War is one human endeavor that invites us to play the irresistible but entirely imaginary game of singling out the turning points in history. The Soviet victory in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, for example, is commonly cited as the tipping point that signaled the inevitable defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, but Andrew Nagorski proposes a different and much earlier date in “1941: The Year Germany Lost the War.” His solution, of course, is summed up in the title.
Nagorski is uniquely qualified to play the game. He is a veteran Newsweek correspondent whose postings as bureau chief included Berlin, Bonn, Rome, Warsaw and Moscow, all places that were scarred by the most consequential events and personalities of World War II. All five of his previous books touched upon the war to some degree, and three of them represent deep dives into its history: “The Nazi Hunters,” “Hitlerland” and “The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II.”
“World War II never felt like a distant abstraction,” he writes of his years as a correspondent. “Its legacy remains a source of constant debate, its horrors a source of constant fascination.”
Nagorski’s latest book opens on June 28, 1940, when Adolf Hitler seemed to be within reach of fulfilling his most grandiose visions of world conquest. Nazi Germany had already annexed Austria, absorbed much of Czechoslovakia and divided up Poland with its current ally, the Soviet Union. Much of Western Europe was under German occupation, and France was on the verge of abject surrender. After evacuating its army from Dunkirk, only Britain remained to resist the undefeated German armed forces: “We are alone” was Winston Churchill’s rallying cry to his beleaguered country, but it was also an accurate status report.
“To the growing ranks of the true believers, victory was no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when,’ ” writes Nagorski. By the end of the following year, however, Germany had reached and passed its apogee, or so he insists. Four more years of hard fighting lay ahead, but Germany’s fate was decided: “What transpired in that critical year set the trajectory that would lead to Nazi Germany’s ultimate destruction,” the author concludes.
Nagorski makes his argument in vivid and compelling detail, and his book is laced with bitter irony. On Jan. 1, 1941, for example, when Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were still in bed with each other, the Soviet ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky, wrote in his diary that the year ahead would be “the decisive year of the war” and observed that “Hitler must make a supreme effort (most probably in spring or summer) in order to bring the war to an end.” Maisky was right about the timing but wrong about the target of Hitler’s big push. “Decision: Russia’s destruction must . . . be made a part of this struggle,” one of Hitler’s generals recorded in his notes of a conference with the führer. “Spring 1941. The sooner Russia is crushed the better.”
Hitler’s decision to invade Russia is always cited as a crucial factor in his downfall, but the entry of America into the war was another necessary condition for Allied victory. Nagorski reminds us that neither the U.S. entry into the war nor the ultimate defeat of Germany seemed obvious or inevitable in 1941. “Democracy in Britain is finished,” Joseph Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to Britain, told President Franklin Roosevelt. Charles Lindbergh, a favorite of the isolationists in the America First movement, insisted that “a victory by Germany’s European people would be preferable to one by Russia’s semi-Asiatic Soviet Union.” Ultimately, only the Japanese attacks in the Pacific allowed Roosevelt to go to war against Germany.
“The whole action seems as insane as Hitler’s attack on Russia,” wrote Harold Nicolson, a member of Parliament, upon hearing the news of Pearl Harbor. “I remain amazed.”
“1941” turns out to be a book about how wrong a dictator can be when planning and making war. “A campaign against the Soviet Union is, after all, tantamount to suicide,” wrote Maisky, but Hitler convinced himself otherwise. Joseph Stalin himself issued orders to shoot the deserters from the Wehrmacht who warned of the invasion, on charges of spreading disinformation. “Just as no one could convince Hitler that it was folly to attack the Soviet Union,” writes Nagorski, “no one could convince Stalin that it was folly to believe that Hitler was not about to launch the war against his eastern neighbor that he had first promised in Mein Kampf.”
“History looks inevitable only in retrospect,” Nagorski readily concedes. Thanks to his mastery of historical sources and his acute insight into when, why and how decisions are made in real life, he is able to make a credible argument that 1941 was a turning point, if not exactly the turning point, of World War II in Europe. But a hard truth is always apparent just beneath the surface of his argument and his analysis: It is impossible to predict what turns out to be inevitable, which makes “1941” an essential text and a healthy caution for the war planners in Washington today.
The Year Germany Lost the War
By Andrew Nagorski
Simon & Schuster.
381 pp. $30
Jonathan Kirsch is the author of, most recently, “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.”