1941: The Year Germany Lost the War

Simon & Schuster
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A Conversation with Andrew Nagorski
World War II expert Andrew Nagorski discusses the decisions and factors of 1941 that presaged Germany's ultimate defeat years later.
This interview was conducted by Robert von Maier, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at Brécourt Academic. We appreciate Robert and Brécourt Academic lending it to History in Five.

Q: What were some of the influencing factors that led you to write 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War and how does your experience researching this work compare to other Second World War books you have written?

A: My experiences as a foreign correspondent during the final years of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire prompted me to keep returning to a central theme: the role of the individual in history and what triggered pivotal moments in history. And the more I examined the trajectory of World War II, the more convinced I became that the pivotal year was 1941, with the dynamic that played out between Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt.
The research and interviews I conducted for my previous books were tremendously helpful for this project, but I needed to dig deeper in the diaries, reports, and memoirs that shed light on the mindset of each of those protagonists so that I could explain what drove them to the decisions they made. In some cases, the secondary characters—the supporting cast of officials, military officers, diplomats, journalists, and others—were people whose backgrounds I already knew from my previous books, which was a big advantage. It was almost as if I was running into old acquaintances whose back stories and personalities were very familiar to me as I started looking into whatever records they left behind of their views and actions in 1941.

Q: In Chapter One of 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War you write: "When they [Hitler and Stalin] concluded their infamous nonaggression pact, signed by their foreign ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, on August 23, 1939, they both knew they were green- lighting the start of a new war, allowing the Germans to invade Poland from the west on September 1 and the Red Army to attack from the east on September 17." Recently, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the subject of intense debate between Russia (read Putin and company) and several European countries. What is your take on this debate and what does it tell us about the present-day ramifications of the Second World War?

A: The current debate has nothing to do with legitimate historical inquiry and everything to do with the deliberate rewriting of history to advance a false narrative. In Russia, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact acts like a barometer that reveals how much truth the Kremlin is willing to tolerate. In the late Gorbachev and early Yeltsin era, there were serious efforts to admit the truth about this infamous deal cut by Stalin and Hitler, signaling that at least some Russian leaders wanted better relations with their neighbors, particularly Poland. Such relations can only be based on a willingness to be honest about Russia's history. But, under Putin, those tentative but promising steps in that direction have not only been stopped but reversed. We are back to the same kind of wholesale falsification of history that marked the worst of the Soviet period.
All of this points to the accuracy of William Faulkner's famous saying: "The past is never dead. It is not even past."

Q: Those who study the Second World War in Europe—particularly the German-Soviet War—know that the war and the Holocaust are inextricably linked and historians cannot fully understand one without knowledge of the other. In the present volume, how have you dealt with these two separate but connected events?

A: In my book, the war and the Holocaust are interwoven very deliberately. 1941 was the pivotal year in the rush to genocide. It has to be seen in the context of the war, where both the Soviet and German sides were guilty of launching campaigns of terror and murder. Aside from starving and mistreating millions of Soviet POWs and civilians, the Germans soon began looking for the means to commit mass murder on an even bigger scale against the Jews. At first, Jews were killed in "the Shoah by bullets" carried out by Einsatzgruppen, special units that carried out these mass executions. But given the desire to kill millions, this method began to feel inadequate.
At Auschwitz and elsewhere, the Germans began using Soviet POWs and Polish political prisoners to test experimental gas chambers. Once the Germans determined their efficacy, "the Shoah by gas" became the tool of choice for the Final Solution.

Q: In Chapter Eleven you write: "Over the course of the Holocaust, [Yaron] Pasher wrote [in his 2014 book Holocaust Versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler's "Final Solution" Undermined the German War Effort], 'somewhere be- tween 3.5 and 4 million were transported by the Reichsbahn to their deaths. ...which meant the Reichsbahn had to allocate 40,000 train wagons and between 2,500 and 3,000 locomotives.' Coupled with the requirements for transporting and maintaining the guards and administrators who ran the concentration camps, this represented a major diversion of resources from the war effort, he concluded." This speaks to a question that is much- discussed among historians regarding the Holocaust's direct influence and effect on the German war effort—in all theaters of operation. How do you see this debate?

A: There are other historians who feel that Pasher overestimates the impact of the Holocaust on transport and other war operations. There can be reasonable disagreements on that score. But I firmly believe that Hitler's entire policy of mass murder and terror that is epitomized by—but far from limited to—the Holocaust was more than morally indefensible: it also backfired.
As I describe in detail, Stalin's policy of terror led to at least some Soviet citizens initially welcoming the German invaders. They knew nothing about the Nazi movement or doctrine, but it seemed reasonable to believe that anyone who would deliver them from Stalin's rule would be a vast improvement. Instead, Hitler launched his even more brutal policy of terror, effectively helping save Stalin and his regime. Any Soviet POWs or civilians who thought they could save themselves by working with the Germans quickly realized the fallacy of such thinking. In the long run, this was yet another reason why Germany lost the war.

Q: Which historians have had the most influence on you as an author?

A: I greatly admire many of the biographers of Hitler like Alan Bullock and Ian Kershaw, and biographers of Stalin, especially Dmitri Volkogonov. And of course the journalist-turned-historian William Shirer. But I was probably influenced most by Robert Conquest, who understood the Soviet system of terror better than anyone, and by Christopher Browning, whose detailed examination of "the Shoah by bullets" in Ordinary Men was such a breakthrough work.
Finally, for clarity of thinking about the striking similarities between the Soviet and Nazi systems, the brilliant Soviet journalist Vasily Grossman's novel Life and Fate is in a class of its own. It had a huge impact on my thinking long before I began writing my books about the war.

Q: What is likely to surprise your readers in the present volume?

A: By drawing on diaries, letters, interviews, and memoirs, I show the contrast between what major figures like Churchill and Stalin were saying in public and thinking in private. To bolster morale, Churchill never revealed his doubts in public—but he certainly did have them on more than one occasion. So did some of the lesser known figures who played important backstage roles in this drama, such as General Raymond E. Lee, the U.S. military attaché in London. Lee worked hard to convince American journalists and others that Britain would hold out, but his diary reveals he was in near despair at times.
As for Stalin and his countrymen, I chronicle the panic and chaos in Moscow as German troops approached the outskirts of the city, and the top- secret evacuation of Lenin's body from the mausoleum on Red Square. A few years ago, I interviewed one of the caretakers of Lenin's body during its journey to Tyumen, a city 1,000 miles east of Moscow. All of which paints a very different picture of the early months of the German invasion than the official Soviet histories do.
The situation for both Britain and the Soviet Union was much more perilous during this period than it looks in retrospect.