Remembering December Eight Decades Ago
As we enter this troubled December, let us reach back eighty years. To another December, and eight days that birthed the world of peril and promise we occupy today.
In the first days of December 1941, the German Army was approaching Moscow from the north, west and south. The Wehrmacht steadily advanced despite snow, bitter cold, and fanatical resistance. Everyone in Europe and the United States braced for word that the Soviet capital had fallen. The Soviet Union – a horrible entity to be sure – seemed doomed.
But General Georgy Zhukov had assembled a massive reserve of nearly sixty divisions. On Dec. 5 he unleashed a counterattack against the German forces to the northwest of Moscow. The attack achieved total surprise. The Germans reeled backwards. On Dec. 6 Zhukov launched attacks to the west and southwest. Again the Germans were driven back.
The counter-offense of Zhukov ended Hitler's hope for a decisive victory in 1941. Hitler and his generals now knew that they were locked in a war of attrition with the Soviet Union. A war of attrition with an adversary possessing twice their population and a greater industrial base, augmented by Lend-Lease supply. The Germans also faced a regime – and a leader – even more ruthless and brutal than their own.
On Dec. 7, the Soviet offensive continued. But the eyes of the world shifted elsewhere, to the Pacific Ocean. That morning, hundreds of Japanese aircraft descended on the airfields and naval berths of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. Over twenty-four hundred American servicemen were killed and an array of warships and planes laid in wreckage. Seven hours after the attack, Japan belatedly declared war on the United States and Great Britain.
Also that day (EST) the tentacles of Japan reached elsewhere. Their troops invaded Thailand, Malaya (a British colony and a vital source of rubber), and Hong Kong. Their warplanes struck Singapore, the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island.
Also that day, in Germany, Adolf Hitler issued the sinister Night and Fog Decree. The secret decree allowed for the disappearance of political opponents and resistance fighters. Most of the thousands of victims were nocturnally seized and no word was given to families on their fate (often death in concentration camps).
On Dec. 8, President Roosevelt delivered his famous “a date which will live in infamy” speech to a joint session of Congress. It is inspiring to watch video of that speech, both the ringing call to arms by FDR (“the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory”) and the roaring cheers of the united audience. Shortly after the speech, Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan.
On Dec. 9, China declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy. Japan had already inflicted great devastation and death on China. It is little noted in the West that Japan killed nearly four million Chinese civilians (often marked by appalling atrocities) between 1937 and 1945. But China has not forgotten nor forgiven.
Dec. 10 brought the sinking off the Malayan coast of the British warships Repulse and Prince of Wales (the latter in May had traded shots with the German battleship Bismarck). Japanese torpedo planes dealt the fatal blows. The sinking of the two capital ships by aircraft shocked the world and announced the arrival of a new age in naval warfare. The British should not have been surprised, since six months earlier, their own torpedo bombers disabled the Bismarck.
Dec. 11 brought the decisive day of World War II: In the greatest blunder of that war, Adolf Hitler delivered a speech before Reichstag deputies in Berlin. Citing a long list of grievances, he declared war on the most powerful economic nation in the world. Over the next four years, that nation would also become the supreme military power.
In turn, the United States declared war on Germany. We must remember that prior to Dec. 7, the nation was vehemently split between the interventionists and the isolationists. In the immediate days after the Pearl Harbor attack, united support existed only for war with Japan. William Shirer wrote1:
My own impression in
Washington at that moment was that it might be difficult for President Roosevelt to get Congress to declare war on Germany. There seemed to be a strong feeling in both Houses as well as in the Army and Navy that the country ought to concentrate its efforts on defeating Japan and not take on the additional burden of fighting Germany at the same time.
Without the Unites States at war against Nazi Germany, it is doubtful the British could have successfully invaded France. Nor is it likely that the British alone could have expelled the Germans from North Africa or landed in Sicily or Italy. Without American involvement, the Nazis would perhaps to this day remain masters of western Europe.
With the United States sidelined, the Germans could have concentrated nearly full force against the Soviets. Could the Wehrmacht have raised the price in blood high enough to gain a stalemate in the East? Already it had achieved a six-to-one causality ratio in battle. With forces not needed for a second front, at the very least the Germans could have greatly slowed any Soviet advance.
We must also consider that with America battling only in the Pacific and the Soviets slowed, Germany would have had time to develop and field impressive numbers of their advanced weapons. To wit, jet fighters and bombers, ballistic and guided missiles, fortress tanks, night vision equipment, and yes, eventually, nuclear weapons.
All this Hitler negated by his astounding error of Dec. 11. If Hitler had decided otherwise, the world today could be profoundly different.
On the last of the eight days, Dec. 12, Hitler made another decision -- one which still haunts us many years after the destruction of his heinous regime.
In a meeting in the Reich Chancellery with top subordinates, Hitler gave a green light for the Holocaust. Prior to this meeting, SS death squads (Einstazgruppen) had murdered many thousands of Jews in Poland and the USSR. But annihilation of European Jewry was not yet an official policy. This decision laid the foundation for the death factories which methodically consumed millions of Jews and others hated by Hitler.
Eight days in December of 1941. Eighty years ago. Which wrenched the world into total war and unleashed the worst of our demonic impulses.
Are the leaders of the great powers of today wise enough to refrain from initiating another global war? The present world, for all its troubles, is on the verge of creating paradise. A world where want and disease and perhaps death itself will fade away. Where humankind can achieve Winston Churchill's vision of moving “forward into broad, sunlit uplands”.
As we move towards another Christmas, let us pray for the vision to become reality.
1. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, page 1613 of 2158, Copyright © 1961, renewed 1989 by William L. Shirer, cover art to the electronic edition copyright © 2011 by RosettaBooks, LLC.
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