[Marxism] The Greatest and Worst War: USSR vs. Reich III

Chris Brady cdbrady at sbcglobal.net
Sat Feb 21 17:10:29 MST 2004

 A Job for Rewrite: Stalin’s War

By Benjamin Schwarz, New York Times, 21 February 2004

 A plucky Britain refusing to bow to the Luftwaffe’s blitz, Patton and
Rommel dueling in the North African desert, the D-Day invasion and the
Battle of the Bulge — these tend to dominate American’s conception of
the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany.

But as important as the episodes were, military historians have always
known that the main scene of the Nazis’ downfall was the Eastern Front,
which claimed 80 percent of all German military casualties in the war.

The four-year conflict between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army remains
the largest and possibly the most ferocious ever fought. The armies
struggled over vast territory. The front extended 1,900 miles (greater
than the distance from the northern border of Maine to the southern tip
of Florida), and German troops advanced over 1,000 miles into Soviet
territory (equivalent to the distance from the East Coast to Topeka,
Kan.). And they clashed in a seemingly unrelenting series of military
operations of unparalleled scale; the battle of Kursk alone, for
instance, involved 3.5 million men.

In short, the war fought on the Eastern Front is arguably the single
most important chapter in modern military history — but it is a chapter
that in many essential ways is only now being written. From evidence
released from Soviet archives since the mid-1980’s, scholars have
learned, for example, that Soviet deaths numbered nearly 50 million, two
and half times the original estimate; that the Red Army raped two
million German women during their occupation to wreak revenge; and that
an astonishing 40 percent of Soviet wartime battles were for decades
lost to history.

In the last few years, academics have lamented that access to Russian
archives has tightened considerably. Surprisingly, though, specialists
in the field say that what may turn out to be a bigger problem is the
dearth of Russian military historians in the West who can take advantage
of the documentary material already available, coupled with the lack of
money in the former Soviet Union to support those academics prepared to
dive into the papers. So far, it’s a “missed historiographical
opportunity,” said Col. David M. Glantz, now retired, the former
director of the United States Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office,
who has written or edited more than 60 books on the history of the
Soviet military in the Second World War. The extraordinarily prolific
Colonel Glantz said he would need “three lifetimes” to mine the
documents that have already been released.

Military historians like Williamson Murray, professor emeritus at Ohio
State University and a defense consultant in Washington, hold that the
Soviets probably documented their war more fully than any other of the
combatant states. Yet the war on the Eastern Front is still obscure,
largely because of the cold war. During that period, the U.S.S.R.’s
immense archives concerning the conflict were essentially closed to
Western scholars. At the same time, the decisive impact of America’s
erstwhile ally was often deliberately underplayed in the West for
political reasons.

The Soviets also buried the history of the Eastern Front. Soviet
military historians turned out accurate and detailed work, but since
they could analyze only what Soviet officials permitted them to write
about, they skirted, or, more significantly, ignored those facts and
events the government considered embarrassing. Soviet propaganda,
meanwhile, lionized the heroes of the “Great Patriotic War.”

For the most part, then, scholars were forced to rely heavily on German
sources, which presented an extremely distorted view of events. Only the
Scottish historian John Erickson, whose two-volume history of the war in
the East — “The Road to Stalingrad” (1975) and “The Road to Berlin”
(1983) — remains the outstanding comprehensive study in any language,
managed to get beyond such one-sided accounts. He did it by virtue of
his close relationships with high-level Soviet officials and current and
former military officers in order to gain access to closed records. But
probably his greatest cache of Soviet material actually came from
combing German records for captured Soviet documents.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, though, the flood of published
Soviet military documents and the opening up of the Soviet archives have
been transforming historians’ understanding of this pivotal theater of
the Second World War. Indisputably, the chief scholar in this endeavor
is the 62-year-old Colonel Glantz, who spent most of his years in the
Army thinking of ways to defeat the Red Army.

Drawing on the vast and varied newly available Soviet document
collections and archives, his dozens of books are what military
historians call operational histories, which minutely and meticulously
examine what took place on the battlefields. They aren’t concerned with
the Eastern Front’s political, social, diplomatic or economic dimensions
(Colonel Glantz barely touches on the Wehrmacht’s role in the Final
Solution, for example), or even with all its military ones, and to the
layman they can be very heavy going, with their recitations of faceless
units moving in unfamiliar places.

But thanks largely to his and Mr. Erickson’s work, Westerners have
radically revised their appreciation of the Red Army’s wartime skill and

According to the conventional view, based largely on the
often-self-serving accounts of German generals, the Wehrmacht was the
most operationally advanced military in the war, and Soviet tactics and
performance were leaden and unimaginative in comparison; the Red Army
ultimately prevailed not because it was skillful, but because it was so

By incorporating Colonel Glantz’s findings, however, Mr. Murray of Ohio
State and his co-author, Allan R. Millett, conclude in “A War to Be Won”
(Harvard, 2000), their general history of the Second World War, that the
Soviets’ brilliant use of encirclement and what they called “deep
battle” — extremely rapid, far-reaching advances behind the enemy’s
front lines — constituted the most innovative and devastating display of
“operational art” in World War II. Soviet operations from the summer of
1944 to the winter of 1945, they conclude, were far superior to those of
the German Army at its best.

Speaking from his house in Carlisle, Pa., near the United States Army
War College, Colonel Glantz marveled that close to one-half of wartime
Soviet operations — including major battles involving hundreds of
thousands of Red Army soldiers — are simply “missing from history,”
either neglected or covered up.

For example, in November and December of 1942 the celebrated Soviet
Field Marshal G. K. Zhukov orchestrated a gigantic offensive (“Operation
Mars”) involving seven Soviet armies with 83 divisions, 817,000 men and
2,352 tanks. The failed operation cost the Red Army nearly 350,000 dead,
missing and wounded men, and 1,700 tanks, yet it was methodically
concealed in Soviet historiography, in large part to preserve Zhukov’s

Not all of Colonel Glantz’s findings would have proved so embarrassing
to the Soviets. In one of the most contentious debates that emerged from
the war, Western historians and their governments throughout the cold
war accused Stalin of deliberately holding back the Red Army from aiding
the Polish uprising in Warsaw in 1944, thus tacitly permitting German
forces to destroy the beleaguered Polish Home Army. But Colonel Glantz
concludes, after scrutinizing the documents, that the Red Army initially
made every reasonable effort to come to the Poles’ assistance and later
chose not to — Stalin’s political considerations aside — because such
action would have required a major reorientation of military efforts and
a consequent slackening of the main offensive against German forces.

Using other newly available Soviet military documents, the British
historian Antony Beevor focused on the final months of the conflict in
his harrowing study, “The Fall of Berlin” (Viking, 2002), during which
Russian soldiers victimized two million German women, 50 years before
rape was recognized as a war crime.

And where Colonel Glantz shies away from larger historical or cultural
analysis, the historian Christopher R. Browning firmly ties what the
Nazis called their “war of destruction” against the Soviet Union to the
Holocaust. In Mr. Browning’s view, which he details in his forthcoming
book, “The Origins of the Final Solution” (University of Nebraska),
Germany’s mass murders of Jews and non-Jews alike on the Eastern Front
crystallized Nazi policy regarding the eradication of European Jewry.

A popular Soviet postwar slogan was, “No one is forgotten, nothing is
forgotten.” It is only now, though, as more information is being mined
about this immense, chaotic war, that historians are realizing all there
is to be remembered.

Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The
Atlantic Monthly.

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