Examining the roles of Germany, Italy, and Japan in the Second World War.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 10.05.2018
Nazi Germany is the common English name for the period in German history from 1933 to 1945 when the country was governed by a dictatorship under the control of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Under Hitler’s rule, Germany was transformed into a fascist totalitarian state that controlled nearly all aspects of life. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich (“Greater German Reich”) from 1943 to 1945. The period is also known under the names the Third Reich and the National Socialist Period. The Nazi regime came to an end after the Allied Forces defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.
Hitler’s Rise to Power
Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by the President of the Weimar Republic Paul von Hindenburg on January 30, 1933. The Nazi Party then began to eliminate all political opposition and consolidate its power. Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934, and Hitler became dictator of Germany by merging the powers and offices of the Chancellery and Presidency. A national referendum held August 19, 1934 confirmed Hitler as sole Führer (leader) of Germany. All power was centralized in Hitler’s person, and his word became above all laws. The government was not a coordinated, co-operating body, but a collection of factions struggling for power and Hitler’s favor. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Nazis restored economic stability and ended mass unemployment using heavy military spending and a mixed economy. Extensive public works were undertaken, including the construction of Autobahnen (motorways). The return to economic stability boosted the regime’s popularity.
Racism, especially antisemitism, was a central feature of the regime. The Germanic people (the Nordic race) were considered by the Nazis to be the purest branch of the Aryan race, and therefore were viewed as the master race. Millions of Jews and other peoples deemed undesirable by the state were murdered in the Holocaust. Opposition to Hitler’s rule was ruthlessly suppressed. Members of the liberal, socialist, and communist opposition were killed, imprisoned, or exiled. The Christian churches were also oppressed, with many leaders imprisoned. Education focused on racial biology, population policy, and fitness for military service. Career and educational opportunities for women were curtailed. Recreation and tourism were organised via the Strength Through Joy program, and the 1936 Summer Olympics showcased the Third Reich on the international stage. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels made effective use of film, mass rallies, and Hitler’s hypnotizing oratory to control public opinion. The government controlled artistic expression, promoting specific art forms and banning or discouraging others.
Beginning in the late 1930s, Nazi Germany made increasingly aggressive territorial demands, threatening war if they were not met. It seized Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939. Hitler made a pact with Joseph Stalin and invaded Poland in September 1939, launching World War II in Europe.
The Rise of the Nazi Party
Nazi Flag: National flag of Germany, 1935–45
The German economy suffered severe setbacks after the end of World War I, partly because of reparations payments required under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The government printed money to make the payments and repay the country’s war debt; the resulting hyperinflation led to higher prices for consumer goods, economic chaos, and food riots. When the government failed to make the reparations payments in January 1923, French troops occupied German industrial areas along the Ruhr. Widespread civil unrest followed.
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party) was the renamed successor of the German Workers’ Party founded in 1919, one of several far-right political parties active in Germany at the time. The party platform included removal of the Weimar Republic, rejection of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, radical antisemitism, and anti-Bolshevism. They promised a strong central government, increased Lebensraum (living space) for Germanic peoples, formation of a national community based on race, and racial cleansing via the active suppression of Jews, who would be stripped of their citizenship and civil rights. The Nazis proposed national and cultural renewal based upon the Völkisch (German populist) movement.
When the stock market in the United States crashed on October 24, 1929, the effect on Germany was dire. Millions were thrown out of work, and several major banks collapsed. Hitler and the Nazi Party prepared to take advantage of the emergency to gain support for their party. They promised to strengthen the economy and provide jobs. Many voters decided the Nazi Party was capable of restoring order, quelling civil unrest, and improving Germany’s international reputation. After the federal election of 1932, the Nazis were the largest party in the Reichstag (elected parliament), holding 230 seats with 37.4 percent of the popular vote.
Hitler Seizes Power
Adolf Hitler: Hitler became Germany’s head of state, with the title of Führer und Reichskanzler, in 1934.
Although the Nazis won the greatest share of the popular vote in the two Reichstag general elections of 1932, they did not have a majority, so Hitler led a short-lived coalition government formed by the Nazi Party and the German National People’s Party. Under pressure from politicians, industrialists, and the business community, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. This event is known as the Machtergreifung (seizure of power). In the following months, the Nazi Party used a process termed Gleichschaltung (co-ordination) to rapidly bring all aspects of life under control of the party. All civilian organizations, including agricultural groups, volunteer organizations, and sports clubs, had their leadership replaced with Nazi sympathizers or party members. By June 1933, virtually the only organisations not under control of the Nazi Party were the army and the churches.
On the night of February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building was set afire; Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist, was found guilty of starting the blaze. Hitler proclaimed that the arson marked the start of a communist uprising. Violent suppression of communists by the Sturmabteilung (SA) was undertaken all over the country, and 4,000 members of the Communist Party of Germany were arrested. The Reichstag Fire Decree, imposed on February 28, 1933, rescinded most German civil liberties, including rights of assembly and freedom of the press. The decree also allowed the police to detain people indefinitely without charges or a court order. The legislation was accompanied by a propaganda blitz that led to public support for the measure.
In March 1933, the Enabling Act, an amendment to the Weimar Constitution, passed in the Reichstag by a vote of 444 to 94. This amendment allowed Hitler and his cabinet to pass laws—even laws that violated the constitution—without the consent of the president or the Reichstag. As the bill required a two-thirds majority to pass, the Nazis used the provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree to keep several Social Democratic deputies from attending; the Communists had already been banned. On May 10 the government seized the assets of the Social Democrats; they were banned in June. The remaining political parties were dissolved, and on July 14, 1933, Germany became a de facto one-party state when the founding of new parties was made illegal. Further elections in November 1933, 1936, and 1938 were entirely Nazi-controlled and saw only the Nazis and a small number of independents elected. The regional state parliaments and the Reichsrat (federal upper house) were abolished in January 1934.
On 2 August 1934, President von Hindenburg died. The previous day, the cabinet had enacted the “Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich,” which stated that upon Hindenburg’s death, the office of president would be abolished and its powers merged with those of the chancellor. Hitler thus became head of state as well as head of government. He was formally named as Führer und Reichskanzler (leader and chancellor). Germany was now a totalitarian state with Hitler at its head. As head of state, Hitler became Supreme Commander of the armed forces. The new law altered the traditional loyalty oath of servicemen so that they affirmed loyalty to Hitler personally rather than the office of supreme commander or the state. On August 19, the merger of the presidency with the chancellorship was approved by 90 percent of the electorate in a plebiscite.
Italy under Mussolini
Italian Fascism under Benito Mussolini was rooted in Italian nationalism and the desire to restore and expand Italian territories.
The socialist agitations that followed the devastation of World War I, inspired by the Russian Revolution, led to counter-revolution and repression throughout Italy. The liberal establishment, fearing a Soviet-style revolution, started to endorse the small National Fascist Party led by Benito Mussolini. In October 1922 the Blackshirts of the National Fascist Party attempted a coup (the “March on Rome”) which failed, but at the last minute, King Victor Emmanuel III refused to proclaim a state of siege and appointed Mussolini prime minister. Over the next few years, Mussolini banned all political parties and curtailed personal liberties, thus forming a dictatorship. These actions attracted international attention and eventually inspired similar dictatorships such as Nazi Germany and Francoist Spain.
In 1935, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, resulting in international alienation and leading to Italy’s withdrawal from the League of Nations; Italy allied with Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan and strongly supported Francisco Franco in the Spanish civil war. In 1939, Italy annexed Albania, a de facto protectorate for decades. Italy entered World War II on June 10, 1940. After initially advancing in British Somaliland and Egypt, the Italians were defeated in East Africa, Greece, Russia and North Africa.
Mussolini’s Rise to Power
The Fascisti, led by one of Mussolini’s close confidants, Dino Grandi, formed armed squads of war veterans called Blackshirts (or squadristi) with the goal of restoring order to the streets of Italy with a strong hand. The blackshirts clashed with communists, socialists, and anarchists at parades and demonstrations; all of these factions were also involved in clashes against each other. The Italian government rarely interfered with the blackshirts’ actions, owing in part to a looming threat and widespread fear of a communist revolution. The Fascisti grew rapidly, within two years transforming themselves into the National Fascist Party at a congress in Rome. In 1921 Mussolini won election to the Chamber of Deputies for the first time.
In the night between October 27-28, 1922, about 30,000 Fascist blackshirts gathered in Rome to demand the resignation of liberal Prime Minister Luigi Facta and the appointment of a new Fascist government. This event is known as the “March on Rome.” On the morning of October 28, King Victor Emmanuel III, who according to the Albertine Statute held the supreme military power, refused the government request to declare martial law, leading to Facta’s resignation. The King then handed over power to Mussolini (who stayed in his headquarters in Milan during the talks) by asking him to form a new government. The King’s controversial decision has been explained by historians as a combination of delusions and fears; Mussolini enjoyed a wide support in the military and among the industrial and agrarian elites, while the King and the conservative establishment were afraid of a possible civil war and ultimately thought they could use Mussolini to restore law and order in the country, but failed to foresee the danger of a totalitarian evolution.
March on Rome: Mussolini and the Quadrumviri during the March on Rome in 1922. From left to right: Michele Bianchi, Emilio De Bono, Italo Balbo, and Cesare Maria De Vecchi.
As Prime Minister, the first years of Mussolini’s rule were characterized by a right-wing coalition government composed of Fascists, nationalists, liberals, and two Catholic clerics from the Popular Party. The Fascists made up a small minority in his original governments. Mussolini’s domestic goal was the eventual establishment of a totalitarian state with himself as supreme leader (Il Duce) a message that was articulated by the Fascist newspaper Il Popolo, now edited by Mussolini’s brother, Arnaldo. To that end, Mussolini obtained from the legislature dictatorial powers for one year (legal under the Italian constitution of the time). He favored the complete restoration of state authority with the integration of the Fasci di Combattimento into the armed forces (the foundation in January 1923 of the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale) and the progressive identification of the party with the state. In political and social economy, he passed legislation that favored the wealthy industrial and agrarian classes (privatizations, liberalizations of rent laws, and dismantlement of the unions).
Between 1925 and 1927, Mussolini progressively dismantled virtually all constitutional and conventional restraints on his power, thereby building a police state. A law passed on Christmas Eve 1925 changed Mussolini’s formal title from “president of the Council of Ministers” to “head of the government” (though he was still called “Prime Minister” by most non-Italian outlets). Thereafter he began styling himself as Il Duce (the leader). He was no longer responsible to Parliament and could be removed only by the king. While the Italian constitution stated that ministers were responsible only to the sovereign, in practice it had become all but impossible to govern against the express will of Parliament. The Christmas Eve law ended this practice, and also made Mussolini the only person competent to determine the body’s agenda. This law transformed Mussolini’s government into a de facto legal dictatorship. Local autonomy was abolished, and podestàs appointed by the Italian Senate replaced elected mayors and councils.
Mussolini’s foremost priority was the subjugation of the minds of the Italian people and the use of propaganda to do so. A lavish cult of personality centered on the figure of Mussolini was promoted by the regime.
Mussolini pretended to incarnate the new fascist Übermensch, promoting an aesthetics of exasperated Machism and a cult of personality that attributed to him quasi-divine capacities. At various times after 1922, Mussolini personally took over the ministries of the interior, foreign affairs, colonies, corporations, defense, and public works. Sometimes he held as many as seven departments simultaneously as well as the premiership. He was also head of the all-powerful Fascist Party and the armed local fascist militia, the MVSN or “Blackshirts,” who terrorized incipient resistances in the cities and provinces. He would later form the OVRA, an institutionalized secret police that carried official state support. He thus succeeded in keeping power in his own hands and preventing the emergence of any rival.
All teachers in schools and universities had to swear an oath to defend the fascist regime. Newspaper editors were all personally chosen by Mussolini and no one without a certificate of approval from the fascist party could practice journalism. These certificates were issued in secret; Mussolini thus skillfully created the illusion of a “free press.” The trade unions were also deprived of independence and integrated into what was called the “corporative” system. The aim (never completely achieved), inspired by medieval guilds, was to place all Italians in various professional organizations or corporations under clandestine governmental control.
In his early years in power, Mussolini operated as a pragmatic statesman, trying to achieve advantages but never at the risk of war with Britain and France. An exception was the bombardment and occupation of Corfu in 1923, following an incident in which Italian military personnel charged by the League of Nations to settle a boundary dispute between Greece and Albania were assassinated by Greek bandits. At the time of the Corfu incident, Mussolini was prepared to go to war with Britain, and only desperate pleading by Italian Navy leadership, who argued that Italian Navy was no match for the British Royal Navy, persuaded him to accept a diplomatic solution. In a secret speech to the Italian military leadership in January 1925, Mussolini argued that Italy needed to win spazio vitale (vital space), and as such his ultimate goal was to join “the two shores of the Mediterranean and of the Indian Ocean into a single Italian territory.”
Path to War
Hitler and Mussolini: On 25 October 1936, an Axis was declared between Italy and Germany.
By the late 1930s, Mussolini’s obsession with demography led him to conclude that Britain and France were finished as powers, and that Germany and Italy were destined to rule Europe if for no other reason than their demographic strength. Mussolini stated his belief that declining birth rates in France were “absolutely horrifying” and that the British Empire was doomed because a quarter of the British population was older than 50. As such, Mussolini believed that an alliance with Germany was preferable to an alignment with Britain and France as it was better to be allied with the strong instead of the weak. Mussolini saw international relations as a Social Darwinian struggle between “virile” nations with high birth rates that were destined to destroy “effete” nations with low birth rates. Such was the extent of Mussolini’s belief that it was Italy’s destiny to rule the Mediterranean because of the country’s high birth rate that he neglected much of the serious planning and preparations necessary for a war with the Western powers.
On October 25, 1936, Mussolini agreed to form a Rome-Berlin Axis, sanctioned by a cooperation agreement with Nazi Germany and signed in Berlin. At the Munich Conference in September 1938, Mussolini continued to pose as a moderate working for European peace while helping Nazi Germany annex the Sudetenland. The 1936 Axis agreement with Germany was strengthened by the Pact of Steel signed on May 22, 1939, which bound Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in a full military alliance.
Pre-WWII Japan was characterized by political totalitarianism, ultranationalism, expansionism, and fascism culminating in Japan’s invasion of China in 1937.
The Shōwa period is the era of Japanese history corresponding to the reign of the Shōwa Emperor, Hirohito, from December 25, 1926, through January 7, 1989. The Shōwa period was longer than the reign of any previous Japanese emperor. During the pre-1945 period, Japan moved into political totalitarianism, ultranationalism, and fascism, as well as a series of expansionist wars culminating in Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. This was part of an overall global period of social upheavals and conflicts such as the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Rise of Nationalism
Prior to 1868, most Japanese more readily identified with their feudal domain rather than the idea of “Japan” as a whole. But with the introduction of mass education, conscription, industrialization, centralization, and successful foreign wars, Japanese nationalism became a powerful force in society. Mass education and conscription served as a means to indoctrinate the coming generation with “the idea of Japan” as a nation instead of a series of Daimyo (domains), supplanting loyalty to feudal domains with loyalty to the state. Industrialization and centralization gave the Japanese a strong sense that their country could rival Western powers technologically and socially. Moreover, successful foreign wars gave the populace a sense of martial pride in their nation.
The rise of Japanese nationalism paralleled the growth of nationalism within the West. Certain conservatives such as Gondō Seikei and Asahi Heigo saw the rapid industrialization of Japan as something that had to be tempered. It seemed, for a time, that Japan was becoming too “Westernized” and that if left unimpeded, something intrinsically Japanese would be lost. During the Meiji period, such nationalists railed against the unequal treaties, but in the years following the First World War, Western criticism of Japanese imperial ambitions and restrictions on Japanese immigration changed the focus of the nationalist movement in Japan.
During the first part of the Shōwa era, racial discrimination against other Asians was habitual in Imperial Japan, starting with Japanese colonialism. The Shōwa regime preached racial superiority and racialist theories based on the sacred nature of the Yamato-damashii.
Invasion of China
Left-wing groups were subject to violent suppression by the end of the Taishō period, and radical right-wing groups, inspired by fascism and Japanese nationalism, rapidly grew in popularity. The extreme right became influential throughout the Japanese government and society, notably within the Kwantung Army, a Japanese army stationed in China along the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railroad. During the Manchurian Incident of 1931, radical army officers bombed a small portion of the South Manchuria Railroad and, falsely attributing the attack to the Chinese, invaded Manchuria. The Kwantung Army conquered Manchuria and set up the puppet government of Manchukuo there without permission from the Japanese government. International criticism of Japan following the invasion led to Japan withdrawing from the League of Nations.
Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai of the Seiyūkai Party attempted to restrain the Kwantung Army and was assassinated in 1932 by right-wing extremists. Because of growing opposition within the Japanese military and the extreme right to party politicians, who they saw as corrupt and self-serving, Inukai was the last party politician to govern Japan in the pre-World War II era. In February 1936 young radical officers of the Japanese Army attempted a coup d’état, assassinating many moderate politicians before the coup was suppressed. In its wake, the Japanese military consolidated its control over the political system and most political parties were abolished when the Imperial Rule Assistance Association was founded in 1940.
Japan’s expansionist vision grew increasingly bold. Many of Japan’s political elite aspired to have the country acquire new territory for resource extraction and settlement of surplus population. These ambitions led to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. After their victory in the Chinese capital, the Japanese military committed the infamous Nanking Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking, which involved a massive number of civilian deaths including infants and elderly and the large-scale rape of Chinese women. The exact number of casualties is an issue of fierce debate between Chinese and Japanese historians; estimates range from 40,000 to 300,000 people.
Rape of Nanking: The corpses of massacred victims from the Nanking Massacre on the shore of the Qinhuai River with a Japanese soldier standing nearby.
The Japanese military failed to defeat the Chinese government led by Chiang Kai-shek and the war descended into a bloody stalemate that lasted until 1945. Japan’s stated war aim was to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a vast pan-Asian union under Japanese domination. Hirohito’s role in Japan’s foreign wars remains a subject of controversy, with various historians portraying him as either a powerless figurehead or an enabler and supporter of Japanese militarism.
The United States opposed Japan’s invasion of China and responded with increasingly stringent economic sanctions intended to deprive Japan of the resources to continue its war in China. Japan reacted by forging an alliance with Germany and Italy in 1940, known as the Tripartite Pact, which worsened its relations with the U.S. In July 1941, the U.S., Great Britain, and the Netherlands froze all Japanese assets when Japan completed its invasion of French Indochina by occupying the southern half of the country, further increasing tension in the Pacific.