In the minds of many German leaders, World War II was lost much sooner than May 1945. Much of the Third Reich knew its days were numbered almost as soon as the war had started. The opening phases of the blitzkrieg were a spectacular success against the countries of Western Europe. Then, Hitler turned east, which was his fatal mistake.
When asked by a Soviet prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, when German leaders knew the war was lost, the former head of the German High Command, Wilhelm Keitel told him succinctly, “Moscow.”
After launching Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, the Nazi leadership in Berlin knew they needed to reach Moscow in a hurry, ideally before winter set in. The OKW (the German General Staff) planned a blitzkrieg run on the Soviet Union that was supposed to work just like its lightning invasions of France, Belgium, and the Low Countries. Its blitz of the USSR was to be much, much bigger.
The Germans planned to neutralize the larger numbers of men Russia could bring by moving incredibly fast with high numbers of powerful tanks and aerial assaults. This would allow them to capture large numbers of Soviet troops and advance eastward with haste. Hopefully, it would also mean the collapse of Soviet resistance inside the USSR.
If the Wehrmacht could capture Moscow, it was believed, they could survive the winter, move on to the Ural Mountains, and push the Soviets further east from their industrial centers and cripple further efforts at resistance. That’s not what happened.
Instead of collapsing, Soviet resistance actually increased, especially as Russian citizens learned about the atrocities being committed against Red Army prisoners of war and Soviet civilians. The people of the USSR and the Red Army began to damage or destroy anything that might be of value to the Germans, including critical infrastructure like roads, railways, and bridges, further slowing the enemy advance.
By the time the Germans reached the Soviet capital at Moscow, it was already October 1941, and the Russians had time to build a series of defensive rings around the city. The front during the battle stretched for 370 miles, and the Red Army also had time to raise a massive reserve army while shipping in experienced soldiers from the Far East.
When the Germans arrived at the initial defenses of the Moscow Oblast, they were exhausted in the middle of the Russian winter. Many were combat wounded and did not have the cold weather fighting gear necessary to sustain an entire season along an enormous front line.
Soviet Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s defensive earthworks and deployment of Soviet defensive troops, along with the Germans’ own state of readiness, allowed him to frustrate the German blitzkrieg near the city. The closest the Wehrmacht would get to Moscow was still 12 miles from the city center. The Germans were forced to pull back from the city in January 1942 and were never able to threaten the city for the rest of the war. Hitler was so enraged, he sacked the head of his army command and took the position for himself, with disastrous consequences for the Wehrmacht.
The Soviet Union counterattacked that same winter, pushing the Germans back westward, and Hitler’s leadership turned a still-winnable situation on the Eastern Front into a series of debacles at places like Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Kursk.