World War II

THE FOURTH AXIS POWER

It is November 20, 1940, and there is excitement in the air. Two months earlier, when the signing of the Tripartite Pact on September 27 brought the three-party “Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis” into being, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had announced that “any other State which wishes to accede to this bloc… will be sincerely and gratefully made welcome.”

Now, Hitler and Ribbentrop are ready to welcome additional members to their notorious club, and both Hungary and Romania are eagerly maneuvering for the coveted fourth slot. In Berlin, Döme Sztójay, Hungary’s ambassador, is on the phone with foreign minister István Csáky in Budapest. There is a breathless urgency in his voice—Ribbentrop is practically holding out a pen for Sztójay to sign the document, but he must act quickly. Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu will be personally arriving in Berlin within 48 hours.

Hungary’s regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, wrote in his memoirs that “considerable efforts were made to make it appear that a signal honor was being paid us in allowing us to join Germany, Italy and Japan as a fourth partner, but a hint was also dropped that should we hesitate to accept it, Romania would be given this ‘place of honor.’”

Hungary, the kingdom without a king, turned to Horthy, the admiral without a navy.

As Ribbentrop waited, Horthy ordered Csáky to tell Sztójay to take the pen and sign. By the time Antonescu arrived in Berlin to join the Axis on November 23, Hungary had been the fourth power for three days.

For Hungary, being fourth carried with it both the prestige of being first to join the original three and the satisfaction of beating archrival Romania. Though Hungary and Romania were now both part of the Axis, their ethnic and territorial animosity was deepseated, predating even having been on opposite sides in World War I. Much of this centered on Transylvania, a 40,000-squaremile mountainous region that had been Hungarian—albeit with an ethic Romanian minority—for

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