The Second World War was a transformative event in global history. More than a hundred million soldiers took part in the hostilities. Sixty to eighty million soldiers and civilians lost their lives. It was a war fought between two groups of great powers, but more than that, it was a clash of ideologies, a confrontation of two conflicting world views, and a war between the old world and the new. What it was clearly not was a conflict between good and evil, as it is sometimes portrayed. Both sides had practical motives and goals they wanted to achieve.
The two blocs in the conflict were the Allies, led by the Britain, the USA, the Soviet Union and France, and the Axis, led by Germany, Japan, and Italy.
Much is known about the Allied forces, why they fought the war and the values they wanted to defend. But how many of us know who the Axis powers were? What were their motivations? Why did they choose to wage war? Although the Axis powers lost, they left an ineradicable imprint on the world. Their formative and destructive role in history cannot be ignored. But what exactly was that role?
Let’s dig a little deeper to find out.
The Axis Powers: Who? Why? How?
We know which major countries led the Axis bloc, but why did they form it in the first place? Around the time of the two world wars, history stood at the crossroads of old-world imperialism and expansionism, and new world democracy and freedom. These were the conflicting ideologies of the time. The like-minded states had to join ranks and the undecided had to pick a side. The only choice was to act or to die, and they chose to act.
Two major reasons that helped bring the Axis powers closer was a common ideology and a mutually shared vision of the future. These were the states that wanted to expand, in the most traditional sense of the word. Expansion for them meant gaining territory. And, to that end, they had to come into conflict with their neighbors. An impending global conflict seemed almost inevitable.
Another reason, which we must not ignore, is that Germany, leader of the Axis powers, was reeling from the loss and humiliation of the First World War. They wanted to reclaim what they considered their lost glory and honor. They wanted to retake the position of global leadership, and many supported them in their cause.
The Great Depression had hit Europe like a force of nature and the Axis states had suffered along with the rest. Some wanted retribution. Some wanted dignity. And others just wanted food in their belly. So what if they had to go to war?
The Major Axis Powers: What Motivated Them?
Although we have analyzed, in general terms, what compelled the Axis powers to go to war, an assessment of their individual scenarios is critical to understanding their motives and warrants further discussion.
Historians have long studied the reasons which propelled Germany to choose war over peace. Many reasons have been put forward, but none of those reasons can be studied in isolation. It was a confluence of factors that built up to the conflict, an array of colors that paint the whole picture. Since Germany played such a major role in the Second World War, the reasons that propelled them are significantly more important.
The rise of the Nazi Party: The Nazis played the biggest role in leading Germany and the Axis nations to war. It was Hitler’s personal vision of German domination, outlined rather crudely in his book Mein Kampf, which brought him and his country into conflict with the Allied powers. But the Nazis couldn’t have risen to power if not for two other factors, both of which were also the leading motivation for Germany to go to war.
German humiliation after the First World War: Germany lost the First World War, and lost badly. The pain, the humiliation, and the suffering were all too real for the German nation. As if the loss of life was not enough, the disgrace was further brought home by what many Germans considered the unjust conditions of the Treaty of Versaille. This required Germany to pay crippling amounts of money as reparations for the war damages and give back the territories which were acquired during the First World War.
The economic malaise: While paying these huge sums of money to the European powers, Germany experienced one of the worst economic crises in history. It was the collective anger and the misery of the German population that the Nazis capitalized on to rise in power.
While paying these huge sums of money to the European powers, Germany experienced one of the worst economic crises in history. It was the collective anger and the misery of the German population that the Nazis capitalized on to rise in power.
Like Germany, the rise of an autocratic leader to power was the primary reason Italy joined the Axis alliance and went to war. And like Germany, the goal of their leader was to acquire more territory for the Italian nation to live comfortably. Benito Mussolini was against western democracy and ideals. His goal was to lead his nation to glory through territorial expansion.
And to achieve that, Italy wanted to acquire land in North Africa. The most notable of such acquisition attempts led Italy to go to war with Ethiopia in 1935, a war that was bitterly condemned by the Allied powers. The Italian activities in Africa and its hegemonic ambitions were some of the major reasons that pulled the country, and its leader, toward the Axis bloc.
Territorially isolated from the rest of the warring states, Japan’s main aim was to politically dominate the East Asian landscape. The expansionist tendencies of the Japanese government made the country an ideal fit for the Axis bloc. But there were other reasons as well. The leading of these reasons was Japan’s traditional rivalry with China.
In the inter-war period, Japanese forces invaded Manchuria, a region in China. The invasion was seen as an act of aggression by the west, which provided Japan with a further incentive to take separate roads than the west and join the Axis powers to protect its interests.
The second world war marked was the last great war in Europe, and the reasons behind the conflict are many. In many ways, the conflict shaped the Europe we see today, and the unimaginable bloodshed gave rise to a commitment in Europe to refrain from armed conflict in the future.