In 1941, Adolf Hitler carried out two decisions that not only guaranteed Nazi Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, but completely changed the course of human history.
The first, which was actually decided the previous year but put into action in June 1941, is well-known.
On Sunday, 22 June 1941, German forces advanced into Soviet territory in defiance of the treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Operation Barbarossa, as it was called, was essential to Hitler’s dream of subjugating Russia and creating a new homeland for Germans in the east.
Hitler ordered that Soviet troops were to be “annihilated,” an order that led to some of the most shocking atrocities of that bloody conflict.
On the Soviet side, at least 26 million people were killed, including up to nine million Red Army soldiers.
The conflict on the Eastern Front led to the Cold War, and still has its echoes in President Putin’s dreams of a greater Russia today.
But while German troops were becoming increasingly bogged down in the disastrous Russian campaign, moves were afoot on the other side of the world to turn World War Two into a truly global conflict.
On December 7, Over 350 Japanese aircraft launched a surprise attack on the US Navy’s base at Pearl Harbour, killing 2,403 Americans and injuring 1,178 others.
From the moment the first bomb dropped, America and Japan were effectively at war.
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But while the ties between the Allied powers were close – with convoys bringing American hardware across the Atlantic almost from the outset of the war – the treaties binding the Axis powers together were a good deal more relaxed.
The treaty between Germany and Japan only obliged Hitler to come to Japan’s aid in the event of an American attack.
But after the attack on Pearl Harbour, Hitler declared war almost straight away in what historian Ian Kershaw described as “One of the most puzzling decisions of WW2”.
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On December 11, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Minister of Foreign Affairs, went to the US embassy in Berlin, where he reportedly screamed at Leland B. Morris, America’s top diplomat in Nazi Germany: “Your President has wanted this war, now he has it”.
The Second World War was an industrial war, with economic power being the deciding factor. Taking on the industrial might of the Americans spelled doom for Germany.
Hitler knew he might have to take the US on sooner or later, but he expected to have conquered Britain and France before President Roosevelt could persuade Americans to get involved.
But, Hitler confided to his inner circle, “woe betide us if we’re not finished by then”.
He told one of his top generals in December 1940, “We must solve all continental European problems in 1941, since from 1942 onwards the United States will be in a position to intervene”.
After Barbarossa ground to a halt, ruling out a swift victory over the Soviets, Hitler began to pin his hopes on Japan coming into the war and keeping America occupied until the Wehrmacht could “solve all problems in Europe”.
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Hitler was so optimistic about Japan’s ability to keep America distracted that he proposed an extension to the Tripartite Pact signed by the original Axis powers – Germany Italy and Japan – to guarantee that Germany would offer military support to Japan in a war against the USA, no matter which side started it.
But even though von Ribbentrop promised that The Führer was “determined” to ally with Japan against America, the treaty was never actually signed.
Nevertheless, Hitler was delighted when the news broke of the Japanese surprise attack.
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He described Pearl Harbour as “a deliverance” for Germany, telling his generals: “We can’t lose the war at all! We now have an ally which has never been conquered in 3,000 years”.
On December 11, Germany pledged never to surrender to the US without Japan’s agreement. It set the scene for to the first truly global conflict, one that Germany was doomed to lose.
With Roosevelt’s increasing support of Britain Hitler’s decision to take on the US wasn’t hard to explain, wrote Sir Ian Kershaw in BBC History magazine,. “But it was madness all the same,” he added, “part of the madness behind the entire German gamble for world power”.
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