It’s time for those (mostly male) readers interested in the Second World War to put down that umpteenth account of D‑Day and turn to the new crop of books on the most colossal conflict the world has ever seen: the German-Soviet clash on the Eastern Front. Since the late 1980s, a historiographical revolution has been under way, as scholars fundamentally alter their understanding of this epic struggle, which killed 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians and nearly 4 million Wehrmacht troops. They aren’t merely revising an established narrative; they’re discovering facets of the conflict—even entire battles—that had been lost to history.
Churchill’s chronicle of the Second World War, which has all but permanently fixed the contours of the conflict in the popular mind, deliberately played down the Soviet superpower’s pivotal role in defeating the Axis. Since then, while scholarship advanced on, say, the Allies’ air war against Germany or the North African campaigns, it was stalled or warped on the Eastern Front. The U.S.S.R. documented its war more thoroughly than any of the other contestants, but Soviet historians were forced to evade the many aspects of the conflict that the state deemed embarrassing. For their part, Western scholars, denied access to Soviet archives, relied on German records and the self-serving memories of German generals. (The United States, in a Cold War effort to glean insight from its former enemy on how to combat its erstwhile ally, employed former Wehrmacht officers to examine and evaluate captured German documents. General Franz Halder, Hitler’s chief of the Army General Staff from 1938 to 1942 and a man almost certainly complicit in crimes against humanity, headed the project for the U.S. Army’s Historical Division; John F. Kennedy awarded him the Meritorious Civilian Service Award for his efforts.)
The first to circumvent some of these constraints was the British historian John Erickson in his grand two-volume history, The Road to Stalingrad (1975) and The Road to Berlin (1983). Since the Cold War’s end, many others have been tapping the extraordinarily rich vein of archival material.
The West’s foremost active scholar of the “Great Patriotic War,” David Glantz, a former U.S. Army colonel, has written more than 60 (!) highly detailed monographs on the Red Army and its military operations. Historians will be exploiting his meticulous and creative historical spadework for generations. (His most recent study, Red Storm Over the Balkans: The Failed Soviet Invasion of Romania, Spring 1944, was published late last year.)
The British historian Mark Harrison has probed the Soviet wartime economic mobilization and planning efforts; these ruthless endeavors were brilliant, surprisingly flexible, and decisive in winning the war, but the consensus seems to be that the Soviet economy never recovered. Nikolai Litvin’s just-released memoir, 800 Days on the Eastern Front, offers a harrowing grunt’s-eye view of the war. And a host of scholars are exploring such specialized subjects as the Soviet treatment of POWs; the wartime ethnic-cleansing campaigns directed against potentially collaborationist minority groups (2 million members of suspect minorities were uprooted from their homelands, and at least 231,000 of them died); and the role of the secret police in nearly every aspect of the war. (The NKVD’s main military function was to keep Red Army soldiers facing rather than fleeing the enemy, a task it carried out in its customarily sanguine fashion. The Soviets executed more than 158,000 soldiers for desertion. “In the Red Army,” noted Marshal Georgi Zhukov, “it takes a very brave man to be a coward.”)
Just last year, three British authors published works of extraordinary literary merit. Antony Beevor, probably the most stylish writer on Russia’s war, followed up his piercing Stalingrad (1998) and The Fall of Berlin (2002) with A Writer at War, a translation (with Luba Vinogradova) of the great Russian writer Vasily Grossman’s previously unpublished front-line notebooks that manages to be at once precise and poetic. It is, I think, the best eyewitness account of the Eastern Front available in English. Catherine Merridale issued her pioneering and panoramic portrait of the ordinary Russian soldier, Ivan’s War. And the diplomat and historian Rodric Braithwaite published Moscow 1941, his sweeping, atmospheric (and in the United States, alas, largely ignored) account of life in the threatened city and of the Battle of Moscow—a contest that claimed the lives of some 926,000 Red Army soldiers.
A number of new books—all building on Omer Bartov’s 1985 study, The Eastern Front, 1941–1945: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare— have dissected the Germans’ “war of annihilation” against the Soviets. These include The Attack on the Soviet Union, a volume in the official German history of the war, and, most recently, Wolfram Wette’s The Wehrmacht. These works have conclusively demonstrated that the Wehrmacht—and not, as postwar accounts by German generals would have it, merely the SS—freely and even eagerly joined in murder and genocide, which were central, rather than incidental, features of its effort.
The most sophisticated recent studies of the Holocaust itself—Christopher Browning’s masterpiece, The Origins of the Final Solution; and the just- published The Years of Extermination, the second and concluding volume of Saul Friedländer’s summa, Nazi Germany and the Jews—inextricably fix the German war on the Eastern Front to the center of their story. For all the ferocious treatment of Jews in Poland, for all of Hitler’s nebulous exhortations going back to the 1920s, it was the unprecedented scale and viciousness of Germany’s attempted conquest of the Soviet Union that decisively radicalized the Nazis and crystallized their vision of liquidating European Jewry.
The deluge of new archival materials relating to the Eastern Front has been so steady that the two standard post- glasnost single-volume chronicles—Glantz’s When Titans Clashed and Richard Overy’s Russia’s War—have already been overtaken by new sources. Evan Mawdsley, a British historian, has stepped into the breach with his crisply written Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War, 1941–1945. This exceptionally precise and judicious work, now the authoritative general history, is especially useful because it largely supports some of the most provocative arguments in two new, not-so-judicious books: Stalin’s Wars, a minute examination of Stalin’s wartime leadership, by Geoffrey Roberts; and Europe at War, 1939–1945, by Norman Davies.