The alliance between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was both cause and effect of the worldwide political and economic crisis of the 1930s, as the far-right governments of the two nations felt increasingly emboldened to defy and destabilize the international system. The deepening of the Great Depression, heretofore the most severe downturn in the history of capitalism, facilitated Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and the ascent of ultra-nationalists in Shōwa Japan.
Resentment against the imperialist hegemons of the day—Britain and France—and the thwarting of Japan and Germany’s revisionist and expansionist aims during this crisis supplied common ground between the two countries. Japanese imperialism and Nazism also each brandished ferocious ideologies of racial superiority. Such pretensions to mastery buttressed their plans for empire-building in East Asia and Eastern Europe. These racisms, one touting Japanese claims to lead the peoples of Asia against White, European dominance, the other resolutely pro-“Aryan,” should have clashed and negated, one might think, any possibility of cooperation. Yet they did not.
The question raised here is Hitler’s willingness to pursue an alliance with Imperial Japan. Adolf Hitler and the Origins of the Berlin-Tokyo Axis circled around how Hitler struggled to find room within his race-determined view of the world for Japan as a power of note. During the mid-1930s, this flexibility permitted Hitler to entertain the thought of the Japanese as a potential and beneficial partner without dispensing with his notions of the inherent inferiority of non-”Aryan” races.
By the time Hitler moved into the chancellor’s office in Berlin in late January 1933 and in the next six months extirpated the last remnants of the Weimar Republic, Japan had been fully entrenched in Manchuria for nearly two years after staging the Mukden Incident in September 1931. A landing in Shanghai by Japanese forces had been carried out during the following January. Soundly repudiating the October 1932 recommendation of the Lytton Commission (established by the League of Nations and directed by V.A.G.R. Bulwer-Lytton, 2nd Earl of Lytton) that Manchuria be allowed to become a state subordinate to China, the Japanese government consolidated a puppet regime in Manchuria under Puyi, the last emperor of the overthrown Qing Dynasty. Subsequently, it withdrew from the League of Nations in March 1933. Japan then extracted raw materials from the area for its resource-limited economy, one hit hard by the Depression. Emperor Hirohito and his military suffered little for this aggression, since the League of Nations decided against sanctions.
Arguably, by 1933, Japan had already asserted itself as the most bellicose and disruptive presence in the contemporary international order. Henceforth, its military increasingly exerted enormous influence on political and economic affairs (a few years earlier, a right-wing student had shot liberal Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi for accepting the terms of the 1930 London Naval Treaty). While Hitler did not require any tutelage from the Japanese to make his own decisions, Japan had set a glaring example for other states wishing to undermine a League of Nations seen (and not only by extreme rightist parties and organizations) as a mask for Franco-British interests. In mid-October 1933, Hitler pulled Germany out of disarmament talks in Geneva and out of the League as well.
It is not clear how aware Hitler was of the Japanese state’s suppression of the workers’ movement within the island nation, but it was a key element in the militarization of Japanese life. In 1928, Hyōgikai, a revolutionary trade-union organization, was banned. The Communist Party, though it continued to operate underground, had been outlawed since 1922. High-profile trials of leftists in the summer of 1932, staged by the Home Ministry, convicted hundreds affiliated with the party.
Members of the Japanese Left, such as Sanzō Nosaka, estimated that some 60,000 Communists and supporters of the Communists had been rounded up in the early 1930s. The systematic persecution and dismantling of the radical Left during the early years of the Great Depression essentially left Japan bereft of a real opposition to the course of imperialism and military conquest now charted.
Hitler would not need so long to break the German Left. After the Reichstag Fire in late February 1933, he moved quickly, securing the ban of the powerful Communist Party of Germany and later the moderate socialist Social Democratic Party of Germany, both of which still had considerable support among German workers. Concentration camps, like the newly created Dachau outside of Munich, awaited many of these leftists. Hitler’s government also forcibly disbanded the large trade-union movement in May 1933 and compelled workers to join the Nazi Labor Front. Within six months, the new Führer faced no substantial internal adversary. What was left of the liberal Center and the conservative, non-fascist Right succumbed to the prohibition on parties without causing much difficulty.
It was not until 1935, though, before Hitler could take more forceful action to redress the hated Treaty of Versailles, one of his professed goals since he entered politics. That year, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement and the decision to massively build up the army essentially left the Versailles Treaty in tatters. Unlike the Japanese, he had not needed to invade a neighboring country. He had achieved acquiescence from Britain and France without overextending Germany militarily. And he had done so while dramatically escalating persecution of German Jews with the passing of the Nuremberg Laws. If Japan had been a pathbreaker in weakening the diplomatic structure erected after World War I for handling conflict, Hitler had dealt it a major blow in his own way with his break with the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.
While one should not exaggerate the parallels with the Japanese case, it is not difficult to understand how Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan could recognize similar paths to this moment. By the mid-1930s, the two countries, along with Benito Mussolini’s Italy, chafed under the system dominated by Britain and France. Racism (with the Nazi regime far surpassing the Japanese and Italians), imperialism, anti-communism, and integral nationalism, with all the variations one might expect granted, occupied preponderant positions in the politics of all three. Leaving Fascist Italy aside, the question remains: what actually initiated concrete ties between the Third Reich and Hirohito’s Japan?
Here, the figure of Joachim von Ribbentrop exerted surprisingly significant influence. Well before his appointment as the Third Reich’s foreign minister in 1938, Ribbentrop, the former champagne salesman and ardent Nazi, had used his office, literally the Ribbentrop Bureau (Dienststelle Ribbentrop), to compete with the Foreign Office directed by the old conservative Konstantin von Neurath. Very attuned to Hitler’s rancid ideological vision, Ribbentrop saw opportunities in reaching out to Japan. He already had a contact, the businessman and diplomat, Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Hack, possessing extensive ties to Japanese industrial and military elites. Through Hack, inquiries were made. The response from Japanese ruling circles pleasantly surprised Ribbentrop.
Japan’s military establishment welcomed Hack’s feelers and expressed considerable interest in moving beyond memories of World War I and creating strong bonds with Hitler’s Germany. It did so for two reasons. First, there was great eagerness to see the German state back away from existing ties with Chiang Kai-shek’s China. Tokyo continued to construe China as very much within its sphere of interests. Imperialist avarice opened onto the other main source for a rapprochement: concern over the Soviet Union.
Japan’s move into Manchuria stirred fears in Moscow about what might come next. Stalin had worked to forge links with Chiang in late 1932, even as Chiang and the Kuomintang attempted to crush the Chinese Communists once and for all. Ribbentrop and Hack realized that anticommunism, easily one of the most visible features of Nazism, might make for more inroads with Hirohito’s government. They not only guessed right but were deeply pleased as the Japanese pursued further communications.
Military Attaché (and later Ambassador) in Berlin, Hiroshi Ōshima, a career army officer, passed on a proposal to Ribbentrop. Ōshima’s offer revolved around a common opposition to communism without explicitly targeting the USSR. Called the Anti-Comintern Pact, the proposal gained Hitler’s enthusiastic support.
“Comintern,” no longer of common parlance, requires some explanation. The Communist International, also known as the Comintern or the Third International (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had been among the founders of the First International; the Second, founded in Paris on the centennial of the French Revolution, effectively collapsed during World War I) had been founded by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Moscow in March 1919, a year-and-a-half after the October Revolution.
The Comintern was to coordinate the revolutionary struggles of communist parties around the world and to provide a clear alternative to the socialist parties that had failed to oppose their respective governments during World War I. Originally, it was to be an International where each party accepted the Twenty-One Conditions for membership but still preserved autonomy over its affairs. In early 1919, Lenin had even examined whether Berlin, not Moscow, might be the seat of the Comintern. This formative, far more open period was buried completely by the “Bolshevization” of the International under Grigori Zinoviev and then Stalin’s total domination of the organization. By the end of the 1920s the Comintern operated as an arm of Soviet policy.
That hardly assuaged the fears of the capitalist democracies or the fascist and militarist states. In 1934-35, the Comintern shifted to the Popular Front strategy. Under the Popular Front, communists worked with socialists, anarchists, and liberals, set aside for demands for social revolution, and fought together against fascism. Popular Front governments came to power in Spain and France in 1936, immediately grabbing Hitler’s attention as he pursued rearmament (he had remilitarized the Rhineland in March of that year and received only protests from France and Britain for the act).
The Spanish military’s rebellion against the Popular Front government in that country in July 1936 received instant backing from Hitler and from Mussolini. As the Spanish Revolution and Civil War broke out that summer, the Comintern organized the International Brigades to journey to Spain and combat fascism. It was this set of events that formed the backdrop to reconsideration of the Anti-Comintern Pact.
Conversations between the Japanese and German governments produced confidence. After a meeting with a Japanese representative in June 1936, Hitler confided to his Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels that he expected a huge conflict in East Asia—and that Japan would “thrash” the Soviets. According to historian Ian Kershaw, Hitler then declared to Goebbels “this colossus [the USSR] will start to totter (ins Wanken kommen). And then our great hour will have arrived. Then we must supply ourselves with land for 100 years.” “Let’s hope we’re ready then,” the cadaver-loyal Goebbels recorded in his notes, “and that the Führer is still alive. So that action will be taken.”
Things looked far more auspicious for serious diplomatic negotiations in the late summer and fall of 1936. The previous spring Japan in fact had almost experienced a military coup. As he mulled it over, Hitler envisaged an alliance with Tokyo primarily for what it meant in the struggle against “Jewish” Bolshevism. This was to be a pact emphatically denouncing Marxist revolution. Later, one of what he called the "plutocracies," the United States, would become central to Hitler's thinking about the Third Reich’s future.
Ribbentrop and Japanese Ambassador Kintomo Mushanokōji signed the Anti-Comintern Pact on November 25, 1936. Two days later, Hitler gave his approval to the agreement. Afterwards, Ribbentrop's star in the Nazi firmament grew much brighter. A part of the Pact kept secret entailed that neither country would help the Soviets in any way if Stalin attacked the other. As Kershaw summarized it,
“the pact was more important for its symbolism than for its actual provisions: the two most militaristic, expansionist powers in the world had found their way to each other. Though the pact was ostensibly defensive, it had hardly enhanced the prospects for peace on either side of the globe.”
This was one of the truly momentous conjunctures in the twentieth century. Hitler’s openness to working with Japan and seeming pragmatism about his otherwise fanatical racism, combined with Ribbentrop’s legwork in feeling out Japanese interests, and Imperial Japan’s own fears of Soviet moves fused in a new Berlin-Tokyo Axis (Mussolini had used the term “axis” the month before signatures were affixed to the Anti-Comintern Pact). Ostensibly a defensive pact, the world would soon shudder at the war, carnage, and mass death associated with it.
Carr, E.H. The Twilight of the Comintern, 1930-1935. New York: Pantheon, 1982.
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Jason Dawsey, PhD
Jason Dawsey, PhD, is a Research Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.