Friday, June 30, 2017

Book Review 391: The Road to Stalingrad; The Road to Berlin

THE ROAD TO STALINGRAD: Stalin’s War with Germany, by John Erickson. 594 pages, illustrated. Yale paperback
THE ROAD TO BERLIN: Continuing the History of Stalin’s War with Germany, by John Erickson. 877 pages, illustrated. Westview

English historian John Erickson’s subtitles sum up his massive operational history of the Russo-German war. In the preface to the second volume, he notes that a Russian scholar criticized him for personalizing the “Great Patriotic War” and the efforts of the Soviet people.

Erickson sticks to his point, and, in fact, considering the cult of personality Stalin constructed, it would rather require an explanation why it was not Stalin’s war. Every crucial decision was filtered through him, when not made directly by him.

Many, perhaps most of these decisions were wrongheaded, sometimes spectacularly so, but the three crucial decisions, which determined the outcome of the war (as much as any human decisions laid on top of the economic, industrial, climatic and other non-human factors that influence the outcome of wars can), were right.

The first decision was all-out industrialization and militarization. Russia was the second nation (after Japan) to arm during the interwar years, and by 1939 it had more warplanes than all other countries combined and more tanks than all other countries combined.

Timing worked against the USSR. By starting early, it was stuck with weapons that were obsolete or becoming so in the aftermath of the big leap forward in capabilities that begin around 1935. The Red Army had a few first-class weapons (like the T-34 tank) but not many of them; and a mass of weapons that would have served admirably in 1931 (and did so even as late as 1938 at Nomonhon) but that were of small value by 1941. Among the deficiencies was an antitank gun that could tackle heavy armor.

Stalin’s prewar policy was defensive and pacific, and it failed. Poland was the key; Germany would have a hard time getting at Russia as long as Poland was independent. Stalin (through Maisky, his foreign minister) worked hard to interest Britain and France in a guarantee of Poland, but they hated pacific Russia more than aggressive Germany; and the Poles, remembering 1863, wanted no part of Russians.

Stalin’s defensive policy was in effect both east and west. After demolishing a Japanese invasion in 1938, he was careful to restore borders exactly as they had been. In the west, although the doctrine of the Red Army imagined a stout stand against an attack at the border, followed by a counterthrust into the enemy’s territory, Stalin clearly had no confidence in that. Thus, he attempted to buy Karelia from Finland to provide a buffer for Leningrad.

Finland, with its own bad memories of Russians, had no desire to help. 

As a result, Stalin reversed course and agreed with Hitler on a third partition of Poland, thus moving  his border farther from important parts of the USSR. This was a mistake in several ways, made worse by failure to properly adjust the defensive belt in the west.

Stalin was playing for time. Like leaders of several nations (including professional military men in Germany), he thought he would be ready for war in 1942. By June 1941, he had reason to think he had made it. Napoleon had started for Russia on June 24 and reached Moscow by October, and Hitler’s armies, which included 600,000 horses, moved no faster than Napoleon’s. If Hitler’s goal was Moscow, it was dangerously late — indeed, too late as events proved — and if Hitler’s goal was the Donbas (as Stalin wrongly guessed) then it was way too late.

The German army was concentrated menacingly on the border, but it could have been a bluff. (Hitler in 1944 was convinced the Red Army’s concentration on the road to Berlin was a bluff.) Stalin thought, correctly, that leading elements in Britain and America wanted Germany and Russia to fight to the death, to save themselves.

Warnings from many sources were wrong. They said the attack would begin by June 10, but it didn’t. At that time, the warning from Sorge in Japan was discounted because the USSR did not yet know how good Sorge’s source was.

But, most of all, Stalin was justified in his skepticism because no one in Germany was stupid enough to want a war on  two fronts. He was wrong. One man was that stupid.

Luckily for Stalin and Russia, the generals were incompetent, as generals usually are. The German generals, then and later, were happy to tell the world that they were the most skilled generals the world had ever seen. In fact, they were as incompetent as the British and French generals who had invaded Crimea in 1854. Whether the German army could have reached Moscow before winter or not, the German army made no provision for winter clothing, lubricants or shelter.

The army froze. Obviously, the Germans expected the Red Army would not fight. But Russians were not Frenchmen. They fought furiously.

There is a rightwing myth that the Russians fought only because NKVD men with submachine guns herded them forward. There were penal battalions, and the NKVD did herd those men forward, but even early in the war the Russians fought tenaciously. German officers marveled that surrounded reds (sometimes) fought to the last round.

Stalin soon latched onto this patriotism and dropped most communist rhetoric (and the commissars). It is hard to understand. Russians fought tenaciously for the tsar, too, for a time. Nether regime deserved such devotion.

Soon enough, though, the Germans gave the Russians reason to fight, whether they liked the regime or not. The White and Little Russians had greeted the Germans as liberators (from the Great Russians and the commissars), but German racism soon changed that.

Erickson seldom remarks about such things, but he does note that, in the final drive into Germany, the savage retribution taken by the Red Army was inflamed by the savage exhortations (in Red Star newspaper) of Ilya Ehrenburg.

Ehrenburg’s ferocious attacks against “fascist beasts” were extreme, but the fascists really were beasts.

The Russians absorbed losses that would have ended any other army (except the Japanese). Millions were taken prisoner (to be deliberately starved), more millions were wounded and killed. Yet, no matter how many the Germans eliminated, there were always just as many more.

Erickson is shy about statistics, but another English historian, John Overy, says that, in effect, the German army destroyed the Red Army twice; but Stalin replaced it thrice.

By the end of the war, even Russia’s human reserves were running out. The Germans, operating with a smaller population, had long since begun shrinking.

Early in the war, the Red Army, the one that wouldn’t fight, was inflicting 30,000 casualties a week on the Germans (and Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Spaniards who collaborated).

The failure of the German logistical system was immediately apparent. By September, the Germans had managed to replace only 50,000 out of 150,000 casualties at the front.

The failures at the top (on both sides) were incredible, and if the Germans had fought even minimally effectively, the USSR would have been defeated.

It is a matter of choice which was the greatest failure. Entering the war believing the Red Army would not fight is one candidate. Beginning without establishing a strategic objective is another.

During July and August, the German army paused, in part to refit and reorganize after a rapid advance that stunned the world. The halt stretched on for 18 hot, sunny days while the Germans argued what to do. The broad options were to strike for the capital or for the food and minerals of Ukraine. Stalin was convinced it would be Ukraine.

He was wrong, sort of. The Germans decided on Moscow but could not make themselves concentrate.

Had they begun earlier, they would have had time to get to Moscow before the autumn rains. They failed, and at this point Stalin made the second of his three decisive moves.

The population of Moscow was panicking and the generals were doubtful they could hold off the Germans without reinforcements. Stalin demanded a stand but without extra troops. In the meantime, he assembled a huge, hidden force to counterattack once the ground (and the Germans and their weapons) froze.

At at least three points during the war, Stalin broke down. Not here. With unflinching self-confidence that was frequently ill-considered, Stalin held his hand. The Russians, deficient in so many skills of war, were always masters of deception. The Germans were stunned.

Here, if not earlier in September when the German army began to weaken numerically, the outcome of the war was decided. The democracies had little to do with it and the United States nothing. It was settled before the USA got involved.

The Battle of Moscow was the first defeat of the Nazi war machine.

Stalin nearly threw away his advantage be pressing on, thinking he could push the Germans right out of the USSR.

This led to another vast encirclement and capture of hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers.

Nevertheless, the Germans were now too weak to attain any strategic objective.

After a summer of vast retreats in the south, Stalin pulled off the same coup at Stalingrad, only this time the margin of the unreinforced defenders (the 62bd Army and their commander, Chuikov, who wasn’t afraid of anybody) was cut very much thinner than at Moscow.

The counterattack was even more successful, and Stalin made the same error of pressing it too long and turning a strategic victory into a tactical defeat.

There was one other result from the victory at Stalingrad. Although Stalin never trusted anybody, after Stalingrad he began to let the generals fight their battles more or less as they wished.

In the summer, Stalin was sure the German offensive would switch back to Moscow, and, as always, he preferred the offensive.

His marshals correctly predicted an offensive in the south and after much argument got Stalin to let them fight a defensive action. The result was the overwhelming victory at Kursk.

From this point, Erickson’s narrative broadens. For the most part, he deals in nothing smaller than an army (equivalent to a U.S. corps). As the Red rebound begins, he looks a bit more deeply at the forces involved, until by the final push on Berlin he sometimes deigns to mention something as small as a regiment (U.S. battalion).

He also spends many pages in detailed consideration of the postwar political settlement, dominated by the feckless Poles, to whose behalf the whole monstrous destruction was in principle devoted.

Not much else diverts Erickson from the disposition of armies and army groups. There is not much about logistics, weapons development, economic organization, civilian mobilization or anything else.

For the human dimension, we have to read others.

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