On one level it’s deeply gratifying to see photographs of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini acting chummy during the run-up to the Second World War, not least because it affords us the opportunity to savor the knowledge that, when the pictures were made, these megalomaniacs were already doomed. The militaristic pomp that attended their every gesture; the almost comically grandiose accouterments (banners, pennants, flags) of their ideologies; the sleazy gangsterism of their retinues — all were slated to be wiped away in a catastrophe of their own making.
But there’s no solace derived from the knowledge that millions of men, women and children — the majority of them noncombatants — all over the globe lost their lives during the years it took to defeat the Axis. The images in this gallery, made by Hitler’s personal photographer, Hugo Jaeger, in May and September of 1938, are riveting not only because color photographs from that era are so rare, but because they raise a disconcerting question: namely, how could two such unappealing thugs, sharing an ideology so vicious, shallow and easily discredited, gradually pull their own nations — and, eventually, much of the world — into war?
Ultimately, of course, the Axis was throttled. Its lands — Germany, Italy, Japan — were laid waste, as were significant parts of Allied countries like England, France, China and, above all, the Soviet Union, which alone saw more than 20,000,000 of its citizens perish. For six years, the world was at war, and Hitler and Mussolini — two largely like-minded warmongers — were early driving forces behind the cataclysm.
These photos, meanwhile — initially meant to memorialize and celebrate both men — now serve instead as a kind of visual cautionary tale: Beware those who lust after power. They are destroyers.
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com