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What was the turning point of World War II?  I’ve been teaching university courses on the war for a long time, and it’s one of the questions I get asked most often (right up there with “Would you repeat that?” and “Is this going to be on the exam?”).

I’ll confess from the get-go that the question makes me somewhat uncomfortable. This war, more than any other before it, was a vast and sprawling conflict on land, sea, and air.  It involved hundreds of millions of fighters and civilians from the freezing cold Arctic wastes to the sweltering heat of the Burmese jungle, and the notion that there was a single discrete moment that “turned” it is problematical, to say the least.

A second problem with the concept is the sheer number of turning points that historians have identified over the years.  The German halt at Dunkirk, allowing the British to escape the continent and fight another day; the German decision to shift to city bombing and terror raids in the battle of Britain when they “clearly” had the RAF on the ropes; Hitler’s gratuitous decision to give himself a two-front war by invading the Soviet Union in June 1941; his diversion of the Panzer formations into the Ukraine in August; his equally gratuitous decision to declare war on the United States in December; El Alamein in October 1942; Stalingrad in November:  the list goes on and on, and there are more than a few historians who identify more than one.  That’s cheating, of course.  A second turning point should put you right back where you started!

The real problem, however, is that “turning point” simply isn’t a very useful way to think about war.  A quarterback throwing an interception–a single bad decision, a faulty throw, a badly run route by a receiver–that’s a turning point.  Momentum is a real factor in a sporting event, no doubt.  But is it the same in war?  Let’s think about El Alamein.  It was something different, certainly, a smashing victory for the British 8th Army after years of humiliating defeat in the desert.  It crushed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika, and although the “Desert Fox” managed to retreat to Tunisia, it clearly signaled the onset of the end game in North Africa.  No less a figure than Winston Churchill said so:  “Before Alamein, we never had a victory – after Alamein we never had a defeat.”  But Alamein wasn’t some shocking bolt out of the blue.  By the time it was fought, the British (backed by American muscle and materiel) had achieved a decisive superiority in manpower, tanks, aircraft, and gun tubes.  At Alamein, they used all these things to good effect to wear down (and eventually grind down) an enemy who was already mortally inferior.  Therefore, while Alamein might have made Churchill feel better, it can’t be seen as the “turning point” of either the desert war or the war as a whole.  The very fact that the British 8th Army could win it in the fashion it did showed that a turning point of some sort–or at least a dramatic shift in the balance of forces in the desert–had ALREADY taken place.

“Turning point” confuses cause and effect.