The Horn of Africa is sliding toward a major war which seems likely to rapidly expand to embrace the major powers. The situation has strong parallels to the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which began World War II and destroyed the League of Nations.
[Published with permission from the Journal of Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis]
By Gregory R. Copley
Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs
Most Ethiopians are mesmerized by the growing violence threatening to totally engulf their country. They watch mutely as they see a seemingly improbable threat evolve as their Government assures them that all will be well.
But all will not be well. And it is not merely the population which is frozen; it is the Prime Minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali. He has heeded no strategically- or militarily-capable advice.
And, with strong coordination, the internal war has been married to the international threat. Sudanese forces have already begun to occupy Ethiopian border lands; they are ready to penetrate further, with Egyptian help.
He has succumbed to the advice of his ethnic Oromo political power base to refuse military assistance to the Amhara and Afar regions, thus allowing key areas of the country to face major devastating assaults on the local communities there by the marxist rebels of the Tigré Popular Liberation Front (TPLF) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) militias.
In other words, Abiy has now demonstrated that he is not the Prime Minister of all Ethiopians.
The question, then, is why the Ethiopian people are not preparing for a grave internal collapse, or for foreign incursions against their borders? Part of this is down to the reality that they have been deprived — as has the outside world — of a realistic, independent reporting on the crisis. Virtually all the news spectrum is dominated, on the issue of Ethiopia, by the TPLF’s extensive and well-funded global information warfare, which has even gone to the extent of threatening Australia’s Government-owned Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) Amharic-language service.
But the bottom line is that the US State Dept. has supported the TPLF and literally worked against the unity of Ethiopia. And US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Nigeria, Kenya, and Senegal ending on November 18, 2021, was intended to galvanize African pressure on Ethiopia. It did not appear to succeed.
On November 15, 2021, this writer addressed a dinner in London to commemorate the Victory of Gondar: the 80th anniversary of the Allied victory over the Italian forces in Ethiopia. The talk highlighted the parallels between events of the 1935-41 Second Italo- Ethiopian War and the situation prevailing today. It is relevant to our outlook for 2021 and beyond as the Ethiopia dispute sets the groundwork for a larger conflict.
Parts of that speech on the evening of November 15, 2021, are reported here:
Parallels With the 1935-41 War
Tonight is a night to remember; a night to remember to remember.
To remember that which, to the collective shame, has never been sufficiently honored.
Neither has this mighty struggle [the Ethiopian resistance of the Italian invasion] had its inspirational contribution to the eternal flame of freedom nurtured and implanted in the hearts of successive generations. But we will remember those countless unreported battles and the victims. There was not only great sacrifice and suffering on the part of the Ethiopian people in the face of an overwhelming and barbarous invader from the start of the second Italo-Ethiopian war in 1935. There was also the spontaneous, reactive ignition of identity, courage, and fierce resistance on the part of Ethiopians of many different ethnicities. In so many ways, and without the benefit of communication with their like-minded brethren, they instinctively resisted the systematic oppression of an invader who used weapons banned by the world to lay waste to their country. Specifically, the use of chemical weapons and wanton disregard for the agreed conventions of warfare.
Those who resisted the fascist forces of Benito Mussolini were the Arbegnoch, the Patriots, and they fought alone, or in small groups, or larger groups, as fighters, and subverters of the invaders. They fought often in the darkness of a country in which, even before the invasion, electronic communications were largely absent but which, under the invaders, were totally unavailable. They fought, then, in the loneliness of what might have been a futile war but one from which they could not turn.
Most did not know it, but the Italian invasion of Ethiopia marked the true start of World War II. It was that invasion in 1935 which triggered and empowered the rush of the Axis powers toward conquest: from the German invasion of the Sudetenland and all which followed that step, emboldened by the example of Mussolini; to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which was designed to divide Europe; and to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and China in 1937.
This is what Mussolini wrought with his invasion of Ethiopia for no other reason than to acquire the grandeur of an empire; not even an empire which could contribute to the prosperity of Italians, but one only to swell the pride of a conqueror who would conquer solely for the sake of conquest.
Millions of Ethiopians, innocent of any crime against Italy or Mussolini, died for this dream. And the casus belli, beneath the trumped-up and so-called border violations in the Somali deserts, was, for Mussolini, to avenge the defeat of the Italians at Adwa in Ethiopia in 1896, when Italy had — less than a half century before — also tried without legal justification to conquer Ethiopia.
The rationale of the 1896 and the 1935 invasions was simply that Ethiopia existed as a sovereign African nation, historically never colonized. It was not because Ethiopia had provoked or incited war. It was simply seen as being “available” for conquest. Mussolini’s fatal mistake and his arrogance cost so many Ethiopian and Italian lives, but it was his Ethiopian misadventure which meant that he was condemned to join with Nazi Germany, and thus lose the war.
So the 1935 invasion truly marked the start of World War II, and the invasion’s ultimate defeat in 1941 — finishing with the Battle of Gondar in November — marked the first Allied victory of the War. It was the first Axis- occupied territory to be liberated.
World War II continued to drag on until 1945, so no-one paused at the time to recognize that the great warriors who had alone and without support resisted the Axis from 1935 until 1939 were the Ethiopians.
In the earliest phases of the war, Emperor Haile Selassie himself became the last Crowned Head of State in the world to lead his army, actually fighting on the battlefield. When it became clear that Ethiopia could not successfully resist the modern military technology of the invaders by military means alone, the Emperor left the country to attempt to gain political support to pressure Italy to cease its war against his people. The Emperor’s lonely mission isolated him from his people in the first instance, but had he not embarked on that path, it was unlikely that Ethiopia would have survived intact after the war. First, as we know, the Emperor beseeched the League of Nations to condemn the Italian invasion and to bring about sanctions which would force Mussolini to desist.
The League of Nations was shamed into irrelevance when on June 30, 1936, the Emperor said that international morality was at stake, and then noted: “It is us today, it will be you tomorrow.”
It was at that point that the League of Nations lost its mandate.
Many at the time perceived that his mission had failed to save Ethiopia, but, when Italy finally found itself at war with the Allies after 1939, the United Kingdom turned to its lonely guest, the Emperor, and agreed to work with him toward the liberation of Ethiopia.
Had the Emperor not been the essential component in making that liberation happen, then, yes, Italy would still ultimately have been defeated, but Ethiopia would have moved from being a nation conquered by Italy to one which, leaderless, would have been buffeted and dominated during a time of global chaos.
The great historical combination of the Arbegnoch and the Emperor was what was required to ensure that the defeat of the Italian invaders left Ethiopia intact to rebuild.
But what history has forgotten, apart from the clear origin of World War II dating from the Italian invasion on October 3, 1935, was that Ethiopia, in fact, was the first combatant power of the Allies, and greatly contributed to the Allied Victory in the war. But it was never recognized as one of the Allied nations in the same way that, for example, the Republic of China was in the defeat of Japan. Yes, Ethiopia became one of the founding members of the United Nations at the war’s end, but its great contributions of lives and treasure were remembered largely only by Ethiopians.
And yet the families of those British and Empire fighters who joined with Haile Selassie to bring about the defeat of the invaders know to their great cost and their great honor how important was the Victory of Gondar in 1941. The lessons learned there by the British, particularly by the UK Special Operations Executive (SOE) Mission 101 and Gideon Force under Orde Win- gate, were to be successfully applied in other, later theaters of war. And the military experience gained in Ethiopia by forces from Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, and so on contributed to the development of nationalism throughout post-war Africa. Even Australia contributed a handful of fighters to Mission 101, with notable heroic actions and losses.
There are books emerging which detail some of the forgotten aspects of this campaign of liberation. But, until now, we have never seen a celebration of the mighty alliance created for that liberation by Emperor Haile Selassie and the British Government of Winston Churchill under King George VI.
This is what we remedy with tonight’s commemoration, and with the issuance of the Victory of Gondar Anniversary Medal, marking 80 years since the final battle of the campaign, so that it is truly restored to its place as a milestone in human freedom.
The Ethiopian Crown, in exile, pioneered the annual celebration of the Victory of Adwa, the 1896 defeat of the Italian invasion in the first Italo-Ethiopian war. And, as the communist era ended in Ethiopia in 2018, we have seen there the official restoration of the annual recognition of the Adwa memorial services each year.
It was important that we remembered the great alliance of Ethiopian and British peoples, and the alliance of Ethiopia with all those who fought to liberate Ethiopia. It is particularly important to honor the Arbegnoch who fought and died or survived without recognition from their foreign allies.
It is important that we understand how the Ethiopian and British people had then, and have now, common cause in the eternal struggle for dignity and freedom. Britain recognized Emperor Haile Selassie by creating him a Field Marshal of the British Army and a Knight of the Garter.
Today, we see Ethiopia once again besieged, and its fate being decided by a vast information warfare campaign orchestrated by groups and nations which would happily see Ethiopia divided or destroyed. Today, as in 1935, the United Nations mirrors the League of Nations in enabling aggressors.
Are we to see the early 21st Century mirror the 1930s? Are we to see the ignorance of history and of the current events in Ethiopia allow a repetition of the slide of the international community into broader conflict?
Without lowering the tone of optimism which remembrance of the great alliance should create, it is worth asking in 2021 as it was in 1936 whether the Ethiopians should say again: “Today it is us, again; tomorrow it will be you, again.”
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