Ethiopian Soldier – Eisenstadt


In December 1934, a border dispute between Abyssinia and the Italian Somaliland led to a small war. Haile Selassie, the emperor of Abyssinia, sought the help from the League of Nations. The League — dominated by European powers — responded by banning arms sales to both Italy and Abyssinia, a move which harmed the latter greatly.

Instead, the League, an international body founded after the First World War to arbitrate international disputes, reverted back into settling disputes a la Concert of Europe: Britain and France, both worn out by war and depression, secretly agreed to give Abyssinia to Italy.

Emboldened, Italy sent a 400,000-strong army into Abyssinia even as the League re-elected the Italian Marquis Alberto Theodoli, as chairman of the Permanent Mandates Commission, an important League body. That winter, however, the opinion turned as the Italians bombarded villages, used poison gas and attacked Red Cross hospitals.

While it was a conflict fought mostly out of the world’s eyes, photography played a significant part. The uneven terms of the conflict were made clear in the photos of Alfred Eisenstadt, working for Berliner Illustriete Zeitung, who saw the poor benighted country before the Italian army arrived. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s Italy attempted to use Abyssinia’s own poverty as a justification for an invasion. Reprinted were postcards and photos of nude locals, to lend credence to the narrative that Italy was “intervening only to bring law and order to a backwards, warlord-ridden, and slave trading land,” as Susan Pedersen notes in The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, her excellent account of diplomacy in the interwar years.

Eisenstadt’s pictures proved more powerful. His picture of the bare feet of an Abyssinian soldier was reprinted around the world but censored in Italy. In fact, the worldwide sales of his photo enabled Jewish Eisenstadt to emigrate from Germany. Although later to be often miscaptioned as the feet of a slain soldier, mud-caked feet wrapped in dirty WWI-era puttees belonged to a soldier participating in a rifle practice.

Public opinion did turn against Italy, but it was too late: the Italian conquest was nearly complete. The League voted for economic sanctions onto Italy in May 1936 but by this time, Italy had already walked out of the League Council. Following Japan and Germany, which withdrew from the League in 1933 rather than to submit to its decisions, Italy left the League in 1937. Fascist Italy was now inexorably allied with Germany and Japan and contours of a global conflict were slowly settling.

(For Japan’s withdraw from the League, here; to follow the future career of Haile Selassie, here).

Haile Selassie in Abyssinia


Standing under a distinctive umbrella, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia addressed his subjects in July, 1935. He had been a modernizing regent and emperor, introducing printing presses, modern hospitals, airplanes and even a constitution to Ethiopia. But this was perhaps his finest hour, appearing dignified and inspirational even as the intense negotiations underwent in London and the Hague to avert an Italian invasion of his country.

Both Italy and Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) were members of the League of Nations. Yet its rules forbidding aggression among members, were proved to be ineffective when Italy started to encroach upon Abyssinian territory by building a fort at Welwel, an oasis in the Ogaden in 1930. In December 1934, it was the site of an international incident — a skirmish which both side blamed on each other, and which ended with the death of  150 Ethiopians and 50 Italians.

In February 1935, Mussolini began to send large numbers of troops to Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, massing for an invasion. Although Selassie’s Allies, France and Britain offered Italy large concessions in Ethiopia, war was inevitable. In October, Italy invaded Ethiopia without a declaration of war. Italy captured the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on May 5, 1936, and annexed the country into Africa Orientale Italiana.

“If by some unhappy chance the Italo-Ethiopian war should now spread into a world conflagration, Power of Trinity I, the King of Kings, the Conquering Lion of Judah [all being Haile Selassie’s titles] will have a place in history as secure as Woodrow Wilson’s. If it ends in the fall of Mussolini and the collapse of Fascism, His Majesty can plume himself on one of the greatest feats ever credited to blackamoors,” wrote Time magazine, nominating the Emperor as their person of the year.

The war spread, but not for a few more years. At the beginning of WWII, the Allied Forces liberated Ethiopia; on May 5, 1941, five years to the date after the Italians had captured his capital, Haile Selassie entered Addis Ababa in triumph.He ruled his Empire of Ethiopia for another 33 years, by the end of which he was the world’s longest-serving head of state. In 1974, after a devastating famine, he was deposed in a Communist-backed coup led by low-ranking military officers, the Derg.

His last years, spent in the Derg’s captivity, were recounted to The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, by Ryszard Kapuściński, an account of his reign’s last days and obscurantist workings of his royal court. The Derg announced the end of the Solomonic Dynasty, ending a royal line that traced its origins to the 13th century, and from there by tradition back to Prester John, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.