Going against the wishes of the League of Nations, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and his italian army invaded Ethiopia in an effort to gain an advantage in the imperialistic race Europe found itself in at the time. This increased tension between Italy and other members of the League of Nations, particularly England and France.
In the Knott cartoon, a man is dressed in Ancient Roman robes and a laurel wreath. He is labeled as Mussolini and Caesar. Mussolini rides a horse drawn chariot through the street under an arch labeled “Roma”, surrounded by an enormous crowd and people leaning out of windows waving flags. The design of the town is evocative of ancient Rome. Being marched behind him, attached to the chariot by the neck with a rope, is a bedraggled black man wearing nothing but a large barrel, labeled Ethiopia.
This cartoon references the Italo-Ethiopian war, an armed conflict which was one of the leading causes to world war II and ended in the subjugation of Ethiopia by the Italian forces.One of the reasons for this conflict was imperialism. Before World War I, European countries were racing to colonize Africa — this competition was a major inciting factor for the war. One of the reasons for the creation of the league of nations after the war was to settle disputes between nations and avoid further war. They pushed for the disarmament and demilitarization of nations involved in the first war in an effort to seek and maintain peace. However, during this time Benito Mussolini and his movement of fascism rose to power in Italy. He became Prime Minister of Italy in 1922 and focused on the expansion of the Italian military forces. By the late 1930s, he had used his military to invade Libya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Albania, making Italy a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean area.
The Italo-Ethiopian war was a significant one of Mussolini’s conquests. Ethiopia was one of the few independent countries in the European colonized continent; Italy had tried and failed to acquire it as a colony in the late 19th century. A small border conflict between Ethiopia and the Italian controlled Somalia gave Mussolini the justification for invading Ethiopia. The rationale was that Ethiopia was to be held accountable for the conflict, but the real motive was to gain the resources and boost Italian prestige.
This was exactly what the league of nations wanted to avoid. It denounced Italy’s invasion and tried to impose economic sanctions on Italy, but it was ultimately ineffective due to lack of support. The conquest of Ethiopia angered the british, who had colonized East Africa and worried about maintaining their control, but other major powers had no real reason to interfere with Italy. Supporting the rise of fascism within Europe, this war contributed to the tensions between fascist regimes and western democracies.
Equally important to understanding this political cartoon is the reference to Julius Caesar. The ancient politician and eventual dictator of Rome bears similarities to Mussolini: both were ruthless Italian dictators bent on expanding Italy’s control through military force and who were eventually killed by those who opposed them. Although in the present day we know of Mussolini as a dictator, at the time the cartoon and editorial were published that was up for debate, as he was still accumulating power. By likening him to Caesar, someone historically known as a tyrant, Knott made a strong political statement about the ethics of Mussolini’s conquests. This is further emphasized by the title of the cartoon, “Suggestion for Historical Mural”. Murals are a large, public, accessible artform. Since they reach such a wide audience, they have the capability to sway public perception. By suggesting that this unflattering depiction of Mussolini be a historical mural, Knott is making a statement about the way he wants history to remember Mussolini.
The cartoon shows Mussolini on top of a chariot, crowned with a laurel wreath, while the Ethiopian man is dragged below by the neck, wearing only a bucket. Mussolini’s stature is one of power: he is in possession of technology that allows him to be swifter and stronger, he stands above the other man, and he wears a crown that is symbolic of victory. Meanwhile, the barrel the Ethiopian man wears signifies destitution, and the rope around his neck helplessness. Mussolini and his army reign over Ethiopia with formidable strength, and this is reflected in the positions the people in the cartoon find themselves in.
The editorial accompanying this cartoon is titled “A Hot Time in the Old Town”. This title is drawn from a popular song from the time period of the same name, “A Hot Time in the Old Town” (also referred to sometimes as “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” after a memorable refrain in the chorus) composed by Theodore A. Metz in 1896. This march was popular in the military, associated with the Spanish American war and Theodore Roosevelt’s rough riders. Although the song was created before the 20th century, a popular rendition of it was recorded in 1927 by Bessie Smith, a notable singer of the era. This would have made the song a relevant reference in the 1930s, when the editorial was written. In regards to the article, the “hot time” would be the conflict between Italy and Ethiopia, and the “old town” would be a reference to Rome, a city in Italy with an ancient history of conquest, and fits in with the parallels the cartoon draws between Ancient Rome and Italy during the 1930s. The fact that this song was popularized with the military emphasizes the militaristic nature of the conflict in Ethiopia, drawing attention to the fact that Italian armed forces were sent in to occupy Ethiopia.
By equating Mussolini with the tyrant Caesar and showing him subjugating the Ethiopian man, Knott draws attention to the situation between Italy and Ethiopia, as well as making it clear he believes Mussolini is a dictator wrongfully conquering Ethiopia.
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History.com Staff. “Julius Caesar.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
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Knott, John. “Suggestion for Historical Mural” Dallas Morning News 18 Apr. 1936. Print.