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.