The Tripartite Pact (1940)

John Zimmermann (Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr)

The World War II changed the world. Never before had so many people fought each other, never before had so many people fallen victim to a war. It was riddled with crimes of unprecedented proportions. At its end stood the use of the atomic bomb, a weapon of mass destruction that threatened the existence of the whole of humanity, indeed of the whole planet. The war was started by the German Empire in Europe and the Empire of Japan in East Asia. Their armies, air forces and fleets spread it over the world by invading their neighbors, occupying and exploiting their countries. The German war of extermination in Eastern Europe is unparalleled in history to this day; the Japanese warfare was merciless and inhumane, both towards the enemy as well as to their own soldiers and civilians. All societies involved are still dealing with the aftermaths of these events . Dealing with the past in Germany and Japan today is as different as was the wartime alliance at the time, the "Tripartite Pact" between the German Empire, the Japanese Empire and Italy. It was concluded on September 27, 1940, and was elevated to global strategic importance by the contracting parties as the "Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis".

In fact, it was a military extension of the agreements of the 1936 "Anti-Comintern Pact", a political treaty in which Germany and Japan had agreed to jointly fight the Communist International by exchanging information. More important, however, were secret additional agreements in which benevolent neutrality was assured in the event of an unprovoked attack by the Soviet Union. Not even the Italian government knew this when it joined the pact the following year. Both Tokyo and Berlin broke their foreign policy isolation with this pact after both had left the League of Nations in 1933. In both countries, however, this approach was highly controversial and ultimately the result of developments since the peace negotiations following the World War I. Although Japan, as an emerging regional power in East Asia, had participated on the side of the victors, it felt racially marginalized. As a result, Tokyo acted more and more independently and thus gradually moved onto a course of confrontation with the colonial powers in East Asia. In the 1930s, however, the Soviet Union was perceived as the main threat. This was ultimately the decisive reason for approaching Berlin, where, since the handover of power to the National Socialists in 1933, a regime had ruled that was determinedly committed to the "fight for living space" in eastern Europe.

A significant catalyst for this development was the world economic crisis since the end of the 1920s and the protective tariff policy of the industrialized nations that became rampant in its wake. In Germany and Japan, it strengthened the position of those who wanted to establish their own self-sufficient economic area and an authoritarian leadership as the solution, if necessary by force. The increasingly aggressive foreign and rearmament policy exceeded the countries’ own economic possibilities and even more so, it fostered desires to expand them. Despite the different domestic and foreign policy backgrounds, the similarities in the developments of the two states are striking. Here as there, this created a dangerous breeding ground for radical nationalism in domestic politics, which decisively motivated the expansionist claims. Japan's expansion, especially into China since 1931, was based on these considerations, as were the German aggressions in Europe from 1936 onward, with which Japan and the German Reich destroyed the very system of collective security in the 1930s that had been defined by the League of Nations as an apparent lesson from World War I as a guarantor of peace and prosperity, but which had never really been consolidated.

In Hitler's calculations, an alliance with Rome and Tokyo became all the more important because Britain steadfastly refused to enter into a partnership. For one thing, both powers, with their considerable naval strengths, filled a capability gap in German war planning. For another, they represented constant strategic threats to French and British possessions in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Africa and East Asia as well as in the Pacific - especially after the German invasion of Poland and the declarations of war thus provoked from Paris and London.

By this time, the troops of the Japanese Empire had been far less successful than hoped in the war against China since 1937. Moreover, the Red Army had shown them their limits in the Japanese-Soviet border conflict of 1938/39. In this situation, the European defeats of the colonial powers France and the Netherlands, as well asthe sustained weakening of Great Britain in the spring of 1940 created a power vacuum in Southeast Asia. By seizing their possessions in Indochina and Dutch India, Tokyo hoped both to cut off China's supply lines from India and to contain its own resource problem. The United States, as China's main trading partner and now the only remaining relevant world power in the region, reacted accordingly alarmed to the Japanese pressure on Paris and London. As a clear warning, Washington moved its Pacific fleet from its own west coast to Hawaii in May 1940. Tokyo was unimpressed, and immediately after the armistice agreement with the German Empire, forced Vichy France to stop all aid shipments to China. Great Britain, now fighting alone and for its survival in Europe, then also relented: On July 18, 1940, it closed the other lifeline of Chinese supplies, the 1,160-kilometer Burma Road.

Since the Japanese General Staff's June 1940 assessment was that the German Empire would dominate Europe in the future and that Great Britain would either be defeated or existentially dependent on a partnership with the United States, the Japanese now advocated a military alliance with Berlin, a settlement with the Soviet Union, and a resolution of the Chinese war in order to be able to concentrate all power on a southern expansion. Against the reservations of the naval leadership that a confrontation with the two leading naval powers at the same time could not be sustained in the long run, Prime Minister Konoe pushed through the new foreign policy concept on July 27, 1940. Two days later, without warning, Washington terminated the trade agreement with Tokyo as of January 1941. At that time, the US economy provided more than 75 per cent of the scrap metal, more than half of the copper and 80 per cent of the crude oil that was eminently important to the Japanese steel production, along with about 60 per cent of the machine tools.

As a result, from Tokyo's point of view, the "Tripartite Pact" concluded on September 27, 1940, between the German Reich, Italy and Japan was primarily designed to put pressure on the United States, while Hitler urged the new ally to seize the opportunity to attack the British colonial possessions first. The fact that Tokyo had secured peace on its northern flank with a neutrality agreement with the Soviet Union in April 1941 was also assessed positively by Berlin: On the one hand, the German leadership hoped that the tranquilisation in the north would finally encourage Tokyo to attack in the south and thus tie up Anglo-American forces, including war material, in the Pacific. . On the other hand, the intention was to win the long-agreed-on military campaign against the Soviet Union single-handedly in order to avoid a splitting of the anticipated spoils. Shaped by such constant mistrust, the cooperation between the three main allies proved to be of little concrete value from the very beginning.