Croatia and the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis: The 1941 Venice Conference

On Sunday, June 15, 1941, following his June 6 meeting with Adolf Hitler at Bechtesgaden in Bavaria at Hitler’s Berghof residence, Ante Pavelic attended a conference in Venice in which the newly-created Independent State of Croatia, Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska (NDH), formally joined the Axis. Pavelic was personally welcomed by Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, at the train station where he saluted an Italian Naval honor guard. Croatian and Italian flags draped the station. German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop later joined Ciano and Pavelic at the meeting. The Japanese representative, Zembei Horikiri, the Japanese Ambassador to Italy, attended on behalf of Japan.

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From left, seated, Slavko Kvaternik, the head of the NDH armed forces, Ante Pavelic, the Poglavnik, standing, Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, and the Japanese representative, the Japanese Ambassador to Italy, Zembei Horikiri,

Croatia signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany, Italy, and Japan, the Axis Powers, becoming a junior partner in the Axis. The Axis also included Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria by 1941. Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria had joined the Tripartite Pact to regain territory. Hungary and Bulgaria sought to regain land from Yugoslavia which they lost following World War I, the Bachka region and Macedonia respectively. Hungary received northern Transylvania from Romania. Romania sought land from the Soviet Union, Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. Croatia and Slovakia were newly-created states after the German occupation and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

The location for the meeting was the Palazzo Ducale di Venezia, The Doge’s Palace, in Venice, built in 1340. The structure had been a museum since 1923. The meeting took place in the hall of the palace.

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From Croatia, Pavelic and Slavko Kvaternik, the vojskovoda and doglavnik, chief of the NDH military forces, attended. Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, and the Marquis d’Ajeta and Count Pietromarchi, two high-ranking Italian officials, represented Italy. Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, and the Japanese representative, Zembei Horikiri, the Japanese Ambassador to Italy, acting on behalf of the Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, were also in attendance.

Zembei Horikiri, the brother of Zenjiro Horikiri, a Japanese cabinet minister and former mayor of Tokyo City, was a former Vice Minister of Finance (1931-1932), who became ambassador to Italy in September, 1940. He was replaced in December, 1942. He died on November 26, 1946.

Yosuke Matsuoka was the Japanese Foreign Minister from 1940 to 1941. He was one of the major proponents of the Tripartite Pact. Although he signed the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact in April, 1941, he advocated a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union, which the Japanese army and navy, as well as Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, opposed. He also was confrontational with the U.S. He died in 1946 before his war crimes trial began.

The meeting was photographed and filmed for Italian and German newsreels. The arrivals of Ribbentrop and Pavelic at the train station in Venice were photographed as they were greeted by Ciano. The assembled delegations in the senate hall of the palace were also photographed. Kvaternik and Pavelic sat on the left side of the podium while Ribbentrop and the Japanese representative sat on the right. Ciano was in the center as the host. Both Ciano and Pavelic spoke at the conference with the latter reading from a prepared text. Ciano and Pavelic were photographed on a boat on the canals of Venice.

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The Venice Conference was featured in the German newsreel Die Deutsche Wochenschau, No. 564, June 25, 1941.

A gondola on the canals of Venice was shown in the opening shot of the newsreel. “In the colorful city of Venice, the ceremony for the entry of Croatia into the three-party agreement is completed.” Cheering crowds are shown greeting the Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano. The Palazzo Ducale is shown along with other buildings in the city. There is an Italian Naval honor guard that welcomes them. The Reichsminister of Foreign Affairs von Ribbentrop is shown entering. The Croatian head of state, Dr. Pavelic, giving a fascist salute with upraised right arm, is shown arriving. The camera pans down the façade of the palace which features a Gothic edifice.  Ciano is shown at the hall speaking. “The senate hall of the palace” is shown. Pavelic shakes hands with Ribbentrop as Ciano looks on. They give a “heil Hitler!” salute. “In this speech, Count Ciano describes the three-power pact as the enduring foundation of co-operation between those nations which seek a world of justice and peace.” Ciano and Ribbentrop are shown conferring. They are then shown signing the documents. Pavelic signs for Croatia, Ciano for Italy, Ribbentrop for Germany, and the Japanese representative, Zembei Horikiri, for Japan.

An Italian newsreel showed Count Galeazzo and Ante Pavelic boarding a motor boat, getting in the cabin, and passing under a bridge over the Venice canals. In a photograph, Ante Pavelic gives a fascist salute as he boards a motor boat in Venice with Count Galeazzo Ciano with the flags of Croatia, Italy, Japan, and Germany hoisted on the dock surrounded by cheering spectators.

 A photograph showed Pavelic and Slavko Kvaternik and the Croatian delegation on a gondola on the canals with paddles.

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Current Biography, in its 1942 issue featuring Pavelic, described the Venice meeting as cementing Croatia to the Axis alliance: “Dr. Pavelic went to Venice for the induction of Croatia into the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo military alliance. On June 15 he put his signature to a protocol giving his country the right to be represented at any tripartite discussion which might affect Croatia. Replying to Count Ciano’s address of welcome, Pavelic was quoted as saying: ‘Croatia gives its full adherence to the principles and reasons which inspire a united front for creation of a new order in the European and Asiatic world.’ “

The meeting was also significant because it had ramifications for the Holocaust: “Croatia’s induction into the military alliance of the Axis powers had immediate effect on its ‘Jewish problem.’ Dr. Ante Pavelic announced that it would be solved ‘in a radical way under the German order.’ Also ordered by Hitler to put a ‘river of blood’ between the Serbian and Croatian nations, Pavelic did so by carrying out the slaughter of some 300,000 Serbs living in Croatia and the destruction of scores of their communities.”

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The Milwaukee Journal on Monday, June 16, 1941 featured on page 2 an AP news story on the meeting, “Croatia Joins Axis as Minor Partner”. The article emphasized that the NDH was a “minor” or “secondary” member of the Axis: “Croatia, the new state carved from part of Yugoslavia, Sunday joined the ranks of secondary members of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.” The “Poglavnik” signed a protocol that assured that Croatia would be consulted on any measures that affected the country. Croatia had been personally invited by Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano to join the Axis. Pavelic was quoted as saying that he fully supported and endorsed the new order which the Axis sought to create in Europe and Asia.

British press accounts reported: “Croatia Joins Axis. London, Monday. Croatia joined the Axis Pact with great ceremony at Venice yesterday. Those present included the Nazi Foreign Minister (Herr von Ribbentrop) and the Italian Foreign Minister (Count Ciano). The Australian Associated Press reported: “Croatia Joins Axis. London, June 15. Croatia, the German puppet State carved out of Northern Yugoslavia, has signed an Axis three-power pact. The German. Foreign Minister (Herr von Ribbentrop) signed for Germany, and presided.”

Germany and Italy had established the Berlin-Rome Axis or alliance on November 1, 1936, after a treaty of friendship had been signed between the two countries. Germany and Japan signed an agreement creating an alliance on November 25, 1936, the Anti-Comintern Pact, an anti-Communist and anti-Soviet alliance. Italy signed the Anti-Comintern Pact on November 6, 1937. Germany signed the Pact of Steel agreement with Italy on May 22, 1939. This agreement tied the countries to a formal military alliance.

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Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact in Berlin on September 27, 1940 known as the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis, or the Axis alliance. They were the three Axis powers known collectively as the Axis. To secure the Balkans region for the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler sought to bring in the countries of eastern Europe into the Pact. Hungary joined on November 20, 1940, Romania on November 23, 1940, Slovakia on November 24, 1940, and Bulgaria joined on March 1, 1941. Yugoslavia joined on March 25, 1941 at a meeting in Vienna. Yugoslav accession was followed by a coup that replaced the Prince Paul regime with a pro-British government under King Peter II led by Air Force General Dusan Simovich. This overthrow resulted in the German invasion, occupation, and dismemberment of Yugoslavia that began on April 6, 1941. Following Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, Finland joined the Axis powers on June 26, 1941, as a “co-belligerent” but did not sign the Tripartite Pact. Like Romania, Finland sought to gain territory from the Soviet Union.

Benito Mussolini had allowed Ante Pavelic and his Ustasha organization sanctuary in Italy during the 1930s where training camps were set up for terrorist attacks against Yugoslavia. Mussolini supported an independent or sovereign Croatian state but only if territorial concessions were made to Italy. Mussolini annexed a large section of the Dalmatian coast and Adriatic islands, seizing territory around Split (Spalato), Zadar (Zara), and Kotor (Cattaro). Pavelic agreed to these concessions in exchange for Italian support of Croatian sovereignty. Moreover, Italy supported the annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina by Croatia as well as territory from Serbia. The NDH was subordinated to Italy and to Italian interests. Conflict also developed over Italian opposition on the ground to the genocidal policies of the NDH against Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Italian forces provided safe havens and refuge for Serbian, Jewish, and Roma civilians fleeing Ustasha forces.

Pavelic retained Hitler’s unwavering and staunch support during World War II. Although German military and civilian commanders in the NDH and in the Balkans called for Pavelic’s removal, he was able to preserve his regime until the end of the war. The genocidal policies of his regime had alienated segments of the Croatian population and the Serbian populations of the NDH, resulting in armed opposition and resistance to his government. This instability necessitated an increased German military presence. As a committed and dedicated supporter of Adolf Hitler and of Nazism, however, Pavelic was able to sustain his regime in power.

Italy would surrender on September 3, 1943 to Britain and the U.S., while Romania and Bulgaria would surrender in 1944 to the Soviet Union. Croatia, however, would remain a German ally and a part of the Axis until the end of the war in Europe. In fact, the NDH would outlive the Third Reich by a day. Ante Pavelic would also survive the war, fleeing to Rome and the Vatican where he was allowed to escape by British and American occupation forces.