A nice look at what author Andrew Nagorski considers to be the pivotal year of World War II, 1941, where the tide of war turned against the German war machine. Hard to argue that 1941 saw the events and decisions made on all sides that led to the eventual defeat of Germany and the destruction of Hitlerism.
For those that have studied the war there is not much new here, but despite that the book is a good read that brings some excellent perspective to the war. That perspective does include the difficulties faced by Churchill, as well as by FDR, in trying to keep the British afloat as they battled alone against Nazi Germany. We get the flavor of the political difficulties faced by FDR in trying to help the British without formally entering the war, with a good look at some of the diplomacy involved, including the very interesting interactions between British, American, and Soviet diplomats before the German invasion of the U.S.S.R.
Despite the broad look at the U.S. and British the main focus, as it should be, is on the decision by Hitler to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. It was arguably the worst decision of the war by Hitler, but it was most certainly not the only strategically flawed decision he made. The book looks at the run-up to that decision, including the German-Soviet treaty that allowed the invasion of Poland to proceed by both Hitler and Stalin. Hitler’s move was tactically and strategically brilliant, allowing him to concentrate his military power to the west to face the French and British threat without having to worry about the Soviets. The book gives us a look at the mindset of Stalin in this period. Stalin essentially waived off the crescendo of warnings on the true intentions of Hitler, even shipping supplies called for under the treaty right up to the point of the German invasion. This is the true crux of the book and it offers a great overview of the central players in that tragedy.
Most everybody agrees that Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union was a strategic blunder, but we also get a look at the tactical errors that sealed the Germans fate. Hitler delayed the invasion to deal with a government coup in Yugoslavia that enraged him, and while some have downplayed the military significance of that delay I am not in that group. It was a major error. The initial vast military success of the German invasion brought to Hitler some tactical choices about the deployment of forces that he handled poorly, breaking off the drive to Moscow to lend support to military efforts to capture economically important areas to the South. Hitler’s indecision on goals, and his overriding of his generals strong objections to delaying the drive to Moscow while he had the strategic initiative doomed the Germans to ultimate defeat. I believe the author did a very good job of covering this critical period, with a strong overview of the decisions that ultimately determined the course of the war.
Hitler, in addition to the ample errors of 1941, simply ignored the pre-war warnings of German economists, who informed him that a long war would simply not be sustainable for Germany. Hitler ignored those warnings, and in fact the author shows us that Hitler turned those arguments on their head, arguing that fast and decisive action was needed to avoid economic calamity for Germany. He was wrong on that score right from the start. From the book:
“In Mein Kampf, Hitler unwittingly identified another one of his failings that manifested itself in his preparations for war: his disregard for the economic underpinnings needed for a successful military strategy. “Economics is only of second- or third-rate importance, and the primary role falls to factors of politics, ethics, morality, and blood,” he wrote. Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, who was already considered the second most powerful man in the country, echoed those sentiments in a meeting with army officers in the summer of 1938. “The armed forces should not concern themselves with the fate of the economy,” he told them, since he had “sole responsibility” for such matters. “The collapse of parts of the economy was irrelevant. Ways will be found.” Both before the outbreak of the war and in its early days, other members of Hitler’s entourage, including within the military, attempted to warn the German leader that he was charting a dangerous course. They feared that his dismissing economic considerations, along with underestimating the strength and political will of Germany’s likely opponents, could prove to be a fatal combination. Even Göring expressed similar concerns on occasion. But all of them would be overruled again and again.”
Nagorski, Andrew. 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War (p. 21). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Hitler’s disregard of economics was not consistent, but when he did show concern it was on a tactical level, with not nearly enough concern or understanding of the strategic disaster awaiting Germany from a long war. This refusal to consider economics or figures not to his liking was shown when Hitler was faced with numbers indicating a very large Soviet military production capacity. He simply refused to accept numbers on Soviet tank and airplane capacity that cut against his own thoughts on the matter. His own thoughts were badly misinformed.
Nagorski has produced a very interesting book, especially for those who are approaching the subject for the first time. The war, and Hitlerism, have begun to fade in our collective memory. I hope that never happens, as the lessons learned and the human disaster that unfolded from the Nazi drive for world domination should never be forgotten. I have begun to re-read, after many years, the William Shirer epic, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.