Friday, September 29, 2017

Russia in World War II

Richard Overy's history of Russia in World War II is a useful primer to one of the largest and bloodiest battlefronts in world history.  Written in the late 1990s, the book may well have been superseded by newer historical analyses of World War II's Eastern Front.  However, Russia's War is a wonderful overview of many different aspects of the conflict.  It offers extended treatment of Stalin's decision to forge a diplomatic pact with NAZI Germany.  From Overy's viewpoint, Stalin's decision was an obvious one, not quite worthy of the moral and historical condemnation it has engendered.  The product of realpolitik, Stalin's decision to partner with Hitler was almost inevitable.  According to Overy, Stalin's diplomatic overtures to France and Britain were repeatedly rebuffed or at least stalled to the point of absurdity.  Without France and Britain, Stalin naturally preferred to pit NAZI Germany against the Capitalist powers, whom he and most other Bolsheviks naturally distrusted anyhow.

Over also weighs in on the Stalin's military purges, arguing that these did do quite so much damage to the Russian military as is commonly supposed.  Overy's argument is that many purged officers, especially of the middle rank, eventually returned to service after being only temporarily dismissed.  What is more, while the purges were bloody, they were not actually the cause of all of the Soviet Union's poor military leadership.  Overy here contends that the Soviet military leadership was inclined toward fear and passivity as a result of the general situation in the country, but not merely as a result of the military purges of the late 1930s.  Overy's other point about the purges is that the military leadership couldn't have overcome some of the army's more general problems even if they had avoided Stalin's paranoid bloodthirstiness. This is to say that the Soviet military lack of preparation for major military conflicts resulted from bad morale and poor supplies as much as it did from the loss of top generals. 

Needless to say, Overy's account of the Eastern Front expends considerable energy describing Stalin's horrific strategic mistakes.  The initial phases of the German invasion was helped immeasurably by Stalin's refusal to take the threat of a surprise attack seriously, despite a wealth of evidence of overseas spies.  Stalin's failure to defend his territory in depth, and his repeated refusal to allow Soviet troops to retreat, led to catastrophic losses.  In the end, Russia fought better as the war went on, aided by the weather, the country's vast geography, German over-extension, Lend-lease, and Russian and Soviet patriotism and bravery.  But one of Overy's most haunting conclusion is that the Russia lost so many troops precisely because its political culture placed almost no value on human life. 

According to Overy, in the initial phases of the war, Russia lost 20 soldiers for every one German soldier. In one telling episode of the war, a contingent of 2,000 Soviet horseman attacked a German position and were annihilated.  All 2,000 Soviet cavalrymen died without the loss of a single German.  Overy's next notes that Soviet military losses amounted to the same daily losses the Russian Empire experienced in World War I, approximately 10,000 soldiers a day.  Overy's point is that these numbers are only possible when a government treats its own people as if their lives mattered very little.  Without proper equipment, and without adequate training or food, Russian losses were bound to be extraordinarily high, regardless of who was in power.   Of course, Hitler's homicidal barbarism made things worse for Russian soldiers, who died in prison in terribly high numbers, and for Russian peasants.  But Overy believes (and this does smack of blaming the victim) that the overall Russian attitude toward life was partly to blame to the scale of Russia's human catastrophe. At any rate, the tale of the 2000 cavalrymen tells two different tales at once.  First, it may describe a cavalier attitude toward the loss of military lives.  Second, it describes a form of bravery that shocked event the Germans, who, Overy claims, were deeply disturbed by the battle, which ended with an absolute tactical victory but seemed to portend something dreadful for the course of the war as a whole.  If Soviet troops had so little regard for their own lives, how could Germany ultimately triumph against the populous nation?

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