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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