Berlin, Germany December 11, 1941

On this date in 1941 in Berlin, Adolf Hitler, Chancellor and Fuehrer of Nazi Germany, addressed a tooth­less Reichs­tag (German parlia­ment), its members eager to hear him declare war on America. Hitler did this four days after air and naval units of the Imperial Japa­nese Navy had ambushed the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Techni­cally speaking, Germany was not forced or even obli­gated by its Septem­ber 27, 1940, treaty with Japan to do so. (A hurriedly amended treaty with Japan con­taining the key clause ruling out an armis­tice with the U.S. or Britain with­out mutual con­sent, even if Japan was the aggre­ssor nation, was signed minutes before Hitler’s speech to the Reichstag.)

Hitler expressed surprise and initial incre­dulity when he learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor, though he long expected that Japan would be forced to act against the United States if it was serious about claiming world-power status. Pres­sured by the Japa­nese milit­ary attaché and ambas­sador in Berlin, Baron Hiroshi Ōshima, to declare war on the U.S. sooner than later, Hitler’s ges­ture of soli­dar­ity with a coun­try half­way around the world seemed absurd, risky, and unneces­sary on the sur­face—this at a time when the Weh­rmacht (German armed forces) was on the verge of needing even more martial resources to fend off a dan­gerous counter­offen­sive by the Soviet Army in what pro­mised to become a pro­tracted war in the East. But the decla­ra­tion of war, Hitler told his foreign minis­ter, Joachim von Rib­ben­trop, the “poli­tically correct” thing to do. (Hitler’s state­ment to Ribben­trop may have been a refer­ence to his foreign minis­ter having given oral assur­ances to his per­sonal friend Ōshima some two weeks earlier that the Third Reich would join the Japa­nese govern­ment in case of war against the United States.)

An added bene­fit to the U.S.-Japa­nese war, Hitler told his pro­pa­ganda minis­ter, Joseph Goebbels, was that the U.S. would be less likely to pro­vide air­craft and wea­pons and con­voy support and ships to the British, with whom Germany had been at war since Septem­ber 1939, because “it can be pre­sumed that they will need all that for their own war with Japan.” U.S. Navy ships that had been shooting at German sur­face ships and sub­marines during the Battle of the Atlantic for months now might find choicer targets in the Pacific Ocean in the post-Pearl Harbor context. Goebbels couldn’t be happier: “The Asian conflict drops like a present into our lap.”

At this point in time, though, the Luft­waffe’s air battle against Great Britain was lost, the blitz­krieg on Germany’s Eastern Front (Opera­tion Barba­rossa) had failed with a loss of over 750,000 men to the parti­ci­pating Axis powers, and the Ital­ian ven­ture in North Africa by Hitler’s Axis partner Benito Mus­so­lini needed all the support Gen. Erwin Rommel’s German Afrika Korps could pro­vide. (A sur­prisingly rosy war prog­no­sis from the Ober­kom­mando der Wehr­macht on Decem­ber 14, 1941, fore­cast a Germany victory on the Eastern Front, that neutral nations like Sweden, Spain, Portugal, and Turkey would join the Axis alli­ance, and that Japan’s war against the West in the Pacific would mili­tate against the United States suc­cess­fully waging two sep­a­rate wars.) Now, on Decem­ber 11, 1941, before insanely cheering depu­ties of the sham Reichs­tag Hitler screamed insults, often bizarre ones, at his new enemy, Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt, “that man who, while our sol­diers are fighting in snow and ice . . . likes to make his chats from the fire­side, the man who is the main cul­prit in this war.” No doubt British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill was as sur­prised as Roose­velt was that the Fuehrer’s favorite bête noire had shifted from the stubborn British bulldog to the determined American eagle.

Germany and the U.S. Declare War on Each Other, December 11, 1941

New York Times headlines, December 11, 1941

Above: Headlines in the late edition of The New York Times, Decem­ber 11, 1941. Earlier in the day the U.S. Senate and House of Repre­senta­tives passed a unan­i­mous declara­tion of war on Germany and Italy, only hours after Hitler had declared war on the U.S and three days after Congress had declared war on Japan.

Germany declares war on U.S.: Hitler explains rationale to Reichstag, December 11, 1941Roosevelt signing declaration of war on Germany

Left: Hitler receiving the endorsement of the Reichs­tag on Decem­ber 11, 1941, after declaring war on the United States. Full of opti­mism and confi­dent of vic­tory, Hitler told his Reichs­tag audi­ence, which included Japa­nese ambas­sador Hiroshi Ōshima, that Germany, Italy, and Japan had con­cluded an agree­ment to “wage the com­mon war forced upon them by the U.S.A. and Eng­land with all the means of power at their dis­posal, to a vic­torious con­clu­sion [and pledged] . . . not to con­clude an armis­tice or peace with the U.S.A. or with England without com­plete mutual unders­tanding.” Less than four years later both Germany and Japan were com­pelled by their enemies to sign sepa­rate uncon­di­tional sur­renders on May 7–8 (Germany) and September 2 (Japan), 1945.

Right: President Roosevelt signing the declara­tion of war against Germany, Decem­ber 11, 1941. Texas Senator Tom Con­nally stands to the left of the presi­dent, holding a pocket watch to fix the exact time of the signing—3:05 p.m. EST. One minute later Roose­velt signed the declara­tion of war against Italy. In so doing the U.S. joined a global war that threat­ened the sur­vi­val of peoples and nations in Europe, North Africa, and the Far East. Six months later, on June 5, 1942, Con­gress declared war on Germany’s and Italy’s Axis partners, Roma­nia, Hun­gary, and Bul­garia. Not until Febru­ary 10, 1947, were peace treaties con­cluded between the vic­torious Allies and Italy, Fin­land, and the Soviet Union’s East Euro­pean satellite countries of Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

Adolf Hitler Declares War on the United States and the Lead-Up to World War II