Why did Hitler declare war on the US?

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).
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7 Responses to Why did Hitler declare war on the US?

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    “In addition, there was a simple matter of prestige.”

    Yes. Reading James Bowman’s “Honor: A History,” I am inclined to label what you call prestige as honor. Given the hard times on which honor had fallen in the English speaking world, this category is usually either ignored or ridiculed. But I think even if we find it morally reprehensible in its consequences, we would do better to understand it than not understand it. As a category it explains many things. Kershaw’s point about Germany’s decisions not really being “inexplicable or baffling” reminds me of James Bowman talking about how honor killings are not “bizarre,” even if we rightly find them to be evil. Given the mindset they are predictable. In fact, this almost seems to be the inevitable mindset unless somehow there has been a culture war against the honor mindset.

  2. John H says:

    Rick: indeed. Of course, the first shots in that “culture war” were fired in the sermon on the mount…

  3. steve martin says:

    What a terrible shame that reasonable men could not find it within themselves to act sooner.

    This despicable little tyrant and murderer could have been put down early in the game if it were not for blind and gutless men.

    We still have men like this with us today. Many of whom are vying to lead great nations.

  4. Rick Ritchie says:

    John, I agree with you on the Sermon on the Mount, though we could find precursors even in the Old Testament. (Hosea comes to mind.) Bowman notes the same, though he says at various points the West was able to forge a synthesis between its Christian vision and the portions of honor that were compatible with Christianity. His discussion of honor in Mallory is really intriguing, as Mallory wrote at a time when people could easily see matters both ways.

  5. pepe villaran says:

    Believe it or not, I find crystal clear that Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United States in December 1941, as many others, was pushed -precipitated by the strong need to cover-up the defeat at the gates of Moscow, defeat he knew or sensed was the start of the end.

    pepe villaran

  6. wayne says:

    This is interesting but I believe leaves out the 3 top reasons for the decision. 1) he wanted and believed japan would attack russia and create a two front war for russia..this was more important to him than the US having a two front war. 2) he UNDERESTIMATED the US military capability. The US had the 16th largest army just behind Belgium. He couldn’t see them doing exactly what he did…convert industrial might into military might quickly. 3) he didnt consult his experts. the people who may have convinced him there were other ways to get Japan’s help against Russia. ( I have read he told NO ONE before he announced it).

  7. Bill says:

    Nothing is ever as black and white as the experts want you to think. I have studied this my whole life. The culpability of major western corporations and bankers blows my mind. There are three names that just chaps my hide. Though Bayer is not a US company they have become such a trusted name in the US and they made the gas the camps used to kill the jews. Two us campanies that make me mad is Ford and IBM. The JU52 was a Ford tri motor, the Ford also built trucks for the German army. They had a plant in Germany. Then there is stinking IBM they kept all the counts in the death camps using US personal and IBM machines to keep the counts. There are so many big names that are still around today.

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