The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Failure to respond strongly to Putin’s aggression could prove catastrophic

How the League of Nations’ weak response to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia helped precipitate World War II

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, second from left, is flanked by Italian and German officers on the occasion of the celebration of the 14th anniversary of Italian fascism on Oct. 28, 1936. (AP)

After weeks of building tensions, Russian forces began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine early Thursday. Objecting to Ukraine’s potential membership in both the European Union and, more immediately, the American-dominated NATO military alliance, Russian President Vladimir Putin claims to be pursuing his nation’s “security interests” in eastern Ukraine by establishing a buffer zone between an expanding liberal democratic West and an increasingly authoritarian Russian Federation.

In launching the invasion, Russia is clearly demonstrating that actions taken by the West after Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula in 2014 — including the E.U. suspending economic and diplomatic negotiations with the Russian Federation, and the West placing Russian and pro-Russian Crimean officials on no-fly lists — weren’t a deterrent to further Russian aggression.

Instead, Putin seems determined to demonstrate his country’s geopolitical sovereignty and imperial prowess to the Western powers. This sort of signal-sending aggression is not the first time that a strongman authoritarian leader explored the fragile boundary between international diplomacy and unilateral militarism. Just over four years before the outbreak of World War II, Italy’s “Duce,” or “Leader,” Benito Mussolini, intentionally brought the post-World War I international diplomatic order to its proverbial knees, demanding a “small place in the sun” for fascist Italy among the imperial possessions of East Africa.

The consequences of the Duce’s defiance of international diplomacy provides a warning to today’s political and diplomatic leadership — refusal to take a hard line against Putin could have catastrophic unintended consequences.

On Oct. 2, 1935, Mussolini delivered an impassioned speech from the balcony of his party’s headquarters in Rome to a mass of Italians assembled below in Piazza Venezia. Proclaiming the dawn of a glorious new age for fascist Italy, Mussolini outlined what he imagined would be a “gigantic spectacle” that the entire world would jealously admire.

During the preceding months, tensions between Italy and Ethiopia — both members of the ill-fated League of Nations (1920-1946) — had been gradually building. In December 1934, a dispute between a group of British and Ethiopian surveyors and Italian colonial soldiers stationed, technically, on the Ethiopian side of the border with Italian Somaliland boiled over into open hostilities, providing Mussolini with a useful pretext for ramping up Italy’s armed forces for imperial conquest.

Yet, Mussolini had had his eye on “reclaiming” Ethiopia for Italy for far longer. Mussolini saw an opportunity to expand the Italian empire, but also to restore his nation’s tarnished honor, avenging a disastrous attempted invasion of the historically independent African kingdom in the 1890s. He saw an invasion as a way to prove that Italy was equal in both civilization and military prowess to the Western powers, which he and many other ultranationalists contended had badly mistreated Italy during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

Perched confidently atop his headquarters’ balcony in Rome, Mussolini blasted the Great Powers. “We have been patient for 13 years, during which the circle of selfishness that strangles our vitality has become ever tighter,” he said. With regard to Ethiopia, he continued, “we have been patient for 40 years! It is time to say enough!”

The next day, Italy’s troops poured over the Ethiopian border. The invasion created one of the first major crises for the international diplomatic order established by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I — most especially the League of Nations, which its designers had hoped would promote diplomacy and prevent the carnage of industrial-scale warfare.

The League’s Covenant aimed to prevent invasion and occupation of member states (which included both Italy and Ethiopia). Article 11 warned that any “war or threat of war” was “a matter of concern to the whole League,” and would prompt it to take “any action that may be deemed wise and effectual to safeguard the peace of nations.”

The League responded to Italy’s violation of Ethiopia’s sovereignty by imposing economic sanctions in December 1935. These sanctions, however, primarily applied to industrial materials, above all oil supplies, and League members did not uniformly abide by them. The United States, moreover, which was not a member of the League, even increased its exports to Italy in the months after the latter’s conquest of Ethiopia.

Mussolini responded by calling for a global “Day of Faith,” during which Italians across the world donated wedding bands and other precious possessions so they could be melted down into gold bars and shipped to Rome to offset the impact of the sanctions. Mussolini also subsequently withdrew Italy from the League.

By May 1936, Italian troops had occupied Ethiopia’s imperial capital, Addis Ababa, ending the war and adding Ethiopia to Italian East Africa. Shortly thereafter, having largely failed to protect Ethiopia from unjust aggression and a loss of its sovereignty, the League dropped its sanctions against Italy — a humiliating outcome exposing the international diplomatic body’s impotence.

The following month, Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie I, passionately appealed to the League’s members, begging them to respond to Italy’s flagrant violation of his kingdom’s sovereignty. To the Great Powers, “who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small states” at risk of invasion, Selassie asked, “what measures do you intend to take?”

The League, however, had already given up.

This failure sent a clear signal to other authoritarians — most especially Adolf Hitler — that the League was either unable or unwilling to enforce the international order it purportedly sought to establish.

Even as Italy’s troops were still snaking their way toward Addis Ababa, Hitler began sending 32,000 Nazi troops back into the Rhineland between Germany and France — a flagrant violation of the 1926 Locarno Pact, which established a demilitarized buffer zone to preserve peace.

Two years later, Germany invaded, occupied and ultimately annexed Austria to the Third Reich — a move explicitly forbidden by Article 80 of the Treaty of Versailles. In the same year, Hitler sought to unify “Greater Germany” by amassing Nazi troops along the border between the Third Reich and the “Sudetenland” region of Czechoslovakia, where many German-speaking communities had lived for generations.

Hitler’s military brinkmanship tested the boundaries, and extreme limits, of interwar Europe’s politics of diplomacy. Amid these clear signals that Hitler was prepared “to risk world war” to “unite the Sudeten Germans to their fatherland,” British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain infamously chose “appeasement” — and, to his mind, the avoidance of a wider military conflict — over the enforcement of the Versailles system. With Hitler’s (ultimately meaningless) “assurances” that the Third Reich’s expansionist campaigns were limited to the reunification of the “Greater Germany” community, Chamberlain returned to the United Kingdom from negotiations with Hitler in Munich believing that he had reestablished “peace in our time.”

Almost exactly one year later, Hitler launched the invasion of Poland, precipitating World War II.

Hitler’s bellicosity exposed how badly the League of Nations had handled the Ethiopian Crisis in 1936. Europe’s leaders saw the invasion of Ethiopia as little more than a minor imperial conflict and a momentary crisis in an otherwise stable, and permanent, international diplomatic system. Very few foresaw how Mussolini’s exposure of the League’s empty words and hollow values would embolden Hitler and lead to a global war.

In 2022, Putin is borrowing from Mussolini and Hitler’s playbook by testing what the rest of the world — especially NATO and the United Nations — will tolerate in terms of flagrant violations of the post-World War II international system. His stated motivation is similar — restoring Russia’s honor and uniting what might be roughly understood as a “Greater Russia” via the annexation of Ukraine’s southern and eastern territories.

Again, it’s possible to look at the conflict as a small, local issue — one without overriding global import. But the lesson from the League of Nation’s handling of the Ethiopian Crisis is clear — when international institutions refrain from enforcing rules and responding strongly to aggression and, instead, rely on the imposition of weak sanctions or other limited punitive measures, it sends a clear signal to all authoritarian leaders that disregard for international norms and laws is possible. It tempts them into aggression and escalation, which can eventually spiral into action so flagrant that it forces the world’s powers to act militarily.

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