Andrew Nagorski is the author of the new book 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War. His other books include The Nazi Hunters and Hitlerland. He was Newsweek's bureau chief in a variety of cities including Hong Kong, Moscow, and Berlin, and he's based in St. Augustine, Florida.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on 1941, and why do you see it as the year Germany "lost" World War II?
A: Consider the beginning of 1941. Hitler’s armies ruled most of Europe. Churchill’s Britain was a lonely holdout against the Nazi tide, but German bombers were attacking British cities while German U-boats were attacking its ships. Stalin was Hitler’s de facto ally, sending Germany vital supplies under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. And the United States was still officially on the sidelines. Germany looked to be unstoppable.
But Hitler managed to turn what looked like a winning hand into a losing one in the space of that single year. By the end of 1941, Britain emerged with two powerful new allies, Russia and the United States. While Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 meant that Hitler had a new partner in Asia, the Allies had a huge advantage in terms of the relative size of their populations, resources and industry.
All of which would come increasingly into play as the war dragged on. No matter how ferociously and how long Hitler’s forces continued to fight, this meant that Germany was doomed to defeat. I was fascinated by the dramas and decisions that took place in that pivotal year to produce that result.
Q: You write of Hitler and Stalin, "Given their predispositions, it was hardly surprising that both leaders were quite capable of making major mistakes." How would you describe the relationship between the two during this period, and how would you compare their actions?
A: Both tyrants were victims of their own megalomania—and their refusal to believe any evidence that contradicted their set beliefs. I write that they almost seemed to be in a contest for the title of “the world’s most willfully blind dictator.”
The difference, however, was that Stalin committed most of his major mistakes early, and tried to make up for some of them later.
In particular, he refused to believe the warnings both of the Western powers and his own spies that Hitler was preparing to launch his attack on the Soviet Union. In his conspiratorial mind, those warnings were all a plot to drag him into a conflict with Germany that he was not prepared for. His troops were not permitted to go on alert until almost the last minute, and they didn’t even have enough weapons to defend themselves. As a result, the Germans scored a string of initial victories and it looked like Hitler’s gamble was succeeding.
But Hitler was so convinced that his forces would achieve a quick victory that he sent his armies in without winter uniforms. He vastly underestimated the capabilities of the Red Army, which began to rebound from their early defeats. Soon German troops were bogged down in a horrific struggle on the outskirts of Moscow, where they came up short and froze during that first winter.
Hitler also helped get Stalin off the hook by alienating those who might have rallied to his side. He ignored the fact that some Soviet citizens initially welcomed the German invaders, not because they knew anything about Hitler or the Nazi movement but because they were hoping they would liberate them from Stalin’s communist tyranny.
Instead, Hitler immediately unleashed a reign of terror and mass murder of his own. This was evident in his brutal treatment of Soviet POWs and civilians. It was also evident in the first stages of the Holocaust in 1941, when special German killing squads started massacring Jews and anyone else deemed to be “enemies” of the new order. As a result of those policies, Stalin was able to quickly rally his people who might have otherwise turned against him.
Q: How would you describe the dynamic between FDR and Churchill in 1941?
A: Churchill rallied his countrymen and worked diligently to win growing support from the Roosevelt administration, nurturing a strong personal relationship with the president. Soon Washington was providing more and more vital aid to Britain, thanks to the Lend-Lease legislation that Congress approved in early 1941.
Hitler’s attempt to bomb Britain into submission triggered growing American support for the embattled island, but so did Churchill and Roosevelt’s hard work. They bypassed Joseph Kennedy, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to London, who was constantly predicting Britain’s defeat, and set up a direct channel for letters between them. Churchill could be blunt and impatient at times, but he always respected Roosevelt’s difficult position as the leader of a country that was still not formally at war.
Most importantly, the two men, who had not really known each other earlier, came to trust each other. Churchill’s famous sense of humor helped that process. One example: during his stay at the White House in December, 1941, he emerged from his bath one day and, only draped in a towel, kept dictating to his aide. The towel had just dropped to the floor when Roosevelt came into his room. “You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to conceal from you,” he declared.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: I drew on diaries, letters, memoirs and scores of interviews I have conducted over many years. Even at this late date, for instance, I was able to find a few Russian and German veterans who fought in 1941 living in Minneapolis.
I was surprised at times by the stark contrast between what major figures like Churchill or Stalin were saying in public and thinking in private. To bolster morale, Churchill never revealed his doubts in public—but he certainly did have them on more than one occasion, which I describe in the book.
So did some of the lesser known figures who played important backstage roles in this drama, such as General Raymond E. Lee, the U.S. military attaché in London. Lee worked hard to convince American journalists and others that Britain would hold out, but his diary reveals he was in near despair at times.
When Hitler’s forces attacked, Stalin retreated to his dacha and almost gave into despair, believing his own Politburo might turn against him. I also chronicle the panic and chaos in Moscow as German troops approached the outskirts of the city, and even the top-secret evacuation of Lenin’s body from the mausoleum on Red Square. A few years ago, I interviewed one of the caretakers of Lenin’s body during its journey to Tyumen, a city 1,000 miles east of Moscow. All of which paints a very different picture of the early months of the German invasion than the official Soviet histories let on.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m only in the exploratory stage so I’m hesitant to say very much. I’ll be writing about the Third Reich again, focusing on some of the people in Hitler’s inner circle who are much less known than others but far more influential than generally assumed. I’ll leave it at that for now.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: This is my seventh book, and I’d like to think it’s my best one. I was able to draw upon a vast amount of earlier research to try to understand the psychology of Hitler and the other leaders. By focusing on a single year, I was able to scrutinize their motivations and actions in detail in that critical period, and to explain why events took the turns they did. There was nothing inevitable about that course of events; it was a product of a series of momentous decisions. Luckily, in Hitler’s case, most of his actions were based on fatal miscalculations.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Andrew Nagorski.