John Mosier presents a revisionist retelling of the war on the Eastern Front. Although the Eastern Front was the biggest and most important theater in World War II, it is not well known in the United States, as no American troops participated in the fighting. Yet historians agree that this is where the decisive battles of the war were fought. The conventional wisdom about the Eastern Front is that Hitler was mad to think he could defeat the USSR because of its vast size and population, and that the Battle of Stalingrad marked the turning point of the war. Neither statement is accurate, says Mosier; Hitler came very close to winning outright. Mosier's history of the Eastern Front will generate considerable controversy both because of his unconventional arguments and because he criticizes historians who have accepted Soviet facts and interpretations. Mosier argues that Soviet accounts are utterly untrustworthy and that accounts relying on them are fantasies. Deathride argues that the war in the East was Hitler's to lose, that Stalin was in grave jeopardy from the outset of the war, and that it was the Allied victories in North Africa and consequent threat to Italy that forced Hitler to change his plans and saved Stalin from near-certain defeat. Stalin's only real triumph was in creating a legend of victory.
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John Mosier is a professor of English at Loyola University in New Orleans and the author of four books of military history, including The Myth of the Great War and Cross of Iron.
Michael Prichard has recorded well over five hundred audiobooks and was named one of SmartMoney magazine's Top Ten Golden Voices. His numerous awards and accolades include an Audie Award and several AudioFile Earphones Awards.
PSEUDO-REALITY AND THE SOVIET UNION
In appearance everything happens in Russia as elsewhere. There is no difference except at the bottom of things.
Marquis de Custine, Letters from Russia (1839)1
The war between Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler was a savage conflict that raged over an enormous battlefront stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In less than a year and a half, German, Hungarian, and Romanian armies penetrated into the depths of the Russian heartland, reaching historic towns on the Volga and the Don whose last experience of invasion had been centuries before. During the course of the next two and a half years the Red Army retraced that journey in the opposite direction, all the way to the Oder and the Danube, reaching cities whose last experience of Russian soldiery had been almost precisely 140 years earlier, during the Napoleonic Wars.
The enormous geographic scale of the conflict was more than matched by the savagery of the fighting, the casualties sustained by the combatants, and the appalling level of suffering inflicted on the hapless civilians of European Russia and central Europe, whose peoples had not experienced such a series of calamities since the Thirty Years War. The scale of suffering and ruin was so vast as to be unimaginable. Hitler's wicked and ghastly genocidal campaign against European Jewry is almost submerged in this litany of horror and depravity, even though that genocide was one of his two main goals.
Hitler's other aim was the destruction of Bolshevism. Our loathing and consternation regarding the Holocaust tends to make us see these two aims as entirely separate. But before the outbreak of the war on September 1, 1939, Hitler's great public relations coup with his fellow Germans and Austrians was to meld the two. Indeed from his public speeches in the 1930s, one could draw the not unreasonable inference that his antipathy toward the Jewish people was largely restricted to those who had espoused Bolshevism.2
A consideration of that complex notion lies outside the aims of this book, as does the Holocaust itself. Suffice it to say that to accomplish those two tasks Hitler was willing to see the Third Reich, that mighty state that he had spent decades creating, destroyed. But today the prosperous, peaceful, and culturally rich Jewish communities of Germany, Austria, central Europe, and the Baltic can hardly be said to exist. But neither does the USSR.
That by the first week of May 1945, Hitler was already dead, his armies destroyed, the cities of what he had intended to be a great imperial realm shattered by American and British bombers, should not lull us into forgetting the astonishing extent to which Hitler's evil empire nearly triumphed.
Stalin, who planned his own holocaust in secret while basking in the world's admiration as the man who beat Hitler, survived his former ally by barely eight years. By that time, the allegedly victorious citizens of the USSR, no less than those of their client states, were beginning to envy the defeated Germans and Austrians. Hitler had boasted that the empire he created would last a thousand years. The one Stalin had forged collapsed before the millennium. The only enduring legacy of both men is our memory of the mountains of corpses they left behind.
Given the extent to which Hitler persuaded or tempted the citizens of Austria and Germany, two of the world's most culturally and intellectually advanced nations, into carrying out his nefarious schemes, his infamy, and theirs, naturally preoccupies us. We sometimes forget that Hitler's chief adversary for the greater part of the Second World War was in no way less wicked. When the historical record is examined fairly, the difference between the depravity of the two men is difficult to discern. Most of the perceived differences are a function of Stalin's one unquestionable triumph: the image of himself and of the state he largely created.
In the decades since his death, the world has slowly come to an understanding of his remarkable success in that endeavor, together with an awareness of his innumerable crimes. There are still die-hard apologists to be found for the man and his system, and not only in Russia, but by and large they are in pretty much the same global circus as Holocaust deniers.
The sorry history of Stalin's propagandistic triumphs, and its slow unraveling, also lies outside the scope of this book. However, such an understanding is necessary in order to comprehend the reality of the war between the two evil empires. Stalin's great trick was to convince the world that the Red Army had beaten Hitler outright; at that task he succeeded brilliantly. That the state he presided over was, in the words of one economic historian, a “victorious loser,” is realized either imperfectly or not at all; one frequently has the impression that the collapse of the Soviet state and its main satellites is seen as a natural event, like a tsunami or an earthquake.3 There is a vague realization of general causes and effects, but a rather imperfect understanding of the particulars.
One very particular cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the Second World War. Looking at the wreckage of Berlin in May 1945, comparing it with Moscow, it was easy to believe that Stalin was victorious. Sixty years later, the architecture tells a different story. Both dictators sought out a war that ended in their mutual destruction. Germany's was apparent in May 1945; the Soviet Union's implosion came four and a half decades later.
That the war destroyed both empires is still poorly understood, masked by the remarkable abilities of Stalin to fool the world into believing that his fantasies were real. He not only built castles in the air, he persuaded people to live in them. Hitler came very close to winning that war, and on the Eastern Front, his soldiers came within an ace of winning outright. In the long retreat back to Berlin and Vienna, they exacted a terrible price on their adversaries. If the astonishing advance of the German army into Ukraine and the Caucasus was, as many of them realized, a deathride, the same must be said about the bloody advance of their opponent. The outcome of the war between the two dictators was a battle to the death for both.
The aim of this book is to provide the educated general reader with a succinct account of this important conflict, one that places the war within the broader context of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. There are excellent scholarly accounts of almost every aspect of this war. But in addition to being lengthy and technically complex narratives, they lack this broader perspective. The result was described by the classical historian Polybius over 2,000 years ago:
It has always seemed to me that those who believe they can obtain a just and well-proportioned view of history as a whole by reading separate and specialized reports of events, are behaving like a man who, when he has examined the dissected parts of a body which was once alive and beautiful, imagines that he has beheld the living animal in all its grace and movement.4
The scope of the war and the legends that have surrounded it, when coupled with the unfamiliarity of most readers with the history and geography of central Europe, place a burden on even the most avid reader. But Stalin's war with Hitler presents us with an additional difficulty, one perhaps not contemplated by Polybius: the extent to which one side's account of itself is an elaborate and complex set of falsehoods.
Indeed, the rise and fall of the USSR is a complex and difficult subject itself, justly deserving of a name (Sovietology). From the very first, the Bolsheviks exerted a polarizing effect on Russians and foreigners alike, producing generations of fierce critics, fanatical apologists, and somewhat bemused analysts who, despite their expertise, seem in retrospect to have been more wrong than right.
Looking back on their forecasts and predictions in the light of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989?1990, one informed analyst noted that the “most unlikely scenario had been the one closest to the truth, however unlikely and even absurd it appeared at the time.”5
Considered in the light of what we now know about both the USSR and the war itself, 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.
Russia has always presented foreigners with difficulties of language and customs as well as geography. Few people could dispute the exactitude of the widely read account of Astolphe-Louis-L - onor, Marquis de Custine, who visited that country in the 1830s, and certainly not the Russians themselves, as the book was banned there for over fifty years.
A century later, Bolshevik Russia was an even more hermetically sealed and impenetrable state than the Russia of the czars. In most respects people knew less about Russia in 1939 than they did a century earlier, and the situation hardly changed after the end of the Second World War. “After forty years in the West, I am still amazed at how little general understanding there is of Soviet reality,” the famous concert pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy observed in 2005.6
The marquis was relatively free to move about, which was hardly the case for foreigners after the revolution. He was different in another way as well: “I went to Russia to seek arguments for repressive government, I return a partisan of constitutions,” he wrote in his Preface.7 The same could not be said of most later visitors. They came not as sharp-eyed observers, but as pilgrims reaching the Promised Land. With few exceptions, they believed anything they were told: “We used to run a little contest among ourselves to see who could produce the most striking example of credulity among...
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