The Abyssinian Crisis, 1934-36

Key concepts and colligations

  • Wal-Wal incident, December 1934
  • Stresa Front, April 1935
  • Hoare-Laval Pact, December 1935


  • Walsh, pp. 25-252.(What happened and why)
  • Walsh pp. 253 (Consequences for the League and the world)
  • Edexcel, p. 230.

See also:

Key issues:

  • Why did it happen
  • Why did it become a crisis for the League?
  • What were the consequences for the League, and for the world?

Excerpt from the ‘Road to War’ series.


Key things to know about the Abyssinian crisis:

  • Why did it happen?
    • Mussolini was motivated by need for resources, but above all by desire to build an Italian Empire and to avenge the humiliating defeat at Adwa in 1896 when an Italian army was beaten by tribesman armed with little more than spears and shields.
    • Wal-Wal incident – the Abyssinian crisis began with the Wal-Wal incident in December 1934 – an incident engineered by the Italians to make it look like self-defence. The League concluded that neither side deserved blame for the incident itself.
    • Stresa Front – In April 1935, Italy signed a pact with Britain and France known as the ‘Stresa Front’, which Britain and France hoped would keep Mussolini on side against any attempt by Hitler to re-negotiate the western boundaries. Mussolini took this as a green light to proceed with his plans for Abyssinia.

  • Why did it become a crisis for the League?
    • Sanctions – The League imposed sanctions on Mussolini, but failed to include vital war materials such as coal and oil. Britain was against the inclusion of coal because it would put 30,000 miners’ jobs at risk. More importantly, perhaps, Britain and France did not close the Suez canal to Italian traffic, which would have stopped the invasion dead in its tracks.
    • British public opinion – British public opinion was in favour of military resistance to Mussolini’s aggression, according to a poll conducted by the League of Nations.’
    • Haile Selassie – ruler of Abyssinia appeared in person at the League of Nations appealing for help and was loudly booed by Italian representatives
    • Hoare-Laval – In early December 1935, the Hoare–Laval Pact was proposed by Britain and France. British and French diplomats Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval reached a secret agreement in which two thirds of Abyssinia would be given to Mussolini. On 13 December, details of the pact were leaked by a French newspaper and denounced as a sell-out of the Abyssinians. The British government disassociated itself from the pact and both the British and the French representatives associated with the pact were forced to resign.
      • Under this pact, Italy would gain the best parts of Ogaden and Tigray. Italy would also gain economic influence over all the southern part of Abyssinia. Abyssinia would have a guaranteed corridor to the sea at the port of Assab; however, the corridor was a poor one and known as a “corridor for camels”. Mussolini was ready to agree to the pact, but he waited some days to make his opinion public.
      • A. J. P. Taylor argued that it was the event that “killed the League [of Nations]” and that the pact “was a perfectly sensible plan, in line with the League’s previous acts of conciliation from Corfu to Manchuria” which would have “ended the war; satisfied Italy; and left Abyssinia with a more workable, national territory” but that the “common sense of the plan was, in the circumstances of the time, its vital defect”.
      • The military historian Correlli Barnett has argued that if Britain alienated Italy, Italy “would be a potential enemy astride England’s main line of imperial communication at a time when she was already under threat from two existing potential enemies at opposite ends of the line [Germany and Japan]. If – worse – Italy were to fight in a future war as an ally of Germany or Japan, or both, the British would be forced to abandon the Mediterranean for the first time since 1798”. Therefore, in Barnett’s view, it was “highly dangerous nonsense to provoke Italy” due to Britain’s military and naval weakness and that therefore the pact was a sensible option

  • What were the consequences for the League and for the World?
    • Mussolini proceeded to take the rest of Abyssinia in 1936 and later in the year he signed the Rome-Berlin Axis with Hitler and won Hitler’s co-operation for intervention in Spain.
    • Hitler – benefitted from the Abyssinian crisis, firstly because it provided a distraction and a moral justification for his re-militarisation of the Rhineland and secondly because Mussolini would later acquiesce in the Anschluss of March 1938 (previously, in 1934 he had moved his troops to the Brenner Pass when chancellor Dollfuss was assassinated by Austrian Nazis(/li>
    • The League was fatally undermined. Manchuria had been damaging, but Abyssinia proved to be the end of the League as a credible force. Britain and France could have stood up to Mussolini by enforcing coal and oil sanctions or by closing the Suez canal, and even by means of a military intervention, but they chose not to. Having been subject to moral condemnation and limited sanctions, Italy – like Japan in March 1933 – walked out in 1937.
    • Between 1935 and 1939, Britain preferred bilateral agreements and appeasement to operating through the League. For example, it signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935, thus destroying the Stresa Front that had been formed earlier in the year. In 1936 neither Britain nor France opposed Hitler’s re-militarization of the Rhineland, and neither stood up to Anschluss in March 1938 and acquiesced to Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland in September 1938.
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