Thursday, July 1, 2021

The Year Germany Lost The War


June of 2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the largest land invasion in human history -- Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union.  Operation Barbarossa kicked off on June 22, 1941 employing nearly four million German and Axis troops.  Hitler was wildly optimistic about his invasion of Stalin's Russia, "We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down."  The Soviets armies were caught by surprise in the initial phase of the campaign.  They were shattered by the German Blitzkrieg tactics and millions surrendered while the rest reeled in retreat.  Airplanes of the Red air force were destroyed  on many runways.

Andrew Nagorski is the Polish author of 1941: The Year Germany Lost The War ( His 2019 work documents the catastrophic decision making process of the Axis powers in 1941.  In early 1941, it very much seemed that the Axis would win World War II.  Britain and her Commonwealth allies were the last remaining opposition to the seemingly invincible German forces that had swept through Poland, the Low Countries and France.  But the Axis were a cabal of dictators who were incapable of cooperation and the coordination of strategy.  By the end of 1941, Hitler and other Axis leaders had made huge strategic miscalculations that could only result in their ultimate destruction and defeat.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps / Saul
Author's Collection

Nagorski opens his book with Hitler's visit to the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides in Paris in June of 1940.  Hitler was appalled by the French treatment of their former Emperor, "They have put him down into a hole.  People must look down at a coffin far below them...They should look up at Napoleon."  The staging was all wrong.  It offended Hitler's sense of showmanship.  Hitler would, of course, go on to repeat Napoleon's greatest folly -- he would invade Russia.  "General Winter" would inflict a grievous toll on the Wehrmacht just as it had done to Napoleon's Grande Armée in 1812.

Stalin had grossly misjudged his fellow dictator.  After the Night of the long Knives which persecuted German Jews, Stalin declared, "Hitler, what a great man!"  The Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement allowed the Soviets and Germans to carve up Poland.  Despite multiple warnings from the British and his own spies (Richard Sorge, etc), Stalin refused to believe that Hitler would betray him.  His own brutal purges of the Soviet officer corps had weakened the fighting capability of the Soviet forces.  The Soviets were humiliated by the fierce resistance of the Finns in the Winter War of '39/'40 that produced Soviet losses of around 125,000 versus Finnish losses of about 48,000.

Hitler erred catastrophically by launching his invasion of the Soviet Union and repeating Napoleon's greatest folly.  Moreover, Hitler compounded the error further by imposing a brutal occupation that sought to transform civilians in occupied territories into Slavic slave labor.  Many Ukrainians and others initially welcomed Axis forces as a relief to the tyranny they had endured under Stalin.  Their hopes were quickly dashed by the remorseless tactics of the SS execution squads (Einsatzgruppen).

Commander K with Churchill & FDR
London, UK

Though Winston Churchill was a staunch lifelong anti-communist, he welcomed Stalin as an ally against Hitler.  Vital lend lease supplies were shipped via arctic convoys to Russia.  Churchill explained, "If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons."  Churchill also lobbied hard and successfully for FDR to dispatch even greater lend lease support for the Soviet Union as well.

Grosvenor Square, London

FDR was wrestling with the isolationists, known as America-Firsters and led by Charles Lindbergh, in his own country.  Shell-shocked by the cost of WWI, many Americans were reluctant to commit their treasury to foreign entanglements and their sons to foreign wars.

USS Arizona Memorial
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

It was, of course, a Japanese strategic miscalculation that changed all that -- the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Japanese planners calculated that they could not continue their long war in China (begun in 1937) without oil and other resources.  Naval aircraft launched from carriers attacked the US fleet berthed at Pearl Harbor killing nearly three thousand people and sending the USS Arizona to the bottom.  The attack on Pearl Harbor united the American people and also the Allies.  FDR told Churchill that day, "We are all in the same boat now."   For Churchill the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor could mean only one thing: "So we have won after all."

Hitler closed 1941 by foolishly declaring war on the United States.  He told the Reichstag that Roosevelt was in league with "the full diabolical meanness of Jewry."  That same month German forces were halted at the gates of Moscow and the Soviets began to counterattack.  Ultimately, about 4 out of 5 German soldiers would be killed on the Eastern front in WW2.

Many hard days would follow the attack on Pearl Harbor in WW2 and the year of 1941.  The Axis would win significant victories, notably the fall of Singapore, the surrender of the Philippines and the capture of Tobruk in Libya.  The war would not turn in the Allied favor until the 1942 victories at Midway, El Alamein and Stalingrad turned the tide.  But the die was surely cast making Allied victory inevitable by the Axis decisions made in 1941.

Over eighty years ago Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London, had scribbled in his diary on January 1, 1941 that "this will be be the decisive year of the war."  He did not realize how right he would prove to be...  

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