The War Aims of the Lesser Axis Powers

Miklós Horthy and Adolf Hitler

The Second World War was the single largest conflict in human history. Over 100 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen from over thirty countries served. Nearly eighty-five million soldiers and civilians were killed. Entire nations vanished, borders shifted dramatically, and the world that emerged was dramatically different from the antebellum one, in ways far too numerous to discuss here. With an event so vast and monumental, there’s an inevitable “flattening” affect. Causes, effects, complications—all get forgotten or subsumed into the overarching narrative. Given the grandiosity and insanity of the Axis operations, it’s easy to assume that they were all after something as nebulous as “world domination”. In actuality, even the most expansive war aims of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were at least loosely based on preexisting grievances and historical ambitions. For example, the Germans had been pushing Eastern expansion for centuries, on and off, and much of the Nazi goals here built on attempts at establishing an Eastern European hegemony from WWI, though I’ll admit they took these to some truly deranged levels. This is even more true for the smaller Axis powers. Countries like Thailand and Bulgaria didn’t sign up with Tojo and Hitler because of any ideological commitment or grand strategic design, they joined because of local territorial disputes and ancient rivalries. Today, I want to talk about exactly what these lesser powers hoped to get out of WWII. I find this topic interesting in its own right, and also a useful way of providing contextualization for the broader scope of the war. It’s important to remember that what we now see as a struggle for the soul of world civilization, plenty of people saw as round ten of the ongoing fight over some border district in the Balkans.

The Kingdom of Thailand

In 1939, Thailand was unique as the only South East Asian country to survive the Imperial Era with its independence intact. However, this has come at considerable cost, as Britain colonized India, Malaya and Burma and France annexed Indochina. Over the course of the 19th century, Thailand had been forced to cede significant territories to both those colonial powers. In 1938, power in the Kingdom had been seized by Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who served as both Commander of the Royal Army and Prime Minister. Explicitly modeling his government on the Italian Fascist regime, he hoped to use the chaos of the world war to reestablish Thailand as a major regional power and pursue his irridentist agenda. In October 1940, Phibunsongkhram took advantage of the confusion engendered by the Fall of France to launch the Franco-Thai War, an invasion of French Indochina. The fighting was inconclusive, but Japan intervened in January 1941 and mediated a peace treaty that retro-ceded several provinces in Cambodia and Laos to Thailand. On December 8th, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched its massive offensive that would overrun Malaya, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Burma, and the Central Pacific islands over the next few months. As part of this, Japanese troops invaded Thailand, but after less than a day of combat the Thai government ordered its military to stand down and granted free passage to the Imperial Japanese Army.

With Tokyo in the ascendance everywhere in East Asia, Phibunsongkhram decided that this was the time to join the winning side and gain revenge for decades of colonial encroachment. Thailand signed a mutual-defense agreement with Japan on December 21st, and declared war on the United Kingdom and United States on January 25th, 1942, giving it the distinction of being Japan’s only Asian ally (as opposed to puppet states like Manchukuo or Mengjiang). As a reward for this, and for providing logistical assistance and support, Japan allowed Thailand to annex four northern Malayan states and part of the Burmese Shan States, going a long way towards rebuilding the Great Thai Kingdom that Phibunsongkhram dreamed of. But it was not to be. Phibunsongkhram was forced out of power in 1944 as the war turned increasingly against the Axis, and Thailand was forced to return to its 1939 borders as part of the Anglo-Thai Peace Treaty.

The Republic of Finland

In November 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland in an invasion that would come to be known as the Winter War. Finland had been part of the Russian Empire until the 1917 Revolutions, and the border between the two countries remained contested in parts. With the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact with Germany placing Finland in the Soviet sphere of influence, Moscow hoped to subdue the small state and establish a puppet Communist regime. This did not go as planned. Finnish resistance was bitter and tenacious, and Soviet casualties were far worse than anticipated. After three months of fighting, the Red Army broke through the key Finnish defensive lines, and Finland sued for peace. The unexpectedly fierce Finnish resistance preserved their independence, as the USSR was no longer willing to bear the costs of conquest, but the Republic still was forced to cede 11% of their territory.

In June 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Finland joined the invasion. The President, Risto Ryti, saw this an opportunity to regain the lost territories, and also to potentially establish a Greater Finland. The initial offensives went well, and the Finns not only re-conquered everything they’d lost, but were also able to occupy East Karelia, sundered from Finland since 1617, which they intended to annex post-war. At this point, the Finnish government was discussing how much of Karelia and Kola to demand at the peace talks, but this triumph did not last long. By 1944, it had become clear that the war was not winnable, and Soviet offensives were beginning to smash through the Finnish defensive lines. On August 1st, President Ryti resigned, and the Parliament appointed Field Marshal Mannerheim, the commander of the Finnish military as his replacement with instructions to end the war. In September, Finland and the USSR signed the Moscow Armistice. Finland agreed to return to the post-Winter War borders, and was forced to additionally cede the district of Petsamo and pay substantial reparations.

Despite the defeat, Finland emerged from the war as the only one of Germany’s European allies to survive the war with its government and sovereignty intact, and to face no postwar occupation. Additionally, it was the only nation bordering the Soviet Union to escape being subsumed into the East Bloc post-war.

The Tsardom of Bulgaria

In 1912, the Balkan League, a coalition of Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria, attacked the Ottoman Empire and drove them nearly out of Europe. However, disputes soon erupted over the spoils, and in 1913 Bulgaria launched an attack on Greece and Serbia in effort to gain control of Macedonia. Unfortunately, this Second Balkan War proved to be a disaster for Sofia. Overstretched and outmatched, Bulgaria was not only had to give up its claims in Macedonia, but was forced to cede the Southern Dobruja to Romania. In 1915, Bulgaria entered the First World War on the side of the Central Powers, in return for the promise of territorial concessions in Macedonia and Dobruja. However, when their German and Austro-Hungarian allies lost the war, Bulgaria was humbled yet again: the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine forced Bulgaria to cede even more territory, including the entirety of their Aegean coastline. In 1940, they were willing to try again.

The collapse of France in June 1940 had left Germany as the unquestioned continental hegemon in Europe, and all of the smaller powers were competing for its support. In September 1940, Hitler expressed his support for the retrocession of the Southern Dobruja to Bulgaria, and the Romanian government was forced to comply in the Treaty of Craiova. In March 1941, Bulgaria openly joined the Axis and allowed Germany to use its territory for the invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece in return for territorial concessions. At the time, this seemed like a simple decision, given that only Britain remained at war with the Germans. In return for very limited involvement in the war, Bulgaria had all of the territory they’d lost after WWI returned, as well as extensive concessions in Macedonia and Thrace. At this time, the country had reached its greatest territorial extent in modern history. However, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 boded ill, as did the German declaration of war against the United States in December 1941.

Tsar Boris III’s government was able to keep its military out of most of the fighting, but by 1944 the cities were being bombed by Allied planes, Soviet troops were advancing through the Balkans, and a partisan movement had risen up. The government had hoped to negotiate a surrender that would allow them to retain their territorial gains, but this proved impossible to manage, and in September the country was occupied by the Red Army without resistance. A new government was formed, which declared war on Germany shortly thereafter, and in 1946 the monarchy was abolished and replaced by the Soviet-backed People’s Republic of Bulgaria. It would remain part of the Soviet bloc until the end of the Cold War. Though the Paris Peace Treaties of 1947 forced Bulgaria to return all of its conquered territory to Greece and Yugoslavia, it was allowed to retain the Southern Dobruja, giving it the distinction of being the only Axis power to end the war with any territorial gain.

The Kingdom of Hungary

In 1920, the Kingdom of Hungary signed the Treaty of Trianon, formally putting an end to their participation in WWI and creating a fully-independent Hungary. For the Hungarian nationalists who had been agitating for independence since 1848, it was a bitter pill. The Kingdom might have been free of Hapsburg rule at last, but of the traditional Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen, 72% had been lost to neighboring countries, along with 64% of their population. It was devastating humiliation, though it must be pointed out that the vast majority of people in the lost territories were not Magyars and had no wish to live under Hungarian rule. Like so many of his peers, the Regent of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, felt that his country had been unfairly treated by the post-WWI settlement and hoped to shift the balance of power. In pursuit of that, he began aligning Hungary closely with Germany and Italy, especially after the 1938 Anschluss made it clear that Hitler’s regime was willing to reshape the map of Europe.

Hungary received recompense from this strategy almost immediately, with the First Vienna Award of November 1938, a German-arbitrated agreement that allowed Hungary to annex parts of southern Czechoslovakia that were ethnically Hungarian. In March 1939, when Germany invaded and dismantled the rest of Czechoslovakia, Hungary occupied and annexed Carpathian Ruthenia. In September 1940, Hungary received the Second Vienna Award, when Germany pressured Romania into ceding 43,000 square kilometers of Northern Transylvania to Hungary. Finally, in April 1941, Hungary was able to annex the districts of Baranja, Bačka, Međimurje, and Prekmurje from Yugoslavia when the Axis Powers partitioned it. While all of this did not return Hungary to the size it had been while part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it doubled the size of the prewar kingdom, a stupendous achievement from Admiral Horthy’s perspective.

German involvement in these relatively minor local transfers of territory may seem odd, until one understands that in many ways, the foreign policy of both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany was simply an intensification and escalation of the endless fight to achieve one’s “natural” territory that had been raging since the beginning of the Nationalist Era in the 19th century. Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary—all sought to encompass all of their people within their borders. This was the heart of the NSDAP’s vision as well, though with everything else, they took it to an extreme far beyond the remotely rational. In 1939, the German government was debating how much of Poland should be annexed to maximize the German ethnic majority. A few years later, Generalplan Ost called for German colonization of Russia all the way to the Ural mountains.

Admiral Horthy had no such grand design, merely the reclamation of as much of the Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen as he could manage. In 1941, he had reason to be proud of his achievements. That would not last long. In June, the war with the Soviet Union began, and the tide began to turn. Hungarian troops fought alongside their German allies in Russia, most notoriously at Stalingrad, where the Soviet pincer maneuver that cut off the Wehrmacht’s Sixth Army in the city effectively annihilated the Hungarian Second Army, killing or capturing 160,000 of 200,000 men.

In September 1944, as Soviet troops crossed the border, Horthy attempted to negotiate an armistice agreement with the Allies. Instead, a German coup d’etat overthrew him and replaced his government with one led by the Arrow Cross, a Hungarian fascist movement. This only prolonged the inevitable (with horrific consequences for Budapest’s Jewish population). By April 1945, the Red Army had occupied all of Hungary. The 1947 Peace Treaty forced Hungary to renounce all territorial gains, and in 1949 a Soviet-backed People’s Republic of Hungary was declared.

The Kingdom of Romania

When WWII began, Romania was in a very different position than Hungary or Bulgaria. Unlike its neighbors, the Kingdom of Romania had fought with the Allies in WWI, and though its military performance was notably poor, the Kingdom had ended the war by annexing Transylvania and Bessarabia and Bukovina, doubling its size and fulfilling their nationalist, irridentist goals. Romania during the interwar period reached its territorial zenith. Due to this, Romania had maintained a mostly pro-Western foreign policy, but this had started to shift in the 1930s with King Carol II’s assumption of dictatorial control. Following the conquest of Poland, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the Fall of France, Romania found itself totally isolated and forced to submit to Axis demands. As detailed above, Romania was forced to return the Southern Dobruja to Bulgaria and Northern Transylvania to Hungary in 1940. That same year, the Soviet Union occupied and annexed Bessarabia and Bukovina, undoing nearly all of Romania’s gains from WWI. Following these disasters, King Carol II was forced to abdicate, and a new Fascist government came to power under Ion Antonescu. Despite the fact that it was the Axis that had so humiliated Romania, Antonescu felt that only by proving Romania’s worth to Hitler could they regain the lost territories.

In line with this strategy, Romania invaded the USSR alongside Germany in June 1941. As a reward for their loyalty, they were able to re-annex Bessarabia and Bukovina, and Hitler awarded them a large region of Ukraine, known as Transnistria, and including the important port of Odessa, as compensation for their other territorial losses. Antonescu had no interest in this, however, and hoped that by continued service to the Axis cause, he could persuade Hitler to return Transylvania. But as the tide of war turned, it became increasingly clear that this was a futile hope. In August 1944, with the Red Army on the border, King Michael I led a coup d’etat against Antonescu and overthrew him, after which he immediately proclaimed Romania’s loyalty to the Allied cause. For the remainder of the war, the Royal Romanian Army fought alongside the Red Army in Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.

Appropriately for this mixed record, Romania’s treatment at the postwar peace conferences was mixed. Northern Transylvania was returned, but the Southern Dobruja remained part of Bulgaria, and the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and Bukovina was recognized. Today, that territory forms the Republic of Moldova. In 1947, King Michael I was forced to abdicate and a Romanian Socialist Republic was declared.

The Independent State of Croatia

Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was declared in an attempt to unite the South Slav people into a single state, one of the longstanding goals of many Slavic nationalists. However, almost immediately, tensions began to grow between the many disparate ethnic groups within the new kingdom. The Croats especially felt themselves disadvantaged by the Serbian majority. The 1928 assasination of the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party and three of his Members of Parliament by an MP of the Serbian People’s Radical Party did not help this situation, nor did the declaration of a dictatorship in 1929 by the (Serbian) King Alexander I. This led to the formation of the Croatian Revolutionary Movement, or Ustaše, that same year. A radical right-wing Croatian ultra-nationalist group, they would assassinate King Alexander I in 1934.

In April 1941, the Axis Powers invaded Yugoslavia following a pro-British military coup d’etat and swiftly overran the country. The Germans initially hoped to establish a new government for Croatia under the aegis of the Croatian Peasants Party, still the dominant Croatian political party. When they refused to cooperate, they turned to the more radical Ustaše, who proclaimed the existence of an Independent State of Croatia on April 10th. The Germans and Italians were eager to outsource as much of the burden of occupation onto local authorities as they could, and the new State was granted control of not only the historical Hapsburg Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia but also most of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There was a cost to this, however. Of the 6.3 million inhabitants of this new state, only about 3.3 million were ethnically Croatian. The Ustaše responded to this with a genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing that led to the deaths of between 200,000 and 300,000 Serbs and the expulsion from the Independent State of another 300,000.

In large part due this, the Independent State of Croatia was never more than a semi-functional state at best. In early 1945, most of Croatia was overrun by communist partisans loyal to Tito and units of the Red Army, and most of the Ustaše’s leaders were either captured and executed or fled into exile. In 1946, the territory formerly belonging to it was formally incorporated into the new Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and there were no more problems with ethnic tensions there ever again.

The Slovak Republic

Alone of the Axis Powers, the Slovak Republic’s war aims amounted essentially to “continue to exist”, a goal that they failed to accomplish. When Germany invaded and annexed most of Czechoslovakia in 1939, he granted independence to the Slovakian half of the country (with the exception of the large regions granted to Hungary), which emerged as the Slovak Republic under the rule of Father Jozef Tiso. This has the distinction of being the first independence Slovakian state in history, but little else. It was a German puppet state, ruled by the fascist and Catholic Slovak People’s Party, which governed it as a totalitarian country, supported the German invasions of Poland and the Soviet Union, and deported most of its Jewish population to the German death camps. As far as I can tell, there was no particular interest by the government in reclaiming the lands lost to Hungary, possibly because those were ethnically Hungarian and Ruthenian. In August 1944, there was a mass popular uprising against the regime that was suppressed by the Germans, but the Red Army had occupied virtually all of the country by April, after which it was reintegrated into Czechoslovakia, which became the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in 1948. The territory annexed by Hungary under the terms of the First Vienna Award was returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, but Carpathian Ruthenia was annexed by the Soviet Union, and is part of Ukraine today.

Source for all maps is Wikipedia

2 thoughts on “The War Aims of the Lesser Axis Powers

    • I’ve read that the only one of Germany’s allies to actually be enthusiastic about sending troops to the Eastern Front was Romania because they were hoping to impress Hitler enough to get Transylvania back.

      Like

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