Exactly 70 years ago Japan hit Pearl Harbor with one of the most stunning surprise attacks in history. At the time Japan was already one of the Axis powers, linked with Italy and Germany. Given that, how did the Führer, Adolf Hitler, react?
Hitler did not know of the Pearl Harbor plan beforehand. When informed in his headquarters on the evening of Dec. 7 of the strike and the damage suffered by US forces, he was “delighted,” according to British historian Ian Kershaw.
“We can’t lose the war at all. We now have an ally which has never been conquered in 3,000 years,” a jubilant Hitler said, as recounted in Mr. Kershaw’s authoritative biography of the German leader.
This comment was typical of Hitler in that it was both grandiose and a touch self-delusional. In fact, Hitler viewed the Japanese through the lens of his own racial prejudice. In “Mein Kampf” he patronizingly wrote that Japanese scientific and technical progress would cease without “Aryan” influence. His top lieutenants recalled that he accepted Japanese gains in the Far East with some resignation, and occasionally warned that eventually Germany would find itself in a showdown with what he called the “yellow race.”
But for Hitler, the Japanese triumph at Pearl Harbor came at an opportune time. Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, had stalled. On Dec. 6, the Soviets had launched a counterattack that would eventually save Moscow and doom Hitler’s dream of an empire in the East.
Thus Hitler seized on Pearl Harbor as a light in the general gloom. His assumption was that the Japanese would now tie down the United States in the Pacific and weaken Britain by threatening its Asian possessions, according to Kershaw.
Germany and Japan had already agreed on a strengthening of their existing Tripartite Pact, which would bind each to declare war on a power attacking the other. This provision had not been formally signed, however, meaning that Hitler by treaty was required only to aid Japan, not enter the war against the United States.
But for Hitler this was a foregone conclusion – he wanted to ensure that Japan would stay in the war, and perhaps invade Russia from the east. He also felt that war with the US was inevitable, and he wanted to take the initiative. On Dec. 8, he ordered German U-boats to sink US ships on sight.
In a lengthy speech to the Reichstag on Dec. 11, Hitler recounted recent military events, excoriated President Roosevelt, and declared war on the United States. Given that US public opinion was far harsher about Japan than Germany, this was a mistake, writes British journalist and historian Max Hastings in his history of World War II, “Inferno.”
“Four days after Pearl Harbor, [Hitler] made the folly of the strike comprehensive by declaring war on the United States, relieving Roosevelt from a serious uncertainty about whether Congress would agree to fight Germany,” writes Mr. Hastings.
The Japanese, for their part, had begun the war with the US in the belief that Nazi Germany was an unstoppable force that would soon conquer the Soviet Union and end the war in Europe. So the Axis powers lurched forward, each blind to the particular strategic situation they now faced.