BY WHAT right does Ethiopia call herself an empire? How can a country where illiteracy is almost universal, where there are virtually no roads, and whose annual foreign trade is worth less than $25,000,000 -- how can such a land presume to arrogate to itself the most exalted of all titles? One attribute of an empire is that it holds alien peoples in subjection. It might be objected that according to this definition we could speak of Zulu or Cherokee imperialism. This would perhaps be stretching the point. We nevertheless use the expressions "Turkish imperialism" and "Arabian imperialism" without much difficulty, and accept the custom by which the crowned heads of Morocco and Annam call themselves emperors.

In the case of Ethiopia there can be no question that a single people rules over various subject peoples. Probably not more than one-third of the inhabitants belong to the ancient Ethiopian stock. The rest neither profess Christianity nor speak the Amharic tongue and are consequently regarded by the ruling race as its inferiors. The true Ethiopian resides on the central plateau, while the subject races inhabit the peripheral lowlands. Even the approximate number of total inhabitants is much in doubt. Estimates vary from five million to twenty million. Those who have traveled extensively in the country and have made careful observations usually place the figure at seven or eight million. But statistics of any sort in regard to Ethiopia are few and thoroughly unreliable.

There are various criteria for classifying the heterogeneous population of the Ethiopian Empire. That of physical characteristics is probably the least satisfactory. The true Ethiopian of the highlands regards himself as of the white race, for he quite rightly traces his racial ancestry to the Hamitic invaders of North Africa. But thousands of years of contact with the negro peoples of Central and East Africa have darkened his complexion to a café au lait or even to a dark chocolate.

Language provides a much surer gauge. The third of the population which dwells on the plateau speaks a Semitic tongue. In south-central Ethiopia live the Gallas, Negroid tribes speaking a language of their own, who have been coming into the country from the south since early modern times. They account for another third of the population. The remaining third is divided among the lesser ethnic groups on the periphery: Danakil, Somali, Sidama, and so forth. Keeping these linguistic divisions in mind, we might say that the upper (Semitic) third rules the lower (non-Semitic) two-thirds.

Another classification is by religions. The true Ethiopian, as already said, is Christian. But some of the Gallas have been at least nominally converted to Christianity. In all, the Christians probably account for nearly one-half of the population. Three-eighths are Moslems, residing in the east and southeast. In addition there are the Falasha -- the Jews of Ethiopia -- estimated to number between one and two hundred thousand; their Judaism is much corrupted and they are ignorant of the Hebrew language. The rest of the population are pagans.

The Christians belong to the Coptic Church and are consequently of the monophysite faith. Ethiopia's isolation from the rest of the Christian world has naturally led to a considerable barbarization of dogma and ritual. At the head of the church is the Aboona who is appointed by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria and is always an Egyptian. The Emperor would very much like to have a native in this post, but traditions are hard to break in Ethiopia and the best that he has been able to obtain is the creation of several native bishops, to serve as coadjutors to the Aboona. The monastic orders are under the particular supervision of the Etcheghé, who unlike the Aboona is an Ethiopian and thus likely to stand closer to the Emperor than his Egyptian rival.

The clergy are very numerous, some writers going so far as to place them at one-third of the adult population. This is undoubtedly an exaggeration. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that in stagnant societies (e.g. in Tibet) the number of persons seeking refuge in the ecclesiastical life is out of all proportion to the needs of the church. The Ethiopian clergy have managed to get into their possession a large part of the land. Add to this the fact that they are ignorant and superstitious, and we can understand what an enormous conservative force they represent.

A strong emperor can dictate ecclesiastical policy if he wishes, but if he is wise he will cultivate the favor of the high church officials. In the event of war, he can rely on the support of the church from the Aboona down. This would prove especially true in an Italian invasion. It is no secret that the Vatican would like to bring the schismatic Copts back to the true faith, and the Ethiopians strongly suspect that this would be one result of an Italian conquest. Their religion is the one force that has kept them together through fifteen centuries, and they are not going to surrender it lightly.


The empire of Haile Selassie affords us the best contemporary example of the feudal state. Society in Ethiopia is based on a rigid stratification of classes, each with its own traditional economic and political functions. The basis for the social organization is essentially military, with the positions of honor reserved for the men who lead the army in time of war. These same men govern the country in time of peace. With little alteration, the system has prevailed for centuries. Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Ethiopia was cut off from the civilized world, except for such brief interludes as the Portuguese invasion in the sixteenth century. It was only in Menelik's time (he died in 1913) that western civilization again penetrated Ethiopia. To this day its influence has been limited to the entourage of the Emperor and to the few Ethiopians who have traveled abroad. The great mass of the people, despite the strenuous efforts put forth by the present ruler, remain loyal to the ancient folk-ways of their ancestors.

One of the reforms which Haile Selassie has most valiantly striven to impose is the concentration of the supreme power in his own hands. In the past, except when overawed by the power and prestige of a strong ruler like Menelik, the overlords of the various provinces managed to escape any effective control from their nominal sovereign; for distances were great, the country was mountainous, and local jealousies could be depended upon to abet the particularism of each petty chieftain. Notwithstanding these obstacles, Haile Selassie's efforts to secure absolute power have achieved considerable success. Several of the hereditary regional overlords have been brought to heel, and either have been forced to accept close supervision from Addis Ababa or have been replaced by imperial nominees.

The process of rehabilitating the imperial authority, which had disintegrated after the death of Menelik, received its first real impetus in 1926 on the death of Fituarari Hapte Ghiorghis, who for thirty years had commanded the imperial army. At that time, Ras Tafari Makonnen, the present emperor, was heir to the throne and Vicar for the Empress Zauditu, daughter of Menelik. Ras Tafari seized the extensive feudal holdings of Hapte Ghiorghis and took over the control of the imperial army. By adding these troops to those which he already commanded as hereditary governor of his own province of Harrar he became the strongest prince in Ethiopia. He soon made it plain to his rival overlords, some of whom had as legitimate a claim to the succession as he, that he meant as far as possible to monopolize the supreme power of the state. In 1928, the Empress raised him to the rank of negus (king). After her death in 1930, he became Negus Neghesti (king of kings), or Emperor, under the name of Haile Selassie ("the power of the Trinity"). Thereafter, he redoubled his energies toward the establishment of an autocracy. In 1932, he crushed a revolt headed by Ras Hailu of Godjam, until then the most independent of the ancient provinces. By substituting his own appointee for the rebellious chieftain he brought under direct imperial control a rich and important region, that lying within the semicircle formed by the Blue Nile as it flows from Lake Tana to the Sudan. But in general the hereditary rulers of the old Ethiopian provinces have not been deprived of their fiefs. The progress of centralization has rather been directed towards the outlying provinces to the east and south, where the population is either Moslem or pagan. Most of these regions were not conquered until Menelik's reign, and consequently there has been little time for their assimilation.

The historian will immediately detect in these events a great similarity to the anti-feudal, centralizing activities of the Valois and the Tudors. The political evolution of Ethiopia is just about five hundred years behind that of Europe.

There is, of course, an Ethiopian constitution, proclaimed by the Emperor in 1931. This instrument provides for the periodic assembly of a "parliament." It need hardly be said that this body is in no way comparable to the legislative assemblies of such European countries as still enjoy parliamentary institutions. The "representatives," with their tenure subject to imperial consent, are in no position to exercise any effective supervision over either legislation or administration. At best they constitute a chamber of registration. The Emperor addresses them on those occasions when he wishes to be heard by the country or by the world at large. In any case, the members of the parliament in no sense represent the ignorant and oppressed masses of the Ethiopian people, any more than, for example, the "Model Parliament" of Edward I represented the people of England. They may be said to represent at most the provincial aristocracy.


It is worth while for us to take a moment to examine in a little more detail the nature of the Ethiopian social structure because it determines the nature of the Emperor's armed forces and his ability to conduct a protracted war against a foreign nation.

The Negus Neghesti, who stands at the apex, has since the thirteenth century been a descendant of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, at least according to tradition. That this descent is probably apocryphal does not diminish its efficacy as a political influence. While the Emperor's actual power has at times ebbed to a very low point, respect for the lineal descendant of Solomon has helped preserve from generation to generation the Ethiopians' proud spirit of national solidarity and independence.

Ranking next below the Negus Neghesti come the titles of negus and ras. That of negus is the more exalted, having been held in the past by the rulers of such important "kingdoms" as Shoa, Godjam, and Amhara. Lesser provinces are generally governed by a ras, though the distinction has not always been based on the size or importance of the various jurisdictions. While these titles tend to become hereditary, new dynasties have not infrequently been set up by usurpers. The present Emperor's policy is to suppress the title and office of negus as too dangerous to the imperial power. Lesser titles are those of the dejesmatch, who governs a province by appointment either of the Negus Neghesti or of a ras; the fitaurari, or "commander of the advance guard," and the azmatch, "commander of the rear guard;" and lower still, the canyazmatch, "commander of the right wing," and grazmatch, "commander of the left wing." Those who hold the last three titles may in time of peace govern districts of varying sizes. Not all of them are necessarily associated with territorial administration. Many are attached to the households of the Emperor, his representatives, or the great feudal lords.

It will be noted that these titles denote military duties, bearing out the observation as to the virtual identity of the civil and military administrations in Ethiopia.

Below these greater and lesser hierarchs lies the broad base of Ethiopian society: the peasants, the shepherds, the servants, and the armed retainers of the ruling class, in short the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. It would be futile to try to describe their legal position exactly. Many of them have been called serfs, others slaves. The plight of the latter is by no means as unfortunate as pious humanitarians or the Italian Press Bureau would have us believe. On the whole, the slaves work very little and according to Ethiopian standards are usually treated with consideration. When modern capitalism and its ruthless exploitation of labor arrives in Ethiopia, the "slaves" will probably look back with longing to the good old days. No one can question the sincerity of Haile Selassie's efforts to stop the slave trade and to prepare for the eventual abolition of slavery. But an institution so firmly imbedded in the Ethiopian scheme of things cannot be uprooted in a day.


From this brief description of the feudal organization of the Ethiopian state it is obvious that even if the Emperor be strong much will depend on the willingness or unwillingness of the local chiefs to coöperate with him wholeheartedly. This is true in time of peace, and still more in time of war. In theory, perhaps, every Ethiopian soldier owes his primary allegiance to the Negus Neghesti. Actually, this is rarely the case. Due to the Emperor's remoteness and to the incomplete centralization of governmental authority, the soldier's real loyalty is to the local chief. Though the local chiefs may not dare to revolt, they still may interfere with the imperial plans by passive resistance and sabotage.

Recently rumors have been heard that some of the border chieftains had come to terms with Il Duce, but that before making good their promises they were insisting on being given evidence as to the powers of the Italian army. It would be natural for Italy to try to wean Haile Selassie's vassals away from him by silver and fair promises. But in the past this sort of thing has been tried with almost universal failure. During the eighties the Italians supported Menelik, then Negus of Shoa, against the Emperor Johannes. After Menelik became emperor, on the death of Johannes in 1889, he turned against the Italians and pursued an independent policy. Crispi then sought to create trouble for Menelik by suborning his northern vassals. These efforts were entirely unsuccessful, for in the Adua campaign Menelik had the full support of the northern chieftains.

All in all, the Ethiopian army is an anachronism in a world where war has become an intricate science. Were geographic factors not in its favor, it would stand little chance of succeeding in the task of preserving the independence of the country.

The only modernized part of the Ethiopian army is the imperial bodyguard, reported variously to consist of from 2,500 to 30,000 men. Since 1929 this body has been training under Belgian and Swedish officers. The men wear uniforms (minus shoes), carry up-to-date arms, and drill according to the manual of arms: all of which is a great innovation for Ethiopia. These regiments can be regarded as shock troops, though it is possible that the Emperor will throw them into action only as a last resort.

In addition to his bodyguard, the Emperor has under his personal control the so-called "imperial army," composed of the armed followers who look to him as their regional overlord. In the case of Haile Selassie this includes the provinces of Harrar, Wollo and Shoa.[i] Some of these imperial troops are garrisoned in various parts of the country in order to enforce the imperial commands. There are no reliable statistics on the size of the imperial army, but it probably numbers between 50,000 and 100,000 men. In any other country they would be described as "irregulars." Their equipment is archaic and their organization distinctly rudimentary.

The same criticism applies even more to the feudal levies, composed of all the able-bodied men of the land who are not exempted from military service. The exemptions are numerous. Priests, monks, merchants, shepherds, the guards assigned to the personal protection of noblewomen, are none of them supposed to be liable for active service. Whether this would hold true in case the man power of Ethiopia began to run low is an open question. One by one the exemptions would probably be withdrawn.

The actual number of fighting men at Haile Selassie's disposal has been the subject of much speculation by various foreign observers, and as usual calculations vary widely. One sees statements that a million men have been called up, or are soon to be. This probably is an exaggeration. Even if there were that many men subject to service there would be no point in calling them into the field. Such a vast host could not possibly be fed or armed, and would be a liability rather than an asset. Half a million would appear to be a much more reasonable figure. Corrado Zoli, formerly Governor of Eritrea, estimates that Ethiopia cannot maintain more than 250,000 fighting men in active service. Certainly in Tigre, where food is relatively scarce, it would be most unwise for the Ethiopians to concentrate a large number of troops.

In like manner the amount of armament possessed by Ethiopia is a matter of wide disagreement. She is reported to have between 500,000 and 600,000 rifles and muskets of all makes and vintages, several hundred machine guns, and a few dozen cannon. The latter are admittedly nothing but museum pieces. That there is a general dearth of modern rifles, machine guns and the appropriate ammunition is only too obvious. There are a few planes, but they are hardly adapted for combat purposes. Gas units, tank corps, and most of the other refinements of modern warfare simply do not exist in the Ethiopian army. Average Ethiopian soldiers have a very strong contempt for these new-fangled contraptions. Did not their fathers win at Adua without them?

This attitude is unfortunate, as the Ethiopians will discover after the first impact of Mussolini's war machine. Il Duce is concentrating on the Eritrean plateau a force of arms and men the like of which has never before been seen in Africa. He hopes by virtue of it to overcome the physical features which weigh the balance so heavily against him. Italian commercial ships have been withdrawn from their usual runs and foreign ships have been bought in order to transfer the host of men and materials to East Africa. To move them from Massaua up to the plateau an overhead cable railway has been constructed as a supplement to the railroad and highways, both of which are being greatly improved and extended.

Against these overwhelming odds of matériel, the Ethiopian army has several advantages. In the first place, as already pointed out, geography is on their side. In the second place, they will have the advantage of fighting on familiar ground. Thirdly, their forces possess greater mobility than their opponents. One reason for this mobility is the absence of several auxiliary services regarded by European general staffs as indispensable, such as commissary departments and hospital units. The Ethiopian army travels light, living for the most part off the country through which it passes. In short campaigns this proves satisfactory enough, at least to the army if not to the peasants whose crops are requisitioned. Under such circumstances, the invading army, with its elaborate service of supply and other impedimenta, is under a tremendous handicap. The Italian soldier, for all his frugality, cannot possibly fight on Ethiopian rations. The Ethiopians have no medical service worthy of the name. The formation of an Ethiopian Red Cross has been announced in dispatches from Addis Ababa, but we may be sure that by and large the Ethiopian soldiers will continue to bind up their own wounds with the help of the women and servants accompanying them into the field.

In a long campaign, the advantage of mobility ceases to operate in favor of the Ethiopians. The food supply becomes rapidly exhausted, and with it the warlike enthusiasm of the levies. Moreover, the Ethiopian has no desire to stay away from home for many months. The idea of remaining under arms during the rainy season is especially distasteful to him. What he looks forward to is a short campaign, climaxed by a resounding victory. If the enemy is once crushed, the army disintegrates and goes home. This is what happened in 1875-76 when two Egyptian armies sent by the Khedive Ismail to conquer northern Ethiopia were defeated successively at Gundet and at Gura. The Ethiopians did not follow up these victories with a drive toward Massaua, though they had long coveted that port as an outlet for their land-locked country. The same thing happened after Adua in 1896. Eritrea lay open to Menelik, but the army, feeling its mission fulfilled in the utter defeat of Baratieri's twenty thousand, disbanded and returned southward. A vigorous Italian counter-offensive might conceivably have recovered much of the lost ground. If this procedure were to be followed in a new war against Italy we might have the spectacle of an Italian army marooned in the mountains of Ethiopia during the rainy season with no substantial enemy force opposing it.

Another great advantage which Ethiopia has over Italy is that she can fight a war with very little outlay of capital. The feudal levies, whether employed as combatants or on the corvée, receive nothing but their upkeep. This costs the state little or nothing, as it is exacted in kind from the countryside. Ethiopia's principal need for cash is for munitions, of which she must import her entire supply. Supposing she is permitted to purchase and import munitions, the necessary capital can probably be raised by draining the country of its Maria Theresa thalers, the standard currency, and by exporting coffee, hides, gold dust, etc. But in case the country is cut off from access to the sea by an Italian blockade, or by a refusal by the French and British to honor the treaty of August 1930 guaranteeing free passage of arms consigned to the Ethiopian Government, the situation of the latter would be desperate. A continued embargo by the munition-producing countries of the world would lead to the same result.

Supposing that neither of these fatal eventualities occurred, and that Ethiopia were permitted to implement her resistance with modern weapons, what would be her chances of victory? What would be the probable course of the campaign? Prophesying is dangerous, and doubly so in the case of Ethiopia where so many unknowns enter into every equation. But a general observation or two may be hazarded.

As this is written, the Italian intention is apparently to strike a crushing blow from Eritrea. Adua will be avenged and the temperature of Italian patriotism and imperialism will be brought to fever heat. If Haile Selassie refuses to give combat in the extreme north, several cheap victories can be readily won. In the south, similar inconclusive successes may be achieved without altering the general strategic situation. Real resistance will be encountered when the Italians approach the Somali plateau, which controls the Jibuti-Addis Ababa Railroad (though the value of this artery can in any case be rendered negligible by a few well-placed projectiles from Italian bombers). But will not the effect of the first few Italian victories soon wear off? Tropical diseases will strike down thousands, in addition to the losses in combat. A rising toll of dead and wounded and sick cannot be kept forever from the Italian public. And the cracks in the financial structure of Italy, already apparent even before the war preparations began, will become wider and wider.

Mussolini's imperative need, it would seem, is for a quick campaign which can be interpreted as victorious, whatever the real value of the victories secured. Military observers agree that a complete conquest of Ethiopia in one season is highly improbable. If they are right, Mussolini may find himself in an unpleasant predicament, for the more he becomes involved in Ethiopia the more he exposes his Alpine rear against a rapidly rearming Germany. Like Mussolini, will not Hitler take the opportunity to try to blast his way out of the impasse into which the economic contradictions of fascism have led him and his country? In such circumstances, could Italy then find it possible to devote enough attention to the Ethiopian campaign to make any headway with it? If she settles down to a stalemate she immobilizes several hundred thousand troops and much shipping. If she withdraws she not only suffers an incalculable loss of prestige but exposes her two colonies to Ethiopian invasion.

The predictions intimated by the mere fact of posing these questions may be wide of the mark. Mussolini may make a clean sweep of Ethiopia in one season, or at the most two. The possibility that he may do so is closely connected with the possibility that Haile Selassie will be left without arms. But even if Mussolini's success extends that far, there is ground to believe that his Ethiopian troubles will have just begun. The country will require an immense army of occupation, at a cost of billions of lire. It must then be "civilized," at the cost of more billions. Will the capital for these developments be found in France, Great Britain and the United States? It cannot be found in Italy.

Regardless of who is the military victor in the Italo-Ethiopian war, the real winners seem destined to be Italy's imperialist rivals in Europe. And the losers will be the Italian people.

[i] The centre of Ethiopian political gravity has in the past shifted with the change in rulers. For instance, under Theodore (who committed suicide at Magdala in 1868, after Napier's column had arrived) it was in Amhara. During the reign of Johannes (killed by the Mahdists at the battle of Metemma in 1889) it was in Tigre. Menelik moved the capital to Addis Ababa, in Shoa, where it has since remained.

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  • ROBERT GALE WOOLBERT, Research Associate, Council on Foreign Relations; former student in the Istituto Coloniale Fascista, Rome
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