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Where World War II was won and lost


By Antony Beevor, Penguin, 2000

Reviewed by Per-Åke Westerlund

"NEVER BEFORE had a civilian population suffered so much", writes the British historian Antony Beevor in this in-depth and well-written book. Beevor cites the ravages of war, mass executions, starvation, cannibalism and epidemics, but offers as well a detailed basis for political and military-strategic analysis.

In 1939, Stalin sealed his treaty with Hitler, the hitherto official mortal enemy of the USSR. The Soviet foreign minister, Molotov, proclaimed that it now was Germany "that strives to end the war as fast as possible while England and France, which yesterday were making noises against aggression, are in favour of continuing the war and against an armistice". With the treaty Stalin openly shared responsibility for the Nazi occupation of Poland in the autumn of 1939.

Hitler’s attack on the USSR in June 1941 was a logical conclusion of the aspirations of German imperialism to get revenge on the Russian revolution and to conquer raw material and slave labour. The attack was predicted by Hitler himself, as it was by the Marxists lead by the exiled Leon Trotsky, but the assault still caught Stalin unaware. Days before the German attack, Stalin ordered the army not to respond to what he termed ‘provocations’. Beevor shows how Stalin’s "tyranny included a marked element of cowardice" and that until the last minute he hoped for reconciliation with Hitler.

The German assault was of unprecedented dimensions: three million German troops, plus their allies, participated with 3,350 tanks. Within five days they advanced 200 miles and captured 300,000 Russian soldiers. During the first three weeks 6,000 Soviet aeroplanes were destroyed. Within a short period the German army was 65 miles west and 100 miles north of Moscow. But not even this successful army could be stretched without limit. They lacked maintenance, the troops were exhausted and frost injuries followed the winter of 1941-42. The next offensive had to wait until the summer.

The most important targets were Ukrainian agriculture and the oil in Caucasia, to end the regime’s dependence on imports. Hitler demanded seven million tons of grain from Ukraine in the summer of 1941, which led even the Nazi leaders themselves to predict starvation for millions in Ukraine.

Beevor points out that the methods of the Nazis forced the enemies of Stalin to defend the Soviet Union. Russians and other Slavic people were regarded as inferior by the Nazi ideologues, and this position was accepted by the officers. 33,771 Jews were executed after the conquest of Kiev. The first experiment with Zyklon B in Auschwitz was made on Russian prisoners. 60,000 prisoners from Stalingrad were used as slave labour in Germany. In total three million Soviet prisoners died.

Beevor argues that "the crusade of Hitler revived" the civil war in Russia following the revolution, when the new Soviet government defended itself against the invasion of foreign troops and the White, often anti-semitic, Tsarist armies. But the workers’ regime of 1918-20 had by this point been supplanted by the dictatorship of Stalin.

The USSR entered the war severely weakened militarily. Stalin’s mass purges of real and possible oppositionists had greatly affected the armed forces: 36,671 officers were executed in 1936-38, among them the leading general Tukhachevsky. But, writes Beevor, "the great advantage of Stalin in comparison to Hitler was that he lacked ideological scruples". While Hitler was blinded by his objectives and his belief that he was invincible, Stalin was prepared for ever new turns. Beevor underlines Stalin’s "desire for vengeance" as an important factor, which confirms the analysis of Stalin made by Leon Trotsky in his biography of the Russian dictator. Trotsky showed Stalin lacked any ideology or long-term plan, but rather acted to keep and extend his own power and prestige.

Without ceremony Stalin returned to the military thinking of the 1920s, which had been developed by Tukhachevsky, and reinstated several of his disciples. Total mobilisation was ordered, including of female soldiers. The USSR could rely on and use all the advantages of the planned economy to the maximum. In 1942, more than 2,000 tanks were produced every month, compared with Germany’s 500. As with other economic leaps under Stalinism, this was achieved by merciless pressure on the workers. It was a planned economy run as a military organisation. The political criticism, however, was alive. "For a young Soviet citizen the most shocking experience in the field was not their coarseness but their outspokenness in political questions", tells Beevor. The soldiers demanded improved conditions and were against the privileges of the rulers.

Stalingrad (today Volgograd) on the river Volga was strategically well-placed to cut off the oil supply from Caucasia to the rest of the Soviet Union. To Stalingrad Hitler sent his 6th Army led by the general Paulus, who was extremely loyal to Hitler but was more a staff officer than a field officer. The German troops arrived at the city on 23rd August 1942. In the first week 40,000 civilians were killed. Soviet losses in holding the centre of Stalingrad on the western bank of Volga were enormous. Of the 11th firing battalion only 320 men out of 10,000 survived.

Hitler was now at his peak. General Rommel was simultaneously victorious in North Africa and seemed to have Egypt and the oil fields in the Middle East within reach. Hitler therefore gave the order that the 6th Army should occupy Stalingrad parallel with an offensive against the oil fields further south. But to occupy Stalingrad meant ‘rat-war’ in basements and houses destroyed by bombing. The railway station, for example, changed ‘owners’ 15 times within five days. The over-stretched German forces could no longer move forward. General Paulus and his officers, however, trusted Hitler and the high command to come up with a solution.

Meanwhile the Soviet counter-offensive was prepared with the aim of surrounding the entire 6th Army in the Stalingrad area. This offensive gained immediate successes. Encirclement became a fact on November 22nd: 290,000 soldiers were trapped. Until capitulation in January, 400 per day were evacuated, most of them injured. But the air bridge promised by Göering was never realised. The food rationing led to starvation and diseases. One German doctor reported: "On the operating table we were forced to scrape lice from uniforms and skin with a spatula and throw them into the fire". 20,000 soldiers lay injured in the basements of the ruins of Stalingrad. The 6th Army lacked fuel and ammunition, but were ordered by Hitler to fight to the last man. The five-month battle left 485,751 Red Army soldiers dead, and roughly equal numbers for the German army and its allies. After the German capitulation 91,000 prisoners were taken, of which 5,000 survived and returned to Germany in the 1950s.

Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for the Nazi regime. Just before, Rommel had lost the battle at El Alamein. Hitler lost the initiative. Beevor’s book is filled with accounts from aristocratic German generals who had subordinated themselves to the Nazis and become dependents of the regime. Many of them now lost their faith in Hitler, some of whom planned the assault on Hitler carried out in 1944. Their criticism was mainly concerned with the military defeats, not fascism as such.

Stalin kept a low profile during the huge defeats at the beginning of the war, which were caused by his purges and mistakes. After Stalingrad, he became the ‘Great Commander’ and the personality cult became even more extreme. He received ‘the sword of Stalingrad’ from the king of England via Churchill at the summit of the allied leaders in Teheran, and respectfully kissed the blade. The regime of Stalin became more nationalistic. He dissolved the Communist International in May 1943 and rehabilitated the orthodox church in September the same year. Panslavism was cultivated and old tsars were praised as heroes. Within the military the old command structure was restored. Stalin actively tried to recruit some of the captured German generals. He had most success with Arno von Lenski, who later sat in the ruling ‘political bureau’ of the GDR.

The outcome of the war strengthened Stalinism globally. Eastern Europe was now within the power of Stalin and the Chinese revolution followed soon after. The Stalinist ‘communist’ parties reached their strongest support in 1944-45. Stalingrad played no small part in this, showing that workers and the planned economy, despite the dictatorship, were able to defeat fascism.

Second to the books of the Finnish author Väinö Linna, this is the best book on war I’ve read.


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