International relations between the two world wars: 1933-1939 (Part-1)


(a) The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931

The motives behind this were mixed. The Japanese felt it was essential to keep control of the province because it was a valuable trade outlet. China seemed to be growing stronger under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek, and the Japanese feared this might result in their being excluded from Manchuria. At the League of Nations, Sir John Simon, the British Foreign Secretary, presented a strong defence of Japan’s actions. Japan had been involved in the province since the 1890s, and was given Port Arthur and a privileged position in South Manchuria as a result of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). Since then, the Japanese had invested millions of pounds in Manchuria in the development of industry and railways. By 1931 they controlled the South Manchurian Railway and the banking system; they felt they could not stand by and see themselves gradually squeezed out of such a valuable province with a population of 30 million, especially when the Japanese themselves were suffering economic hardship because of the Great Depression. The Japanese announced that they had turned Manchuria into the independent state of Manchukuo under Pu Yi, the last of the Chinese emperors. This fooled nobody, but still, no action was taken against them. The next Japanese move, however, could not be justified, and could only be described as flagrant aggression.

(b) The Japanese advance from Manchuria

In 1933 the Japanese began to advance from Manchuria into the rest of north-eastern China, to which they had no claim whatsoever. By 1935 a large area of China as far as Beijing (Peking) had fallen under Japanese political and commercial control, while the Chinese themselves were torn by a civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government and the communists led by Mao Zedong.

(c) Further invasions

After signing the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany (1936), the Japanese army seized the excuse provided by an incident between Chinese and Japanese troops in Peking to begin an invasion of other parts of China (July 1937). Although the prime minister, Prince Konoye, was against such massive intervention, he had to give way to the wishes of General Sugiyama, the war minister. By the autumn of 1938 the Japanese had captured the cities of Shanghai, Nanking (Chiang Kai-shek’s capital) and Hankow, committing terrible atrocities against Chinese civilians. However, complete victory eluded the Japanese: Chiang had reached an understanding with his communist enemies that they would both co-operate against the invaders. A new capital was established well inland at Chungking, and spirited Chinese resistance was mounted with help from the Russians. However, Japanese troops landed in the south of China and quickly captured Canton, but Chiang still refused to surrender or accept Japanese terms.

Meanwhile the League of Nations had again condemned Japanese aggression but was powerless to act, since Japan was no longer a member and refused to attend a conference to discuss the situation in China. Britain and France were too busy coping with Hitler to take much notice of China, and the Russians did not want full-scale war with Japan. The USA, the only power capable of effectively resisting Japan, was still bent on isolation. Thus, on the eve of the Second World War, the Japanese controlled most of eastern China (though outside the cities their hold was shaky) while Chiang held out in the centre and west.


In the early days of Mussolini’s regime (he came to power in 1922), Italian foreign policy seemed rather confused: Mussolini knew what he wanted, which was ‘to make Italy great, respected and feared’, but he was not sure how to achieve this, apart from agitating for a revision of the 1919 peace settlement in Italy’s favour. At first he seemed to think an adventurous foreign policy was his best line of action, hence the Corfu Incident (diplomatic and military crisis between the Greece and the Italy.) and the occupation of Fiume in 1923 took place. By an agreement signed at Rapallo in 1920, Fiume was to be a ‘free city’, used jointly by Italy and Yugoslavia; after Italian troops moved in, Yugoslavia agreed that it should belong to Italy. After these early successes, Mussolini became more cautious, perhaps alarmed by Italy’s isolation at the time of Corfu. After 1923 his policy falls roughly into two phases with the break at 1934, when he began to draw closer towards Nazi Germany.

(a) 1923-34

At this stage Mussolini’s policy was determined by rivalry with the French in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, where Italian relations with Yugoslavia, France’s ally, were usually strained. Another consideration was the Italian fear that the weak state of Austria, along her north-eastern frontier, might fall too much under the influence of Germany; Mussolini was worried about a possible German threat via the Brenner Pass. He tried to deal with both problems mainly by diplomatic means:

  1. He attended the Locarno Conference (1925) but was disappointed when the agreements signed did not guarantee the Italian frontier with Austria.
  2. He was friendly towards Greece, Hungary, and especially Albania, the southern neighbour and rival of Yugoslavia. Economic and defence agreements were signed, with the result that Albania was virtually controlled by Italy, which now had a strong position around the Adriatic Sea.
  3. He cultivated good relations with Britain: he supported her demand that Turkey should hand over Mosul province to Iraq, and in return, the British gave Italy a small part of Somaliland.
  4. Italy became the first state after Britain to recognize the USSR; a non-aggression pact was signed between Italy and the USSR in September 1933.
  5. He tried to bolster up Austria against the threat from Nazi Germany by supporting the anti-Nazi government of Chancellor Dollfuss, and by signing trade agreements with Austria and Hungary. When Dollfuss was murdered by the Austrian Nazis (July 1934), Mussolini sent three Italian divisions to the frontier in case the Germans invaded Austria; the Nazis immediately called off their attempt to seize power in Austria. This decisive anti-German stand improved relations between Italy and France. However, though he was now highly respected abroad, Mussolini was getting impatient: his successes were not spectacular enough.

(b) After 1934

Mussolini gradually shifted from extreme suspicion of Hitler’s designs on Austria to grudging admiration of Hitler’s achievements and a desire to imitate him. After their first meeting (June 1934), Mussolini described Hitler contemptuously as ‘that mad little clown’, but he later came to believe that there was more to be gained from friendship with Germany than with Britain and France. The more he fell under Hitler’s influence, the more aggressive he became. His changing attitude is illustrated by events:

  1. When Hitler announced the reintroduction of conscription (March 1935), Mussolini joined the British and French in condemning the German action and guaranteeing Austria (the Stresa Front, April 1935). Both British and French carefully avoided mentioning the Abyssinian crisis, which was already brewing; Mussolini took this to mean that they would turn a blind eye to an Italian attack on Abyssinia, regarding it as a bit of old-fashioned colonial expansion. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement signed in June convinced Mussolini of British cynicism and self-interest.
  2. The Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in October I 935 was the great turning point in Mussolini’s career. Italian involvement in the country, the only remaining independent state left in Africa, went back to 1896, when an Italian attempt to colonize it had ended in ignominious defeat at Adowa. Mussolini’s motives for the 1935 attack were:
    • Italy’s existing colonies in East Africa (Eritrea and Somaliland) were not very rewarding, and his attempts (by a treaty of ‘friendship’ signed in 1928) to reduce Abyssinia to a position equivalent to that of Albania had failed. The Emperor of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie, had done all he could to avoid falling under Italian economic domination.
    • Italy was suffering from the depression, and a victorious war would divert attention from internal troubles and provide a new market for Italian exports.
    • It would please the nationalists and colonialists, avenge the defeat of 1896 and boost Mussolini’s sagging popularity.
  3. The Italian victory over the ill-equipped and unprepared Ethiopians was a foregone conclusion, though they made heavy weather of it. Its real importance was that it demonstrated the ineffectiveness of collective security. The League condemned Italy as an aggressor and applied economic sanctions; but these were useless because they did not include banning sales of oil and coal to Italy, even though the resulting oil shortage would have seriously hampered the Italian war effort. The League’s prestige suffered a further blow when it emerged that the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, had made a secret deal with Laval, the French prime minister (December 1935), to hand over a large sec1tion of Abyssinia to Italy; this was more than the Italians had managed to capture at that point. Public opinion in Britain was so outraged that the idea was dropped.
  4. Reasons for this weak stand against Italy were that Britain and France were militarily and economically unprepared for war and were anxious to avoid any action (such as oil sanctions) that might provoke Mussolini into declaring war on them. They were also hoping to revive the Stresa Front and use Italy as an ally against the real threat to European peace – Germany; so their aim was to appease Mussolini. Unfortunately the results were disastrous:
    • The League and the idea of collective security were discredited.
    • Mussolini was annoyed by the sanctions anyway, and began. to be drawn towards friendship with Hitler, who had not criticised the invasion and had not applied sanctions. In return, Mussolini dropped his objections to a German takeover of Austria. Hitler took advantage of the general preoccupation with Abyssinia to send troops into the Rhineland.
  5. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Mussolini sent extensive help to Franco, the right-wing Nationalist leader, hoping to establish a third fascist state in Europe and to get naval bases in Spain from which be could threaten France. His justification was that he wanted to prevent the spread of communism.
  6. An understanding was reached with Hitler known as the Rome-Berlin Axis. Mussolini said that the Axis was a line drawn between Rome and Berlin, around which ‘all European states that desire peace can revolve’. In 1937 Italy joined the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany and Japan, in which all three pledged themselves to stand side by side against Bolshevism. This reversal of his previous policy, and his friendship with Germany, were not universally popular in Italy, and disillusionment with Mussolini began to spread.
  7. His popularity revived temporarily with his part in the Munich agreement of September 1938, which seemed to have secured peace. But Mussolini failed to draw the right conclusions from his people’s relief – that most of them did not want another war – and he committed a further act of aggression.
  8. In April 1939 Italian troops suddenly occupied Albania, meeting very little resistance. This was a pointless operation, since Albania was already under Italian economic control, but Mussolini wanted a triumph to imitate Hitler’s recent occupation of Czechoslovakia.
  9. Carried away by his successes, Mussolini signed a full alliance with Germany, the Pact of Steel (May 1939), in which Italy promised full military support if war came. Mussolini was committing Italy to deeper and deeper involvement with Germany, which in the end would ruin him.

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