Thursday, February 23, 2017

Soviet Conquest: Berlin 1945 by Tony Le Tissier

"Soviet Conquest" features excerpts from six Red Army memoirs that detail their experiences in the Soviet offensive against Berlin.  The most interesting, personally, turned out to be the reminiscences of Katukov, commander of the 1st Guards Tank Army, and Dragunski, who at the time commanded the 55th Guards Tank Brigade, part of the 3rd Guards Tank Army under Rybalko, a formation of the 1st Ukrainian Front under Koniev.  Other figures include engineers, self-propelled artillery forces, and a commander from one of the two Polish armies that fought with the Red Army in Berlin.  The translation(s) overall were good but they were done by someone who was more inclined to follow German standards than English, so many first and last names will sound odd to those who are familiar with the Library of Congress transliteration guidelines that most American/English scholars adhere to.  The text itself is interesting but it is a product of its time.  The reader should be prepared to encounter a lot of praise when it comes to Soviet valor, heroism, self-sacrifice, the importance of the Party and Komsomol, etc.  No doubt much of it is authentic, at least in terms of contemporary beliefs, but it says much about the authors.  As does what they leave out from their accounts.  Also interesting to note is the repetition of some themes, like the idea that the Red Army needed to get to Berlin before the Western Allies, even though it was agreed that the Soviets would get Berlin.  Most surprising in some ways in this account is that the battle for Berlin lasted only some two weeks; yet the casualties sustained by Soviet forces were in the tens of thousands.  Since many of the accounts discuss tank/self-propelled artillery forces, which in house-to-house fighting consistently needed support from infantry units, that such a large number of forces was concentrated in so limited an area yet was consistently short of infantry when it came to their advances just reinforces the fact that this operation was being conducted as quickly as possible without forethought about how to limit casualties.  Rather, it appears everyone was eager to finish the war as quickly as possible and in so doing were prepared to suffer grievous losses even though the authors constantly lament the loss of dear friends for avoidable reasons.  For those interested in Soviet, Cold War era, accounts of the battle for Berlin, this is a good starting point.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi

Peter Conradi's "Who Lost Russia?" asks a question many have pondered for the past decade (at least).  In the wake of the end of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union it appeared that the United States had "won" the Cold War and Russia looked with hope toward the West for understanding where their future might be found.  Unfortunately, much of the goodwill, from both sides, was squandered during the 1990s and led to the eventual ascension of Vladimir Putin to power at the turn of the century.  The terrorist attack against NYC on 9/11 offered another chance to a working partnership between the US and Russia but that was hardly the direction Bush, Cheney, and Co. wanted to take the country.  Thus, Putin as President of Russia, decided on an "alternative" approach by becoming more belligerent with "near abroad" territories and thanks to the surplus created as a result of previously rising oil prices much of the country was happy to follow someone they believed had altered their living conditions for the better while US actions in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world continually portrayed an America that many Russians no longer view with the same respect and appreciation they once did.

Conradi gets a lot right.  I was very surprised by how much ground he was able to cover in some 340 pages of text.  For those familiar with Russian/Soviet history, there won't be too much that's new or original within these pages, but for those new to the subject this is definitely a great starting point for beginning to understand the differences in how the US and Russia viewed events that took place throughout the 1990s up through the recent presidential election.  Where Conradi falls short is his reliance on a few select sources to tell his story.  He creates a compelling narrative but his own voice is often lost and not enough analysis is offered to better explain and fully contextualize all the issues he discusses, including how they influenced future developments.  That's the biggest drawback to a text that lacks primary source research (which in the author's defense is mostly impossible due to the recent nature of many of the events being portrayed).  However, more could have also have been done with other "players" who've been caught between the US and Russia.  That is, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, the Baltic states, and other Central/Eastern European nations have played a role in how Russia views the United States and vice versa.  There were a few instances when Conradi brought them into the equation and made sure to emphasize that their interests should not be ignored and do have an impact on how these larger regional and world powers behave but he did not offer enough analysis to drive home that fact often enough.

By the end of the text I appears Conradi could not come up with a clear-cut answer to the question in the title of his book.  He placed blame on both sides (which is often quite deserved) but in that respect I think he partly ignores one of his own points in that Russian thinking simply does not match that of the West that has lived under "democratic" and "capitalistic" conditions far longer than Russians.  If one believes the above, then the author's conclusions rely on "Western thinking" and omit much of what he discussed from the Russian point of view thus skewing his conclusion(s).  Western attitudes toward Russia in the 1990s reinforced Russian beliefs of those who were wary of Western "experts" who came over to help in that they were more interested in Russian resources than helping Russia convert into a democratic power while building an economic system that relied on capitalist ideas.  Future Russian oligarchs worked with the system at their disposal to the detriment of both their country and the Russian people in general while politicians like Yeltsin tried to steer the country into a democratic direction as NATO, an organization that existed to thwart Soviet aggression, decided it was time not to reorganize and include Russia but more so placate their previous adversary while allowing former Eastern bloc members to join.  These actions might seem unimportant to many in the West, but a Russian narrative has been created based on this type of thinking and has been reinforced by many other actions that has degraded the reputation of the United States throughout the world.  Suffice it to say that this is hardly the endpoint in the question Conradi raises, it is just the start.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale

Catherine Merridale's "Lenin on the Train" is a bit difficult to categorize.  This is not a monograph for academics or specialists, the lack of archival research and the limited citations means this is more a 'popular' approach to this period (WWI, Russian Revolution) and personality (Lenin).  Simultaneously, however, the avalanche of names, locations, events, and dates mean readers need to have a rather in-depth understanding of the First World War and the Russian Revolution if they want to understand the narrative Merridale has created.

While the initial approach offered by the author sparked some interest, specifically the question of what role did Germany actually play in allowing Lenin to travel through their territory and destabilize the Eastern Front has some parallels to events occurring today in both Eastern Europe and the United States (to what extent can state and non-state actors influence revolutions, revolutionary movements, or the democratic process) the rest of the text unfolded as a rather unoriginal attempt to contextualize Lenin, the lead-up to the Russian Revolution, and Lenin's eventual return, escape, and re-return to Russia.  The most significant contribution Merridale makes is to showcase the chaotic nature of the Russian Revolution, how fragile the system that existed between the two revolutions was, and that Germany had no qualms about facilitating the return of personalities like Lenin to Russia if it would help get Russia out of the war and allow Germany to concentrate on the Western Front and potentially win the war.

As much as Lenin might have had to live down that his return was facilitated by a state that was simultaneously at war with the Russia, this was also the man that authorized the treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  Making deals with enemies and utilizing opportunities to continue preaching his brand of Marxism is what made Lenin the man he was.  Thus, reiterating that Germany was complicit in Lenin's return really does little to enhance our understanding of either the Russian Revolution or Lenin.  And once again I'm forced to wonder who is the intended audience for this text.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Architect of Soviet Victory in World War II: The Life and Theories of G.S. Isserson by Richard W. Harrison

Those familiar with the Soviet Union's military advances in the interwar period will undoubtedly have come across the name G. S. Isserson.  Although often overlooked for more familiar personalities (Tukhachevskii, Triandafillov, Svechin, etc.) he was, in the opinion of the Harrison, one of the founding fathers, if not the founding father, of the concept of "deep operations."  This was without a doubt one of the most interesting studies I've read on the interwar Red Army and the evolution of Operational Art within the Soviet Union (a theme Harrison began to study in his previous book, "The Russian Way of War").  Isserson became a good candidate to study and analyze as he left behind a number of articles and full-length volumes expanding on his theories and ideas and he survived Stalin's purges.  Unlike the majority of the Red Army, he was imprisoned in June of 1941 and was released from the GULag after Stalin's death.  Thus he continued to discuss, publish and lecture on military theory after his release and up until his death.

Personally, the most impressive and enlightening chapters of this volume deal with Isserson's publications in the 1930s and Harrison's discussion and breakdown of the various ideas he expanded on as well as their foundations in wars from the nineteenth century and how they would be applied in future conflicts (including how much of that could be actually seen throughout the Eastern Front of the Second World War).  Ideas on linear warfare in particular proved pertinent in how Isserson described the evolution of warfare into the First World War and how "deep operations" would continue to evolve warfare in future conflicts.  His texts discussed meeting engagements, breakthrough operations, the creation of shock armies, cavalry-mechanized groups, the use of airborne forces, covering armies, and setting up defenses in-depth.  Unfortunately, for all his intelligence and genius, Isserson never received the attention, praise or respect he deserved and in the post-Stalin period it was those figures who died accidentally (Triandafillov) or in the purges (Tukhachevskii, Yakir, Uborevich, Svechin, etc.) who received the majority of recognition for the improvements and advances the Red Army underwent in the 1930s before the purges lobbed off the "head" of the Red Army.

If there are any weaknesses here it is that Harrison seems to at times have become enamored with Isserson.  There's no doubt this was an intelligent person, although he came with a very abrasive attitude toward his peers and whomever he considered beneath his intelligence, but it appears Harrison continuously ascribes the majority of the research and advances made within the concept of "deep operations" solely to him (granted, their foundations he does trace to Triandafillov).  More so, when mentioning any of his "students" while a lecturer at the General Staff Academy he treats Isserson as if he was their only mentor and his class(es) were the only ones that mattered (and his students included some of the most famous and well-respected commanding officers during the Second World War).  Granted, there's enough source material to show that there was appreciation for Isserson as an instructor but in general it seems the author is putting a lot of emphasis on this point and is becoming more of a cheerleader for Isserson rather than a biographer.  However, one can easily let this weakness pass as the information Harrison has found and unearthed makes an enormous contribution to our understanding of the Red Army's evolution in the interwar period and throughout the Second World War - something historians continue to study and evaluate to this day and will continue to do so as long as numerous archival holdings are consistently made off-limits to researchers by Russian authorities.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Agents of Terror: Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Violence in Stalin's Secret Police by Alexander Vatlin

We are coming up on the 80th anniversary of the start of Stalin's Great Purges.  While much has been written on Stalinist repressions, there are still answers to prominent questions that continue to elude historians and regularly invite debate within the historical community.  "Agents of Terror," although a slim volume, is certainly not an easy read.  The author, Alexander Vatlin, takes the reader into the inner-workings of the NKVD on a district level.  Looking at the Moscow district of Kuntsevo, the author discusses the composition of Kuntsevo, the make up of the local NKVD, and chronicles the lead up to the Great Purges and the purges themselves, including the many victims, with as much documentation as he could find.

The story Vatlin uncovers is both familiar and revealing at the same time.  NKVD workers fabricated case after case in order to fulfill and overfill quotas assigned for the week/month.  Those arrested and accused of the most fantastical tales were beaten, tortured, threatened and lied to in order to get their confessions and signatures on paper.  At times blank documents were offered to them with promises of what would be written after they had attached their signature.  While initial arrests, when the Great Purges were just beginning (after order 00447 was issued), were often a result of NKVD agents consulting previously prepared lists for known suspects, after running out of known victims they moved on to anyone whom they could assign any type of blame to, no matter how outlandish.  In some ways family units were sought after as connections could easily be made and entire underground or spy "groups" could be claimed to have been found.

In detailing all of the above, Vatlin continually tries to figure out the mentality of NKVD workers who continued to enforce orders that some, at the very least, disagreed with.  There is no one satisfactory answer we can come to after reading about these events, but some reasons stand out more so than others.  Ideology seemed to play a limited role, at least when it came to Kuntsevo NKVD operatives, economic motives were a bigger draw for at least one leading NKVD figure who threatened victims with arrest and worse if they did not move out of apartments he coveted.  Some, who perhaps could no longer handle the stress of the job, committed suicide.  Often times it appears that "ideology" was more important to those under arrest than those doing the arresting, as they were often told their sacrifice in signing falsified confessions would help Stalin, the state, and the cause, and sign they did (at least if their own accounts of these events are to be believed).

Unfortunately, due to the limitations associated with the archival information the author was working with we are still left with many questions that will forever remain unanswered and some that might find their answers when additional archival material is unclassified.  Additionally, we, both reader and researcher, are left to rely on documents and accounts written by perpetrators and victims.  How much truth each inserted into their versions of events is impossible to tell.  However, in general, because both perpetrators and victims often enough recounted similar ideas, events and accusations that at least points to some type of "truth" that we can use as a foundation to continue searching for additional information to help us understand why the Great Purges were initiated and how they were sustained.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Panzer Operations: Germany's Panzer Group 3 During the Invasion of Russia, 1941 by Hermann Hoth

Hoth, at least in 1941 and 1942, was one of the original four commanders of German Panzer Groups/Armies who were responsible for the encirclements at Minsk, Smolensk, Uman, Kiev, Viazma and Briansk.  Although discussions/monographs of 1941 are readily available today, from both the German and Soviet point of view, I would always welcome additional primary source information that tries to put into context the German Army's inner-dialog, so to speak, when it comes to the beginning of Operation Barbarossa and its evolution into Operation Typhoon.  Hoth has much of that insider's knowledge but this slim volume while adding something to our knowledge also leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

The epilogue deals with Hoth's career, reputation, and what happened to him after the war was over.  These last pages of this book explain why there is absolutely no discussion of the validity of Hitler's orders on the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union or of the methods employed by the Wehrmacht in their conduct of the war.  Hoth was, from available evidence, a Nazi who supported the invasion of the Soviet Union and followed through with the various criminal orders he was assigned throughout the war.

Thus this is a work that, like so many others written by former German commanders, tries to solely discuss the military aspects of the invasion of the USSR which means the more interesting and somewhat unoriginal ideas expressed revolve around Hitler's inability to come up with a concrete plan for how Barbarossa was supposed to be implemented.  That is, was the Wehrmacht supposed to aim for the destruction of the Red Army, secure the Soviet Union's economic facilities and industries to help Germany continue her campaign(s) or was Moscow the final target for 1941.  Hitler's continued vacillations and ad hoc decisions to assign German forces to take advantage of developing opportunities (Kiev encirclement) rather than concentrate on one singular aim (Moscow) are what hampered German operations, at least according to Hoth.

Much of this has been discussed previously, most recently by David Stahel.  Consequently, there's little new or original information here, and neither is the coverage of Panzer Group 3's operations during 1941 that enlightening, it's more a summary of attacks, counter-attacks, and encirclements.  However, with that said, there are still some interesting insights into events and discussions recounted by Hoth that make this a worthwhile book for those with more than a passing interest in the Eastern Front.  While Hoth's reminiscences offer a less in-depth view of his own decision-making process or the events he recounts, at least compared to what other German commanders have put down on paper, they're still worth taking a look at, especially if you can read between the lines and keep in mind when this work was originally written.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992 by Alexander V. Prusin

Alexander Prusin's "The Lands Between" offers an excellent synthesis on the bordering territories that have seen so much death and destruction in the twentieth century.  Similar to Kate Brown's "A Biography of No Place" and Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands," "The Lands Between" looks at contested territories between the former Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian Empire that have today been Balkanized into some dozen nation-states that in some cases continue to struggle with their national identities.

Unlike the two previously mentioned volumes, which mainly concentrate on the Kresy area or some artificial time period and "bloodland," Prusin's text is more all-encompassing.  He provides greater context and a more nuanced narrative that while overlooking some aspects of the history he's covering (it would take numerous volumes to do justice to this topic) nonetheless offers readers an in-depth analysis of the socio-economic, political and national questions that newly created polities and their inhabitants struggled over in order to find their place in Eastern Europe.

The most interesting chapters deal with the First and Second World War as we see the numerous factions vying for power in what became the Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic states.  Thus, for instance, in the lead up to the Second World War Prusin offers an in-depth analysis of Polish actions when it came to handling their minorities (Jews and Ukrainians), dealing with the growing power and threat of Nazi Germany, and taking part in the transformation of Central/Eastern Europe through 1939.  The Ukrainian nationalist movement is also well covered and their evolution and transformation from their beginnings in the shadow of the Russian Revolution offer a cautionary tale of what to avoid in attempting to create a national identity.  These two groups, Poles and Ukrainians, would in the lead up and during the Second World War take the wrong lessons from the idea of self-determination and aim to alter the national character of territories they deemed rightfully theirs by waging ethnic cleansing campaigns that took the lives of tens of thousands.

For those interested in an alternative to Snyder's "Bloodlands," which is just as "bloody" but an altogether better synthesis, I would highly recommend Prusin's "The Lands Between."
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