The Second World War created the world that I grew up in, and the central event of that war was the Nazi-Soviet struggle. 80% of the Germans and Austrians killed or captured in the war were killed or captured by the Soviets (Glantz, The Soviet-German War1941-1945: Myths and Realities: A Survey Essay ). My standby reference on the war, R.A.C. Parker’s brilliantly concise The Second World War: A Short History (Oxford University Press, 1989), was written too early to take advantage of the opening of the Soviet archives and the deconstruction of the German generals’ memoirs. Two recent English books represent two major approaches to writing about this unspeakably terrible conflict.
Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege (Penguin Books: New York and London, 1998) is a very good journalistic history, where someone reads a room full of sources and scholarly books, interviews witnesses, and tells a story full of colourful details. The endnotes focus on conversations, anonymous informants, or unpublished archival documents. The maps and index are inadequate. There is just one map of the city of Stalingrad itself, and many of the place-names in the narrative are not on the maps; key terms in the narrative like “hospital,” “mud,” and “Grebennikova, Nina” are not indexed. Some of the academic reviews criticize it for overlooking Operation Mars, an equally large Soviet offensive at Rzhev near Moscow under Gregory Zhukov which failed to break through Axis lines while Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Vasilevsky ‘s Operation Uranus in the south succeeded. But its an exciting read and gives many details of the experience of German and Soviet soldiers in this terrible campaign. I admire anyone who can collect so many different sources and turn them into a coherent and balanced story.
David Stahel’s Retreat from Moscow (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 2019) is a book with a thesis: “while Hitler’s ‘stand fast’ order was foolish and widely ignored, the Soviet winter offensive of 1941/1942 failed to achieve its objectives and cost the Soviets more than they gained.” He thinks that Stalin’s interventions did more to damage the Red Army than Hitler’s did to the Wehrmacht (pp. 436, 437) because German commanders were more willing to ignore nonsensical orders than their Soviet counterparts were. He also has opinions on the independence of junior commanders (military German Selbständigkeit der Unterführer, English and academic Auftragstaktik) in the Wehrmacht and on how disagreements between fighting soldiers, staff officers, and the Nazi party grew out of a shared worldview. Like many academic books, the introduction promises readers novel conclusions which it may not deliver. The endnotes cite more research literature than Beevor’s notes and the main text gives original German terms in brackets to help readers who move on to reading the primary sources (but they rarely cite Soviet sources, and as far as I can tell only through English translations and summaries). The maps are more numerous and technical. As it lumbers forward to crush resistance to its thesis, Retreat from Moscow is full of interesting details from the perspective of soldiers and political leaders, like the many uses of human urine in the field (Stahel p. 312, Beevor pp. 140, 282). But where Beevor chooses detail to communicate what all the people in southern Russia experienced during the war, Stahel focuses on how and why German soldiers and officials did what they did and on placing his ideas in academic debates today.
Both books try to capture the horror of the Nazi-Soviet war as much as words and a few photos can. The Germans emphasized clever manoeuvres and relentless attacks over their ability to equip and supply their troops. The German army had to fight that first winter without cold-weather clothing because there had not been enough transport capacity to bring forward both winter uniforms and a bare minimum of food, ammunition, and weapons. Army Group Centre had spent November and the beginning of December pressing on Moscow rather than building warm defensive positions because their chief intelligence officer did not know Russian and had no idea that there were still Russian armies in reserve (Stahel p. 18: before Operation Barbarossa, the Americans had noticed that the kinds of questions Russians were asking the Germans implied that they had tanks bigger than the Pz IV, but the Germans discovered the T-34 when the first German shell bounced off one). In that first winter those German wounded lucky enough to be sent home were crowded into unheated railway wagons where many of them froze on the way (Stahel p. 226, 405). The Germans drove prisoners and civilians into open fields surrounded by barbed wire and left them to freeze and starve because they barely had the capacity to house and cloth their own troops. Without Nazi racial ideology there would have been no Aktion T4 and no holocaust. But any German invasion of the Soviet Union in the 1940s would have still involved an appalling level of violence and disregard for human life.
Russian prisoners starved. That’s normal. We were hungry too. It was too demanding. Understand that if you get 50 or 100 thousand prisoners, you cannot feed them, no logistics will manage.A common self-justification from an elderly Otto Carius, interview 9 July 2014, translated by Peter Samsonov (the western allies found it possible to round up hundreds of thousands of prisoners and feed them well, but they didn’t manage so many of those beautiful operations one after the other)
As for the Soviets, the NKVD continued to hunt and kill “traitors,” and in the terrible conditions of a Russian winter, hundreds of thousands of poorly dressed, trained, and armed troops were thrown into bullets, explosions, shellbursts and killing cold. Their commanders were frightened of being arrested for “defeatism,” and most of the Red Army was still learning its trade. Civilians and prisoners trying to survive found that the actions which saved their lives from one army could doom them when the front rolled back over them and a different despot tried to fit them into Procrustes’ bed.
In Canada we remember the horrors of the Dutch campaign of 1944/1945 and the Italian campaign of 1943-1945. For four years those horrors stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. First Axis and then Soviet forces used women and children as human shields (Beevor p. 177, Stahel p. 135). Stories about enemies capturing a field hospital and throwing the patients out the windows to freeze to death spread from bunker to bunker- at Kalinin / Калинин in the steppes north of the Caucasus on 16 December 1941 (Stahel p. 392 says false) or Feodosia / Theodosia / Kefe / Kaffa in Crimea on 29 December (Beevor p. 61 says true).
Most books on the Second World War talk about the paradox that the German army had the world’s best combined-arms mechanized forces but also a mass of infantry and artillery which relied on horse carts to transport food and ammunition. Germany simply could not produce or fuel enough trucks to replace horses with tractors in most units. I did not know that there was very extensive use of horse-borne troops in 1941 and 1942 by the Red Army (and some by the Axis). In the December 1941, the Soviets used both paratroops and cavalry to raid the German rear (or so thought Stahel’s German sources). Adam Tooze states that in August 1941, large bodies of German troops were diverted from the fighting around Smolensk to bring in the harvest. Julius Caesar would have been familiar with that dilemma. Even early in the war, George Orwell recognized that the Nazis were bringing slavery back to Europe (The Lion and the Unicorn, part ii). And Hitler’s generous gifts of cash and land to his trusty generals would have been understandable to Cyrus the Younger, even if Cyrus was confused why the generals would deny they had accepted their lord’s gifts.
Reading about the Nazi-Soviet war in December reminds me that there have been many worse years than 2020 and many worse places to spend them than Canada and Austria. But in a time when movements as contradictory as the Green Party of Canada and the Brexit movement ask supporters to act like in 1940, I wonder how much influence books like these have. The covers and dust jackets of books in Victoria bookstores don’t emphasize the author’s qualifications to write history. Stahel has a MA in War Studies from King’s College London and a PhD at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and reads German, while Beevor seems to have a Bachelor’s degree in History and reads and speaks German and Russian. I remember a Canadian historian telling me that his publisher discouraged him from getting a PhD in history because they were worried it would reduce sales of his future books. There are plenty of engaging, well-illustrated books on the Second World War, but many people keep telling each other stories about the war which belong in the 1970s. We historians obviously think that our perspective is better than that of the old soldiers and the wargamers with fixed ideas, but book-buyers and book-marketers don’t seem so sure.
Regardless, I want to learn more about how the men and women of the USSR defeated the fascists despite their sadistic and incompetent ‘leaders.’ Alexiares says that Catherine Merridale’s oral history Ivan’s War (Biblio) or Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (Bookfinder) would be a good place to start.