Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War: A Re-examination (Helion Studies in Military History) by Boris Sokolov

Many have written on the history of the Second World War in Russia in the past twenty to thirty years.  Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’ opened the way for new questions, ideas, theories, and accounts from the Stalinist period, including the Eastern Front.  Unfortunately, with all the new information that became available many took it upon themselves to begin writing sensationalist books that flooded the market and continue to do so today.   Thus, the current Second World War book market in Russia is a mixture of historical monographs, journalistic and amateur accounts, and sensationalist conspiracy theories.  ‘The Role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War: A Re-Examination’ falls somewhere in between all three.  The author, Boris Sokolov, was forced to resign from his position as professor of Social Anthropology, which automatically raises questions about his historical background. 

What Sokolov and many authors like him do well is raise questions that have yet to be answered in a satisfactory manner.  Unfortunately, often the questions they raise are pushed beyond their boundaries and become the basis of ill-defined generalizations and fallacious comparisons.  Thus, throughout this slim volume of articles that were previously published in Russian newspapers or western academic journals, there is some interesting information offered but it is missing valuable context and is warped by numerous theories that already exist in Russia, which Sokolov latches onto with his own version of events and evidence.

The initial chapter discusses the oft-repeated idea by conspiracy theorists that Stalin was preparing to attack Hitler in the summer of 1941.  This is usually most associated with the likes of Viktor Suvorov (Vladimir Rezun), even though the initial creator of this myth was Hitler himself who declared the invasion of the Soviet Union a pre-emptive strike against gathering Red Army forces who were poised to strike against Germany.  While Suvorov grasps at every straw that’s available to him, be it real or imaginary, Sokolov utilizes the simplistic idea that because an order was issued to create a Polish division by 1 July 1941, an invasion was imminent.  He points to the corresponding creation of a Finnish Corps on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Finland, but curiously enough fails to point out the entire lead-up to the invasion of Finland and juxtapose it with the diplomatic situation on the ground in the spring and summer of 1941.  The rest of the chapter offers little of substance or new information to those already familiar with the eve of the war on the Eastern Front.

The more interesting chapters are those on the Battle of Kursk and Lend Lease.  In the case of the former, Sokolov makes an interesting point in his discussion of whether it was ideal to wait for the Germans to attack or whether an earlier offensive by the Red Army against a Wehrmacht lacking Tigers, Panthers, and Ferdinands would have garnered greater success and fewer losses.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer enough information about the strengths and weaknesses of both sides in April or May of 1943, nor does he analyze the weather conditions or logistical constraints that either side might have been under.  It’s easy to pass judgment by simply mentioning a few figures, harder still to analyze the entire contextual situation that existed on a month-by-month basis.  The more interesting aspect of this chapter is his discussion of the losses the Red Army sustained.  Unfortunately, his example is limited to the Central Front and a figure of some 50-60,000.  There is no adequate explanation for why the Central Front is listed as containing 738,000 men on July 5, yet numbered 645,300 on July 12 when it supposedly only suffered 33,897 casualties.  The only Order of Battle change was the departure of two rifle brigades and the arrival of a tank brigade, at best a change of strength of some 5-7,000 men, according to Sokolov.  Yet no explanation is offered of why such a drastic change in figures exists.  The author believes this represents an undercounting of losses, which is the simplest explanation and there’s no doubt that undercounting existed in every army (who doesn’t want extra rations?).  While this is the only real evidence Sokolov presents about the undercounting of casualties, he readily begins to apply this formula (undercounting by around 1/3) to other operations, creating a generalization out of one example.  When discussing Red Army losses in general compared to the Wehrmacht, Sokolov comments that the ‘unfavorable ratio of losses may be explained by the superiority of the new German tanks and also the superiority of German command and control in armor combat.’  While this analysis is undoubtedly accurate in some scenarios, Valery Zamulin has shown quite well that the losses the Red Army sustained were a result of a combination of factors, few of which can be analyzed without understanding the greater context of specific engagements, forces utilized, etc.

The chapter on Lend Lease seems to be a limited analysis of random equipment and materials and again lacks context.  Yes, it is important to stress that value of Lend Lease supplies and the fact that the Soviet Union played down the aid it received while some in the west believed it represented a lifeline in the fullest sense of the term.  Unfortunately, Sokolov doesn’t do a great job in getting his point(s) across.  He discusses aviation fuel but fails to offer a breakdown of deliveries by year.  There is also no breakdown of motor vehicle deliveries by year nor does Sokolov discuss the fact that Soviet domestic production of motor vehicles could have been increased if the need arose at the expense of light tank production, which was being curbed as is by the latter years of the war due to the dominance of the T-34.  The reason Soviet domestic truck production was so low was because they knew that Lend Lease trucks were supposed to be delivered, but this is left out of Sokolov’s discussion(s).   Thus, similar to previous chapters, the author discusses important subjects and brings up relevant examples only to then exaggerate their value and importance without adequate context and analysis. 

The last two chapters deal with losses and to some extent overlap each other.  The more interesting look at the Soviet Union’s losses once more shows that serious research is still needed to give a more credible account and understanding of the devastation the Soviet Union experienced and how well or poorly the Red Army performed throughout the war.  Sokolov again points to interesting information but fails to accurately analyze it.  For instance, he lists the number of prisoners of war the Soviet Union sustained from 1943-1945 as 604,000 by Soviet estimates while German data gives a figure of 746,000.  Yet there is no mention made of the fact that the Germans counted anyone of military draft age as a prisoner of war, no matter if they were part of the Red Army or were civilians (and there are accounts of civilians in German POW camps).  This is also why the figures of the prisoners taken from the Kiev encirclement in 1941 differ when Soviet numbers are compared to German ones.  Sokolov is also quick to dismiss Germany’s allies when calculating losses, his reasoning being the Red Army suffered fewer losses and Germany’s allies didn’t actively participate during the entire war.  Not what I’d call an objective analysis.

There’s much more one can say but the above is a good representation of what this thin volume offers.  For those interested in understanding how much of Russia’s literature on the war is written this is a good starting point that features a middle ground between historical analysis and journalistic tendencies that create the ability to exaggerate and sensationalize without adequate understanding.  Due to the limited archival access that was available to historians interested in writing on the Eastern Front within the Soviet Union, the end result was a plethora of literature that said little but never failed to exaggerate socialist heroism and economic abilities.  Today’s Russian historians, journalists, and amateurs have access to much more information but lack a foundation or grounding in how to properly analyze and present the raw data at their disposal.  The end result is that all too often the right questions are asked but adequate answers are not always forthcoming.

No comments: