1941: The Year Germany Lost the War
On June 28, 1940, shortly after the German invasion of France and that country’s capitulation, Adolf Hitler visited Paris for the first and only time in his life. During the mere three hours he spent in the French capital, there was no victory parade. The ostensible reason was the fear of British air raids. But the German leader later offered another explanation:
“We aren’t at the end yet.”
At that point, Hitler’s Germany had reached its apogee. It had already dismembered Czechoslovakia, annexed Austria, and conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, culminating in its especially satisfying humiliation of France. The German military machine looked to be unstoppable.
Nonetheless, Hitler understood that his messianic dream of a new Germanic empire was only partially fulfilled. Three leaders stood in his way. Britain’s Winston Churchill, who replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister at the moment that France fell, was proclaiming Britain’s defiance and determination to fight back. The Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin remained a de facto but uncertain ally since the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact less than a year earlier, with neither
tyrant completely trusting the other not to strike. And across the Atlantic, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was promising to keep the United States out of the conflict, but there was no doubt about his sympathy for an increasingly isolated Britain.
So instead of participating in military festivities in Paris, Hitler used the short visit as an opportunity to get a quick look at the city’s cultural landmarks.
Accompanied by his favorite architect Albert Speer and other aides, he drove directly to the Paris Opera, where an attendant took him on a tour of the empty, lavishly ornamented building. According to Speer, Hitler “went into ecstasies about its beauty.” Then the German delegation took in the Madeleine church, the Champs-Élysées, and the Trocadero before making another brief stop, this time at the Eiffel Tower.
The highlight of the tour, though, was Les Invalides, where Hitler lingered at Napoléon’s tomb. Pierre Huss of the International News Service was one of a small group of correspondents from Berlin who were allowed to witness the scene. The Nazi leader looked lost in his thoughts.
“He folded his arms and murmured something we could not hear,” Huss recalled. “His lips moved, as if he were talking to himself, and once or twice he shook his head.”
Hitler came “out of his trance” and leaned forward on the balustrade to stare down at Napoléon’s tomb. “Napoléon, mein lieber, they have made a bad mistake,” he said. Huss admitted: “It startled me, standing there across from a live warlord and a dead emperor.” The correspondent also did not understand what Hitler meant.
The German leader promptly explained to everyone around him: “They have put him down into a hole. People must look down at a coffin far below them. . . . They should look up at Napoléon, feeling small by the very size of the monument or sarcophagus above their heads. You do not impress people if you walk in a street and they are on top of a building. They must look at something above them; you must be the stage and center of attraction above the level of all eyes.”
Hitler was applying the same principles of staging that had proven devastatingly effective at his rallies as he rose to power. In talking about Napoléon, he was also talking about himself. “I shall never make such a mistake,” he continued. “I know how to keep my hold on people after I have passed on. I shall be the Führer they look up at and go home to talk of and remember. My life shall not end in the mere form of death. It will, on the contrary, begin then.” H. R. Knickerbocker, another Berlin-based American correspondent, wrote that it would be wrong to dismiss the analogies between Napoléon and Hitler. “
Hitler is the nearest thing to Napoléon since Napoléon,” he argued in his book Is Tomorrow Hitler’s?, which was published in 1941, after he had left Germany. He quoted a French colonel who had marveled at Hitler’s “miraculous sense of timing,” and explained to American readers that the German leader’s military successes were a result of the fact that he was “always right.” As if catching himself, Knickerbocker tacked on a caveat: “Well, nearly always.”
As far as Hitler was concerned, no qualifiers were necessary. On the evening when he returned from Paris to his temporary field quarters in a northern French village, he invited Speer to join him for dinner. “Wasn’t Paris beautiful?” he declared. “But Berlin must be made more beautiful.” Then he added casually: “In the past, I often considered whether we would not have to destroy Paris. But when we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow. So why should we destroy it?”
While Hitler knew that he had not yet achieved total victory, his message was that it was coming soon—and Speer needed to start making preparations for a capital worthy of the new empire and its brilliant modern-day emperor. As Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel put it in the aftermath of the French campaign, Hitler had proven himself to be “the
greatest military commander of all time.” By then, according to the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, the German people had convinced themselves that Hitler was their messiah or at least the
equivalent of an Old Testament prophet who would “
lead them to the Promised Land.”
To the growing ranks of the true believers, victory was no longer a question of “if” but “when.”
competing narrative was beginning to take shape even before Hitler’s visit to Paris and his subsequent return to Berlin, where he was welcomed with cheers, strewn flowers, and the ringing of bells across the city. It was carefully crafted by Churchill, first in his speeches and then in his memoirs. Following the collapse of France and the spectacular evacuation of 338,000 British and Allied troops from Dunkirk by the Royal Navy and a flotilla of small boats, the prime minister rallied his countrymen with his famous speech on June 4, 1940. Facing a possible German invasion, he pledged to “
defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets; we shall never surrender . . .”
But for all that imagery of resistance on land, the next battles were in the skies over England. There, in what became known as the Battle of Britain, Germany suffered its first defeat. The Luftwaffe could not cripple the Royal Air Force, which was bolstered by an influx of Polish, Czech, and Commonwealth pilots. Hitler thereby failed to gain the air superiority his forces needed to launch an invasion of that island nation. “Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization,” Churchill told the House of Commons on June 18, rallying his countrymen and all those who were seeking to liberate their occupied lands to make this “their finest hour.”
In many accounts of the war, this is presented as the critical period marking the end of Hitler’s string of victories and the beginning of the reversal of fortunes that would lead to Germany’s defeat. “
The Second World War seemed to have been decided early—not in May 1945, but after less than a year, in June 1940,” wrote German
historian Christian Hartmann. To a limited extent, this is accurate. The Battle of Britain was the first turning point—but it fell far short of a decisive one.
And despite Churchill’s insistence that he had always believed in victory, he was not immune to moments of doubt. In the largely overlooked recollections of Scotland Yard detective W. H. Thompson, his longtime bodyguard revealed one such occasion. Returning from his meeting with King George VI at Buckingham Palace on May 10, 1940, after Chamberlain had tendered his resignation and German troops launched their invasion of France, Churchill was uncharacteristically subdued.
You know why I have been to Buckingham Palace, Thompson?” he asked.
Thompson replied that he understood that the king had “at last” asked him to form a new government. “I only wish that the position had come your way in better times, for you have taken on an enormous task,” he added.
Churchill had tears in his eyes as he replied: “God alone knows how great it is. I hope that it is not too late. I am very much afraid that it is. We can only do our best.”
There was nothing inevitable about the subsequent sequence of events. As John Winant, who frequently traveled to London and would become US ambassador to Britain in 1941, pointed out: “
You could not live in London in those early years and not realize how narrow was the margin of survival. It would have taken so few mistakes to bring about defeat. . . . There were many times in the early years of the war when you felt that the sands would run out and all would be over.”
In fact, Joseph Kennedy, Winant’s predecessor as ambassador, had not only advocated a policy of appeasement but also widely predicted that Britain would not be able to withstand the Nazi onslaught. After Poland fell in September 1939, Kennedy reported that military experts were not giving Britain, backed by its French ally, more than
Chinaman’s chance” against Germany. Both in Washington and London, he was seen as “
a defeatist,” and he kept predicting Britain’s demise even after his return to the United States.
Another foreign ambassador in London, the Soviet envoy Ivan Maisky, wrote in his diary on May 20, 1940, as France was collapsing: “
The Anglo-French bourgeois elite is getting what it deserves. . . . We are witnessing the fall of the great capitalist civilization, a fall similar in importance to that of the Roman Empire.” Despite his close social ties with many top British officials, Maisky was relishing what he saw as Britain’s—and, by extension, the whole capitalist world’s—comeuppance.
As for the defeated French, most of their leaders saw no choice but to accept Hitler’s armistice, which meant nothing less than surrender. They not only predicted that Britain would follow their example but sounded eager for it to do so. The French military commander General Maxime Weygand offered a bleak prediction: “
In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.”
Even some of Churchill’s staunchest supporters could not help but feel despair as the German blitzkrieg rolled across France. Conservative MP Harold Nicolson made a suicide pact with his wife, the poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West, securing poison pills they pledged to use if they were about to be captured by German invaders. In a letter to Sackville-West, Nicolson wrote that he did not fear that kind of “
honourable death.” What he did fear, however, was “being tortured and humiliated.”
Churchill soon managed to lift the spirits of Nicolson and most of his countrymen, aided by the heroism and skill of the pilots who prevailed in the Battle of Britain. Their successes forced the indefinite postponement of Operation Sea Lion, the German plan for an invasion of Britain, in September.
Nonetheless, for the rest of 1940, the war could be described as an uneven stalemate. England had not collapsed, but waves of German bombers took part in the Blitz, dropping their deadly cargo
on London, Coventry, and other cities. In the Battle of the Atlantic, U-boats and other German vessels targeted British ships, seeking to further isolate the lone holdout against the Nazi tide. On most of the Continent, the new German masters reigned supreme, unleashing a previously unimaginable reign of terror to subjugate the local populations. The decisive turning points had not been reached yet.
But they would be in 1941.
What transpired in that critical year set the trajectory that would lead to Nazi Germany’s ultimate destruction. It was the year of Germany’s “
attack on the whole world,” as German writer Joachim Käppner put it. By the end of 1941, Hitler had taken almost every wrong decision possible. His early successes in Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union that he launched in late June, had turned into the first defeat of the German army on the outskirts of Moscow. His decision to make mass murder and terror his weapons of choice, not just in the first stages of the Holocaust but also in his treatment of Soviet POWs and others in the newly conquered territories, were already beginning to work against him.
The leader who seemed to be so “gloriously right,” as the American correspondent H. R. Knickerbocker had put it earlier, was by then disastrously wrong.
What accounted for this stunning turnaround in the short span of one year? What possessed Hitler to gamble again and again, raising the stakes each time? Once it was clear that Britain was not going to be added to his list of quick conquests, he gambled on delivering a swift knockout blow to the Soviet Union. When that failed, he not only welcomed Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but rushed to declare war on the United States, thereby putting an end to the efforts of isolationists such as Charles Lindbergh and the America First movement to keep their country out of the conflict. As a result, Churchill’s Britain could boast two new powerful allies: the Soviet Union and the United States.
And what possessed Hitler to pursue a policy of terror and enslavement as his armies scored their initial successes in the western Soviet Union, where many Soviet POWs and local inhabitants would have otherwise welcomed any invader who promised liberation from Stalin’s tyranny? One key part of that rule-by-terror approach was “the Shoah by bullets” carried out by Einsatzgruppen, special squads assigned the task of shooting Jews, Gypsies, and other “enemies” of Nazi rule. It was no accident that 1941 was the year when the Holocaust was set in motion, although the further coordination of the logistics was then left to the Wannsee Conference that took place on January 20, 1942.
To outsiders and even to some of his inner circle, Hitler’s actions in 1941 often looked like lunacy. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that he had chosen a path that could only lead to the destruction of his country, his movement, and himself. But a “deranged monster” theory hardly provides adequate explanation for the fateful course he charted, or the mayhem perpetrated in his name. Nor does it explain the roles of the Allied leaders who benefitted from his key miscalculations and parlayed them into a strategy that led to victory in 1945.
World War II was much more than a clash of two opposing political and military alliances. It was at heart a worldwide struggle instigated by a man and a movement whose race-based ideology and inner conviction of infallibility defied common sense. Yet at the same time, it was propelled by a perverse internal logic based on a worldview that made perfect sense to its creator and his devoted followers.
Nineteen forty-one would prove to be the year when the war escalated into a truly global conflict, with Hitler scoring impressive short-term tactical victories while condemning his Third Reich to defeat. His actions also guaranteed that the Third Reich’s murderous policies would continue to take their toll right up until the end of the fighting, dooming millions. Finally, they allowed fellow mass murderer Joseph Stalin, his onetime ally-turned-foe, to dictate the shape of the postwar world, leaving Europe split into two antagonistic camps. This Cold
War division remained frozen in place for nearly a half century afterward. That, too, was a legacy of 1941.
A personal note is in order here. During the many years that I worked as a Newsweek foreign correspondent based in cities such as Bonn, Berlin, Moscow, and Warsaw, World War II never felt like a distant abstraction. Its legacy remains a source of constant debate, its horrors a source of constant fascination. The latter raises fundamental questions not just about how someone like Hitler could have come to power but also about basic human nature. As a result, the books I have written since then all deal with various aspects of Hitler’s rise, the war, the Holocaust, and the search for justice afterward.
Each of those projects, along with my reporting for a broad array of articles earlier, helped provide me with research and interviews that I could draw upon for this book. In particular, the numerous interviews I conducted while working on The Greatest Battle, my book about the battle for Moscow, helped me emphasize the key difference between Hitler and Stalin in 1941: how Hitler’s megalomania led him to multiply his mistakes as the year progressed, while Stalin’s megalomania did not prevent him from charting a more calculated course to salvage his country and regime.
Given the passage of time, many of those who participated directly in these events are no longer with us, making my previous interviews all the more valuable. But even at this late date, I was able to find and interview some survivors from that era who I had not tracked down before. At the same time, the literature about World War II has kept growing, which meant that I could benefit from a variety of new studies with new perspectives.
My experiences as a foreign correspondent during the final years of the Cold War and the seismic upheavals that led to the collapse of the Soviet empire have prompted me to keep returning to a central theme: the role of the individual in history. History looks inevitable
only in retrospect: in reality, it is shaped by the choices of both political leaders and their subjects, by the powerful and the dissidents—and, at times, by the element of pure chance.
In writing about contemporary events and recent history, I always look for the pivotal moments, actions, and decisions that produced the outcomes we now take for granted. An examination of those moments, especially if it includes a close look at the motivations of the key players, can shed new light on events that are often only partly understood.
In the broader histories of World War II, a single year’s significance can be hard to discern. This book is an attempt to bring the importance of 1941 sharply into focus.