From the Jaws of Defeat

Uri Bar-Yosef
Uri Bar-Joseph

"Russia's War," by Richard Overy, translated into Hebrew by Ofer Shor, Dvir Publishers, 424 pages, NIS89.

The war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the early 1940s was larger in scale and costlier than any other war in human history. Even at a distance of 60 years, the figures, especially on the Soviet side, are horrifying: Out of nearly 35 million men and women who served in the Red Army during the World War II, 84 percent were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. All in all, according to Richard Overy's estimate, some 25 million Soviet soldiers were killed (as against 388,000 British soldiers and civilians and half-a-million American soldiers). Overy's estimate is considerably lower than others, according to which more than 40 million Red Army personnel fell in the fighting. However, Overy is a meticulous historian who takes great care in his calculations. Other figures that he presents - for example, the loss of 70,000 villages, 1,700 cities, 23,000 factories, 60,000 kilometers of railroad track and one-third of the Soviet Union's wealth, and the total of 25 million persons left homeless - reflect even more dramatically the overall suffering that was Russia's lot during the war.

The above figures are even more appalling if we compare them with the results of Nazi Germany's war with the nations of the West. Eighty percent of the Wehrmacht's dead soldiers were killed on the eastern front. In the famous German blitz on London - an attack that has inspired hundreds of dramatic newspaper reports, plays and movie scripts - 50,000 Britons lost their lives, while in Germany's bombing of Moscow, an almost-forgotten episode in Western historiography of the war, 500,000 Soviets were killed. In the Allied invasion of Normandy - the most dramatic event that ever took place on the western front, and which has provided the background for an endless series of Hollywood productions, including the relatively recent "Saving Private Ryan" - the Allies fought 15 German divisions. A few days later, Operation Bagration began. This was the most successful Red Army operation of the war. In the course of a single week, Marshal Georgy K. Zhukov's forces brought the central group of armies under General Field Marshal Ernst von Busch to their knees, created a 350-kilometer "hole" in the German front that penetrated nearly 150 kilometers into German-held territory, and took more than 400,000 German soldiers prisoner. Few people in the West are familiar with this battle and it is doubtful whether Hollywood has produced even one movie on this military confrontation. It is fortunate for all that Hollywood is not the only place in the world where history is written.

Unprecedented war effort

Richard Overy is a professor of modern history at King's College in London, and a leading historian of World War II. He has written many books on the war's strategic and economic aspects, on the developments that led to the war's outbreak, and on the Battle of Britain. His book, "Why the Allies Won," (which appeared after "Russia's War," but which was translated into Hebrew before it) is a classic of strategic analysis in which Overy brilliantly studies the key factors that led to the defeat of Germany and Japan. "Russia's War" is just as fine an example of strategic analysis.

In order to offer a new explanation of the war's development in the East, especially the Soviet Union's remarkable recovery, Overy uses material in the archives of the KGB and in other archives that became available after the Soviet regime's collapse. The combination of his professional skills as a historian, his expertise and the documents that he was able to access, have resulted in a clear, vibrant and intelligent book that thoroughly examines its subject and which describes a war effort that has no precedent in modern history.

It would be hard to imagine worse conditions for the beginning of such a war effort. On the eve of World War II, the senior command of the Red Army had been purged of its finest officers, who had been sent to the gulags and cellars of the NKVD (communist secret police) on Josef Stalin's orders. The army's political commissars were incapable of making professional military decisions. The Red Army's incompetence on the battlefield was clearly manifested in the Finnish-Soviet Winter War, which Overy describes as a disaster.

In addition to professional incompetence, one should add two other factors to explain the Red Army's failure to conduct military operations successfully. First of all, following France's capitulation, it was decided to abandon the Stalin Line, which had been created to defend the Soviet Union, and instead to fortify a new line to protect the territory that the Soviets had occupied in the West. The German offensive of June 1941 began before the new line could be drawn, and after the old one had already been abandoned.

The second serious blunder was related to military intelligence. Despite the wealth of military intelligence data pointing to a German offensive, Stalin refused to accept the possibility of a German attack taking place as early as 1941. Overy quotes the words of the head of the Soviet terror mechanism and chief toady, Lavrenti Beria, who told Stalin, one day before the German invasion, that Beria and his followers remembered Stalin's correct prediction that Hitler would not attack in 1941.

One should not forget this prediction, which was the fatal outcome of totally unrealistic wishful thinking and a cruel tyrannical regime that suppressed any possibility of free debate. Thus, completely unprepared for the war because of the politicians' involvement at every relevant level, the Red Army was forced to contend with the world's strongest and most efficient army, which had captured all of Western Europe at a cost of less than 50,000 dead.

The results of the Red Army's confrontation with the German war machine were catastrophic: 1,200 Soviet planes were destroyed within the first 36 hours of the German-Soviet war. Within only a month, the Germans managed to capture 200 of the Soviets' 340 equipment reservoirs, and nearly all of the 319 units sent into the fighting were either destroyed or seriously hit. After five months, Nazi Germany occupied most of the Soviet Union's territory to the west of the Ural Mountains, and by mid-November, advance units of the German armed forces were only 18 kilometers from the heart of Moscow. In these battles, the Red Army lost six million soldiers, of whom more than 2.5 million were killed and the rest taken prisoner.

Soviet rebound

It seemed obvious in everyone's eyes that the capture of Moscow and the surrender of the Soviet Union were simply a matter of time. Yet this is when Russia's surprising recovery began. Overy regards the war with the Germans as a test that Stalin and the Soviet system of government passed with flying colors. According to the central thesis that Overy presents in this book, it was not the vast expanses of the Soviet Union or its limitless resources that rescued the Soviets at this critical time. Instead, Overy attributes the Soviets' recovery to Stalin's understanding, at the war's moment of truth, of his limitations as the USSR's supreme military commander, and to his readiness to appoint Zhukov as acting commander of the Red Army.

Zhukov, whose most important trait was his willingness to confront Stalin on crucial military issues, provided the Red Army with a professional leadership, which was free of all political influences and of any threat of purges. This was the kind of professional leadership that the military needed so badly at that moment. From this point onward, Stalin, in most cases, settled for daily reports on military operations and participated in major discussions.

This dramatic change in procedures led to a similar revolution in the relationship between politicians and professional soldiers in the USSR. In the summer of 1942, the wings of the Red Army's central political administration began to be clipped. Its leader was dismissed, the "job slots" of political commissars were canceled and, in the course of 1943, more than 120,000 of them were sent to the front as junior officers. The outcome of this process and similar processes in the civilian sector was the creation of a spontaneous process of "de-Stalinization": Many of the USSR's clerks, managers and soldiers were liberated from a mood of passivity and were now no longer afraid to assume responsibility.

This metamorphosis was accompanied by other factors that determined the final result. The most prominent fruits of this new situation were the emergence of an ardent patriotism, a grass-roots willingness to make sacrifices, and a systematic, thorough study of the lessons to be learned from the Soviets' previous painful blunders.

The grass-roots motivation to contribute to the war effort cannot be attributed solely to the fear of the reign of terror imposed by the secret police.

Symbols and propaganda

One of the wisest moves adopted by the Soviet regime was to mobilize the symbols of "historic Russia" for the struggle with Nazi Germany: Alexander Nevsky, who rescued Russia by defeating the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century, and even the Russian Orthodox Church. The propaganda machine under the direction of Ilya Ehrenberg added the elements of hatred and abomination toward the Germans. All these components created a massive wave of patriotism and self-sacrifice. The Russian people was accustomed to suffering, while the "revolution from above" that Stalin launched before the war had forced many Soviets to accept as facts of life forced immigration, work under conditions of starvation, and the continual threat of death. Thus, the Soviet populace's ability to function under the unhuman conditions that the war created was phenomenally high.

Prudently exploiting the Russian people's readiness to function under such conditions, the Soviet regime conducted a complete mobilization that was totally unprecedented in Russian history: By the end of 1941, some 2,500 factories and some 25 million workers were transferred to the eastern sections of the USSR. By the end of 1942, most of these factories were already operating at full steam. In the course of that year, the factories and workers who had been moved eastward produced nearly 25,000 tanks, 127,000 artillery barrels and more than 25,000 planes. This pace of manufacturing was much higher (3.5 times higher, in terms of the number of tanks and artillery barrels) than Germany's pace of production during that same year, which was also the year when Germany enjoyed decisive military superiority over the USSR.

Some of the Soviet weapons systems were very impressive, indeed: The capacities of the T-34 Tank and the JS (Joseph Stalin) Tank exceeded those of any other tank in either the eastern or western front, while the Ilyushin IL-2M3 BARK (a "shturmovik," the Russian term for a strongly armored aircraft capable of flying at low altitudes) was one of the most effective bombers of the war. Admittedly, the Soviets received massive assistance from the United States in a number of areas - especially communications equipment, vehicles, aircraft fuel, railroad equipment, iron railroad tracks and explosives - and this assistance was of critical importance. Nonetheless, that foreign assistance accounted for only 4 percent of the ammunition the Soviets used.

The weapons with which the USSR won the war were primarily of local manufacture and some of them were produced under unhuman conditions. For example, even while under the Germans' siege, as thousands died of starvation daily, the citizens of Leningrad continued to manufacture arms not only for the defense of their own city but also for other applications. In the second half of 1941, in addition to the thousands of heavy weapons intended for the defense of their city, they produced 1,000 cannons and mortars, which were airlifted out of Leningrad to serve in the defense of Moscow.

Learning from mistakes

The process by which the Soviets learned from their previous blunders was extremely impressive. It was evident in all areas of Soviet life and at all levels, and the outcome was the transformation of the Red Army from an army that had been routed and which had displayed incompetence on the battlefield, into the strongest ground-force army in the world by the end of the war. Some of the improvements were made in the field of military intelligence.

Two years after the major blunder of June 1941, the Soviets managed to defeat the Germans in the summer of 1943 in the Battle of the Kursk Salient. A major reason for the Soviets' success was the fact that they had learned how to use military intelligence data to pinpoint precisely the intended target and timing of the German offensive. In this battle, the dramatic about-face in the relationship between Stalin and the generals expressed itself. Zhukov and his officers insisted that the best course of action would be to wait for the German offensive, to stop it in its tracks and then to launch a counter-offensive. Stalin demanded a preemptive strike. In contrast with past behavior, he acceded to the generals. The Soviet victory in this battle - the largest planned battle in history - was the turning-point of the war on the eastern front.

Another area in which the USSR learned from its defeats in 1941 and 1942 was the quality of military equipment. For example, the Soviets' MBT (main battle tank) - the T-34 - was, from the very start, superior to German tanks in terms of both armor-plating and the cannon's caliber. However, because the T-34's original version lacked communication equipment and had other shortcomings, its effectiveness was relatively low. In 1943, the Soviets produced close to 16,000 T-34 Tanks, in all of which the defects were corrected. Once the flaws had been removed, the effectiveness of the improved version was greatly increased.

The Soviets also changed the structure of their fighting units. Instead of small armored units assisting the infantry units, which were the cornerstone of Soviet armored combat theory in 1941, the armored corps became, as of the spring of 1942, the center of the fighting force. The corps' structure - which imitated that of German armored units - enabled rapid, independent movement on the battlefield, with the infantry soldiers holding on to special devices on the tanks so that they could move forward together with the tanks. The armored army - the Soviet version of a German panzer division - included, from the summer of 1942 onward, two tanks corps and one infantry division, and became the basic unit in the Red Army.

All the above factors - and not the Soviets' numerical superiority and Adolf Hitler's errors, as argued by most of the defeated German generals - turned the Red Army into a fighting force that was the equal, qualitatively speaking, of the Wehrmacht. This qualitative equality expressed itself in various areas. Two of the most prominent were (a) the planning and execution of the Battle of the Kursk Salient, which was a classic illustration of the Soviet concept of depth operations, and (b) the planning and execution of Operation Bagration, the daring and complex summer offensive of 1944, which was just as stunning as the Wehrmacht's successful encirclement battles during the early years of the war.

Another expression of the improvement in the Red Army's military competence can be seen in the fact that, in the autumn of 1944, one Soviet tank was destroyed for every one German tank destroyed, while the ratio in 1941 was six to seven Soviet tanks destroyed for every German tank destroyed.

Innovative additions

In addition to providing an excellent explanation for the manner in which the greatest war in history was fought, Overy's study introduces innovations and contributes in other areas as well. The book is brimful with statistics, some of which have never been published, although he also relies on previous studies, such as "The Value of Human Life in Soviet Warfare" by Prof. Amnon Sella of Hebrew University's Department of International Relations.

Regarding the Polish revolt of August 1944, Overy suggests a new explanation of Soviet policy. The accepted myth in both Poland and the West is that Stalin allowed the Germans to liquidate the anti-communist Polish underground, the Armija Krajowa, because he wanted to make it easier for the USSR to take over Poland. Overy, however, argues that the Red Army, which reached the limit of its capacity in Operation Bagration, was simply incapable of capturing Warsaw simultaneously. In contrast with the legends according to which Hitler committed suicide heroically with a bullet, Overy relies on various sources to prove that Hitler, like Eva Braun, his mistress whom he married at the very last moment, committed suicide by taking cyanide.

Overy also makes reference, even if in requisite and justified brevity, to Viktor Suvorov's sensational conspiracy theory, according to which the Soviet defeats in 1941 can essentially be attributed to the fact that Stalin prepared his country for attacking Germany instead of preparing it for a German offensive. Suvorov's book, "Icebreaker," which was recently translated into Hebrew, became a runaway and influential best-seller in Russia despite its numerous and serious logical and factual blunders. Overy offers a much more satisfactory explanation for the USSR's military failures in the war's early stages, noting that what is frequently perceived as Soviet preparation for an offensive stems not from any political decision, but rather from the Soviet concept that the modern army is an offensive fighting force.

In comparison with what is acceptable in the West, the Israeli bookshelf already holds a respectable number of books on the World War II's eastern front. Alexander Beck's novel, "Panfilov's Men," which was translated as early as 1946 into Hebrew, is even today still considered a suitable gift for graduates of officer courses in the Israel Defense Forces. (According to Overy, the heroic stand of the subject of the novel, General Ivan Panfilov, and his men in the battle of Moscow stemmed in part from Zhukov's threat that the general would be executed if his unit gave up). Alexander Werth's "Russia at War: 1941-1945," Alan Clark's "Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict of 1941-1945," and Anthony Beaver's recently published "Stalingrad" are some of the most prominent and finest descriptions of that major war.

Overy's book can, to a large extent, be seen as an impressive culmination of this literature. "Russia's War" is vital for all those who take an interest in military history, in the history of World War II and, of course, in the history of that war on its eastern front.

Dr. Uri Bar-Joseph is a lecturer in the University of Haifa's Department of International Relations.