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

Three historians picked December 7 as the war's turning point, after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor propelled America into the conflict.
Three historians picked December 7 as the war's turning point, after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor propelled America into the conflict.

But does it? Certainly not in the view of the brilliant German historian Norbert Frei, whom I interviewed when he was a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He maintained that it was the Allied decision not to bomb Auschwitz that was the key turning point. If Auschwitz had been bombed then, he argued, we would think even “more honorably” about the Allies “than we do.” Frei’s verdict was the most unexpected of all the potential turning points proposed. And, of course, since the decision not to bomb Auschwitz was made in 1944—the Allies did not have absolutely certain information about the camp’s true function before this date—this can’t be seen as the military turning point of the war. The reality was that by 1944 it was only a matter of time before the Nazis were beaten. But what is intriguing about Frei’s judgment is that he sees this as the moral turning point of the war—and for him that makes this a hugely significant moment.

Rather a more conventional turning point was chosen by several other historians I interviewed. They picked, as the most decisive moment of the war, the largest single land invasion in the history of the world—Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, launched on June 22, 1941.

“Once Hitler invades Russia, the war changes completely,” says Professor Omer Bartov of Brown University. “And Hitler knows it, he speaks in those terms. It is also the beginning of mass genocide. Of mass killing on a totally unprecedented scale. Nothing like that had happened even in Poland. So I think that’s the turning point.”

David Reynolds, professor of international history at the University of Cambridge, agrees. “I think it has to be Barbarossa,” he told me. “It’s this hubristic attack on the Soviet Union years ahead of when the German Wehrmacht was in a position to do it and with no preparation for a long campaign. If the Russians could hold on it was going to completely change the character of the war. I think that [Barbarossa] would not have happened in 1941 but for the really heady sense of victory that was generated by the events of 1940, the fall of France and so on, that gave the sense that the Wehrmacht was invincible and that Hitler was a great leader.”

Other historians argue that the trouble with picking Barbarossa as the turning point of the war is that implicit in the choice is the judgment that defeat was inevitable for Hitler and the Nazis from that moment onwards. But, they maintain, this was not necessarily so. It’s only with hindsight that we see the decision to invade the Soviet Union as the act of a madman. In fact, “smart” opinion at the time was exactly the opposite.

“The best opinion I can get,” wrote William F. Knox, secretary of the navy, to President Roosevelt on June 23, 1941, “is that it will take anywhere from six weeks to two months for Hitler to clean up on Russia.” While in Britain the War Office told the BBC that they should not give the impression that the Soviets could hold out for longer than six weeks. The prevailing informed wisdom was summed up by Hugh Dalton,a member of the British cabinet, who wrote in his diary on June 22, 1941, “I am mentally preparing myself for the headlong collapse of the Red Army and Air Force.”

The majority of the historians I talked to—including American, British, German, and Japanese academics—agreed that the turning point of the war was to be found within the conflict in the Soviet Union. They just disagreed about when this moment occurred. Many felt that Stalingrad was too late as the instant when the course of the war in the east fundamentally changed, and that the launching of Operation Barbarossa was too early.

But it is significant that despite the chauvinistic interest in individual events in this history that exists in popular culture—like the British fascination with the Battle of Britain and the American focus on D-Day—so many of these professional historians see the war on the Eastern Front as inevitably providing the turning point of the whole conflict. There have been no blockbuster Hollywood films on Barbarossa or Stalingrad, but nonetheless that is the arena in which most of the scholars I talked to think the war was ultimately decided. And it’s not hard to see why they argue that case.
In terms of numbers alone the scale of the war in the Soviet Union was staggering. Take the comparative death toll between the west and the east, for example. The British and Americans lost no more than 800,000 dead between them during the war; the Soviets suffered the death of 27 million people.

Still, as we’ve seen, there is no agreement about just when the war in the Soviet Union turned in Stalin’s favor. Several historians, like professor Robert M. Citino of the University of North Texas, place the key moment of change towards the end of 1941. While confessing that he was “very concerned and nervous about the term ‘turning point,’” Citino told me that if he were “held down and forced to come up with a turning point for World War II, I might suggest the smashing of Wehrmacht formations in front of Moscow in December 1941.”

Other distinguished historians I asked came up with the same answer, including the current Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, Richard Evans: “[December 1941 is] the first time the Germans are actually stopped in their tracks and they don’t know what to do.”
Ian Kershaw, the world expert on Adolf Hitler, agrees: “In December 1941 the Germans encounter their first major setback with the onset of the Soviet counteroffensive in front of Moscow. The first major setback which means that war is going to be prolonged indefinitely.”

Kershaw also emphasized the importance of the entire month of December 1941 in the context of the war. Because even as the Soviets were fighting the Germans in the snow outside Moscow, the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor—an event which led inevitably to Germany declaring war on America on December 11.

“So within a few days,” Kershaw says, “you’ve got the German attack on the Soviet Union stopped, and the war going into the indefinite future in the Soviet Union when only a blitzkrieg war had been planned for, and you’ve got the Japanese in the war, and you’ve got the Americans in the war, and you’ve got the Germans now fighting against the U.S.A. I think that was the beginning of the end. Of course the war had still a long way to go, and the Germans did actually recover to some extent in 1942, but if you actually look for one point which is the turning point I think that was it. Hitler himself in one or two comments he made around then even seems obliquely to have recognized that [December 1941] was a really crucial juncture in the war.”

In fact, Hitler referred to events at the end of 1941 in contradictory ways—depending on which key epic moment he was discussing. While he privately expressed doubts about the way the campaign against the Soviets was going, saying that Germany deserved to be destroyed if the Red Army ultimately proved too strong for the Wehrmacht, he simultaneously saw the entry of the Japanese into the war in December 1941 as proving that the Nazis now couldn’t “lose the war” since  “we now have an ally which has never been conquered in 3,000 years.”

The case for the events of December 1941 as, collectively, the key turning point in the war is made stronger by the fact that this was also the month Adolf Hitler made a series of statements about the Jews. As Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, recorded in his diary on December 13, 1941, after attending a meeting with Hitler in Berlin the day before: “With regard to the Jewish Question the Führer is determined to make a clean sweep. He prophesized that if they brought about another world war, they would experience their annihilation. This was no empty talk. The world war is here. The annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence. This question is to be viewed without sentimentality.”

Hans Frank, the Nazi ruler of the General Government (the eastern part of occupied Poland), had attended this key meeting with Hitler on December 12. And four days later he spoke to Nazi officials in Krakow. Frank told them that in Berlin he had been instructed that he and his comrades should “liquidate the Jews.” And he also gave the reasons why this mass killing should occur: “As an old National Socialist, I must state that if the Jewish clan were to survive the war in Europe, while we sacrificed our best blood in the defense of Europe, then this war would only represent a partial success. With respect to the Jews, therefore, I will only operate on the assumption that they will disappear…. We must exterminate the Jews wherever we find them.”

Whether December 1941 is indeed the single turning point moment in the development of the Holocaust is still hotly debated. What is certain is that the events of that month were an important milestone in the progress of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”—the extermination of the Jews. Of particular
significance is Goebbels’ reference to Hitler’s “prophecy” in his diary entry of December 12, because in January 1939, in a speech to the German Reichstag, Hitler had announced that he would “be a prophet.”

This was his chilling prophecy: “If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”

So it’s no accident that Goebbels saw December’s events as causing the fulfillment of Hitler’s horrendous “prophecy.” Though Goebbels had made reference in his diary to this prophecy before, most notably in the autumn of 1941, it was the entry of Japan and America into the war that did make this a true world war, and in the warped, violently anti-Semitic depths of Hitler’s mind this therefore might have become the reason for the Nazis to mount the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”

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