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A Specter Abroad: The Axis Rises from Turmoil

The swastika symbolized the German Nazi Party.

The swastika symbolized the German Nazi Party.

Fascism and Aggression Grow
While Oregon and the rest of America gazed inward through much of the 1920s and 1930s, dark forces were gathering strength in Europe and Japan. The future Axis nations of Germany, Italy, and Japan grew more powerful and bold in the decades between World War I and World War II. Intense nationalism and growing aggression were two of many common threads in their tragic convergence.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini cultivated a myth of invincibility to help him maintain absolute control of his country.

Mussolini pioneers Fascism
Postwar Italy saw the rise of fascism as a political movement led by Benito Mussolini. In the chaotic political climate of the early 1920s, the "Fascisti" formed armed squads of war veterans that terrorized other groups, including anarchists, socialists, and communists. Mussolini's intimidation and scheming paid off. The Italian king, fearful of a civil war, soon appointed Mussolini to be prime minister.

Once in power, Mussolini enforced a fiercely authoritarian and nationalist ideology that counteracted the general feeling of anxiety and fear in the postwar Italian society. By 1926 he had dissolved all other political parties and assumed dictatorial powers. Mussolini's complete control of the press, coupled with his propaganda skills and personal charisma led to his legend as a man who could solve all of Italy's problems. His brand of state controlled capitalism appealed to many Italians yearning for the order symbolized by the trains running on time.

By the mid-1930s Mussolini adopted an increasingly aggressive nationalism, attacking Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and intervening in the Spanish Civil War. Italy's invasion of Albania in April 1939 dovetailed with German aggression before all out war later in the year.

German dictator Adolf Hitler

Dictator Adolf Hitler preyed on German fears and on their desire for stability.

Hitler dominates Germany
Mussolini's success in Italy did not go unnoticed in Germany. Adolf Hitler and his fascist Nazi Party rose using many of the tactics of intimidation and thuggery employed by the Fascisti in Italy. Hitler, however took much longer to gain power.

Still, the deplorable conditions in postwar Germany helped Hitler gain a foothold. Over the years, important provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, such as the "war guilt" clause and heavy war reparations imposed on Germany, contributed to the rise of resentment and radicalism in the German society. It was in this context that Hitler wandered through a 1920s Germany wracked by war humiliation and debt. Inflation devastated life savings and national collapse always seemed just around the corner. A wide range of radical movements competed for attention in Germany's chaotic political scene. By 1921 Hitler had discovered his impressive skills in public speaking and controlling a crowd as he took the helm of the Nazi Party. Over the years, Hitler and his party maneuvered in the fractious, bare-knuckled world of radical politics with vicious anti-Semitic and nationalist rhetoric designed to prey on the fears of Germans. At the same time, the electorate grew desperate for a leader who could restore order and dignity to the nation.

His big break came in 1930 when, largely because of voter disgust with the failures of the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Party rose from obscurity to become the second largest party in the country. By 1933 Hitler had parlayed the opportunity into his new position as chancellor. He consolidated his power over the state and the military in the next year.

German troops goose step through Warsaw, Poland during the 1939 invasion that saw Poland fall in three weeks. The invasion caused Britain and France to declare war on Germany. ((National Archives, image no. 200-SFF-52)

German troops goose step through Warsaw, Poland during the 1939 invasion that saw Poland fall in three weeks. The invasion caused Britain and France to declare war on Germany. (National Archives, image no. 200-SFF-52)

Hitler wasted little time in expanding industrial production and public works such as highways. These efforts, along with military expansion and increased production of armaments, helped to reduce unemployment, raise living standards, and increase the confidence of the citizens still reeling from the aftermath of World War I and the ongoing worldwide economic Depression.

Through skillful oratory and propaganda, Hitler also built up the national psyche by preaching the superiority of the Aryan race. He claimed that Germany was entering a "Third Reich," or empire, that connected the glorious past of Charlemagne and others with an equally glorious future. While exalting the German race, he claimed that Jews and others were inferior and the cause of all of Germany's problems, sapping the nation's strength. Increasingly, the power of the state was used to persecute Jews and other targeted minorities. Brutal state organizations such as the Gestapo and SS began to use greater violence and intimidation, a trend that would not stop until the last concentration camp of the Holocaust was liberated in 1945. (listen to Adolf Hitler give a speech with translations in 1938.-via Marr Sound Archives)

Like Mussolini, Hitler soon began flexing Germany's new found military muscle beyond its borders. German troops moved into the Rhineland in 1936 and annexed Austria in 1938, precursors to a much larger design. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 preceded the September invasion of Poland that caused Britain and France to declare war on Germany. By the next spring, Hitler launched his invasion of several western European nations, including Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Paris fell in June and Britain endured months of devastating bombing at the hands of the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

Japanese cavalry soldiers on parade after invading China. (Image courtesy U.S. Army Museum of Hawai'i)

Japanese cavalry soldiers on parade after invading China. (Image courtesy U.S. Army Museum of Hawai'i)

Japan expands in the east
While much of the world's attention was focused on the growth of fascist, militarist states in Italy and Germany, Japan pursued its own nationalist expansion in the east. Like Germany, Japan was also hit hard by the Depression. Among other reasons, the government's inability to respond adequately made it look weak. This led to the rise of militarist leaders, who eventually gained de facto totalitarian control.

Japan's relative lack of natural resources to feed its industries also increased pressure to expand. It had watched in earlier decades as Britain, France, Germany, and other countries essentially had carved up most of the undeveloped world into colonies, protectorates, and other forms of empire. Japanese nationalists saw it as their nation's right to build an empire in Asia to feed its desire for territorial expansion and raw materials such as oil and iron ore.

As a result, and under the premise that it was protecting its business investments, Japan invaded and annexed Manchuria (northern China) in 1931. Three years later it annexed the large province of Jehol. And, in 1937 it launched a full scale invasion into the rest of China. While the Japanese forces managed to occupy coastal areas, Chinese resistance continued by both the Chiang Kai-shek government and by the Chinese communist forces led by Mao Tse-tung. Because of Nazi successes in Europe in 1940, Japan saw the additional opportunity to seize the Asian colonial empires of France and other countries in order to achieve a "new order in Greater East Asia." By September 1940 the Axis was formed with the signing of the Tripartite Act with Germany and Italy, making America's hope of avoiding war less likely.

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An Oregon State Archives Exhibit - Copyright © 2008