Davies, the author of the gigantic Europe: A History and the magisterial, sparkling, two-volume history of Poland, God’s Playground, has written a shorter (544-page) work that is really two extended arguments with a lot of superfluous material. Although it seems to have been hastily and hotly written and contains too many embarrassing errors, it rearranges and juxtaposes facts and events in often unexpectedly illuminating ways. Most important, it’s infused with irony and paradox, qualities essential to comprehending history but largely absent from the American view of the Second World War.
Davies finds insufferable a perspective on the conflict that emphasizes El Alamein, the Normandy landings, and the Bulge, and he condemns the American moral narcissism that holds that, to quote Stephen Ambrose, it was U.S. soldiers who would “win the war against Nazi Germany,” and that Americans “stopped Hitler.” Rather, he contends that “two core issues”—“proportionality” and “criminality”—“provide the key” to properly grasping the war in Europe.
As for the first, he recognizes that the Eastern Front was without question the pivotal theater of the war: For four years, more than 400 Red Army and German divisions clashed in an unrelenting series of military operations over a front extending more than 1,000 miles. (At its most intense, the war in the West was fought between 15 Allied and 15 Wehr‑ macht divisions.) Eighty-eight percent of the German military dead fell there; in July 1943, in the decisive battle of the war, the Soviets permanently broke the Wehrmacht’s capacity for large-scale attack at Kursk, “the one name,” Davies properly asserts, “which all historians of the Second World War should remember.” He goes on to argue:
The Soviet war effort was so overwhelming that impartial historians of the future are unlikely to rate the British and American contribution to the European theatre as much more than a sound supporting role.
So (and this brings us to Davies’s second point) the most odious criminal regime in Europe’s history was defeated by an even more murderous regime, if numbers are the yardstick—which significantly tarnishes any notion of the “Good War.”
In the face of persuasive evidence, Davies is compelled to extend this already provocative argument. Although an anti-Stalinist stance is de rigueur these days, he possesses a most pronounced Polophilia (the single positive bias evident in this acerbic book) and is thus especially passionate in his assessment of the crimes of the man who, in partnership with Hitler, tore Poland asunder and later subjected it to nearly half a century of Soviet vassalage.
Davies could have employed the line the German generals promulgated after the war (thanks to their efforts, it became the conventional wisdom): that the Soviets owed their success only to Hitler’s stupendous strategic mismanagement and ruinous interference in military operations, together with the sheer size of the Red Army. Or he could have followed the line put forward by the Soviets in the period of “de-Stalinization”: that the Russian people, divorced from their leadership, secured victory by means of their patriotic energies. Instead, despite his abundant distaste for Stalin, he acknowledges the consensus of all the recent work I’ve discussed. Writing of Stalin, Davies declares: “The victory of 1945 in Europe was above all his.”
This consensus, most baldly stated by Roberts, concedes that no leader in history was responsible for graver military failures—from his stunning miscalculation concerning the German attack to his insistence on premature and obscenely wasteful counteroffensives in 1941 and much of ’42. But also evident is the iron resolve Stalin displayed in the Battle of Moscow, his perspicacity in calling Zhukov to command the effort, and the harsh will he helped summon in his subjects throughout the war. (Stalin’s pistol- at-the-head command—“Not a step back”—issued on the eve of Stalingrad inspiringly conveyed to the Soviets the desperation of their situation, and the dry ruthlessness with which the state would tackle it.)
Most important, Stalin transformed himself and the military he commanded. Beginning in late 1942 with preparations for the Battle of Stalingrad, his newfound grasp of military strategy and operations is as inexplicable as it is plain. He orchestrated every level of the Soviet war effort—from the miraculous economic recovery to high diplomacy to operational planning—even as he encouraged argument from, and increasingly heeded the counsel proffered by, the remarkable group of military advisers with whom he surrounded himself: Zhukov, Chief of Staff Alexander Vasilevsky, and Chief of Operations Aleksei Antonov—all men of penetrating intelligence, exceptional abilities, and extraordinary character. With this triumvirate, along with such commanders as Konstantin Rokossovsky, Stalin put in the service of his state the finest generals of the Second World War.
The improved organization, equipment, supply, training, and command of the Red Army won the Battle of Stalingrad, thereby turning the tide in the war. By Kursk, the Red Army was precisely choreographing an operation of unprecedented scale. From then on, it was conducting ever more sophisticated and devastating “deep operations”: extremely rapid, combined-arms advances that penetrated far into the Wehrmacht’s rear areas—the most inventive and shattering feats of arms achieved by any military during the war. The Soviet army had undergone probably the most profound and rapid turnaround of any military organization in history.
To be sure, part of Stalin’s accomplishment lay in his allowing his most talented subordinates to do their job, an attribute of all great warlords. From late 1942 on, he encouraged greater initiative and flexibility within the high command, and he presided over a military organization that fostered increased operational and tactical dynamism and innovation. But the new accounts—which even draw on transcripts of telephone and telegraphic conversations with his front-line generals—all go further than that, and put Stalin at the center of the Soviets’ awesome military achievement. Davies’s conclusion, that the victory was Stalin’s, would seem inarguable. Roberts’s unpalatable one, which goes one step further, will confound those who like their history neat:
To make so many mistakes and to rise from the depths of such defeat to go on to win the greatest military victory in history was a triumph beyond compare … Stalin … saved the world for democracy.