Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Shortly before 3pm Thursday, 11th December 1941, four days after the Pearl Harbour attack, Adolf Hitler entered the Kroll Opera House in Berlin and, to a hysterical ovation, strode towards the stage. The Kroll had originally been home to the State Opera Company, but since the Reichstag fire in 1933 it had paid host to Germany’s 855 Deputies and was the seat of a powerless mock parliament that met infrequently and was populated by sycophantic Nazi Nabobs. They attended that day because their Leader had summonsed them to make an announcement. His speech lasted 88 minutes and culminated in a declaration that changed the course of history.

Hitler began by looking back at the course of the war in both Russia and North Africa and portrayed Germany’s fight as one for the whole of European civilisation. He then shifted gear:

“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 the snow and ice, very tactfully likes to make his chats from the fireside…”.

He was referring to the American President and proceeded to lay out the differences between himself and his opponent:

“When Roosevelt finally stepped on the political stage with all the advantages of his class, I was unknown and fought for the resurrection of my people. When Roosevelt took his place as the head of the USA, he was the candidate of a capitalist Party which made use of him: when I became Chancellor of the German Reich, I was Fuhrer of the popular movement that I had created.”

The speech reached its crescendo with Hitler accusing Roosevelt of being “guilty of a series of the worst crimes against international law”, which amounted to little more than seizing German ships in the American Atlantic exclusion zone.

Finally, the dictator got to the point:

“Germany and Italy have been finally compelled, in view of this, and in loyalty to the Tri-Partite Pact, to carry on the struggle against the U.S.A. and England jointly and side by side with Japan…”.

To joyful cheers, Hitler concluded by announcing the newly signed Three Power Agreement, which undertook that neither partner would make a separate peace with the USA. or Britain.

Hitler could not have picked a more inopportune moment to drag America into the European war, with Auchinleck putting Rommel’s forces under intense pressure in North Africa and the Soviet counter-offensive throwing the Wehrmacht into chaotic retreat. Today, the decision appears illogical, inexplicable, and possible proof of Hitler’s subliminal wish to martyr himself.

Contrary to received wisdom, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour did not guarantee American entry into the European war. Indeed, Roosevelt’s speech to Congress on 8th, December was conspicuously silent on the matter of Germany. The President knew that many of the politicians in his audience wanted to focus exclusively on the Pacific conflict.

The America First Committee, committed to keeping the USA neutral in Europe, was formed on 4th September 1940 at Yale University and grew to 800,000 members and 450 separate chapters. It enjoyed cross-party support and had the active participation of two future Presidents: Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy.

The day after the Japanese attack, America First’s Chairman, Robert E. Wood sent a circular to all chapter chairmen stating:

“The facts and arguments against intervention in Europe remain the same as they were before the Japanese issue arose.”

Germany unilaterally started a war against an enemy that they physically could not reach, but whose forces could strike Germany from Great Britain. The declaration of war also succeeded in making invasion of Britain (soon to be garrisoned by 1.5 million Americans) go from virtually impossible to literally impossible. In addition, Hitler had joined Japan’s war against America with no Japanese guarantee that they would join his war against the USSR. Stalin later remarked that Hitler, by his own deeds, had found himself fighting the greatest land power (Russia), the greatest sea power (Britain) and the greatest industrial power (America).

Even within Nazi Party ranks, there were those who thought that the declaration was suicidal. Fritz Todt, Armaments Minister, bluntly told Hitler in February 1942 that it would not be possible for the German economy to match American production and advised suing for peace. Todt died the following day in a mysterious plane crash.

The Fuhrer, who prided himself on his tactical genius, had no plan to defeat America. In his papers, the Japanese Ambassador to Berlin, Hiroshi Oshima, recorded a conversation that he had with Hitler on 3rd January 1942. Oshima noted: “He professed to have no knowledge of how to defeat the US.” Similarly, on 15th January 1942, Hitler flippantly remarked to a separate delegation:

“Should this war turn out to be winnable at all, it will only be won by America.”

So, why did he do it?

Firstly, Germany, through its Tokyo Embassy and Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, had spent the past year attempting to persuade Japan to strike south and occupy the Far Eastern British and Dutch colonies. Germany hoped to gain from such a move, both in terms of access to rubber supplies and by tying down British forces in the defence of their Empire. Japan was hesitant and feared facing the might of the U.S.A. alone. Germany assured Japan that they would come to their assistance if America attacked them, but this was not good enough for Japan and she continued negotiations with the USA to resolve trade sanctions imposed over the conflict in China. However, Hitler went much further on 4th April 1941 and personally guaranteed to Yosuke Matsuoka, Japan’s Foreign Minister, that Germany would intervene immediately if any conflict developed between Japan and America.

Secondly, Hitler was convinced that he was at war with the United States in all but name already. America had moved far from their Neutrality Act position of 1939. Roosevelt had started helping the British with “Cash and Carry”, then he moved to “Lend-Lease”, signed the Atlantic Charter with Churchill, occupied Iceland and expanded the American Atlantic exclusion zone. More recently, Roosevelt had permitted the US navy to escort convoys into British ports and had extended Lend-Lease to the Soviets. Why wait until America declared war on Germany, when you could take your opponent by surprise?

Thirdly, economic reports compiled by the German Embassy in Washington showed that America would take about three years to fully mobilise. Germany believed that America would suffer from a combination of a termination of Far East rubber supplies and their lack of foresight in developing synthetic alternatives in the inter-war years. History records that this was a fatal miscalculation and America was able to catch-up in record time.

Despite these explanations, there still remain unanswered questions. On 4th September 1941, the isolationist Chicago Tribune, seeking to embarrass Roosevelt, published details of a leaked government report entitled the “Victory Program”. The US Government did not deny its authenticity. The report’s authors calculated that should America find itself at war, it could muster an expeditionary force of five million personnel by the summer of 1943. Significantly, in the case of a war on two fronts, America would pursue a “Germany first” strategy and put the bulk of its resources into the European theatre.

The Victory Program received wide coverage in the German press and even Goebbels expressed deep fears in his diary. Hitler had been forewarned, but he still decided to gamble that America would concentrate primarily on the Pacific.