- Some 20 years after unification in 1861, Italian governments embarked on a program of imperial expansion. After France had blocked Italian ambitions in Tunisia, Italy made inroads on the Red Sea, occupying several cities in what was to become Eritrea. Between 1887 and 1889, the Italian government aimed at establishing a protectorate over neighboring Ethiopia, to which Britain agreed so long as Italy remained no less than 100 miles from the Nile and did not interfere with the flow of its water. When Menelik, Ethiopian King of Kings, gave France a railway concession in exchange for munitions and other supplies and renounced the 1889 Treaty of Uccialli (which, in the Italian reading, had given Italy a protectorate over Ethiopia), Italy declared war. Menelik’s 100,000-strong force roundly defeated the badly led 25,000 advancing Italians at Adowa on 1 March 1896. The immediate consequence in Italy was a wave of popular strikes and protests that forced the government of Francesco Crispi to withdraw the army and to resign. In November 1896, Crispi’s successor, Antonio Di Rudini, signed a peace that left Italy with Eritrea but recognized the independence of Ethiopia. Benito Mussolini took Italy’s revenge nearly four decades later. After creating border incidents in the unmarked area between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia, the Duce provoked a brief but bloody war of conquest, opening hostilities on 3 October 1935. Foreign military observers were impressed by the speed of Italy’s victory over a territory larger than metropolitan France, its ruthless use of aircraft against civilians, and its use of gas against the poorly equipped Ethiopian army. In May 1936, Addis Ababa fell, and Emperor Haile Selassie fled the country, not to return until British forces recaptured Ethiopia in the course of World War II.Mussolini’s victory was also a diplomatic triumph. Playing on the imperial powers’fear of Germany, Mussolini was able to extract from the French a virtual blank check to do as he wished so long as no French colonies were threatened and from the British a policy in the League of Nations of avoiding sanctions that might antagonize the Italian government. The League’s threats regarding oil shipments and scrap iron sales did nothing to impede Italian acquisition of those war goods in trade with non-League members, including—conspicuously—the United States. Moreover, League threats enabled Mussolini to portray Italy to the Italian public as the struggling “proletarian” nation facing alone the hostility of the plutocratic European powers.The conquest of Ethiopia, added to Eritrea (after the war, incorporated in newly independent Ethiopia) and Somaliland, created Italian East Africa, thereby enabling Mussolini to confer on King Victor Emmanuel the title of emperor and to make Pietro Badoglioviceroy. For many, the conquest was proof of Mussolini’s boast that Fascism would show the world that Italy could be a nation of warriors. Subsequent failures in Greece and North Africa in 1940–1941 would prove that such hopes had no military basis.See also Foreign Policy; Hoare-Laval Pact.
Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. Mark F. Gilbert & K. Robert Nilsson. 2007.