Tuesday, December 11, 2012

December 11, 1941: The Hinge of Fate

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 day before Pearl Harbor), the Russians – who seemed to the German soldiers opposite them 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, but on life-support, 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.”

The distinguished historian Gerhard L. Weinberg, and others, believe that Hitler had long forseen actual, open war with the United States, but in the longer term, only after the defeat of Britain and Russia. However, Pearl Harbor, according to Weinberg, made Hitler believe he needed to wait no longer – that with Japan, an apparent first class naval power, on his side, there was no further need to prevaricate. Hitler possibly reasoned that Japan would keep the Americans busy enough for him to win his war in Europe without much American interference.

If this was indeed Hitler’s reasoning – and little else makes sense -- the Führer seriously miscalculated. It seems that Hitler, just as he had underestimated the Soviet Union, underestimated the industrial and military power of America. As matters turned out, American resources were quite 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 geopolitical struggle for world power personally. He wanted a confrontation with the rich plutocratic Americans -- in any way that he could get one. The Führer 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.

But suppose Hitler had done his homework? The German naval staff was certainly aware of the gigantic US military and commercial shipbuilding programs; and both German industrialists connected with the war effort and the intelligence departments of the German General Staff were fully in the picture about the ongoing American industrial and rearmaments programs – which dwarfed the capabilities of all the other belligerents combined. Some industrialists and generals were in fact convinced that Germany had already lost the war prior to American entry.

All of this information was available to Hitler, had he been inclined to hear it. But the Führer (despite months of hints, surprised as much as anyone else by the attack on Pearl Harbor) failed to understand the depths of his strategic predicament, and the possibilities presented by the new situation. For the last time in Adolf Hitler’s strange and bloody political odyssey, opportunity knocked.

What if Hitler had declared German 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, simply declaring 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 unity of purpose, and the national resolve that allowed it fight the war to the finish had Hitler not moved first. The Führer, 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 “non-aggression” pact 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. If Germany was stretched to its limits in December 1941 – so were the British. The Japanese rolled up their position in the Far East in early 1942 without serious difficulty. 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. However, matters would end quite differently than the architect and maker of all this misery supposed. Hitler’s decision on 11 December 1941 led not, as it easily could have, 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.


hank_F_M said...

El jefe

Great Post

As sonme one once commented, if Hitler had any strategic sense Germany would have done much better in the war, but if he had that much strategic sense he would have started it in the first place.

Merry XMass

Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

Reading this post I have a sense of deja vu: have you posted it before, say the previous December? If so, then I have probably made this comment before: aren't you underestimating the contribution of the Soviets/Russians to Hitler's defeat? Even if Hitler hadn't declared war on the U.S., presumably the Germans would still have lost the battle of Stalingrad, which of course is viewed as a major turning point. Hitler made some bad strategic decisions during Op. Barbarossa, did he not?; his declaration of war vs the US was not the only strategic mistake (though admittedly a big one).

I certainly won't claim to know as much as you do about WW2, but I think this post gives insufficient credit to the Russians, who after all sustained enormous casualties, far greater in absolute and relative terms than any of the other Allies, in the course of fighting one of the bloodiest campaigns (taking the Eastern Front as a whole) in the history of war.

LFC said...

P.s. Actually I don't know about the "relative" claim -- maybe some other nationality took more casualties as a proportion of population. But in absolute terms the Soviets took far more than any other Allied belligerent.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Hey LFC,

You're correct, this is a reworked post. I'm trying to get in the mood to blog again.

The thing about the Russians in the Second World War is that they needed a little bit of help, despite their great human and material efforts, I don't think they could have prevailed without aid from the west, in the form of machine tools, locomotives, trucks and other mechanized vehicles.

Additionally, they had "negative aid," so to speak, in the form of forces tying down German reserves on other fronts. I'd have no hesitation in predicting a German victory had they possessed free use of forces tied down in North Africa/Italy, the Balkans, and even half the units tied down in France in 1942-43.

The Russians had far greater human and material resources. But they needed 1942-43 to fully deploy them, and they needed allies. Fortunately, these conditions obtained.

Hope you're well. Hope I feel like blogging more, soon.

LFC said...

I take your points on the Soviets in WW2.

Hope you're well. Hope I feel like blogging more, soon.

I'm ok, thanks, and I also hope you blog more. Though of course we have long since agreed to disagree about... well, a variety of things. ;)

By the way, I think the only post I wrote in 2012 you might have some interest in is a WW2-related post called "Brutal Realpolitik and the Katyn Massacre." I'm too lazy to link it but shdn't have much trouble finding it at my blog if interested.