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Britain and the Abyssinian conflict

A presentation focusing on British public opinion towards the Abyssinian crisis.
by

Jay Patel

on 29 April 2010

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Transcript of Britain and the Abyssinian conflict

Great Britain & the Abyssinian Crisis:
To what extent did public opinion affect the government's actions in relation to the Abyssinian crisis? Introduction Mussolini's wish was to create an empire in Africa.

During 1920s and early 1930's relations were good between the British and Italians.

By 1935, Mussolini determined to have empire and decides to attack Abyssinia, who had defeated the Italians in 1896 Our presentation sets out to look at the role of the British government in the conflict but more importantly how much public opinion affected their decisions and thoughts.

We will discuss the positions of prominent politicians such as Eden, Baldwin, Churchill and Chamberlain

We will track British public opinion from the beginning of 1935, with the promotion of the Peace Ballot, up until June 1936, which was just after the victory of the Italians in Abyssinia. The war resulted in the military occupation of Ethiopia and its annexation into the newly created colony of Italian East Africa.

Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia, never capitulated or surrendered.
Public opinion & the Peace Ballot The first six months of 1935 - promotion of the Peace Ballot as an opportunity for the public to express their opinions on foreign policy. Lord Cecil had 2 clear motives:
to assert influence on govt policy by proving public support for League.
to relieve pressure on the declining British League of Nations Union (LNU).

"In this ballot you are asked to vote only on peace or war - whether you approve of the League of Nations, or not; whether you are in favour of international disarmament or not." ~ Leaflet attached to the Peace Ballot Results showed overwhelming support for:
League of Nations
arms reduction
abolition of national & naval aircraft
prohibition of manufacture & sales of arms for private profit
economic sanctions on aggressive nations What did the results mean in real terms?:
success for Lord Cecil as LNU subscribers grow by 20,000
appeared to champion idea of 'collective security' but did little to tell public what this involved practically.
"as long as people stood for support of the League then that must be the National Policy." ~ The Times

"a very meaningless span of consensus that peace was better than war." ~ Michael Pugh Question 5 of the Ballot:







90% of public voted for the use of economic sanctions to punish a country that attacked another.
But a 1/3 refused to support any type of military action against that country.

"to answer question (a) with a 'yes' and (b) with a no would be to adopt a policy of bluff while openly admitting it to be a bluff and no more." ~ Conservatives

British Government Action Fear of Hitler:
Hitler becoming more formidable daily and essential for British security to have a friendly Italy.
By Sept 1935, Baldwin & Chamberlain agreed sanctions on Italy would halt Mussolini but also curb Hitler's ambitions.

"a cloud has come over the old friendship between Great Britain & Italy, a cloud which, it seems to me, will not easily pass away, although undoubtedly it is everyone's desire that it should." ~ Churchill Empire:
Britain did not want to risk their imperial possessions streching from Gibraltar to New Zealand, India and Australia.

Anglo-French Coalition:
Chamberlain adamant that Britain & France should join to keep peace in Abyssinia.
Britain would take action against Mussolini but only if France also participated.

"preserving the peace through collective security" ~ The Times, November 1935

League of Nations:
Conservatives declared that the League was the best instrument for maintaining peace in Europe. Economic Sanctions When war breaks out, the League quickly labels Italy as the agressor and guilty of violating the LoN covenant.

The League wanted financial restrictions on Italy, an embargo on their imports, a limited embargo on exports and a limited supply of arms.


Harold Macmillan felt their were 2 choices for Britain in regards to Italy: (1) a policy of appeasement or (2) being tough through power of League.

It could be argued that sanctions were put into place to reassure the British public and show them action was being taken.

However, as Churchill pointed out, the public not aware of sanction limitations. Labour Party split over imposing sanctions:
Pacifist element, led by George Lansbury, were against any British military action or rearmament.
Trades Union Congress, who made up most of Labour Party membership, adopted policy backing sanctions by 2,962,000 votes to 177,000 in 1935 Weakness of sanctions:
Sanctions on exports to Italy excluded iron, steel and coal.
Foreign office and Treasury report concluded that Italy could finance hostilities for 12-18 weeks even with sanctions.
Baldwin's determination to avoid war meant sanctions more limited than British public expected.

"Outside the Cabinet public opinion has been greatly hardening against Italy. Papers like the Birmingham Post are getting very restive over the arms embargo and over the ineffectiveness of sanctions." ~ Sir Samuel Hoare Hoare-Laval Plan
Hoare believed Hitler and Germany were greater threat and needed to negotiate with Mussolini to keep him part of a useful alliance.

'Paris Peace Proposals' - gives Italy sovereign control over Abyssinia but without the consultation of Abyssinia or any other League members. Backlash towards the Hoare-Laval Plan:
It is leaked to the French press on December 13th and hits British papers the next day.

General opinion of British public = sell out of the Abyssinian people and provokes outrage.

Hoare resigns from British cabinet.

"the 'peace proposals' are deservedly dead. His decision is the inevitable consequence of an error inexcusable in a man not in a minister." ~ The Times, 19 December 1935

"Had they been accepted they would have destroyed the integrity of Abyssinia, brought about the dissolution of the league and put a terrible stain upon the honour and reputation of this country." ~ The Times, 20 December 1935 Hoare believed that "the plan was the best possible, or the least bad."

Hoare did acknowledge that he could have been more in touch with public opinion before creating the Plan.

Anthony Eden replaces Hoare - appears to stand for the League and collective security. Public Opinion on Government policies after Hoare-Laval Plan (Jan-May 1936) The government decided to return to imposing sanctions on Italy

"collective security should continue and we should not retreat in the face of aggression" ~ Anon, December 28th 1935

The existence of contradictory public opinion:
There was a desire to avoid any involvement of British military but enforcing sanctions would only provoke Italy and Mussolini. "If Italy does not obtain its goals through the slaughter of Abyssinian people then surely this does not excuse (a) the breach of faith by the nations within the League by abandoning Abyssinia, (b) giving up on the League and its objectives." ~ Frank McDermott, January 7th 1936 We can see that the public were STILL BACKING LEAGUE to solve the problem By Feb 1936, economic sanctions were imposed but still not fully carried out.

Sbacchi argues that this was due to fear of starting a European war. Eden later proposed oil sanctions to the cabinet and it was agreed because it would appease the electorate.

The French Foreign Minister Flandin refused to agree with Eden's proposal.

"Mussolini assured the French that the extension of sanctions would lead to war and they would leave the League" ~ Documents on British Foreign Policy, 2 March 1936

As crisis deepened, the approach of France and Britain diverged. Britain wanted sanctions and France wanted to continue peace talks.

Historian R. Parker - to keep sanctions going might fail and would probably be fruitless. Lifting the sanctions

"I do not think that there is anything further to be done in the line of extended sanctions. The League is still too weak, too vacillating and too divided" ~ Sir Robert Vansittart

By May 1936, the British decide not to lead collective action approach of the League.

"We had done what we had felt it our duty to do" ~ Anthony Eden, Documents on British Foreign Policy

In fear of waging a war against Mussolini without France's help the sanctions were lifted. Many governments still preoccupied with threat of Germany. In March 1936, Hitler occupies Rhineland.

"The focus is Italy not Germany therefore it is only one dictator that exists." ~ Anthony Eden Historian Halden summaries British and French approach as 'lukewarm'

The Abyssinian Crisis marks a collapse of the principle of collective security. Conclusion This presentation was brought to you by
Louise Suen
Joe Jervis
Zahra Roberts
Emily Thomson
Jay Patel "the attitude of the government has always been one of unswerving fidelity to the League and all that it stands for" ~ Sir Samuel Hoare, speech given to League Assembly, 11 September 1935 At this time, Italy had entered Abyssinia’s capital but sanctions continued. However, public opinion was asserting that sanctions should be lifted immediately.

Some articles took the view that sanctions had failed and, therefore, there was no value in continuing them as cutting ties with Italy would only serve to damage Britain’s economy.

"War is now ended and that policy is past history. Are we delaying action to save face of the League of Nations or is it our intention to punish Italy?" ~ Letter to 'The Times', May 1936

In June sanctions were lifted, in fear of Mussolini waging another war and without French help Britain did not have the capacity to fight alone.

"the League was so physically and morally sick" ~ Eden's memoirs
The Abyssinian crisis was a death blow to the League of Nations, which once again failed to stop an aggressor.

The crisis’ other major consequence was that Mussolini starts to move closer to the Hitler, who was a firm supporter of Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia.

The government was forced to deal with contradictory public opinions. Despite sustained opinion in support of Abyssinia, there was a clearer call for anything that avoided war. The latter strand of public opinion was taken fully on board by the government. Through our primary research, we have shown that public opinion had an unquestionable effect on government rhetoric as it pushed for collective security and economic sanctions.

However, like most governments their decision-making was most influenced by their own selfish interests, which wanted to drive the best bargain it could with Italy.
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