Thursday, October 9, 2014

Generalissimo Stalin: The Myth of Stalin as a Great Military Strategist by Boris Gorbachevsky

Boris Gorbachevsky's "Generalissimo Stalin" offers a bit of a mixed bag for readers.  The author, a veteran who went through the war and wrote his memoirs (translated under the title "Through the Maelstrom"), presents a rather polemical text for the reader.  The best parts of the book, for me, among the 300+ pages are the author's personal experiences, as well as the various interactions he had with veterans and survivors of the war.  Much of the narrative revolves around the battles for Rzhev, where the author fought, and where to this day there are still many questions left unanswered about the numerous operations that took place from 1941-1942 and the losses sustained by the Red Army.  The author relates interesting anecdotes, reminiscences, and recollections that make for a valuable addition to literature on the Eastern Front and the Soviet Union.  Then, there are stories that seem more apocryphal than true, but in the end I lean toward believing them as accurate since having read on the Second World War for over a decade I stopped being surprised and impressed with the amount of suffering, heroism, stupidity, and ignorance that was displayed by millions of men and women on a daily basis.

One of the more interesting chapters deals with Aleksandr Korneichuk's play "The Front."  This was written in August of 1942 and served as a warning to those of the "old guard", veterans from the Civil War, that the modern requirements of this war needed young, energetic commanders to take the reigns.  The play served as a validation of Stalin's scapegoating and shifted the blame for the defeats of 1941 and early 1942 onto the shoulders of commanders and away from Stalin himself.  The chapters that deal with the Yalta Conference lean on conjecture more than factual data and there are various generalizations made that have become a cornerstone of propaganda against Stalin and the Soviet state of the time, whether deserved or not.

As mentioned, the volume is written as a polemical work, and in most cases, it's arguing against the memory of Stalin and the Great Patriotic War that was crafted during the war itself and in the post-war period and remains, in many ways, evident even today.  Some of the other subjects covered are the last days of the war and the Battle for Berlin, the meeting on the Elbe between US and Soviet forces, the uprising in Prague by the 1st Division of Vlasov's Army, and the allied contribution to the war.  Often the author engages in mock conversations with the reader, including the introduction of rhetorical questions.  This style will be familiar to those who've read Russian volumes on the Stalinist period, which fuses history, reminiscences, hypotheticals, etc., together.  In some ways Gorbachevsky himself is guilty of propagating Soviet era myths in that he consistently ridicules the narrative developed under Stalin's leadership and after, but himself praises the exceptional environment Red Army soldiers found themselves in and were able to overcome.  He falls into the trope that says the Red Army and Soviet population won the war in spite of Stalin rather than thanks to him.  This idea was developed under Khrushchev, who did his best to place all blame on Stalin's shoulders and focus more on the party and people for the Soviet victory in the war.  Additionally, after explaining how weak western knowledge is in regards to the Eastern Front, mainly based on German recollections due to the limits the Soviets placed on what could be written about the war, the author then goes on to quote and lean on German sources to support many of his points.

There are quite a few weaknesses evident throughout this work.  First, there is a clear lack of citations and sources, something amateurish efforts in the west are also guilty of, but from my readings in Russian it's somewhat more rampant there, even with historians.  This is a double edged sword because it means there is interesting information presented but not well sourced, or  simply not sourced at all.  Secondly, Gorbachevsky references controversial authors like Mark Solonin whose theories about why the Red Army was defeated so categorically in 1941 have been proven to be fallacious (he argues it was because Soviet soldiers had no desire to fight for a regime that had so severely abused its population; good luck proving that since the majority of Soviet prisoners of war taken in 1941 were dead after the first winter).  There are also a few inconsistencies and minor errors, as when the author argues that the name 'Great Patriotic War' was only applied to the war in November of 1944, when it was actually used on the second day of the war, June 23, 1941.  For all of the above reasons, I would say this is a work for those familiar with the Eastern Front.  Those without in-depth knowledge will undoubtedly be lost by all the names, dates, events, authors, and arguments presented and might walk away with a skewed view of a subject that needs objectivity more than anything else, especially today.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin

In 'Stalin', historian Stephen Kotkin tries his best to balance a biography of Stalin with the environment Stalin found himself living in.  Kotkin details the politics of the Russian Empire and her neighbor, the newly created Germany under Bismarck, as well as the industrialization (including the rise and popularity of socialist and Marxist thought) and Russificiation that Georgia and the Russian Empire in general underwent.  All would play important roles in how a young Stalin was raised and educated and how he formed his worldview.  In general, Kotkin uses Stalin as a tool to showcase a world and environment that existed at the time and helped craft the man Stalin would become in the future.  Simultaneously he describes and analyzes the people and events that affected Stalin's youth and adolescence and slowly positioned him for a future no one could have predicted was on the horizon.  Due to the above, much of this volume does not solely focus on Stalin but on the personalities he interacted with (Lenin, Trotsky, Miliukov, Martov, etc.) or those important enough to alter the direction of European politics (Bismarck, Wilhelm II, Witte, Nicholas II, etc.).

I think the title 'Stalin' is a misnomer here since a significant portion of this work focuses on many other topics/subjects and often enough Stalin is nowhere to be found.  In many ways the large swath of territory covered is useful and even needed in understanding how Stalin's life unfolded and how it fit into the greater pattern of European history.  But, unfortunately, that also makes this first volume a bit less interesting for me personally as we only see Stalin's evolution through 1928.  My understanding is that the following volumes will have a lot more concentration on Stalin.  Yet understanding the historical events Stalin lived through and witnessed will undoubtedly help explain his later actions and reasoning as head of the Soviet Union.  Through Stalin's eyes I hope future volumes will showcase the actions of a man who lived through much and made those experiences part of his core.

Although Kotkin has worked in numerous archives, both in the US and Russia, he himself states that he sometimes went through primary source material based on secondary readings.  Thus it's a bit difficult to separate original research from what's already available (although not necessarily in English as Kotkin utilizes sources in German, Russian, etc.).  While this might not be the most original biographical look at Stalin, it certainly is, at the very least, an impressive synthesis of available literature incorporated into an interesting narrative of the world Stalin found himself inhabiting.  In many ways the events described and analyzed by Kotkin deserve, and in some instances, already have, multi-volume works written about them (WWI, the Russian Revolution (February and October), etc.  But Kotkin's work has a readability many others will lack and while at times depth of analysis might be missing (or in some cases depth in general considering the amount of information covered), this first volume is still in many ways essential reading for those interested in Stalin, the late Russian Empire, the Russian Revolution and the creation/formation of what became the Soviet Union.

Some of the highlights for me were the descriptions of Stalin's role in the October Revolution and the way in which the Bolsheviks were able to seize power.  The utter chaos following the February Revolution and the inability of Kerensky and the Provisional Government to get anything worthwhile accomplished inevitably led to the eventual storming of the Winter Palace in a bloodless coup.  The ensuing attempts by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, at times working in tandem with the other parties (Mensheviks, Right and Left SRs, etc.) to end the war and bring about some type of peace with Germany and stability on the homefront, are described in detail as is the half-hearted attempt by the Left SRs in their assassination of the German ambassador to force Germany to renew hostilities with Russia - post-Brest-Litovsk - and discredit the Bolsheviks.  Kotkin covers numerous events and personalities that are usually left out of popular histories and are reserved for academic monographs.  Yet, as previously mentioned, while some coverage lacks the depth certain events deserve, that is also in part due to the impact they had or will have on the future role Stalin assumes.  Thus the First World War, which Stalin never participated in, is wholly overshadowed by the February and October Revolutions, where Stalin began to play a greater role in the Bolshevik hierarchy.  In effect, the events Kotkin has chosen to highlight and concentrate on were picked for their future impact on Stalin and the Soviet Union.  Without a doubt this is a highly recommended volume for all the reasons mentioned above.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski

Many of the reviews on amazon for this book seem to have missed the forest for the trees.  Most were expecting a detailed history of the battle of Verdun.  That is, as per the usual military history of a single, significant battle, a rather limited history leading up to the battle should have been presented, and then the battle itself detailed, studied, and analyzed, followed up by its impact on the war and the lessons derived from it to this day.

However, Jankowski has presented a rather different version of a history of Verdun.  That is, he's created a history of the 'idea' that the Battle of Verdun represented during the war, immediately after, and up to the present.  The author offers no linear narrative going through the beginning, middle, and end of this battle since in reality no such plans existed.  Chapters jump around in regards to time, place, events, etc.  The battle, in some sense, evolved on its own and the chaos that followed had to be put into a narrative of its own by those reporting on it and post-war histories and memoirs.  The creation of that story, the memory/memories of Verdun, is what Jankowski is tracking, in some sense, and expanding on the myths that the battle left in its wake.

Thus, the ever changing narrative about why the battle began, what both sides wanted to achieve through their offensive (the Germans) at Verdun, and their tenacious defense (French) of an area that for all intents and purposes contained no real significance for either party is the core of this monograph.  If the Germans had gained ground it would not have resulted in the war of movement that they were aiming for, and if the French had retreated, another city would have fallen to the Germans with no real change to the overall war effort.  And yet this deadly embrace, mainly between the Germans and French, lasted for close to ten months.  With this text, you can track the various ideas that each side went through when trying to explain what was happening around Verdun to those back home as they tried to put a logical spin on why tens of thousands of soldiers were becoming casualties on a daily basis - there had to be a reason!

So for those interested in a detailed history of the Battle of Verdun, you'd best look elsewhere.  For those who are interested in understanding how a battle with no real significance, aside from casualties sustained and inflicted, became one of the foundations of the history of the First World War, this is the book for you.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Soviet Occupation of Germany: Hunger, Mass Violence and the Struggle for Peace, 1945-1947 by Filip Slaveski

In many ways "The Soviet Occupation of Germany" is a very interesting study into the Red Army's advance into Nazi Germany in 1945 and the ensuing occupation through 1947.  The first section of the book tackles the occupation in terms of crimes while the second focuses on food rationing, politics, and the beginnings of the Cold War tension that regularly utilized Germany and Berlin as a battleground.

This is a slim monograph, numbering some 150 pages of text, and that in and of itself should say something.  This is a good introduction which offers a lot of interesting analysis but it is far from a definitive study.  What Filip Slaveski does well is showcase the multifaceted nature of the Soviet occupation of Germany.  When looking at the Red Army, he discusses the numerous confrontations between occupation troops and SVAG (the organization put in charge of keeping order) that occurred, which at times spilled into the streets with brawls, street fights, and gunfire. Considering that often times army command and SVAG command overlapped (as Zhukov held positions in both organizations, as did Katukov), the limits that each organization had to work with become apparent.  Officers usually wanted to protect their men from trouble.  When some Red Army were caught, be it in the act of rape, robbery, or murder, officers had to consider how far they could go in terms of punishment.  Some continued to protect their men as they feared repercussions from the rest of their troops; not looking after one's men when there's no war could lead to a quick end of your duties and life.  The limited amount of men initially assigned to SVAG also meant that most mundane instances of crime were not investigated.  And, unfortunately, in some instances SVAG men themselves abused Red Army men and the locals under their jurisdiction.

Although crimes continued to occur in occupied East Germany their number was slowly reduced as waves of demobilized Red Army men left for the Soviet Union and SVAG commanders were able to implement sterner measures to keep remaining troops in barracks and under control while out in the countryside or in cities.  Additionally, due to the nature of the war itself, many of the crimes being committed could not be assigned to any one party.  Slave laborers from the east, concentration camp victims, deserters, and Polish soldiers (among a slew of others) were also concentrated or stayed within the borders of East Germany (under Soviet occupation) and at times terrorized the locals, seeking revenge on a populace they undoubtedly held guilty for their suffering during the war.  There were also reports of Germans dressing up in Red Army uniforms and committing crimes (to what extent this is true or a way for Soviet officials to hide their soldiers' guilt is up for debate).

The above discussions, forming parts of the first half of this book, were really the most enlightening for me.  In regards to the second half, I was most interested in reading about the interaction(s) between the British and Americans and the Soviets.  Slaveski discusses how quickly the Soviets tried to take apart German industry and ship it to the west and details that this was a result of the initial discussions at the Yalta conference that dictated such actions were part of reparations to the Soviet Union and could be done before Germany was once more reunited, at least economically, and machinery/factories were once more needed for production within Germany.  Thus the Soviets believed they had until the meeting at Potsdam to secure as much as they could in terms of German industry to ship to the east.  The same applied to German forced labor, which American officials believed could be diverted to the east as the dismantling of industry by the Soviets would leave hundreds of thousands without adequate job prospects.  Unfortunately, these initial ideas proved hard to sustain as FDR's death led to the Truman administration, which regularly sided with the British against the Soviets and attempted to make previous agreements void by finding or creating loopholes (i.e.when the Soviets asked for already agreed upon military machinery/factories to be shipped from West Germany to the them, the Americans and British would claim they were not solely military and could be used in a peacetime economy, something that was never truly clarified when the agreement(s) were first created about what could/would be shipped to the Soviets as a part of reparations).  Thus, as flexible as the Soviet administration could be or tried to be, they were nonetheless a single actor in a play that featured numerous actors with their own interests and ideals.  I would say this is an excellent look at the initial Soviet occupation of German and I hope that future historians will continue to explore this topic in more depth and detail.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington by Gregg Herken

I'm not sure what I was expecting from this volume on a post-war Washington riddled with former military men and spies and current diplomats and newspaper owners and journalists, but what I ended up reading was akin to a gossip column. First, there are entirely too many characters introduced too quickly. It's easy enough to keep the main players in mind: Kennan, the Alsop brothers, and a few others, but the rest become background noise as they're mentioned every now and then with the author taking for granted that the reader should have memorized the index and all the names presented therein. Secondly, relevant context is often missing. Just one example will have to suffice. The author brings up the creation of NATO and that Kennan favored a more limited organization consisting of the US, Britain, and Canada. That's it. Why did Kennan favor such an organization? Why didn't he consider France or West Germany in such an organization? What/who were the other contenders for NATO? Nothing. Three mere sentences on an organization that to this day continues to impact international politics and policies. But what gets almost 2 whole pages of mention? The 'heinous outrage' of a house Joe Alsop created in Georgetown that resulted in a municipal ordinance against such future monstrosities. As a result, it's really hard to believe this is a book written by an academic as it reads like a tabloid full of lurid details about ivy league universities with their student societies and drinking bouts and unadulterated rumors full of inept guesswork and misplaced emotions. Then again, perhaps that's what the US Cold War policy was all about.

Friday, August 22, 2014

A History of War in 100 Battles by Richard Overy

Richard Overy has previously put out some decent monographs, so I'm not sure why he decided on this project.  To be perfectly honest, if you're new to history in general, or military history more specifically, you will find a lot of interesting events, personalities, and battles discussed from the past 2000+ years.  The problem, as with all such attempts, is that there is no justice done to any of these battles, personalities, or events in the few pages devoted to each of the battles discussed.  Serious historians, academics, students of history, and those familiar with military history specifically can readily skip this brief romp through 100 battles.  There is nothing new, original, or worthwhile to find amidst these pages.  Each 'chapter' reads like a high school essay with in-depth context and analysis replaced by the equivalent of modern news channel sound bites.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union by Serhii Plokhy

In "The Last Empire" Serhii Polokhy aims to tell the story of the dissolution of the Soviet Union during the last six months of 1991.  The major players here are Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Bush, Kravchuk, and with limited appearances by Nazarbayev.  The narrative presented ere is well constructed and tackles many interesting developments and events during the main six months the author has decided to concentrate on.

The main points the author continually stresses are that the Cold War was not won by the United States, as proclaimed by Bush sr. and those that came after him, but was ended through with a mutual agreement from both the Soviets and Americans at least two years prior to the collapse of the USSR.  Bush, in fact, tried to keep Gorbachev in power as he felt he could deal with him and those around him in regards to progress on limiting nuclear arms, as well as dealing with various international issues (Afghanistan, Cuba, Israel-Palestine).  This false idea of an American 'victory', according to the author, has gone far in undermining future American efforts on the international arena.  In effect, Plokhy links the Wolfowitz Doctrine that came out as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union to the eventual invasion of Iraq, in 2003, in a preventive war on the part of the United States.  A bit of a stretch, but there are still links that came be made in regards to how flawed developments and memory of the collapse of the USSR has led to incorrect policy decisions on the part of US administrations.

Coming back to the USSR, the author being an expert on the nationalities issue, stresses the role of Kravchuk and Ukraine in the development of the collapse, at times too heavily and shows something of a bias in that direction.  Not to get mired in the details, suffice it to say that this is an in-depth study that goes a long way in trying to explain how the collapse of the Soviet Union came about as quickly as it did, but in many ways it is still a stepping stone on the way to a definitive study.  My biggest complaint would be that there is little explanation offered or evidence examined in regards to how the populations of the various republics discussed felt about the Soviet Union and the ensuing end of the USSR.  While it's important to keep in mind that the decision to end the existence of the Soviet Union was made by three men (the heads of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) and forced onto a fourth (Gorbachev), Plokhy continually claims that this was a popular decision support from the ground up.   And while referendums are taken, votes are cast, minds are quickly changed in a 180 degree fashion in a matter of weeks or months, the main emphasis here remains on the 'great men' and not the 'grass roots' level.  That 'from the bottom' approach is missing here, and hopefully future studies will be able to fill that important and sorely needed blank spot.