Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Greatest Battle by Andrew Nagorski

Having heard both good and bad about Nagorski's book I was interested to finally get to it. Sadly, from page one I knew I was going to be disappointed. To begin with, generalizations are not a good way to start off a book. Yet the author quickly claims that "Stalin sent many of his troops into battle without guns, since he hadn't prepared the nation for the German onslaught." Source? None. How many is many? Where and when did this happen? While there would be a few examples of this throughout the book, as I'll point out later in this review, they are either taken out of context or not given enough context to conform to the author's initial revelation.

Nagorski makes a claim as to why the battle for Moscow was so important by invoking the casualties sustained during the battle, which, he says, ranged for 203 days. He then juxtaposes them with Stalingrad, claiming that the two sides lost 912,000 troops. The reality is that the Soviet side alone suffered over 1.1 million casualties during the Stalingrad defensive and offensive phase. Note that this does include sick and wounded as well as irrecoverable losses. This isn't to say that in the end the Battle for Moscow probably did consume more casualties, but why not then present the accurate numbers?

On page 9 we have the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact being brought up, apparently this was to signal the beginning of WWII. Somehow I don't recall Hitler actually wanting to go to war with either England or France over Poland. The basis for his supposition that Hitler and Stalin were "alike" and "mirrored" each other is a survivor of the war and a citizen of Moscow who served six years in a GULag camp, apparently Nagorski cannot find someone with more authority on the subject of two of the most deadly dictatorships and their leaders. The author talks about the similarities in both Hitler and Stalin's upbringing, specifically their authoritarian fathers. Then quickly backtracks to say that most others probably grew up in the same type of environment yet turned out perfectly fine.

Once again one hears about the 'man-made' famine in Ukraine, no proof or sources or the fact that it affected other parts of the country aside from Ukraine, page 13. For an author who self-admittedly knew little to nothing about the battle for Moscow and had to take years to research it, he's quick to make a variety of ambiguous and generalized statements about issues he also knows little to nothing about. Nagorski parrots the idea that the Balkans were the cause of the delay when it came to Barbarossa, pgs. 24-25 (the invasion was also delayed because of the extra long rasputitsa, but we don't read about that here). He claims that Richard Sorge's predictions were "right on target", far from it in fact. If they were "right on target" Hitler would have attacked the Soviet Union on at least 3 different dates before June 22nd.

On page 37 we have the claim that the 41st infantry division, this is an error in and of itself since Red Army divisions were 'rifle' not 'infantry', contained 15,000 men. A quick glance through Alexei Isaev's book "Ot Dubno do Rostova" shows that the division, part of the 6th Rifle Corps, had 9,912 men. While Nagorski does provide endnotes he does a horrid job with them. It is, at this point, that I came to the realization that I will very rarely be able to use this work as a source when it comes to Nagorski's commentary and analysis. On the other hand, while the author gets the number of men in the division wrong the following account of the division's commander and his interaction with an agent of the NKVD is quite fascinating. Even though there was an order to arrest the commander for shooting back at the invading Germans, which contradicted the first order that came out on June 22nd, the NKVD agent allowed the commander to go back into his dugout where he was visited by his aides as the fighting continued. Eventually, the commander would join the fight with his troops as the pretense for his arrest was dropped.

At last, we come to the source for the idea that Red Army troops were sent into battle without guns. A political officer from the 375th Regiment, a regiment that does not exist (after searching through the OoB for the Northwestern front, which the author says this unit belonged to, I searched through the Order of Battle of ALL Red Army Divisions which existed on June 1941, there was no such regiment, perhaps the author mixed it up with another, if anyone does know of its existence, please, leave a comment), says that he asked his commander to give them weapons, since they were fighting without guns...etc. If this was a real unit, I could try to look up it's table of organization and equipment and see how many weapons they had, but as this appears to be a 'phantom' unit, I can only do so much.

Another incident is related when a father, long after the war, would tell his son how his unit was given one weapon per ten men. Although it isn't clearly stated if they did any fighting, if they did it isn't mentioned where or when. 1941 was a chaotic year, many things were possible and this might have occurred, but the author does little to assure the reader that he's thoroughly researched each event he is writing about. An interesting account is given as Khrushchev calls in from Kiev saying that the factory workers want to fight but they need weapons, the response is that no weapons will be forthcoming as they have been sent to Leningrad. Rather, they should use home made weapons and anything else at their disposal. A story is related of when a volunteer of a unit is sent off to the front without a military ID, when captured by NKVD agents he has only his civilian and student ID which makes them assume he is a spy. After being interrogated and beaten he is sent to another NKVD officer who has the forethought to listen to him and check his story out, the end result being that he is released.

On page 70 the author, for some reason, mentions order No. 227, which was issued in the summer of 1942 before Stalingrad was besieged, why is this mentioned in a book that talks about the battle for Moscow in the winter of 1941/1942? Nagorski exaggerates what happened to POWs after they were liberated or escaped to their own lines saying those who managed to escape were lucky to be arrested, if they weren't lucky they were executed. Somehow he misses how millions of them were integrated back into the Red Army, sent to construction battalions, joined convoy troops, etc. He also takes order 270, from August 16, 1941, out of context and makes an error when paraphrasing it, he makes it seem as if the 1st part applies to all soldiers when in fact it only applied to officers and political workers.

A rather ignorant error is made when discussing an NKVD report dated October 10, 1941, which lists soldiers who were rounded up after escaping from the front. He insists that the majority, who were used to form new units, were used to create penal battalions. This is not possible since penal battalions were only created with order 227 in the summer of 1942. The author also claims that GULag prisoners were put into penal battalions, this is untrue, they joined regular units.

A largely exaggerated number is given of Poles who were deported in the two year period of 1939-1941. I find it hard to fathom how the author can make the statement that "neither side had time to lay down mines" while he is searching a part of the battlefield with a Russian research group who explain that children were dying after the war due to ordinance left in the woods and other areas. Was it that neither side had time when located in the vicinity which he was visiting? Was it that few mines were laid down in 1941? As I recall millions of mines were used throughout the Eastern Front. Perhaps context isn't an integral part of the research for this book.

On pages 217 and 218 the author talks about 400,000 troops being moved out from the Far East to help the Red Army fight the Germans, of whom 250,000 helped defend Moscow in late 1941 and early 1942. No real evidence is given, no units are listed, and no sources presented to back this assertion up. There were quite a few divisions moved from the Far East, that is the Far Eastern Front and the TransBaikal Front, to the West, starting in June of 1941 (two divisions were ordered to move in June) and eventually 9 divisions participated in the Battle for Moscow up until October, some of which were tank divisions. The majority of those were alerted in October and arrived at the front in November. I think the numbers given are in fact exaggerated, but forces from the Far East, and various other fronts/districts, were constantly on the move to bolster those fighting the Germans. I see no reason to give so much credit to just 'Siberian' divisions when so many others also participated.

I found it interesting and enlightening that when a veteran recalled seeing NKVD blocking detachments for the first time, he even today approved of them, stating that "such toughness brought us victory." Again and again one will find interesting stories being related by veterans that the author has interviewed, but that's mainly the only worth I can see in this book. The chapters are not really arranged chronologically as again and again each new chapter brings with it a back story from the 1930's or even earlier. The author's conclusions are reaching, baseless, and in many instances lack context. The only positive side, is once again, the veteran recollections, and sad to say that at times those might not be totally accurate.

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