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.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Tale of Two Soldiers: The Unexpected Friendship between a WWII American Jewish Sniper and a German Military Pilot by Max Gendelman

"A Tale of Two Soldiers" is a slim volume detailing the friendship that grew out of a chance encounter between an Jewish American prisoner of war and a German Luftwaffe pilot. The Second World War period takes up about 70 pages total, with the introduction and author's childhood taking up an initial 30 pages, and the continued friendship between the two the final 100 pages. So for those expecting a lot of information on the war itself, you might be somewhat disappointed. The author's recollections seem to be filled with great detail when it comes to his friendship with Karl rather than the actions he was involved in during the war itself or his time as a prisoner of war (and I encountered one minor mistake when Karl discussed how his father survived 'the Battle of Stalingrad in WWI', an impossible feat as 'Stalingrad' didn't exist in WWI nor were German soldiers, during WWI, anywhere near the city that was eventually renamed Stalingrad). In part, the latter is unfortunately the fault of whomever stole the notes he kept of his experiences while he was enjoying Paris after the end of the war.

To say that Max Gendelman lived an interesting life would be to do a disservice to what he went through and experienced. He became a sniper in the United States Army and briefly served in the post D-Day invasion of France. By December of 1944 he found himself in the 99th Infantry Division standing in the way of Hitler's last major offensive in the west, what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The initial chaos and confusion resulted in massive casualties to US forces standing in the way of three German armies and Max was forced to retreat, along with tens of thousands of others. After a few days of trying to avoid the Germans and watching new friends and strangers perish before his eyes, he was finally taken prisoner by the Germans while seeking shelter with a few other American stragglers. His time in German POW camps offers an interesting view to the dynamic that existed for an American Jew who was trying to hide his identity. His encounter with Russian prisoners of war and their selfless action of offering their sole meal of the day to newly arrived starving American POWs was a touching example of the comradery that existed in some instances. Eventually, Max encounters Karl and a friendship that would last a lifetime develops. Although Max previously tried twice to escape his confinement, it was only with Karl and another prisoner that they finally succeed in escaping and joining up with American forces just as the war was drawing to a close.

The rest of the volume deals with how both established their respective lives and families in the United States, the trials and tribulations, as well as achievements, both faced and accomplished, as well as the sacrifices they made and their regrets. But through it all their friendship continued to flourish and remain as committed and strong as ever - a bond formed in war and sustained through the hardships of peace.