The Transatlantic Duel: Hitler Vs. Roosevelt


Everything changed with Pearl Harbor. It (along with the halt of the German advance on Moscow twenty-four hours earlier) was the turning point of the Second World War. People have argued that it was Hitler’s megalomaniac underestimation of America that made him declare war on the United States four days after Pearl Harbor. In reality, he hardly had another choice. He could not plainly betray his Japanese allies by welshing on the alliance that he himself had offered them. Moreover, without knowing exactly what Roosevelt would do, he was well aware that American naval and air warfare in the Atlantic would intensify against him even without a definite proclamation of war. From that point onward Hitler began to regard Roosevelt as his principal enemy. His hatred of Roosevelt grew beyond his hatred of Churchill—and of Stalin, about whom he often spoke with great respect. When his foreign minister called in the American chargé in Berlin, Ribbentrop declared, scowling: “Your President wanted this war.”

Churchill and Roosevelt knew that the turning point of the Second World War had come. Hitler knew it too. From that moment on his strategy changed. He knew he could no longer achieve a complete victory (he speculated about that to a small circle of his military advisers on one occasion even before Pearl Harbor). But he would fight tough—so tough that sooner or later that unnatural alliance between America, Britain, and the Soviet Union would break apart. In this respect he had his predecessor Frederick the Great constantly in mind. One hundred and eighty years earlier Frederick, battered and encircled by three enemy powers, won by beating one of them, after which another one suddenly withdrew from the war. He, Hitler, would split his enemies too. In this he was both right and wrong. The Anglo-American-Russian alliance did break apart, but too late for him.

But that took another three and a half years, during which Hitler still paid considerable attention to the United States. In late July 1943, for example, his technicians succeeded in breaking into the transatlantic telephone circuit connecting Roosevelt and Churchill. From their conversation Hitler learned that they were already involved in secret contacts with Italians planning to drop out of the war, which contributed to his decision to move quickly against that. The purpose of Hitler’s last desperate offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944, was to recapture the port of Antwerp—not Paris—thus inflicting a defeat on the American army closest to Germany and contributing thereby to American war-weariness and to a powerful current of American sentiment of which he was aware: that the war against the Japanese in the Pacific was more popular among the people than the war against the Germans in Europe. Toward the end of the war most Germans knew that they had more to fear from the Russians, and even from the British, than from the Americans. This explains the fact that in the last months German resistance in front of the advancing Americans faded away much more quickly than in front of the Russians. It was evident too in many of the secret contacts that German agents and officials were spinning with American representatives (foremost among them Alien Dulles in Switzerland). These were approved by Heinrich Himmler, not by Adolf Hitler, yet there is no evidence that these were conspiratorial moves conducted against Hitler. Indeed, Hitler wished he had not had to fight the United States. He hated Roosevelt, who, to his mind, was alone responsible for that.

Hitler was living underground in a bunker when Goebbels burst in with news of a miracle: Roosevelt was dead.

Hitler was already ill and depressed, living underground in the Reich Chancellery bunker, when Goebbels burst in at night on April 12, 1945, with the news that Roosevelt was dead. It was Frederick the Great again, Goebbels exclaimed. Back then it had been Frederick’s enemy, the Tsarina of Russia, who had dropped dead; it was a miracle; the coalition against Prussia would break up; and now it was Roosevelt. A celebration was in order; Goebbels brought champagne. This episode has often been misconstrued. Hitler had indeed been reading Carlyle’s Frederick the Great, but he did not much respond to Goebbels’s enthusiasm. (He also disliked champagne.)