In the course of the 1930s Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy became increasingly belligerent in their foreign policies – Germany within Europe and Italy in Africa. As it had over Japan and Manchuria, the League of Nations showed itself incapable of preventing their acts of aggression.

The aim of the Geneva disarmament conference of 1932-34 was to persuade all European nations to reduce their armed forces to the size of Germany. France; however, viewed the move as weakening its security. Germany, on the other hand, sought to increase its military strength to that of its neighbors. When was this was refused, in October 1933, Hitler withdrew not only from the talks but also from the League of Nations.

The following year Hitler turned his attention to Austria, where Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, under threat from both Left and Right, had ruled without a parliament for two years. Hitler encouraged a Nazi coup and in July 1934 Dollfuss was murdered; but government troops regained control and Mussolini made clear his opposition to a Nazi takeover by massing troops on the border with Austria. Hitler was forced to back off.

Hitler was to enjoy better fortune in 1935. A referendum in the state of Saarland resulted in an overwhelming vote for a return to Germany, and this duly occurred in March. In the same month, Hitler announced to the world the creation of a German air force, the Luftwaffe, and that he was dramatically increasing the size of his army. This was in flagrant breach of the Versailles treaty, but there were only muted protests from Britain and France.

Conquest of Abyssinia

Mussolini, meanwhile, was also flexing his muscles. He had initially hoped to use peaceful means to expand Italy’s African empire by securing Abyssinia. He had signed a treaty of friendship with Emperor Haile Selassie in 1928, but the latter wanted to open his country to all nations and not just to Italy. Mussolini became increasingly irritated over this. In December 1934 Italian and Abyssinian forces clashed inside Abyssinia. Abyssinia appealed to the League of Nations, but it was more concerned about German rearmament. Indeed, in April 1935 Britain and France, whose main objective was to ensure that Mussolini did not ally himself to Hitler, met the Italians to discuss this problem, but did not raise the subject of Abyssinia.

Sensing the weakness of the Western European democracies, Mussolini’s forces invaded Abyssinia in October 1935. By may 1936 the country had been overrun and Mussolini declared it to be Italian territory, the emperor having gone into exile in Britain. The League’s response had been to impose limited economic sanctions, but these did not include coal and oil. Not being League members, neither Germany nor the United States were bound by these sanctions.

Proclaiming the Axis

This 1938 German postage stamp celebrates the ever closer relationship between Hitler & Mussolini that developed after 1936. The slogan reads: “Two peoples and one struggle.”

A Rome-Axis around which all European states that desire peace can revolve.

The Rhineland

In March 1936 Hitler took advantage of the fact that much of the world was wringing its hands over Abyssinia to send his troops into the Rhineland. It was a calculated gamble, since Hitler’s army was by no means ready for war and a firm response by Britain and France would probably have forced a climb-down. But they were in no position to fight another European war.

A New Partnership

Another consequence of the Abyssinian crisis was the Mussolini turned his back on Britain and France because of their part in imposing sanctions on his country. In October 1936 Germany and Italy signed a treaty of friendship, agreeing to recognize each others interests: Germany’s north of the Alps and Italy’s to the south. It was at the singing of the treaty that Mussolini first spoke of a Rome-Berlin axis.

From World War II: The Definitive Visual History, by Richard Holmes


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