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.
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.