Sunday, June 3, 2007

Moscow 1941: A City and it's People at War by Rodric Braithwaite

To start off, I was quite surprised at how much I wound up enjoying this book, the author did a superb job in some cases. But as with all books it was close, but not perfect, at least for my taste. When compared to Beevor this is day and night even though Beevor claims to use Archival sources and this author mainly relied on document collections, dozens of interviews, and secondary literature. In fact for those interested in seeing how much Beevor gets wrong, I would recommend the new "Stalingrad" by Michael K. Jones.

Getting back to the book, what I was happy to see was the open mind which the author had when it came to the stories of the 28 Panfilovtsi (part of the 316th Rifle Division under the command of Panfilov) and Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. He addresses both of the stories that came out right after these two respective events occurred, both in 1941, and shows how today there are many who are trying to break down the myths that have been built up around these two events. In the case of the 28 men from Panfilov's division, it was said they all died to a man while defending the way to Moscow, also are quoted the last words of the Commissar who was with them. But, how would anyone know these last words if they all died? Later it was found out that a few were taken prisoner, some escaped, another went home to his home town in Ukraine and collaborated with the Germans, after the town's liberation he was hanged, etc. All these details were hushed up so that the propaganda value would remain. The same with Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. Her story is retold and the newly found facts brought to light as well. I'd also mention that the author tries to dispel some of the built up myths about the Soviet regime during this time. For instance the idea that all liberated soldiers were sent to GULag camps, simply not true and the author provides the relevant numbers for what happened to how many. Also details about the fact that the Germans routinely recruited Red Army prisoners and those that went over to them to spy on Red Army, thus there was reason to suspect those coming back from POW camps when liberated or those who had escaped from German captivity or encirclements. At the same time there are accounts of those who were innocent or jailed for the political beliefs, not something that should surprise anyone. There is no excuse for it, this is a regime that took many lives, both innocent and guilty. Yet, at the same time there is no reason to exaggerate the good or the bad, simply see it for what it was.

These are a few examples I felt obligated to highlight as I always look toward small details like these in any book to see how good the research is behind the book. The author goes through a small history of Moscow and then a good account of activities before and on the eve of the German invasion. His interviews give a good insight into people's thoughts, moods, and ideas about what the future held for them before the war began.

The author then takes us through the first few months of the war noting the encirclements that the Germans unleashed onto the Red Army and the horrible losses Red Army soldiers suffered. I also found interesting what one interviewee mentioned, an entire artillery regiment close to the front lines, when the war began, was caught in the midst of changing their artillery, the new ammunition had arrived but it wouldn't fit their guns. Their infantry protection had retreated and they had no other choice but to give up. This was something I've never encountered before, a very interesting detail that shows the surprise the Germans were able to achieve and to a degree the fact that the Red Army, no matter their number or the number of weapons at their disposal, could never put their strength to proper use in the first period of the war.

How the civilian population suffered in Moscow is recounted, shortages, hunger, depression, arrests, etc. All are dealt with and given that much more resonance as we remember that much of the information is from people who were there and either witnessed this or themselves went through it. At times it's near impossible to imagine oneself in such a situation. At the same time millions were evacuated to remote regions were they had to build up cities from scratch, or so it seems. The military aspect isn't covered here in as much detail as I would have liked, but the human aspect is. I'd say to date this is one of the better works I've read about the Eastern Front, especially 1941 in the English language. A lot of interesting details, testimonials, and revelations.

No comments: