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IB DP History Study Notes

3.2.5 Italian Expansion and Aggression

During the interwar period, Italy, under Mussolini's leadership, aggressively sought to reassert its position on the global stage. This drive would significantly disrupt the balance of power in Europe.

Italy's Invasion of Abyssinia


  • Imperial Ambition: Mussolini, inspired by the Roman Empire's historical might, pursued territorial acquisitions to recreate a 'New Roman Empire'. This romanticised notion aimed to restore Italy's historical glory and dominance.
  • National Prestige: The aftermath of WWI saw Italy feeling cheated by the Treaty of Versailles' terms. Despite being part of the winning Entente, Italy felt it didn’t gain enough territories. As a response, Mussolini sought to augment Italy's international standing through other territorial conquests.
  • Economic Interests: Abyssinia, a still independent African nation, was eyed for its potential resources. Mussolini believed that by controlling Abyssinia, Italy could economically benefit through direct access to these resources.

For more on the Abyssinian Crisis and the League of Nations' Response, see the linked notes.


  • Initial Attacks: Launched from Italian colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland in October 1935, the Italian army began their campaign against Abyssinia.
  • Advanced Warfare: Italy's advanced military machinery, such as tanks and aeroplanes, heavily contrasted Abyssinia's largely outdated arsenal. Moreover, Italy's use of chemical weapons like mustard gas, despite international conventions, demonstrated the lengths they were willing to go to secure victory.
  • Capture of Addis Ababa: Italian forces rapidly advanced, and by May 1936, they captured Addis Ababa, solidifying their control over Abyssinia.

International Response

  • League of Nations: Although the League of Nations condemned the invasion, its sanctions were limited and lacked enforcement, primarily due to major powers' reluctance to challenge Italy. This further weakened the League's credibility. For details on the international response to Italian aggression, follow the link.
  • Major Powers' Dilemma: Britain and France were in a predicament. They were concerned about Germany's rise and sought to placate Italy, potentially as a counterbalance to Germany. Their proposed Hoare-Laval Pact, which would effectively allow Italian control over Abyssinia, was abandoned due to public backlash, showcasing their internal policy conflicts.
  • Abyssinia's Appeal: The plea from Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia to the League of Nations was a poignant reminder of the international body's impotence. Despite his eloquent appeal, little concrete action was taken.

Italian Aggression in Albania

Lead-up to Invasion

  • Strategic Importance: Albania was strategically positioned in the Adriatic, and its annexation would provide Italy with an advantage in controlling maritime routes and a launchpad for further Balkan adventures.
  • Economic Influence: Before the military action, Italy had substantial economic investments in Albania. These investments in sectors like banking made Albania an economically dependent state, easing the path for Italian domination.
  • Diplomatic Coercion: Before resorting to military action, Mussolini exerted significant diplomatic pressure on King Zog of Albania. This was to ensure that Albania was aligned more closely with Italian interests.


  • The swift invasion in April 1939 saw little Albanian resistance. King Zog was forced into exile, and Albania was annexed shortly after, becoming an Italian protectorate.
IB History Tutor Tip: Analyse how Italy's aggressive foreign policies under Mussolini were not only driven by imperial ambition but also highlighted the limitations and ineffectiveness of international diplomatic responses in the interwar period.

International Response

  • Tepid Condemnation: Unlike the Abyssinia episode, the international community's response to Albania's annexation was even more subdued. Mere verbal condemnations were issued without any substantial diplomatic or economic repercussions for Italy.
  • Altered Regional Dynamics: With Albania under its belt, Italy's influence in the Balkan region grew. Neighbouring nations, such as Greece and Yugoslavia, grew wary of potential Italian expansions in their direction.

Impact on Regional Stability and International Relations

Regional Destabilisation

  • Balkan Equilibrium Disturbed: The Balkan region was already a hotspot for tensions, with nationalistic sentiments and territorial disputes. Italy's aggressive posturing added another layer of instability to this mix.
  • Establishing Precedence: Mussolini's unchecked territorial ambitions, and the international community's tepid responses, set dangerous precedents. It signalled that revisionist powers could alter post-WWI territorial settlements with little to no consequences.

Diplomatic Impacts

  • Italy's Isolation: Despite the appeasement policies, Italy's actions led to its increasing isolation. Nations began to view Italy as a rogue state, one that could not be trusted to uphold international norms. To understand more about Italian and German foreign policies between 1919 and 1941, refer to the relevant notes.
  • Shifting Alliances: Britain and France, realising that appeasement was not having the desired effect, began seeking new allies. The focus shifted towards creating a broader anti-fascist front, leading to closer ties with the USSR.
  • Germany Takes Note: Germany, under Hitler, was keenly observing the international community's reactions to Italy's actions. The feeble responses bolstered Hitler's beliefs that he too could pursue expansionist policies without facing substantial backlash. This belief was instrumental in shaping Germany's aggressive moves in the subsequent years, pushing Europe inexorably towards WWII.
IB Tutor Advice: Focus on the cause, execution, and international response to Italy's invasions, understanding the broader implications for European diplomacy and the eventual lead-up to World War II.

For further context on the unification of Italy between 1849 and 1871, consider reviewing the detailed notes.

Key Takeaways for Students:

1. Mussolini's ambitions were a mix of personal ideology, nationalistic fervour, and practical considerations.

2. The lack of a cohesive international response to Italy's actions played a significant role in emboldening other powers, notably Germany.

3. Italy's aggressive policies in the 1930s were instrumental in altering the diplomatic landscape of Europe, contributing significantly to the tensions that would culminate in WWII.


Italian propaganda under Mussolini was a powerful tool that showcased Italy's supposed right and destiny to establish a 'New Roman Empire'. The media, heavily controlled by the state, perpetuated ideals of Italian superiority, historical might, and the need to restore its ancient glory. Images, films, and news articles depicted Mussolini as a visionary leader, guiding Italy to regain its rightful place on the world stage. The invasions of Abyssinia and Albania were portrayed as noble quests, liberating these territories from inept rulers and introducing them to the 'benefits' of Italian civilisation. This narrative helped galvanise public support and stifle internal dissent against Mussolini's aggressive foreign policies.

Mussolini initially saw Hitler and Nazi Germany with a degree of scepticism. He did not immediately align with Hitler's ideology and viewed Nazism as a potential threat to Italy's regional dominance. However, as the 1930s progressed and the international response to Italy's expansionist policies grew increasingly adverse, Mussolini saw an alliance with Germany as strategically beneficial. By the late 1930s, the two dictators grew closer, with mutual interests converging on issues like anti-communism and territorial expansion. Yet, Mussolini always wanted Italy to be an equal partner and not a subordinate, a point of contention in their relations.

Italy's aggressive policies and the League's ineffectual responses highlighted the League's fundamental weaknesses. The League's inability to halt Italy's invasion of Abyssinia, coupled with the Hoare-Laval Pact debacle, severely undermined its credibility. As a result, the League began to lose influence on the international stage. Many countries began to realise that collective security, as envisioned by the League, was failing in the face of rising aggressions. The League's subsequent policies and actions were tinged with this recognition, leading to a more appeasing stance towards aggressive powers, thereby diminishing its role and effectiveness in preserving global peace.

The Hoare-Laval Pact was a secret agreement proposed by British Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare and French Prime Minister Pierre Laval in December 1935. Its intent was to end the Italo-Abyssinian War by offering Italy two-thirds of Abyssinia, while leaving the remaining third as an independent Abyssinian state. The pact was controversial because it contradicted the public stance of the League of Nations, which sought to protect Abyssinia's sovereignty. When details of the agreement were leaked to the press, it sparked outrage among the public and many politicians in both Britain and France. Many viewed it as a blatant act of appeasement and a betrayal of the League's principles, leading to its eventual abandonment.

King Zog I was the ruler of Albania from 1928 to 1939. He ascended to the throne as a monarch after serving as the Prime Minister and later President of the Albanian Republic. Under his leadership, Albania saw significant modernisation efforts and Europeanisation of its legal and administrative systems. However, his reign was also marked by political unrest, with Zog's policies often favouring consolidation of power and suppressing opposition. Over time, King Zog grew increasingly reliant on Italian support, both economically and militarily. This dependency made Albania susceptible to Italian influences and ultimately eased Italy's annexation of the country in 1939.

Practice Questions

How did Italy's aggressive actions in Abyssinia and Albania in the 1930s contribute to the erosion of international diplomatic norms?

Italy's aggressive manoeuvres in Abyssinia and Albania during the 1930s fundamentally undermined established international diplomatic conventions. Firstly, the invasion of Abyssinia spotlighted the League of Nations' inability to enforce its own mandates, thereby weakening its legitimacy. The global community's tepid response to both invasions, especially the Hoare-Laval Pact's proposal, demonstrated the fading commitment to upholding post-WWI territorial settlements. Further, the annexation of Albania without substantial international repercussions showcased the rise of appeasement as a diplomatic strategy. Collectively, these actions eroded the standards of international diplomacy, paving the way for larger-scale territorial aggressions in Europe.

Assess the impact of Italy's expansionist policies on regional stability and international alliances in the late 1930s.

Italy's expansionist endeavours during the late 1930s had profound ramifications on regional equilibrium and international alliances. Regionally, the annexation of Albania shifted the Balkan balance, causing anxiety amongst its neighbours like Greece and Yugoslavia. On the broader international scale, Italy's actions further isolated it, with nations growing sceptical of its unpredictable aggressive policies. Britain and France, realising the futility of appeasement, sought alliances elsewhere, notably with the USSR. These shifts reflected the crumbling trust in traditional diplomatic instruments and alliances, emphasising the urgency to counteract aggressive powers and reinstate a sense of stability.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

Maddie, an Oxford history graduate, is experienced in creating dynamic educational resources, blending her historical knowledge with her tutoring experience to inspire and educate students.

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