Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin — The Eastern Front, 1941-1945, by John Mosier
Author's site: http://www.johnfmosier.com/
July 8, 2010
Shattering some of the Stalin-Hitler myths
‘Deathride’ revises much about tyrants
By David M. Shribman
DEATHRIDE: Hitler vs. Stalin — The Eastern Front, 1941-1945
By John Mosier
Simon and Schuster,
480 pp., $30
We think we understand the great German-Russian conflict of the Eastern Front of World War II. We think it was the great grudge match of the tyrants, Stalin and Hitler. We think Stalin panicked in June 1941 when his Nazi ally turned on him. We think Hitler was beaten by the same Russian winter that defeated Napoleon a century earlier. We think Stalin was steadfast in refusing to consider surrender. We think the Soviets prevailed in the greatest tank battle ever, at Kursk.
Maybe not. At least that is what the historian John Mosier, who in an earlier volume shattered the myths surrounding Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, is telling us in “Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin — The Eastern Front, 1941-1945.’’ It is a dramatic departure from the conventional wisdom and is itself a dramatic chronicle of the most brutal theater in the most brutal war in one of history’s most brutal centuries. But the real theme is even bigger than the Eastern Front, which itself stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Mosier is arguing that World War II was fought for economics, not for political or ideological reasons. That is not a new thesis, to be sure, but his is a creative approach, holding that not only the motivations but also the maneuvers of the war were almost entirely economic in nature.
Hitler, for example, wanted Poland because it was a net exporter of goods to Germany. The Allies then tried to block iron ore shipments from Scandinavia, hoping to deny the Nazis the materials required to build tanks and planes. And the whole bloody thing was a war on an economic, not a political, front. The Allies, which included the Soviet Union by war’s end, simply out produced Germany, and in fact the Third Reich was defeated by two nations that weren’t even their adversaries when the war began, the United States and the Soviet Union.
This is a clear-eyed, compelling description of a battle that has been described many times, but seldom with such an ironic eye. This monstrous war, conducted against the backdrop of the tyrants’ purges and their mechanical approaches to civilian death, was conducted in a great killing field of ethnic groups, including the Poles and other Slavic peoples, many of whom fared little better under Stalin than they did under Hitler. And these persecuted Eastern Europeans were themselves no friends of the Jews, who were virtually exterminated in this charnel house.
What emerges from these pages is a struggle between vicious Soviet bunglers with a craven leadership willing to sacrifice millions to survive versus vicious German technocrats with a leadership that didn’t anticipate the dangers of military over-extension and the advantages its rival possessed by fighting a defensive war in a primitive land with unlimited cannon fodder. That said, Mosier believes that Stalin was closer than anyone (including Stalin himself) knew to running out of men, some of whom by 1943 were getting only two days of training.
Now back to those myths that lay shattered on Mosier’s pages. Stalin wasn’t immobilized by Hitler’s perfidy in 1941, only stuck in a 1914 reverie that permitted him to believe he had weeks to mobilize and to think a diplomatic resolution was plausible. The Nazis were defeated in Russia more by Father Fall than by General Winter — that is, not when the land was full of ice but when the roads were full of mud. Stalin would have entertained an armistice but fought on mostly because Hitler wouldn’t consider one. And as for Kursk, that wasn’t the clear-cut victory that Soviet propagandists claimed.
Wars have a chilling bottom line, and Mosier’s is this: The war in the East was Hitler’s to lose and he did. Several times on the verge of victory, the Germans were not defeated by a superior rival, only by superior will or at least the willingness to pay the price of victory. Stalin won the war “only because he was willing to sacrifice approximately 27 million Russians.’’ Horrifying conclusion, horrifying battle, horrifying victory.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief.
The Washington Times
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Dashing Soviet WWII myths
Joseph C. Goulden
DEATHRIDE: HITLER VS. STALIN: THE EASTERN FRONT, 1941-1945
By John Mosier
Simon & Schuster, $30, 470 pages
Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden
One of the grand myths of World War II has a beleaguered Josef Stalin inspiring the gallant Soviet Red army to hold a superior German army at bay for years and eventually prevail despite the refusal of his Western allies, the United States and Great Britain, to open a "second front" to relieve battlefield pressures on him.
Echoing propaganda themes set by Stalin, many historians credit the "heroic Soviet soldier" with single-handedly keeping the Germans at bay during the first years of the war, shedding their blood to stop Hitler from seizing Moscow and Leningrad, and then driving the Wehrmacht all the way back to Berlin.
Stalin's interpretation was set forth in a series of wartime speeches later incorporated into a 1945 book, "The Great Patriotic War." As John Mosier writes, "His version of the war was perfectly pitched. After recoiling from the treacherous and unprovoked Hitlerite attack, the Red army managed to prevent the invaders from reaching Moscow. The great battle before the gates of Moscow was the first in a series of staggering defeats, in which the Hitlerites were driven out of the homeland... by the roused patriotic fury of the Russian people, whose strength was reinforced by the goals of socialism and inspired by the example of Stalin himself...."
Mr. Mosier, one of the more entertainingly contrarian military historians writing today, convincingly dashes these myths - and more - in an important and groundbreaking book about the Eastern front. A reviewer of one of his earlier books writes that Mr. Mosier "tosses military history hand grenades on almost every page..." Such grenades certainly resonate throughout "Deathride," which looks beyond Soviet propaganda claims to present a truly eye-opening account of the campaign. Mr. Mosier teaches history at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Mr. Mosier accepts that Stalin's prewar purges stripped the Red army of its leadership and left it ill-prepared for the German invasion in June 1941. (Another factor was that Stalin scoffed at intelligence reports, many emanating from his own spies, that Hitler planned to break their 1939 treaty and invade.) And that many Russian soldiers fought valiantly, despite the lack of leadership and equipment, is beyond doubt. (See most notably Catherine Merridale's 2006 work, "Ivan's War.")
But the price paid in blood was horrific. The Red army suffered casualties at the rate of 5-to-1 over the Germans. Conventional wisdom holds that those losses could be endured because of Russia's vastly superior numbers, but as Mr. Mosier points out, the Russian population was only twice that of Germany, and despite its own heavy losses in 1941, the Wehrmacht in 1942 had more men in uniform than the previous year.
The Germans captured almost 2 million Soviet soldiers in the first months of the war. "No one had any idea how many Russians had been killed," Mr. Mosier writes. "Essentially, there were two Soviet prisoners of war for every three German soldiers going into battle."
Stalin, meanwhile, was offering incredibly inflated German casualty claims - "In four and a half months of war Germany has lost four and a half million soldiers. Germany is bleeding white." The exact converse was true. As the war wound down in the spring of 1945, Russian losses continued to be so heavy that the Red army desperately conscripted all men between the ages of 14 and 60 and prepared to form all-female combat units.
As Sir Winston Churchill wryly commented about Stalin's penchant for lying, "The Bolsheviks have discovered that truth does not matter as long as there is reiteration...." If a lie is "repeated often enough and loudly enough, [it] becomes accepted by the people."
In another swipe at conventional wisdom, Mr. Mosier contends that capturing Moscow and Leningrad were not priority items for Hitler, for neither city had strategic value. His primary goal was seizing the oil fields near the Caspian Sea. Indeed, he contends, Hitler well might have succeeded had not the Allied invasion of North Africa caused him to withdraw key units from the Eastern front to protect his southern flanks. Otherwise, he thinks, both cities would have fallen.
Both during and after the war, pro-Soviet "historians" made much of the decision by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill not to strike at Western Europe until June 1944, thereby forcing Stalin to contend with Hitler on his own. More sober-headed writers accept that the decision was a strategic one - that the Allies were not prepared to invade Europe earlier. Nevertheless, the delay gave Stalin's apologists grounds for approving his post-1945 seizure of vast parts of Eastern Europe as deserved spoils of war. In any event, Mr. Mosier points out, World War II was a two-front war from the outset, and the Russians took a drubbing.
Mr. Mosier goes perhaps a step too far in his conclusion, in which he argues that the wartime losses contributed heavily to the eventual collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. The USSR was in a primitive stage of development when war broke out, and much of its physical infrastructure was laid to waste by the fighting. Stalin's relocation of industry to the Ural Mountains, while surely a wartime necessity, could not be reversed easily once the war ended. Not until a 1980 census did the Soviets admit that the war left "a severe deficit of males aged 55 and over."
The Soviet "experiment" likely was doomed from its inception, although decades lapsed before its collapse. As Mr. Mosier puts it, however, "Whatever chances the Soviet state had to achieve its dreams of prosperity and equality for its citizens, a realized utopia based on socialist principles, those visions perished along with tens of millions of Russians in the Great Patriotic War."
Joseph C. Goulden is a Washington writer.
In this exhaustive study of the eastern front of World War II, Mosier (Cross of Iron) strongly challenges traditional arguments, asserting that “the evidence suggests not only that Hitler came much closer to an outright victory than is often supposed, but that much of what we think is true about this conflict is, if not completely false, very nearly so.” While he agrees with many that the enduring legacy of Hitler and Stalin is the memory of “mountains of corpses” the two leaders left behind, Mosier asserts not only that the Soviet Empire lacked the inexhaustible manpower often attributed to it, but that they were seriously hampered by their own policies, leading to infamous issues of infrastructure (tank factories that turned out tanks but no spare parts, for instance). Mosier returns often to Soviet statistics cited since the war, determining each time that the figures “have very little credibility, are in fact simply another instance of how Stalin created facts to substantiate the pseudo-reality of his state.” With 85 pages of sources and endnotes, Mosier’s tome will satisfy seriously curious readers in search of a new trail to follow. (June)
The German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, began a war that lasted nearly four years and created by far the bloodiest theater in World War II. In the conventional narrative of this war, Hitler was defeated by Stalin because, like Napoleon, he underestimated the size and resources of his enemy. In fact, says historian John Mosier, Hitler came very close to winning and lost only because of the intervention of the western Allies. Stalin’s great triumph was not winning the war, but establishing the prevailing interpretation of the war. The Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia, would eventually prove fatal, setting in motion events that would culminate in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Deathride argues that the Soviet losses in World War II were unsustainable and would eventually have led to defeat. The Soviet Union had only twice the population of Germany at the time, but it was suffering a casualty rate more than two and a half times the German rate. Because Stalin had a notorious habit of imprisoning or killing anyone who brought him bad news (and often their families as well), Soviet battlefield reports were fantasies, and the battle plans Soviet generals developed seldom responded to actual circumstances. In this respect the Soviets waged war as they did everything else: through propaganda rather than actual achievement. What saved Stalin was the Allied decision to open the Mediterranean theater. Once the Allies threatened Italy, Hitler was forced to withdraw his best troops from the eastern front and redeploy them. In addition, the Allies provided heavy vehicles that the Soviets desperately needed and were unable to manufacture themselves. It was not the resources of the Soviet Union that defeated Hitler but the resources of the West. In this provocative revisionist analysis of the war between Hitler and Stalin, Mosier provides a dramatic, vigorous narrative of events as he shows how most previous histories accepted Stalin’s lies and distortions to produce a false sense of Soviet triumph. Deathride is the real story of the Eastern Front, fresh and different from what we thought we knew.
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