The Balkans

Following the unexpected quick victory over France, Hitler turned east to the Balkans, a critical area for food and oil supplies. Penetration of this area would enable him to use overland transportation of these goods to help Germany withstand the effects of the British blockade of its shipping. Hitler moved first against Romania; in June 1940 the Soviets, who coveted Romania's substantial oil resources, had seized Bessarabia and northern Bucovina. To settle territorial disputes among the Balkan nations that might give the Soviets an opportunity for further intervention, Hitler in August ordered Romania to yield land to Bulgaria and Hungary and in September forced King Carol II of Romania to abdicate. In November, Hitler brought Romania and Hungary into the Axis alliance. At the same time, he began efforts to force Bulgaria and Yugoslavia into the Axis orbit, and this goal was achieved in 1941. Of the Balkan states only Greece remained firmly on the side of the Allies.

Mussolini, who had not been consulted on the division of Romania, decided to enhance his influence within the Axis alliance by unilaterally subjugating Greece. On Oct. 28, 1940, he began sending 200,000 troops into Greece from his puppet state Albania, expecting a speedy and overwhelming victory. Mussolini's attack was poorly planned, however, and the Greeks, although they lacked mechanized equipment and had an obsolete air force, turned on the invaders and by mid-November expelled them and penetrated into Albania.

Embarrassed by Mussolini's plight, concerned about the British troops and aircraft that had moved into the area to aid Greece, and displeased with Bulgaria's and Yugoslavia's reversion to neutralist positions, Hitler moved into the Balkans. On Apr. 6, 1941, he sent a blitzkrieg spearhead into Yugoslavia, where the pro-Nazi regime of Prince Paul had just been overthrown. The Germans struck at Belgrade and forced the surrender of the country on April 17. Simultaneously, he moved troops into Greece to smash through the defensive Metaxas Line. British forces withdrew from the Greek mainland, and by the end of the month all of mainland Greece was overrun by German forces.

The New Order

On Sept. 27, 1940, Japan was brought back into the German-Italian-Japanese grouping of the Anti-Comintern Pact, as the three nations signed a 10-year military and economic alliance, the Tripartite Pact, known as the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis. Hitler regarded Japan as a buffer against the United States as well as a distraction for the USSR.

By May 1941 the Germans and their Axis allies dominated almost all of the non-Soviet European continent. Most of the territory was occupied by German troops and subject to the authority of the ruthless SS (Schutzstaffel) and Gestapo. With Europe in their grip, the Nazis proceeded to exploit its resources for the benefit of Germany regardless of the consequences for the conquered peoples. Economic wealth was pillaged for German use, and industrial plants were geared to meet German war needs. Millions of both eastern and western Europeans were sent to work in Germany's war plants in the largest forcible displacement of populations in history. Political dissidents and members of groups ranking low on the Nazi racial scale, such as Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies, were interned in concentration camps by the millions. Ultimately, at least 6 million were systematically exterminated.


The British still held the strategic island of Crete. On May 20, 1941, in a powerful display of offensive air tactics, 3,500 German paratroopers were dropped on the island. Most were killed, but a second wave of 3,000 quickly captured key defenses and overwhelmed the remaining British troops, the last of which were evacuated on May 31. Hitler now had in his possession a strategic Mediterranean island for the dispatch of reinforcements and supplies to his desert troops in North Africa, which were poised for an eastward assault against Egypt and the Suez Canal.