The Axis Powers

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Podcast Transcript

World War II was famously fought between two forces, the Axis and the Allies. 

Most people know that the Axis was comprised of Germany, Italy, and Japan. What many people don’t know is that there were actually several more countries that were part of the alliance. 

…and why exactly was it called the Axis? … and how did these countries work together?

Learn more about the Axis powers, how the alliance was created, and how they worked together, or didn’t, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The fascination with the Second World War is probably going to continue for centuries. 

It was a war with very clear bad guys. It was an extremely well-documented war with plenty of footage and reporting of exactly what happened. 

That being said, much of what most people know about the war tends to be oversimplified. There is a great deal of nuance that is lost, especially when you look at the war in its totality. 

This is particularly true with the Axis powers. 

The origin of what would become the Axis powers actually begins in Italy.  Benito Mussolini rose to power in 1922 as the Prime Minister of Italy and was the leader of the Italian Fascist Party. 

The term fascist and fascism actually comes from the Italian Fascist party, and the name is derived from the Latin word fasces. Fasces were a bundle of sticks with an axe head that was used for ceremonial purposes. Magistrates had bodyguards known as lictors who would carry fasces with them to signify the authority of the consul or tribute. 

The Italian Fascists were the first major anti-communist party to emerge in Europe after World War I.

The next big thing that occurred in the creation of the Axis alliance was the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and his National Sociality Party in Germany in January 1933. 

Hitler had been an admirer of Mussolini for years. His Beer Hall Putsch was an ill-fated attempt to recreate Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome. Mussolini donated money to the Nazis in the 1920s and allowed Nazi brownshirts to train with his Fascist blackshirts.

Publicly, Mussolini celebrated the rise of Hitler in Germany because he felt it was a validation of his regime in Italy. Privately, he thought little of Hitler’s racial theories that placed Northern Europeans at the top of some racial hierarchy. 

He was reported to have said in private, “Thirty centuries of history allow us to look with supreme pity on certain doctrines which are preached beyond the Alps by the descendants of those who were illiterate when Rome had Caesar, Virgil, and Augustus.”

Nonetheless, in a Europe with democratic societies, they had more in common than not.  On October 23, 1936, in Berlin, Italian foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano and German foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath signed a nine-point agreement with each other. 

The agreement mostly dealt with the Spanish Civil War, acknowledging the Italian occupation of Ethiopia and German claims to former territories taken during the First World War. 

About a week later, in Milan, Mussolini gave a speech where he coined the term that would define the alliance. He said,  “This Berlin-Rome protocol is not a barrier, it is rather an axis around which all European States animated by a desire for peace may collaborate on troubles”

The same day that Italy and Germany signed the nine-point pact, a representative from the Japanese government was in Berlin to negotiate a treaty of their own. 

This resulted almost a month later, on November 25, 1936, in the signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact.

The Anti-Comintern Pact was directed at the Communist International, also known as Comintern. For all practical purposes, it was an alliance against the Soviet Union, which is exactly how the Soviets interpreted it. 

In addition to the more generic anti-communist parts of the treaty, which were made public, there was also a secret part where Germany and Japan mentioned the Soviet Union by name and how the countries would assist each other if attacked by the Soviets. 

I should note that while Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had things that separated them, Germany and Imperial Japan really had very little in common beyond mutual geopolitical interests. In fact, Hitler ultimately had to declare the Japanese to be ‘honorary Aryans’ to justify their partnership.

In November 1937, Italy became a signatory to the public part of the pact as well.

In February 1939, the Japanese puppet regime in Manchuria, known as Manchuko, signed the treaty, as did Hungary…more on them in a bit. 

In March, immediately after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War, Franco had Spain sign the treaty.

In May of 1939, Italy and Germany strengthened their ties by signing the Pact of Friendship and Alliance between Germany and Italy, also known as the Pact of Steel. The treaty originally was intended to include Japan, but the Japanese were more interested in fighting the Soviets, and the Germans and Italians were more interested in the French and the British. 

The Pact of Steel was an explicit military alliance between Italy and Germany and called on one to come to the aid of the other if attacked. 

What Germany did in August of 1939 was quite shocking to its allies. The German foreign minister Jochim von Ribbentrop traveled to Moscow to sign a secret agreement with the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav (V-eech-a-slav) Molotov.  

I’ve previously done an episode on the Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement, but it set the stage for the invasion of Poland, which would take place only a week later. 

Militarily speaking, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was far more detailed than anything the Germans ever signed with one of their supposed allies. In addition to being a non-aggression pact, the Germans recognized a Soviet sphere of influence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Bessaribia (now known as Moldova), and eastern Poland. 

Ribbentrop told the Soviets that the Anti-Comintern Pact was really more of an anti-western pact, and Molotov, for his part, never made it an issue. There was a joke going around Germany that the Soviet Union would be the next to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact.

The other signatories of the Anti-Comintern Pact had varying reactions to Hitler’s deal with the Soviets. 

Musollini was ambivalent. He had become the junior partner in his relationship with Hitler. The previous year, in 1938, he adopted the Nazi policies on Jews because he needed Hilter’s support. The Italian public had always been suspicious of an alliance with the Germans, and this treaty only confirmed it.

The Japanese felt betrayed. They had been fighting border skirmishes with the Soviets along the border of Manchuria. When the Ribbentrop-Molotov became known, they immediately came to terms with the Soviets. Their concern was that if the Soviets didn’t have to worry about their western border, they turn their attention to the east.

There are many “what ifs” you can play with respect to WWII. One of the biggest is what if Germany and Japan had both focused their attention on the Soviet Union and ignored the United States?

With the formal start of the war in Europe and a possible expansion of the war looming, Germany once again saw the need for alliances. In September 1940, after the successful invasion of France, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact.

The Tripartite Pact was really the agreement that defined the Axis as we think of them today, insofar as it included the three main belligerent countries. However, it didn’t replace the Anti-Comintern Pact or the Pact of Steel. 

The Tripartite Pact was intended to be a defensive treaty, and in the event that one of the signatories was attacked, the other members would be obligated to declare war. 

There are several things about the Tripartite Pact that most people don’t realize. 

The first is that the Soviets wanted to join. In October 1940, Molotov flew to Berlin to meet German officials to discuss the Soviet Union becoming the fourth member of the alliance.  The Soviets viewed this as just an extension of their current agreement with the Germans. 

This is something that most people either don’t realize or downplay: the Soviets wanted to be part of the Axis. They went so far as to offer economic incentives to Germany. 

They sent a proposal to the Germans in November, which largely outlined their control over Finland, but the Germans never replied. By November 1940, the Nazis already knew that they intended to invade the Soviet Union the next year and would never allow the Soviets in the club.

Germany, Japan, and Italy signing the Tripartite Pact is not the end of the story. Another thing that most people don’t realize is that there were more than three countries that signed the Tripartite Pact and were members of the Axis Alliance. While the Soviets didn’t get in, other countries did.

The first country that sought membership was Hungary. When news of the treaty went public, Hungary immediately contacted the Germans to become a signatory.

The reason why Hungary wanted to join was mostly due to geopolitical reality. Their primary fear was being invaded and conquered by the Soviets. Neither Germany nor Italy was keen to have Hungary join, but situations on the ground forced their hand. 

In early October, Romania requested German troops to guard the Ploie?ti oil fields. Hungary agreed to let German troops pass through to reach Romania. 

Hitler then had a change of mind and agreed to allow any country friendly to Germany to join.

Hungary signed the Tripartite Treaty on October 12, 1940.

Romania sought to join the treaty as well to seek protection from the Soviet Union. They signed the treaty on November 23, 1940.

Slovakia was a newly created state after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1939. While not explicitly a puppet state of Germany, its leaders were only there because of Germany, so they were very sympathetic. 

Bulgaria had been an ally of Germany since the First World War, and Germany had put pressure on Bulgaria to join. 

On November 17, Tsar Boris III, the ruler of Bulgaria, flew to Berlin to meet with Hitler. The Tsar agreed in principle to join but held off on formally signing. 

The Soviets used this opportunity to try and woo Bulgaria itself, but the actions of Bulgarian communists ruined their overtures. 

Ultimately, on March 1, 1941, Bulgarians acceded to joining the pact if for no other reason than survival. Germany wanted to intervene in the Italian-Greek War and needed to send troops through Bulgaria. 

I should note that the United States issued a formal declaration of war on Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria in June 1942, in addition to their previous declarations against Japan, Germany, and Italy.

On March 24, 1941, Yugoslavia signed the treaty. However, just two days later, the Yugoslavian government was overthrown in a coup, which resulted in an invasion by the Axis just two weeks later. 

One result of the invasion of Yugoslavia was the creation of an Independent State of Croatia, which was really just a puppet of Italy and Germany. They signed the treaty on June 15, 1941.

Two other countries considered joining but never did. Finland considered it just as a bulwark against Soviet aggression, and Thailand did because Japan wanted to transfer troops through the country to Burma.

June 15, 1941, would be the high mark for the Axis alliance. The next week, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and everything changed. 

To give you an idea of just how loose the alliance actually was, Germany never told Japan about Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Likewise, Japan never notified Germany about attacking Pearl Harbor and everything they attacked on the same day. 

Other than having signed a piece of paper, there was really no coordination of anything militarily between Germany and Japan. The only thing of consequence was Germany and Italy declaring war on the United States after Pearl Harbor, and they didn’t have to do that according to the treaty.

Even between Germany and Italy, it was hardly a partnership of equals. 

The lesser Axis countries only had a minor contribution to the war, but they were part of the Axis alliance nonetheless. 

As the war began to turn, the Axis powers began to fall away. Mussolini’s fascist regime fell in 1943, which required the Germans to invade Italy to stop the Allied advance. 

Governments in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary all dissolved as the Soviets swept through them in pursuit of the Germans. Germany and Japan were the last ones standing, and we know what happened to them. 

The Axis was really just an alliance in name. They never had the deep integration of forces and strategy that the Allies did. They also never really trusted each other as each one of the members had their own agenda. 

This lack of unity and cooperation is one of many reasons why the Axis ultimately lost the war.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review comes from listener panhandlenoodnick over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Great podcast

I’m working my way from the bottom up. It has a good calming effect while I’m at a stressful job. Although you will develop an urge to make scotch eggs.

Thanks, Panhandle! Not only does listening to this podcast provide a calming effect, but if made properly, scotch eggs do as well.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.