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IB DP History Study Notes

3.2.8 International Response to Italian Aggression

Italy's expansionist ambitions during the interwar period were met with a mix of condemnation, appeasement, and cautious indifference by the international community. This was particularly evident following Italy's invasions of Abyssinia and Albania. The League of Nations, tasked with maintaining peace, faced significant challenges in addressing Italy's aggression, revealing cracks in the collective security system of the time.

Global Community's Reaction to Italian Moves


  • Background: Italy had long coveted Abyssinia for its resources and strategic position. The invasion in 1935 was a culmination of longstanding ambitions and was projected by Mussolini as a quest to build a second Roman Empire.
  • Immediate Reaction: The invasion was met with widespread condemnation. Abyssinia's Emperor Haile Selassie appealed to the League of Nations, evoking the principle of collective security.
  • Britain and France's Calculated Stance: Both nations, pivotal in the League, were caught in a dilemma.
    • While they criticised Italy's aggression, they were hesitant about a strong response. Their primary concern was the rise of Nazi Germany, and they believed that alienating Italy might drive Mussolini closer to Hitler.
    • The Hoare-Laval Pact was a manifestation of this ambivalence. The pact proposed granting Italy significant portions of Abyssinia, betraying the principles of the League. When the pact became public knowledge, it was met with outrage, forcing both British Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare and French Premier Pierre Laval to resign.
  • League of Nations' Response: While the League condemned the invasion, its proposed sanctions against Italy were limited. Many member states were reluctant to enforce comprehensive sanctions for fear of economic repercussions.


  • Strategic Importance: Albania was significant for Mussolini's vision of controlling the Adriatic Sea and furthering Italian influence in the Balkans.
  • Annexation: Italy invaded Albania in 1939, facing minimal resistance. King Zog was forced into exile, and Albania was effectively annexed.
  • Global Reaction: Given the increasing tensions in Europe, particularly Germany's moves, the annexation of Albania did not provoke as sharp a reaction as the Abyssinian invasion. Moreover, the League's credibility had already been undermined by its response to Abyssinia, resulting in a more muted response.

Effectiveness of League of Nations' Sanctions and Diplomatic Efforts

Sanctions against Italy

  • Scope and Limitation: While the League did impose sanctions, they were not comprehensive. Key resources like oil were excluded, reducing their impact significantly.
  • Economic Repercussions: Italy faced economic challenges due to the sanctions, but they also sought and found alternative trading partners, notably in the Americas. This not only mitigated the effects of the sanctions but also highlighted the lack of international unanimity.

Diplomatic Efforts: A Tale of Missed Opportunities

  • The League's diplomatic responses were marked by contradictions and competing national interests.
  • Hoare-Laval Pact: This secret pact symbolised the policy of appeasement that many European nations were leaning towards. Its exposure laid bare the inadequacies in the League's commitment to collective security.
  • Failure of Collective Security: Italy's unchecked aggression revealed the League's inability to enforce collective security when member states' interests diverged. This had broader implications, sending signals to other aggressive states that the League might not be a significant deterrent.

Impact on Italian Foreign Policy and WWII Dynamics

Realignment of Alliances

  • Perception of the League: Mussolini saw the League's response as an indication of its weakness. This, combined with the economic pressures of the sanctions, pushed Italy closer to Germany, a nation that also had grievances against the League and the post-WWI order.
  • Formation of the Axis: Italy's disillusionment with the League and Britain and France led to the formation of the Rome-Berlin Axis in 1936. This realignment had profound implications for the geopolitical landscape of Europe.

Changing Dynamics Leading to WWII

  • Breakdown of Collective Security: Italy's actions and the international community's response marked a significant dent in the principle of collective security. It became evident that the League was ill-equipped to handle aggression, especially when major powers had conflicting interests.
  • Germany's Observations: Germany closely observed the international response to Italy's actions. The lack of a decisive response against Italy emboldened Germany in its expansionist policies.
  • Path to War: Italy's alignment with Germany and the weakening of collective security made conflict more likely. The international response to Italy's aggression set precedents, shaping the course and alliances of WWII.

In the lead-up to World War II, Italy's aggression and the subsequent international response highlighted the challenges of maintaining peace in a fractured geopolitical landscape. The principle of collective security, as envisioned after WWI, faced significant tests and, in many ways, fell short, paving the way for a more significant conflict.


Mussolini viewed Albania as a strategic asset in his broader vision for Italian dominance in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Albania's annexation provided Italy with control over key Adriatic ports, thereby bolstering its naval presence in the region. Furthermore, by controlling Albania, Italy had a stronger foothold in the Balkans, potentially facilitating further expansion in the area. Mussolini's Mediterranean ambitions were often summarised by the phrase "Mare Nostrum" (Our Sea), reflecting his desire to resurrect the Roman Empire's maritime dominance. Albania was a crucial puzzle piece in this vision, serving both strategic and symbolic roles.

The League's decision not to impose oil sanctions on Italy, despite its aggressive invasion of Abyssinia, was primarily influenced by the economic and geopolitical concerns of its member states. Imposing oil sanctions would have had far-reaching economic consequences, not just for Italy but also for the countries that traded with it. Moreover, key League members like Britain and France were hesitant to antagonise Mussolini to the extent that he might form closer ties with Nazi Germany. The underlying belief was that while oil sanctions might cripple the Italian war effort, they could also irreparably harm diplomatic relations and further destabilise the European geopolitical landscape.

While Mussolini's regime did exert strong control over the Italian media and public discourse, there were pockets of dissent and opposition to his expansionist policies. Some leftist groups, intellectuals, and clergy within Italy voiced concerns about the human, economic, and diplomatic costs of these invasions. However, Mussolini's regime was effective in suppressing these dissenting voices using a mix of propaganda, censorship, and sometimes direct repression. The Fascist regime projected these invasions as righteous endeavours, bolstering Italy's position on the world stage and rekindling its ancient imperial glory, making public opposition risky and challenging.

The Hoare-Laval Pact, proposed by Britain's Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare and French Premier Pierre Laval, intended to offer Italy a significant portion of Abyssinia in hopes of appeasing Mussolini's expansionist ambitions. Its controversy stemmed from the fact that it contravened the principles of the League of Nations, particularly its commitment to upholding the territorial sovereignty of member states. When the details of the pact became public, it was seen as a betrayal of Abyssinia and a blatant violation of collective security principles. The ensuing public outrage in both Britain and France led to the rejection of the pact and the resignation of both Hoare and Laval.

Mussolini's motivation for invading Abyssinia was multifaceted. Firstly, Abyssinia represented the unfulfilled ambitions of Italy's colonial past, especially given its prior defeat at Adwa in 1896. By annexing Abyssinia, Mussolini aimed to erase this humiliation and bolster national pride. Secondly, Abyssinia's fertile lands and resources were seen as valuable assets for a resurgent Italian Empire. Thirdly, Mussolini sought to project Italy as a dominant European power, capable of imperialistic endeavours on par with Britain and France. By doing so, he believed he could secure Italy's position on the world stage, regardless of potential short-term diplomatic costs.

Practice Questions

How did the international community's response to Italy's aggression in Abyssinia and Albania reveal the limitations of the League of Nations in maintaining collective security during the interwar period?

The international community's response to Italy's aggression, particularly in Abyssinia, exposed the inherent weaknesses of the League of Nations. While the League imposed sanctions on Italy post the Abyssinian invasion, they were not comprehensive, excluding key resources such as oil, thereby reducing their effectiveness. The Hoare-Laval Pact further exposed the lack of commitment to collective security, as major powers prioritised national interests over the principles of the League. Additionally, the muted response to Italy's annexation of Albania underscored the League's diminishing influence. Such responses emboldened aggressive nations and eroded confidence in the League's capability to ensure peace.

Evaluate the impact of the international community's reactions to Italian aggression on the evolving alliances leading up to World War II.

The international reactions to Italy's aggression played a pivotal role in reshaping European alliances. The sanctions and diplomatic pressure exerted on Italy by the League's leading powers, notably Britain and France, inadvertently pushed Mussolini closer to Nazi Germany. This realignment culminated in agreements such as the Rome-Berlin Axis and later the Pact of Steel. The hesitancy of major powers to confront Italy's aggression, exemplified by events like the Hoare-Laval Pact, signified the dominance of appeasement policies. These shifting alliances, influenced significantly by the international response to Italian actions, laid the groundwork for the Axis Powers and set the stage for the alliances and enmities of WWII.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

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