Tuesday, December 11, 2007

11 December 1941

No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy . . . but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. . . So we had won after all! Yes, after Dunkirk; after the fall of France; after the horrible episode of Oran; after the threat of invasion, when, apart from the Air and the Navy, we were an almost unarmed people; after the deadly struggle of the U-boat war -- the first Battle of the Atlantic, gained by a hand's-breadth; after seventeen months of lonely fighting and nineteen months of my responsibility in dire stress, we had won the war. . . How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end, no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care. . . We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end. We might not even have to die as individuals. Hitler's fate was sealed. Mussolini's fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force.

Winston S. Churchill's reaction to the news of Pearl Harbor, in his Memoirs of the Second World War: The Grand Alliance.

Several days ago, the United States remembered the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which, among other things, brought the United States into the Second World War. With the Japanese attack on the United States, the line-up of major powers at war was almost complete – but only almost. The US declaration of war passed-out of Congress on the 8th (with but one dissenting vote) – named only Japan. The United States had not yet heard from Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy – co-signatories to the September 1940 Tripartite or “Axis” Pact. On 11 December 1941, this changed when Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. A good argument can be made that with this step, Nazi Germany committed suicide.
In the strategic sense, Hitler’s decision to make war on the United States – for it was his alone – was absolute lunacy. In December of 1941, Germany had all it could handle in Russia: Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s plan to conquer the Soviet Union in a single campaign in the summer and fall of 1941 – had already failed, and the German Army was stuck in the snow in front of Moscow: its supply lines a shambles or non-existent, casualties already numbering over a million (front line infantry regiments barely fielding the strength of companies). On the 6th, the Russians – who seemed to the Germans to have bottomless resources – launched a massive counteroffensive.
Germany’s other enemy, Great Britain, was running its own war in North Africa, and at sea, relying on massive dollops of American financial and military aid to stay in the war. But without more, and as long as Germany could keep the situation in Russia more or less under control, Britain’s efforts, strategically, were an irritant, and not a threat. But with the Russian campaign teetering in the balance, Germany verged on strategic bankruptcy.
So why then, did Hitler compound his problems? Why did Adolf Hitler, with his eyes open, enter into war with the greatest industrial power on Earth? Pre-war German military planners concluded that Germany had lost the First World War because the Kaiser’s Navy had dragged America into it. But on 11 December 1941, Hitler proved to the world he was an amateur strategist, and repeated the mistake.
An argument can be made that the US and Germany were already at war – US ships were protecting convoys of US military aid to Britain in the North Atlantic; and without Lend-Lease aid from the United States, Britain could not have carried on the struggle. But convoying and massive aid was still not full-scale war, which the Germans, up till late 1941 – seemed to understand very well: the German Navy in the Atlantic being under orders to “avoid incidents with the USA.”
It seems that Hitler, just as he had underestimated the Soviet Union, underestimated the industrial and military power of America. He possibly reasoned that Japan would keep the Americans busy enough for him to win his war in Europe without much American interference.
Time would prove what a sucker’s bet Hitler made. Fortunately, American resources were vast enough to fight a full scale land, air and sea war with Japan; raise and supply a major army to fight land campaigns against the Germans in Europe; arm and feed the British; help the Soviets; build the ships to move the army and supplies around in; build an air force from scratch to level Germany’s cities; build roads and ports on five continents; work on costly experiments like the atomic bomb – and manage to pay for all this. America could afford it. By comparison, Hitler's Germany, and every other power in the conflict -- fought a poor man's, shoestring war.
Perhaps more importantly, Hitler made the fatal error of taking the struggle personally. He wanted a confrontation with the rich plutocratic Americans -- in any way that he could get one. The F├╝hrer really, really hated America, and in particular the US President, Franklin Roosevelt – as a reading of his diatribe in the Reichstag, announcing war with the United States -- makes amply clear:
And now permit me to define my attitude to that other world, which has its representative in that man, who, while our soldiers are fighting in snow and ice, very tactfully likes to make his chats from the fireside, the man who is the main culprit of this war. . .
More even than his faulty strategic assumptions, Hitler's hatred and envy of America and its President drove him to abandon rational calculations of interest and advantage, and into the fatal misstep that would destroy him.
What if Hitler had declared neutrality in the Pacific War? Not that treaties were ever an issue for the Nazis, but technically, Article 3 of the Axis Pact did not require Germany to go to war with the United States. Probably, neutrality would not have helped Hitler much, but it would have gravely complicated the allied position politically.
President Roosevelt could no doubt have obtained a declaration of war on Germany anyway, (Congress was working on that already), but it is questionable whether the United States would have enjoyed the historic unity that allowed it fight the war to the finish had Hitler not moved first. Hitler, by stealing Roosevelt’s thunder, did the world a favor by solidifying the conviction of the American people that there could be no deals with the Nazis or the Japanese, and that the war had to be prosecuted until total victory. Isolationism was mortally wounded by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and finished-off by Hitler’s speech in the Reichstag, as the ensuing American declaration of war (after Hitler's) proved. Churchill's reaction to Pearl Harbor, recorded above, more accurately reflected the situation after 11 December 1941.
Suppose, however, that Hitler had not only declared neutrality in the Japanese war, but torn-up the Axis pact and actually declared war on Japan? Unlike democracies, dictatorships can change policies on a dime -- as Hitler had shown in 1939 with his deal with Stalin, that he tore-up in 1941. What if Hitler had gotten up in the Reichstag, denounced the Japanese sneak-attack on America, and offered the US "help" ? Not that Germany would have ever really fought such a war, but it seems improbable that the United States could have gone to war with Germany under those conditions.
With America out of the European war, and what was left of the isolationist lobby demanding full focus on the war with Japan (no aid for Britain and Russia, and no second front, ever). Hitler might well have forced the British to a separate peace and beaten the Russians. At the least, Hitler could quite possibly have achieved a stalemate with Stalin, thus managing to keep much of Germany's ill-gotten gains, and having his hands free to maintain his criminal Nazi regime indefinitely.
Fortunately, Hitler’s half-baked views of strategy -- and his paranoid fantasy that Roosevelt and the Americans were part of his mythical world-wide Jewish conspiracy – drove Hitler and Nazi Germany to suicide. On 11 December 1941 – Hitler abandoned strategy and just did what he wanted to, cast off ambiguity, and made the quasi-war with the United States real.
Now that pretense was over, the very next day, as the historian Christian Gerlach has shown, Hitler took steps to move the Holocaust (already begun in Russia) into high gear, announcing to his intimates his decision to annihilate European Jewry. But history had other plans. Matters would end quite differently than the architect and maker of all this misery supposed, because Hitler’s decision on 11 December 1941 led not to a German-dominated Europe but to his squalid suicide in his miserable little Berlin bunker, and the burning of his carcass on some rubbish-heap.


louielouie said...

LL was scratching head over no EJM I essay on 7dec41.
query answered.
well said.

hank_F_M said...

Great post.

Hitler declaring war on Japan - one of my favorite what if’s!

What would the course of the Pacific war been with the Atlantic fleet and a most of the British fleet in the Pacific.

Would Britain been given as a face saver some French colonies.

The importance of western aid to the USSR is overstated in the west and understated in Russia but it was important and critical to selected areas. Could the Russians have compensated?

How much extra strength from external trade, unbombed industries, and no need to protect the Atlantic coast would Germany have had?

In summer 1944 if the Panzer divisons in France had instead been a reserve to Army Group Central? Of course the Soviets might not have been on Byelorussia border.

With no eventual defeat to stop the murder of Jews and eastern European populations would Hitler have gotten to Stalin’s record.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Hank f m,

Your comment is almost worth a post on it’s own, but, briefly, here’s how I see a no-US in Europe scenario playing out. I’ve read most of what’s available in English on the Russian front, and I’d class myself as a very well-informed layman.

1942 proceeds more or less as it originally did. The Russians win Stalingrad – they won that campaign because they had the last reserves, and the Germans were fighting at the end of their very poorly-organized at that point supply lines. The whole Blau plan was really too ambitious for the forces the Germans had available, considering the forces they had to leave in the west, and have available or employed in Africa.

1943 starts out the same. The Germans win at Third Kharkov (Manstein’s “backhand blow”) and set up Kursk just like originally. The Soviets win Kursk, but that’s it. American aid was particularly important logistically – trucks and railroad equipment, and the Soviets have less of that since the “America First” crowd, now converted to a “Pacific First” (and only) faction – cracks down on aid to the Soviet Union.

Ditto aid to Britain. With no realistic prospect of American intervention in the European War, the part of the Conservative Party that had always supported Baldwin’s and Chamberlain’s appeasement faction is resurrected. The fall of Tobruk in spring 41 really hurt the Churchill government – it does this as historically. The Churchill “war to the knife” faction is further weakened by the fall of Singapore and the Japanese threat to India. In late 42 – the British win First Alamein and Alam Haifa – as they did historically. But what we call the Battle of El Alamein (actually second Alamein) in October doesn’t come off, or is a squib, because without US logistical support, the British have the ability to stop Rommel, but not beat him decisively. With no possibility of US intervention, the appeasement Conservatives can unseat Churchill, and make a separate peace with Germany, to focus on Japan.

Presumably, the Germans would then make some kind of separate peace with Vichy France – probably Alsace/Lorraine does its 1870 swap, along with Belfort, Luxembourg, and the greater part of Belgium, and all of Holland. The Germans leave a flank guard, but have extra forces to send east – probably with lots and lots of Vichy troops – part of peace would be declaring war on the Soviet Union, which the Petain/Laval crowd would cheerfully do. Also, Hitler can get more help out of Franco once the British are no longer sitting on his grain shipments.

The Soviets are in dire straits. Without the American trucks, railway equipment, and the potential aid of a second front to tie down a bunch of Germans – the big offensives of late 43 and 44 that broke Germany’s back are no longer possibilities. The most important factor put into play here is that the Germans will have the reserves to stymie Soviet offensives – and all things being equal, if they have the reserves, they’re better at the mobile war game than the Soviets. Moreover, they can focus their productive efforts on a land war, with a modest increase in support for the Luftwaffe, at the expense of the Kriegsmarine.

What happens then isn’t clear. We don’t know enough about the Soviet Union and the strains on its war effort. It’s clear the Soviets had a serious manpower problem in the last year or so of the war, but manpower problems and the complete end of national existence produce all kinds of relative variables. I’m not sure Hitler can actually conquer the Soviet Union – but the Soviets aren’t going to Berlin either. More probably it’s a stalemate, on some kind of more or less Brest-Litovsk lines, if Stalin can kill enough disgruntled Soviet generals to assure his own survival.

The Pacific War proceeds as it did, but much faster, and it can end in late 1944. The US offensives are bigger, and there are more casualties than historically, because the US generals and admirals are somewhat less strapped for resources (no war in Europe), so they can operate on all three axes of advance (SoPac, CentPac and Aleutians) at once. There’s going to be no post-war decolonization of the British Empire, and the US, the Germans and the Soviets, and no doubt the British, are going to be racing to develop atomic weapons. Probably there’s an end to the war[s] in late 44 and early 45, and a very tense Cold War afterwards.

As for the Holocaust, it would be incomparably worse. The European Jews would probably have been completely wiped out, along with the Poles, Gypsies and other groups persecuted by the Nazis. However, less would be known about it, even today, and because there is no fall of Germany where we capture all their records and key people, the psychological impact of the genocides would no doubt be diminished, as happened with the massacres in Stalin’s Russia.

El Jefe Maximo said...


Warming to my subject of the progress of WWII without the US in Europe. . .last night, I should have added that the Battle of the Atlantic would have gotten increasingly unsupportable for the British as 1942 rolled on. The British aren't going to have the help of the US Navy with convoys and hunting the U-Boats (all those US DE's and aircraft coming on stream in late 42-43 aren't there), and they have their own problems in the Far East.

Lend-Lease, at least that would support the European War, would have dried up pretty quickly, the now-Pacific-Firsters would have seen to that. The British are back to paying cash -- and the point of Lend Lease was that the British were out of foreign exchange and we had to give them the stuff.

I don't know if the Treasury would be pushing for a deal first, or the Admiralty. Either way, the "postwar" world is much more unpleasant for us than historical 1945.