Hitler’s Dark December, 1941

Call it a bad month for the Führer.  On the night of December 5th-6th, 1941, the Red Army launched its tremendous counteroffensive in front of Moscow, capping one of the most remarkable military comebacks of all time.  The German front gave everywhere and broke altogether in numerous places.  Army Group Center, the Schwerpunkt of the German operation in the east, seemed on the verge of collapse.  Then, on December 7th, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into the war.  Although he was under no treaty obligation to do so–as if treaties mattered to Hitler anyway–he now declared war on the United States.

Looking back, it seems inexplicable.  After all, why borrow a new enemy (and a great big one) when you haven’t even beaten the enemies you already have?  Why toss a new weight into the scales, one with the world’s largest industrial base by a considerable margin?  Why ask for trouble?  More to the point, why solve President Roosevelt’s political problems for him?  FDR saw Nazi Germany, not Imperial Japan, as the gravest threat to democracy, but even this wiliest of U.S. politicians knew it was going to be difficult to get an American public outraged by the “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor into a war against Germany.

There’s one simple answer, of course, and it shows up again and again in the histories. Hitler was incompetent.  Or, more likely, insane.  Others argue, a bit more precisely, that he wanted to unleash the U-Boats against an America that was already supplying Great Britain with the tools and materiel to continue to war.  Then there is Hitler’s racial ideology, his notion that the US was a multiracial “mongrel nation” that could never compete with a racially pure Germany on the battlefield.

In fact, the explanation for this seemingly absurd decision does not require reference to either Hitler’s pathology or to his ideology.  By 1941, Germany had been at war for two full years.  The Wehrmacht had crushed one enemy after another and even now stood at the gates of Moscow.  We know today that the Soviet blow had been a crushing one, but on December 11, Hitler could hardly realize the true extent of the disaster.  He could hear the panic in the voices on the General Staff, sure, and no doubt he was already toying with that famous “stand-fast order” for the Eastern Front–widely regarded as the decision that rescued Army Group Center.  Still, the war must have seemed all but over to him.  What could the U.S. possibly do to Germany that Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union had not? 

It may wound our self-esteem, but the real explanation for Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States is that he did not really think it mattered all that much.

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28 Responses

  1. Iron

    Where to start with this…?

    Have you read (and more importantly comprehended) “The Wages of Destruction”? The answer is right there…

    War with the USA was inevitable in Hitler’s mind. With hindsight we can sit back and recognize the rashness of his declaration but at the time, I’d venture to say that it was not a matter that was taken lightly; the declaration was NOT made on a whim.

    To imply such is to foster and foment the ignorant…

    Sensationalism sells but if you’re trying to represent yourselves as some bastion of informed history, then I would expect a little more in the direction of jurisprudence on your part…

    Just my opinion, Robert…

    Cheers, Ron

    Reply
  2. Cap'n Dave

    Clearly the decision was not made on a whim, but look at the tactical situation – where was the US going to engage Germany? Africa?
    I am not saying that Hitler was rational in his declaration of war, but he was never a Grand Strategic thinker – I think it is unlikely Hitler had anything but the vaguest thoughts of a conflict with America, more of a fantasy or daydream I should think. In the short term, the US was not going to have an impact on the war. In that time the USSR would be dealt with and then Germany’s attention could be turned to Britain. As a preparatory step for all out conflict with the UK, it would be prudent to limit the amount of supplies and materiel they received. It makes short term operational sense to wage unrestricted submarine warfare. By this line of thought, the US really didn’t matter that much.
    Clearly the most dangerous enemy to Germany was the USSR – throughout the entire war. Not to minimize the role played by the US, but even at the end of the war, with thousands of Germans fleeing the Soviets into the arms of the Americans, it is reasonable to conclude that Americans were viewed more as rescuers than conquerors.

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  3. paul penrod

    One theory that I have heard espoused is that Hitler entered the war against the US as an incentive for Japan to declare war on the Soviets After all, the German drive on Moscow had been blunted by the Siberian units brought from the east. Richard Sorgi had informed the Soviet powers to be that Japan would not intervene, allowing STAVKA to risk this shift in forces. According to the theory, Hitler was using the premise of being a loyal Axis member as the carrot to bring the Japanese in against the Soviets and to finish off the Russians-their demise was always his prize. He not only overestimated Germanys military capabilities, but the Japanese as well. The bulk of the Japanese Army was imbedded in China, and they had difficulty enough finding units to attack US and European colonial objectives, let alone pursuing a war against a third enemy, which had ravaged them severely in Mongolia in 1939.

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    • Ted Fitzpatrick

      I agree. Soviet armor completely crushed the Japanese in Mongolia. Japan’s forces fled the field and weren’t about to take on the Soviets again.

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  4. Cap'n Dave

    Good point Paul, but doesn’t that theory give too much credit to German / Hitler forward thinking? By all accounts I am aware of, the Germans were completely surprised by the Moscow counter-offensive, I don’t think Hitler was banking in early December on the Japanese turning a tide that he believed was going his way.

    though as Dennis Miller says, I might be wrong

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  5. Adam Rinkleff

    Ron is absolutely right. The Wages of Destruction is the definitive book on World War II. I never knew anything about WWII, and then I read that book and now I understand everything perfectly. That book is absolutely SENSATIONAL. To imply otherwise is to foster and foment the ignorant…

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  6. dakshitha

    I LIKE TO KNOW ABOUT EVERY THING WORLD WAR 2 & TO USED WEPONES & SS ARMY

    Reply
  7. Steven Ramold

    I think Rob’s depiction of Hitler as unconcerned about the threat posed by America is realistic, and there is another facet of that opinion. Considering the political situation in 1941, perhaps the question should be why did Hitler wait so long to declare war.

    Considering Roosevelt’s actions toward Germany during the period of American neutrality, it is not a great stretch to think that Hitler considered America a belligerent without declaration. I certainly will shed no tears for Germany’s loss, but, to play Devil’s advocate, consider Roosevelt’s actions relative to Germany in 1940-1941:

    -persuaded Congress to modify the Neutrality Acts to permit a ‘cash and carry’ policy for American armaments

    -approved the ‘Destroyers for Bases Deal’ that provided the British with 50 destroyers to sink German U-boats and created a safe haven for British shipping in the western Atlantic

    -signed the Selective Service Act into law and began expanding the military for a war where Germany seems the obvious enemy

    -created Lend-Lease to provide Germany’s enemies with weapons and munitions free of charge

    -attended a summit with Winston Churchill leading to the Atlantic Charter, which contains language that reflects planning for when American enters the war, not if

    -ordered U.S. Navy ships to escort convoys into hostile waters, leading to the Green Incident and a major escalation of tensions

    Rob is correct that selling an attack on Pearl Harbor as justification for war on Germany was not going to happen (regardless of what John Belushi thinks). But if you poke even the most reluctant dog enough times, you can get him to bite you.

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  8. Luke Truxal

    Where is Cap’n Dave’s rant about intelligence? Hitler correctly assessed his situation and had good reasons from his stand point in going to war with the United States. However, his great failure is to assess the political situation that Roosevelt was in during 1941. Dr. Citino correctly points out that Roosevelt desperately wanted a Europe first strategy and would have a hard time declaring war on Germany while the American public wanted revenge for Pearl Harbor. Hitler’s failure to assess his opponent’s political situation in 1941 is similar to Colonel Andrews’ failure to assess the strength of the German forces on Crete. I now wait for Dave’s rant on the failure of Axis intelligence that I have just set up.

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  9. Cap'n Dave

    Luke, in order for intelligence to fail, it has to be extant and functioning. It has been well established that German Intelligence (so to speak) couldn’t identify the number of planes available to England during the Battle of Britain, I hardly think they would have a much better view into America.

    Having said that, there is quite a difference between Military Intelligence and Political estimates that should have been done by the German Foreign Ministry. The real question here should be what was Ribbentrop telling Hitler? As Ribbentrop is usually depicted as a Hitler lackey, I would think he was saying what he thought Hitler wanted to hear.
    Which takes us back to the original question of What was Hitler thinking? I think you can find a good discussion of that at:

    http://www.historynet.com/hitlers-dark-december-1941.htm

    or in the book “The Wages of Destruction” which many consider to be the definitive book on World War II.

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  10. Rob Citino

    Steven–

    Do you think Roosevelt would have even asked for a declaration of war on Germany, if Hitler hadn’t declared war first?

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  11. Steven Ramold

    No, I do not believe that Roosevelt would have asked Congress for a declaration of war on December 8, when Congress issued the declaration of war on Japan, but he might not have needed to.

    Germany was doing a damned good job of pressing the issue on their own. Thirty-seven days before Pearl Harbor, the U-522 sank the destroyer Reuben James, killing 119 men of her crew. Fourteen days before that, U-568 put a torpedo into USS Kearny. The ship did not sink, but 11 men lost their lives. Neither of these incident equat to a Luisitania type sinking, but after the Greer Incident, the U.S. Navy received permission to fire at German submarines in self-defense. A few more torpedo attacks or the sinking of a U-boat or two, and war might have happened anyway.

    On December 8, in his speech to Congress requesting a declaration of war on Japan, Roosevelt stated that since the attack the day before “a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.” If Roosevelt believed that a war already existed with Japan, then why did he need Congress to declare war? There are obvious political and public reasons for doing so. But could Roosevelt have used the same logic against Germany? Considering the heightened tensions and the loss of American lives by German hands, Roosevelt might have simply stated that, for all practical purposes, a state of war existed between the U.S. and Germany. Roosevelt could then have escalated military operations against Germany without a formal declaration.

    This would be, of course, a potentially dangerous political action to take. From a historical standpoint, in our era of debate over the war-making powers of the President, it is also Constitutionally problematic. For a politician like Roosevelt, however, that would certainly free his hands.

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  12. Rob Citino

    Thanks, Steve. Good reminders about the “pre-war” war in the Atlantic. Woody Guthrie wrote a great song about the sinking of DD-245:

    “Tell me what were their names,
    tell me what were their names?
    Did you have a friend
    on the good Ruben James?

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    • John Koster

      Woody Guthrie was a member of the Communist Party and did what he was told. Before the Hitler-Stalin Pact fragmented when Hitler attacked Russia, Woodie and other American Communists like Dalton Trumbo blamed the whole mess on Britain and France.

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  13. Lee

    As a reader of this scholarly blog, I have been tempted to respond over the past week from comment #1, because I have been reading Adam Tooze and I have some serious concerns regarding some of the data presented. For the past week I have witnessed what was obviously intended to be a thought provoking catalyst for discussion by one of Military History’s highly respected and preeminent scholars quickly de-evolve into this offensive comment by John Karr. My question is why would any serious scholar of WWII history squander such a rare opportunity to engage in scholarly debate with the vanguard in the field?

    Reply
  14. Matt-The-Sixteen-Year-Old-Pretentious-Bigot

    Did you know? Just some food for thought. If Adolf Hitler was never rejected -twice- by the Vienna school for Architecture, he probably would have never done everything he’s done. (Not to say that I’m not aware of everything he’s done, but rather, I don’t want to spend a lot of time getting into it, because I’m in the library.)

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  15. WWII Man

    I agree with matt but also think his mother didn’t love him

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  16. Matt-The-Sixteen-Year-Old-Pretentious-Bigot

    My, now. That is open for debate.

    Reply
  17. pepe villarán

    On December 7th, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Hitler declared war on the United States.

    Why??

    Very Simple: to save face and cover up the retreat and defeat from Moscow; and he achived it to a certaint extent.

    He did it again with Kursk; he called it off to “help” the italians against the sicily invasion. Actually Germany was defeated.

    pepe

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  18. Henry Oster, Capt. USNR, Ret.

    Re: #10: German intelligence was better than often portrayed, as exampled by Guderian’s assertion that the Red Army fielded at least “10,000 tanks” prior to Operation Barbossa. However, Hitler’s governance permitted a culture wherein logical evaluation of such facts was suppressed or ignored. My analysis, done as part of a project on historical research during my years in ROTC and as an Active Reservist, leads me to conclude that the German General Staff failed early on to effectively deal with the developing crisis of leadership in their ranks. Fritsch, for example, an early critic of Nazi policy, was scandalously discredited and effectively eliminated. At that time the rest of the General Staff, missed an opportunity to stand up to Hitler at a point when he was still in the process of usurping their responsibilities.

    By the beginning of the war, the General Staff had been largely emasculated, and could no longer obstruct or delay Hitler based upon considerations such as logistics, supply and manpower, which were known by many experts to be inadequate to carry out lengthy and extensive operations in the USSR. A “preliminary study” for Barbarossa in July 1940 nonetheless elicited a positive response from the remaining Army leadership in the context of a limited war for territorial gains.

    I recognize that it is controversial to tackle the issue of dissent on the part of military leadership against political leadership; however, I can think of instances in recent US history where this has been both necessary and expedient.

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  19. John Koster

    Everybody seems to have missed this but Japan actually declared war on the United States on December 7 and FDR knew it.

    FDR’s whole “day of infamy” speech was hot air. The day before the attack on Pearl Harbpr, FDR read the decoded Japanese diplomatic telegrams telling the consulates to break up their code machines.

    He told his alter ego Harry Hopkins: “This means war!”

    FDR then cleverly sent the Pacific Fleet a Western Union telegram instead of making a phone call that would have given the fleet 24 hours warning.

    Meanwhile, the Japanese diplomats, who knew they could not vaguely hope to win a war with the United States, tried to write a formal declaration after they sent their typists home. but got so drunk that they didn’t have the declaration typed and delivered until the Pearl Harbor attack was already in progress. The Japanese blamed the attack on a century of Anglo-Saxon bullying — the British Opium Wars, U.S. massacres in the Philippines, TR’s betrayal of Korea — they did a lot of the same stuff themselves, but generally cleared it with us first.
    Judge Rabinaho Pal of India flatly declared that the United States had forced the war on them in his dissent from the Tokyo Trials.

    An American diplomat with a German-Jewish refugee interpreter asked Hermann Goering after the war why Hitler had declared war on the United States.

    “We felt we had to honor our treaty with Japan,” Goering said.

    “Why that treaty in particular?” the Jewish kid asked wryly. (That’s a funny line…)

    Goering then explained that Hitler felt that FDR’s war in the Atlantic and aid to Britain constituted a virtual war in any case.

    Ironically, after the bloody nose they got in Mongolia in 1939, the Japanese had no intention of fighting anybody who had good tanks and trucks. Matsuo Kinoaku bluntly said that no invasion of North America was possible. He also said that American soldiers were extremely brave, though somewhat inept in stealthy fighting. He though Japanhad a better navy.

    Final irony — while the Japanese were desperately trying to get their oil and credit from the U.S. restored in the autumn of 1941 they offered to back out of the alliance with Hitler: the Japanese had
    saved about 40,000 Jewish refugees whom they sheltered in Shanghai, and Hitler had been a key supplier to
    Japan’s short-time enemy, Chiang Kai-shek. Check out the photos of Chiang’s soldiers with M-35 Nazi-issue steel helmets and Mauser rifles and pistols.

    The Japanese (like all Asians) tend to like Germans in general (see the new South Korean war movie, “My Way” but they thought Hitler was a dangerous and vulgar buffoon. I quite agree.

    John Koster
    author of OPERATION SNOW: HOW A SOVIET MOLE IN FDR’S WHITE HIOUSE TRIGGERED PEARL HARBOR

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  20. Son of Schickelgruber

    Pops used to explain it like this: we were winning the war against the Russians (oops, big mistake ‘Dolf!) and it, was only a matter of time before the Axis achieved complete victory in Europe. America would take years to mobilize its industrial might (oops again). One of our biggest assets was our U-Boat fleet, which could only be used effectively if we sank every ship afloat, not just those of the Englanders. So declaring war against the United States was a tactical rather than strategic decision. Short term we could get rid of those pesky American spies posing as diplomats wandering around the Fatherland. And since Pops believed FDR was in the pocket of American Jewry anyway, war with the United States was inevitable (hey don’t blame me, Pops was a bit \off\ whenever anyone mentioned the Jews–he had a real bee in his bonnet on this topic). So yes declaring war on the US was a bad decision, and in hindsight we know that Germany lacked the resources to defeat the USSR (Uncle Ribbie wanted to use the Russians against the Russians, but Pops was dead set against arming the White Russians–don’t know if this would have worked, but we never really overcame the manpower shortage). Finally, I should mention that Pops never really gave serious thought to the possibility of a German defeat. He was a bit unrealistic at times. Oh we’ll, back to my obscure job on the farm in France.

    Reply
  21. marecek

    Hitler was incompetent? Insane? That is the brilliant analysis offered in this article. Rubbish. Clearly he was unbalanced and deluded by his ideology, but an incompetent and insane person could hardly do what he had done up to 1941. It was he very successes that caused him to be so cavalier in making rash and ill-thought out decisions.

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  22. SMANCometh

    Hitler mulled his decision over all right. \His decision.\ Like all the other leaders of the world would consult their experts, in Nazi Germany Hitler was the expert, at least in his own mind. He thought that the US was at least a couple of years behind and could make no discernible battlefield contribution to the war at least till then. He also wanted to embarrass Roosevelt by declaring war on him instead of the other way around. Once again Hitler’s racist mind guides his thinking…bottom line good always triumphs over evil.

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  23. MICKB

    Always wondered why Hitler declared war on U.S.A.
    Is it a possibility Hitler hoped the Japanese would repay his actions by declaring war on the U.S.S.R. and then attack them from the east ?

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  24. John Koster

    Japan had already lost a land battle with the Soviets in 1939 and had signed a mutual non-aggression pact with Stalin — which Stalin made sure was in place before he joined Hitler in the invasion of Poland. During negotiations to have their oil supply restored the Japanese Sad tacitly offered to drop the alliance with Germany but the United States — influenced by Harry Dexter White, a Soviet agent in the Treasury Department — declined to take them seriously. Check out “Operation Snow,” soon in paperback.

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  25. Tim

    Interesting thought MICKB. The reasons behind things are often more complicated than we think and I’m sure Hilter would’ve had that in the back of his mind somewhere.

    If I were trying to dominate the world from Germany’s location and Japan was my ally, I would love a Japan attacking the Soviets. It might give me just the edge I would need. Japan was already all over the Pacific beating up on all the underdeveloped nations. They were certainly allies (or axis) so yes, I think Hitler very much hoped Japan was going to do that. He was not in the war to lose. I think he had nothing else on his mind other than winning.

    I think his focus (not to glorify him, but I think we must keep it real so as to not let that happen again ever) was his strength and I think he stayed very focused on dominating the world with his simpleminded ideology and he was surely not worried about Japan giving him any crap once they and Germany were the two most powerful countries in the world. He probably had visions of Japanese samurai guard for himself like the storm troopers to Darth vader. He was an awful racist. That fact cannot be understated.

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