Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

In all the writings that have so far appeared in the press, one rarely finds an answer to the question as to why Mussolini decided to launch his Abyssinian campaign just at this moment. Two reasons accounts for this. Firstly, Mussolini felt that British in- fluence was rapidly growing in Abyssinia as it was growing on the other side of the Red Sea-in Arabia, and if it went on uninterrupted, then Italian influence would be eliminated from Abyssinia altogether. Secondly, Mussolini felt that he would get a respite of two or three years before a European war broke out and that was the only opportunity for Italy to launch the Abyssinian campaign. In fact, historically the Abyssinian campaign stands towards the coming European war in the same relation as the Tripoly and Balkan wars of 1911-1913 towards the Great War of 1914-18.
The question that one must now ask is the issue that is involved in the Abyssinian conflict. To answer the question, I must once again turn to the New Leader of London of the 23rd August.
'Abyssinia is the last independent State in the continent of Africa. The rest of the vast territories of Africa have already been divided up between the Imperialist Powers. Britain has seized the greatest share of the swag. Italy is determined to get the last prize before any other Imperialists Power bags it.
There are four Imperialist Powers which have interests in Abyssinia.
British Capitalists are very concerned because Abyssinia contains at Lake Tsana the head-waters of the Blue Nile which irrigates the cotton plantations of the Sudan and Egypt. British financiers are concerned because they have control of the Bank of Abyssinia, which is a subsidiary of the Bank of Egypt.
French Capitalist-Imperialism controls the only railway, which runs from the French port of Jibuti to the Abyssinian capital, Addis Ababa.

Japanese Capitalist-Imperialism is concerned because it owns large tracts of land where raw cotton is cultivated, and because it has a practical monopoly of the Abyssinian market in manufactured cotton goods.
Let no one imagine that the British and French and Japanese Governments are now objecting to the Italian demands because of love of Abyssinia or any championship of human rights or passion for peace.
Put bluntly, this is a case of thieves falling out. The British,
French and Japanese Governments object to Mussolini collaring the lot.'
When the British Government first realized that Mussolini was not playing a game of bluff, they adopted a illegible attitude. The Morning Post, which is the organ of the generals, admirals and armed services, reflected this spirit and wrote in its leading article of the 22nd August:
'Abyssinia is to be the test of our mettle. If we suffer humiliation meekly, it is not to be inferred that something more substantial can be tried on us a little later? The idea, it seems, is being cultivated in certain quarters abroad that the British Empire is only waiting to be carved up by other races whose destiny lies in the future. The sooner that idea is destroyed, the better it will be for the tranquility of the world, it is time we made it plain to all and sundry that the British Empire in neither for sale, nor to be had for the asking.'

'Since these weighty talks the public has been still more disturbed by reports that the War Office has decided to send a second battalion of soldiers to the Sudan, to increase its military forces at Malta and Aden, to send a strong contingent of the Indian Army to strengthen the British Legation guard in the Abyssinian capital, and to prepare the Mediterranean fleet for service.'

Remarkable Circular

One highly significant paragraph got into the Press and then hushed up. Last week the sub-postmasters throughout Britain received a document headed 'Partial or General Mobilization.' It read as follows:
'Acceptance of telegrams without pre-payment. In view of the present emergency, all inland or overseas telegrams on War Office service should be accepted for dispatch without prepayment, if duly certified by a military officer or a permanent civil servant employed by the War Office.
The authorities have explained that this circular was sent out in error. Apparently 32,000 of these forms (numbered C18149) were printed last month by the Stationery Office; but it was not the intention to use them at once. The fact that had been prepared is sufficiently alarming.'
In the same issue, the New Leader explain the motives behind these war preparations:
'What is the explanation of these developments? The fear that Italy would obtain control of the head-waters of the Blue Nile at Lake Tsana, in Abyssinia and thus be able to destroy the irrigation of the British Cotton-fields in the Sudan and Egypt; the danger that italian domination of Abyssinia would enable it to bottle up the Suez Canal, control the Red Sea and command the sea route to India, were sufficient reasons for grave anxiety among British Imperialists.

Mussolini has been indicating the he "sees no reason" why the British domination of the Eastern Mediterranean should continue. Mussolini has threatened the status quo in the Eastern Mediterranean and the North-East Africa. In plain words, he menaces the very heart of the lines of communication of British Imperialism to the Near East, to India and to Australia.

It is a realization of this ambitious purpose of Italy that has led the National Government and British Imperialists generally to determine to use every means to stop Mussolini. The enthusiasm for the sanctions of the League of Nations does not arise from a love of peace or a desire to champion Abyssinia. The British Imperialist are hiding their concern behind these "righteous" aims in order to win the support of opinion which is devoted to the League and to the cause of peace. It is actually using enthusiasm for peace to prepare the British people for Imperialist war.'

There was such a wave of sympathy for Abyssinia everywhere that at first very few people realized, except probably in France, that the real motives which inspired the war-party in Great Britain were purely imperialistic. France was skeptical of the new-fangled love of Britain for the League of Nations which Italy was flouting because she (France) was still sore over the Anglo-German Naval Agreement which had been contracted without French knowledge and approval and which had served to legalize the illegal re-armament of Germany in Defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. The French skeptics pointed out in their defence that Britain had remained quite passive when Japan had defied the League and attacked China in Manchuria and when Bolivia and Paraguay had gone to war though both were members of the League.

I shall now proceed to show that when Britain was all but prepared to plunge into another war with all her dependencies behind her-something like a miracle happened. Suddenly the shadow of Hitler appeared on the distant horizon and served to paralyse the outstretched arms of Great Britain ready to strike at Italy.
One feels lost in admiration at the diplomacy of British politicians in mobilizing public opinion in Great Britain and abroad in favor of their anti-Italian policy. In 1914, the slogan had been: 'Save Belgium;' in 1935, the slogan was: 'Save the League of Nations.' Even the British Labor Party and the British Communist Party fell in line with the National (Conservative) Governments of Great Britain. Only a small group of Independent Labor Party men led by Maxton, Fenner Brockway and McGovern had the courage and honesty to stand out and proclaim from the house-tops that it was going to be another imperialist war, in which the British workers had no interest whatsoever. But the efforts of the Independent Labor Party were drowned in the chorus of approval which greeted the Government. With this truly overwhelming national support behind him, Sir Samuel Hoare, the Foreign Secretary, spoke to Italy and to the world with a firm voice form the rostrum of the League at Geneva.

I shall leave it to students of politics to answer how and why the British Labor Party and the British Communist Party gave the go-by to their traditional peace-policy in this crisis and lined up behind the Baldwin-Hoare Government. It was certainly a triumph for Conservative diplomacy.
While Britain was making her warlike preparations Italy was not idle. A virulent and anti-British campaign was conducted by the entire Italian Press and the Italian dictator openly proclaimed that he was simply following France and Britain in their colonial campaigns and was prepared for all emergencies if he met with interference from any quarter. Was sit due to puffed-up vanity that Italy-the creation of 1861-was prepared to cross swords with almighty Great Britain? I think not. Italy was conscious that the development of air-power during the last decade had completely altered the old values in war and that her superior air force combined with her small but thoroughly efficient modern navy had placed her at a superior tactical advantage in the Mediterranean Sea as compared with Britain.