Book Review – Collision of Empires: Italy’s Invasion of Ethiopia and its International Impact

G. Bruce Strang (ed.), Collision of Empires: Italy’s Invasion of Ethiopia and its International Impact. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2013. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 385 pp.

Reviewed by Richard Hammond, Portsmouth Business School at RAF College Cranwell

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The Ethiopian Crisis (or Abyssinian Crisis) of 1935-36 was one of the key events of the interwar years. Fascist Italy’s invasion and annexation of its fellow League of Nations member caused a schism in international relations and ultimately contributed greatly to the collapse of the League. As such, it has understandably been the subject of a wide-ranging historiography. This welcome addition brings with it a truly international view, offering a plethora of different perspectives and reactions to the crisis. The 13 chapters, from 11 different contributors, each focus on the perspective of a single state, individual, organisation or small group of states. These include reinterpretations regarding the more familiar actors – Italy, Britain, France, Germany, the United States and Ethiopia, but also those of the less commonly associated – Japan, the Soviet Union, the British Dominions and the Vatican. In the interests of space, this review will not individually examine all of the 13 chapters, but instead focus on a picked selection of them.

Martin Thomas’s chapter on French security dilemmas and the Crisis is an enlightening one. It highlights effectively just how complex the French strategic situation was in the lead up to and during the crisis, and how this influenced policy. With the growing threat across the border from Germany, the French had to place home security above that of their colonies even more than before, and felt forced into making concessions to Italy for the sake of collective security. After all, they believed (understandably) that the chief benefactor of any Anglo-French – Italian conflict was likely to be Germany (p.118). As Thomas puts it:

…even for French diplomats and generals under no illusions about the ruthlessness of the fascist regime, the Italian government retained one critical virtue. It was not yet trying to wriggle out of its security obligations to France’ (p.114)

France had attempted to salvage the best from a near-impossible situation by not opposing Italian actions. They were acting to ensure that Italy did not fall further into the arms of the greatest threat – Germany. In this, of course, they were ultimately a failure.

The second of G. Bruce Strang’s two chapters examines Italo-American relations over the crisis, and analyses the extent to which the US influenced Italian policy. Strang argues that initially, while the Italian regime expected the US to disapprove of their actions, they expected little in the way of repercussions. It was only later, when the potential threat of an oil embargo emerged, that US policy became a greater concern (p.136). The US government however, had been aware from an early stage that such restriction on oil would be the only realistic peaceful means to stop Italy. What stopped them from bringing such an embargo into existence was a combination of the complexity of existing domestic laws, and the persistent isolationism that remained in some parts of the Congress, Senate and electorate. The most interesting aspect of Strang’s chapter is his illumination of the level of Italian efforts to influence US policy after Italy realised the potential threat of an oil embargo. Strang notes that Italian propaganda, frequently talking an anti-British stance as they were a leading voice in the call for sanctions, found an audience with some, particularly those of Italian or Irish descent or of an isolationist leaning. Alongside British and American sources, this chapter makes extensive use of the hitherto underused Italian archives, particularly those of the Foreign Ministry. It highlights the astute political manoeuvring of the Italians, and especially their ambassador in Washington DC (Augusto Rosso), who frequently made the correct assumptions regarding the direction of American policy and were able to play this to their advantage. However, Strang’s contention that the eventual neutrality legislation and partial embargo that were enacted ‘…did virtually nothing to undermine the campaign, as Fascist Italy had its own arms industries’ suggests an overestimation of the quality of those industries.[1]

Finally, Nicolas G. Virtue’s chapter is on the Italian relationship with the Vatican during the crisis. Much like Strang’s assessment regarding the US, Virtue claims that ultimately the Italians largely got what they wanted from the Vatican, which helped protect them from complete international isolation (p.288). The Italian regime had expected no interference from the Vatican over their action and perhaps even tacit support. As such, when Pope Pius XI made his speech at Castel Godolfo in August 1935, which was felt to be directly critical of Italy, it came as a great surprise. Using a wide array of Italian and Vatican primary sources, Virtue demonstrates just how widespread and deep the shock was (pp.296-7). The Italian responses to defuse Vatican opposition and regain face domestically and internationally were multi-faceted. They ranged from continuing in a similar diplomatic fashion as they had elsewhere and blaming Britain for stirring up tensions over Ethiopia and the League in general for victimisation of Italy, to the spreading of false propaganda that the Vatican actually supported Italian actions, through to thinly veiled threats against the Vatican itself. Italy stated that any moves for a peace initiative from the Vatican would be ‘…considered an unfriendly act by the Fascist government and nation’ (p.304). Virtue concludes a convincing argument that while the Italian regime later claimed it had always received the tacit support of the Vatican, the Holy See had actually always tried to work to avoid the violence or to end it quickly with a negotiated peace.

This collection certainly broadens the existing literature on the crisis. It brings a wide range of international perspectives to bear and helps to explain how the invasion and annexation were able to occur in the face of the international community. Perhaps the most useful aspect of it is the sheer array of new source material it presents to the reader. Archives of 11 different countries (including the Vatican) have been consulted, alongside all the published primary and secondary materials. It is a vital addition for anyone interested in the crisis or in the turbulent international relations of the 1930s in general. Those seeking insights on more narrowly military aspects surrounding the crisis, however, will likely only find a few of the chapters of interest.

Citation: Richard Hammond, ‘Review of G. Bruce Strang (ed.), Collision of Empires: Italy’s Invasion of Ethiopia and its International Impact’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 18 January 2014

You can download a copy of the review here.


[1]For an English-language starting point on Italian arms industries during the interwar years and Second World War, see: Brian R. Sullivan, ‘The Italian Armed Forces, 1918-40’ in Alan Millet and Williamson Murray (eds.) Military Effectiveness, Volume II: The Interwar Years (London: Allen and Unwin, 1988); Cristiano Ristuccia, ‘The Italian Economy under Fascism, 1934-43: The Rearmament Paradox’, PhD Thesis (University of Oxford, 1998); MacGregor Knox, Hitler’s Italian Allies: Royal Armed Forces, Fascist Regime and the War of 1940-43 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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