William Grimes of the NYT discovers what we’ve known all along about the Russo-German war of 1941–1945:
The American experience of tight-knit platoons bound by loyalty and friendship did not exist in the Soviet armed forces. [During the first stage of the war, I would add.] The extremely high casualty rates ensured a constant turnover in personnel. Most soldiers either died or were wounded within three months of reaching the front lines. Further, the government assigned political officers to every fighting unit to reinforce party discipline and to report on conversations. Mutual trust was impossible.
I’m quoting Grimes’ review of a new book by British historian Catherine Merridale. (Link via Languor Management.) Yes indeed, the Red Army was a mess of blood and demoralization a month into the war. But back in 1941 and 1942, Hitler’s biggest Russian problem was Hitler. He should have suspended his racial theories to the east of the river Bug and given a career officer like Heintz Guderian full control over Russian affairs. Guderian could do what he tried to do in his more limited capacity — treat locals with decency, avoid unnecessary reprisals, disband collective farms, reopen churches, guarantee a more humane treatment of Russian POWs — do what it takes to establish German rule as a decent alternative to Bolshevism.
Hitler blew the chance, being Hitler. After the Stalingrad battle the Red Army emerged as a very capable force reliant on a still-generous supply of manpower, which was why the Allied intervention was required not so much to defeat Germany as to prevent Stalin from seizing Western Europe.
Ms. Merridale’s narrative darkens with the Russian advance into Germany. She describes an army fueled by rage and vodka, whipped into a frenzy by its political officers. The Russian soldier’s “rage in battle must be terrible,” a slogan at the time said, continuing, “He does not merely seek to fight; he must be the embodiment of the court of his people’s justice.” In practice, this meant rape, pillage and plunder on a scale that has yet to be recognized. The Red Army, Ms. Merridale writes, embarked “on an orgy of war crimes.”
None of this comes out in her interviews with veterans.
Lots and lots of Soviet soldiers and officers must have felt (to the terror of their more sophisticated fellow soldiers) they had a right to avenge the Germans’ atrocities in a eye for an eye way — a feeling greatly intensified by Soviet propaganda though not only, and so much, in 1945 as throughout the war. (Look up Ehrenburg or Simonov on Google.) The practice of giving soldiers 100 milliliters (colloquially “grams”) of vodka before an attack had been introduced in the Red Army well before the final assault on Germany. The severity of the fighting in Eastern Germany was unbelievable, even in comparison with the Allies’ experience on the Western front.
The extent of the Reds’ pillage and plunder is illustrated by the presence of German-made items in millions of Soviet households after the war. The extent of the rapes can only be established by independent academic reseachers, preferably a German-Russian team. Neither Anthony Beevor’s sensationalist book nor scattered war memoirs are enough to make a proper case for this and other legitimate German grievances.
War experiences are not something Russian veterans would casually confide to a British woman — but at home, pelted by inquisitive grandchildren’s nagging questions, the old men would drop precious bits of truth that stick together to become living history.