Frank Ellis is something of a conundrum. His first book, “The Damned and the Dead: The Eastern Front through the Eyes of the Soviet and Russian Novelists,” was an interesting and insightful look at how Soviet literati treated the war years in their works while simultaneously keeping in mind the censorship of the Soviet state. When it came to Ellis’s analysis of the war itself, there was simply too much lacking in his examination, including his interest in Viktor Suvorov’s thesis, which once more makes an appearance in this volume (Ellis refers to Suvorov as a “talented maverick” (xxvii)). While I have in my possession the author’s book on Stalingrad I have yet to go through all of it and so cannot comment on its contents, but hope to do so soon.
This newest work, “Barbarossa 1941: Reframing Hitler’s Invasion of Stalin’s Soviet Empire” makes me question the author’s intentions and knowledge. This is without a doubt the worst volume of the three that he has put out on the Eastern Front. What it seems Ellis enjoys doing is utilizing his knowledge of Russian and German and then nitpicking from archival/primary source material that has been around for decades but is not readily available to the average Western reader. Examining and scrutinizing primary source material is welcome when it comes to the Eastern Front. Unfortunately, authors who do so need to have a firm grounding and grasp of both the primary and secondary literature that is available on the topic, something Ellis is drastically lacking in and it shows again and again. What he does is simply pick out material that interests him, throw in woefully inadequate commentary to make greater generalizations out of, and then move on to the next topic without a real transition or thread to tie them all together unless it’s simply the umbrella of “Barbarossa,” “Stalingrad” or “The Eastern Front.”
The current volume on “Barbarossa” consists of the following chapters - here I will discuss the positive and negative aspects of each and give some analysis of their worth. The introduction already prepared me for disappointment. In many ways this chapter (and a few other sections of this text in general) read like a bad version of Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands,” which has numerous issues of its own. The author presents varied flawed arguments and draws wholly flawed conclusions from them. For instance, the best Ellis can do is portray Hitler as somehow following in Lenin’s footsteps when it came to his genocidal ambitions while fully omitting any and all German precedents (see Fritz Stern’s “The Politics of Cultural Despair”). This is most readily evident when Ellis traces how Germans forced Jews to wear armbands or badges to identify themselves in public to “the same psychological terror tactic advocated by Lenin as early as 1918” somehow forgetting that Jews having to distinguish themselves from others predates Lenin by a few centuries (xix). This type of lazy research is evident in the first chapter as well when the best that Ellis can do is trace everything to WWI/Soviet/Russian precedents (59).
The first chapter discusses the “conception, planning, and execution” of Operation Barbarossa. Ellis has an outdated view of Blitzkrieg, arguing that Germany’s success before the invasion of the Soviet Union can all be attributed to this innovative form of warfare (see “The Blitzkrieg Legend” by Karl-Heinz Frieser for a recent analysis of Blitzkrieg and why German propaganda, along with the allies, has misrepresented German victories in the lead up to the invasion of the Soviet Union). This first chapter is supported by a limited source base, in many ways a useless introduction to the topic that relies on outdated concepts and sources like Manstein to answer questions that recent research has been done on and can analyze with greater authority than an outdated self-serving memoir. Another weakness is the analysis offered of Soviet theorists (Frunze, Triandafillov, and Isserson) which is missing any mention of Svechin (See Harrison’s “The Russian Way of War” for a detailed discussion of this highly important and influential figure).
Close to the end of the first chapter Ellis already sets up his premise for the next chapter, which deals with Germany’s Commissar Order. He portrays all commissars as being guilty of “Terror” within the Soviet state. And here we come to probably the most disappointing and inept chapter of this entire volume. It’s hard to understand exactly what Ellis is trying to accomplish. He claims he is not taking anything away from the nature of the National Socialist system yet he continually tries to diminish their responsibility when it comes to the Commissar Order and justify its inclusion within the greater parameters of the nature of the conflict on the Eastern Front. He compares this order with Soviet actions at Katyn (84) but in general the arguments he utilizes are at best fallacious. German thoughts on the internal actions and developments within the Soviet Union should have no bearing on the rules of warfare. Furthermore, there is no real attempt to analyze who was a commissar or how they came to occupy this position within the Red Army. All agency is taken away from party functionaries, they are only characterized as robots fulfilling genocidal orders and representatives of the Soviet regime. Worse is the comparison Ellis then makes between the NKVD and commissars, claiming one is the same as the other. Here this entire chapter and argument unravel since if the German state feared the actions of representatives of the Soviet state then the Commissar Order should have also included the NKVD or simply all representatives of the Soviet state within the Red Army and Soviet society in general. But it did not. The entire chapter is marred by lack of research, generalizations and assumptions that are the mark of an amateur rather than historian.
The third chapter traces the diplomatic relationship between Germany and the Soviet Union from the non-aggression pact of 1939 to the outbreak of war in June 1941. Not surprisingly, Ellis once again is lacking in the source material he utilizes. Worse is that he takes the word of figures such as von Ribbentrop at face value without any analysis or contextualization. Ellis presents an untenable argument for the start of the war claiming, similar to Suvorov, that Germany “cannot be held solely responsible for starting World War II.” He misinterprets the language of the secret protocols, lacks any type of documentation or primary research when it comes to what was happening in those 17 days when the Soviets did not invade Poland and in the end presents nothing new or original about the topic.
The next chapter deals with Soviet intelligence assessments of German military intentions from 1939-1941. For this chapter Ellis mainly utilizes the two volumes “Year 1941” that were released decades ago and have been utilized by numerous authors and historians since. What amazed me first and foremost is that Ellis did not even bother to use “What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa” by David Murphy. Although Murphy has some issues with his work, it is simply a must read for those trying to understand the intelligence situation within the Soviet Union on the eve of the war. Once more there is nothing new or original here, in fact Ellis now takes Soviet intelligence reports about German troops, aircraft, etc., at face value without any type of analysis. He presents a few intelligence summaries without putting them into context, including military intelligence in terms of German units being moved to the East but he never addresses the German disinformation campaign, the numerous contradictory reports that were coming in, or how often dates came and went of Germany’s supposed invasion and what that could do to an agent’s credibility. While readers will themselves see the various dates offered for when Germany will invade you will not see Ellis contextualizing this information. Murphy’s text is a better alternative in every way. (Later in the text Ellis claims Sorge reported the correct date of the German invasion, he did not.)
The fifth chapter deals with “NKVD Operations During Barbarossa, 1941-1942” and is mainly composed of reports from another multi-volume Russian publication on Security Organs that was published over a decade ago. There are some interesting reports here and as primary source material it can be a very useful source base but, as previously mentioned, Ellis takes the reports at face value without looking at the other side so that what you’re getting here is, at best, Soviet impressions, rumors, etc., which do not add much to our overall understanding of the period or events in question.
Chapter six might look interesting, but it is not. A diary from a 20th Panzer Division veteran could be useful in understanding the German invasion and advance into the Soviet Union up until the winter counteroffensive, but overall it’s a rather dry read. I enjoy memoir/diary literature for the most part, but this was one of the most boring I’ve come across. Here I probably know why no one has published it previously, it wouldn’t sell.
Chapter seven looks at Soviet literature on the German invasion and 1941 in general. Here Ellis is probably in familiar territory with literary analysis, some of it interesting some less so. Once more, however, it doesn’t alter our understanding of either Barbarossa, the Red Army or the Soviet Union.
Finally, the eight chapter looks at Suvorov’s thesis on who started the Second World War from his infamous text “Icebreaker.” First, a few issues I have with this chapter. Ellis once more goes along with the idea that the non-aggression pact meant war was a guarantee, it did not. Secondly, Ellis does not provide any of his own evidence and readily falls for Suvorov’s ideas which were made from hindsight rather than research and analysis. Thirdly, Ellis claims Suvorov used “primary source material,” if he means memoirs then he is right, although somehow he readily forgets the amount of censorship that always accompanied any literature on the war. If he means primary source material from archives, then he is wrong. I will give credit where it is due – Ellis addresses numerous claims made by Suvorov and shows how they never support Suvorov’s foundational assertion that Stalin was preempted. That’s all fine and good. Unfortunately, he once again takes a source at its word without doing any research beyond the superficial. I will offer only one example of the duplicity Suvorov’s text is full of and the laziness Ellis exhibits within this entire volume. On pg. 436 Ellis quotes Suvorov who is quoting S. Ivanov’s book on the “Beginning Period of the War.” Ellis quotes Suvorov as saying Ivanov claimed “that Germany acted before Stalin could do so.” Why couldn’t Ellis simply go to the original source and cite Ivanov’s book? Here is what Suvorov quotes Ivanov as saying: “As General Ivanov put it, 'The Nazi command simply succeeded in forestalling our troops in the two weeks preceding the outbreak of war.' (General of the Army S. P. Ivanov, Nachal'nyi Period Voiny, Moscow 1974, p. 212).” On the surface it seems that Ivanov is saying Soviet troops were preparing an outbreak of their own war, i.e. preparing to start a war against Germany. Since I have Ivanov’s book in my collection, I looked up the quote and found that Ivanov was actually commenting on how German troops on the border were able to complete their deployment and pre-empt Soviet troops coming from the interior, who were recently called up to bolster the Western Military Districts in case of war breaking out, in their deployment. As such German troops “thereby creat[ed] favorable conditions for the seizure of the strategic initiative in the beginning of the war.” The only reason ‘two weeks’ are mentioned by Ivanov is because that was when Soviet forces in the interior were told to begin moving to the border regions. Suvorov quotes out of context and makes it seem as if Ivanov is claiming that Hitler pre-empted a Red Army attack when in fact he is saying no such thing – something Ellis could have readily understood if he did the necessary research.
In the end I found this book almost completely useless.
I am amazed, shocked, and utterly horrified that a university press would produce such a complete embarrassment to historical literature.