Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Worst War

Military history has gotten a very bad rap. For a while it seemed as if no respectable historian would touch the subject for fear of being lumped in with Civil War re-enactors. Then came revisionists who, quite rightly, argued that even military history could be treated with some of the tools of women's history, cultural history, and social history. When it comes to modern Russia, it's obvious that World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, deserves a great deal of attention--however it is practiced. For Russia was affected by war with Nazi Germany in countless ways. The conflict was enormous, on a scale that hasn't been repeated anywhere, before or since.

The death toll--some 20 million or more perhaps--continues to influence Russian demographic patterns to this day. With this in mind, I thought I would take a stab at reading Chris Bellamy's comprehensive history of the war entitled Absolute War. Told from a decidedly British point of view, Absolute War does provide readers with a review of all new research on the subject of the war. Sadly, one doesn't, perhaps apart from military strategists, learn anything that forces one to think about this conflict differently. Of course, just to review the Moscow-Ribbentrop Pact, Operation Barbarossa, Moscow, the Siege of Leningrad, Stalingrad, the Battle for Berlin, and all the rest helps to remind readers how difficult it would be for contemporary Russians to forget the tragedy and heroism of brutality of this unprecedented conflict.

The main import of Absolute War is to review the fact that the Soviet Union won the war but only after losing intolerable amounts of troops, civilians, and economic assets. The author's first chapter is his best. Here, Bellamy argues that the Soviet Union sacrificed much of its future in winning the war. Additionally, Bellamy seems to be making a case for Stalin as generalissimo. It's not that Bellamy thinks Stalin was right, especially when it came to the timing of Hitler's invasion. It's that Bellamy believes that Stalin made a pact that was useful to the Soviet Union and tried to maintain that pact in the face of real uncertainty about his "ally's" intentions.

According to Bellamy, Stalin understood that Hitler was an enemy but thought an invasion wasn't imminent for logical strategic considerations. Moreover, despite innumerable intelligence reports about German activity on the frontier, Stalin made a not unreasonable assumption that Hitler was at this point only attempting to make an ultimatum to the Soviet Union regarding further economic or territorial concessions. Of course, it's obvious in hindsight that Stalin got it wrong. Even so, Bellamy believes that, contrary to books such as Stalin's Folly, Stalin never lost control. And while Stalin clearly had undermined Soviet military readiness as a result of his purges, he also helped to ensure Soviet success via the brutality of his security apparatus which made very real (if ethically dubious) contributions to the Soviet victory.

The slightly ironic but not entirely illogical component of Bellamy's geo-political analysis of the war--or at least the implicit implications of that analysis--is that somehow both Hitler and Stalin look smarter than is commonly assumed. Clearly, Hitler and Stalin each made some strategic decision that involved the destruction of whole armies. Yet the decision to invade Soviet Russia seems slightly less absurd after reading Absolute War. First, the Germans were wildly successful at first, inflicting causalities or "irrecoverable losses" at the rate of ten to one across a wide front. Second, the USSR's military effort very nearly collapsed, even though its army dealt with disaster much more effectively than anyone--Hitler included--could have supposed. As one German general put it, "the Russians don't seem to know that they've been beaten." Third, Hitler knew that the Soviets had lost their military leadership to the purges, had performed poorly against the Finns, and controlled a number of hostitle populations such as those in the Baltics who actively aided advancing German troops.

It's easy to say that Hitler should have learned from Napoleon's mistake. However, should Hitler have known that the USSR would, by and large, remain loyal to its despotic regime (or afraid of that regime) and interested in counterattacking despite absurdly enormous causality rates? Perhaps Bellamy's book will make historians a little less smug than they've previously been on this score.

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