What Was the Turning Point of World War II?

By Laurence Rees
6/1/2010 • Adolph Hitler, Fall of France, Pearl Harbor, World War II

The improbable German victory in May (after which Hitler toured Paris) turned a fool's gamble into a great military triumph.
The improbable German victory in May (after which Hitler toured Paris) turned a fool's gamble into a great military triumph.

Argument is one of the great pleasures of history. Join the conversation in the comments below.

What was the turning point of World War II? Is it possible to pick one event—great or small—in this immense conflict and say, “This was the decisive moment”? That’s the question I recently posed to some of the war’s finest historians.

Of course, there is no right answer. To come to any decision about when the turning point might have been means making a judgment about what would have happened if things had been different, and counterfactual history is notoriously impossible to resolve. But that was the challenge of asking the question in the first place. History is all about argument, and the issue of when the turning point of the war was stimulated a lively debate about the relative importance of key moments in the conflict.

In my judgment the turning point of the war occurred on October 16, 1941. And toward the end of this article I explain why this date was so crucial, not just to the outcome of the war, but also to the whole course of the 20th century.

But let’s first consider what the distinguished historians I spoke to had to say, beginning with Adam Tooze, recently appointed professor of history at Yale. Tooze—whose book The Wages of Destruction, an economic history of the Third Reich, is a groundbreaking piece of scholarship—is adamant that the turning point occurred less than a year after the war began. “There’s no question,” he told me, “that the entire history of the war is determined in some sense and shaped by the German victory in France in May 1940.”

Tooze was the only historian I talked to who pointed to May 1940 as the moment everything changed, and he makes a powerful case. The mistake most people make, he suggests, is in thinking that the German victory over the British and French in spring 1940 was somehow predestined. It’s a myth, he says, that the Germans had superior equipment in the fight. In fact, in terms of numbers and quantity of motorized vehicles, the Allies held a distinct advantage. No, Tooze argues, the Germans won this battle because of superior leadership and, crucially, because they were lucky.

It’s hard to underestimate, he says, the immensity of the risk Adolf Hitler took with this attack. The German armored thrust through the Ardennes  forest (territory previously thought almost impassable for tanks), and then the race to the French coast at the Bay of the Somme, was a gigantic gamble. If the Allies had been able to isolate or significantly hold up the German advance, then not only would the Nazis have lost the battle for France, they would have lost the whole war.  In essence, what a detailed study of this history has taught him is that if the British and French had not performed so appallingly in this one fight, then World War II would have ended by the summer of 1940 in an ignominious defeat for the Germans.

But because of the incompetence of the Allies and the brilliance of German generals like Erich von Manstein, Heinz Guderian, and Erwin Rommel, the Nazis were victorious, and  Hitler’s status as a war leader rose to stratospheric levels. This was all the more extraordinary given that just months before, he had been considered an incompetent military strategist for even suggesting the invasion of France. In the autumn of 1939, senior military figures like Franz Halder, the chief of staff of the German army, had thought that Hitler was almost insane for directing the Germans to mount an attack west.

The First World War cast a long and dark shadow over any second world war, as far as the German leadership was concerned. And the German High Command feared above all else a repeat of the bloody stalemate of the trench war in France between 1914 and 1918. But instead of repeating that inconclusive and costly struggle, Hitler led the Germans to total victory in six weeks. At the time, it seemed to be the greatest military triumph in history. It also meant, of course, that when Hitler subsequently called for the invasion of the Soviet Union, his generals were relatively relaxed. After all, what problems could the shambolic, ill-led Red Army pose to an army that had so swiftly conquered France?

None of the other historians I talked to picked such an early event of the war as the decisive one. Conrad C. Crane, for example, the director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute and a former professor of history at West Point, chose as his turning point precisely the moment this contest became a true world war. “The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war in such a way that it was fully mobilized and fully antagonized and eventually it’s going to have a major influence in both theaters of the war,” he told me. Another distinguished American military historian, Professor Geoffrey Wawro of the University of North Texas, agreed with Crane—at least in the context of the Pacific war. And Akira Iriye, a scholar who was born in Japan and later became a professor at Harvard University, also thought that Pearl Harbor was the turning point of the war—in part because the attack on the American fleet turned out to be such a “monumental mistake.”

But they were the only historians I talked to who believed that Pearl Harbor was the key moment of the conflict. Others, like the presidential historian Robert Dallek, thought Pearl Harbor—while obviously important—could not be considered the turning point because America was already set on a path to war. “I think the United States would have gotten into the war anyway,” Dallek told me, “because the Japanese were intent on delivering a blow to American power in the Pacific, clearing us out of there and not allowing us to really compete with them.”

In fact, Dallek was one of no fewer than six historians who voted for a turning point that took place on the Volga River in the south of Russia, at a city that bore the name of the Soviet leader—Stalingrad. “It was the decisive defeat of Nazi arms in Russia that finally allowed people to say that this is not an invincible force and it can be overcome,” Dallek says.

“Stalingrad changes everything,” agrees the prominent British historian Max Hastings. “Once the Germans have been thrown back from Stalingrad, once they’ve lost that battle, the war was never the same again.”

“The Battle of Stalingrad is not a turning point necessarily in strategic terms, because a lot more has to be done before the Soviets can be certain of defeating Germany,” says renowned World War II historian Richard Overy. “The West has still got a lot to do to get its act together properly. But it’s the extraordinary symbolic power that Stalingrad has for the Soviet people, and it’s the point at which they suddenly begin to believe in themselves, and suddenly historic Russia has been saved. Suddenly the Germans are vulnerable. And this is the message that goes round the world.”

On a practical level it’s hard to disagree with this analysis. The Germans had fought nearly a thousand miles across the Soviet Union to get to Stalingrad. But this was as far as they would reach into the territory of their enemy. They would spend the next 27 months making a fighting retreat all the way back to the center of Berlin. So, quite literally, this was a turning point.

But almost more importantly, the Soviet offensive at Stalingrad marked the moment when Stalin stopped believing he always knew better than his generals. The victory had been possible only because the soviet leader had allowed two of his best commanders, Georgi Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevsky, time and space in the autumn of 1942 to plan the vast encirclement, Operation Uranus, that was to trap the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad.

A million Red Army soldiers took part in Operation Uranus, which was launched at 6 a.m. on November 19, 1942. Just four days later, on November 23, units of the Red Army met up at Kalach, west of Stalingrad, and the encirclement of the Germans was complete. Despite Erich von Manstein’s best efforts in Operation Winter Tempest it was to prove impossible for the Sixth Army to be saved, and Stalingrad fell to the Red Army at the end of January 1943.

“Militarily, it’s the moment when the balance significantly shifts,” professor William I. Hitchcock of Temple University told me. “Victory is not inevitable, but it’s far more likely after Stalingrad than beforehand for the Allied powers. It’s also important to pick Stalingrad because it reminds us of the importance of the fighting in the East, where the decisive fate of the Second World War was really going to be decided.”

Other experts I talked to, like the acclaimed British military historian Antony Beevor, agreed that Stalingrad was the turning point of the war because of this combination of military, political, and psychological reasons. As a result, Beevor told me, “Stalingrad became a huge symbol.” Stalingrad was, as Max Hastings admitted, “the boring answer” to the question—what was the turning point of World War II?—but, he claimed, one which “has to be the right one.”

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