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Into the Abyss: Ethiopia, Italy, and the Interpretation of History

The case of the Italo-Abyssinian War is instructive of the ways nationalism, propaganda and the writing of history intertwined in the twentieth century. The conflict played a central role in the re-interpretation of history and international relations both for the direct combatants and the global community, in terms of its significance for the subsequent wave of decolonisation that would sweep Africa in the 1960s. The conflict had its roots in an intended illustration of Italian military power, exemplifying the use of Imperial Roman traits and language as a signifier of Mussolini’s state. Following the end of the Second World War, the Abyssinian (now Ethiopian) people's victory was reframed as a point of inspiration for the wave of African states seeking independence as the European age of empire began to come to a close.


Prior to unification in 1861, the concept of national identity had plagued Italian patriots for decades: the conceptual boundaries of an imagined Italian state provoked endless debate and disagreement, with striking linguistic and cultural differences amongst the peninsula’s regions making "Italy" and "Italian" abstract concepts without clear definition (Duggan, 2008). For the majority of modern history the people of the Italian peninsula had largely felt greater alliances to regional identities, and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had entrenched Catholic religious identity as the defining personal characteristic in much of the population. Post-unification, the Italian military had appeared equally disjointed and aimless on the European stage. It had achieved little to speak of in the First World War, and in the era when other European powers had expanded their profitable empires deep into Africa and Asia, Italy had no significant colonial territory to display its power. Its only major holding was in the territory of Italian East Africa, composed of modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. These territories possessed little of the raw materials that made other colonial holdings, like the Belgian Congo, so profitable (Meredith, 2013). Italy would suffer embarrassing defeats at the hands of Abyssinian troops in Adwa in 1896, and ultimately control of the region was effectively lost in the 1910s.



Figure 1: The division of African territories immediately prior to the First World War (Hemispheric Institute, 1914).

From its inception in 1922, the fascist state that was Benito Mussolini's Italy attempted to create a sense of national unity based on the imagery and history of the Roman Empire, with the government of Il Duce representing the return to glory, propriety and status of their ancient predecessors. The mission of restoring Italy’s reputation necessitated a bellicose foreign policy, and preferably a growing set of colonial possessions. This led ultimately to the conclusion that the reconquest of Abyssinia presented a perfect opportunity to right these wrongs: a rectification of the embarrassing lost war of 1896 and the beginnings of Italy’s outward expansion and return to the ancient glory of Rome. As the 1930s progressed, Ancient Rome became "the overwhelming cultural point of reference for the regime", and increasing tensions across Europe pushed the government into increasingly more aggressive policies (Duggan, 2008, p. 498). By 1935 Italy held the territories of Eritrea and Somalia but no longer held any significant influence in Ethiopia. The time had come for a significant military victory that would justify the regime's rhetoric. On October 2, 1935, Mussolini declared war, proclaiming "forty years of patience" with Ethiopia to be "enough". Pronouncing Italy a "lynchpin" of society and "a cradle of three civilisations", he deployed his troops to defeat the "conglomerate of barbarian tribes" that comprised the Ethiopian territory (Duggan, 2008, p.488).


The war ultimately proved to be a disastrous defeat for Italy. In the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, Mussolini’s military was expending resources in securing a resource-sparse and strategically unimportant foreign land. The capture and maintenance of the territory itself was equally wasteful, requiring significantly more time, manpower, and administrative expenditure than anticipated (Duggan, 2008). Ethiopia never truly fell under total Italian control throughout its occupation, with large rural territories remaining the domain of local rulers and disparate political factions. In May 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie returned to the capital Addis Ababa as a triumphant ruler, the way cleared by Allied forces securing the North African front.



Figure 2: Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in Addis Ababa after returning from exile (British Press Service, 1942)

In the years after this defeat, historical interpretations of the conflict have shifted massively. The initial wave of historians focused their analysis of the conflict as an example of the limitations of intergovernmental institutions. The place the Italo-Abyssinian War usually occupies in European historiography is that of an example of the failings of the League of Nations, established in the aftermath of the First World War to prevent international disputes from descending into war. This ambition obviously proved unsuccessful, with historians and diplomats pointing to the failure of the League to impose any meaningful deterrent on Mussolini’s invasion as indicative of its weakness, ultimately inviting further aggression from Japan and Germany. In this context, the Ethiopian struggle -and the wider African struggle for independence from colonial powers- is relegated to a signpost for the failings of interwar diplomacy and the early incarnations of multilateral institutions like the United Nations and the European Union:


A sinister prelude to the rising global tensions in the wake of German rearmament and joint withdrawal with Japan from international forums, the Abyssinian campaign of 1935‑36 soon became a test case for world peace, for the "raison d’être" of the League of Nations and Kellogg Pact, as well as for American policy toward Europe and her colonial empires (Cizel, 2006).

Figure 3: The Via Dei Fori Imperiali in Rome hosting a military parade for a state visit by Hitler (D'Accurso, 1938).

The longer-term implications of these failings were not considered in a geographic or temporary space sufficiently large, leaving the impact on post-war Africa and the era of decolonisation under-examined. By re-centering the conflict as an Ethiopian and an African experience we can not understand it with greater context, but identify in it much larger historical trends regarding decolonisation, globalisation, development, and the changing process of historical interpretation throughout the twentieth century.


The economic and physical devastation of the Second World War proved to be the death knell of the era of the European empire. Materially unable to sustain the cost of expensive overseas administrations, European governments were also intellectually unable to justify the continued occupation of foreign lands to their domestic populations, desperate for peace after years of hardship. The European powers began to relinquish control of their overseas territories in Africa and Asia. Independence movements had lobbied European parliaments for decades with little success, but following the war in Europe, the efforts of the likes of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Mahatma Gandhi in India experienced rapid growth in credibility (Kardelj, 1976). India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947, and Ghana followed suit a decade later in 1957. In 1949 a period of armed conflict saw Indonesia proclaim independence from the Netherlands. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a wave of other states in Asia and Africa broke the grasp of colonialism that had long defined their relationships with the outside world.



Figure 4: Ethiopian men patrol Addis Ababa with Italian weapons following Italian retreat (Imperial War Museum, 1941)

In light of these shifting attitudes, the historical analysis of the Italian-Ethiopian conflict began to be reconsidered. Essential elements of Ethiopian history began to be included in analyses, compensating for the Eurocentric reading of the war that was produced by both Mussolini’s propagandistic account as well as by that which focused solely on the culpability of the League of Nations. The new readings returned a sense of agency to the Ethiopian resistance and reframed the situation as indicative of African resistance to colonisation (Marcus, 2023).


Ethiopia was one of the first nations in history to adopt Christianity. Contact with the Judeo-Christian society of the Middle East had existed in Ethiopia for centuries before 330 AD when King Ezena adopted the faith as a national religion for the Kingdom of Aksum, comprising modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. This conversion was likely done as a means of bringing warring factions of the Kingdom under a uniform culture, as well as solidifying trade with the Roman Empire (Ross, 2002). The faith had become popular throughout the territory for decades prior, establishing itself not through conquest but via trade, filtering in through the Kingdom’s enterprising ports (Marcus, 2023, p.7). Rome itself had only cemented its identity as profoundly Christian in the years immediately prior, with the victory of Emperor Constantine over Maxentius in 306 AD pre-empting the Empire’s conversion. From this point on Roman expansion became inseparable from the fate of the Church, a trend that would remain a central tenet of all European imperial expansion across the world for millennia to come (Jones, 1978). Throughout the Muslim expansion that came to dominate the Middle East and its African neighbours from the 7th century onward, Ethiopia retained its Christian status. Mussolini’s invasion in 1935 had been further justified by attempted links with the spread of Christianity, once again aiming to establish parallels between contemporary Italy and the Roman Empire, despite this ancient established presence of Christianity in Ethiopia (Marcus, 2023, p.313).



Figure 5: Kwame Nkrumah giving a speech on African solidarity in Addis Ababa in 1963 (New African Magazine, 2013).

Prominent proponents of independence movements throughout Africa utilised the history of Ethiopia as a rallying point of the emerging Pan-African movement. Seizing on historical and biblical uses of ‘Ethiopian’ to refer to the entirety of the African community, activists like Kwame Nkrumah used the link between faith and the struggle for independence as a symbolic tool to inspire movements in other parts of the continent (Metaferia, 1995, p.302).


“As mentioned earlier, the first three Pan-African congresses were dominated by Africans of the diaspora who resided in the West -the US and the Caribbean. The visions of these Pan-African congresses were not only gradually crystallized and sharpened but also put to the test during the Italo-Ethiopian war. The solidarity and experience gained during the Second World War, especially for the black fighters, both from the US and from Africa, intensified black awareness and the demands for social equality and political independence.” (Metaferia, 1995, p.314)

Nkrumah had led his native Ghana to independence from the United Kingdom in 1957 before delivering a speech in Addis Ababa in 1963 in which he called for a Union of Independent African States to be formed (Meredith, 2013). At this conference, he read the following poem, binding the cause of African independence with the symbol of Ethiopia:



Ethiopia, Africa’s bright gem

Set high among the verdant hills

That gave birth to the unfailing

Waters of the Nile

Ethiopia shall rise

Ethiopia, land of the wise;

Ethiopia, bold cradle of Africa’s ancient rule

And fertile school

Of our African culture;

Ethiopia, the wise

Shall rise

And remould with us the full figure

Of Africa’s hopes

And destiny

- (Nkrumah, "Ethiopia Shall Rise")



In 1961 the Non-Aligned Movement was created as an alternative route for nations who did not wish to be subsumed by a Cold War alliance with either the United States or the USSR. This movement was born during the 1955 African-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia. Ethiopia joined as a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, despite a growing diplomatic relationship with the United States that would develop throughout the 20th century.



Figure 6: Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito (another integral part of the Non-Aligned Movement) with Haile Selassie (British Pathe, 1961).

The first nation to fall under Fascist guns, Ethiopia, with bitter memories of the League of Nations' ineffectually in coping with Mussolini in 1935, was quick to send troops to Korea under the U.N. flag in 1951. Generally siding with the West, Ethiopia has received in the last seven years $107 million in U.S. aid. But the Ethiopians never thought it was enough and grumbled about having to keep books on how they spent it. An initial meeting with Tito in 1954 opened Haile Selassie's eyes to another kind of bargaining. Under the tutelage of the Yugoslav fence-straddler {…} Haile Selassie has veered away from the West to sample the plums of neutralism. (Bell, 1959)

Just as Fascist Italy had written the conflict as a resurgence of Ancient Roman destiny manifested in modern Italy, and as the independence movements of formerly-colonised peoples reinterpreted it as an exoneration of freedom and self-determination, so in mid-century American political discourse was the Italian-Ethiopian struggle framed in the myopic perspective of Cold War politics, even though this was the very thing that Ethiopia’s strict adherence to non-alignment had been designed to avoid. The historiography of the Italo-Ethiopian War reflects the development of historical writing in the twentieth century, including the beginnings of its ongoing struggle against misinformation and propaganda (Hunt, 2018).



Bibliographical References

Bell, J. (1959). Ethiopia: The Plums of Neutrality. TIME Magazine. September 21, 1959. Vol. LXXIV, No. 12.


Cizel, A. (2006). Anticolonialism, Peace in Europe, or Neutrality?: America’s Reactions to Mussolini’s Invasions of Ethiopia. Transatlantica: American Studies Journal. [Online] http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/264;


Duggan, C. (2008). The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796. Penguin UK.


Hunt, L. (2018). History: Why It Matters. Polity Press.


Jones, A.H.M. (1978). Constantine and the Conversion of Europe. University of Toronto Press.


Kardelj, E. (1976). The Historical Roots of Non-Alignment. Bulletin of Peace Proposals. Vol. 7, No. 1. pp. 84-89.


Marcus, H.G. (2023). A History of Ethiopia. University of California Press.


Metaferia, G. (1995). The Ethiopian Connection to the Pan-African Movement. Journal of Third World Studies. Vol.12, No.2, pp. 300-325.


Meredith, M. (2013). The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence. Simon & Schuster UK.


Ross, Emma George. (2002). African Christianity in Ethiopia. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

African Christianity in Ethiopia | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.


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Seán Downey

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