Published in Trudy po rossievedeniiu, ed. I. I. Glebova et al. (Moscow, 2011), 3: 286–311.
A radical rethinking of the history of World War II, including the war on the Eastern Front in 1941–45, began in the USSR during the perestroika years after the first steps were taken towards the liquidation of censorship. In the post-Soviet period a new push for this process was created by the “archival revolution” and the “unplanned discussion” about the goals of the Soviet military policy on the eve of Nazi aggression, which began with the publication in Russia of works by Viktor A. Suvorov. The end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s saw the restoration of authoritarianism, the “archival revolution” ended (right up to the re-classifying of some documents) and official propaganda sounded nationalist and neo-Stalinist motives. Let us see how these factors influenced historiography, in particular, ideas concerning the events of 1939–41.
A kind of distinctive landmarks in the development of the Soviet, as well as the current Russian historiography of these events, were official multi-volume monographs about the history of the war on the Eastern Front and the Second World War as a whole. The most recent complete publication of this kind is four-volume The Great Patriotic War, 1941–1945: Essays on Military History, released in 1998, the first book of which contains chapters on the eve and the beginning of the war. During its preparation numerous declassified sources were used that allowed the authors, in particular, to rewrite, in fact, “from scratch,” the story of the Soviet–German partnership, based on the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Nevertheless, the stance taken by the authors was quite conservative against the background of the historiography of World War II in the 1990s in general.
The proposed article analyzes some of the most interesting and significant works of Russian and Western historians that cover the period from fall 1939 to June 1941 and have been released after The Great Patriotic War, 1941–1945: Essays on Military History. As we can see from these works, the central issues in the prehistory and beginning of the war on the Eastern Front are still such questions as the Soviet foreign policy and force development in the prewar period, the course of fighting in the summer–autumn of 1941, and the causes for the failure of the Red Army in the early months of the war. Discussion also continues regarding the goals of the Soviet military preparations in the first half of 1941 (“the problem of a preventive strike”). Among relatively new research topics, such problems should be noted, as the history of everyday life of the period (works by Rodric Braithwaite, M. J. Broekmeyer, Christian Hartmann), as well as the evolution of the ideas of the Soviet political and military elite about the future war and their relationship with the practical activity of the Soviet leadership to prepare for war, with combat and operational training of the Red Army (works by Valerii A. Artsybashev). Adjacent to the last question is the history of Soviet propaganda, the study of which allows, among other things, to trace the military-doctrinal views of Soviet leaders and their assessment of the international situation through the ideological concepts that were promoted by the official propaganda in different periods (works by Mikhail I. Mel’tiukhov, Vladimir A. Nevezhin).
From the point of view of methodology a significant part of research, especially Russian, still applies purely to the event history—political history (international relations) and military history in its “operational-strategic” variant (the forces and plans of each side, the course and results of combat, the losses). To the greatest degree, this is characteristic for amateur works on military history. To undoubtedly new features belong the new research topics, as well as more careful integration of the existing knowledge on different aspects of the prehistory and the beginning of the war on the Eastern Front.
Naturally, works written in Russia, inevitably show the events being studied predominately from a Soviet point of view, whereas the publications of German historians, accordingly, contain a German view. Researchers from the third countries, it would seem, are in a better position and have a greater ability to create a complete picture of the war on the Eastern Front from an outside observer’s viewpoint. Nevertheless, a significant part of Western works was written mainly on the basis of documents of only one side, and, accordingly, also reflects either the “German” or “Soviet” point of view of the events being studied. Several attempts have been made to overcome this situation (works by Evan Mawdsley, and especially Chris Bellamy).
As we can see, the last decade was quite fruitful both for the Russian and Western historiography of the war on the Eastern Front. Russian scholars continue studying the complex of sources that have become available in the post-Soviet years. A significant achievement in this work was the publishing of several fundamental monographs on the history of Soviet foreign and military policy in 1939–41. Also noteworthy is the work trying to understand the intellectual, psychological and cultural background of the processes studied, although it is still at an early stage. In the West, the end of the Cold War and the possibility of access to the declassified documents of the former Soviet archives allowed to bring the study of history of the Soviet–German conflict and its initial period to the next level. The strengths of Western historiography are the comprehensive, systematic approach to the material studied, ideological impartiality (what really contributes to this is that the authors are not involved into Russian discussions about the past), and a bold use of a variety of methodological innovations. Of the latter the most remarkable are the story of everyday life, the use of sources of both the warring parties in the study of the history of war, the analysis of the studied events in a broader historical context, etc. The style of writing peculiar to the Western scholars should also be noted—calm, balanced and sympathetic to the opponents. There is a lot to learn for many Russian authors.
In the Russian historiography of the events of 1939–41 several directions coexist. Many researchers of older generations, such as Aleksandr O. Chubar’ian or S. Z. Sluch (now-deceased Lev A. Bezymenskii belonged to this school, too), continue to work within the paradigm that has developed by the end of perestroika. Its strength is that it is consistently critical of the political course of Stalin’s leadership. This is important not only in value terms (as a necessary step to rethinking and overcome of the totalitarian past), but also in purely scientific terms, because it allows a better and deeper understanding of the inner mechanics of the processes under study. Representatives of this trend still must prove the theses, which have been developed, in fact, long ago: not only the French and the British, but also the Soviet diplomacy was not disposed to build a new anti-German Entente in summer of 1939, since the decision of the rapprochement with Nazi Germany was made, apparently, before the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations; the pact with Hitler was dictated by expansionist motives, not by the need to strengthen the defense of the USSR; the expansion of the Soviet borders in 1939–40 was a result of essentially aggressive actions of Moscow and not of the “free will” of the Belorussians, Ukrainians, or the Baltic peoples; up until 1940 the Soviet-German relations were developing quite constructively, despite disagreements on particular issues, and Stalin’s desire to their further deepening was clearly excessive even from the point of view of maintaining neutrality in the Second World War and was extremely harmful to the Soviet Union itself.
It is hard not to agree with these conclusions. It is only possible to add that the defensive capabilities of the USSR in 1939 should not be underestimated, especially in comparison to 1941. In the summer of 1939 the Soviet territory was not contiguous to Germany, the borders of the USSR were covered with finished and functioning fortified areas, and in case of war, the troops deployed there would have to fight on their own land, with established lines of communication and a loyal population in the rear. By the summer of 1941, the Soviet Union had a direct border with the Reich, which dramatically increased the risk of a sudden attack. A new line of fortifications had to be built urgently on this border, including at the price of laying up the fortifications on the old border; this work was still not complete up until the beginning of the Nazi aggression. The capacity of the road network in the annexed territories was significantly lower than to the east of the old border, and the forced Sovietization of these areas lead to widespread dissatisfaction of the local population in the immediate rear of the troops, which were the first to face the attacks of the Wehrmacht. Such was the true cost of the “significant success of Soviet diplomacy” reached in August–September 1939.
At the same time, historians who belong to the said school, unfortunately, did not happen to be ready to accept the hypothesis regarding the preparation of the Soviet side in 1940–41 for an attack against Germany, although it allows us to find answers to some important questions, which otherwise remain unresolved. A number of researchers (Mel’tiukhov, Nevezhin, P. N. Bobylev, V. D. Danilov) accepted this paradigm in 1990s that allowed them to produce a new, consistent and methodologically correct conception of the events studied, free from some exaggeration, inaccuracies and poorly reasoned judgements peculiar to Viktor Suvorov. Apparently, Stalin’s policy in 1939 to the first half of 1941 was determined, among other matters, by the desire to take advantage of the war between the Third Reich and the Western democracies. The unexpected defeat of France in 1940 meant the failure of these calculations. Under these new circumstances, the Soviet leadership launched preparations for a clash with Berlin, especially since the adopted military doctrine allowed of the outbreak of war on the initiative of the Soviet Union. As a result of the correction of strategic plans in the duration of 1940 and the first half of 1941, a plan was formed regarding a sudden attack against German troops with the main forces of the Red Army, concentrated on the border in advance, and preparations were started for its implementation. As for the plans for a defensive war, the Soviet Command seems simply not to have had any, that was one of the causes of the disaster of 1941. Interestingly, experts on military history in the strict sense, including the young, generally do not share this paradigm and prefer more traditional, although controversial, ideas about exclusively defensive intentions of Stalin’s leadership due to unpreparedness of the Red Army for war.
In recent years, a tendency became stronger again, to restore the old Soviet myth that the non-aggression pact with Germany was concluded with the intention of buying time for strengthening the defense capability of the USSR, and even to justify Stalin’s policies in general, as dictated by the objective circumstances. It is characteristic for different generations and schools in the historiography—Mel’tiukhov, for example, in his latest works, even tries to justify the partition of Poland between Moscow and Berlin and the subsequent preparation of the Soviet leadership to further “expand the boundaries of socialism” by force of arms. We have to admit that the change of public mood affected the study of history as well.
The situation with sources creates additional complications. Since the “archival revolution” only lead to half-way results, it is still not possible, in particular, to study the mechanisms of foreign policy decision making in Stalin’s USSR. Materials of the Soviet military planning are still accessible only partly; documents that have been published to date, contain only fragmented information. At the same time, the study of the corpus of sources, which were nonetheless introduced for scientific use after 1991, is also still far from complete.
As it appears from the foregoing, the history of the prewar period and of the beginning of the war on the Eastern Front still contains many unresolved problems. Revolutionary turmoil of the 1990s gave way to stabilized evolutionary development. This has its advantages but it would not be good if this were replaced with stagnation.
Continue reading ‘ARTICLE: The USSR and the beginning of the Second World War: a discussion on the events of 1939–1941 in contemporary historiography (in Russian)’ »