My holiday reading included Ian Kershaw’s book Fateful Choices, a fascinating and persuasive account of ten decisions made during 1940 and 1941 which transformed wars in Europe and the Far East into a global, genocidal conflict (full list after the fold). If you find this period interesting, or have an interest in how different types of regime – democratic, fascist, communist and “bureaucratic authoritarian” – made critical decisions, then you will want to read Kershaw’s book.
One chapter I found particularly interesting was on Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United States in December 1941. This has often been regarded as not only a disastrous decision, but a puzzling one: the ultimate “unforced error”, one which guaranteed Germany’s eventual defeat. However, Kershaw identifies a number of factors which made this a more rational decision (given the starting premisses) than it might appear at first glance.
From Hitler’s point of view, the declaration of war had three main strategic benefits:
- It allowed for unrestrained prosecution of the U-boat campaign in the north Atlantic. The US under Roosevelt had been waging “undeclared war” in the Atlantic for some months – escorting convoys, occupying Iceland, etc. – but German U-boat commanders were under orders not to retaliate by attacking American shipping. War with the US meant that Hitler was able to “remove the shackles” and give his submarines a free hand.
- It enabled Germany to ensure that Japan could not make a separate peace with the US. Germany’s existing treaty commitments with Japan did not oblige it to declare war on the US where war broke out at Japan’s initiative. However, in the days prior to Pearl Harbor, Japan had been seeking a new treaty under which Germany would declare war on the US even if the war had been started by Japanese aggression and – crucially – each party would agree not to conclude a separate peace with the US. This enabled Germany to have confidence that Japan would not cut and run, as could have happened had Germany sat back until the US declared war on it. The treaty was signed hours before Germany’s declaration of war.
- It would force the US to fight a two-front war. Germany knew from bitter experience, of course, how problematic a two-front war could be. In Hitler’s eyes, it was better to force the US to split its attention and resources between the Pacific and the Atlantic than to allow it to tackle Japan and Germany in succession.
In addition, there was a simple matter of prestige. As Ribbentrop put it, “A great power doesn’t let itself have war declared on it, it declares it itself”. War with the US was almost inevitable, but it would be politically more palatable within Germany if presented as a response to US aggression and provocation.
Against that, Hitler made two key strategic miscalculations:
- Overestimating the Japanese. Hitler was ecstatic when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor, as it meant Germany had acquired an ally “which has never been conquered in 3,000 years”. But – quite apart from there being a first time for everything – the Japanese attack fell far short of the knockout blow needed for Japan to have any prospect of defeating the US, and indeed the Japanese leadership believed they would probably lose the war even before they started it, as Kershaw shows in an earlier chapter.
- Assuming the US would concentrate on the Pacific war. Hitler assumed that the US would now be tied down in the Pacific, reducing the level of involvement in the Atlantic. In fact, Roosevelt’s administration had decided in 1940 that Germany represented a greater strategic threat than Japan to the US, and had determined that any war would be fought on a “Germany first” basis.
Of course, as Ian Kershaw points out, while Hitler’s decision may not be as “inexplicable or baffling” as is often assumed:
That does not mean it was sensible. But the lunacy of Hitler’s project was the gigantic gamble of the bid for world power, not just this precise part of it.
Those “Fateful Choices” in full
Here are the ten decisions covered in Kershaw’s book:
- Great Britain decides to fight on (May 1940).
- Hitler decides to attack the Soviet Union (summer and autumn 1940).
- Japan decides to seize the “Golden Opportunity” by expanding its empire to the south (summer and autumn 1940).
- Mussolini decides to grab his share (in France and Greece) (summer and autumn 1940).
- Roosevelt decides to lend a hand (summer 1940 to spring 1941).
- Stalin decides he knows best, and ignores warnings of an impending invasion by Germany (spring and summer 1941).
- Roosevelt decides to wage undeclared war on Germany in the north Atlantic (summer and autumn 1941).
- Japan decides to go to war (autumn 1941).
- Hitler decides to declare war on the United States (autumn 1941).
- Hitler decides to kill the Jews (summer and autumn 1941).