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.”
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 prophesied 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.”
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.