The best books on the view from London in 1941

by Andrew Nagorski

Who am I?
Award-winning journalist and historian Andrew Nagorski was born in Scotland to Polish parents, moved to the United States as an infant, and has rarely stopped moving since. During a long career at Newsweek, he served as the magazine's bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw, and Berlin. In 1982, he gained international notoriety when the Kremlin, angered by his enterprising reporting, expelled him from the Soviet Union. Nagorski is the author of seven books, including The Nazi Hunters and Hitlerland.

I wrote...
1941: The Year Germany Lost the War
By Andrew Nagorski

What is my book about?
By the end of 1940, Nazi Germany ruled most of Europe, but by the end of 1941 Hitler had already squandered his chances for victory in World War II. He repeatedly gambled on escalation: by invading the Soviet Union, by making mass murder and terror his weapons of choice, and by driving Churchill and Roosevelt into a de facto alliance even before the United States formally entered the war. All of which set the stage for Germany’s ultimate defeat.

But, as Nagorski explains in his fast-paced chronicle about this pivotal year, there was nothing inevitable about this sequence of events.

The Books I Picked & Why

The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955
By John Colville

Why this book?
John “Jock” Colville, a 24-year-old Foreign Office staffer, was assigned to work at 10 Downing Street, Britain’s equivalent of the White House, at the outbreak of World War II. When Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister, Colville, who kept a detailed secret diary, chronicled the new leader’s every move as he rallied his countrymen to keep fighting Hitler’s Germany. His entries for this critical period offer a vivid behind-the-scenes portrait of Churchill, his inner circle—and his strenuous efforts to forge a close partnership with President Roosevelt, who had vowed to keep his country out of the war.

The War Years 1939-1945, Volume II of the Diaries and Letters
By Harold Nicolson

Why this book?
Harold Nicolson was a conservative member of Parliament and staunch supporter of Churchill, who also worked in the Information Ministry. While he publicly echoed Churchill’s rhetoric of defiance and optimism, his private letters and diary indicate how close to despair he was about Britain’s chances after the fall of France. He made a suicide pact with his wife and secured poison pills they pledged to use if German forces invaded their country. Nicolson wrote to her that he did not fear an “honorable death,” but he did fear “being tortured and humiliated.” All of which demonstrated the perilous position of Britain in late 1940 and early 1941, when it was far from certain which side would prevail in the conflict.

The London Journal of General Raymond E. Lee 1940-1941
By James Leutze

Why this book?
Lee was the popular, well-connected military attaché in the U.S. Embassy in London. A staunch supporter of U.S. aid for Britain, he played an important role in preparing for America’s entry into the war. During the Blitz, he castigated American correspondents who described London as “devastated” by the German bombing campaign. “London is not devastated, and if you want one soldier’s opinion, it will not be devastated,” he told them. His diary reflects his determination to counter the defeatist predictions of Joseph Kennedy, who had served as U.S. ambassador in London until 1940.

The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James's, 1932-1943
By Ivan Maisky

Why this book?
Ivan Maisky served as the Soviet Union’s ambassador in London from 1932 to 1943. In his extensive diaries, he chronicled his frequent interactions with Churchill and other British officials. He predicted that 1941 would be “the decisive year of the war,” which proved accurate. But, like his boss Joseph Stalin, he refused to believe at first that Hitler would turn against the Soviet Union, with whom Germany had signed a non-aggression pact. His diary shows how quickly the Kremlin acted as if it had always opposed Hitler’s plans—and made increasingly strident demands for Western aid. The makings of the future Cold War are already evident in this account.

The Grand Alliance: The Second World War, Volume 3
By Winston S. Churchill

Why this book?
Leave it to Churchill to sum up the events of 1941 that determined the ultimate outcome of the war. In his words, the theme of this volume of his epic account of the war is “How the British fought on with Hardship their Garment until Soviet Russia and the United States were drawn into the Great Conflict.” Much of this consists of letters, reports, speeches, and other original documents from that period, woven together by its skillful narrator. Little wonder that Churchill was later awarded the Noble Prize in Literature "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”