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Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort, 1941-1945

Richard Overy

New York: Penguin, 1997; Pages: 394

Review © 2001 Branislav L. Slantchev

The Soviet Union won the war because it was able to overcome the initial military disasters, reorganize its military, rebuild its economy, and modernize thoroughly. The great self-sacrifices of the Russian people were spurred by the brutal traditions of the country which "inspired" resignation, the hatred for the Germans which "inspired" patriotism, and the terror of the regime which "inspired" bravery and resoluteness. The combination of Stalin's iron grip on power and determination together with the remarkable resilience of the people came together through the bureaucratic Party that managed to organize and mount the defense amid all the destruction. Only the Russians could have achieved that much, and probably only the Russians could have defeated the Germans.

Summary of Arguments and Subsidiary Points

The Soviet regime was a continuation of the old Tsarist rule, both in methods and aims. "Every Russian ruler has been at war with the people" (p.xx) is a profound insight. The post-revolutionary period is a desperate struggle for survival against internal and external enemies, both assisted by the West. After Tukhachevsky's inept performance in Poland, Stalin realized that the survival of the Soviet state was predicated on military might, which itself required a huge economic base. The industrialization and the attending horrors of collectivization, famine, and purges were little more than efforts to build the most formidable military machine in the world (p.18-9). Worst consequence of the purges was to shift the balance of power in the military from experts to politicians (p.32). The mobilization of the people explains why they were able to resist the Germans but also why they did it so ineptly (p.33).

The outbreak of war is seen as an entirely German adventure. First, Hitler's early plans to attack the USSR (p.35). Second, Stalin's failed efforts to forge a military alliance against him---first about Czechoslovakia (p.39) and then Poland (p.44)---efforts thwarted by the West and the intransigence of the Poles. Third, through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which is interpreted as "keeping options open," and as a direct result of Munich. Fourth, Stalin's failure to believe the reports of impending aggression (p.59). No thought is really given as to what caused the war (see notes below).

The following chapters---the outbreak of war, early German victories, the defense of Moscow and Leningrad (especially harrowing), the siege of Stalingrad, and the Battle of Kursk---are excellent because they present a remarkably balanced picture of Soviet sacrifice: patriotism and fear. The author places too much emphasis on Western aid when none was forthcoming in the first two years of the war (the worst). Overy is also frank about German atrocities, especially because he does not give the usual spiel about how the army was innocent but the SS Einsatzgruppe were doing the dirty work. In fact, it was a brutal war. SS and the NKVD competed in brutality, but the armies soon became engaged in a battle where prisoners were rarely taken, and where fierce hate became the driving force. In a frank statement, the author states that "the Soviet collapse in 1941 sealed the fate of Europe's Jews" (p.139). The Germans invaded with utter stupidity: they treated the subject population with disdain and slaughtered them by the thousands when the people in Ukraine and the Baltics were ripe for cooperation against the Soviets. It was the Germans that provoked the intense partisan resistance, and made sure that everyone hated them (p.145,152).

It is interesting to follow the transformation of the war into the Great Patriotic War. What had began as the defense of the Soviet regime (insufficient to inspire the great sacrifices necessary to stop the Germans) slowly became the fight for the Motherland (p.162). Although Order 227 authorized the severest punishment of panickers and cowards (p.160), there was a lot of defiance and self-sacrifice in the behavior of Russian soldiers. The war became a nationalist war of revenge, the Orthodox Church was revived (p.162), and the soldiers were whipped into hatred for the Germans, which was not too difficult, given what the invaders were perpetrating (p.164).

The Battle of Stalingrad is presented as a conflict between Paulus and Chuikov. The author simply says "how the Red Army survived in Stalingrad defies military explanation" (p.175) which is indeed so. While Russians were fighting bitterly and tenaciously for every building and every floor, Zhukov was preparing Operation Uranus, which was to prove the first large-scale victory for the Soviets (November-December 1943).

Another interesting theme that is not sufficiently developed is Stalin's incompetence as a military commander. It appears that every time he disregarded the advice of the General Staff (especially Zhukov), he made a devastating decision (p.181).

The Battle of Kursk (1943) and the decisive Russian victory there is "the result of profound transformation of the way the Red Army made war" (p.187). Modernization in strategic thought, the reasserting of experts over inept politicians in command organization (Vasilevky and Antonov, p.188), the improvement in equipment (p.193) and total economic production (p.195) were crucial. The author lauds Western aid (p.195-7) without which "the narrower post-invasion economy could not have produced the remarkable output" (p.197) but he gives it too much credit. Where were the allies in 1941-2, when they were needed most? However, to his credit, Overy says that the Soviet Union did not win because there was an inexhaustible supply of people to throw at the Germans (there wasn't) but because the Russians were able to reorganize their armed forces and economy to an unprecedented extent, and do so in war conditions (p.212). "The reconstruction of an almost entirely new army on the ruins of the collapse in 1941, one capable of holding its own against the attacker, ranks as the most remarkable achievement of the war" (p.214).

The rest of the book quickly goes over the operations in 1944-5, with the liberation of the Ukraine, Belorussia, Poland, and the conquest of Berlin. The author dwells with morbid fascination on the cruelty of Russian revenge in the newly liberated territories but fails to mention that the cause of the terrible revenge was German brutality, not only regime's paranoia. Overy discusses at length the Gulags and labor camps (p.227-32), the persecution of minorities like the Volga Germans and Crimean Tatars (p.233-4) but neglects to emphasize the fact that (i) it was not unusual to target minorities with suspected ties to the enemy (e.g. US treatment of Japanese Americans), and (ii) the Crimean Tatars fought on the side of the Germans. Finally Overy acknowledges that the real war was fought on the Eastern Front when discussing Operation Bagration (p.240-4).

There is a balanced account of the nationalist uprising in Warsaw in April 1943, which was put down by the Germans (225,000 civilian deaths) while the Red Army tried but could not help the Poles. This is contrary to revisionist accounts (started by Churchill) that blame Stalin for allowing the slaughter to happen (p.246-7). A very cursory treatment of the Yalta Conference fails to reveal the deepening rift between the allies (p.253-4).

The battle for Berlin is presented as a contest between Zhukov and Konev. The high point of the narrative comes with Jodl's capitulation to the Allies on May 7th (the bastards accepted it!) and the resulting Soviet indignation. That Stalin was right to be angry is beyond doubt. The Soviet Union had won the war and the "allies" tried to deprive it of victory (p.278). The real end of war was declared on May 9th, with Zhukov accepting German surrender at the hands of Keitel (p.279). The Potsdam Conference is also treated with benign neglect, but Overy does talk about the development of nuclear capabilities and their effect on the former allies (p.282-7). He acknowledges that contrary to popular opinion, the stolen Western plans did not help the Soviet much.

The last chapter deals with the legacy of war and the cult of personality. It is uninspired, full of predictable platitudes like the duplicitous behavior of the Russian tribunal during Nuremberg (who understandably tried to hide the Katyn massacres), and the renewal of the purges until Stalin's death in 1953. Not much there except it is still a mystery how such a tyrant came to be revered so much. Or was he? When Khrushchev de-stalinized the country, it did not take long for Stalin's image to disappear completely. Maybe it was all fear.

Subjects with Factual Information

The Tsarist armies averaged 7,000 casualties a day between 1914 and 1917, compared with 7,950 a day between 1941 and 1945 (p.215).

Historiographical Observations

The chapter on the prelude to war (2) is superficial. The author never explains many of the mysteries of Soviet behavior during the period. It is clear that Germany became afraid of the fast growth of the USSR, both economic and military, and so much is asserted (p.35). Much emphasis is placed on the weakening of the Soviet army by the purges but whether this was so is never proven. Figures from Russian archives suggest otherwise---many of the officers were reinstalled. Stalin's desperate attempts to forge an anti-German alliance with France and Britain, especially with regard to Czechoslovakia, are shown to be sincere but the explanation (p.41) that all Stalin wanted was to "keep his options open" smacks of British behavior, not Russian. The author regards the Nazi-Soviet Pact as a "logical conclusion of the Munich crisis" (p.42) but the account is trivial. First, Stalin tried to get Britain and France to agree to a definite form of collective guarantee (p.44) until the very end. The author dismisses this with "the Soviet Union wanted an alliance to fight Hitler, the West wanted a diplomatic front to deter him" (p.45). Stalin may have had an exaggerated view of Western military strength, but when the Germans made overtures, he responded after a two-month hesitation. Why? Molotov began negotiations in earnest only after it became clear that the hope of an anti-Hitler alliance was dead (p.48). The author rightly dismisses the idea that Stalin's talks with the West were a ploy to get Hitler to offer more concessions (p.49). Perhaps he wanted the pact to compel the West into a war on his side after normal negotiations failed? If that, he succeeded remarkably well. The author blissfully says that the fact that Germany and USSR had a common border after Poland was "bearable" (p.50) and that the Stalin Line was completely abandoned (p.59) when the Russians started building fortifications in Poland. Why? It makes little sense. If the military doctrine really calls for defense, you build more lines, and in depth, you don't dismantle existing ones, especially when they are of a quality worthy of Stalin's name. What exactly were the Russians doing in Poland that prompted Hitler to attack? Overy says Lebensraum called for it (p.62), but he is dead wrong. Germany needed time to absorb its new possessions and did not need the vast expanses in the East just yet. Even Hitler thought that she would not need them for at least 100 years. Why did the Russians build fortifications in full view of the Germans (p.64)? Why did Zhukov argue against dismantling the Stalin Line but then felt silent (p.65)? He was not the one to be silent when he thought Stalin was wrong. Overy's dismissal of the possibility of aggressive war against Germany (p.68-9) is superficial. All that he manages to show is that the Soviet Union was not ready for an attack in June, but what about a month later? He says that "the clearest evidence that Stalin had no plans to attack Hitler first can be found in his almost frantic efforts to appease the German leader right up to June" (p.69). But it sound like Stalin was stalling for time, nothing more. Why did Stalin refuse to believe reports of an imminent German offensive? Overy gives psychological reasons that are not convincing. To answer the question why Stalin did not believe the reports, we should ask why should he. Was it reasonable for Hitler to attack? The answer seems no.

Overy also denigrates the Winter War with the familiar, ill-considered, argument that it exposed the terrible weakness and incompetence of the Red Army. Really? Which other army had ever attacked a fortified defense line like Mannerheim in the freezing winter temperatures? How may have succeeded? None. Yet the Russians did, at terrible cost, but they breached the line and the Finns sued for peace. More importantly, the "lessons" of the Winter War that convinced the German Staff of that weakness were wrong. If they really thought that the Russians would not learn from their experience, they were idiots. There is no doubt that the Russians learned quite a bit and there was significant reform in the Red Army (p.57). More importantly, the Russians proved that they could fight during the winter, which the Germans were ill-equipped to do. Finally, the Winter War may have played a large role in the surrender of the Baltic states shortly thereafter (p.60).

Bibliographical Notes

Short bibliography. Interestingly, the author cites some recent works on WW2 (e.g. Glantz and Erickson) that are much superior to his. Unfortunately, he seldom uses their insights. Even Werth's book is better because at least the author was witness to the war from the Soviet side. There is insufficient attention paid to the recent wave of Russian publications that seem to show that Stalin was not entirely innocent of aggressive designs in 1941. See, for example the works by Nevezhin and Suvorov (the latter is suspect, but interesting). There is no archival research and that much is evident.

March 2, 2001. BLS

    TITLE     = {Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort, 1941-1945},
    AUTHOR    = {Richard Overy},
    YEAR      = {1997},
    PUBLISHER = {Penguin},
    ADDRESS   = {New York},
    ISBN      = {0-14-027169-4},
    NOTE      = {Pp. 394}