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What Was the Turning Point of World War II?

By Laurence Rees
6/1/2010 • Politics, World War II

The Nazis' decisive defeat at Stalingrad in 1943 is cited as the war's turning point by six scholars.
The Nazis' decisive defeat at Stalingrad in 1943 is cited as the war's turning point by six scholars.

I most certainly agree that the turning point of the war on the Eastern Front should also be taken as the turning point of the whole conflict, but I don’t place that moment as late as December 1941. I agree with British historian Andrew Roberts that the turning point occurred some two months earlier, in October 1941. But I don’t share his reasons for picking that month. Roberts told me he believes that October is crucial because “the rains start to fall” and this is therefore the “moment when the mud incapacitated the German advance on Moscow and allowed Moscow to stay in Russian hands.”

However, it wasn’t necessarily the mud that saved the Soviets. In the middle of October in Moscow there was an atmosphere of pure terror in the Soviet capital, for it seemed almost inevitable that the Germans would arrive in a matter of days, if not hours. “There was panic,” said Maya Berzina, then a 30-year-old mother living in Moscow. “Directors opened their shops and were saying to people ‘Take what you want. We don’t want the Germans to get these things.’”

And a secret document, Number 34 of the State Defense Committee—only released since the fall of communism—reveals that on October 15, 1941, it had been decided “to evacuate the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the top levels of government (Comrade Stalin will leave tomorrow or later, depending on the situation).” The next day, October 16, 1941, Stalin’s train waited at Moscow station to take him 400 miles away east—to the safety of Kuibyshev on the Volga.

Ten years ago I met Stalin’s personal telegraphist, who told me how he was driven that night through a cold and rainy Moscow, ready to flee with his boss. “We were heading for the railway station. I saw the armored train and Stalin’s guards walking to and fro on the platform. It became clear to me that I would have to wait for Stalin and go into evacuation with him.”

But neither that night nor the next day did Stalin arrive to board the train. Instead, he decided to tough it out in Moscow. And the rest—as one can most aptly say in this instance—is history. The Red Army held out over the next few weeks, before mounting a counteroffensive in December.

Which leaves us to answer the vital question—what would have happened if Stalin had boarded that train on October 16, 1941, and had made a run for it? Well, having looked at the documents and met many veterans who fought in the defense of Moscow, I am convinced that if Stalin had left Moscow, the Soviet capital would have fallen. Stalin would have been disgraced, his authority fatally damaged. As a consequence, the Soviets would have then made peace with the Germans. There was, after all, a precedent for this. In March 1918 the fledgling Soviet Communist government had signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which had given away to the Germans huge amounts of territory, including Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States.

That’s why October 16, 1941, gets my vote as the turning point of the war—probably the turning point of the 20th century, because if the Soviets had left the war in the autumn of 1941 it’s hard to see how the Nazis could ever have been dislodged from Europe without nuclear weapons.

But I don’t necessarily expect you to agree. Not for one minute. For, as I said, argument is one of the great pleasures
of history.

What’s your pick for the turning point of World War II? Join the conversation in the comments.

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