Published in Sotsial’nye i gumanitarnye nauki. Otechestvennaia i zarubezhnaia literatura. Seriia 5, Istoriia, no. 1 (Moscow, 2016), 107–126 (in Russian).
Published in Sotsial’nye i gumanitarnye nauki. Otechestvennaia i zarubezhnaia literatura. Seriia 5, Istoriia, no. 1 (Moscow, 2016), 107–126 (in Russian).
My collection of abstracts and reviews on the USSR in World War II was published this spring (in Russian):
It was printed after the fire at our Institute; luckily the typography has survived. Theoretically, the collection may be ordered here, but it looks like it’s not at stock yet. Some of the materials were prepared by my colleagues from our Department of History.
Initially we were going to show the current situation in historiography, but so many publications have appeared in recent years that we had to limit our work to a relatively small set of the most interesting works standing out for their subjects or research methods. As a result, most of materials in the collection are based on works of Western historians who still much more often use different methodological innovations than their Russian colleagues. Yet there are also abstracts of several Russian books that deal with some insufficiently explored aspects of the history of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. We used almost no works on history of military operations or of the Red Army as, in spite of their importance, they are not so interesting from the viewpoint of methodology. Instead, we devoted special attention to publications that deal with ‘non-military’ subjects, that investigate a human dimension of the Second World War, its long-term consequences and historical context.
As the work at the collection has shown, there was little change in the situation with stocking the library funds by foreign literature in Moscow since I was preparing my previous collection Nachalo Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny: sovremennaia istoriografiia [The beginning of the Great Fatherland War: recent historiography]. Even the biggest libraries can only buy rather a few books in comparison with the Soviet period, many books are available only at one of the libraries in one copy. Along with the library of the Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences, we used books from the Russian State Library (‘Lenin Library’) and the library of the German Historical Institute in Moscow, and also a lot of books, electronic copies of which had been published illegally in the Internet. Piratical libraries continue to collect new literature—luckily for researchers, although to growing displeasure of the publishers’ community which can’t however offer any acceptable alternative. Michael David-Fox (Georgetown University) has brought us a copy of the book The Holocaust in the East that he had edited with Peter Holquist and Alexander Martin. Fortunately, the book was at my colleague’s home when the fire began at the institute. Everything else that had been at our department is at the dump now along with remains of the roof :-(
The contents of the abstract collection:
Yesterday sent a new collection of abstracts on the Soviet Union in the Second World War, Velikaia Otechestvennaia voina v sovremennoi istoriografii [The Great Fatherland War in recent historical writing] to our publishing department, they are to print it in spring. The chronological borders are not strict, there are materials on the Winter War and on the postwar period as well. The sources are mostly in English and German, but several Russian monographs are also used. I decided not to use any publications on the history of the armed forces and of military operation (with little exception). Hope the result will be good—at least the books I used were very interesting. The contents will be like this:
This letter has been found in the papers of my Washington housing owner Lisa Ritchie. Its author experienced not only the hell of besieged Leningrad, but also imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, an escape from it and then a journey along Germany in the last months before the collapse of the Third Reich. The original text is a typescript in English, in British spelling. It has five pages, but since the third page, the pagination starts from the beginning. The letter is not signed, but Lisa thinks it was sent to her grandmother Elizavietta Hartmann Artamonoff by one of her friends soon after the Second World War had finished (the Artamonoff family moved from Russia to the USA in the early 1920s, but Lisa’s grandmother could leave the USSR only in 1933).
Below is the text of the letter with Lisa’s introduction and my comments (all of them are put in square brackets or placed in the endnotes). The author’s spelling and punctuation are kept without any change except obvious misprints. I kept also the original paragraphs, although in a newspaper publication of the letter, Lisa divided some of them into more short ones (she mentions this in her introduction).
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.
Nachalo Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny: Sovremennaia istoriografiia: Sbornik obzorov i referatov, ed. M. M. Mints (Moscow, 2011).
The collection contains analyses of works by Russian and Western historians on problems such as Soviet foreign policy in 1939–1941, the USSR’s preparation for a forthcoming war against Germany, operations on the Eastern Front in summer–autumn 1941, everyday life in the years of the war. These works were published between 2000–2010 by various presses in Moscow and abroad. Full text (PDF, 1,5 Mb, in Russian).
Michael M. Mints, The Beginning of the Great Fatherland War in Modern Historiography: (Review article).
Abstract: Vladimir A. Nevezhin, “If Tomorrow a Campaign…”: Preparation for War and the Ideological Propaganda in 1930s–1940s [Nevezhin V., “Esli zavtra v pokhod…”: Podgotovka k voine i ideologicheskaia propaganda v 30-kh—40-kh godakh (Moscow: Iauza: Eksmo, 2007)].
Abstract: Aleksandr O. Chubar’ian, The Eve of a Tragedy: Stalin and the International Crisis, September 1939—June 1941 [Chubar’ian A. O., Kanun tragedii: Stalin i mezhdunarodnyi krizis: Sentiabr’ 1939—iiun’ 1941 g. (Moscow: Nauka, 2008)].
Abstract: Mikhail I. Meltiukhov, Stalin’s Missed Chance: Struggle for Europe, 1939–1941: (Documents, Facts, Opinions) [Meltiukhov M. I., Upushchennyi shans Stalina: Skhvatka za Evropu: (Dokumenty, fakty, suzhdeniia), 3d ed. (Moscow: Veche, 2008)].
Abstract: David E. Murphy, What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2005).
Abstract: John A. Lukacs, June 1941: Hitler and Stalin (New Haven; London: Gale University, 2006).
Abstract: David M. Glantz, Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, 1941 (Stroud, Gloucestershire; Charleston, South Carolina: Tempus Publishing, 2001).
Abstract: V. V. Abaturov, 1941: The West Direction [Abaturov V. V., 1941: Na Zapadnom napravlenii (Moscow: Iauza: Eksmo, 2007)].
Abstract: D. B. Khazanov, The Struggle for Supremacy in the Air [Khazanov D. B., Bor’ba za gospodstvo v vozdukhe (Moscow: Iauza: Eksmo, 2008)].
Abstract: Geoffrey P. Megargee, War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941 (Lanham, Maryland etc.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
Abstract: Christian Hartmann, The Wehrmacht in the War in the East: The Front and Rear, 1941–1942 [Christian Hartmann, Wehrmacht im Ostkrieg: Front und militärisches Hinterland 1941/42 (München: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 2009)].
Abstract: Rodric Braithwaite, Moscow 1941: A City and its People at War (London: Profile Books, 2007).
The tragic start of the war on the Eastern Front (1941–1945), surely will long remain one of the most painful issues for the Russian historiography. This is due not only to the enormous losses the country suffered through four years of war, but also because of the agonizing process of rethinking the Soviet past, a process which began a quarter-century ago and continues to this day. In the divided Russian society, any dispute about the past almost inevitably turns into a dispute of values: this is not surprising, since the historical memory is one of the key elements of national identity.
The memory of war is no exception. In the scientific community, discussions about the events of 1941 differ somewhat from the exterior dialogues, but are no less acute.
A radical rethinking of the history of the first months of the Patriotic war began in the Perestroika years after the removal of the prior censorship restrictions. In this period, the most heated debate first of all was concerned with the secret protocols to the Soviet–German agreements of August 23 and September 28, 1939.
Among the events of 1941 most actively discussed were such issues as the main causes of the catastrophic defeat of the Red Army in the first months of the war, Stalin’s errors in preparing to repel the aggression and in the organization of the resistance against the enemy in the first weeks after the Germans attacked, the problem of his personal responsibility for the failure of the Soviet Union in the beginning of hostilities.
In the 1990s, the situation in Soviet studies changed significantly due to the “archival revolution” (in fact, in this period researchers found a qualitatively new source base for the study of World War II history), the emergence of new methodological approaches (military-historical anthropology, the history of everyday life), and also due to the “unplanned discussion” about the purpose of Soviet foreign and military policy in the prewar years, triggered by the publication in Russia of Viktor A. Suvorov’s books, which highlighted a number of previously unexplored issues. These circumstances made possible the emergence of numerous works on the history of Soviet foreign policy, force development, strategic planning and propaganda.
At the same time, difficulties appeared, on the one hand, with a significant amount of newly declassified materials requiring interpretation, and, on the other, with the apparent incompleteness of the “archival revolution,” since many important archival collections have remained secret.
These processes continue. New challenges have also appeared. Half-hearted political and economic reforms of the 1990s were the reason why, at the turn of the millennia, Russian ruling circles manifested authoritarian tendencies once again, including, in particular, the promotion of nationalist ideas. This resulted in the fact that the memory of the war has once again become a pawn of the official propaganda, and the “archival revolution” has been replaced by re-classification of several documents, some of which at that time had already been published.
With such a change in the “state order,” those authors who tried to justify the policy of Stalin’s leadership, including during the pre-war period, became active. In addition, a shortage of qualified specialists and of qualitative research on the history of World War II was evident, so that the resultant gap in the literature began to be filled up with amateur research and numerous works of a journalistic nature.
The Western historiography of World War II has undergone major changes in the last 25 years. The opening of access to Soviet archives, as well as the publication of a large number of previously unavailable documents, significantly upgraded its source base. (In previous years, in studying the war on the Eastern Front, Western researchers had mostly to limit themselves to German sources, which inevitably made their conclusions somewhat one-sided.) The end of the Cold War has allowed certain stereotypes to be overcome. At the same time, in recent years there has been a definite decline in interest about the Soviet era amongst Western historians.
Yet the literature on the history of the USSR, including the history of World War II and the preceding period, has been supplemented by a number of fundamental papers that need attention.
The purpose of this collection was to give readers a concise, but relatively integral picture of modern historiography of the eve of the war on the Eastern Front and of the summer–autumn campaign 1941. Several Russian and Western monographs are analysed that were published in the recent decade and deal with such problems as Moscow’s foreign policy in 1939–1941, the development of Soviet armed forces in the same period, the Stalinist leadership’s response to the deterioration of the Soviet–German relations and to the incoming information about imminent aggression against the USSR, operations on the Eastern Front in June–December 1941, and the causes of the Red Army’s defeats.
The specified chronological framework was chosen deliberately. The first six months of the war on the Eastern Front were perhaps the most dramatic period of the Soviet–German rivalry. The Battle of Moscow not only marked the collapse of the Operation Barbarossa and the strategy of Blitzkrieg, but, according to some researchers, has become, along with the U.S. entry into the war and certain other events, the beginning of a turn in the Second World War as a whole. On the other hand, the origins of the Red Army’s defeats in the initial period of the war should be sought in the pre-war years, not last of all in those of the Soviet–German partnership based on the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and on the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Demarcation of September 28, 1939. That led to our interest in the events of 1939 through the first half of 1941. The collection opens with a general review of contemporary literature on the problems listed above.
This is followed by abstracts of eleven the most interesting Russian and Western works. The book by Vladimir A. Nevezhin “If Tomorrow a Campaign…”: Preparation for War and the Ideological Propaganda in 1930s–1940s deals with the history of Soviet military propaganda in the prewar period; the author analyzes its organization, and also the evolution of conceptions it promoted.
Aleksandr O. Chubar’ian in his monograph The Eve of a Tragedy: Stalin and the International Crisis, September 1939—June 1941 examines Soviet foreign policy in the period of the Soviet–German “friendship,” revealing its motives and results.
Mikhail I. Meltiukhov’s Stalin’s Missed Chance: Struggle for Europe, 1939–1941: (Documents, Facts, Opinions) is an attempt, rather a rare one in Russian historiography, at a comprehensive analysis of foreign and military policy of the USSR during the period under consideration, in the overall context of the Second World War.
The work of Soviet intelligence before the Nazi aggression is described in the monograph by the American researcher David E. Murphy, What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa.
The book by John A. Lukacs (USA), June 1941: Hitler and Stalin, deals with the personal relations between the two dictators.
The fighting on the Eastern Front in June–December 1941, is particularly detailed in David M. Glantz’s “Barbarossa”: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, 1941.
V. V. Abaturov’s book 1941: The West Direction analyzes the battles in the central sector of the Eastern Front in 1941 and, to a lesser degree, in 1942.
D. B. Khazanov’s The Struggle for Supremacy in the Air deals with the air force during the summer and autumn of 1941. The author describes the air battles in the first weeks of the war, during the Kiev Defense Operation and the repulsion of the German offensive on Leningrad, the Luftwaffe raids on Moscow; shows the causes for the failure of the Soviet pilots.
Geoffrey P. Megargee’s (USA) book War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941 deals with the crimes of the invaders on Soviet territory, showing the influence of attitudes that prevailed in the Nazi leadership, and of the situation prevailing at the front on the attitude of the Germans to the Soviet POWs and the local population.
Similar problems were discussed by a German historian Christian Hartmann in his book The Wehrmacht in the War in the East: The Front and Rear, 1941–1942. In this case study of five German divisions, he shows how the everyday life of German soldiers and officers, as well as the institutional features of the German army and the situation at the front and in the occupied areas, influenced the content, nature and extent of the war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht soldiers in the Soviet Union. The book addressed also the problem of German soldiers’ responsibility for these crimes.
Finally, the work of British researcher Rodric Braithwaite Moscow 1941: A City and its People at War deals with the daily lives of Muscovites in the first months of the Soviet–German confrontation.