blow to their prestige, Italian leaders tried harder to make an impact on the international stage, though their resources could not support their ambitious.
As unrealistic as prior Italian leaders could be, Mussolini lived almost totally in a fantasy world where propaganda success and appearance of strength took precedence over every other consideration.
Although Italy was not a power on the level of Great Britain, France, or Germany, it had a role to play in the European balance of power. This allowed Mussolini to finagle his way towards realizing his East African dreams. France and Great Britain hoped to form an alliance with Fascist Italy against Nazi Germany, leading to the creation of the short-lived Stresa Front. It was these “realist” calculations that lead to the European powers turning a blind eye to or trying to appease Italy’s revisionist maneuvers. England and France were also concurrently pursuing their own nationalist security policies and thereby undermining cooperation against the fascist powers. French premier Pierre Laval, a fascist sympathizer who many readers will recognize as a future arch-collaborationist under Vichy, essentially assured Mussolini he would have a free hand in Ethiopia. The British Foreign Office, lead by Samuel Hoare, was more hostile to Mussolini, but still feared driving Italy into the arms of Germany and attempted to find a way to appease il Duce by giving him a large part of Ethiopia.
Mussolini, determined to act, ignored further diplomatic efforts, and invaded Ethiopia in October 3 1935. While the foreign ministries of Europe’s democracies had been cynically maneuvering prior to the war, a significant amount of the public was outraged by Mussolini’s act of aggression and favored on dealing with Italy harshly through the League of Nations. Sympathy for the plight of Ethiopians went beyond the antifascist core of the left, as well. For one thing, Haile Selassie I, Ethiopia’s emperor, was a highly appealing figure: he was extremely handsome, dignified, and regal and conducted himself with great aplomb on the world stage. Ethiopia was an underdeveloped country and Europeans harbored—in a somewhat condescending, exoticizing, and even hypocritical way, considering their own colonial empires —romantic notions about a traditional society standing up to the onslaught of modern technology. In addition, the Wilsonian hopes for the League’s guarantees of collective security still had a great deal of popular buy-in.
As much as the elites of Great Britain or France might have preferred to look the other way, the groundswell of public opinion prevented this course of action. While France had a significant far-right press and street presence in support of Mussolini, Laval’s own preference for the authoritarian states was tempered by the fact that his government relied on left-wing confidence and supply. In Britain, Stanley Baldwin was elected on a pro-League platform and Samuel Hoare had to resign after the public recoiled at the revelation of his secret protocols with Laval; he was replaced by the more anti-Mussolini Anthony Eden. The great powers would pursue sanctions against Italy through the League of Nations.
Initially, the sanctions regime looked promising: all members cooperated in prohibiting the import of many vital goods to Italy and there was a graduated time table for escalation of the sanctions. But the foreign policy establishments of France and Britain, “accustomed to exclusivist, elitist behavior, that assessed national interest on the basis of secret information, secret deliberations and, secret conclusions, and hopefully the secret resolution of international problems,” had a much different understanding of the goal of sanctions than the public: they viewed them as a way to impose costs on Mussolini and bring him back to the negotiating table and the system of European security. In the paper “Sanctions and Security: The League of Nations and the Italian-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936,” George W. Baer writes: “Basic to the reconciliationist view was an instrumentalist view of sanctions, accepted by the traditionalist diplomats of the foreign offices but not fully appreciated outside of official circles. Sanctions were not meant, in October 1935, to destroy Fascism or to topple Mussolini…Sanctions were not mean to punish the Italian people. While Italian citizens would certainly be inconvenienced by their application, such suffering was meant only to awaken Italian popular opinion to the errors of the government, which would then, in the face of domestic and world-wide disapproval, mend its ways.”
All of this appeared plausible at first: Mussolini’s troops quickly got bogged down and Ethiopian counter-offensives looked promising. But irresolution and half-measures took over the League. Both Britain and France sought to avoid war above all else.Unfolding events on the Continent looked more pressing. The British balked at closing the Suez canal to Italian shipping and the League’s sanctions exempted petroleum products. The graduated schedule of escalating sanctions totally disintegrated when Mussolini replaced his commander in the field, and the Italian army renewed its offensive, using massed artillery, terror bombing, and poison gas. Italians engaged in terrible massacres of Ethiopian prisoners. By May 1936, Ethiopia had been subdued and Haile Selassie forced to go into exile. Il Duce had once again maneuvered through a tricky spot:
Mussolini astutely and very successfully played on the fears and hopes of the leaders of the League. He never denied that he might go to war, and this unpredictability gave rise to anxiety about a “mad dog act” on his part. He never denied and often suggested that he was amenable to conciliation. Mussolini’s threats and encouragements kept the all too susceptible British and French off balance, and they never jettisoned as unproductive one or the other of their two lines of policy.
Mussolini also pulled off his domestic coup. While public opinion in Italy towards a colonial war was initially indifferent, the adventure proved popular. Alberto Sbacchi writes, “In his military gamble, [Mussolini] achieved the success needed, thus winning to his side dissident Italians, who quickly forgot their opposition when they realized the possible benefits of a new empire.” The League’s half-hearted sanctions failed entirely of their desired effect. Baer writes:
What was meant to be only instrumental economic pressure to elicit internal protest was transformed by the Italian government into a cause for rapid intensification of integral economic and political nationalism. Far from imposing on the Italian people a desire to reverse their government’s policy, sanctions made the Ethiopian war popular….The nationalist response to sanctions was the ‘safety valve’ for the release of accumulated fears, angers, and frustrations. But there were somber consequences. For Italians, the period after sanctions brought exaggerated demands for autarchy, increased illiberal state control, foolhardy xenophobia, and, as Mussolini’s willful and arrogant policies outstripped prudence, responsibility and capacity, the Axis and involvement in a futile and hopeless European war.
The Ethiopian war also convinced Mussolini of the uses of racist ideology, which he had previously mocked, as a binding agent and source of national superiority. In the aftermath of the invasion, as Italy grew closer to Germany and Hungary’s antisemitic regimes, racial propaganda became a much bigger part of the Fascist equation, leading eventually to the adoption of anti-Jewish laws in Italy.
In 1943, after Mussolini had been overthrown, Eden reflected in his diary, “Looking back the thought comes again. Should we not have shown more determination and in pressing through with sanctions in 1935 and if we had could we not have called Mussolini’s bluff and at least postponed this war? The answer, I am sure, is yes.” Historically learned readers can no doubt propose many reasons to doubt the future Earl of Avon’s sagacity and competence in world affairs, but this conclusion from an actor in all these events is still striking.
The lessons to be drawn are not simple or clear. There’s no one to one comparison between to be made btween Putin and Mussolini, or their regimes, or the invasions of Ukraine to Ethiopia. For one we live in a world of nuclear weapons, which complicates all these questions. But the sometimes-paradoxical effects of sanctions, the domestic needs and challenges of dictatorships, the process of ideological radicalization, the problems of integrating revisionist powers into international frameworks, the irresolution or double dealing of great powers, the failures of the traditional assumptions of diplomatic theory, are all considerations worth bringing into the “critical and exploratory study” of the present.
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