There are many moments when Adolf Hitler “lost” World War II. When he attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, for example, or when he convinced himself the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 was just a feint, not the real attack on occupied Europe.
Another of those days is pictured above. It shows Hitler center stage before the German Reichstag (Parliament) on December 11, 1941, declaring war on the United States.
Japan had attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, four days earlier. On December 8, the United States declared war on Japan retroactive to December 7.
The U.S. was at war, but it many respects it was the “wrong” war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill always knew the U.S. would ultimately enter the war, and when that happened, Germany would be their first concern. When they had defeated Germany, they would then focus on Japan in the Pacific.
But now the U.S. was fighting Japan, while the British were fighting Germany and Japan. Congress had signed Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the United States to manufacture and “lease” arms to its allies, but the measure was still a good deal short of actual war.
Hitler, however, prepared a present for FDR and Churchill.
In 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact, officially making them allies. Under the terms of the pact, members were obliged to help each other if a third country attacked one of them.
But Japan had attacked the United States. Technically, Germany was not obliged to help Japan.
Hitler rarely took anyone’s counsel except his own, and this time was no different. When he mounted the Reichstag podium, Hitler claimed the U.S. Navy had violated neutrality by firing on German ships several times in 1941.
Of course, that was true. Roosevelt was doing anything he could to fight Germany, short of declaring war.
Now Hitler did everyone a favor and declared war on the United States. Hitler gave his advisers no warning; he consulted no one. He simply announced it.
And it could not have been a worse time. The German army was stalled in the Soviet Union from Moscow south the Black Sea. Some historians suspect Hitler was trying to use the new declaration of war to detract from Germany’s staggering Russian campaign.
The scene in the photo is one of pure hubris. One can almost sense the Reichstag is rubber-stamping Nazi Germany’s demise.
Hitler, standing in the center, leans into the microphones as he speaks. He looks thin after two years of war. His double-breasted uniform jacket is pulled tight. He is not the jubilant Hitler who had taken the surrender of France in 1940. Even from a distance, his face looks hollow.
Behind Hitler, seated in a giant chair where he can oversee everything, is Hermann Goering, the Reichstagpräsident. Goering was also head of the German Luftwaffe, but his influence was on the wane. His air force had failed to ground the British Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain the previous summer, and now it was proving unable to adequately support ground troops in Russia.
And over the whole thing is the bright, fierce Nazi eagle clutching a laurel wreath encircling the Nazi swastika.
The bright rays emanating from behind the eagle make it appear that the Reich is still on the rise. The eagle belies the dramatic downturn the war had just taken for Germany.