Back in 2006-07, I wrote a series of “Reflections” on Russia’s DNA and the first essay in this series focused on Russia’s “Fear of Invasion.” I was reminded of this earlier essay as I read Max Hastings’ book, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945. Hastings’ study of the last year of World War II is an impressive one, but it is not light reading and would not be interesting reading for most people because of its detail and length.
In his Introduction, Hastings begins with this clear thesis: “The Second World War was the most disastrous human experience in history” (p. xi). In comparison to the First World War, that at one time was called “The Great War,” the Second World War lasted eighteen months longer. The 1914-1918 conflict cost the lives of nine million people, but the subsequent world war had five times as many casualties, most of whom died in the Soviet Union or in China – a harsh reality often unknown to Westerners.
Hastings’ study is unique in that it covers the last nine months of the Second World War on both the Western and Eastern Fronts, unlike most histories that focus on only one major theatre of the war. To highlight the remarkable contrasts between the two Fronts, consider these statistics: the combined combat fatalities of the United States, Britain and France amounted to less than one million, while 27 million Soviet citizens died in the war. By the way, Hastings adds a footnote to these numbers by pointing out that some modern estimates place Soviet casualties as high as 40 million, but he recognizes that any conclusive number will never be agreed upon by scholars.
A second related thesis in Hastings’ book is how the two theatres of war were “light years apart” in terms of the battlefield experiences of British and American soldiers as opposed to those of the Soviets. He puts it this way: “There was a chasm between the world of the Western allies, populated by men striving to act temperately, and the Eastern universe in which, on both sides, elemental passions dominated.”
Following a series of devastating defeats on the Eastern Front in 1943-44, the Nazi war machine no longer appeared invincible and the Thousand-Year Reich was beginning to crumble. Starting in September 1944, the fifth anniversary of the German invasion of Poland that began this conflict, the Allies began their final drive into Germany and, in particular, toward its capital city of Berlin.
In the West, the Germans were defending their border with 74 divisions and 1,600 tanks against an Allied force of 87 divisions and over 6,000 tanks. In the East, the Germans deployed two million men and 4,000 tanks against the Red Army that by January 1945 had grown to six million troops and 13,000 tanks.
Unlike many American and British military historians, Hastings repeatedly highlights the remarkable fighting capabilities of the Wehrmacht, the German army, and the resistance they put up on both fronts against the overwhelming size of enemy forces. In the East in particular, since many German soldiers knew that Soviet retribution against them would be brutal, they refused to lay down their arms and chose instead to fight to the death.
Hastings also points out the remarkable achievements of the Red Army and is at a loss to understand why the Russians fought so hard to defend the repressive Stalinist regime. Long before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, “Joseph Stalin had created within its borders the greatest edifice of repression, mass murder and human suffering the world had ever seen.” Stalin’s anti-Semitism was “almost as profound as that of Hitler” and “the victims of his tyranny, far more numerous than those of Hitler, were his own people” (pp. 95-96).
Yet despite this, the soldiers of the Red Army proved to be remarkable warriors, fearless soldiers with a hatred of the Nazis that knew few bounds. Hastings describes the Red Army as a maze of contradictions. They were sentimental and patriotic, while brutal toward enemy soldiers and civilians; they exercised amazing acts of comradeship toward their fellow warriors, but were also recklessly undisciplined at times.
While Hastings does not excuse the brutality, looting and rape that characterized the Red Army’s drive into Germany from the East, he makes clear that it was German savagery on Russian soil that provoked this Soviet response. The Nazi’s bloody deeds in the East “far outstripped anything done in the Reich by the Red Army.”
Western scholars have written profusely about the Second World War and many different interpretations of the key events and decisions made by Allied leaders have been debated. The struggles between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for example, have been documented and analyzed by numerous Western writers, but for Russians there is no tradition of pursuing objective historical truth. As an historian, I think it is time to honestly address the Stalinist regime and its wartime history, to celebrate the achievements and mourn the failures. A healthy society needs honest self-evaluation.