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The Transatlantic Duel: Hitler Vs. Roosevelt
In 1941 the President understood better than many Americans the man who was running Germany, and Hitler understood Roosevelt and his country better than we knew
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
In the summer of 1940 the fate of the world depended on the duel between two men: Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. It was a duel of nerves, and of wills. Churchill carried it off, because Hitler finally chose not to invade Britain. But even before he made that decision, he and Churchill were aware that this was no longer a duel between the two of them. Before the fall of France, Hitler had gained an ally, Mussolini. Before the Battle of Britain Churchill had gained the support of Roosevelt. That the latter weighed more in the balance than the former both Hitler and Churchill knew.
There are coincidences and parallels in Hitler’s and Roosevelt’s careers. The thirtieth of January was a day of celebration for both of them; the day Hitler became chancellor of Germany (in 1933) was Roosevelt’s birthday. Then, in March 1933, they came to power just a day apart, Roosevelt’s inauguration coinciding with the Reichstag election that gave Hitler his majority. For twelve years they were the heads of two of the greatest states in the world. For the first six years of their respective leaderships their main achievements were domestic; they pulled their peoples from a great depression. For the next six years they were leaders in a war, bitter enemies. They died in April 1945, eighteen days apart, before the war ended, the war that Roosevelt won and Hitler lost. But their characters, their ideas, their temperaments, their world views could not have been more different.
It is wrong to think, as many do, that Hitler was ignorant of the United States. His interest in stories about the American West went back to his youth. Although he customarily read very few diplomatic documents, in 1940 and 1941 he was an assiduous peruser of reports from the German embassy in Washington, and he had a fairly accurate comprehension of American political divisions.
Franklin Roosevelt, who had visited Europe during his youth, knew more about Germany than had his predecessor Woodrow Wilson. He disliked certain traits of German character, but he wished to cultivate good relations with Germany even after Hitler had come to power. (That event was misinterpreted by most Americans. On the day Hitler was made chancellor the correspondent of The New York Times cabled from Berlin: “Herr Hitler is reported to be in a more docile frame of mind.” Next day: “Hitler Puts Aside Aim to Be Dictator”; “Hitler News Fails to Stir Wall Street.” The editorial: “Much of Hitler’s old electoral thunder has either been stolen from him, or has died down into a negligible rumble.” During the entire week thereafter none of the forty or fifty letters to the editor printed in The New York Times mentioned Germany or Hitler.)
A few years later there was a change. Most historians regard Roosevelt’s speech of October 5, 1937, the so-called Quarantine Speech in Chicago, as a turning point, the beginning of Roosevelt’s active interest in foreign policy and of his inclination to engage the United States against the aggressive dictators. The Quarantine Speech may have been a milestone; a turning point it was not. It was, as often was the case in Roosevelt’s foreign policy speeches, wrapped in Wilsonian generalities. The theme was the need of “peace-loving nations” to quarantine the “aggressors” and thereby isolate their “contagion.” Roosevelt made no mention of who the aggressors were. He may have read Mein Kampf by that time; yet the speech could be interpreted as aimed at Japan rather than at Germany. Of course, Hitler had a bad press in America by then. Yet as late as October 1938 Roosevelt congratulated Chamberlain for having reached a peaceful settlement with Hitler at Munich. But by the end of that year Roosevelt made certain moves—surreptitiously, as was his wont. He realized that in London and Paris there were political personages who were opposed to appeasing Hitler further. Clandestinely, confidentially, through personal intermediaries Roosevelt began to suggest that he approved of their cause. His principal intermediary at that time was his close friend and confidant Ambassador William C. BuIlitt in Paris.
Secret as these Rooseveltian suggestions were, Hitler knew of them. He was aware of Roosevelt’s inclination to support someone like Winston Churchill. From 1939 to the end of the war, Hitler saw the situation of the Western powers thus: behind Churchill was Roosevelt; and behind Roosevelt, the Jews. Because of this, Hitler’s speech on January 30, 1939, is of considerable significance, although it was overlooked at the time by a world that had grown accustomed to his fanatical rhetoric. “If the international Jewish financiers inside and outside Europe should again succeed in plunging the nations into a world war, the result… will be the annihilation of the Jewish race throughout Europe.” In other words, his enemies might bring about a world war. They are being incited by Jews. About Jews in America he could do nothing. But if there was a war, it would be “no laughing matter” (these were his words) for the Jews in Europe. He was as good—o.r, rather, as evil—as his word. In 1939 his policy was still to expel the Jews from Germany. In late 1941 that policy changed to extermination. The infamous Wannsee Conference that arranged for its policing and execution was set to meet in Berlin on the day of Pearl Harbor; then it was postponed until January. The news of Pearl Harbor lifted the hearts of millions of Jews around the world. It was also the death knell for millions of Jews in Europe, though none of them knew that.