In one of the last classes before COVID-19 scuppered the academic year, the second year A-level class studied the impact of Albert Speer and the so-called “economic miracle”. The debates surrounding Speer – whether he did achieve an “economic miracle” and whether he was a “good Nazi” as he claimed –  have been outlined in a previous post. This post focuses on a deduction from the class whilst assessing the production figures of the main countries of the Second World War: “you don’t mess with the USA.”

On a couple of slides in the PowerPoint I outlined the growth of Germany, the USA, Britain, and the USSR during the 1940s. Yes, Germany expanded production of tanks from 1,600 in 1940 to 19,000 by 1944, and grew the production of planes from 10,200 to 39,600 in the same four year period, however, such efforts were massively eclipsed by the USA. American tank production went from 300 to 29,500 in 1943, and aircraft exploded from 6,100 to over 96,000 in 1944. So, yes, the class was right in many ways: “don’t mess with America.” Which begs the question: why did Hitler decide to declare war on the USA?

Hitler was a supposed student of history. In the First World War it was the late entrance of the USA that swung the balance of power and determined defeat for the Kaiser’s Germany. Therefore, Hitler must have realised that by tangling with the States he risked a complete and utter defeat. Prior to 1941 he had been careful to engage the Americans, however, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 changed this. Hitler stood by his Axis allies, and the result has been viewed by many as a decisive turning point in the Second World War.

Hitler in the Reichstag declaring war on the USA

Four days after Pearl Habour, on 11 December, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. This act was completed in the presence of the American diplomat in Germany (Leland B. Morris) and read aloud by Nazi foreign minister Ribbentrop. The declaration itself outlines key reasons for the outbreak of war:

The Government of the United States having violated in the most flagrant manner and in ever increasing measure all rules of neutrality in favour of the adversaries of Germany and having continually been guilty of the most severe provocations toward Germany ever since the outbreak of the European war, provoked by the British declaration of war against Germany on 3 September 1939, has finally resorted to open military acts of aggression.

On 11 September 1941, the President of the United States publicly declared that he had ordered the American Navy and Air Force to shoot on sight at any German war vessel. In his speech of 27 October 1941, he once more expressly affirmed that this order was in force. Acting under this order, vessels of the American Navy, since early September 1941, have systematically attacked German naval forces. Thus, American destroyers, as for instance the Greer, the Kearney, and the Reuben James, have opened fire on German submarines according to plan. The Secretary of the American Navy, Mr. Knox, himself confirmed that-American destroyers attacked German submarines

Furthermore, the naval forces of the United States, under order of their Government and contrary to international law have treated and seized German merchant vessels on the high seas as enemy ships.

The German Government therefore establishes the following facts:

Although Germany on her part has strictly adhered to the rules of international law in her relations with the United States during every period of the present war, the Government of the United States from initial violations of neutrality has finally proceeded to open acts of war against Germany. The Government of the United States has thereby virtually created a state of war.

The German Government, consequently, discontinues diplomatic relations with the United States of America and declares that under these circumstances brought about by President Roosevelt Germany too, as from today, considers herself as being in a state of war with the United States of America.

The points noted in the declaration highlight how tough the Germans had viewed growing American intervention during the war-time period. There was a clear growing friendship between Britain and the USA, as noted in the efforts of Churchill (Prime Minister from 1940) in uniting with American president Roosevelt. This can be seen in the use of Lend Lease, which was life support for the British, as well as the Atlantic Charter signed between both countries in 1941.

Perhaps Hitler, then, saw that the writing on the wall: it was only a matter of time before the Americans involved themselves in the war. By declaring war himself – and before Roosevelt could so –  it could be argued that Hitler would provide a stronger image to the world, and particularly to his Axis allies (the Japanese and the Italians). Furthermore, outright war meant that the Germans would be free to harass and attack British shipping in the Atlantic in order to attempt to collapse British resistance.

However, such thinking was clearly misguided. War with the USA meant that Germany now faced two world superpowers: the USSR could not be defeated and the Americans massively ramped up production of an arsenal to aid Britain and other allies. Hitler obviously miscalculated the strength of America, and perhaps he was blinded by his racist pseudo-science thinking on how the Americans were degenerates and therefore would not be able to combat the spread of Nazism.

Hitler would have been wiser to have followed his usual course of action: reneging on his promises. Rather than support the Japanese, he could have simply turned away and focused on the defeat of the Russians. Perhaps in this way the Americans would have waged war in a Pacific sphere primarily and would have turned to Europe after the defeat of imperial Japan. This could have given Hitler the breathing room required to achieve dominance in Europe.

The declaration of war in 1941 sealed Hitler’s fate. Come 1942, he was now committed to a world war and the overstretched German troops faced an impossible task of fulfilling his demands. In many ways, the declaration is a classic Hitler event: he underestimated his opponents and overestimated his own power. The result was to be his ruin.