What were the goals of the Axis powers and the Soviet Union during World War Two?
The strategic goals of each of the major powers of the Second World War changed substantially over the course of the conflict. Often these differences were heavily affected by events on the battlefield or shifting political realities. Still, many of the initial goals of the war were driven directly by angst over the Treaty of Versailles and efforts to dramatically reshape the world map.
The most belligerent powers, including Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union, often had the most radical and far-reaching plans. These nations each had different grievances due to the path of colonialism and the First World War. Each used the fears and weaknesses of the other powers of Europe and Asia in order to take advantage for their own purposes. Germany sought domination of the European continent and large areas for settlement in Eurasia. Japan sought the removal of colonial powers and the establishment of an alliance of East Asian powers under its umbrella. Italy looked to re-establish the Roman Empire while Russia sought to reverse the humiliation of the end of the First World War and foreign intervention in the Russian Civil War of 1917-1920. The end of the conflict saw a dramatic reshaping of the continent, with many of the initial goals and grievances that started the conflict become irrelevant in the face of the massive conflict.
Perhaps no power's war goals have been so thoroughly researched than that of Nazi Germany. Before his National Socialist Party came to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler wrote his political manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which became a bestseller in the 1920s and 1930s. Hitler laid out a revised 19th Century idea of Lebensraum, or "living space." Germany's population was the second-largest in Europe and expanding. The Nazis sought to expand into Eastern Europe to create a series of colonies around a Greater Germany. Nazi racial ideology believed that the Slavic, Roma, and Jewish populations of Eastern Europe were all inferior to the fair skinned Aryan Germanic races. Many of these racist policies were combined with Germany's belligerent stance and blaming the country's Jewish population for the loss of World War I, the infamous "stab in the back" theory.
Germany sought to reverse the terms of Versailles. Many, including the annexation of Austria and remilitarization had been accomplished by the start of the war in September 1939. Hitler demanded that France be humiliated due to its role in the First World War. When France surrendered to Germany Hitler forced the French delegation to sign the peace terms in the same railway car that Germany signed the armistice in 1918. Germany also extended its domination into Scandinavia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Many of the Eastern European states were forced into satellite status around Germany. Resources of the continent, including allied states, neutral countries, and occupied territory were all funneled towards Germany's war effort. However, up until late in the war the Nazi regime would attempt to restrict rationing, remembering the heavy toll on the civilian population in World War I. Late in the conflict the German government instituted a total war stance bringing the entire population and industry into desperate measures to win the war. 
The Nazi Party had a clear racial component to many of its goals before and during the war. As the conflict started against Russia in June 1941, the picture became more convoluted. The invasion of Russia with its large Jewish population led directly to the Holocaust. Furthermore, millions of prisoners or war and other Slavs were worked to death in German camps. While some in Eastern Europe welcomed German forces due to Stalin's oppression, their initial warm feelings were not reciprocated. Germany actively sought to exterminate or resettle the population of the Soviet Union and Poland to be replaced with German settlers. Millions of civilians and prisoners became slave labor for the Nazi regime. These German states would revolve around an enlarged Germany and largely based around agriculture. Some portions of the Soviet Union would become German resorts or key military bases, including the Crimean Peninsula. Towards the end of the war Germany hoped that the Western Allies could be convinced to work with Germany against the advancing Soviet armies. These hopes were all in vain as the Allies all demanded an unconditional surrender with no separate peace.
The rise of the Fascist Party under Benito Mussolini saw Italy attempt to become a major player in world geopolitics. Italy had been on the winning Allied side in the Great War but believed that it had been unfairly treated in the aftermath. The Peace of Versailles gave Italy small portions that it had been promised in secret talks with France and Britain during the war. Italy had also taken grave casualties during the war and its military had one of the worst reputations of the major powers. Mussolini attempted to build a modern, mobile military but instead Italy's army, navy, and air force all earned a poor reputation during the next war. However, Italy's political ambitions remained large as Mussolini attempted to remain on good terms with both Germany and the western allies. The Fascists also attempted to create a new Roman Empire across the Mediterranean, seizing Ethiopia in 1935-1936 and Albania in 1939.
Italy's goals shifted as it aligned closely to Germany in the late 1930s. Italy backed Germany in a series of Eastern European crises in 1938 and 1939 but did not immediately join in the conflict. It was not until France was on the brink of collapse in June 1940 that Italy entered conflict with the Allies. President Roosevelt called Mussolini's calculated maneuver a "stab in the back." Still, Italy's goals were larger than its capabilities. Italy sought to regain territories given to France in the 1850s in exchange for help with Italian unification. Even with France on the verge of total defeat, Italian troops fighting the French along their shared mountainous border suffered a series of defeat. Italy gained just tiny portions of French territory before the armistice of June 22nd. When Italy asked for its full sought territory from Germany, it was stiffly rebuffed.
Italy also sought to increase its profile in Africa by seizing French and British colonies in the Horn of Africa in the chaos of 1940. However, the Allies swiftly retook this territory, as well as Ethiopia and Eritrea from Italy. Italian efforts to push to the Suez Canal in Egypt from the Italian colony Libya were largely repelled by British forces. Italy desired a string of colonies along the Adriatic coast in Yugoslavia and to take former French colonies in North Africa. It was in this vein, jealous of Hitler's successes in Poland and France, that Mussolini ordered the invasion of Greece in October 1940. This invasion backfired spectacularly with Greece launching a counter-offensive and occupying a large segment of Albania. Germany had to bail out Italian forces in April 1941. In a show of exasperation, Italian troops were forbidden by the Germans from occupying Athens. In an effort to placate Germany, Mussolini directed 300,000 Italian troops to the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union, where their forces fared poorly.
Like Italy, Japan had been a member of the victorious Allied Powers in the First World War. Unlike Italy, Japan faced relatively few casualties and seized a series of former German colonies However, deepening economic crises caused by the Great Depression and increasing military control of the country left Japan increasingly militaristic and belligerent. Japan had been an aggressive imperial power well before World War I, winning victories against China and Russia in the 1890s and 1910s, respectively, as well as occupying Taiwan in 1895 Korea in 1910. This continued as Japan sought increasing influence in an increasingly fractious China. Japan established a puppet regime in resource-rich Manchuria in 1932 and fought a particularly bloody war with China starting in 1937. Japan also fought and lost a series of border skirmishes with the Soviet Union that ended in August 1939.
Japan had several key war aims once the Second World War began. Its troops were largely mired in various fronts in China as Europe descended into chaos. The fall of France and the Netherlands coupled with Britain's isolation offered Japan a new opportunity. Japan was able to align itself with independent Siam after a brief invasion while also coercing Vichy France into giving up its colony in Indochina. The Netherlands' colonies, the Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia), were oil-rich, desperately needed for the war effort. Japan hoped to organize the nations of East Asia, including a potential ally in a liberated India, into the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere under Japanese domination. Japan's far reaching imperial plans put it in direct conflict with the other major Pacific powers, the United States and Britain, which Japan would attack in December 1941. While Japan was able to win a series of rapid victories across Asia in the early part of the war, the rapid mobilization of the United States and the country's massive resources proved to be far too much for Japan to handle. Japan faced a series of defeats across the Pacific before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. 
The Soviet Union entered the World War II era shackled to its past. Not only had the country suffered millions of casualties from the Great War and Russian Civil War, up until Stalin's Five Year Plans it had been substantially behind the Western powers economically-- Stalin had said that Russia was 100 years behind industrially. It had also faced humiliation in the aftermath of the First World War, having given up much of Russia's former territories in Eastern Europe. The Allied Powers had also intervened on behalf of White forces in the Russian Civil War. Russia joined the League of Nations and attempted a rapprochement with the Western powers cut short by Germany's expansionism. Instead, in August 1939 Soviet dictator Josef Stalin signed a pact with Nazi Germany.
Stalin's goals in the early days of World War II were similar to those at the end: to build a buffer for the Soviet Union. In late 1939 and 1940 Stalin invaded or seized part or all of all of Russia's European neighbors, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, seeking to regain territory lost in World War I. Stalin paid a heavy price for this deal, allowing Hitler further influence in Eastern Europe and sending Germany important resources including grain and oil. Germany's invasion of June 22, 1941 proved to be a turning point for Stalin, breaking the fragile peace in Eastern Europe and placing even more distrust in Stalin. As the Soviets turned the tide against Germany in 1943 Stalin utilized this experience to force Communism across Eastern Europe, at any cost.
As Soviet soldiers poured into Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945 the Soviets established a series of puppet regime while eliminating the leaders of non-Communist factions. In 1945, Soviet troops occupied almost all of Eastern Europe and Stalin consolidated this position to create a series of buffer states that would become the Warsaw Pact after the war. Stalin sought to completely demilitarize and deindustrialize Germany to prevent another invasion. The Allies rejected this idea, Stalin also engineered a massive resettlement of millions of Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other parts of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union had suffered massively from the conflict, with much of the country's industry destroyed and approximately 20 million killed in the war. The massive toll on Russia helped shape the country's demands at the war's close. Stalin also armed and funded Communist groups across the Europe and Asia, becoming indirectly involved in civil wars in Greece and China. The Western Allies exited the Second World War with a large and deepening distrust of Stalin, who at the time commanded the largest army in the world. 
As the United States entered into the war, the major goals of the belligerent powers shifted. Germany, Italy, and Japan would each lose the war, with Italy knocked out of the war in 1943 and Germany and Japan in 1945. Each of these powers' dreams of empire were replaced with reconstruction of their shattered nation. Germany faced separation between occupying allies then formed into capitalist West and Communist East Germany. The U.S. and U.K. sought stability and self-determination towards the end of the war with the United States taking the lead. Across Western Europe liberated countries established democratic forms of government and free market systems. The Western Allies desperately feared that the issues surrounding the end of the war could lead to a Third World War or the spread of Communism. Seeking to learn after the mistakes of Versailles massive aid was established across Europe. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman sought to tamp down potential grievances and allowed Germany, Italy, and Japan to enter easily into the postwar international community.
Related DailyHistory.org Articles
- Overy, R.J., 'War and Economy of the Third Reich. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) Pg. 266-268.
- Kallis, Aritstotle, Fascist Ideology: Territory and Expansionism in Italy and Germany, 1922-1945. London: Routledge Press, 2000. Page 115.
- Mimura, Janis. Planning for Empire: Reform Bureaucrats and the Japanese Wartime State. Cornell: Cornell Press, 2011. Pages 195-111.
- Roberts, Geoffrey, Stalin's Wars. Yale: Yale University Press, 2006. Pages 121-133.