Bloody clash of great dictators

Thunder in the East
November 24, 2006

By any reasonable measure, the Soviet-German war was the greatest war in history. Thirty million German and Soviet citizens died as a direct result of it, 10 million of them on the field of battle. When the war ended, in 1945, Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe were zones of unprecedented devastation and dislocation. As the war unfolded, events on the Eastern Front gripped the popular imagination, not least during the dramatic battles for Moscow and Stalingrad in 1941-42. As early as 1946, Alexander Werth, The Sunday Times' s wartime correspondent in Moscow, produced an outstanding account of the battle of Stalingrad. Twenty years later, he published his magisterial history of Russia at War, 1941-1945 . This was followed by Alan Clark's Barbarossa (1965) and Albert Seaton's The Russo-German War (1971) - books that told the story of the war mainly from the German point of view. In the 1970s and 1980s, the historiography of the war was dominated by John Erickson's massive two-volume study, Stalin's War with Germany . In the 1990s, Richard Overy's Russia's War (1997) took up the argument that it was the great battles on the Eastern Front that determined the outcome of the Second World War.

Evan Mawdsley's book is a worthy successor to this rich historiographical heritage. Authoritative and judicious, innovative and challenging, accessible and evocative - this is the text for those who want to understand why Hitler lost and why Stalin won.

It is often argued that the decision to invade Russia was Hitler's fatal mistake. But, as Mawdsley says, if Hitler were to maintain German hegemony in Europe after his defeat of France in 1940, he had little choice.

Hitler's mistake was to think the Soviet Union could be subdued in a single short campaign and that it would be possible, simultaneously, to wage a war of annihilation against the "judeobolshevik" Soviet state.

The German invasion of June 1941 did achieve considerable success but could not sustain itself in the face of stout Soviet resistance. By the end of 1941, Hitler was locked into a losing war of attrition that only spectacular success on the battlefield could reverse.

Stalin is often criticised for failing to prepare and mobilise for war and for disregarding intelligence on the coming German attack.

Actually, as Mawdsley argues, Stalin's problem was that his generals were preparing for an offensive war and were confident that a German attack could be absorbed and then repulsed by a counterinvasion. Indeed, throughout the war, the Soviets strove to solve their defensive problems by counterattack. These methods were ultimately successful, but they brought the Soviet Union perilously close to defeat and secured victory only at great human cost.

Mawdsley makes some instructive comparisons between Hitler and Stalin. Both dictators dominated their generals and bore direct responsibility for the triumphs and disasters of their armies.

Both men were attracted to grand strategic schemata and were reluctant to countenance retreat. Both were guilty of consistently exaggerating their own strengths and of underestimating those of their enemy.

Both leaders were reliant on allies to sustain their war effort. In Stalin's case, however, his British and American allies were an enormous asset, while those of Hitler - Italy, for example - were ultimately burdensome.

Another key difference was that while Hitler's composure cracked under the pressure of defeat, Stalin held his nerve and maintained the coherence of his command structure. Stalin was also the great learning leader. By the end of the war, he was worthy of the marshal title bestowed upon him.

Mawdsley is a Russian specialist, and much of his research is based on thousands of documents from the Soviet military archives published in the 1990s. These enable him, first, to avoid overreliance on self-serving Soviet military memoirs; second, to provide an in-depth analysis of the Red Army's development into a highly effective military machine; and, third, to illuminate many neglected phases and episodes of the military campaign.

The overall narrative of the Eastern Front campaign is well established, but what Mawdsley's book shows is that much of the Soviet-German war remains underexplored.

He concludes that "the Russians (and the Allies as a whole) won because they had larger armies, more efficient war production and better strategic leadership", and that while "defeat made possible the transformation of Germany; victory perpetuated the most harmful features of the Soviet system". Stalin had won the war, saved the world from the Nazis and secured a new lease of life for the Soviet system, but he was destined to lose the peace.

Geoffrey Roberts is associate professor of history at University College Cork. His Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953 will be published by Yale University Press this month.

Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War, 1941-1945

Author - Evan Mawdsley
Publisher - Hodder Arnold
Pages - 502
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 340 80808 X

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