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.)