*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- the Axis

World War II: The Axis Alliance

World War II Axis
Figure 1.--The Axis was a fundamentally flawed alliance. Most of the European Axis adherents were forced by the Germans to join. Italy was the one country besides Japan that has any real option. Mussolini saw the Allies as restricting his ability to expand. But ultimately a German-dominated Europe would mean Italy becoming a German subject state which in fact it did. Somehow this basic dynamic never occurred to Mussolini who seems to have had no realistic idea of the military inbalance between the two countries. Here German soldiers speak with Italian Balilla boys. The photograph is undated, but we would guess was taken in early-1943 as Germany begasn increasing its military presence in Italy.

Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact September 27, 1940. The agreement allied Germany and Italy (which were at war with Britain) and Japan (which was at war with China). Germany and Italy has since 1939-40 been at war with Britain. Japan since 1937 had been at war with China. The alliance did not require the partners to join these wars, but it did require them to come to each other's aid if attacked by any country. The alliance became known as the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis alliance, or commonly the Axis. The three Axis partners recognized German hegemony over most of Europe; Italian hegemony in the Mediterranean, and Japanese hegemony in East Asia. After the Axis agreement was signed, several German allies joined the Axis, notably Vichy France and Fascist Spain refused to do so. Japan had no Asian allies, except for the puppet state of Manchukuo.


Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1920s provided a model for Hitler. Mussolini was at first dimissive of Adolf HHitler and the NAZIs. After Hitler seized power he was concened about the independence of Austria anbd possible German clains to the Italian held South Tyrol. After Allied criticism of his seixzure of Ethiopia, Mussolini began to warm to Hitler. It was Mussolini in 1936 that proposed a Rome-Berlin AXIS. By 1937 it was Hitler that was increasingly calling the tune. Mussolini made no effort to interfere with Hitler at the Munichgh Conference. And he convinced Mussolini, after facing down the British at Munich, to sign the anti-Commitern Pact in November 1937. Dazzeled by the suucess of the Germans, Mussolini after France was near collapse, entered the War. Japan, the other major partner, was of mixed minds about NAZI Germany. The NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 1939) damaged the reputation of many seeking to build a closer relsationship with Germany against the Soviet Union. American diplomacy supporting China, however, gradually convinced the Japanese that they would have to confront America and they saw an alliance with Germany as a way of counter-ballancing the vast industrial strength of the United States.

Totalitarian Political Parties

World War II was in many ways a continuation of World War I. It was also a result of the emergence of political parties, primarily Fascist parties, which idealized war. Despite the experience of World War I, the Fascists idealized war. The Fascists were willing to employ coercion in international affairs much as they employed as part of their policies domestically. This commitment to war was normally disguised in part propganda. While not as committed ideologically to war, the Communist were quite willingto employ coercion both domestically and iternationally. Fascism and Communism are often seen as opposite ends of the political spectrum. In fact there are many similarities. It was not accident that until June 1941, Hitler and Stalin were partners.

Chronological Development (1936-41)

The Axis was a military alliance which slowly evolved as Hitler moved toward war in Europe (1936-40). The first step was the Rome-Berlin Axis (1936) followed by the Anti-Comitern Pact which first brought Japan into the orocess. Although conceived as a defensive pact, the Axis countries turned it into a war-time coalition (1941). The Axis partners, however, never committed to the level of military cooperation achieved by the Allies. This proved to be a fatal flaw of the Axis which managed by 1940-41 to achieve a substantial military advantage over the Allies. The flaw was the natural outgriwth of the nature of the totalitrian powers. Britain and America shared more than a common language. They shared a deep cultural bond and commond vlues. These iunclude a commitment th librral democracy, the rule of law, bsic human rights, and free market economics. The Axis alliance on the other hand was a marriage of convenience among powers seeking national power. Ultimately had the Axis won there would have been a falling out among the three powers upon division of the spoils. Both Germant and Japan sought world power and had deep seated racial biases. The Germans granted the Japanese the status of 'honorary' Aryans, but that was just to cover up the racial doctrines that judged non-Aryans inferiors. The Japanese had similar racial views, but not as stridently articulated. These differences severly limited the effectiveness of the Axis.

Axis Members

The agreement allied Germany and Italy (which were at war with Britain) and Japan (which was at war with China). Germany and Italy has since 1939-40 been at war with Britain. Japan since 1937 had been at war with China. The alliance became known as the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis alliance, or commonly the Axis. After the Axis agreement was signed, several German allies joined the Axis, notably Vichy France and Fascist Spain refused to do so. Several German allies did join the Axis: Slovakia (November 1940), Hungary (November 1940), Romania (November 1940), and Bulgaria (March 1941). Finland fought with Germany against the Soviet Union in an effort to regain territory lost to Stalin in 1940, but never signed the Tripartite Pact and thus was not technically a member of the Axis alliance. The Yugoslavian Royal Government, under intense German presure, joined the Axis alliance on March 25, 1941, but withdrew 2days later after an anti-German coup overthrew the government. After Germany and its allies invaded and partitioned Yugoslavia, the new Fascist puppet state of Croatia joined the Axis on June 15, 1941. Although Fascist Itly and NAZI Germany had played a key role in the Nationlist (Fascist) victory over the Spanish Republic, Fascist Spain refused to join the Axis alliance or to enter the war with Bfritain in 1940 and Russia in 1941. Japan had no Asian allies, except or the puppet state of Manchukuo.

The Soviet Union

Stalin and the Soviets are seen today as the great foe of Hitler and the NAZIs. In fact Stalin was for the first years of the War a German ally making it essentially part of the Axis. The NAZIs and Soviets signed a Non-Agression Pact (August 1939) just before both invaded Poland launching World War II. Despite the name, this made the two totalitarian powers very real allies. Not only did both invade Poland, but they agreed to partition Eastern Europe. And they agreed to economic exchanges. This left Hitler free to invade Poland and in effect launch World War II and Stalin joined in. After the War began the world's attention was primarily focussed on Germany and Hitler. Stalin proceeded, however, to conduct his own series of agressions. The Soviets attacked or occupied Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. Economic cooperation was another part of the NAZI-Soviet Pact. Raw material, especially oil, that the Soviets shipped to Gemany made a major contibution to the German war economy. This was a majpr aspect of NAZI-Soviet cooperation. Germany had an important coal resource, but lacked virtually all the other natural resources needed for war, especially oil. The Soviet Union had all that Germany lacked and it vast quanties, all the Hitler needed to run his war in perpetuity. While the Soviets delivered vast quantities of materials, the Germans for obvious reasons delayed much of the shipments of manufactured goods and weaponry that they had promised. Stalin wanted to join the Axis and pressed the Germans on it. [Weinberg, pp. 201-02.] The Japanese tried to convince the Germans to accept the Soviets into the Axis alliance. Hitler was adamently opposed. He did not flatly refuse as he did not want to raise Stalin�s suspicions or to impair the huge shipments of oil and other strategic materials; that Stalin was sending to the Reich. They were vital to the German war economy in the run up to Barbarossa. The Japanese signed their own non-agression pact with the Soviets (April 1941). After the German launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded (June 1941), but failed to defeat the Soviets, German diplomats attempted to draw the Japanese into their war with the Soviets. The Japanese declined. In fact they wanted to Hitler to form a grand alliance with the Soviets and counseked a settlement with the Soviets. Hitler was, however, unwilling to give up any of his gains in the East.

NAZI-Soviet Cooperation (1939-41)

The NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939) essentially made the NAZIs and Soviets allies. The Soviets never joined the Axis, although Japanese diplomats argued that they should be allowed to join. Even so, the Soviets were a very important NAZI ally. World War II histories generally mention the Pact in terms of making possible the NAZI invasion of Poland and then generally provide littleadditional information on the Pact and the NAZI-Soviet alliance. This is in part because after the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union, the Soviets became a key element of the Allied struggle against the Axis. And this Soviet aggressions were inconvenient in depicging the struggle with the Axis as one between good and evil. Unfortunaltely, subsequent historians have focused on NAZI campaigns and occupation policies and generally left untouched the 2 years in which the NAZIs and Soviets cooperated. There was extensive cooperation between the two powers as they proceeded to divide Europe between themselves. The relation was troubled over differences between how Eastern Europe was to be divided, espcially disagreements over Finland, Lithuania, and Romania. With the Royal Navy blockade in place, the Soviet Union became Germany's most important sypplier of strategic materials. TheSoviets also facilitated contacts between Germany and Japan.

Axis Alliance Provisions

The alliance did not require the partners to join these wars, but it did require them to come to each other's aid if attacked. The three Axis partners agreed to recognize German hegemony over most of Europe; Italian hegemony in the Mediterranean, and Japanese hegemony in East Asia. The alliance committed the members to come to each others assistance if attacked. It did not commit them to military assistance against countries attacked. Thus when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Japan remained neutral. When Japan attacked America, however, Hitler declared war on Americ even though he was not obligated to do so. The interesting aspect of the Axis alliance was that Hitler saw of it as a way to weakn the British and distract America. As it worked out, the principal impact was to bring America into the War, an action Hitler had been trying to delay.

Axis Strategic Cooperation

Hitler appears to have conceived an alliance with the Japanese as a way of dividing the world in what he called Operation Orient. While the Japanese ageeed to the Anti-Comitern Pactb (1936) and the Axis (1940), Hitler never suceeded in convincing the Japanese in commiting to his campaihn against the Siviet Union, even after he declared war on the United States when Japan attacked Peal Harbor (1941). Germany launched World War II when it invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 causing Britain and France declared war on September 3. Britain and France had pledged to defend Poland in case of German invasion. Germany defeated the Polish Army in October 1939, the Polish Government never agreed to an armistace. The Germans then defeated the French Army and forced the country to sign an armistace in June 1940. Italy on June 10, *just before the armistace, entred the war. Japan after signing the Axis agreement did not join the war with Britain in Europe. After signing the Axis agreement, Japan did not join the war against Britain. Japan did seize the French colony of Indo-China (Vietnam) which brought about American sanctions. Japan had been at war with China since 1937. Japanese planners in 1941 pondered their course of action, especially after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Some expected them to attack north at Soviet Siberia. Had they done so, almost surely the Soviet Union reeling unde German attack, would have been defeated. Instead they attacked south at American Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. There was vitually no coordintion among Axis partners in military strategy, in contrast to the closely coordinate cAllied operations. There was especially close cooperation between Ameica and Britain, but there was also some coordination with the Soviets.


One difficult problem that the Axis faced was the stident racism of the major partners. Here Italian nationalism was not as corupted by racism, but German and Japanese nationalism include racial superiority as a central tenant. Hitler's war aims included genocide to destroy the Jews and sharply reduce the Slavic popultion in Europe. The Japanese were less intent on genocide as a major war goal, but rather wanted to dominate and exploit. In the process of course were apauling civilian casualties. Two countries who considered them selves to be racially superior make for poor allies and this must have affected the ability of the two countries to cooperate. The fact that their conquests did not overlap meant that the inevitavle conflict was managaeavle. We are not sure to what extent this occurred to the Japanese. It did occur to the NAZIs. Goebbels wt=rites in his diary, "The United States is trying desperately to drag us into a discussion of racial questiojs, especially in regard to Japan. The American press has launched impassioned articles against the yellow race and is trying via Stockholm, to get them published akl iver the world. Several Stockholm newspapers have fallen for this propaganda. I supose the Americans believe we can be persuaded to reply to this propaganda and get dragged into the discussion. That's where they are mistaken. {goebbels seem so used to controlling the press that he assumes central direction in the American media.] I have forbidden the German bews services even to mention these somewhat ticklish and delicate problems, as I am convinced we can't win any laurels here. As a matter of factour position regarding Japan and the problems of eastern Asia is rather precarious, since we are uncompromising in our racial views. It is best to overcome these difficultis by silence." [January 27, 1942--Goebbels, p.51.]

Technical and Material Cooperation

The Axis in addition to strategic and diplomatic coordination also conducted technological and material exchanges. We do not yet have a full assessment of the level of cooperaion in scientific reserch in weapons development among the Axis. Such cooperation was clearly not as close as the very intense Anglo-American cooperation. The transfer of technology was a one way flow, from Germany to Japan. Here there were exchanges of some importance, however, geography and divergent strategic concepts and goals complicated sctual exchsnges. Here the historical record is somewhat complicated because the exchanges actually began before the Axis agreement was actually signed. And the relationship bretween the three countries developed somewhat differently and pte-dated the NAZI seizure of power in Germany (1933). While the Germans had technology that the Japanese needed, the Japanese after seizing Southeast Asia had a range of raw materials that the Germans needed, but fortunately for the Allies, no way of effectively transporting the material to Europe because of Allied naval control of the Atlantic. There were, however, efforts to do so including efforts to transfer nuckear technology at the end of the War.

Axis Occupation Policies

Axis occupation policies varied widely, especially German policies. One consistent them with the Axis was economic exoloitation and efforts to annex some areas and suppres foreign elements in those areas. Here German racial policies had a major impact. In line with Generalplan Ost, the goal was to substantially reduce the Slavic population and convert the survivors to slave labor. While Germany, Italy, and Japan were the principal Axis countries, smaller countries like Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania were given their own occupation zones by the Germans. Axis policies were in one sence nesitated by the fact that they launched the War withouth the industrial or resource base needed to conduct global war. The War was launched to obtain the resources needed to wage war and thus the industry and resources of the occupied countries were an important part of the Axis war plan. For a range of reasons, this did not work as the Axis countries planned. The Germans did make considerable use Western Europe (especially France) to support their war effort, but failed to use the coveted resources of the East when the Red Army did not collapse as anticipated. The Japanese did seize their Souther Resource Zone with needed resources like oil and rubber. Getting the resources back to the Home Islands, however, proved a very difficult undertaking as the U.S. Navy perfected its submarine campaign on the Japanese Marus. Axis racial policies (especially German and Japanese) proved deadly and were persued irrespective of economic concerns or impact on the war effort.

Strategic Differences

Hitler made no effort to coordinate his invasion of the Soviet Union with his Axis partner, the Japanese. When Barbarossa stalled with the onset of Winter (November 1941), the NAZIs began to give more attention to Japanese intervention. Japanese diplomats in Germany suggested that Japan would ebter the war against the Soviets. Instead the Japanese of course struck the United States at Pearl Harbor (December 1941). The Japanese were anti-Communist, but they were uncertain about NAZI success. Japanese diplomats were at first optimistic, but Tokyo officials were more skeptical. When in fact it became clear that the NAZIs were not going to be able to prevail, they urged Hitler to make peace. There concern here was with their own military position. If the Allies were to defeat the NAZIs than they would face the Americans and British alone. The Japanese were increasingly frusrrated with Hitler's refusal to reach a true with Stalin. The NAZI demnands for both territory and demilitarization were clearly unacceotable to Stalin, especially as the military ballance turned increasingly against Germany. Japanese diplomats in Berlin correctly accesse Hitler's unwillingness to make peace and were hard pressed to deal with Tokyo's urging of a settlement between the NAZIs and Soviets. Tokyo was also uneasy with the reports of the barbarous NAZI actions in the East. [Boyd, p. 143.] This is interestng given Japanese actions in China. Magic intercepts provided the Americans a detailed view of Japanese assessments of the fighting on the Eatrern Front (which were quite detailed and accurate) and increasing Japanese unease as the military ballance shifted.

Youth Groups

The Axis alliance joined NAZI Germany, Fascit Italy, and Imperial Japan. There were also the junior parners in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania). There were also junior partners in Asia (Manchuko and Thialand). We note no contacts between the HJ and Japanese youth. Here the distance and cost of such exchanges were probably the main factor. The Axis Alliance was formed during the War (although before Japan entered the War). Thus there was even less ability tooganize events. Racial differences might have caused a problem if exchanges had been possible. NAZI Germany's principal ally was Italy and after the Anchluss, the two countries shared a common border. Thus here exchanges were feasible and could be conducted at reasonable cost. We know that there were some such exchanges. We are not sure, however, about the extent of the contacts between the Hitler Youth and the Italian Balilla. We note HJ and Baliall leaders attending a celebrtion together, but have no details on an actual meting together. We have no information at this time as to the extent to which joint activities were planned. We also note photographs of HJ and Balilla boys. We are unsure to what extent there were actual joint activities conducted by the two groups. Many of the images of HJ boys with foreign boys are with Balilla boys. "The Italian fascist youth and the BDM didn't have very much in common. [Ruediger] Another observer writes, "The BDM vistors were pretty shocked when they saw that the Italian girls were being trained to shoot rifles and drive trucks, and prior to their going to Italy, they were warned not too closely associate with the Italian youth." [Crawford] We note contacts between HJ and Japanese youth leaders, but not events with German and Japanese youth. The distances involved would have made this very expensive.

Defeat and Occupation

The three Axis partners were all defeated in the War. Italy after arresting Musosolini signed an armistice with the Allies (September 1943). Germany surrendered unconditionally after the Soviet Union and Western Allies had occupied much of the country (May 1945). Japan surrendered unconditionally before an American invasion (September 1945). The Allied occupation was significatly different in each of the three major Axis countries. The one constant is that the result in each of the three countries was the creation of a modern, vibrant democratic society and prosperous economy. The other totalitarian aggressor nation, the Soviet Union, wanted to join the Axis, but Hitler refused and instead attacked the Soviets. They thus played a major part of the defeat of the Axis. The Soviets were not defeated and not occupied by the western Allies and as a result did not develop a modern, vibrant democratic society and prosperous economy.


Boyd, Carl. Hitler's Japanese Confidant: General Oshima Hiroshi and Magic Intelligence (University of Kansas: Lawrence, 1993), 271p.

Gibert, Martin. A History of the 20th Century.

Goebbels, Joseph. ed, Louis B. Lochner, The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943 (Doubleday: New York, 1948), 566p.

Schom, Alan. The Eagle and the Rising Sun: The Japanese-American War 1941-1943 (Norton, 2003).

Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambrige Universit Press: New York, 2005), 1178p.


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Created: February 20, 2003
Last updated: 12:44 PM 6/27/2019