Stalin and Zhukov review the Red Army at Lenin's Tomb
That is the question UCLA English professor and book critic Benjamin Schwarz takes on in the May 2007 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in his review of several new books about the Russo-German War of 1941-1945.
The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union sparked the bloodiest campaign in human history, and Schwarz by and large agrees with the latest crop of books that dismiss the entire Western Allies effort in the Second World War as an overhyped sideshow to the real war in the East.
In what may be even more offensive to British and American readers, Schwarz goes a step further and credits Josef Stalin's leadership for saving the Soviet Union from collapse in the winter of 1941-1942, and eventually allowing his superb generals led by Georgy Zhukov to lead the Red Army to victory. "Stalin...saved the world for democracy."
Click on the extended post and scroll down to read the original Atlantic Monthly article.
Map depicting the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union - 1941-1942 (Source: Wikipedia)
Nevermind that Stalin 's pact with Hitler gave the Nazi war machine free reign to conquer most of Western Europe in 1940, or that Stalin's dogged insistence that Hitler would never betray him allowed the invaders to methodically encircle the Red Army's corps until they reached the gates of Moscow in December 1941. Stalin's urge to immediately counterattack, while saving the Soviet capital, also led to another Red Army tank corps being cut off and chewed up by the Wehrmacht in the spring of 1942.
German Tiger tanks operating in Russia. The Red Army began the war with more and better quality tanks than the Wehrmacht - but failed to exploit these advantages until after it had suffered heavy losses
The failure of this offensive emboldened Hitler to divert resources further south towards the Caucuses, where the Nazi leader committed his own blunder by concentrating on capturing the city of Stalingrad rather than securing the oil fields in the Caucuses. The Soviets routed the Germans' Italian and Romanian Axis rearguard, and then completed their encirclement of the German 6th Army, shattering the myth of Nazi military invincibility.
A war-winning weapon - the Soviet T-34 tank
Schwarz's review (you can read the full article below) does have its strong points. Schwarz admits that Stalin's paranoia and errors almost led to crushing defeats in the summer of 1941, and that General Zhukov's memoirs grossly exaggerated the size of the German forces he typically faced. While the balance of troop strength and airpower on several sectors of the Eastern Front was almost dead even in June 1941, the Soviets had a huge advantage in artillery and tanks that they failed to exploit until the turning point at Kursk in 1943.
Schwarz also reminds his readers that Zhukov also was indeed a complicated figure, periodically in and out of favor at Stalin's court and with the Politburo that succeeded the Soviet dictator. Zhukov was a survivor, who was lucky to be assigned to the Russian Far East, and to enjoy some successes repulsing a half-hearted Japanese attack on the region, during the time that Stalin was busy purging the Red Army officer corps. Zhukov also learned a great deal from his greatest defeat suffered in the fall of 1942 - the failure of Operation Mars.
Was Stalin guilty of plotting an attack on Europe in 1941
and shortly before his death in 1953?
Most interestingly for readers, Schwarz alludes indirectly to the highly controversial theory, widely disseminated by the Soviet defector/historian Viktor Suvorov in his book Icebreaker, that Stalin had secret plans to launch an invasion of central Europe in the late summer of 1941.
[A similar "Stalin was planning to invade" theory, this one set at the start of the Cold War, was advanced by the Czech historian Karel Bartosek in his contribution to The Black Book of Communism. Bartosek and his coauthors suggest on page 433 that during the spring of 1952, while the U.S. was preoccupied with the Korean War, that Stalin was preparing the Soviet bloc for war, and only Stalin's convenient death from a stroke in March 1953 may have spared Europe from World War III and Soviet cities from mass destruction by American atomic bombs. Certainly, there is little doubt among Cold War historians that the U.S. enjoyed overwhelming nuclear superiority in the early 50s and that the Soviet Air Force would have offered little resistance to General Curtis LeMay's SAC bombers.]
Schwarz mentions David M. Glantz, the preeminent American historian of the Russo-German War, as having thoroughly rebutted this claim in his book Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Schwarz points out that standard Soviet military doctrine in 1941 called for responding to any invasion with an immediate counteroffensive, which Glantz demonstrates in the book is a reason why so many units of the Red Army were encircled and destroyed by the Germans in the opening months of the war.
From my point of view, there are two major flaws in Schwarz's arguments for his thesis that we owe Stalin the credit for winning the war, besides Stalin's responsibility for catastrophic Soviet defeats early in the war and Zhukov's revisionist accounts:
The first is that the German generals' postwar arguments that the invasion of the Soviet Union was likely doomed from the start by Russia's vast resources of manpower and materiel remain valid, and cannot be dismissed as merely telling the victorious Western Allies what they wanted to hear. Schwarz implies that the German generals claimed that they were beaten solely by sheer numbers, and not by the superior military leadership and organization of their Soviet opponents. Even so, the physical vastness of Russia, and the fact that the blitzkrieg-ing Wehrmacht was still a mostly horse-drawn army with highly mobile mechanized units as spearheads, meant that Hitler was indeed delusional to believe that his forces could avoid the fate of Napoleon's army.
The USSR received 375,000 trucks from the U.S. Lend Lease program
The second flawed argument Schwarz makes is that during the Battle of the Bulge, at the height of the fighting on the Western front, the Allies only faced 12% of the German Army's strength. This is true, but there are two additional factors that should be weighed in the Western Allies' favor in terms of their contributions to winning the war:
British and American bombers diverted the Luftwaffe to defending the Nazi homeland
1) The combined Anglo-American bombing offensive, while it failed to halt Nazi war production (which peaked in 1944) or destroy German morale, did succeed in diverting the bulk of the Luftwaffe away from the Eastern Front. By the spring of 1944 this contributed to the Soviet Air Force having overwhelming numerical superiority in the skies over Eastern Europe, which added to the success of Zhukov's Red blitzkrieg (aka Operation Bagration) during the summer of 1944. After the disasters of Stalingrad and Kursk, Bagration was the third hammer blow (along with the prospect of Germany surrendering to the Western allies after the Battle of Normandy) to the Nazi Empire. Of course, it was precisely the hope of surrendering to the British and Americans that gave the Germans something left to fight for as the Red Army closed in on Berlin in 1945.
2) Trucks - while no one doubts that the Red Army could have crushed Nazi Germany by itself, American lend-lease provided the Soviets with hundreds of thousands of light and heavy duty trucks. The Red Army could not have transformed itself from a horse supplied force to a highly mobile war machine without these American imports.
Red Army Katyushas mounted on American trucks
Thus, without the successful landing in Normandy, the combined bombing offensive, and the miracles of American wartime production, the Red Army may have staggered into Berlin in 1946 or even 1947, with an even greater loss of life on all sides (in reality, the Red Army lost 300,000 soldiers taking the Nazi capitol). And of course, all of Central Europe and perhaps even France and Italy might have turned Communist in the postwar environment. In reality, the success of West German capitalism alongside the failures of East German socialism hastened the demise of the Communist empire, and ultimately, the rebirth of capitalism and democratic institutions in Russia.
by Benjamin Schwarz
The Atlantic Monthly | May 2007
It's time for those (mostly male) readers interested in the Second World War to put down that umpteenth account of Dâ€‘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.")
J ust 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 FriedlÃ¤nder'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"--"proportionalÂity" 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 Wehrâ€‘ 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.
For more on these topics and other historical debates about the Soviet Union in World War II, check out the interesting Kunikov's Book Reviews website. You can also read a debate between historians about Stalin's hand in winning WWII here