The first major international conflict to occur after World War I took place in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria, a region then governed by China. Following this event, the League of Nations, a coalition of nations functioning to prevent war, failed to take action to punish Japan for committing this act of war. In May of 1936, another member of the League of Nations, Italy, conquered Ethiopia, a weaker, less influential ally of the League of Nations that had been a member since 1923 (“League of Nations”). As in Manchuria, the League failed to protect Ethiopia, discrediting the League. Ultimately, Italian victory in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War destroyed the global perception of the League of Nations in the years leading up to World War II, especially creating tension among prominent League members like England and France.
In John Knott’s political cartoon titled “Drunk with Power,” published in May of 1936, Knott clearly demonstrates this tense dynamic between England, France, and Italy. In this cartoon, Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy at the time, sits drinking wine from a bottle that says “African Victory Celebration.” He drunkenly gestures to Britain and France and says “You ‘pologize an’ we’re all frein’s again- am I right?-” Britain and France are standing together off to the side, looking back at Mussolini with eyes of resentment. Hitler sits alone at a table in the background, drinking alone (Knott). Mussolini’s statement alludes to Britain and France’s desire to maintain positive relations with Italy in spite of Italy’s divisive decision to enter war with a League Ally. Additionally, the caption reads “The Prodigal Son Returns,” which is also the title of the accompanying editorial, published alongside Knott’s cartoon in the May 8, 1936 edition of the Dallas Morning News, which examines Italy’s foreign policy after conquering Ethiopia, and disobeying the fundamental doctrines of the League.
England and France receive clear representation in this cartoon because they were perceived as the most powerful members of the League of Nations by many countries, especially after their victory in World War I, and their active role as “big four” members in forming the League of Nations (Nichols). Correspondingly, both nations were expected to use the established framework of the League of Nations to resolve the growing conflict between Italy and Ethiopia; however, Britain and France instead chose to work outside of the League, fearing that “decisive action by the League would result in pushing Mussolini into an alliance with Hitler,” (Wemlinger 36). In early 1935, both nations chose to privately assure Mussolini that they would not attempt to prevent him from using military power to carry out his Ethiopian conquests; Mussolini soon after conquered Ethiopia.
This event served as a decisive moment in the history of the League of Nations, and key point in understanding the causes of World War II. Britain and France, founding members of the League, a coalition created with the purpose of “providing avenues of escape from war”, failed to prevent a powerful ally from conquering a smaller ally (“League of Nations”). Although these actions were carried out with the strategic intent of pacifying Italy, they sent a message to the world: the league would not fulfil its obligation to protect any nation or prevent war.
However, international perception of the Italo-Ethiopian conflict strongly favored Ethiopia, which placed Britain and France in a difficult position (Wemlinger 39). In late 1935, the British Foreign Secretary stated that “the League stands, and my country stands with it, for the collective maintenance of the Covenant in its entirety, and particularly for steady and collective resistance to all acts of unprovoked aggression,” (Wemlinger 39). This disparity between Britain and France’s public support for the League’s obligations, and private negotiations with Italy, is cause for the tense dynamic presented in Knott’s cartoon “Drunk with Power.” By May of 1936 when the cartoon was published, Britain, France, and the League of Nations had conceded to Mussolini’s power-hungry objectives.
For this reason, Mussolini becomes “drunk with power” from his African victory wine, accompanied by two particularly sober figures representing Britain and France. Mussolini had succeeded in forgoing his obligations to the League without consequence, whereas Britain and France had only narrowly avoided losing their necessary alliance with Italy to Germany and Hitler; Italy was “ready to quit” the League “if the council [interfered ] in her dispute with Ethiopia”(Associated P). Knott includes the image of Hitler in the background, distant from Britain, France, and Italy, with an unhappy look on his face and a glass that has a swastika on it in his hand. For Hitler, who may have been seeking to weaken opposing European alliances, the preservation of the alliance between the three nations may have served as upsetting news; he is not drinking to celebrate, but instead to mourn his diplomatic loss. Britain and France, similarly unhappy with the League’s failure and Italy’s victory, stand off to the side of Italy. By 1936, both nations had to accept Italy’s victory, and welcome Italy back into the League, as if the nation were a “prodigal son,” returning home after doing wrong, and claiming to reform their actions in the future. In the editorial that was published alongside Knott’s cartoon, “Prodigal Son Returns,” the writer outlines Italy’s claim that it only “[wanted] peace and [wished] to strengthen the league,” even after taking several actions to undermine the League. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand the complex dynamic depicted in the cartoon. Italy expected Britain and France to “‘pologize” for the times they publicly opposed Italy’s actions in Ethiopia, and Britain and France did so, but begrudgingly. The League of Nations had been disgraced, and Britain and France from there on would have to face the consequences of this outcome, all while catering to the whims of a “drunk with power” Italian ally.
After Italy’s victory in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, the League of Nations was made ineffective in the eyes of nations all over the world. This outcome resonates in modern society, as many view the United Nation’s attempts to prevent humanitarian crises in nations like Syria with anything more than sanctions and ceasefires. In evaluating the events of the past, we must look to present times, and gain understanding of our future.
Associated P. “League is Told to Stay Out of African Tilt.” The Washington Post (1923-1954): 1. Jun 21 1935. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2016 .
Knott, John. “Drunk with Power.” The Dallas Morning News 8 May 1936, sec. 2: 8. Print.
“Prodigal Son Returns.” Editorial. The Dallas Morning News 8 May 1936, sec. 2: 8. Print.
Nichols, Christopher McKnight. “Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations.” Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History. Ed. Robert D. Johnston. Vol. 4: From the Gilded Age through the Age of Reform, 1878 to 1920. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2010. 383-387. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
“League of Nations.” Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction. Ed. John Merriman and Jay Winter. Vol. 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. 1628-1631. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.