Axis Partners: The Balkans

Figure 1.--.

Germany even after World War I had the largest industrial economy in Europe. This gave it enormous influence, especially in the Balkans. After the NAZIs seized power (1933), Germany began a carefully orchestrated campaign to bring the Balkan countries within the German orbit. This included both the countries that fought wiyh the Central Powers in World War and the countries which fought with the Allies. Germany used both economic means as well as promoting Fascistg political parties. Hitler's objective was obtain access to needed natural resources as well as to secure Germany's southern flank for the eventual attack on the Soviet Union.

German Policy

Germany even after World War I had the largest industrial economy in Europe. This gave it enormous influence, especially in the Balkans. After the NAZIs seized power (1933), Germany began a carefully orchestrated campaign to bring the Balkan countries within the German orbit. Hitler sa the Balkans as "the great border colonies of the European East". This included both the countries that fought wiyh the Central Powers in World War and the countries which fought with the Allies. Other German governments had developed ties with the Balkans. Hitler intensified those efforts. He saw one of the primary reason's for Germany's defeat in World War I was the Allied naval blockade. The resources of the Balkans would help make Germany more self sufficent in time of war. Germany used both economic means as well as promoting Fascist political parties. Hitler's objective was obtain access to needed natural resources as well as to secure Germany's southern flank for the eventual attack on the Soviet Union. German policy succeeded in turning most of the Balkan nations, but not all, into Axis allies.

Strategic Importance

The Balkans were critical for the NAZI war effort. here were many strategic resources available from the Balkans, but by far the most important was oil. Conducting the War required enormous quantities of petroleum. Germany did not have oil resources of its own. It was developing an industry to convvert coal to oil which was to play an important role in the War. As part of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 1939), the Soviets began delivering petroleum to Germany. The major source of petroleum for Germany was the Romanian oil fields. There were other resources in the Balkans (chrome, copper, magnesium, and other materials), but the most important was the Romamaian petoleum. Without that oil, Germany could not wage any prolonged war. For Hitler, the great prize in the War was not regaining the territories lost in World War I, it was rather expanding east into Poland and the trackless steppe of Russia and the Ukraine. He did not hide this objective. It is described at some length in Mein Kampf. This of course ment war with the Siviet Union. Thus the Balkans took on greater strategic importance because to mose east against the Soviets, Germany's southern flank needed to be sevured.

NAZI Diplomacy

Reich Minister of Economics, Hjalmar Schacht, played a key role in the NAZI diplomatic effort in the Balkans. Here Schacht faced major imperdiments. The cost of the NAZI rearmament program meant that Germany did not have the hard currency needed to purchase raw materials. He creatively obercame this problem. The Depression meant that the demand for raw materials had declined and along with them prices. Balkan producers were thus anxious to find customers. Schacht offered to buy raw materials at prices above world market prices, but payment was streached out on a long term basis. In addition, the Reich mazrks received were resticted as to how they could be used. Schacht also offered long-term loans to finance for industrial development. The terms of the loans, however required that the output be marketed in Germany. Thus during the 1930s, the Balkan economies became increasingly intermeshed with the German economy. Some Balkan leaders were concerned about ties to the NAZIs, but had few alternatives. The Soviet seemed even more threatening. The British and French offered little to counter NAZI efforts until they had largely succeeded with both their evonomic efforts as well as their rearmament program.

Balkan Rivalries

NAZI diplomacy in the Balkans was aided by the fact that the regioin was fundamentally split by national rivalries. Three of the countries (Greece, Romania, and Yugoslavia) had sided with the Allies and were rewarded with territorial concessions. Serbia whivh had played a major role in launching the War had been rewarded with extensive territory out of which the new state of Yugoslavia was created.) The other two countries (Bulgraia and Hungary) had sided with the Central Powers and had lost territory and were anxious to regain the lost territory. The situation was exacerbated beause eachh of the Balkan countries included restive minorities from neigboring states. These rivalries, subtly fuled by the NAZIs made it impossible for any united resistance to devlop resisting German hegemony.

Second Vienna Conference (August 1940)

Following the success of the Soviet in seizing Bessarabia from Romania (July 1940), Hungary and Bulgaria also demanded territory which had been lost as a result of World War II. The possibility of war among its Balkan allies, prompted Hitler to intervene. An agreement was reached between Builgaria and Romania, but war between Hungary and Romania seemed eminent. Hitler convened a conference in Vienna in which instead of arbitrating, he had FGoreign Minister Von Ribbentrop dictate a settlement.


Axis policies varied greatly in the Balkans from country to country. In fact there was no real Axis policy toward the Balkans, both Germany and Italy persued independent and often conflicting policies toward the different Balkan countries. All of the Balkan countries were either forced into the Axis by the Germans or invaded and occupied by the Germans and Italians. The Germans would have preferred to have handeled the Balkans diplomatically so that they could focus on the Soviet Union. Mussolini largely undid this effort by invading Greece which opened yhe possibility of British interference. And then the Yugoslavs refused to be cowed by Hitler. As a result the Balkans, especially Yugoslavia, turned into one of the most horendous killing fields of World War II. While that did not particulrly bother Hitler, the eruption of a guerrila campaign resisting the Axis did. It meant that rather than a secure southern flank, Hitler was forced to deploy more than a million men in the Balkans that could have been deployed on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. This proved to be a huge strategic error. World War II was largely determined in the East, yet Germany fought the War with not only a million men in the Balkans, but several hundred thousand men in Norway. Neither of these forces had a material influence on the War.


Albania was perhaps the poorest country in Europ and an anomally because of its large Muslim population. Albania was an area without a clear, Goverment during World War I. Ahmed Bey Zogu led an armed rebellion and help found a republic. Albanian President Zogu in 1928 Zogu disolved the Albania Parliament, even securing its approval. A constituent assembly made major changes to the country's constitution. Albania was made a monarchy and Zogu became Zog I, "King of the Albanians." Most European governments recognized the new government. The new constiution abolished the Senate and created a unicameral legislture. The King dominated the Parliament and thus ruled with dictatorial powers. Albania had a close relatinship with Italy. The Italian Army trained Albania's small army, which although small (less than 15,000 men) was a major strain on the budget. The Italian presence also angered many Alnanians. Mussolini while the world's attemtion was focused on the growing confrontation between Germany and Poland focused on Albania. Il Duce by 1939 was concerned that talky was becoming a junior parner the evolbing partnership with Hitler. Germany had ewmiliarized the Rhineland (1935), oversaw the Anchlus, annexed the Sudetenland (1938), and the rest of Czecheslovakia (1939). the Italian dictator set his eyes on Albania across the Adiatric from Italy. King Victor Emmanuel III criticized the plan as risky. Mussolini, however, demanded on March 25, that King Zog accept Italian contol over his country, even offering money. aas a result, Italy invaded April 7, 1939. Thre was some resistance, especially at Durrës, but the Ialian Army quickly gained control over the country. King Zog, Queen Geraldine Apponyi, and their small son Skander fled to Greece and then to London. Left with little choice, the Albanian parliament on April 12, accepted union with Italy. King Victor Emmanuel III took the Albanian crown. Mussolini established a Fascist government under Shefqet Verlaci. Mussolini in October 1940 used Albanian base to launch an attack on Greece. The Italian Army not only failed, but were driven bback into Albania by the Greeks and British. With German assidstance in 1941 Mussolini was able to retain control of Albania and eventualy areas of Yugoslavia and Greece. Ironically, after the the Germans invaded and partioned Yugoslavia in 1941, the Albanians for the first time founded themselves united wuth the Albanians in the Yugoslav proivince of Kosovo. The resistance to the Italian occupation during World War II came primarily from Communist forces led by Enver Hoxha.


The Bulgarian royal family was a German family. Bulgaria joined the Central Powers during Wortld War I. The Treaty of Neuilly (1919) transferred Bulgarian territory to countries that fought with the Allies (Greece, Romania and Serbia/Yugoslavia). The retreat from Dobro Pole resulted in a military that was crushed by German troops near Sofia. But the parties in power forced King (Tsar) Ferdinand to abdicate at the end of September because they feared full-scale revolution and blamed the King for the country's chaotic state. Ferdinand's son Prince Boris was named king--becoming King Boris III. The immediate cause of social upheaval ended with the armistice, but shortages and discontent with the Bulgarian government continued. An ineffective coalition government ruled for the next year, then a general election was called. Meanwhile, Bulgaria was again left far short of the territorial goals for which it had declared war. In the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine (November 1919), Thrace was awarded to Greece, depriving Bulgaria of access to the Aegean Sea. Yugoslavbia (The newly formed Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes) took Macedonian territory adjoining its eastern border, and Southern Dobruja went to Romania. The treaty limited the postwar Bulgarian Army to a small volunteer force; Yugoslavia, Romania, and Greece were to receive reparations in industrial and agricultural goods; and the victorious Allies were to receive monetary reparations for the next 37 years. On the other hand, the payment schedule was significantly improved in 1923, and Bulgaria's loss of 14,100 square kilometers was much less than the territorial losses of its wartime allies. Nationalist resentment and frustration grew even stronger because of this outcome, however, and Bulgaria remained close to Germany throughout the interwar period. The Agrarian Party Goverment that came to power in 1919 worked hard to improve the country's economy and lot of the country's large rural population, despite the harshness of the Neuilly Treaty (1919). The Goverment sought to curb extreme right-wing groupd and after a history of Balkan wars, friendly relations with neighboring countries. An attempt to curtail the power of the monarchy in 1923 resulted in a coup d'etat and the assasination of the Agrarian Prime Minister. Internal dissension followed. The Communists, Agrarians, and Liberals were excluded from a Government of national unity. A war with Greece in 1925 was mediated by the League of Nations. King Borris assumed dictatorial powers in 1935. The Bulgarians were nominally a German ally in World War II. The Bulgarians were swept into the NAZI orbit following the early German sucesses in Poland and France. Hitler forced the Romanians to cede territory. Bulgaria joined the Axis (March 1, 1941) and agreed to the entry of German forces. The Bulgarians assisted the Germans in operations against Yugoslavia and Greece and occupied territories of those countries. Bulgarian signed the Anti-Comitetrn Pact and after Pearl Harbor declared war on the United States and Britain. They did not declare war on the Russians despite intense pressure from Hitler. They also did not participate in the NAZI Holocaust. The Bulgariand refused to deliver up their Jews to the SS, one of the few European countries to protect them. (Denmark and Spain were the only other ones.) The Bulgarians refused repeated NAZI demands that the Bulgarian Jews be handed over for deportation to the death camps in Poland. Bulgaria's 48,000 Jews were thus saved. The Bulgarians did cooperate with the round up and transport of Jews in the northern area of Greece and southern Yugoslavia (Macedonia) that they occupied in 1941, although Bulgarian civil authorities do not appear to have been involved. King Borris was assasinated in 1943 after returning home from a meeting with Hitler who intensified demands for the Bulgarians to enter the War with tge Soviet Uniin. The King was suceeded by his 6-year old son Simeon II under a pro-NAZI regency. The Russians massed along the border and Bulgaria in 1944 decalred War on Germany and asked for an armistace. A Goverment friendly to the Russians was immediately installed. The Germans reeling from reverses on the Eastrern Front were powerless to intervene.


Croatia with German and Italian support declared its independence (April 10, 1941). The Fascist Ustaše headed by Ante Pavelic seized control. The Ustaše comensed a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansings.


World War II in the west was conceived as a crusade of Democracies against Axis Fascism. Ironically one of the first European states to effectively resist the Axis was the essentially Fascist Greek state. Greek resistance seemed unlikely because it was such a deeply divided country. Greece had joined the Allies in World War I, but the country was divided between pro-Allied forces (republicans) and pro-German (monarchists). The Greek monarchy was a German family, but King Constantine tried to keep the country out of the War. Finally Britain played a role in brining Greece into the War (1917). After the War, the Allies rewarded Greece with territorial awards at the expense of Bulgaria and Turkey. The continuing politival turmoil between republicans and monarchists played a role in the military dissaster in Anatolia (1922). As a result of Turkish reprisals as well as the Bolshevick victory in the Russian Civil War, huge numbers of refugees flowed into Greece, further destabilizing the political situation in the 1920s. The political and economic problems were exacerbated by the Depression. Finally King Constantine turned to elderly General Ioannis Mextaxas who he appointed primeminister (1936). Mextaxas reacted energetically to the situation, creating a Faxist state without the racial hatred component and with the anomally of a pro-British foreign policy. Mextaxas closed parliament, ending any pretense of democracy and created a dictatorial state. He proclained the advent of the "Third Hellenic Civilzaition". Soon Fascist trappings like military parades, book burnings (among the banned books wwere the writings of Sophocles and Thucydides), arbitrary arrests, and deportations. Along with other Fascist trappings, Metaxas banned the Boy Scouts and created a Fascist youth grouo, the Ethniki Organosi Neolaias (EON--National Organization of Youth). Metaxas proclaimed himself "First Peasant", "First Worker", and "First Father". Like other Fascist dictators, Metaxas proclaimed Greek claims to lands and islands in all direcrtions (Macedonia, Cyprus, the Dodecanese Islands, and even Cobstantinople). As these claims involved territories possessed by Axis states (Italy), Axis clients (Bulgaria), or countries the Axis was courted (Turkey), Metaxas was not drawn into the Axis orbit. When the War brike out, Metaxas desired to keep Greece neutral. This was acceptable to Hitler whose goal was a scure southern flank. It was Musollin's invasion of first Albania (1939) and then Greece itself (1940) that forced Greece into the Allied camp.


Germaby had courted the Hungarians during the 1930s with favorable trade agreements. Hitler also oversaw the Vienna Awatds (1938-40) which gave the Hungarians the territory it sought from both Czechoslovakia and Romania. Hungary which had fought with Germany (as Austro-Hungary) in World War I, joined the Axis (November 20, 1940). This was soon followed by territiry carved out of Yugoslavia (April 1941). The Axis was, however, a fundamentally flawed alliance system. Any country joining the Axis was in essence surendering their siverignity to NAZI Germany. A NAZI dominated Europe would mean that the NAZIs could rule the continent by diktat. Hungary gained the territory it wanted, but in doing so was signing away its national soverignity. This was essentially what happened to the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I.


Romania with its important petroleum resources was a major target of German diplomacy. Germany did not have the petroleum to wage a war of any duration. The basic calculations were stark. The Germans estimated that they needed 12 million tons of oil annually to wage war. The synthetic petroleum industry in the Ruhr based on coal liquidficatioin would by the late 1930s produce about 3 million tons, leaving a defivcit of 9 million tons. Quite simply, NAZI Germany could not go to war without a secure source of additional oil. The oil could not be imported by sea because of the Royal Navy. The answer to this shortfall was Romania. The Romanian oil fields centered around Ploesti produced about 7 million tons annually. Romania posed some initial problems because the country had sided with the Allies in World War I and as a result had been rewarded with territorial concessions at the expense of its neighbors which had sided with the Central Powers. The Romanian royal family was a German family, but Romania had sided with the Allies in World War I. Romania agreed to sell most of its oil to Germany (1939). British efforts to bid for the oil failed. The NAZIs next convinced the Romanians to expel British technicians (July 1940). General Ion Antonescu, who had been the Minister of War, for King Carol when he seized power (September 6, 1940). This meant that the NAZIs had essentially turned Romanian into a satellite state and ally. Antonescu styled himself Conducator (Leader) styled after the Führer principle in Germany. Antonescu ininiated a Fascist state and unleased the Iron Guard, Romania's version of the NAZI storm troopers and no less vicious. The Iron Guard proceeded to murder democratic politicians. Antonescu also began the Holocaust in Romania. The Iron Guard killed hundreds of Jews in the streets of Bucharest. The regime swiftly instituded aide range of anti-semitic measures. Jews were fired from government jobs and many private businesses. Jewish professors were fied and students expelled from universities. [Gilbert, p. 343.] The new Fascist Government in Romania joined the Axis (November 23, 1940). German moved into Romania, a country which Italy also has interess in, was resented by Mussolini.


Slovakia is not a Balkan country, but bordered on the Balkans and figured in German policies toward the Balkans. Slovakia before World War II was one of the most important parts of Czecholslovakia. Resenting Czrch dominance of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia suceeded from Czechoslovakia just as the Germans prepared their invasion (1939). Slovakia became one of Hitler's most skavishly supportive satellites. They were an enthusiastic participant in the Holocaust. Slovakia joined the Axis (November 24, 1940).


King Peter resisted the NAZIs, but finally under increasing pressure did so (March 25, 1941). This brought about student led riots in Belgrade and other Yugoslav cities. A coup d'état which the British supported over through the Goverment 2 days later. Hiler was furious and ordered an invasion to deal with the Yugoslavs and rescue the Italians who had invaded Greece, but had been pushed back into Albania. The NAZIs invaded (April). Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to carry out a terror bombing of Belgrade. The Yugoslav Army offered only minimal resistance to the Germans. Yugoslavia was crved up among the Axis. Croatia was, however, made into a nominally independent puppet state. The guerilla war against the Germans and Italians, the German Holocast, and thnic figting among the Croats, Serbs, and Muslims turned Yugoslavia into onr of the worst killing fields if the War.

Axis Policy

The inability of the Axis to conceive and persue an effective Balkans policy proved to be disastrous to the Axis war effort. Germany persued an effective diplomatic and economic policy in the Balkans that gradually converted the countries most of the region into Axis allies or at least states compliant to German requirements. Basically Germany had to strategic goals in the Balkans. First German wanted was access to Balkan resources. The most important resource was Romanian oil, but there were other strategic resources of importance. Second Germany wanted a secure flank from which they could launch the invasion of the Soviet Union that Hitler had so long cherished. Germany's Axis partner Italy, however, complicated German strategy. Mussolini saw Germany as a competitor in the Balkans. Mussolini used the Balkans to demonstrate his independence of Berlin and in doing so unraveled German efforts to build a secure southern flank. In the end, Hitler would have to commit substantial military forces, delaying Operation Barbarossa and requiring the commitment of occupation forces. It would also draw the Germans into the Meditterean theater of minimal strategic importance and in which the British could bring their chief assett, the Royal navy, to bear against the Germans.


Gilbert, Martin. A History of the Twentieth Century Vol. 2 1933-54 (William Morrow and Company, Inc.: New York, 1998), 1050p.


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