League of Nations Applies Economic Sanctions Against Italy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The League of Nations applied economic sanctions against Italy for invading Ethiopia, establishing economic sanctions as a means to obtain political objectives.

Summary of Event

In the early 1930’s, Ethiopia occupied an approximately circular area, five hundred miles in diameter, in the interior of East Africa. It was bounded by the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean. Strips of coastal land surrounding Ethiopia had been colonized by the British, the French, and the Italians. Ethiopia was one of a few African nations not controlled by Europeans. The name Ethiopia, preferred by rulers of the nation, was derived from black African sources, whereas Abyssinia, another traditional name, was derived from Arabic sources and refers to the racial mix of the region. [kw]League of Nations Applies Economic Sanctions Against Italy (Oct. 11, 1935-July 15, 1936) [kw]Economic Sanctions Against Italy, League of Nations Applies (Oct. 11, 1935-July 15, 1936) [kw]Sanctions Against Italy, League of Nations Applies Economic (Oct. 11, 1935-July 15, 1936) [kw]Italy, League of Nations Applies Economic Sanctions Against (Oct. 11, 1935-July 15, 1936) League of Nations;sanctions Italy;invasion of Ethiopia World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period Ethiopia;invasion by Italy [g]Italy;Oct. 11, 1935-July 15, 1936: League of Nations Applies Economic Sanctions Against Italy[09010] [g]Italy;Oct. 11, 1935-July 15, 1936: League of Nations Applies Economic Sanctions Against Italy[09010] [g]Switzerland;Oct. 11, 1935-July 15, 1936: League of Nations Applies Economic Sanctions Against Italy[09010] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 11, 1935-July 15, 1936: League of Nations Applies Economic Sanctions Against Italy[09010] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Oct. 11, 1935-July 15, 1936: League of Nations Applies Economic Sanctions Against Italy[09010] [c]Trade and commerce;Oct. 11, 1935-July 15, 1936: League of Nations Applies Economic Sanctions Against Italy[09010] Badoglio, Pietro Eden, Anthony Hoare, Sir Samuel John Gurney Laval, Pierre Wolde-Mariam, Ato Mussolini, Benito [p]Mussolini, Benito;League of Nations sanctions against Italy Haile Selassie I

The conflict between Italy and Ethiopia began in the late nineteenth century, when Italy occupied a strip of the Red Sea coast later called Eritrea. In 1887, an Italian army of five hundred soldiers was surprised and completely destroyed by an Ethiopian army of twenty thousand soldiers. Hostility between the nations never disappeared. Then, at 2:00 a.m. on October 3, 1935, Italian patrols crossed the Mareb River, which served as the border between the Italian colony of Eritrea and the nation of Ethiopia. Those patrols attacked outposts of the Ethiopian army in the Adowa area. Three hours later, Italian aircraft bombed Adowa. As a result of these actions, the League of Nations issued economic sanctions against Italy on October 11, 1935. The sanctions were formally withdrawn on July 15, 1936.

In order to add prestige to his reign, as well as gaining access to oil fields, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini saw the successful invasion of Ethiopia as vital to Italian interests. What he needed was an incident to justify the invasion. A suitable situation developed in the southwest section of Ethiopia near the town of Walwal, an Ethiopian oasis outpost located about one hundred miles from the border of Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland. This outpost had been occupied since 1928 by Italian forces to protect their access to the water of the oasis. Borders were neither precisely marked nor well defined by local residents, and bickering was common. In 1928, Mussolini made his one and only attempt to broker a treaty with Ethiopia. The Treaty of Friendship ceded economic concessions to Italy, but Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie I, feared Italian aggression and was unable to meet his end of the agreement.

Each side viewed the other as a trespasser. The two sides exchanged shots on December 5, 1934. Ethiopia immediately brought the incident to the attention of the League of Nations, as a formal action of notification of an attempt by another nation to disturb the peace. Italians were offended by this action. By December 20, 1934, Mussolini had drawn up an important but secret document, the Directive and Plan of Action for the Resolution of the Italian-Abyssinian Question. Directive and Plan of Action for the Resolution of the Italian-Abyssinian Question This directive essentially established an Italian goal of conducting a war of colonial conquest of Ethiopia during October, 1935. The conquest of Ethiopia was completed in May, 1936, at a cost of 3,600 Italian and Eritrean lives and 275,000 Ethiopian lives. The use of mustard gas by the Italians was a significant factor. Liberation of Ethiopia by the Allies came in the spring of 1941.

Mussolini’s position toward Ethiopia was heavily influenced by developments in Europe. Adolf Hitler was elected in 1933, and militarization in Germany began almost immediately. If Italy wanted to establish a presence in North Africa, Mussolini realized that he needed to act before Germany was fully armed (and therefore ready to move into Austria, territory in which Italy also had an interest). The British and French were carefully watching the Germans, and Mussolini reasoned that they might overlook his move into Ethiopia if they thought it would aid efforts to create a united front against Germany.

Emperor Haile Selassie addresses his subjects from his palace balcony in July, 1935, a few months before the Italian invasion of Ethiopia began.

(Library of Congress)

In an attempt to avert war between Ethiopia and Italy, the League of Nations had formed several international committees to study the situation and to make recommendations for continuing the peace. Finally, a group called the Committee of Six (Britain, Chile, Denmark, France, Portugal, and Romania) made a report on October 7, 1935, in which they concluded that the Italian government had violated article 12 of the Covenants of the League of Nations. All representatives on the Council, except for the Italian representative, approved the report. The report was endorsed four days later, on October 11, in the Assembly by fifty of the fifty-four members present; Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Albania were against the report. The United States and Germany were not members of the League of Nations, although their opposite influences were strongly felt by members.

Because a violation of article 12 (conducting unlawful war) automatically enacted article 16 (punishments), the next step for the League was to determine what punitive action to take. Although article 16 allowed for military action, that was never considered. Discussions focused on economic restrictions. The term “sanctions” was coined at this time, presumably to avoid the more extreme implications of a term such as “punishments.” By tradition, since that time, the term has come to refer to economic restrictions. The task of designing these sanctions fell to a coordinating committee, which appointed a subcommittee to draw up a series of proposals for sanctions. On October 19, 1935, the subcommittee presented its proposals to the coordinating committee, which adopted them on behalf of the League.

The five proposals that were approved and became the official sanctions of the League were as follows: lifting of an arms embargo against Ethiopia, prohibition of loans or credit to Italy by member nations, prohibition against importing Italian goods except precious metals, prohibition against exporting goods normally exported by member nations to Italy, and economic support by large member nations for small member nations that depended on Italian trade for livelihood. A significant aspect of these provisions was that there was not a prohibition against the sale of iron, coal, and oil to Italy. Some nations, such as the United States, restricted the sale of these resources to Italy voluntarily, but the overall supply to Italy was not severely affected. Oil was a necessity for short-term military success. Had an immediate ban been placed on oil, the effects of economic sanctions might have been very different. Italy might have been stopped from further military actions, domestic support for Mussolini’s ambitions might have dwindled, and the various agreements between Italy and Germany in 1936 (the “Axis Accords”) might not have occurred. Perhaps the aggression of Germany in Europe would have been slowed, allowing the Allies to develop their offensive strategies.

Ironically, the provisions of the League of Nations sanctions seemed to have an immediate effect opposite to that intended. Although the sanctions did bring about minor domestic hardships, Italy suffered enormously because of the economic and external political costs of the Ethiopian invasion itself. Mussolini, however, was able to shift the perception of responsibility for the economic consequences of the invasion from himself to the sanctioning nations. He thus obtained greater loyalty and sacrifice from the Italian population. Italians came to believe that desertion by former allies, rather than the costs of invasion, had produced their economic crisis.

Three important ideas concerning the use of economic sanctions to bring about political ends were developed and became part of the general strategy of the use of economic sanctions. First, sanctions must be very broad in terms of goods restrictions and must focus on those goods most directly related to the resource needs of the sanctioned nation. Second, the issuance of sanctions must be independent of other events that could potentially become a substitute point of blame for the actual cause of the nation’s problems. Third, based on the long experience of failed economic sanctions not only under the League but also under its successor, the United Nations, sanctions against an authoritarian regime that is unresponsive to its population’s suffering will only frustrate the population and leave the wayward regime intact.

The sanctions were not universally enforced by members. Four nations refused to participate at all, and more than 25 percent of the remaining nations refused to apply the sanctions in their entirety. Because some nations did not fully support the sanctions and because Britain and other nations wanted to maintain cordial relations with Italy in the event of a possible war with Germany, alternative proposals were drawn up. One such plan was the Hoare-Laval proposal Hoare-Laval proposal[Hoare Laval proposal] to divide Ethiopia, giving part to Italy and allowing part to be a sovereign nation. This proposal was the joint work of British foreign secretary Sir Samuel John Gurney Hoare and French foreign secretary Pierre Laval.

During the nine months following the imposition of sanctions, member nations of the League looked on them with increasing disfavor. The Italian conquest was viewed favorably by American business interests, and the U.S. government approved of it in a formal statement on June 22, 1936. This worldwide trend of opinion led to the conclusion that sanctions were not relevant and were essentially inappropriate. The British formally denounced sanctions on June 18, 1936. France, Austria, Canada, Haiti, Honduras, Uruguay, and Belgium did so by June 22, and on June 25 the “neutral nations” of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Finland, Switzerland, and Spain followed suit. A speech by Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia on June 30, 1936, caused a temporary reconsideration of the wisdom of lifting sanctions. Ethiopia submitted two resolutions regarding its plight. They were rejected on July 4, but on the same day the president of the League of Nations made a formal recommendation to lift sanctions against Italy. It was passed by a vote of 44 to 1, with 4 abstentions. On July 6, 1936, the coordinating committee decided to end sanctions. This action came into effect on July 15, 1936.


Italy’s attack on Ethiopia served to discredit the League of Nations and thus hastened the development of World War II. One crucial outcome was the general conclusion that the Western democracies, especially Great Britain and the United States, were weak and would not pose a threat to international aggression. This made an impression on Adolf Hitler, who in 1936 was still a student of Benito Mussolini. The Rome-Berlin Axis was a direct outcome of the invasion and League sanctions. Mussolini advised his nation to meet sanctions with quiet resolve to do more with less. The Italian population was thus conditioned to endure the hardships of the much longer war to come. A less obvious but far-reaching impact of the invasion and sanctions was that Africans became convinced that the traditional colonial system was of no use to them. Nationalist fervor developed, and the continent would not return to former ways. Self-governance and self-reliance became the only realistic options after the lack of trust that developed.

In economic terms, Ethiopia gained from Italian investments and development in infrastructure, but at a high price in terms of lives and freedom. The use of economic sanctions to achieve political ends, however, was firmly established in spite of failure in this first use. It has been refined and, in combination with other methods, has been used successfully in attempts by nations to limit the aggression of others. As a single solution, however, economic sanctions have never been successful, perhaps because of the failures of 1936. Economic sanctions have become more of an initial tactic rather than a complete strategy. When the income and employment opportunities of nations become restricted, popular sentiment for military adventurism declines quickly. As politicians have recognized for decades, immediate effects on personal and family incomes are of major consequence in determining popularity for various business and government proposals. Economic sanctions that can affect those incomes thus have an important strategic role. League of Nations;sanctions Italy;invasion of Ethiopia World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period Ethiopia;invasion by Italy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asante, S. K. B. Pan-African Protest: West Africa and the Italo-Ethiopian Crisis, 1934-1941. London: Longman, 1977. The purpose of this book is to examine the effects on, and reactions of, black Africans to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Most analyses are from a European perspective. Extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baer, George W. The Coming of the Italian-Ethiopian War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. One of two important volumes on this subject by Baer, this 403-page book begins by describing events of the period 1889-1934 that led up to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The majority of the book discusses the nine months preceding the October, 1935, invasion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Test Case: Italy, Ethiopia, and the League of Nations. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1976. This 367-page book is an extraordinarily complete reference concerning the response of the League of Nations to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Chapter 12, “Ethiopia Is Italian,” is a very readable, vivid description of the issuance, and then withdrawal, of sanctions against Italy by the League of Nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barker, A. J. The Civilizing Mission: A History of the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-1936. New York: Dial Press, 1968. A thorough description of the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy. Takes the point of view that the originating motivation for the invasion was rooted in late nineteenth century attempts by Italy to establish colonies in East Africa and in unexpected defeats by the Africans. Thirty interesting photographs, convenient timetable outline, ten maps, and four helpful appendixes, including one with details concerning the composition of Italian invasion troops.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Martin. Modern Italy: 1871-1982. London: Longman, 1984. This 444-page volume provides a competent history of modern Italy. Of particular interest is chapter 14, which presents a concise discussion of the Ethiopian invasion of 1935 and repulsion in 1941. Insightful discussion of the relationship of the creation of the IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale) and the Ethiopian invasion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clough, Shepard B., and Salvatore Saladino. A History of Modern Italy: Documents, Readings, and Commentary. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. This substantial book (657 pages) presents a helpful and concise review of the events of the Italian-Ethiopian war. Of special note are key documents that have been included verbatim (in translated form): “Mussolini’s Speech to the Chamber of Deputies, May 25, 1935” and “Mussolini’s Speech on the Eve of Hostilities Against Ethiopia, October 2, 1935.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coffey, Thomas M. Lion by the Tail: The Story of the Italian-Ethiopian War. New York: Viking Press, 1974. Presents a thorough history of events leading to the withdrawal, by the League of Nations, of sanctions against Italy. The style of this book is particularly engaging. Eighteen carefully selected photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Del Boca, Angelo. The Ethiopian War, 1935-1941. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. A straightforward account of the war and of the short-lived Italian rule in Ethiopia. Del Boca strongly supports Haile Selassie’s efforts to maintain Ethiopian independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dugan, James, and Laurence Lafore. Days of Emperor and Clown: The Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936. New York: Doubleday, 1973. The premise of this book, begun by Dugan and completed by Lafore, is that the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1935-1936 was important not only in and of itself but also in giving impetus and direction to World War II. The “Note on Usages and Literature” is very helpful for American or European readers of the history of this event.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardie, Frank. The Abyssinian Crisis. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1974. Presents a concise sequential history and assessment of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia using, lightly, a chess metaphor. Useful appendixes provide principal dates of the Ethiopian crisis and “Notes on Books” used in research for the book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macartney, M. H. H., and P. Cremona. Italy’s Foreign and Colonial Policy, 1914-1937. London: Oxford University Press, 1938. The Ethiopian conquest allowed Italy to sever its traditional relationship with Great Britain and establish closer relations with Hitler’s Germany. Even so, the authors argue that Mussolini’s foreign policy was consistent with his predecessors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. A survey of Ethiopian history from prehistoric times to the present. Marcus’s account is supportive of Haile Selassie and his efforts to modernize Ethiopia and to maintain its independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mockler, Anthony. Haile Selassie’s War: The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935-1941. Northampton, Mass.: Olive Branch Press, 2002. Includes detailed factual information about Ethiopia. A lengthy “tale of blood and war” which the author hopes is objective and accurate. Covers not only the Italian invasion but also the British invasion in 1941.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sbacchi, Alberto. Legacy of Bitterness: Ethiopia and Fascist Italy, 1935-1941. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1997. Sbacchi places the struggle in a broader global context and pays particular attention to development of black nationalism and its reaction to the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schaefer, Ludwig F., ed. The Ethiopian Crisis: Touchstone of Appeasement? Chicago: D. C. Heath, 1961. Collection of essays by well-known statesmen, general historians (including Winston Churchill and Arnold Toynbee), and specialists. Suitable for high school-level readers.

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