The Tripartite Pact: How Were the Axis Powers Created?

The Tripartite Pact, establishing the Axis Powers, represented the coalition of Germany, Japan, and Italy. They opposed the Allied Powers during World War II.

Apr 10, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

tripartite pact axis world war ii


The Tripartite Pact was signed on September 17, 1940, between Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Japan. Also known as the Berlin Pact or, most commonly, the Axis Powers, the Pact intended to change the established world order by pledging to provide mutual assistance in case any of the signatory parties were attacked by a foreign state not involved in World War II. This formulation sheds light on the true purpose of the alliance: to prevent the involvement of the neutral United States in World War II. The Pact also attributed spheres of influence to the participating powers. While Nazi Germany and fascist Italy embarked on dominating the European continent, “Greater East Asia” remained in Japan’s sphere of influence. Just a year later, in 1941, the Pact was invoked following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States entered the conflict by declaring war on Japan, proving the Pact ineffective.


The Berlin-Rome Axis as a Prerequisite of the Tripartite Pact

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Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany, by Eva Braun, 1940, via National Archives Catalog


By 1933, Adolf Hitler had consolidated power in Germany and established the Third Reich, regulated by Nazi ideology. Adolf Hitler’s ideology dictated territorial expansion and racial purity. However, the defeat in World War I and subsequent isolation from the international arena limited the possibilities of such expansion. Hitler needed allies, and Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, aligned with Hitler’s views. Both countries experienced similar political disturbances after World War I, resulting in the rise of radical nationalism.


Like Hitler, Mussolini sought territorial expansion based on a fascist ideology. Besides, Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in October 1935 strained Italy’s relationships with Western powers, particularly Britain and France, providing additional incentive for Hitler to seek a closer alliance with Italy. Such an opportunity was provided in July 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Mussolini assisted fascist rebels under the leadership of General Franco with military equipment. Adolf Hitler seized the opportunity and offered military assistance to General Franco as well. The provided assistance helped General Franco to become the new fascist dictator of Spain.


The German-Italian cooperation culminated on October 21, 1936. Following Hitler’s invitation to Berlin, the two leaders formed a formal alliance known as the Rome-Berlin Axis, pledging to follow a common foreign policy course, including forming a united front against their rivals, opposing communism in Europe, and recognizing the need for territorial expansion. According to Mussolini, “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,” officially coining the term “Berlin-Rome Axis.”

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The Berlin-Rome Axis laid the foundations for signing the Tripartite Pact, which further solidified the political and ideological ties between the two countries.


The Anti-Comintern Pact & the Pact of Steel

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A 1940 map describing Italy’s plan to rebuild the Roman empire, taken from the newspaper The San Francisco Examiner, via Digital Public Library America


Soon after establishing the Berlin-Rome Axis, Japan found common ground with Germany and Italy. Japanese imperialism also dictated territorial expansion and racial superiority.


The beginning of the 1930s saw the rise of military dictatorships and powerful nationalist movements in the country. The Shōwa Emperor, Hirohito, ruled Japan from December 25, 1926, through January 7, 1989. His reign was the longest of any previous Japanese emperor and was characterized by totalitarianism, expansionism, and ultranationalism. Emperor Hirohito sought to acquire new, resource-rich territories to make room for Japan’s surplus population. Like Germany and Italy, Japan’s means to achieve the goal were coercive and invasive,  culminating in the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937.


The three nations united against an international order dominated by France, Great Britain, as well as the emerging Soviet Union. The Japanese were particularly concerned with the developing relations between the Soviet Union and China. The signing of the Soviet-Chinese Non-Aggression Treaty in August 1936 further intensified Japan’s concerns as it threatened its regional influence.


The Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan, signed on November 15, 1936, formalized the German, Italian, and Japanese alliance and provided much-needed assurances to Japan that the spread of communism and the influence of the Soviet Union could be contained. Officially, it was designed to oppose the Communist International (Comintern), which was advocating world communism. Italy joined the Pact in 1937.


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Adolf Hitler in conversation with Japanese foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuoka, 1941, via Hitler Archive


On May 22, 1939, Italy and Germany signed the Pact of Friendship and Alliance, also known as the Treaty of Steel. The treaty further reinforced the Rome-Berlin Axis by officially pledging mutual support in case of war. Additionally, signing parties could not negotiate peace terms without each other’s consent. Secret clauses of the alliance called for the preparation of war and intensified the propaganda efforts.


The Pact of Steel and its clauses made clear that these nations were already in preparation for a major war to fulfill their expansionist policies. Adolf Hitler aimed to regain control over the lost territories after World War I by establishing the German Empire in Eastern Europe, while Mussolini sought to gain control over the Mediterranean and Africa. However, Mussolini was reluctant to implement the Pact of Steel’s provisions because he believed that Italy was not yet prepared for war.


These agreements intensified Soviet worries about growing threats from the fascist nations and encouraged the Soviet Union and Germany to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23, 1939, just a few months later. This non-aggression pact divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence and approved of Hitler invading his sphere of influence, Poland, on September 1, 1939, marking the start of World War II.


The Signing of the Tripartite Pact & the Establishment of the Axis Powers

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Poster created to enhance and strengthen the pact between Japan, Germany, and Italy by Gino Boccasile, 1941, via Rare Historical Photos


Even though Japan perceived the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as a betrayal from the German side, by 1940, Japanese Emperor Hirohito had resumed his relationship with Germany. He perceived Nazi Germany’s successful conquests in Scandinavia and France in April–June 1940 as Western democracies’ weakness and the assurance that Nazi Germany would eventually succeed in the war. Additionally, during this period, the increased possibility of Hitler’s invasion of the United Kingdom and Japan’s advancements in northern Indochina in the summer of 1940 lessened the United States’ isolationist policy.


In July 1940, the US Congress passed the Two Ocean Navy Act, a massive fleet-building program. Soon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to reposition the Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian Islands, expanding the American defensive perimeter. These moves indicated that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was preparing to intervene in World War II.


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Signing ceremony for the Axis Powers Tripartite Pact by Hoffman, 1940, via US Department of Defense


To draw the Axis powers together and deter American involvement in the war, Adolf Hitler, Imperial Japan’s Ambassador to Germany, Saburō Kurusu, and Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, gathered in Berlin. Building on the existing treaties (the Anti-Comintern Pact and the Pact of Steel), the Tripartite Pact was signed on September 17, 1940, in Berlin, Germany.


The signatories pledged to provide mutual assistance in case of an attack by a state not involved in World War II or the Sino-Japanese conflict, referring to the United States. The Pact also stipulated non-aggression, the commitment to settle any existing conflict between the signatories with peaceful means, and non-interference in achieving each country’s strategic territorial and foreign policy goals.


The Tripartite Pact united Germany, Italy, and Japan based on similar geo-strategic aims: the dissolution of the post-World War I international order created by the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919 that had humiliated German, Italian, and Japanese nations and shrank their imperial spaces.


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A political cartoon suggesting that the United States Congress feels pressured to respond to fascist aggression, 1939, via Digital Public Library of America


The Axis countries signed a second agreement known as the “No Separate Peace Agreement.” The revised accord, created on December 8 and signed on December 11, contained four provisions that specified that neither Germany, Italy, nor Japan would consent to peace terms with the United States or Britain on their terms. If the Axis powers won the war, it was additionally implied that the three countries would cooperate to establish a “new order in the world.”


In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to seize Japanese property and money in the United States and declared an embargo on exports of necessary materials such as oil, steel, and iron to Japan. Other Western nations, including Great Britain and the Netherlands, joined the embargo. As isolation and financial crises threatened Japan, authorities were forced to act, resulting in a surprise strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service against the United States naval base in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The United States entered the war. The other Axis powers, Germany and Italy, declared war against the United States on December 11, 1941.


The Axis Powers would eventually oppose the Allied powers—Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—during World War II.


Allies of the Tripartite Pact & Its Influence

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Pearl Harbor, Thick smoke rolls out of a burning ship during the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, December 7, 1941, via National Archives Catalog


The Axis Powers managed to align with different European countries without them formally joining the Tripartite Pact. For example, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria became close allies of the Axis powers and joined the war on the side of Nazi Germany, contributing to the military operations in Europe. Finland, although it did not officially join the Tripartite Pact, fought against the Soviet Union with Germany.


The defensive alliance under the Tripartite Pact was never invoked, but the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis managed to form a united front against the Allies through a combination of political coordination, propaganda, economic cooperation, and military collaboration, presenting a formidable challenge to the Allied powers during World War II.


Encouraged by the Tripartite Pact, the Axis Powers employed aggressive policies. Italy, for example, invaded Greece in October 1940. Facing strong resistance and suffering defeats, Adolf Hitler intervened in the Greco-Italian War to support Mussolini.


Even though the signing of the Tripartite Pact was not the direct reason for the start of World War II, the Axis Powers’ pledge for coordinated military actions and support of each other’s expansionist policies contributed to the escalation and expansion of it, drawing or aligning multiple countries in conflict. The Tripartite Pact was dissolved following the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War II in 1945.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.