How the History of the Soviet Role in WW II Is Being Rewritten

Roundup: Talking About History

Benjamin Schwarz, in the NYT (Feb. 21, 2004):

A plucky Britain refusing to bow to the Luftwaffe's blitz, Patton and Rommel dueling in the North African desert, the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge — these tend to dominate American's conception of the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany.

But as important as the episodes were, military historians have always known that the main scene of the Nazis' downfall was the Eastern Front, which claimed 80 percent of all German military casualties in the war.

The four-year conflict between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army remains the largest and possibly the most ferocious ever fought. The armies struggled over vast territory. The front extended 1,900 miles (greater than the distance from the northern border of Maine to the southern tip of Florida), and German troops advanced over 1,000 miles into Soviet territory (equivalent to the distance from the East Coast to Topeka, Kan.). And they clashed in a seemingly unrelenting series of military operations of unparalleled scale; the battle of Kursk alone, for instance, involved 3.5 million men.

In short, the war fought on the Eastern Front is arguably the single most important chapter in modern military history — but it is a chapter that in many essential ways is only now being written. From evidence released from Soviet archives since the mid-1980's, scholars have learned, for example, that Soviet deaths numbered nearly 50 million, two and half times the original estimate; that the Red Army raped two million German women during their occupation to wreak revenge; and that an astonishing 40 percent of Soviet wartime battles were for deacdes lost to history.

In the last few years, academics have lamented that access to Russian archives has tightened considerably. Surprisingly, though, specialists in the field say that what may turn out to be a bigger problem is the dearth of Russian military historians in the West who can take advantage of the documentary material already available, coupled with the lack of money in the former Soviet Union to support those academics prepared to dive into the papers. So far, it's a "missed historiographical opportunity," said Col. David M. Glantz, now retired, the former director of the United States Army's Foreign Military Studies Office, who has written or edited more than 60 books on the history of the Soviet military in the Second World War. The extraordinarily prolific Colonel Glantz said he would need "three lifetimes" to mine the documents that have already been released.

Military historians like Williamson Murray, professor emeritus at Ohio State University and a defense consultant in Washington, hold that the Soviets probably documented their war more fully than any other of the combatant states. Yet the war on the Eastern Front is still obscure, largely because of the cold war. During that period, the U.S.S.R.'s immense archives concerning the conflict were essentially closed to Western scholars. At the same time, the decisive impact of America's erstwhile ally was often deliberately underplayed in the West for political reasons.

The Soviets also buried the history of the Eastern Front. Soviet military historians turned out accurate and detailed work, but since they could analyze only what Soviet officials permitted them to write about, they skirted, or, more significantly, ignored those facts and events the government considered embarrassing. Soviet propaganda, meanwhile, lionized the heroes of the "Great Patriotic War."

For the most part, then, scholars were forced to rely heavily on German sources, which presented an extremely distorted view of events. Only the Scottish historian John Erickson, whose two-volume history of the war in the East — "The Road to Stalingrad" (1975) and "The Road to Berlin" (1983) — remains the outstanding comprehensive study in any language, managed to get beyond such one-sided accounts. He did it by virtue of his close relationships with high-level Soviet officials and current and former military officers in order to gain access to closed records. But probably his greatest cache of Soviet material actually came from combing German records for captured Soviet documents.


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James Deutsch - 4/25/2004

On March 8, 2004, the New York Times ran the following Correction: An article in Arts & Ideas on Feb. 21 about the emergence of information from Soviet archives about the Eastern Front in World War II misstated the estimate of Soviet deaths in the war. Scholars say that it is 27 million soldiers and civilians, not 50 million.

What's going on? The sudden reduction from 50 million to 27 million is so drastic that it calls into question the author's point about history being rewritten. What do other historians have to say about this?