On July 3, 1941, German General Halder sat down to reflect in his diary on the invasion of Russia, launched on June 22, just two weeks earlier. “It is hardly too much to say,” he wrote, “the Feldzug against Russia has been won in fourteen days.”
William Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, described Halder as “generally cautious.” On this occasion, he looked over the vast Russian landscape, acknowledged that it would extend the time required for total conquest, and reasoned that it would all be over in “many more weeks.” This was caution to a German general in August 1941.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, the loyal citizens were placing bets on when Russia would be broken; few, if any, doubted that it would.
It isn’t hard to see why they were so confident. It was August of 1941. Already that spring the Nazi armies had defeated Yugoslavia in a matter of days and Greece in a matter of weeks. The British escape from Crete was second only to Dunkirk in tactical skill combined with strategic disaster. Hungary, Roumania, and Bulgaria had all allied with Germany, if only to avoid their own destruction. North Africa west of Egypt was occupied by the Germans.
The previous year, 1940, the German army had defeated the Low Countries, Denmark, and Belgium. Denmark was the work of a day. Literally. Holland and Belgium not much longer. The King of Norway abdicated and a Quisling government established in his place.
Most shockingly, unbearably shockingly, the nation that had bogged down in the trenches of France from 1914 to 1918 and that had been humiliated by sudden defeat in the summer and fall of 1918, had defeated that same France in six weeks. “After Dunkirk and the French capitulation, the British were in a state of shock similar to a wounded soldier who feels no pain,” Antony Beavor reminds us.
Before that, in 1939, the Nazis had defeated Poland in a battle that was decided almost before it began. Still earlier, Czechoslovakia and Austria had famously united with Germany “peacefully”, which pleased Max Dettweiler and frustrated Captain Von Trapp beyond words.
By the summer of 1941, the German empire, the Third Reich as it named itself, extended from the Atlantic coast of France to the eastern border of what had, for a couple decades, been Poland. Nothing stood between Hitler and Stalin but a treaty bathed in distrust.
On June 22 Hitler and the Nazi military machine hit Russia so hard and with such savage effectiveness that Stalin had fled to his dacha at Kuntsevo outside Moscow where he may well have contemplated suicide. His reengagement might well be regarded as the turning point in World War Two.
But it didn’t turn the Germans back and it was not until February of 1943 that Hitler gave up on Russia.
By 1943, the United States had been drawn into the war effort. Now the war extended from the Pacific Islands through China and Russia to cross Europe and the Atlantic Ocean, where the United States fought a two front war against the Nazis and the Japanese Empire.
That year, CS Lewis presumed to present a speech that began with these words:
I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary textbooks.
I cannot imagine how many British professors or military officers must have thrown the book against the wall and cursed the punk who could write something like that.
Let us acknowledge that in 1943 there was less reason for despair than there had been in 1941. Even so: elementary textbooks?
What would compel him to say something so absurd?