The Lion Fights Back: Deriving Meaning from Emperor Haile Selassie's Condemnation of Mussolini's Military Actions in Ethiopia
Emperor Haile Selassie’s 1936 speech to the League of Nations marked the first time a head of state had spoken there. In his spirited speech, Selassie roundly condemned the actions of the Italian invasion in Ethiopia, appealing to the assembled members to intervene in the ongoing conflict. In vivid detail, Selassie described the Italians’ illegal use of force and poisonous gas, in which thousands of Ethiopian military personnel and civilians were murdered. He also outlined his past efforts at peace with the Italian government, emphasizing Italy’s war tactics as Ethiopia tried to find a peaceful solution. He also used this platform to remind the League of its failures in upholding its own collective security clause, appealing for aid as Italy continued to encroach on Ethiopia’s sovereignty.
Historic Linkages: Assessing the Salience of Selassie’s Speech
While tension between Italy and Ethiopia has all but evaporated since the end of Italy’s occupation, the turbulence and instability in Ethiopia during the 1930’s is still salient today. Specifically, the constraints of collective security, a concept advocated by the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, can be seen not only in the Italian-Ethiopian conflict that occurred during the 1930’s, but in various conflicts that have taken place since then. Selassie’s spirited speech did little to persuade the League of Nations to take decisive action over Italy. Under Article X of the League of Nation’s Covenant, the territorial sovereignty of all member states was to be upheld. Yet in the case of Ethiopia, the issue of violated sovereignty did little to spur the League into action. Rather than use force to aid Ethiopia, the League of Nations opted instead to impose economic sanctions against Italy. Yet it wasn’t the first time the League had failed to stop an act of aggression: the same lack of decisive action was also seen the League’s handling of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Selassie did not hesitate to list the League’s botched handling of Manchuria in his speech in order to remind it of its collective security responsibilities, especially toward smaller and weaker states.
In both cases, the League of Nations failed to uphold its own idealistic principles. Therefore, these conflicts are emblematic of the limited nature of collective security, especially when the aggressors are member states who have sworn to uphold the tenets of non-aggression and peace. While several of the present-day peacekeeping missions of the United Nations have been largely successful, other missions show the United Nation’s lack of conviction and failure to act accordingly, recalling the plight of Selassie trying to point out Italy’s actions before a global organization, to no effect. More recent failed initiatives of the UN Peacekeepers include the aborted 2002 Israeli-Palestinian “Road for Peace” plan, failure to stop the Second Congo War, and the failure of UN troops to prevent the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Yet the failure of the United Nations to resolve these international disputes is often attributed to its decision-making structure. Many criticisms have been levied at the “nuclear club” mentality of the UN Security Council, a council that is oftentimes seen as a governing body acting for its own interests rather than the interests of the conflict-ridden state. Selassie alluded to such a mentality in his speech, in which he accused the powerful states of acting in their own interests rather than in the interests of the whole League, wondering whether the large powers can be spurred to action only if an issue arises that impacts them directly.
The limits of collective security can be seen in the limited success of the United Nations in mitigating international conflict. As we see in Haile Selassie’s speech to the League of Nations, the transition from the League of Nations to the UN did not completely solve these constraints. Indeed, the United Nations was formed as a result of the League of Nation’s failure to prevent World War II. The capacity of the United Nations to solve problems is still a subject of considerable debate among members of academia and politics. Even though the failure of the League of Nations to prevent World War II resulted in its demise, the problems faced by Haile Selassie while trying to elicit a proper response from the League of Nations only seemed to be transferred to the League’s successor, the United Nations. In subsequent years, the UN has not found a foolproof way to deal effectively with international crises, instead choosing to repeat the mistakes of its troubled predecessor.
Context: Troubling Times in the Kingdom
Many of the historical details mentioned in the speech were meant to elicit a sympathetic response from the League. This context was an important aspect to include in the speech, meant to remind the League that Ethiopia was a self-determined nation that was battling a determined aggressor.
During the 19th century Scramble for Africa, Ethiopia and Liberia remained the only African countries to retain their independence. From 1895 to 1896, Italy attempted to invade Ethiopia in a conflict known as the First Italo-Ethiopian War. By the end of the brief war, it was clear that Ethiopia, with military support from Russia and France, was the clear victor. At the conclusion of the war, Italy was forced to recognize Ethiopia as an independent country through the signing of the important Treaty of Addis Ababa. Yet by 1935, Italy launched a second attack on Italy, hoping to redeem itself from the failure of the first attempt. This era exemplified the fragile security environment present in both Europe and Africa in the run-up to the Second World War.
Since 1919, Haile Selassie had undertaken a campaign to modernize Ethiopia, a campaign that incorporated plans to reform alongside Ethiopia’s monarchical traditions. Yet Selassie’s plans were interrupted by the Italian fascist invasion in 1935. The subsequent occupation of Ethiopia involved numerous acts of aggression by the Italian army, including the use of mustard gas on civilians and the bombing of Red Cross ambulances and hospitals. Even though the Ethiopian Minister for Foreign Affairs provided substantial proof to the League of Italian war crimes in the region, they passed largely unnoticed by the League, who chose to impose weapons sanctions against Italy rather than use force to defend Ethiopia. Haile Selassie’s speech before the League’s General Assembly also did little to inspire the League to invoke its collective security clause. Indeed, even after Selassie’s speech, Italian war crimes in Ethiopia continued. One of the most famous crimes occurred on May 20, 1937. The Italian aggressors made their way to Debra Liganos, a thriving community of monks. These monks, totaling 297, were shot dead. Other community members, numbering between four and five hundred, who were present at the time were rounded up, tied with ropes, and machined gunned at nearby Engecha.
The Ethiopian government brought up Italy’s war crimes on two separate occasions, with Selassie’s speech, and a few years later, with the UN War Crimes Commission. Neither claim was successful, with the principal members of the League, Britain and France, instead seeking to appease Italy, choosing not to condemn Italy’s war crimes. It was this fragile security environment that defined the context of Selassie’s most famous speech, serving as a stark reminder of the complex alliances and strategies present during wartime. The context also revealed the League’s apparent disinterest in crimes committed among non-Europeans, preferring instead to focus attention on strictly European matters.
The Tone of Selassie’s speech
Haile Selassie’s impressive oratory skills are clearly represented in his historic speech before the League of Nations. The tone of the speech is both indignant and poignant, meant to convey a sense of helplessness on behalf of the Ethiopian people, who were being brutally oppressed by Italian forces. Selassie recounts the various murderous activities which are directed not only at the army but at innocent women and children. He also does not hesitate to remind the Assembly of his own record as Ethiopia’s modernizer and advocate. Another feature of the speech is the various facts and figures Selassie uses to reinforce his claim. By presenting powerful, factual evidence in graphic detail, Selassie appeals to the Assembly’s emotions in order to try to elicit a response. The structure and mood of the speech allow for three themes to be identified.
Theme 1: The failure of the League of Nations
The objective of collective security is to thwart any attempt by states to change the status quo with overwhelming force. According to George Schwarzeberger, collective security is a “machinery for joint action in order to prevent or counter any attack against an established international order.” The term implies collective measures for dealing with threat to peace.
The League of Nations is often seen as a failed institution, one that failed to adequately act in the face of the various political crises that occurred during the first half of the twentieth century.
The failure of the League’s collective security doctrine during this period can be attributed to several factors, including the fact that the League did not include all of the world’s states as members. Selassie brought up the League’s inefficiency on multiple times during the course of his speech, since one of the main issues the League faced was its inability to provide security for its members, as Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia shows. This led to the breakdown of order and prevented the League from acting like a true alliance. Members pursued their own military interests in spite of rhetoric to disarm. Selassie brought up the League’s inability to stop Italy many times during the speech, stating “placed by the aggressor face to face with the accomplished fact, are States going to set up the terrible precedent of bowing before force?”
Another barrier standing in the way of the League’s effectiveness was its failure to include the major world powers as member states. The absence of the United States as a member was a key contributor to its demise as a functioning organization. In reaction to Selassie’s speech, rather than take military action, the League instead imposed economic sanctions on Italy. This was the only attempt at collective security enforcement on the Italy-Ethiopia issue.  In fact, it was the League’s inability to prevent Italy’s military actions on Ethiopia and the subsequent limited economic sanctions that led many people to question the League’s effectiveness. In addition, “the open deﬁance of Japan, Italy and Germany combined to destroy any hopes that the League would be eﬀective in major international crises.”
Theme 2: Africa’s Experience with European Colonialism
Apart from the failure of the League to act as an agent of collective security, Selassie’s speech also highlighted the long and painful experience of the African continent with European colonialism. During the Scramble for Africa, in which various European powers colonized and occupied many parts of Africa, Italy launched its first attempt at Ethiopian invasion. The invasion provoked outrage amongst various black populations in Africa, Britain, and even the United States. As a result, the Italo-Ethiopian summarized so eloquently in Selassie’s speech was emblematic not just of the Ethiopian population’s plight against European-led oppression, but of the plights of other oppressed African-descended populations from around the globe.
In Africa, the opposition to Italy’s invasion was not only heard within Ethiopia’s borders; in Kenya, for example, members of the Kikuyu Central Association (a political organization founded in central Kenya to address local concerns to the British government) , vowed to march into Ethiopia to defend against the Italians. In London, the Pan-African journalist George Padmore wrote in the African-American publication The Crisis: “the struggles of the Abyssinians is fundamentally a part of the struggles of the black race the world over for national freedom, political, social, and racial segregation.”
Padmore was especially vocal in trying to connect anti-Fascism to anti-Imperialism, hoping that the conflict will sway public opinion in America and Europe. Padmore developed the phrase ‘colonial fascism’ to describe the actions of imperial powers in the colonies, arguing that the only way to defeat Fascism was to grant independence to all colonies. Padmore was well known in British newspaper circles as a tireless advocate of colonial rights, writing in the periodical International African Opinion: “Imperialism, whatever its high pretensions to philanthropy, cannot be anything else but Fascist in its actual operation…Empire and Democracy are not compatible, in the end one must give way to the other.” In another publication, the Red International of Labour of Unions Magazine for the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, Padmore wrote of the three historic enemies of Abyssinia, those being Great Britain, France, and Italy, having entered into secret treaties for the conquest and dividing up of the country.
Theme 3: The Religious-Political Nexus
Throughout the speech, Selassie constantly used religious language to make his case before the League. His use of the phrase ‘I pray to Almighty God’ imbues within the speech a sense of almost superstitious urgency to the resolution of the Italo-Ethiopian conflict. He stated that apart from the Kingdom of the Lord, there is no nation that is better than the other. This statement is symbolic in many ways. By using religious language to frame a nation’s equality in relation to other nations, Selassie also reminded the League of how the notion of collective security entrusted that nations that were weaker and/or smaller should be treated with the same dignity and respect as larger, more powerful states. In a less subtle way, Selassie stated ‘God and history will remember your judgment’, which has an almost threatening tone attached to it. He continues to say: “In a word, it is international morality that is at stake. Have the signatures appended to a Treaty value only in so far as the signatory Powers have a personal, direct and immediate interest involved?" Selassie used this language to try to appeal to the League’s morality, trying to make them feel like they were being selfish, since Italy’s actions didn't affect them.
The purposeful religious language echoes Selassie’s own role as a major religious figure in the loosely organized religious movement known as Rastafarianism. Even as Selassie advocated a better future for Ethiopia, the religious movement created in his honor, originating in Jamaica, also believed Selassie was a leader who will lead the righteous into creating a perfect world. Selassie did his best to convey during the speech his own selflessness and sense of civic duty; he painted himself as a martyr trying to find justice for his people. This very language seemed to resonate with a multitude of followers in the Caribbean and elsewhere, who were drawn to Selassie’s sense of fairness and devotion to defending his people.
Haile Selassie’s spirited speech before the League of Nations highlighted the tense security environment unfolding in Europe and beyond. Yet even as the brief but deadly clash between Italy and Ethiopia came to an end, a new threat was just over the horizon: Nazi Germany. Selassie’s speech captured the complex security dilemma unfolding in an era of militarization and conquest. The Ethiopian invasion also served as a stark reminder to the limits of collective security, especially when the victims are much weaker than the aggressor, as seen in the case of Italy and Ethiopia. As Africa continues to struggle with the long-lasting effects of European colonialism, Emperor Haile Selassie I will always be remembered as one of Africa’s greatest leaders, living up to his mystical moniker, the Conquering Lion.
 Haile Selassie I, “Speech given at the League of Nations,” (speech, Geneva, Switzerland, June 20, 1936)
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Audio Recording of 1936 Speech, League of Nations, Geneva, Switzerland
Emmett on January 09, 2014:
Excellently written. However, the video you have at the end is not of Selassie addressing the League of Nations in 1936 - it is of him addressing the UN in 1963. Otherwise, great and very informative.