Because Nazi Germany lacked the means to win a prolonged war, each year of the war could qualify as significant, but few readers will object to this expert history of 1941, a year when Hitler made a flurry of stupid decisions. Award-winning former Newsweek journalist Nagorski (The Nazi Hunters, 2017, etc.) emphasizes that when Hitler’s advisers warned that his targets—France, Britain, and the Soviet Union—could mobilize much greater resources, he concluded, paradoxically, that Germany must go to war immediately while its military held the advantage. Conquering Poland in 1939 was relatively easy, but the 1940 defeat of France (considered the world’s strongest military power) flabbergasted everyone and did nothing to discourage Hitler’s megalomania. At the beginning of 1941, Germany had become massively powerful, and by spring, Winston Churchill’s campaign to involve the United States was slowly advancing. President Franklin Roosevelt had revived the draft the previous fall. The Lend-Lease Act passed Congress in March, and the Destroyers-for-Bases agreement was finalized in September. Most readers will be surprised when Nagorski points out that Hitler’s plan to invade the Soviet Union was no secret thanks to talkative Nazi officials and Soviet spies. Allied diplomats sent repeated warnings, but Stalin, as deluded as Hitler, dismissed them as capitalist disinformation. When the invasion began in June, everyone knew that the war had entered its critical phase, but it was winter before Allied leaders stopped worrying that the Soviet Union would collapse. Popular histories extol Allied lend-lease aid, but little arrived during 1941, so the Red Army pulled itself together on its own. The author ends with Hitler’s bizarre declaration of war on America after Japan’s December attack on Pearl Harbor. For much of the last half of the book, Nagorski concentrates on the Russian front, where over 90 percent of the fighting occurred, a figure that diminished only modestly in later years.
Despite few revelations and though dominated by the immense war between two unsympathetic evil empires, this is a lively, opinionated account of a critical year.