‘1941’ Review: The Year Hitler Lost the War

The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Todman

France may have fallen quickly, but war planners on both sides could see that Germany lacked the aerial or naval power to defeat Britain. Hitler invaded Russia to seize more resources, but soon was fighting unwinnable wars on two fronts

Viewed from the perspective of 1939, Germany’s defeat in World War II was not surprising. From the outset, it was plain to planners on all sides that Germany lacked the global reach and economic strength to win a long war. What did stun contemporaries was the speed and scale of German successes in 1940, when France’s sudden collapse seemed temporarily to reshape the strategic balance and open the possibility of a new Nazi-run order in Europe.

It is here that Andrew Nagorski’s entertaining book begins—with Hitler making a visit to Paris at the end of June 1940, his head already full of the desperate need for conquests yet to come. As “1941: The Year Germany Lost the War” shows, the military domination of the European mainland did not resolve the mismatch between Germany’s ambitions and resources. As the Battle of Britain made clear, Hitler lacked the naval and air power to knock the U.K., under prime minister Winston Churchill, out of the war.

Fears of Nazi domination of the Atlantic also made it easier for President Franklin Roosevelt to increase aid to the U.K. against the resistance of American isolationists. As Mr. Nagorski writes: “Roosevelt was intent on helping Britain prevail, no matter how fierce the opposition might be in the United States to his policies.” Crucially, once Britain depleted its financial reserves, which had been used to invest heavily in American arms production, Roosevelt was able to replace them with U.S. government money. The resultant supplies were provided to Hitler’s enemies free of charge under the terms of the “Lend-Lease” legislation passed in March 1941.

Hitler was convinced he would soon be faced with an Anglo-American air armada of unprecedented power. A Europe blockaded by the British Royal Navy, meanwhile, proved unable to develop as an economic bloc that could counter this trans-Atlantic threat. For reasons of strategy as well as ideology, then, he decided to send his armies east. A lightning war would quickly defeat Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, clearing the way for a murderous German colonization of the east and securing the raw materials required to fight in the west. In 1939 Stalin’s pact with Hitler to dissect Poland had allowed the German dictator to risk confronting France and the U.K.. Now the Soviet leader blinded himself to the warning signs of the imminent German attack.

When the offensive got under way on June 22, 1941, it surprised not only Stalin but also the soldiers of the Red Army, who were surrounded and captured as Axis forces swept east during the summer of 1941. Millions of these prisoners would die from illness or starvation. Behind the advancing armies, German units led mass killings of Jews as Nazi authorities accelerated their efforts to annihilate the Jewish population of Europe.

This is a familiar story but Mr. Nagorski tells it well. He makes the conventional point that, when push came to shove, Stalin, unlike Hitler, was sensible enough to know when to leave war to the generals—at least those who had survived his purges. The author underplays, however, Stalin’s cunning. For all that he was shocked by the unexpected German assault, he had in 1940 accurately recognized that Hitler lacked the navy to defeat the British, and left open the possibility of future cooperation with the democracies. Roosevelt, too, was playing a double game: supporting the U.K. against Hitler while anticipating British imperial decline and the rise of an American-shaped world order.

The drive on Moscow was ultimately turned back, thanks to a combination of inadequate German planning, determined Red Army resistance and aid from the U.K. and U.S. The Soviets were (correctly) convinced that the Japanese were not about to join the attack with an assault in northeast Asia. Instead, Japanese militarists were going to seize the opportunities created by the defeat of France to fall upon Western empires in Southeast Asia. To do that, they intended to eliminate the deterrent power of the U.S. Pacific Fleet via a surprise attack on its base at Pearl Harbor.

By December 1941 the stage was therefore set for two titanic events: a Soviet counterattack that drove the Germans back from the gates of Moscow, inflicting their first serious defeat on land since invading Poland, and the opening of the conflict between Japan and the Western powers, including the U.S. Believing he could seize the moment to interrupt supplies across the Atlantic, Hitler declared war on America on Dec. 11, 1941. Germany was now locked into two unwinnable wars. The expansion of the conflict it had initiated to avoid the problems of geostrategic inadequacy had in fact brought defeat appreciably nearer.

In “1941” Mr. Nagorski keeps the focus at a high level, on the men—Roosevelt, Churchill, but above all Hitler and Stalin—who directed the great powers at war. The benefit of this restricted cast is that Mr. Nagorski is able to keep up the pace of the narrative while showing how global conflict was interconnected. Among the most important intersections, because it determined Roosevelt’s freedom of action, was the attitude of the American public. Mr. Nagorski, perhaps helped by his background as a Newsweek reporter, is particularly good on how American journalists reported from London and Moscow, and the effect that their accounts had on how the war was understood, not just in the United States but in the U.K. The British started to believe the myth of their heroic “Blitz spirit” when it was explained to them in an American accent.

Only when Mr. Nagorski turns to the Axis offensive into the Soviet Union does he explore more deeply the firsthand experiences of servicemen and civilians on both sides. Their testimony heightens the drama and strengthens his argument that the failure to take Moscow in late 1941 marked the point at which Germany lost the war. There is something to this, though the author also makes clear that, as far as Hitler was concerned, the war was sure to be lost in any case unless the Soviet Union was invaded. One consequence of Germany’s defeat in the east in 1941, however, was an extraordinary escalation of Germany’s genocidal endeavors during 1942. The end might have been inevitable, but the fighting and the killing were far from done.

—Mr. Todman is Reader in Modern History at Queen Mary University of London.