Was it an irrational act? Hardly. Pearl Harbor merely gave him the excuse he had long been seeking.
WHEN NEWS OF THE JAPANESE ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR reached Germany, its leadership was absorbed by the crisis in its war with the Soviet Union. On December 1, 1941, after the serious defeat the Red Army administered to the German forces at the southern end of the Eastern Front, Adolf Hitler had relieved Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander in chief of the army group fighting there; the next day Hitler flew to the army group headquarters in the southern Ukraine. Late on December 3 he flew back to his headquarters in East Prussia, only to be greeted by more bad news: The German army group at the northern end of the Russian front was also being pushed back by Red Army counterattacks. Most ominous of all, the German offensive in the center, toward Moscow, not only had exhausted itself but was in danger of being overwhelmed by a Soviet counteroffensive. Not yet recognizing the extent of the defeat all along the front, Hitler and his generals saw their reverses merely as a temporary halt in German offensive operations.
The reality was just beginning to sink in when the German leaders got news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. On the evening of December 8, within hours of hearing about the previous day’s attack, Hitler ordered that at any opportunity the German navy should sink American ships and those of Central and South American countries that had declared their solidarity with the United States. That evening, too, he left East Prussia by train for Berlin, but not before sending out a summons to the members of the German parliament, the Reichstag, to meet on December 11 and, in a formal session that would be broadcast to the whole country, declare war on the United States.
Why this eagerness to go to war with yet another great power, and at a time when Germany already faced a serious situation on the Eastern Front? Some have argued that it was an irrational reaction by Hitler to his failure to take Moscow; some have attributed the delay of a few days to reluctance on Hitler’s part, when it had more to do with the fact that Japan’s initiative had caught the Germans by surprise; still others imagine that Germany had finally reacted to America’s policy of aiding Britain, even though in all his prior declarations of war Hitler had paid scant heed to the policies, for or against Germany, of the countries invaded. Ideological considerations and strategic priorities as Germany saw them were always more important. The most recent case was that of the Soviet Union, which had been providing critical supplies to Germany until minutes before the German attack of June 22, 1941.
The reality is that war with the United States had been included in Hitler’s agenda for years, that he had deferred hostilities only because he wanted to begin them at a time, and under circumstances, of his own choosing, and that the Japanese attack fitted his requirements precisely. It had been an assumption of Hitler’s since the 1920s that Germany would at some point fight the United States. Already in the summer of 1928 he had asserted in his second book (not published until I did it for him in 1961, as Hitlers zweites Buch) that strengthening and preparing Germany for war with the United States was one of the tasks of the National Socialist movement. Because his aims for Germany’s future entailed an unlimited expansion and because he thought the United States might at some time constitute a challenge to German domination of the globe, a war with the United States had long been a part of the future he envisioned. It would come either during his own rule or during that of his successors.
During the years of his chancellorship before 1939, German policies designed to implement the project of a war with the United States had been conditioned by two factors: belief in the truth of the stab-in-the-back legend on the one hand and the practical problems of engaging American military power on the other. The former, the widespread belief that Germany had lost the First World War because of the collapse at home rather than defeat at the front, automatically carried with it a converse of enormous significance, and one that has generally been ignored. The more credence one gave to the stab in the back, the more negligible the military role of the United States in that conflict seemed. To Hitler and to many others in Germany, the idea that American participation had enabled the Western powers to hold on in 1918 and then move toward victory was not a reasonable explanation of the events of that year but a legend instead.
Only those Germans who remained unenlightened by nationalist euphoria could believe that American forces had played any significant role in the past or would do so in the future. A solid German home front, which National Socialism would ensure, could preclude defeat next time. The problem of fighting the United States was not that the inherently weak and divided Americans could create, field, and support effective fighting forces. Rather it was that the intervening ocean could be blocked by a large American fleet.
Unlike the German navy of the pre-1914 era, in which discussions were really debates about the relative merits of landing on Cape Cod versus landing on Long Island, the German government of the 1930s took a more practical approach. In line with its emphasis on building up the air force, specifications were issued in 1937 and 1938 for what became the Me 264 and was soon referred to inside the government as the “America bomber” or the “New York bomber.” The “America bomber” would be capable of carrying a five-ton load of bombs to New York or a smaller load to the Midwest, or of flying reconnaissance missions over the West Coast and then returning to Germany without refueling at intermediate bases. Several types and models were experimented with, the first prototype flying in December 1940, but none of them advanced beyond preliminary models.
Instead, Hitler and his advisers came to concentrate ever more on the concept of acquiring bases for the German air force on the coast of northwest Africa, as well as on the Spanish and Portuguese islands off the African coast, to shorten the distance to the western hemisphere. Hitler also held discussions with his naval advisers and with Japanese diplomats about bombing the United States from the Azores; but those consultations did not take place until 1940 and 1941. In the meantime, prewar planning had shifted its focus to naval matters.
Like the Japanese, the Germans in the 1930s faced the question of how to cope with the American navy in the furtherance of their expansionist ambitions; without the slightest consultation, and in complete and deliberate ignorance of each other’s projects, the two governments came to exactly the same conclusion. In both countries the decision was to trump American quantity with quality, to build super-battleships, which by their vastly greater size could carry far heavier armament that could fire over greater distances and thus would be able to destroy the American battleships at ranges the enemy’s guns could not match.
The Japanese began constructing four such super-battleships in great secrecy. The Germans hoped to construct six super-battleships; their plans were worked out early in 1939 and the keels laid in April and May. These 56,200-ton monsters would outclass not only the new U.S. battleships of the North Carolina class then beginning to be built but even the successor Iowa class.
The precise details of how a war with the United States would actually be conducted was not a subject to which Hitler or his associates devoted a great deal of attention. When the time came, something could always be worked out; it was more important to prepare the prerequisites for success.
When World War II began in September 1939, work ceased on those portions of the blue-water navy not already near completion; that included the super-battleships. The immediate exigencies of the war took precedence over projects that could not be finished in the near future. Almost immediately, however, the German navy urged steps that would bring the United States into the war. Admiral Erich Raeder, the navy’s commander in chief, could hardly wait to go to war with the United States. He hoped that the increase in sinkings of merchant shipping, including American, that would result from a completely unrestricted submarine campaign would have a major impact on Britain, whose surface navy Germany could not yet defeat. But Hitler held back. As he saw it, what was the point of marginally increasing U-boat sinkings when Germany had neither a major surface navy yet nor bases for it to operate from?
The spring of 1940 appeared to provide the opportunity to remedy both deficiencies. The conquest of Norway in April immediately produced two relevant decisions: First, Norway would be incorporated into the Third Reich, and second, a major permanent base for Germany’s new navy would be built on the Norwegian—now German—coast at Trondheim. In addition, a large, entirely German city would be built there, with the whole complex to be connected directly to mainland Germany by special roads, bridges, and railways. Work on this colossal project continued until the spring of 1943.
The conquest of the Low Countries and France, soon after that of Norway, appeared to open further prospects. In the eyes of Hitler and his associates, the war in the West was over; they could turn to their next objectives. On land that meant an invasion of the Soviet Union, a simple task that Hitler originally hoped to complete in the fall of 1940. At sea, it meant that the problem of making war on the United States could be tackled.
On July 11, 1940, Hitler ordered the resumption of the naval construction program. The super-battleships, together with hundreds of other warships, could now be built. While that program went forward, the Germans not only would construct the naval base at Trondheim and take over the French naval bases on the Atlantic coast, but would push a land connection to the Strait of Gibraltar—if Germany could control Spain as it did France. It would then be easy to acquire and develop air and sea bases in French and Spanish northwest Africa, as well as on the Spanish and Portuguese islands in the Atlantic. In a war with the United States, they would be the perfect advance bases for the new fleet and for airplanes that did not yet meet the earlier extravagant specifications for long-range flight.
These rosy prospects did not work out. Whatever Francisco Franco’s enthusiasm for joining the war on the side of Germany, and whatever his willingness to assist his friend in Berlin, the Spanish dictator was a nationalist who was not about to yield Spanish sovereignty to anyone else—neither in territory now held by Spain nor in French and British holdings that he expected to pick up as a reward for joining the Axis. The fact that the German leadership in 1940 was willing to sacrifice the participation of Spain as an equal fighting partner rather than give up on their hopes for German-controlled bases on and off the coast of northwest Africa is an excellent indication of the priority that they assigned to their concept of war with the United States. Franco’s offer of the use of Spanish bases was not enough for them: German sovereignty was what they believed their schemes required. When the Spanish foreign minister went to Berlin in September 1940, and when Hitler and Franco met on the French-Spanish border in October, it was the sovereignty issue that caused a fundamental rift between the prospective partners in war.
But it was not only the bases that proved elusive. As the preparations for war with the Soviet Union made another reallocation of armament resources necessary in the late fall of 1940, the construction of the blue water navy was again halted. Once more Hitler had to restrain the enthusiasm of the German navy for war with the United States. The navy believed that in World War II, as in World War I, the way to defeat Great Britain lay in unrestricted submarine warfare, even if that meant bringing the United States into the conflict. But Hitler was doubtful whether what had failed the last time would work now; he had other ideas for coping with Britain, such as bombing and possibly invading it. When it came to taking on the United States, he recognized that he could not do so without a large surface navy. It was at this point that Japan came into the picture.
Since the Germans had long regarded a war with the Western powers as the major and most difficult prerequisite for an easy conquest of the Soviet Union, and since it appeared to them that Japan’s ambitions in East Asia clashed with British, French, and American interests, Berlin had tried for years to achieve Japanese participation in an alliance directed against the West. The authorities in Tokyo had been happy to work with Germany in general, but major elements in the Japanese government had been reluctant to fight Britain and France. Some preferred a war with the Soviet Union; others were worried about a war with the United States, which they saw as a likely result of war with Britain and France; still others thought that it would be best to settle the war with China first; and some held a combination of these views.
In any case, all German efforts to rope Japan into an alliance actively opposing the West had failed. The German reaction to this failure—their signing of a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in 1939—had only served to alienate some of their best friends in a Japan that was then engaged in open hostilities with the Soviet Union on the border between their respective East Asian puppet states of Manchukuo and Mongolia.
In Tokyo’s view, the defeat of the Netherlands and France the following year, and the need of the British to concentrate on defense of the home islands, appeared to open the colonial empires of Southeast Asia to easy conquest. From the perspective of Berlin, the same lovely prospects lay in front of the Japanese—but there was no reason to let them have all this without some military contribution to the common cause of maximum looting. That contribution would lie in pouncing on the British Empire in Southeast Asia, especially Singapore, before Britain had followed France and Holland into defeat, not after. It would, moreover, at one stroke solve the problem of how to deal with the United States.
In the short run, Japanese participation in the war would divert American attention and resources from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In the long run, and of even greater importance, the Axis would acquire a huge and effective navy. At a time when the United States had a navy barely adequate for one ocean, the Panama Canal made it possible to move that navy from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and back. This was the basic concern behind the American desire for a two-ocean navy, authorized by Congress in July 1940. Since it would be years before that two-ocean navy was completed, there would be a lengthy interval when any major American involvement in a Pacific conflict would make substantial support of Britain in the Atlantic impossible. Furthermore, it obviously made no difference in which ocean American warships were sunk.
For Germany in the meantime, the obvious alternative to building its own navy was to find an ally who already had one. The Germans believed that Japan’s navy in 1940—41 was the strongest and best in the world (and it is quite possible that this assessment was correct). It is in this framework of expectations that one can perhaps more easily understand the curious, apparently self-contradictory policy toward the United States that the Germans followed in 1941.
On the one hand, Hitler repeatedly ordered restraint on the German navy to avoid incidents in the Atlantic that might prematurely bring the United States into the war against Germany. Whatever steps the Americans might take in their policy of aiding Great Britain, Hitler would not take these as a pretext to go to war with the United States until he thought the time proper: American lend-lease legislation no more affected his policy toward the United States than the simultaneous vast increase in Soviet assistance to Germany influenced his decision to go to war with that country.
On the other hand, he repeatedly promised the Japanese that if they believed war with the United States was an essential part of a war against Britain, Germany would join them in such a conflict. Hitler personally made this pledge to Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke when the latter visited Germany early in April 1941; it was repeated on various occasions thereafter. The apparent contradiction is easily resolved if one keeps in mind what was central in the thinking of the German leader and soon became generally understood in the German government: As long as Germany had to face the United States by itself, it needed time to build its own blue-water navy; it therefore made sense to postpone hostilities with the Americans. If, however, Japan came into the war on Germany’s side, that problem would be automatically solved.
This approach also makes it easier to understand why the Germans were not particular about the sequence: If Japan decided to go to war in the spring or summer of 1941, even before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, that would be fine, and Germany would immediately join in. When it appeared, however, that Japanese-American negotiations in the spring and summer might lead to some agreement, the Germans tried hard to torpedo those talks. One way was by drawing Japan into the war through the back door, as it were. At a time when the Germans were still certain that the eastern campaign was headed for a quick and victorious resolution, they attempted—unsuccessfully—to persuade the Japanese to attack the Soviet Union.
During the summer of 1941, while the Japanese seemed to the Germans to be hesitating, the German campaign in the Soviet Union appeared to be going perfectly. The first and most immediate German reaction was a return to its program of naval construction. In the weapons technology of the 1930s and 1940s, big warships were the system with the longest lead time from orders to completion. The German leaders were entirely aware of this and highly sensitive to its implications. Whenever the opportunity appeared to be there, they turned first to the naval construction program. Once again, however, in 1941 as in 1940, the prospect of prompt victory over the immediate foe faded from view, and once again work on the big warships had to be halted. (But the Germans, despite their much-vaunted organization, failed to cancel an engine contract; in June 1944 they were offered four useless battleship engines.) Stopping the battleship construction only accented the hope that Japan would move, as well as the enthusiasm with which such an action would be greeted.
Just as the Germans had not kept the Japanese informed of their plans to attack other countries, so the Japanese kept the Germans in the dark. When Tokyo was ready to move, it had only to check with the Germans (and Italians) to make sure that they remained as willing to go to war against the United States as they had repeatedly asserted they were. In late November and again at the beginning of December, the Germans reassured the Japanese that they had nothing to worry about. Germany, like Italy, was eager to go to war with the United States—provided Japan took the plunge.
There were two ways in which the German declaration of war on the United States would differ from her procedure in going to war with other countries: the timing and the absence of internal opposition. In all other cases, the timing of war had been essentially in Germany’s own hands. Now the date would be selected by an ally that moved when it was ready and without previously notifying the Germans. When Hitler met with the Japanese foreign minister back in April, he had not known that Japan would dither for months; he also did not know, the last time Tokyo checked with him, that on this occasion the Japanese intended to move immediately.
As a result, Hitler was caught out of town at the time of Pearl Harbor and had to get back to Berlin and summon the Reichstag to declare war. His great worry, and that of his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was that the Americans might get their declaration of war in ahead of his own. As Ribbentrop explained it, “A great power does not allow itself to be declared war upon; it declares war on others.”
Just to make sure that hostilities started immediately, however, Hitler had already issued orders to his navy, straining at the leash since October 1939, to begin sinking American ships forthwith, even before the formalities of a declaration. Now that Germany had a big navy on its side, there was no need to wait even an hour. The very fact that the Japanese had started hostilities the way Germany had begun its attack on Yugoslavia earlier that year, with a Sunday morning attack in peacetime, showed what a delightfully appropriate ally Japan would be. The American navy would now be smashed in the Pacific and thus incapable of aiding Britain, while American troops and supplies would be diverted to that theater as well.
The second way in which this German declaration of war differed from most that had preceded it was in the absence of opposition at home. For once the frenetic applause of the unanimous Reichstag, the German parliament last elected in 1938, reflected a unanimous government and military leadership. In World War I, it was agreed, Germany had not been defeated at the front but had succumbed to the collapse of a home front deluded by Woodrow Wilson’s siren songs from across the Atlantic; now there was to be no danger of a new stab in the back. The opponents of the regime at home had been silenced. Its imagined Jewish enemies were already being slaughtered, with hundreds of thousands killed by the time of Hitler’s speech of December 11, 1941. Now that Germany had a strong Japanese navy at its side, victory was considered certain.
From the perspective of half a century, one can see an additional unintended consequence of Pearl Harbor for the Germans. It not only meant that they would most certainly be defeated. It also meant that the active coalition against them would include the United States as well as Great Britain, its dominions, the Free French, various governments-in-exile, and the Soviet Union. Aid without U.S. participation, there could have been no massive invasion of northwest Europe; the Red Army eventually might have reached the English Channel and the Atlantic, overrunning all Germany in the process. If the Germans today enjoy both their freedom and their unity in a country aligned and allied with what their leaders of 1941 considered the degenerate Western democracies, they owe it in part to the disastrous cupidity and stupidity of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. MHQ
GERHARD L. WEINBERG is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His next book is a general history of World War II, to be published by Princeton University Press.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 1992 issue (Vol. 4, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Why Hitler Declared War on the United States.
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