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1.14

Fatal weaknesses: the Abyssinian crisis

The League’s response to the Abyssinian crisis was widely seen as a disaster. Three contemporary reactions illustrate the point. Have a look at them and bear them in mind: in step 1.16 we will discuss the overall performance of the League of Nations, in which the Abyssinian crisis might be a relevant factor

Point 1 - The Political Cartoonist

David Low, On the Throne of Justice

Alt text

David Low, On the throne of justice, Evening Standard, 24 July 1935

Point 2 - Haile Selassie addressing the League of Nations

League of Nations in the 1930s - Disarmament and Abyssinia

Following the Italian invasion, the Abyssinian Emperor, Haile Selassie, addressed the League; the first Head of State to do so. Parts of his speech can be seen in the clip linked above. The relevant passage starts at 3:05 and concludes at 5:14. This is the only section of the clip you need to watch. If you cannot access Youtube please do not worry. This video is non essential and will not affect your understanding of the forthcoming material.

Point 3 - An angry & disillusioned activist

An angry letter to the editor

The following appeared in the DAILY TELEGRAPH of 25 June 1935:

‘Treaties or scraps of paper?’

To the Editor of The Daily Telegraph,

Sir,

Last Saturday’s leading article on “Abyssinia: Our Duty” is welcome indeed after the advice liberally offered to the Emperor of Abyssinia by some sections of the English Press, urging him to submit to Italy, not because the Italian blackmail is just, but because it would be so inconvenient for ourselves if he resisted.

We might be called on to do more than lip-service to the League; and how extravagant would that be! Twenty-one years ago, when the consequences of honouring our obligations were far more menacing, we were indignant enough at the suggestion that treaties were, after all, only “scraps of paper.” But geography plays strange tricks with justice. Italy is breaking at least three solemn pledges in her aggression on a fellow member of the League – the very type of aggression that the League was created to prevent: but many of us do not find it matters very much. The League has not yet called on us; but there are already plenty of voices busy finding pretexts for us to shuffle out of the whole thing.

It is not our duty to defend Abyssinia single-handed – no-one has suggested it; but it is our duty, if covenants mean anything whatsoever, to oppose this piece of brigandage at Geneva, and after. It is our duty to be concerting with whatever Powers retain some decency, particularly the United States, what measures may be needed. Europe has at its disposal sanctions that Italy could not defy, provided we have the courage to use them. But instead of that the English Press, with a few honourable exceptions, has been taken up with nauseating discussion of our own interests. Later on, one gathers, we shall be very firm with Italy about the water of Lake Tana. Meanwhile, Ethiopian blood is a cheaper commodity.

If this is to be the way of our world, why make treaties at all? Let us at least have the courage of our cynicism. Let us have done with covenants, since they no longer serve to deceive anybody. Let us have done with the League, since “collective security” means simply the security of those strong enough to be secure. And then, if we perish in the chaos for which the world is heading, it will at least be without having canted to our last breath.

This jungle-law may have ruled between nations in the past; the time is rapidly approaching when either it ends or else the world. If the League cannot enforce one law for weak and strong, black and white, sooner or later we are finished. And if we flinch every time a test arises, we shall have deserved it.

[From a letter by F. L. Lucas of King’s College, Cambridge, British anti-appeasement campaigner, to The Daily Telegraph, 25 July 1935]

The three statements reflect the League’s marginalisation. Perhaps you can think of more recent examples in which international organisations of today have been criticised for their inability to respond? If so, keep a note of your thoughts in anticipation of our discussion of the League’s performance in step 1.16. However, before we kick off that discussion, the next step looks at another side of the League’s work: much less covered, but perhaps as important.

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This article is from the free online course:

World War 1: Paris 1919 - A New World Order?

University of Glasgow

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