America: Pathways to the Present

by Andrew Cayton

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What motivated Italian, German, and Japanese leaders' aggressive foreign policies in the 1930s?

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The short answer is that these countries were each in the grip of a fantatical type of "nationalism," perhaps for essentially the same reasons.

The more thorough answer to this question needs to recognize various social and economic factors that were all coming together in the post-World War I years. But these factors were intricately connected with the ethnic chauvinism of these states. Any discussion of nationalism will inevitably refer to the economies and social structures as they existed, and changed, in Italy, Germany, and Japan at that time.

Of all the large countries in Europe, Italy and Germany were the most recent ones to have formed unified nation-states, in 1870–71. For centuries, both had been a patchwork of basically independent, and often foreign-dominated, principalities. Both the Germans and Italians had a sense of past, and partly mythic, greatness which they felt had been denied to them either by their own backward rulers or by the other European powers who were seen as jealously preserving their own dominance. So, many in Italy and Germany believed they had a huge amount of catching-up to do in order to make up for centuries of being less powerful than the other nations in Europe.

Demagogic leaders—specfically Mussolini and Hitler—emerged in both countries after the Great War, promising to restore this perceived former greatness. In addition, Germany had been made to pay huge war reparations to the victorious powers. Hitler and his henchmen combined nationalism with a virulent form of anti-semitism and racism, blaming the defeat in war and the economic depression on "the Jews" and citing the notorious forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as evidence that there was a "Jewish conspiracy" to subvert Christianity and take over the world (though the Nazis themselves were anti-Christian and wished to restore a sort of pre-Christian paganism to Germany). In Italy, Mussolini wished to recreate the Roman Empire, expanding his power on both sides of the Mediterranean, in Europe and Africa.

Hitler, in tandem with his plan to exile or massacre the Jewish population of Europe, wanted to expand to the east and take over the Slavic countries. This was partly because of the large Jewish populations there, partly because the Germans thought it was their destiny to claim the lands to the east, and partly because the Nazis believed the Slavs were inferior and wanted to reduce them to a kind of semi-slavery to do the menial labour for the Germans. Hitler additionally wished to destroy the Soviet Union (in spite of first forming the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with them), because the Communists were another totalitarian power rivaling the Nazis and because he considered Bolshevism another part of the "Jewish conspiracy" to take over the world. Hitler had been elected Chancellor partly on the pretext of "protecting" Germany from the Communists.

Japan's motives were surprisingly similar to those of the Nazis and the Italian Fascists. During the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese entered a period of rapid modernization, realizing they were far behind the West and hiring British and American experts to help them create a modern military. The Japanese had their own mythic belief in their superiority, and the extreme nationalists thought it was their destiny to create a vast Asian empire by subjugating the Chinese and the other Asian nations. They also had the goal of expelling the Europeans from Asia and the Pacific.

Since this was in some sense justifiable given that the Europeans had created their own colonial empires, the Japanese used this claim that their purpose was to liberate Asia as a cover for their own imperialist goal of subjugating the Asian continent. The Japanese attacked the US at Pearl Harbor in order to destroy the American fleet, which they correctly saw as a threat to their goal of ridding Asia of the European powers. It was an over-extension of confidence in their ability to defeat any power, just as Hitler and Mussolini had overextended themselves in Europe. The false belief of all three powers in their innate superiority and invincibility was what ironically led to their doom.

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In addition to the cult of personalities that the other educator describes in their answer, you can also consider feelings of extreme nationalism that were taking place in these countries. Japan, Germany, and Italy were all developing and strengthening their own national identities throughout the 1930s, and this resulted in their aggressive foreign policies.

In the case of Germany, the country was attempting to recover from its humiliating defeat in World War I. Germans were eager to reassert their strengths and make up for the territorial losses they were saddled with as part of the Treaty of Versailles. During the age of New Imperialism, Germany had successfully amassed significant colonial territories only to be forced to give them up at the end of WWI. Italy, on the other hand, had not taken part in much of the territorial pursuits of other European powers during this time. Now they were sufficiently unified and strong enough to enter the imperialistic fray. They started off with an invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Japan was establishing itself as a rising power in Asia. After their successful invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese felt emboldened to continue their invasion of China. With nationalism on the rise, these nations felt entitled to compete for overseas territory the same way that other imperial powers had in decades past.

All three nations justified this aggressive foreign policy by way of their nationalistic attitudes. This led them to believe that they were more worthy than the people they set out to conquer. They believed that their respective nations were exceptional to all others and that they could prove it through aggressive conquest.

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This is a very interesting and truly compelling question.  While there are several items that can hope to explain the aggressiveness of the powers that will come to be known as the Axis powers, I am going to try to frame all of them into one dimension that has multiple components.  I think that the major factor that underscored the aggressiveness of each foreign policy was the charismatic effect of each nation's leader.  Each of these nations' leaders- Tojo for Japan, Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler in Germany- came to ascend power by personifying themselves as the nation.  They were willing participants to market their own senses of self as embodiments of their nations, making them appealing to their citizenry, and invoking the sensibility that their nations' exceptionalism justified aggressiveness in foreign policy.  Each of these leaders were charismatic enough to be able to inject themselves into the nation, as a whole.  Hitler's ascendancy to power was rooted in the notion that Germany has been wronged by the Treaty of Versailles, and that the glory of German nationalism awaited, and he was the vehicle to bring this vision into reality.  Mussolini was the first of the three leaders to do the same as Hitler, in terms of identifying himself as the embodiment of Italian exceptionalism and glory.  Tojo was able to convince the Japanese citizenry that the rising and setting of the sun lay with Japan.  Each leader "became" their nation, and in this process, invoked a sense of nationalism to inspire their nations to pursue aggressive policies in terms of their relations with other nations.  They suggested that the vision that each leader had for each nation, this notion of national exceptionalism, must be spread over as much land and territory as possible.  In this invocation and in the convincing their citizens that they were the only ones fit to accomplish this task, allowed them to pursue aggressive and confrontational foreign policies.

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