German Declaration of War with the United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On December 11, four days after the attack by the Japanese on US naval installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and three days after the United States declared war on Japan, Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. Though he was bound by the terms of the Tripartite Pact of 1940 to defend Japan if the country was attacked, Hitler was not obligated to join in an attack. He believed, however, that Japan would reward his loyalty by coming to his aid in the Soviet Union, where the German army was hopelessly bogged down outside of Moscow. He also had a deep abiding hatred for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had provided material support to Great Britain and the Soviet Union against Germany while remaining nominally neutral. In addition, the US Navy hunted down and destroyed German U-boats that had attacked US ships providing support to the Allies. Hitler believed that Japan could cripple the United States fairly quickly and then together they would destroy Russia. This declaration of war turned the focus of American military attention to the defeat of Germany and gave Great Britain a much-needed ally in its fight against Germany.

Summary Overview

On December 11, four days after the attack by the Japanese on US naval installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and three days after the United States declared war on Japan, Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. Though he was bound by the terms of the Tripartite Pact of 1940 to defend Japan if the country was attacked, Hitler was not obligated to join in an attack. He believed, however, that Japan would reward his loyalty by coming to his aid in the Soviet Union, where the German army was hopelessly bogged down outside of Moscow. He also had a deep abiding hatred for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had provided material support to Great Britain and the Soviet Union against Germany while remaining nominally neutral. In addition, the US Navy hunted down and destroyed German U-boats that had attacked US ships providing support to the Allies. Hitler believed that Japan could cripple the United States fairly quickly and then together they would destroy Russia. This declaration of war turned the focus of American military attention to the defeat of Germany and gave Great Britain a much-needed ally in its fight against Germany.

Defining Moment

On December 7, 1941, shortly before 8 a.m., the naval base at Pearl Harbor was attacked by 353 Japanese fighter planes, launched by six aircraft carriers, and supported by submarines. The attack damaged twenty US ships including eight battleships, of which two were destroyed. Airfields were bombed and strafed simultaneously to prevent counterattack; 188 planes were destroyed and an additional 159 damaged. The entire attack lasted just under two hours, but the United States lost 2,403 personnel, including 68 civilians. The United States declared war on Japan the following day in a joint session of Congress.

Germany had been allied with Japan since 1936 with the Anti-Comintern Pact, which agreed on common defense against Communist governments. Japanese-German relations soured with the 1939 nonaggression agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany. In September 1940, however, Italy, Germany, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact—an agreement stating that Italy and Germany would divide Europe and Japan would control Asia after the war, and all three would come to each other's aid if attacked. Hitler's top diplomat, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had negotiated all three of these agreements. Though Japan and Germany had discussed a preemptive attack on the United States, Germany was given no warning of the attack on Pearl Harbor and was under no treaty obligation to declare war. Hitler and Roosevelt both believed that war between their nations was inevitable, but both were cautious about entangling themselves in further military obligations. Hitler had become convinced, however, that with Allied resources now diverted to Asia, he would be able to press a military advantage in Europe. He also had a personal vendetta against Roosevelt, whom he believed was being influenced by Communists and Jews. Moreover, he viewed Roosevelt's support of the Allies while concomitantly preaching neutrality as the height of duplicity. Hitler believed both that it would embarrass Roosevelt if Germany declared war first and that the United States would take a long time to mobilize. He was wrong on both counts. Germany's declaration of war perfectly suited Roosevelt's portrayal of an innocent nation roused to war against its will, but determined to defend itself, and an unprecedented mobilization effort began immediately.

On the morning of December 11, 1941, a note was delivered to the American chargé d'affaires in Berlin declaring war on the United States and blaming US aggression. Because of the time difference, the note that was delivered in the United States was subsequent to the declaration in Germany, but was also delivered in the morning. The German chargé d'affaires, Hans Thomsen, and the first secretary of the German embassy, Von Strempel, delivered the note declaring war to Ray Atherton, chief of the European division of the US State Department.

Also on the afternoon of December 11, Hitler addressed the Nazi party faithful in the Reichstag, the parliament of the Nazi government. He laid out his own version of the war to that point, and railed against Roosevelt, whom he blamed for the entire war. Just hours after the delivery of the declaration to the State Department, at 3:05 p.m. EST, the United States in turn declared war on Germany, and then on Italy a minute later.

Author Biography

Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop was born in Wesel, Germany, on April 30, 1893. He was educated in schools in Germany and Switzerland, and he traveled in Europe and North America with his family, who eventually settled in Canada. In 1914, Ribbentrop left Canada to join World War I on the German side. He served on both the eastern and western fronts and was later stationed in Turkey. In 1920, Ribbentrop married Anna Elisabeth Henkell, with whom he had five children.

Ribbentrop met Hitler in 1932, and became quickly involved in the Nazi party in its early years. In the 1930s, however, he became one of Hitler's most trusted and most radical foreign policy advisors, in part because Hitler did not trust career diplomats, and in part because of Ribbentrop's unfailing support of Hitler's ideas. In 1936, Ribbentrop was appointed ambassador to Great Britain, a position that he held for two years until his appointment in 1938 as Germany's minister of foreign affairs. He negotiated the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of August 23, 1939, which laid the foundation for the invasion of Poland that began World War II. During the war, Ribbentrop was primarily a mouthpiece for Hitler. He was arrested by the Allies in June 1945, and though he denied knowledge of Nazi concentration camps and mass murder, he was tried at the Nuremberg Trials and found guilty. He was executed on October 16, 1946.

Historical Document

(Including the circumstances of the delivery of the note as released to the press by the Department of State, December 11, 1941.)

The German Charge d'Affaires, Dr. Hans Thomsen, and the First Secretary of the German Embassy, Mr. von Strempel, called at the State Department at 8:00 A.M. on December 11, 1941. The Secretary, otherwise engaged, directed that they be received by the Chief of the European Division of the State Department, Mr. Ray Atherton. Mr. Atherton received the German representatives at 9:30 A.M.

The German representatives handed to Mr. Atherton a copy of a note that is being delivered this morning, December 11, to the American Charge d'Affaires in Berlin. Dr. Thomsen said that Germany considers herself in a state of war with the United States. He asked that the appropriate measures be taken for the departure of himself, the members of the German Embassy, and his staff in this country. He reminded Mr. Atherton that the German Government had previously expressed its willingness to grant the same treatment to American press correspondents in Germany as that accorded the American official staff on a reciprocal basis and added that he assumed that the departure of other American citizens from Germany would be permitted on the same basis of German citizens desiring to leave this country. He referred to the exchange of civilians that had been arranged at the time Great Britain and Germany broke off diplomatic relations.

The German Charge d'Affaires then stated that the Swiss Government would take over German interests in this country and that Dr. Bruggmann had already received appropriate instructions from his Government.

He then handed Mr. Atherton a note from the German Government. Mr. Atherton stated that in accepting this note from the German Charge d'Affaires he was merely formalizing the realization that the Government and people of this country had faced since the outbreak of the war in 1939 of the threat and purposes of the German Government and the Nazi regime toward this hemisphere and our free American civilization.

Mr. Atherton then said that this Government would arrange for the delivery of Dr. Thomsen's passports and that he assumed that we would very shortly be in communication with the Swiss Minister. He added that Dr. Thomsen must realize, however, that the physical difficulties of the situation would demand a certain amount of time in working out this reciprocal arrangement for the departure of the missions of the two countries. The German representatives then took their leave.

The text of the note which the German representatives handed to Mr. Ray Atherton, Chief of the European Division of the State Department, at 9:30 A.M., December 11, the original of which had been delivered the morning of December 11 to the American Charge d'Affaires in Berlin, follows:

MR. CHARGE D'AFFAIRES:

The Government of the United States having violated in the most flagrant manner and in ever increasing measure all rules of neutrality in favor 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 September 3, 1939, has finally resorted to open military acts of aggression.

On September 11, 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 October 27, 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 sub-marines 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.

Accept, Mr. Charge d'Affaires, the expression of my high consideration.

December 11, 1941.

RIBBENTROP.

Document Analysis

This selection begins with a description of the delivery of the declaration of war to the State Department. The delivery of this note was monumental and meticulously recorded, as anything said or done during this meeting took on grave importance. “The German Charge d'Affaires, Dr. Hans Thomsen, and the First Secretary of the German Embassy, Mr. von Strempel, called at the State Department at 8:00 A.M. on December 11, 1941.” They were received an hour and a half later, and delivered a copy of the note that was also given to the US representative in Germany. Thomsen quickly turned his attention to the safety of himself and his staff, reminding the State Department that they, too, had personnel that they would like returned home safely. The receipt of the note required a statement to the effect that the German declaration of war was only the most recent development in a long series of German threats to democracy and freedom. The German contingent—assured that they would be given their passports, but warned that their return home would likely take some time, and would depend on the reciprocal return of American diplomats—left the State Department.

The text of the declaration was not a surprise. It accused the United States of repeatedly violating its neutrality and acting against Germany, until it finally engaged in “open military acts of aggression.” It listed three ships, the Greer, the Kearney, and the Reuben James, as engaging in hostile military actions against Germany, though the United States claimed in all three cases the ships had been fired upon by German submarines before returning fire. The so-called shoot-on-sight order was issued by the US Navy in response to what they saw as unprovoked attacks on US vessels. The declaration claimed that Germany was the aggrieved party, and that the nation “has strictly adhered to the rules of international law in her relations with the United States during every period of the present war,” a claim which the United States certainly disputed. Germany claimed that the United States had created “a state of war” and that this declaration was simply a formalization of existing hostilities.

Essential Themes

This declaration was intended to lay blame for the United States' entry into the war squarely at Roosevelt's feet. Roosevelt had played a dangerous game, claiming neutrality while openly supporting the Allies against Germany.

The form of this selection highlights the monumental nature of this declaration. Every detail was recorded for posterity. The words of the declaration, couched in precise and diplomatic terms, are rather minor players, as Germany's claims of being subject to escalating American military aggression had already been countered by US reports of German aggression. The delivery of the declaration of war itself is the most important aspect of this document.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Little, 2012. Digital file.
  • Bloch, Michael. Ribbentrop. London: Abacus, 1994. Print.
  • Weitz, John. Hitler's Diplomat: The Life and Times of Joachim von Ribbentrop. Boston: Houghton, 1992. Print.
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