D. Hedinger: Die Achse: Berlin-Rom-Tokio 1919-1946

Die Achse. Berlin - Rom - Tokio

Hedinger, Daniel
München 2021: C.H. Beck Verlag
543 S.
€ 29,95
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Nicola Camilleri, University of Padua / Center for Advanced Studies Southeast Europe, University of Rijeka

In the rich historical research on fascism in a transnational perspective, an important object of investigation has long been neglected or – if ever – only briefly touched upon. The fascist Axis in fact has been researched with regard to the European powers, Germany and Italy, while Japan, as a non-European player, has remained in the shadows. Starting from this simple consideration alone, Daniel Hedinger’s book deserves to be acknowledged for bringing a global dimension that was present since the very beginning and throughout the war to the history of the Axis. For all three countries, the Axis has almost disappeared in the difficult and varied post-war elaboration of the past, with standard historical works seeming to have long overlooked its history. In doing so, Eurocentric views have certainly played a role, namely for the conflict itself, whose global nature – despite being inscribed in the name – is quite often forgotten in the historical research. Rightly, the author explains this gap due to the hierarchical character that Eurocentric views granted the theatres of war and war crimes. Keeping this in mind, it is even more stimulating to read a book on the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis from an author whose educational background lies in the historical research of Asian history, specifically the history of Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Benefitting from the author’s expertise, a new perspective on the world conflict is brought to the discussion.

The book covers a time frame that is longer than the story of the Axis itself and of the Second World War. Especially striking is the starting point of the analysis: 1919, the year of the “peace without winners”. The debates around the Treaty of Versailles acted as a forum in which Germany, Italy, and Japan faced and had to deal with a new world order. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the three countries had undergone parallel national developments; furthermore, in all the three countries lingered a certain dissatisfaction with the Western world order, tied with the accompanying goal of challenging it. That this was one more similarity cannot be seen as an ex post facto proof of their successive cooperation. In fact, at the time concrete cooperation did not emerge or even exist; however, there was an ideological frame acting as fertile ground for such a future development. With the March on Rome in 1922 and the establishment of the fascist regime in Italy, a global turning point occurred. This deeply impressed Japan and Germany, which thus intensified the degree of their transnational exchanges. All these events are well depicted in the interesting prologue of the book.

The book itself is structured into three parts, divided into two chapters each. The sequence of the three parts is based on three chronological phases: moments of “gravitation”, “cooperation”, and “escalation”. The first part describes the conditions that placed the three countries in the context of fascist expansion between 1932 and 1935; the second part deals with 1936 until 1939 and focuses on the shared practices and policies among the three powers; and the third phase, devoted to 1940–1942, explains how the war transformed and animated the political collaboration of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Furthermore, the chapters (which will not be singularly discussed here) each deal with a particular moment or historical event. To underline the global impact of the events investigated in the chapters, the author takes advantage of the concept of “global moments”, first used by Sebastian Conrad and Dominic Sachsenmaier in an influential collection of essays.[1]

Among the global moments analysed, the Italian war against Ethiopia receives special attention, as well as the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Both examples facilitated bringing the experience of violence from the periphery to the centre of the investigation of the Second World War. But the story told in the book comprises not only violence and war, but also encounters and transimperial influences and political leaders and diplomats paying visits to each other and impressing each other.

Fascinating pages unveil the reciprocal interest of the three countries, with Italy playing a forerunner role in the shaping of global fascism while Germany having been an object of interest in Japan already since the nineteenth century. Yet, the populations of the three countries did not know much about the countries that had become principal political allies. Diplomatic sources from archives in the three countries (but not only these sources) are widely used to bring to light new empirical material, yet the perspective offered by these sources comes from international relations. This perspective is present throughout the book; however, to avoid a one-sided narrative, the author makes ample use of other sources, like contemporary magazines and newspapers, published memoirs, and so on. These add side stories and unexpected details. In fact, the book profits from telling anecdotes or referring to the point of view of special contemporary observers: the diary of Thomas Mann, for example, pops up a lot as a source.

One more concept around which the book is assembled is “glocal fascisms” (glokale Faschismen), which elegantly expresses the necessity to find a compromise in the analysis of a phenomenon that had both global implications and peculiar local developments (p. 118). Fascism is committed to the nation and to the idea of national superiority; this does not exclude, however, possible cooperation as well as mutual aid and transfer. The story of the Axis is also the story of three different fascisms, as well as of three different ways to deal with their pasts, as shown in the excellent epilogue.

This intelligent and sophisticated book, whose translation into other languages would be needed to allow for a wider reception, is a very important contribution to the history of fascism and to global history of the twentieth century in general. From it, new research questions can develop, like the one regarding the existence and strength of anti-fascist networks in the three countries of the Axis. Is it possible to write a counter-history of the fascist Axis and, if at all, which role did anti-colonialism play in it? This book paved the path for stimulating new research for global political and intellectual historians.

[1] Sebastian Conrad / Dominik Sachsenmeier (eds.), Competing Visions of World Order. Global Moments and Movements, 1880s – 1930s, Basingstoke 2007.

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