In an eerie repeat of the Great War, an alliance involved its 1940 co-signers into a world war. Five years later, the last two would be defeated by the Allies. The Tripartite Pact coalition included Japan, Italy, and Germany. Each recognized the other’s sphere of interest and would come to each other’s aid if attacked. The term Axis originated from Mussolini’s statement that Europe would “rotate on the Rome-Berlin axis.”
The First Axis Powers
The first Axis Powers were Germany, Italy, and Japan. Yugoslavia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, and Bulgaria joined later. The three powers met in Berlin on September 27, 1940, to sign the agreement. World War II was now a year old and the Axis dominant. Germany controlled Western Europe, Poland and isolated England. Italy ruled Albania, parts of France, Ethiopia and Libya. Japan’s reach now included Korea, Manchuria, swathes of China, and many Pacific Rim islands.
The Major Players: Japan
Despite the Axis successes, by 1940 Japan felt particularly vulnerable, particularly about raw materials, specifically oil and steel. Japan imported nearly all of its oil, with the U.S. and Britain being their biggest suppliers. American embargoes had begun to affect the Empire’s expansion plans. Japan’s Imperial Navy especially felt the squeeze, knowing Japan had only two years’ worth of oil reserves.
Japan knew the Dutch East Indies’ oil supplies were vulnerable because of the Nazi’s occupation of Holland. With Britain in peril, the whole of South East Asia was also exposed. By joining the Axis, the agreement kept Germany from claiming Asian colonies. Japan’s primary aim was deterring the Americans.
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The Axis agreement gave Imperial Japan free rein in Asia and the Pacific as their “zone of interest.” Japan started to revise their war plans, mainly against the United States. Eventually, the Japanese realized that meant invading the Philippines and attacking Pearl Harbor. To achieve those goals, Japan knew eliminating the Philippines as an American base would protect their shipping lanes. And the Imperial government knew the U.S. was too powerful; any war must end with a negotiated peace.
The embargoes against Japan stemmed from the 1931 and 1937 invasions of China. Millions perished during the war – infamous examples being the Rape of Nanjing, expulsions, and using poison gas. When France capitulated, the Japanese moved into French Indochina, securing ports and raw materials. This furthered their plans to come closer to the East Indies and its needed resources.
Italy, a fascist state since the 1920s, had signed the 1936 “Pact of Steel” agreement with Nazi Germany. Both nations’ ideological base was similar – right-wing and authoritarian. But Mussolini knew Italy wasn’t ready for war. Of the three major Axis powers, Italy’s industrial and military bases were the weakest, and he desired Italy to be a great power.
Also, Mussolini used nationalism to quiet domestic problems and new future conflicts to rally the nation, thus tightening his party’s grip. Italy now had Germany and its war machine as an ally. Any war involving Britain now looked easier as its sizeable empire required vast resources. Mussolini viewed the Mediterranean as a Roman lake, desiring to re-create that ancient Empire. He hoped war and conquests would obtain critically short supplies like oil and rubber. Italy declared war in June 1940, invading Egypt on September 13, 1940. Two weeks later, Mussolini signed the Tripartite Agreement.
Nazi Germany was seen as the dominant Axis power. The Nazis came to power in 1933, intending to restore Germany. Opponents like Communists and Jews were eliminated, and by 1936, Germany effectively ignored the 1919 Versailles Treaty. Germany re-armed, flexing its political and military might to annex Austria, re-occupy the Rhineland, and seize the Sudetenland. When Germany, Japan, and Italy created the Axis on September 27, 1940, their goals were mutual security defense; if one were attacked, the others would respond. Hitler wanted similar allied governments with the same goals, and Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Croatia joined as they feared Russia.
The Axis, particularly Germany, entered World War II or even before it started to create their dictators’ view of the world. The Nazis rapidly defeated Poland, France and isolated Britain in 1940. The German victories came via “blitzkrieg” or lightning warfare. A new radical concept, it used mobility, surprise, and coordinated air support to win. Using tanks was central to blitzkrieg, as they provided the punch. The Nazis planned for the future-occupying Eastern Europe, defeating the Soviet Union, and creating “living space” for Germans only. Germany lacked oil, iron ore, and foodstuffs like their Axis partners – all abundant in the East.
The Axis dominated the first three years of the war but that would change. The Pearl Harbor attack brought America into the war, but only against Japan. Hitler and Mussolini felt obligated to respond, declaring war three days later. Now, the Axis faced the world’s biggest powers in an attritional battle they couldn’t win.