Historians should not fear accusations of exaggeration when designating December 1941 as not only one of the most decisive months of World War II but, indeed, of all of modern history. It would be easy to extrapolate from this assertion and solely focus on Imperial Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 and the United States’ Declaration of War against Japan on the following day. And it would be a serious mistake.
The Red Army’s launch of counterattacks on December 5 against the Germans, already halted in their advance on Moscow, as well as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy’s declarations of war on the United States four days after Pearl Harbor, warrant equal consideration. Taken together, these momentous events, occurring just a week apart, quickly and radically transformed the conflict that was more than four years old at this point (if we date the beginnings of the Second World War to the Japanese invasion of China in July 1937). Two simultaneous, tenuously connected conflicts in Europe and Asia coalesced into one single, monstrous, global conflagration.
The occasion for this piece is a seemingly straightforward question: why did Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime so quickly declare war on the United States just four days after Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor? There is nothing self-evident about this. Moscow had not fallen to the Wehrmacht during Operation Typhoon, Britain was still very much in the war, and resistance against German rule had burgeoned from France to Greece. The late Fritz Stern characterized Hitler’s rush to support Japan on December 11, 1941 against the United States as “a move historians still find puzzling.”
Nicholas Stargardt, in his The German War, stresses that “declaring war on America was an unnecessary act.” In a webinar with The National WWII Museum, Michael Geyer describes it as “a very strange decision.” How do we explain this move, or is it even explainable at all? There are several things to keep in mind, I contend, in trying to make sense of what appears to be one of Hitler’s most incomprehensible moves.
First, how Japan was imagined in Germany and in Hitler’s racial worldview needs to be defined more precisely. For decades, Japan had been represented in German culture in a very peculiar way. Second, the question of how Hitler understood the United States before 1941 requires careful delineation. Third, and finally, the choice—and it was clearly a choice—to go to war with America must be contextualized, embedded in the maelstrom of 1941, including the transition from mass murder of Jews in Eastern Europe to systematic, continent-wide genocide.
Hitler, as I hope to show, used the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor as a pretext for escalating the conflict on the German side. Henceforward, World War II was for the Third Reich a war to the death in a global struggle for racial supremacy against a coalition of enemies believed to be, behind the facades of different political, ideological, and socio-economic systems, uniformly under the dictates of “the Jews.” This ultra-racist, reactionary, paranoid, and murderous interpretation of history, nature, life, and death Hitler adhered to entered its definitive stage of radicalization in December 1941.
Here I want to look at this initial question, an issue of (mis)representation, prior to the Japanese government’s signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact with the Nazi dictatorship in November 1936. Japan’s culture, social structure, and political institutions certainly attracted considerable attention in Germany well before 1941, even before Hitler took over as chancellor in January 1933.
Recently, historians Sarah Panzer and Ricky Law have documented a fascinating series of exchanges between Germany and Japan during the first four decades of the twentieth century. On the German side, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 marked a major shift in this relationship. Before that event, Japanese interest in German affairs, in general, had not been reciprocated (though Japan’s authoritarian 1889 constitution, devised by a commission led by Itō Hirobumi, owed much to Imperial Germany’s 1871 constitution). Emperor Meiji’s victory over Nicholas II’s Russia startled observers all over the world, not least in Central Europe.
In Germany, a preoccupation with the culture and customs of Japan soon took shape. To be sure, this was an incredibly slanted process of interpretive extraction and exclusion. As Panzer notes, an “identification of the samurai as the ultimate arbiters of Japanese culture” congealed in the German public sphere, with the “consistent thread throughout depictions of Japanese culture” being the “belief that national culture as a discrete entity was under attack, either by foreign elements active in the domestic arena or by an international hegemon.” Admiration for the samurai, for Bushido as the warrior caste’s code of honor, for martial arts like jiu-jitsu, and Meiji Japan’s efforts to combine modernity and tradition—it is hardly shocking to emphasize—proved strongest on the German Right.
Karl Haushofer, a member of the Bavarian General Staff and right-wing theorist of geopolitics, spent 1908-10 in Japan as an attaché and advisor to the Japanese military. Drawing on his experiences from those two years, he authored a study in 1913 accenting martial virtues shared by both Germans and Japanese and similar struggles on the part of the two countries to preserve genuine national cultures against the degradations of modern cosmopolitanism. Such claims furthered an entire line of analysis prevalent in German rightist circles over the next 30 years.
Japanese intervention in World War I against Germany (on the basis of a 1902 alliance with Great Britain), seizure of German-controlled territory in China’s Shantung Peninsula, and acquisition of German colonies in the Pacific did not permanently upend these exchanges. Law points out how many Germans saw renewed affinities with Japan out of a common hatred for the postwar treaties promulgated by the Western Allies (Britain, France, and the United States). Nationalists in both countries believed they faced an onerous international system designed to maintain Franco-British dominance at the expense of German and Japanese ambitions. In addition, Weimar Germany’s motion-picture industry featured movies about Japan replete with geishas, samurai, and Shinto shrines, reinforcing the highly selective prewar exegeses of Japanese cultural development.
One of the far-right commentators in Germany during the 1920s on Japan’s place in the world was none other than Adolf Hitler. His aspirations to be the “German Mussolini” had been stymied by the crushing of the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in November 1923. Given a ridiculously light sentence and enjoying modest comfort at Landsberg Prison, he dictated to Rudolf Hess, his deputy in the Nazi Party, the completely self-serving memoir Mein Kampf (My Struggle) in 1924.
There are many things that have been and still can be said about this vile book. What I wish to point to is that Mein Kampf reveals how Imperial Japan’s emergence as a modern industrial power challenged the extreme racial hierarchy of human beings Hitler defended. How could such a fanatical racist as Hitler, world history’s most unflinching advocate of “Aryanism,” explain Japan’s ascent?
A close reading of the text clarifies Hitler’s muddled, yet undeniably sincere attempts to resolve this conundrum, irresolvable within his biologist framework. He admitted that during the Russo-Japanese War, he had supported Japan, having done so for purely racial reasons (a defeat for Tsarist Russia weakened the principal supporter of the Slavs, a group he despised, living under Habsburg rule). However, he went on to explicitly praise Japanese naval policy. “There, on principle, the entire emphasis was laid on giving every single new ship superior fighting power over the presumable adversary. The result was a greater possibility of offensive utilization of the navy,” Hitler wrote. These words indicate he followed the concerns among the imperialist states, especially the United States, about the size and capability of the Japanese navy, which led to the 1921-22 Washington Naval Conference—and sympathized with Japan.
Later in the text, Hitler, seemingly self-conscious of what his comments about Japan portended for his wretched racial theories, proposed a threefold categorization of humankind. “If we were to divide mankind into three groups the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture,” he stated, “only the Aryan could be considered as the representative of the first group.” Blithely dismissing all contrary evidence from the study of the human past, Hitler attributed to the “Aryan” the chief role of creating culture and civilization around the globe throughout history. “From him originate the foundations and walls of all human creation, and only the outward form and color are determined by the changing traits of character of the various peoples. He provides the mightiest building stones and plans for all human progress and only the execution corresponds to the nature of the varying men and races.” This analogy with construction served him so as to solely credit the essential structures of civilizations to “Aryans.”
That same analogy also allowed Hitler some room for maneuver to accommodate Japan’s modernization. The Nazi leader asserted, “In a few decades, for example, the entire east of Asia will possess a culture whose ultimate foundation will be Hellenic spirit and Germanic technology, just as much as in Europe. Only the outward form—in part at least—will bear the features of Asiatic character.” Thus, only the non-essential elements of Imperial Japan’s newly acquired international status actually derived from Japanese culture itself. Hitler characterized this situation as one where “European science and technology are trimmed with Japanese characteristics.”
He elaborated, “the present Japanese development owes its life to Aryan origin.” Referring back to the American Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 expedition to open Japan to commerce, the “progress” made by Japanese society owed everything to “Aryan” initiative. Merely the surface aspects of this society, ran the so-called logic of this argument, bore fundamentally Japanese traits. “If beginning today,” Hitler predicted, “all further Aryan influence on Japan should stop, assuming that Europe and America should perish, Japan’s present rise in science and technology might continue for a short time; but even in a few years the well would dry up, the Japanese special character would gain, but the present culture would freeze and sink back into the slumber from which it was awakened seven decades ago by the wave of Aryan culture.”
Fully evident in Mein Kampf are the contortions Hitler undertook to square Japan’s “present rise” with his reprehensible dogma of the innate inferiority of non-Aryan peoples. Of utmost importance, though, is that recognition of the twists taken in these passages shows us how Hitler could appreciate and admire what the Japanese achieved. Elsewhere in the memoir, he praised, against criticisms he thought emanated from Britain’s Jewish community, the project of building a “Japanese national state” then in motion. Here he sounded much like figures like Haushofer.
Looking ahead to 1933 and beyond, Hitler’s ability to secure conceptual space within his worldview for explaining Japan’s success while retaining the racist analytic of superiority/inferiority remained. Yet, strikingly, Hitler’s approbation for the Japanese waxed during this period. Soon he seemed convinced that a whole range of elements of Japan’s political, economic, and military power flowed from its own distinctive culture. The relation of “foundations and wall” to “trim” and “execution” did reverse to some degree in his thinking.
Undoubtedly, the onset of the Shōwa Era with the coronation of Hirohito as emperor in 1926, the subsequent crushing of the Japanese Left, the entrenchment of ultra-nationalists in many spheres of the country’s life, most prominently its military, and the move into Manchuria in 1931 fostered Hitler’s enthusiasm for a Berlin-Tokyo Axis in the mid-1930s. Though, to my knowledge, he never repudiated the perspective set forth in Mein Kampf, he acquiesced in effect to some real revision of his racism to justify this alliance. Showing that is the aim of two future articles.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.
Law, Ricky W. Transnational Nazism: Ideology and Culture in German-Japanese Relations, 1919-1936. Washington, DC, and Cambridge: German Historical Institute and Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Panzer, Sarah. “The Prussians of the East: Samurai, Bushido, and Japanese Honor in the German Imagination, 1905-1945.” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 58 (Spring 2016): 47-69.
Stargardt, Nicholas. The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945: Citizens and Soldiers. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
Stern, Fritz. Five Germanys I Have Known. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006.